‘The Story of the Lost Child’ by Elena Ferrante (Review)

Lost ChildIf you were looking for a figure to spearhead Women in Translation Month, a contemporary female writer whose work has appeal in English, you could do worse than opt for the elusive and enigmatic Elena Ferrante (of course, the publicity posters might be a bit of a problem). From a small core of die-hard followers, her fan base appears to have expanded every year, helped by the success of My Brilliant Friend and its sequels in the Neapolitan Novels series. So, with the final book of the four about to be released, I’d expect that there are a lot of people out there waiting to see how the story turns out. I won’t spoil that for you, but there’s one thing I can assure you of before we begin today’s post – it’s a great way to round off the series :)

By the way, if you haven’t yet tried the other novels in the series, you may wish to avoid my review.  Seriously – go and read the other books first…

The Story of the Lost Child (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) takes us back to where we left off in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, with Lenù and Nino in Montpellier for a conference, the start of a life they hope to spend together.  However, after this brief honeymoon moment, we head back to Italy where it’s time for the couple to face the music.  While Lenù heads north to break things off with her husband, plunging her little family into turmoil, Nino isn’t quite as eager to make a clean break.  As will later become apparent, he’s a man who finds it hard to turn his back on a woman he has feelings for.

Nevertheless, the story eventually moves to Naples, and it’s here that the enigmatic Lila finally reenters the picture, rekindling the friendship with Lenù and moving it on into the next generation by helping to look after her friend’s daughters, Dede and Elsa.  Lila is now a successful woman in her own right, at the vanguard of the computer evolution, dragging Naples into the modern era.  As much as the world progresses, though, this is still the neighbourhood, a dangerous place in a rather violent city – and her old enemies, the Solara brothers, have very long memories.  Even Lila will struggle to stay afloat in a time of corruption and bloodshed…

The third part of the series was easily the weakest one so far, the absence of Lila lending the story a dull, slightly annoying air towards the end of the book, but in The Story of the Lost Child, Ferrante gets back to what she does best, throwing the two unequal friends together and watching what unfolds.  After a tantalising start, with Lila in the shadows, the story returns to Naples, plunging Lenù, and the reader, into the intrigues of the neighbourhood once more.  The scenes in the neighbourhood prove to illustrate just what was missing in the previous novel, the anger and frustration boiling over onto the page – the tension here intensifies the story, the pace accelerating towards an inevitably tragic climax.  Once again, Ferrante has produced a novel that compels you to keep reading, helped along by the many short chapters, the strong plotting and the lengthy, comma-laden sentences which reflect the frantic activity, sweeping the reader along.

Part of the appeal is the return to the main focus, the story of a lifelong friendship, albeit one which is constantly uneasy and intense.  Lenù has grown up; she’s intelligent, privileged, a woman with a formidable public profile.  In spite of all this, she still, somehow, finds herself languishing in Lila’s shadow.  As much as she wants to see her friend as a woman with no real education, someone who never escaped the childhood they shared, in her own mind she’s forced to admit that Lila is always a step ahead, and on her return to the neighbourhood, Lenù finds that it’s Lila who has the people’s respect:

“And yet next to her, in the place where we were born, I was only a decoration, that is, I bore witness to Lila’s merits.  Those who had known us from birth attributed to her, to the force of her attraction, the fact that the neighbourhood could have on its streets an esteemed person like me.”
p.270 (Europa Editions, 2015)

While Lila may have earned respect, that doesn’t mean she’s universally loved.  One of the other main themes of the book is the prominence of the neighbourhood conflict with Marcello and Michele Solara, a struggle decades in the making.  Every decision Lila makes, in both her personal and business lives, is a deliberate move designed to affect the brothers, forcing them to swallow their pride or confront her head on.  It would be a dangerous game at the best of times, but in the climate of the story, a country in turmoil, it’s even more so.  Loyalties can change very quickly, and there’s a sense it must all come to a head – soon.  Here, more than anywhere else, Lenù is merely a bystander in a battle to the death.

The focus on events in the neighbourhood doesn’t mean that the writer is ignoring Lenù and her writing career.  Much of the first part of the novel, and a fair part of the rest, examines Lenù’s battle to find time for her work, balancing writing, book tours and the demands of her home life.  The Story of the Lost Child sees her attempting to come to terms with her role as a writer and thinker, wondering whether she actually knows what she’s doing.  At times, she feels she’s merely playing a role, a woman whose ideas have been gathered to impress others:

“I have to speak in public, I confessed, and I don’t know what I am, I don’t know to what point I seriously believe what I say.” (p.85)

There are some serious metafictional elements here, both in Lenù’s book about the neighbourhood and her childhood (very My Brilliant Friend-esque), and, you suspect, in how Ferrante herself feels about the whole writing business…

More than an examination of the work of the writer, though, Lenù’s real use here is in Ferrante’s look at the role of the woman in modern society, as the success our friend enjoys only increases the difficulty of the choices she has to make (and her desire for a room of her own…).  While Nino, juggling families effortlessly, is free to do what he wants, when he wants, every move Lenù makes is constrained by her role as a mother, something other people are only too happy to point out to her:

“Think about it.  A woman separated, with two children and your ambitions, has to take account of reality and decide what she can give up and what she can’t.” (p.67)

Adding to her difficulties is a suspicion that her actions may not even be her own.  Is her desire to write and be recognised what she really wants, or is she actually being influenced by men?

“Was I lying to myself when I portrayed myself as free and autonomous?  And was I lying to my audience when I played the part of someone who, with her two small books, had sought to help every woman confess what she couldn’t say to herself?  Were they mere formulas that it was convenient for me to believe in while in fact I was no different from my more traditional contemporaries?  In spite of all the talk was I letting myself be invented by a man to the point where his needs were imposed on mine and those of my daughters?” (p.115)

As hard as it is for her to believe, Lenù gradually realises that much of what she writes and thinks is the product of other people’s beliefs – and that she’s in danger of betraying the ideals she professes to stand for.

This feminist anxiety is merely part of a wider societal struggle, though, and The Story of the WITMonth15Lost Child, like Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, takes place against the backdrop of a country in the midst of a violent transformation (I’m sure that part of the attraction for the original Italian readership would have been the reflection of what they themselves experienced in the seventies and eighties).  Old systems are being torn down, with no new ones to replace them; women struggle to gain a sense of freedom as family and church lose their pivotal importance; there’s corruption in parliament, with communists on the run, then later taking power.  These wider societal issues are then reflected in the events of the neighbourhood, in particular in the struggle between the Solaras and Lila’s small band of followers.  It all eventually comes to a head in a story destined from the start to end in disaster…

While I loved The Story of the Lost Child for the most part, the one issue I had with the book was Lenù’s infatuation with Nino, her inability to break with him and the utter stupidity she showed at times in his presence.  I know worse happens every day in real life, but it just doesn’t ring true here, the chances she gives him extending far into the realm of the unlikely.  For me, this extended section away from Lila (from the end of the third book to the start of the fourth) is the weak part of the series, and Nino, while important in many ways (especially as a distorted reflection of Lenù – or even Lila), is a frustrating, exaggerated figure.  Whenever he’s around, Lenù behaves like a fool, and the books are the worse for it.

On the whole, though, the character of Lenù works extremely well as a person both of and estranged from the main battlefield of the neighbourhood.  Her main value is as an excellently unreliable narrator, one heavily compromised by her experiences outside Naples and the jealousy regarding her friend, a feeling that she is unable to completely conceal.  Throughout the whole series, the only image we have of Lila comes through Lenù, forcing us to read between the lines, judging for ourselves if Lila is just a charismatic housewife or a secret genius, able to write novels better than Lenù’s if she desired.  It’s a question Ferrante often looks like answering before again leaving the reader to make up their own mind.

As a whole the Neapolitan Novels are a wonderful achievement, and the fourth book provides a fitting end to a enthralling series.  I’d urge anyone interested in the books to go back to the beginning with My Brilliant Friend and enjoy them in order, as the Tolstoyan range of characters means you really need to start at the beginning to have any chance of making sense of what’s going on.  The four novels span decades (and around 1500 pages), allowing characters to grow and evolve in a way shorter works are unable to do.  It does take a lot of concentration on the part of the reader, though…

Even though I’d set aside five days to read The Story of the Lost Child, I raced through it in two, including knocking off the last 300 pages on the second day.  However, that’s not to say that it’s just a page turner; while the plot is what many readers will focus on, for those who want to go beneath the focal events, there’s a lot to discover, whether you’re interested in Italian history, the life of a writer or feminism.  The Neapolitan Novels are four books I’ll certainly revisit in a few years, a set of stories which many readers will remember fondly.  While the face may be invisible, the name most certainly isn’t.  Yes, Ferrante would definitely be a good choice for our #WITMonth figurehead – now, if anyone knows where to reach her…

Women in Translation Month – Beyond the Reviews

WITMonth15Well, we’re almost at the end of Women in Translation Month, and here on the blog we’ve seen many reviews this time around (including one from my little assistant Emily!).  But that’s not quite all of the #WITMonth action, so I thought I’d just use today’s post to round up a few bits and bobs you might not have noticed.  One thing I can assure you in advance – it has been a very big month ;)

Firstly, I’d like to point you in the direction of another couple of reviews I had published this month, this time outside the blog.  Over at Words Without Borders, the 1st of August saw the publication of my review of Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors (translated by K.E. Semmel, review copy from Open Letter Books).  Having enjoyed Baboon, I was keen to have  a look at this one, and it certainly didn’t disappoint – for me, a much better book :)

The second stop is Shiny New Books, where you can read my take on Brazilian writer Tatiana Salem Levy’s The House in Smyrna (translated by Alison Entrekin, review copy from Scribe Publications).  This is a writer whose full-length work was appearing for the first time in English – hopefully more will appear at some point over the next couple of years…

Some of you may already have seen this one, but I also put up a post with links to reviews of all the WIT books I read between the end of last year’s event and the start of August this year.  From memory, there are about thirty books there to choose from, so I’m sure you’ll find something to your taste if you take the time to browse through :)

Of course, there are also the books I’ve been reading and not reviewing (because I already have reviews up on the blog).  Ideal for my train commute to work a couple of times a week, this month I’ve been sticking to rereads of women in translation.  First up was Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor (translated by Stephen Snyder), followed by Birgit Vanderbeke’s Ich sehe was, was du nicht siehst (I Spy, with My Little Eye).  Then I had another look at O Chong Hui’s River of Fire and Other Stories (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton), finishing off my rereads with Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods (tr. Lytton Smith).  I struggle to fit rereading in with all the new books I get, so this was a nice way to keep to the idea of #WITMonth while looking back at some great books.

That’s all for now, but there is a final review to round off the month, one last book to finish the event off with a bang.  It’s been a lot of work, but enjoyable nonetheless, and I hope others will benefit from my posts by discovering some new books and writers.  Let’s hope that it’s not just the readers and bloggers taking note; if publishers have been enjoying #WITMonth too, perhaps we might see more in the coming years…

‘Happy are the Happy’ by Yasmina Reza (Review)

IMG_5294Having already been to France once this Women in Translation Month, I wasn’t planning on making a return trip.  However, when a book I was counting on didn’t arrive, I was forced to bring in a last-minute replacement, a book taking me off to Paris once more.  As it turns out, it was a fortuitous turn of events – a book that made me feel, well, happy :)

Yasmina Reza’s Happy are the Happy (translated by John Cullen, review copy courtesy of Other Press) has a small but bold claim on the cover – ‘A Novel’.  Why is that bold, you might ask?  Well, mainly because I’m not sure every reader would quite agree with that description.  The book, a mere 148 pages long, is actually a series of connected short stories, brief pieces which have characters making return appearances, with one big scene bringing the cast together towards the end of the book.  While the story, as it is, is linked by its characters, in terms of a plot, I’d have to say that there isn’t one, really.

Whether a novel or something else entirely, Reza’s book looks at love in all its complicated and messy forms.  We start with a long-married, squabbling couple and go on to find out about a whole host of affairs.  There’s a respected oncologist with a secret life after hours, a politician with several women on the side and a loving couple with a son, one with an unusual mental issue.  They’re all very differerent, but similar in one regard – they want to be happy…

Reza is better known as a playwright, and although this one is in prose, it definitely has the feel of a play at times.  The structure of the novel is based on that of Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen (La ronde), a controversial piece looking at ten couples either before or after sex.  As well as (loosely) borrowing this format, Reza stays with Schnitzler’s theme, happy (!) to cast her critical eye over sex and gender relationships.

In part, Happy are the Happy (the title comes from a Borges poem)  is an examination of couples.  Several of the characters find the idea of a long-lasting, legal attachment an unnatural, absurd idea:

“Couples disgust me.  Their reciprocal wizening, their dusty connivance.  I don’t like anything about that ambulant structure, or the way it cruises through time taunting those who are alone.”
p.89 (Other Press, 2014)

However, in this quest for happiness, becoming part of a couple is also shown as a necessary step.  More than a result of affection or lust, it’s portrayed as a partnership of protection against the outside world and the dangers it brings.

There’s also a focus on gender roles and attitudes, with Reza’s men and women acting very differently.  The men of the novel, in particular, are far from modern attitudes, as we see from the very first scene:

“Does this Boer person have a wife and children?  A guy who confronts grizzly bears and temperatures of twenty-five below zero isn’t likely to put up with being bored to death in a goddamn supermarket at grocery rush hour.  Is this any place for a man?” (p.6)

There’s little room for equality and mutual respect here.  The men frequently get together to discuss conquests (past, present and future), and many of the sections highlight a rather aggressive attitude towards the opposite sex.

Still, lest we should fall into the trap of man bashing, the women are no angels either, and they’re certainly happy to stray themselves.  In fact, from time to time, Reza’s women share some interesting views:

“A woman wants to be dominated.  A woman wants to be enslaved.  You can’t explain that to everyone.” (p.116)

Of course, whether that’s true, even in this book, is highly debatable.  Physically?  On occasion.  Mentally?  Not at all…

In truth, if you’re looking for a summary of Happy are the Happy, it’s hard to really pin down WITMonth15what the book is about, mainly because its subject matter is so wide.  Reza uses her broad cast to take a general look at life and loves, and (as is the case in real life) what emerges is an array of messy, tangled relationships.  The structure lends itself to this, with first person monologues or reports giving us an insight into a character, who is then later (or perhaps earlier) seen through others’ eyes, allowing us to get a more rounded view.

What makes the book enjoyable, though, is less the what and more the how.  Happy are the Happy is frequently funny, and not afraid to shock either.  In searching for comparisons, I’d be looking as much towards the screen as the page.  Some scenes reminded me a little of Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils, but there’s just as much Woody Allen here as Amis.  The book also has a fair bit in common, thematically, with the film Love Actually (albeit for a slightly more grown-up audience):

“In the past, when I’d stayed out all night, she’d rumple my pajamas before the housemaid arrived.  My wife is counting on the grave to outfox spiteful gossips, she wants to remain a petit bourgeois even in death.” (p.47)

Affairs are all well and good – let’s just try to keep them from the neighbours…

Happy are the Happy, in the end, is a look at how people try to find this elusive happiness, all while trying (to varying degrees) not to hurt other people in the process.  It’s funny, seemingly casual, but actually tightly constructed, and its lack of real plot and focus is actually an asset, allowing the reader to focus on the people rather than their actions.  For a book I decided to read at the last minute, it was a great success – I’m certainly happy I read it ;)

‘A Man of His Word’ by Imma Monsó (Review)

IMG_5292One of the writers I saw at last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival was Spanish author Nicolás Casariego, but the discussion about his book Antón Mallick Wants to Be Happy was actually a last-minute addition to the programme.  The writer who was supposed to come couldn’t for family reasons, which is a great shame.  Judging by her book, my latest  Women in Translation Month (and belated Spanish-Language Literature Month) read, it would have been a great session…

Imma Monsó’s A Man of His Word (translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent, review copy courtesy of Hispabooks) is set up nicely in its introduction.  We have a writer talking about the love of her life, a man known only as Cometa, and part of the book goes on to explore how the two fell in love, describing their life together.  A tale of enduring love, it’s also an intimate description of a man less ordinary, one whose influence reaches far beyond his everyday environment.

This, though, is only half the tale.  While strand A examines life and love, there’s also a strand B, and in this part of the story, the narrator relates the events of her life after her partner’s death.  There’s a telling contrast between the two strands, with the writer attempting to work out how to cope with the loss of the one person who made life worth living, using her words to try to ease the pain and confusion she feels:

“What you are reading now rests on what has already been erased.  Raw pain contributes nothing; it is shrill and impoverishing.  Any minimally sensitive reader can readily imagine the pain caused by the death of a loved one; perhaps she has even experienced it herself.  The thing to do with shrillness, if you’ve given vent to it, is to rid yourself of it to the degree that you can.  And keep erasing, until a different force, beyond pain, takes its place.  Bewilderment, for example.”
pp.14/5 (Hispabooks, 2014)

The novel, then, is an attempt to follow her own advice, two interwoven narratives which avoid anger and bitterness to present a picture of a man before and after death.  This is truly a story of two halves…

A Man of His Word is a book I enjoyed from the very start, a novel which makes for enjoyable reading despite the sadness of the subject matter.  The introductory section sets the story up, Monsó’s measured, gentle style helping to set aside the obvious pain beneath.  By combining the descriptions of the relationship and her memories, the narrator avoids making the book overly depressing, instead producing a clever retrospective of a love, and what happens to it when the object of your affections has gone.

Cometa himself is a most unusual man, gentle, fascinated by everything, a philosopher who attracts friends.  As his widow explains, his is a name imparted with good reason:

“I’ll call him Cometa, which is Catalan for ‘comet’.  That’s the nickname he had when I met him.  It suited him.  Why they called him that, I don’t know.  But I can imagine a hundred reasons.  Comets always escape.  They give off heat.  They leave a luminous trail.  They seem ethereal in the distance, much like his leptosomatic body, like his shape when you saw him approaching from afar, slender and elongated.  Because, like orbital comets, he always returned, but, like orbital comets, there was always a hovering suspicion, a remote possibility, that he might not return.” (p.24)

Cometa, as described by the narrator, is a rare breed, a man with many talents.  Intelligent, cultured and caring, he has the sort of charisma which attracts all who come into his presence.  The only problem here is that a man who receives admiration from all he meets might not really need anyone to love.

Still, our narrator is more than up for the challenge.  A writer who gives herself the name Lot (a nickname derived from a word that means kite in Mexican – a clever contrast with the comet…), she’s a woman easily bored.  Having grown tired of all her previous loves, she needs a man she can love fully, unconditionally, one who will never leave her jaded.  She also wants one who doesn’t really need her, and she’s quite prepared for (even longing for) the love to be mostly one-sided.  It’s a strange requirement, hoping to find herself superfluous to the man of her life.

In the introduction, there’s a suggestion that the reader might like to pick and choose, only reading the strand they find themselves more interested in.  The love story might be considered a little sickly for some while others may consider the writer’s examination of life and love after death a little too morbid.  Of course, this suggestion is tongue in cheek – in truth, the two strands, while capable of being read separately, are both necessary, each subtly influencing our reading of the other.

Of the two, it’s the second part that I’d say is the real success, a detailed, painful examination of WITMonth15how to cope with loss.  Slowly recovering from the shock of Cometa’s death, Lot and her daughter create a world in which he’s still present.  Rather than cleaning out his old belongings, the narrator makes a conscious decision to keep all traces of his presence, carefully preserving his clothes, notes and recordings, savouring the idea that she’s still using the same toothpaste he did.  More than that, though, it’s the way the mother and daughter actively keep the memories alive, talking about him whenever possible, taking him with them on their travels and imagining how he would react in every situation they find themselves in.  Some of their friends (and some readers, no doubt) find it a little strange at times, a sign of people who haven’t recovered from the shock.  I’m not so sure…

As well as a story that draws you in, A Man of His Word impresses with good writing, thanks largely to an excellent translation.  Relaño and Tennent have produced a text that flows, mastering a natural style you never have to stumble across or second guess.  Monsó swings between a range of voices, from a gentle recount to a cold realisation of facts.  Despite the frequently sombre tone, a gallows humour is often present, as shown in the writer’s need for a few drinks:

“Tender is the night after Campari.” (p.25)

So, is this all an attempt at self-therapy through words?  Perhaps (another similarity with Antón Mallick… is that Lot and her friends aren’t big on self-help books…).  More than that, though, the narrator’s story is born from a need to commit Cometa’s presence to paper.  Just as she’s unable to bring herself to remove him from her everyday life, she wants to ensure his memory doesn’t disappear, a heavenly body that will remain a constant in her life.

Having read A Man of His Word, it’s a shame Monsó never made it to Melbourne as I would have loved to hear her talk about the book.  It’s a great story with a simple message, one Cometa unconsciously imparts: seize the day.   You never know what’s around the corner, so you might as well make the most of the here and now.  Until more of Monsó’s work arrives in English, that’s what we’ll have to do with this book – while regretting there’s not more, we can just enjoy what is available :)

‘Train de nuit avec suspects’ (‘Night Train with Suspects’) by Yoko Tawada (Review)

IMG_5290A while back, when I was looking in the uni library for a Korean book for Women in Translation Month, I stopped by the neighbouring Japanese section (as you do) to see if there was anything interesting.  As chance would have it, a name leapt out, a writer I’d been wanting to try for a long time.  There was just one thing a little odd about the book – and it all has to do with translation…

Yoko Tawada is a Japanese writer who has been living in Germany for many years, sharing her creative output between her native and adopted languages.  One of the reasons I’d never quite seemed to get around to trying her books was that I wanted to try the German works in the original language – and I was never completely sure which were which…  Complicating matters, today’s book, as you’ll see from the photo, is in a different language entirely, as Train de nuit avec suspects (Night Train with Suspects, translated by Ryoko Sekiguchi and Bernard Banoun) is a French translation of a 2003 Japanese release (a book not yet available in English as far as I’m aware).  With me so far?

Night Train… is a short work, a book stuck somewhere between a novel and a series of connected stories.  It contains thirteen sections, not chapters but ‘carriages’, and all of the stories involve journeys on night trains.  The central character, ‘vous’ (‘you’), is constantly addressed in the second person by a mysterious ‘je’ (‘I’), which has the effect of distancing the character from the reader.  What we experience here are journeys by train across the world, travel taken mostly by darkness – on the whole, this is a book of the night…

Like all the best journeys, the pleasure of Tawada’s work lies in travelling, not arriving, and each of the journeys is an experience, an opportunity to relax in that rare calm space between chunks of real life, an area free of responsibility.  It’s about creating memories and meeting people, the fuel for stories to be told later.  There’s also a sense of trusting strangers in a way you normally wouldn’t, something which may or may not turn out well.

Thanks to the French language, it’s clear from the start that the central figure is a woman, and gender is important here with our protagonist travelling alone.  Rightly or wrongly, we feel a sense of unease because of this, with each new passenger entering the carriage a potential threat.  This danger isn’t restricted to the passengers; the male gaze is evident outside the trains too.  At one point, the woman (a dancer and choreographer by trade) is fleeing an overbearing male choreographer in Berlin, humiliated by his touch.  On the night train to Beijing, she is witness to a very different kind of male activity, one she’d rather not have seen (even if the man does get his comeuppance later).

In a book where names are conspicuous by their absence, the stories are less about individuals, though, than about the whole issue of trust.  The traveller, whether in her younger, more innocent days, or as a slightly more critical older woman, wants to believe in the good will of strangers.  Judging people by their appearance isn’t always a great idea, but while you may be disappointed, you can also, on occasion, be pleasantly surprised:

“Dans votre pays, vous n’auriez pas confié de l’argent à un inconnu pour qu’il vous rende un service.  Alors pourquoi l’aviez-vous fait maintenant?”
p.54 (Verdier, 2005)

“In your country, you wouldn’t have given a stranger some money so that he could do something for you.  So why had you done so now?” *** (My translation)

The night train takes you to different places, cities where you act differently, setting aside the natural caution of your normal life.  At times, we shudder at the innocence and foolishness of youth – that is, when we’re not envious of it…

Night Train… is an excellent read, with most of its short (ten-page) trips hitting the mark.  Both WITMonth15because I was busy and because of reading in French, I took this book rather slowly, and that worked well – it’s definitely a book to consume in small doses.  Tawada has a wonderful eye for scenes, always finding the comical in the people around, and the nature of the stories is abstract and bizarre at times (and frequently funny too).  There are many beautiful descriptions which help place the reader in the traveller’s shoes, scenes of empty stations and dark, cold mornings:

“Vous étiez arrivée au petit matin en gare de Zagreb, et c’est au milieu de beaucoup d’autre personnes que vous aviez dû descendre du train, traînant un corps lourd encore tout trempé de nuit.  Pourtant, une fois sur le quai, lorsque vous aviez regardé autour de vous après avoir arrangé votre col, les gens avaient disparu, comme dissipés dans l’air frais et limpide du matin.” (p.41)

“You had arrived at the crack of dawn at Zagreb station, and it was in the midst of many other people that you had been compelled to descend from the train, dragging a heavy body still soaked with night.  However, once upon the platform, when you had looked all around after having adjusted your collar, the people had disappeared, as if melted into the fresh, limpid air of the morning.” ***

The lack of names adds to the uncertainly we feel, giving it all a sense of the unreal, almost as if we were wandering into a fairytale at times.

As well as being a wonderful read, the book evoked memories of travels past, bringing back fragments of my own youthful experiences on night trains across Europe.  As we follow the woman from Hamburg to Paris, Moscow to Irkutsk, Patna to Bombay, it’s hard not to feel a slight sense of Wanderlust.  The thirteen sections, like real night train journeys, are little slices of life.  You get on the train, you meet some fellow travellers, you spend some time together in an intimate space, and then they’re gone forever…

The more I think about it, the less I’m sure that Night Train… is a novel.  Even if the pieces belong together, they’re stories that can be read separately, each showing a slightly different aspect of the night train experience.  It’s excellent, nonetheless, an evocative work of the beauty of the ephemeral, with each journey a snapshot of a moment in time.  There is one major difference, however, between the book and the journeys – unlike our past travels, the book can be read over and over again.  It’s certainly a journey I’d be happy to revisit some day.

‘Music & Literature No.6’ (Review)

IMG_5266When I was asked a while back if I wanted to have a look at the latest edition of Music & Literature, I was, of course, happy to oblige.  I didn’t hear anything for some time, and by the time it appeared in my letter box, I was just about to start my Women in Translation Month reading, so it was slotted in for September.  Until, that is, I had a sudden realisation – the latest edition featured three artists, three women, all from outside the Anglosphere.  Which gave me an idea…

For those who don’t know, Music & Literature is a literary journal (in book form) which… well, I’ll let them tell you:

Music & Literature is a nonprofit organization devoted to publishing and promoting the work of underrepresented artists from around the world. Each print issue of Music & Literature Magazine assembles an international cast of writers and critics in celebration of three featured artists whose work has yet to reach its deserved audience.
(musicandliterature.org, 2015)

And it does exactly what it says on the tin – each edition looks at three artists (in the wider sense, including writers, musicians and film makers), with a focus not so much on giving the reader free samples of their work – although there is some of that -, but on creating a picture of the artist and their work through interviews, critical reviews and diary entries.

As mentioned, the sixth edition happily coincides with #WITMonth, with the Music & Literature team following Marie NDiaye’s lead in introducing the Anglophone world to three strong women: Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, Ukrainian composer Victoria Polevá and post-Yugoslav writer Dubravka Ugrešić.  Each of the artists is given a healthy amount of space for analysis, between eighty and one hundred pages, meaning that if you don’t know them after reading what’s offered here, there really is no hope for you…

First up in the latest edition is Alejandra Pizarnik, an Argentinian poet.  A major voice in the Spanish-speaking world, she’s fairly unknown in the Anglosphere, perhaps (in part) owing to her early death.  Alberto Manguel says in his introduction:

“In her diary, on 30 October 1962, after quoting from Don Quixote (“…but what pleased Don Quixote most was the marvelous silence that reigned in the whole house…”), she wrote: “Mustn’t forget to commit suicide.”  On 25 September 1972, she remembered.”
p.5 (Music & Literature, 2015)

At the time she was just thirty-six years old…

What we get here is a picture of a poet constructed from a variety of viewpoints.  One of the most important is her own, revealed through selections of her letters and diary entries, and Pizarnik’s own words show a woman struggling with her introverted nature, but fully focused on her poetry:

“What happens is that it never ceases to seem laughable and surprising to give up seven hours of my day, to give them up like this, knowing that death exists, and many beautiful things exist, many terrible things, and to work like this, as if nothing were happening, as if one weren’t on earth for a brief time.”
(p.49, translated by Emily Cooke)

Pizarnik had a drive to create, which makes it a shame that there aren’t more of her poems included in this edition (though a Google search can soon fix that if you’re interested…).

She might not be well-known here, but in the Spanish-language realm her reputation is set, and if we can tell a lot about a person from their friends and admirers, Pizarnik must have been an impressive figure.  Her section of M. & L. 6 contains, among many other pieces, a poem about her by Julio Cortázar, a lengthy biography/lecture by César Aira and a short ode by Enrique Vila-Matas.  If you’re looking for recomendations, that’s about as good as they come…

Polevá, by contrast, is very much alive, and much of this section is written in her own words (well, mostly filtered into English via Ian Dreiblatt or Rachel Caplan, actually), with several interviews and opinions on her work.  I’d have to admit that the main thing I learned from this part was my complete ignorance of matters musical – virtually everything went over my head.  This wasn’t really for me, but (again) if you’re interested, a quick search on Youtube will bring up several performances of Polevá’s rather dark, minimalist, Christian-inspired music.

For me, the third section was always likely to be the most enjoyable one, and so it proved.  While I haven’t yet read anything by Dubravka Ugrešić, she’s most certainly been on my radar, and after devouring this section of the book, I’m sure I’ll be hunting down some of her work soon (I know that there are books available through Open Letter and New Directions, for example).  While some might describe her as a Croatian writer, that’s not really the case.  She’s more a post-Yugoslav artist, hounded out of her own (new) country for her ‘lack of patriotism’, an exile critiquing home and abroad in her old language.

There’s an excellent piece of fiction here to start things off, ‘A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written’.  It’s a looping tale about a Russian writer, Boris Pilnyak, one which repeatedly veers off onto personal tangents:

“This however is not a story about my mother and father, but a story that wishes to say something about how stories come to be written.” (p.194, tr. David Williams)

This inability to stick to her ostensible theme is a running joke throughout the story, and it’s not the only evidence of humour.  She writes with a clever, wry style, with subtle digs at at least two major writers in the piece.  There’s a passing, disdainful, reference to Haruki Murakami’s famous ‘baseball’ anecdote – and:

“A volcanic dust of oblivion constantly falls upon us, slowly burying us, like insoluble snow.  We are all footnotes, many of us will never have the chance to be read, all of us in constant and desperate struggle for our lives, for the life of a footnote, to remain on the surface before, in spite of our efforts, we are submerged.  Everywhere we leave constant traces of our existence, of our struggle against vacuity.  And the greater the vacuity, the more violent our struggle – mein kampf, min kamp, mia lotta, můj boj, mijn strijd, minun taistelu, mi lucha, my struggle, moja borba…” (p.205, tr. David Williams)

Don’t try to tell me that’s not a dig at a certain Norwegian writer.

Next up, there’s an interview with Daniel Medin, in which Ugrešić expands on her views of the WITMonth15importance of background, language and home.  She also discusses the importance of a ‘literary apprenticeship’, stressing the need for budding writers to translate, edit and review at length before people can take your writing seriously (many potential writers in the Anglosphere could do worse than take heed of her thoughts here).  This then goes off onto an examination of the importance of translation for writers from small languages, a rather apt topic for #WITMonth…

Having heard from the writer herself, it’s then time for others to talk about her and her work.  Damion Searls has a short piece about meeting her, while Curtis White (Thank You for Not Reading) and Jeremy Bleeke (Europe in Sepia) look at a couple of her works available in English.  What the reader will draw from these pieces is a picture of a writer able to work in both fiction and non-fiction, even if the two are so mixed at times that you’re not sure which is which.  She’s also someone well aware of the trend (and folly) of modern writing – writing, as in Soviet times, with both eyes squarely on the demands of the censors (or publishers):

“[In commercial publishing] the writer knows that no deviation is allowed, that things must develop exactly according to the genre and the expectations of the broad reading public.  He knows that every deviation increases the risk of failure and that regular testing of the pulse of the literary genre increases the chance of success…  In short, if Stephen King had found himself in Stalinist Russia, he would undoubtedly have gotten the Stalin Prize.” (p.249)

And what Music & Literature is doing is fighting against this trend, highlighting the wonderful artists who don’t go with the publishing flow, preferring instead to forge their own path.  In a way, what I found here was a glimpse of what I’d like to do some day, lengthy, thoughtful, intelligent pieces looking at an artist’s (and a work’s) wider context – definitely something to aspire to.  The journal is a fascinating collaborative work put together by some great writers and translators (apologies for not mentioning all of them…).  For those of you who are more content to consume than create, though, Music & Literature is still a great find.  I’m sure if you get the chance to have a look at one of their offerings, you’ll stumble across someone who might just become your next big obsession – and that’s how it should be :)

‘The Mountain and the Wall’ by Alisa Ganieva (Review)

MTN_WALL_COVER_CMYKToday’s Women in Translation Month post is of another book from Deep Vellum Press (the third woman in translation of theirs I’ve tried).  There’s a first today, though, as the setting is one very new to me.  Let’s take a journey to the east, where we’ll take a look at what can happen if instead of walls going down, they start to go up…

Alisa Ganieva’s The Mountain and the Wall (translated by Carol Apollonio, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is set in the Russian republic of Dagestan at some point in the recent past.  Shamil, a young man looking to be a part-time reporter, returns from a trip to the countryside to find a city in chaos.  In Dagestan’s capital of Makhachkala, rumours are spreading fast, and there’s only one topic of conversation:

“It’s something else.  They say we’re being walled off from Russia.  Border troops, you name it.  Like the Berlin Wall.”
p.45 (Deep Vellum Press, 2015)

As incredible as it seems, confirmation slowly comes from various sources – the border is being sealed off…

Despite the lack of official confirmation, the locals soon find out that Mother Russia appears to have tired of her quarrelsome daughter republic.  Funds are cut off, and officials vanish into thin air, fearing attacks now that their backers have disappeared.  In the face of the resulting power vacuum, it’s inevitable that public life will descend into chaos.  Sadly, in a volatile, ethnically diverse region like Dagestan, another thing that’s inevitable is bloodshed.

Ganieva is a native of Dagestan but was later educated in Moscow, and she won a prize for an earlier novel, her first work, after it was submitted under a male pseudonym (a fine story for #WITMonth…).  She is, perhaps, the ideal person to examine her home country and the issues it faces, being able to examine the situation from within and without.  Dagestan is home to many ethnic groups (Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgians…), and we see this in the protests and gatherings at the start of the novel.  At times these scenes verge on the comical, each group letting off steam at alleged mistreatment and all wanting to march on the local government (almost at the same time…).

Gradually, though, we see that matters are far more serious than that.  In a deeply corrupt society where bribes are required for everything from getting jobs to passing exams, the large Muslim population is restless, with a minority wanting a stricter, Sharia-type law.  Part of the success of the book is seeing how this tension develops; once the Russians have withdrawn, religious intolerance grows.  There are attacks on the street, women are forced to cover up, and clubs and bars are forcibly closed down.

In order to make sense of the overarching politics, Ganieva uses her main characters to examine the situation on the ground.  Our main guide to the mean streets of Makhachkala is Shamil, a modern Muslim typical of many of the young men around:

“He began fumbling around in his desk drawers, angrily scooping out computer discs, brochures, and postcards with photographs of cars.  One brochure was entitled The Meanings of the Koran; another The Criminal Code of the Russian Federation; a third The Art of the Pick Up; the title of a fourth was illegible.” (p.72)

While Shamil’s not averse to praying, Sharia law does not appeal.  He spends his time on workouts, clubbing and checking out any women he notices in the street – and, like many young men in Makhachkala, he carries a gun, just in case.

There are two women in his life, each following a very different path.  Asya isWITMonth15 slightly different from the women Shamil is usually attracted to, someone unwilling to follow trends, but as the story develops, he begins to appreciate her personality and independence.  In contrast, Shamil’s fiancée Madina sees the world rather differently.  Influenced by a cousin, she turns to religion, pledging her support for the Muslim radicals and the hardline state they advocate:

“And our brothers aren’t terrorists, they are Muslims who want to live like Muslims.  And soon everyone will live that same way.” (p.153)

Madina’s behaviour is indicative of the turn the region takes away from its uneasy secular coexistence, and both Shamil and the Dagestani people have a difficult choice to make.

The Mountain and the Wall is a novel of a city and country in turmoil, with Ganieva painting an excellent picture of a city struggling amidst rumours and a crippling lack of communication.  Nothing is ever confirmed explicitly; the phones are out, the Internet is intermittent.  Everything just seems to happen, suddenly:

“It turned out that none of their superiors had showed up to work.  Not the director, not his deputy.  Rumor had it that none of the other government offices and agencies were open either.  After the Khanmagodemovs’ wedding yesterday, all the decision-makers had disappeared.  Roza was yelling something about how they’d all been shot by the ‘goddamned beards’.” (p.144)

As much as people shout and cry, only one fact is clear – nobody knows what’s going on…

It all makes for a fascinating story, one a western reader will be intrigued by (the idea of what might happen in a Muslim takeover is a topic many will be interested in).  It has a much wider application than just Dagestan, though, as the story shows how quickly a seemingly stable society can collapse when authority fails.  The only quibble I had with the book is that there were far too many untranslated words in the text, not all of which were easy to guess from context.  Yes, there’s a glossary at the end (again, not very useful on the Kindle), but it did get a little tiring at times.

Overall, though, The Mountain and the Wall is a book I’d recommend, as much for the exotic (?) setting as for the story.  A well-written insight into a foreign land, Ganieva’s novel shows the western reader a completely different side of Russia, one few of us would have encountered before.  It’s just another example of why we need translation – and more women in translation, of course…

‘Self-Portrait in Green’ by Marie NDiaye (Review)

Self_Portrait_294-webToday’s stop on our Women in Translation Month tour takes us to France, for a meeting with an old friend and a great publisher.  A while back, I read (and enjoyed) Marie NDiaye’s Three Strong Women, and I’ve tried a couple of books from US small publisher Two Lines Press over the past year or so.  With the two in tandem, then, I had high hopes for today’s choice – let’s see if they were justified :)

Self-Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a bizarre novella, a drifting story told by a female narrator.  Moving back and forth in time, she recounts small events from her life, brief encounters or relationships with old friends.  What brings all these anecdotes together is a group of women who delight in wearing clothes of a certain colour.

The first part of the book, set in the French provinces, begins with an impending flood, but we soon go back to a sunny spring day, with the narrator noticing a woman standing up against a banana tree (a person the children in her car are unable to see).  It’s only when she drives back later that she discovers the woman does exist, making the acquaintance of the green-clad Katia Depetiteville.  A chat over coffee at the kitchen table ensues, yet:

“When, later, in the village, or waiting outside the school, I speak of the woman in green, people will answer, dumbfounded: Katia Depetiteville has been dead for ten years or more.  And I won’t be surprised, having sensed it in advance.”
(Two Lines Press, 2014)

This is just the first of many unusual encounters with women who dress only in green…

Self-Portrait in Green is a bizarre, unsettling book, moving around swiftly in a manner designed to keep the reader on their toes.  The confusion isn’t helped by the prominence of a narrator who gives some of herself, but not enough for the reader to fully identify, or sympathise, with her.  All we get are brief glimpses of her life as she tries to make sense of the encounters she has with those close to her (or who used to be).

What stands out, of course, are the encounters with the mysterious women in green, people who drift in and out of her life without really making a mark.  There’s Katia, for one, and the wife of a friend’s old partner – we even learn that the narrator’s mother has her own special tinge of green.  They are all women with a certain je ne sais quoi, people who appeal but are to be avoided.  Whether in Aquitaine, Paris or Burkina Faso, the narrator faces a constant struggle to understand what they want.

So, are the women a metaphor?  Possibly – but for what?  One suggestion is that they act as warnings and signposts.  This is certainly the case with the narrator’s friend Jenny and her regrets regarding the past:

“How to fight it off, in the face of such a melancholy?  Against melancholy, against regret, common sense and cynicism can do nothing.  She regrets not what was, but what should have been, could have been, had she only made some other choice way back then, and she regrets the choice she made, the path of sorrow.”

The happiness of the woman in green occupying a place that could have been hers exacerbates the sadness of what might have been for Jenny, a woman whose life has slowly gone downhill.

However, these women can also be seen as people to emulate, examples of women who know WITMonth15what they want from life.  They all exude a quiet confidence, leaving the narrator in no doubt as to their contentment, even when their material circumstances leave much to be desired.  In fact, with the force of life so strong in them, even death fails to make their colours fade…  One thing’s for sure, though – NDiaye’s book is a very female work.

As was the case with Three Strong Women, the writing in Self-Portrait in Green is excellent.  NDiaye has a talent for description, drawing the reader into her story with scents of lilac and honeysuckle and sketches of living, breathing people:

“All the young women are in shorts and sandals.  The sandals’ soles smack their heels with a certain resolute gaiety.  What makes that sensual?  Is it the slightly slack strap that lets the foot slip this way and that, and the heels slap the sole?  Or is it the vision of unveiled legs?  What makes it sensual, and must the legs be beautiful, must they be lustrous, smooth and long?  Or is the beauty of legs, knees and ankles superfluous for the burgeoning, in the main street of this drowsy town, of an eroticism still enfeebled by winter?”

While this eye for detail is apparent throughout, NDiaye uses it best in allowing her narrator to wonder at the confidence and sensuality shown by the green women.  There’s more than a hint of envy at times – perhaps it’s no coincidence that she sees these women in green…

If you like a story to follow a clear narrative arc, this might not be one for you.  The lack of clarity from the narrator, the frequent scene changes and the swings in mood in some of the sections make it hard to know at times exactly where the writer is going with the story.  This is not a book where you’ll decipher the secrets in one sitting (I’ll certainly need to revisit it at some point to see if I can make a little more sense of it second time around).  Still, if you can tolerate a little ambiguity (even if you may never understand it fully), Self-Portrait in Green is a book you’ll probably enjoy.  A warning, though – after reading this one, you’ll never see green clothes in the same light again ;)

‘Contradictions’ by Yang Gui-ja (Review)

IMG_5282Over the course of my past year’s Korean literature adventures, I’ve discovered lots of great female writers (e.g. O Chong-hui, Ch’oe Yun, Bae Suah), so I was always going to try another one for Women in Translation Month.  Luckily, on my most recent trip to the uni library, a book caught my eye, a relatively contemporary novel (dating from 1998).  It’s a story of modern life, and the many ways to live it, many of them seemingly diametrically opposed – contradictory even…

Yang Gui-ja’s Contradictions (translated by Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi-young) looks at a year in the life of 25-year-old An Jin-jin.  Having reached this momentous age, she’s decided that it’s time to sort her life out and take her next steps.  Apart from her work and family life, the main issue she needs to resolve is that of marriage as she (in her mind…) is fast becoming a little old for single life.

However, organising your life isn’t quite as easy as she imagines, and over the following months problems arise in several areas.  Unlike Jin-jin’s well-off Aunt, her mother (the aunt’s twin…) is struggling along, abandoned by an alcoholic deadbeat husband.  There’s also Jin-jin’s brother Jin-mo, a young man with delusions of Marlon Brando-like grandeur.  In terms of marriage, the prospects are a little better, a little too good, in fact.  You see, Jin-jin actually has two boyfriends on the go and is unable to decide between them.  Choices, choices…

From that description, Contradictions might appear a little light and wacky, and it certainly starts out that way.  The first chapters are dominated by a young, slightly annoying, voice:

“I definitely don’t want to blame my mother for the chaos in my life.  I don’t particularly trust people who pin the responsibility for everything on family or society or the system.  Sometimes I meet kids who try to justify their self-indulgence with these sorts of explanations, but I can’t stand their rhetoric.  Empty-headed fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds who parrot excuses like that are the worst.  I can hardly keep myself from slapping them.  Smart alecks without an ounce of self-respect.”
p.8 (Cornell East Asia Series, 2005)

The first name that came to mind when reading these early sections was Holden Caulfield (I could almost hear the word ‘phonies’ coming through as sub-text), but that’s definitely not meant as praise – I loathe The Catcher in the Rye

Luckily, there’s a lot more to Yang’s novel than that, though.  Contradictions is a fascinating read, fairly complex in its own way.  It’s all about how life is messy, no matter how simple we want it to be, using Jin-jin’s story to show how what might appear to be a perfect (or imperfect) life can be anything but when seen up close.  Yes, it can be melodramatic in parts, but it’s also a story most readers will be able to identify with.

The novel’s title, despite its rather abstract feel, is well-chosen as this is a story full of contradictions.  WITMonth15The most obvious one concerns the twin sisters whose lives diverged at the point of marriage.  Simply by virtue of being ten-minutes older, Jin-jin’s mother is landed with a no-good husband while her sister is ushered into a life of ease and luxury.  This is reflected in the next generation, especially when you compare Jin-jin’s Ivy League educated cousin and her gangster brother.  Even Jin-jin’s potential husbands are complete contrasts.  Set next to each other,  the organised, pushy Yeong-gyu and the kind, ultra-laidback Jang-u hardly belong in the same story…

Cleverly, though, the contradictions are not absolute, apt for a culture where even the flag shows how contrasting elements contain small parts of the other.  Gradually, the absolute distinctions break down; what initially seemed easy to divide into right and wrong, good and bad, comes to be more nuanced.  Even if the characters appear binary, they are actually very real, each with their own distinguishing characteristics.

Jin-jin herself is excellently drawn.  She’s sympathetic, but flawed, likeable but often frustrating.  As the story progresses, we see the comparison with her richer, more educated cousin, and we’re firmly on Jin-jin’s side.  Seeing her cousin’s blank face, a sign of her complete inability to understand how Jin-jin’s family could possibly work, it’s hard to disagree with Jin-jin’s assertion:

“A monotonous life produces a monotonous happiness.” (p.175)

Our heroine is full of contradictions, right down to her name.  Jin-jin, her father’s choice, means ‘truth’; it’s just a shame that her family name (‘An’) can be read in Korean as negating that assertion…

While I’m not a huge fan of the font choice and size, or the (usually) fairly unnecessary, intrusive footnotes, this is a good edition overall.  In addition to an excellent introduction on the writer and the literary scene, we’re treated to a short afterword by Yang herself, one containing fascinating insights into her intentions.  At one point, she reveals her fear of possible biases based on critical responses colouring her readers’ view of the story:

“While writing Contradictions, I dreamed that every member of the novel’s audience would be a ‘first reader’.  I wanted to encounter the pure impressions of a first reader, unsullied by other impressions about the work that were circulating.” (p.171)

While that might be true in Korea, she needn’t worry too much here – the majority of western readers will meet that criterion (except for those of you who read this, I suppose!).

Contradictions is a book that grew on me, and I’m sure many other readers would enjoy it too.  With it being one of the less culturally bound Korean books around, it’s a shame it wasn’t picked up and promoted by a bigger publisher.  It’s an excellent story, all built around the voice of Jin-jin who, while sympathetic, is not exactly the most reliable of narrators:

“Nothing is as stupid as believing that “honesty is the best policy”.  Sometimes honesty is a boomerang that comes hurtling back at you as a murder weapon.” (p.86)

Really?  I’m not convinced…  Perhaps this is just another of Jin-jin’s (and the novel’s) many contradictions :)

‘Salad Anniversary’ by Machi Tawara (Review)

IMG_5286Today’s Women In Translation Month book is one that might seem an obvious choice in some ways, but not at all in one.  Few would be surprised at my selecting a book from Japan, and I’ve also read my fair share of Pushkin Press’ works over the past few years.   While I read more books by men than by women, I do read my fair share by women in translation (as shown in an earlier post).  So, what’s different about today’s post?  Well, this time I’m looking at some poetry, and around these parts, that’s very rare indeed…

Machi Tawara’s Salad Anniversary (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, review copy courtesy of the publisher) was a phenomenon on its publication in 1987.  It’s a prize winner and immensely popular, having sold over 2.5 million copies to date.  That’s incredible for any writer, for an unknown young woman even more so.  And when you consider that’s it’s a collection of tanka poems…

Tanka, like the shorter haiku, are poems with a fixed syllabic form (57577), and as Winters Carpenter points out in her afterword, it’s an ancient art form, one frequently regarded as slightly stuffy and outdated.  Tawara’s work, then, focusing on modern life and everyday themes, was seen as a breath of fresh air, a short book containing several poem ‘stories’, each composed of a series of connected tanka poems.

The lead-off collection, ‘August Morning’, is the prize winner of the bunch, a story chronicling the development of a relationship, from a sunny start:

Is there anything more?
More to believe, more to want?
Sprawled side by side on sand

‘August Morning’, p.10 (Pushkin Press, 2014)

to its sad end:

Unanswered ring tells me you’re still out
Where have you gone drinking?
Who’s getting drunk with you?

‘August Morning’, p.18

The light, fluffy mood gradually darkens over the course of the piece, leaving the poet (and reader) to ponder what went wrong.

Another interesting ‘story’ is ‘My Bisymmetrical Self’, in which Tawara describes life away from home.  Here, a young woman moves to the big city while still retaining her connection to her hometown.  The short poems present images of someone caught between two worlds, coming to terms with a new life and the way her old life is altered by the inevitable distance between the two.

While I enjoyed some of these poems, I’d have to say, though, that after a while they blended into each other – many follow the path of love to loss, with frequent repetition of ideas.  Winters Carpenter mentions Tawara’s use of traditional ‘pillow words’, an integral part of tanka; the frequent repetition of ‘baseball’, ‘beach’, ‘telephone call’, ‘toothpaste’, ‘Shinjuku Station’ and ‘Southern All Stars’ (a popular Japanese band) suggests that the poet has also come up with modern pillow words of her own ;)

I was also a little unsure of the effectiveness of the length of the collections.  While ‘August Morning’ and ‘My Bisymmetrical Self’ use the format well, others can outstay their welcome.  One example of this is ‘Summertime Ship’, where Tawara  describes a trip she takes to China.  Although some of the scenes are compelling, I found the charm was lost in repetition by the end of the story.

In fact, some of my favourite collections were the shorter pieces, just a couple of pages each, containing fewer poems.  One of the best was ‘Morning Necktie’, composed of just ten tanka spread over three pages, ending with:

He wipes his face with a hot towel
and sighs contentedly –
looking at him now I see an ordinary man

Moving away from the telephone
he sips his tea as if to say
“I’m not listening”

their inability to express tenderness –
men of my father’s generation
‘Morning Necktie’, p.39

It’s a loving, nostalgic ode to a father, and it feels just the right length, expressing an idea without labouring it.

The book itself is another beautiful piece of work from the Pushkin Classics series – the colour, WITMonth15size and layout are all excellent.  As regards the translation, it all flows nicely, but while I’m loath to second guess an experienced translator like Winters Carpenter, I have my doubts as to whether the experience we’re getting here approaches that of the original.  I hate the expression lost in translation for the most part, but I can’t help wondering if (for once) it’s rather apt.  I’m sure much of the charm of Salad Anniversary lies in the sound and the rhythm (which I suspect may be lost at times here…).  Also, among the poems, there were a few here and there which I found a little clumsy:

Junk mail it may be
but still this postcard cheers me –
autumn morning
‘I am the Wind’, p.49

I’m not sure about you, but I’m not a big fan of this one – to me, it sounds like a bad haiku…

What this book reminds me of, funnily enough, is the debut work of another mega-popular Japanese writer of the same era, Banana Yoshimoto (Kitchen was released around the same time as Salad Anniversary).  I can see both of these appealing to the Japanese ‘Office Ladies’, twenty-something women working as secretaries and moving in their relationships from one dull salaryman to the next.  The two books might say a lot to young Japanese women about their lives.  Me?  Not so much…

And I think that’s probably the main reason why I didn’t really get much from this – a jaded middle-aged novel lover, I’m certainly not the target audience.  This is for those who like their poetry cute and whimsical (think Hello Kitty on a sad day), with just the merest tinge of melancholy.  Here’s hoping that if you get the chance to read this, you’ll enjoy it more than I did :)