‘Suspended Sentences’ by Patrick Modiano (Review)

IMG_5457Having finally finished all of my Man Booker International Prize duties and posts, I’m able to turn my attention to a few other things, and for a while now there has been a small pile of books on the shelf, waiting for my attention.  Last year, I read a few of Patrick Modiano’s books (released after his Nobel Prize win), and this year has seen the appearance of many more, with several publishers working to get his work into English.  With that in mind, this week will be somewhat of a Modiano week on the blog – three books from three different publishers.  And it starts today:)

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Suspended Sentences actually came out a while back now, but I was lucky enough to get a review copy recently (and a very good book it is too) from Yale University Press (and their Australian distributor, Footprint Books).  It’s a collection of three novellas from the 1990s, all translated by Mark Polizzotti, and while they can be read individually, there is a similarity in tone and content which makes the collection a viable project.  Also, with the three together running to just over 200 pages, it makes for a great introduction to Modiano for anyone wanting to dip a toe into his world (I read one a night for three nights, and they certainly increased my knowledge of the writer’s style and themes).

The collection kicks off with Afterimage, the original title of which is Chien de Printemps (‘A Dog of a Spring’).  As the pun doesn’t quite work in English, Polizzotti changed it to Afterimage, which fits nicely with the subject matter.  The story consists of a writer’s memories of a man he knew back in 1964, photographer Francis Jansen.  After a chance meeting in the street, and a few snapshots, the narrator takes it upon himself to organise the mess he finds when he visits Jansen’s temporary home.  As he sorts through photos, images of years gone by, he can’t help musing:

At times, it seems, our memories act just like Polaroids.
Afterimage, p.6 (Yale University Press, 2014)

The book consists of short chapters which, while giving us glimpses of the writer’s past, are never really more than snapshots of a story.  As is often the case with Modiano, the reader is forced to fill in the gaps.

The second story, Suspended Sentences, takes us back even further.  This one is set in the mid-1950s, when the narrator, ‘Patoche’, and his younger brother are being looked after by a collection of women in a house just outside Paris (their parents are overseas, working in entertainment and business…).  The boys are subject to an unusual upbringing, subconsciously soaking up the strange habits of a house of comings and goings.  The women and their male visitors lead a rather Bohemian lifestyle, and like the boys, the reader only gradually becomes aware of who the people are and what’s actually going on in their leafy suburb.  For the most part, Suspended Sentences is a tale of childhood fun and innocence, yet it builds to a finale of a very different kind.

Finishing off the book is Flowers of Ruin, perhaps the most complex of the three stories.  Here Modiano uses multiple strands, starting off with the writer looking back at a news story, a murder-suicide in the 1930s.  As he decides to walk through the streets mentioned in the newspaper articles he reads, he actually finds himself retracing the steps he took decades earlier himself, which then leads to memories of an entirely different story.  The novella gradually comes to focus more on a man the narrator once knew, a friendly stranger with a secret past, before somehow turning again and becoming a tale of a lost love and a city which has disappeared…

*****
Having read several of Modiano’s short slices of Parisian life already, the three stories in this collection are instantly familiar.  As always, the writing is centred around the theme of memory – these are less stories than attempts to make thoughts concrete and organise them in an attempt to understand the past.  For the most part, the style is beautifully evocative as the writer struggles to recall past times and examine the memories he dredges up in the light of what he knows now, as an older, wiser man.  We see him as someone with as little idea of the truth of his stories as the reader, always peering into shadows, making out vague figures in the fading light of evening.

One of Modiano’s main obsessions is the shadowy life of people trying to make their way through the time of German occupation during the Second World War, including (of course) his father.  This comes across particularly strongly in Flowers of Ruin and Suspended Sentences, both of which mention the Rue Lauriston gang his father was involved with.  The child of Suspended Sentences is baffled by the comings and goings in the big house:

Little Hélène was playing solitaire on the dining room table and listening to the radio.  Mathilde must have been in her bedroom.  My brother and I went to ours.  Through the window, I watched the 4CV in the rain.  They stayed in it, talking, all the way to dinnertime.  What secrets could they have been sharing?
Suspended Sentences, p.90

The adult reader, however, is able to read between the lines to work out that little Patoche (a diminutive form of Patrick…) is being cared for by people who prefer to live far away from the watchful eye of the law.  The style and themes here are very similar to those of the more recent So You Don’t get Lost in the Neighbourhood, which offers a more detailed examination of this part of Modiano’s childhood.

The three stories here feature various other familiar Modiano tropes.  There’s the appeal of darkness approaching, with conversations in rooms gradually losing the light.  There are also several encounters between a young boy (or man) and older women, who often come across as mother figures (although not always…).  Another common occurrence is the narrator being taken for a ride through the city in a large car by dashing (strange) men, events which (along with all these other memories) will eventually feature in the young writer’s first steps towards a literary career.

In truth, though, the real focus of the three novellas here is the city of Paris.  In each of the stories, the protagonists can be found pounding the streets, following long roads through inner and outer suburbs, passing bars, garages and old houses they used to frequent.  This is perhaps especially evident in Flowers of Ruin, with the narrator’s journey into the past taking him to deserted buildings and down old paths in a story of the gradual disappearance of the city of his memory.  In the course of his story, we are told about buildings long pulled down, overgrown stations, whole quartiers destroyed to make way for the ring roads around the city:

Back then, the gates of Paris were all in vanishing perspectives; the city gradually loosened its grip and faded into barren lots.  And one could still believe that adventure lay right around every street corner.
Flowers of Ruin, p.213

These are memories of a very different, simpler life, one which the narrator evidently misses on some level.

As good as the novellas are, the lack of a real story may frustrate some readers, and Modiano certainly makes us work hard to work out what he really wants to discuss (Flowers of Ruin is particularly impenetrable in this regard).  Yet for me this is a good era for Modiano’s writing, with none of the craziness of his first couple of books (La Place de L’Étoile, The Night Watch), nor the minimalism of those of the early-21st century (e.g. Little Jewel, Paris Nocturne).  The three books work well together, and with Polizzotti’s introduction providing a little background to this stage of Modiano’s career, Suspended Sentences would make an excellent introduction to Modiano’s oeuvre for anyone interested in checking out his work.

As casual as Modiano’s writing can be at times, a nostalgic aching for the past is never far from the surface.  He excels in writing about things we’ve lost which, at the time, we never knew we had.  It’s true that many of his books are rather similar, but there are subtle differences in the way each story examines the past – and it’s these slight nuances that will keep readers coming back for more…

An Evening with Ann Goldstein

Lost ChildIt isn’t often that I venture into the city from my home in the far-flung outer suburbs of Melbourne, and it’s even rarer for me to do so on a school night.  However, the visit of a world-famous translator is something I hate to miss out on, so last Wednesday saw me make the trek to see Ann Goldstein, best-known for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s work, in conversation at Federation Square.  Sadly, though, it wasn’t all it might have been – let me explain why…

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While the English translations of Elena Ferrante’s books are published by Europa Editions in the UK and US, here in Australia we’ve had new editions (with much better covers…) from local press Text PublishingThe Neapolitan Novels have been a great success, bringing a lot of interest in Ferrante and her translator, hence Goldstein’s trip Down Under (with this event organised by Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre).  Wednesday evening saw a large crowd attracted to the Deakin Edge lecture hall – I was near the front, so I’m not sure exactly how many people were present, but it would have been in the high hundreds for sure.

The moderator was Robert Dessaix, an Australian writer and translator, and virtually his first question was whether we should care who Ferrante is.  Of course, Goldstein’s reply was that her works speak for her; in them, we feel the voice and presence of the creator.  She added, however, that Ferrante’s forthcoming non-fiction work (Frantumaglia) would be a little more revealing, giving the reader some insights into the writer (which is certainly something to look forward to).

The talk then moved on to how Goldstein came to translate Ferrante, leading the translator to discuss her first encounter with the Italian writer’s work (with The Days of Abandonment).  Europa were looking for a translator, so Goldstein read the book to see if it was something she might be interested in – and it was.  She felt she was in the mind of someone who she recognised, but who expressed her own feelings better than she could herself.  While Goldstein was clear that Ferrante’s style is nothing out of the ordinary, it was what was being said that convinced her to go for the opportunity to translate the book (and the subsequent work).

The next topic of conversation was ‘Ferrante Fever’, and the speakers discussed why it has taken hold.  Goldstein’s take on this is that it comes from the way Ferrante explores relationships; there’s an almost forensic examination of how Lila and Lenù get along, something which Goldstein said is rare in literature.  The books also look at the idea of rivalry in friendships, a concept that people (in the Anglosphere, at any rate) can have a hard time dealing with.  Dessaix commented that this made it sound like a soap opera, to which Goldstein agreed, with the caveat that it’s one which digs much deeper than your average soap…

Another reason for the success of the books, according to Goldstein, is the contrast between the prosaic nature of the characters’ behaviour, and their larger-than-life qualities.  Ferrante is a great writer of events (e.g. the weddings), using minute details to construct the scenes from multiple angles, enhancing the effect of what are, in truth, commonplace events.  There was an interesting comment at this point on a couple of Ferrante’s favourite writers, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen.  While Dessaix found it strange that people compared Ferrante’s work with Austen’s, Goldstein drew out some parallels, particularly between Lila and Lenù and the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility (Ferrante apparently contributed a foreword to an Italian translation of the book!).

Moving away from Ferrante, Dessaix and Goldstein touched on a few different topics.  Goldstein talked about learning Italian to enable her to read Dante in the original, before briefly touching on translating Jhumpa Lahiri (stressing that her translation of In Other Words focused on bringing across the simplicity of the original by using simple – not poor – English).  She also discussed the difficulty of translating sex scenes, with the major sticking point being the boredom of repetition (a comment which drew laughs from the crowd), returning here to Ferrante to comment on how the few sex scenes in her writing were clumsy, nasty, failed efforts.  When asked if she was sad at having come to the end of her work on the Neapolitan Novels, Goldstein was clear that it wasn’t the end of the world.  She might miss it a little, but she’s certainly not in mourning for them…

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Reading the above, it may sound like a good time was had by all, but this was certainly not the case.  I rarely felt that we got the most from Goldstein in this talk, and part of the issue was the lack of focus in the talk.  Above, I’ve tried to group ideas, but in truth I was never sure if the main focus was Goldstein, Ferrante, the Neapolitan Novels or the art of translation.  It was all very bitty, with meandering discussions, many short answers and frequent dead ends.

The main problem, though, was Dessaix, who made for a terrible moderator.  Quite apart from an obvious lack of chemistry between the two speakers, it was clear that Dessaix simply likes the sound of his own voice and was determined to use the occasion to talk at length.  At times, we were ‘treated’ to several minutes of Dessaix musing out loud, tolerating occasional (short) interjections from Goldstein before he sallied forth again.  He also insisted on talking about his own work, unnecessarily, and the longer it all went on, the more bored Goldstein looked, and the drier and shorter her replies became.  I’m not a big fan of the word ‘mansplaining’ as it is often used on social media to respond to genuine disagreement rather than any real patronising tone, but if ever there was a case to illustrate the term, this was it…

At the end of the talk, Dessaix said he’d better be quiet so that people could ask questions (45 minutes too late…), and I was lucky enough to get to contribute one.  Having heard enough about Ferrante, I decided to ask about the recent controversy regarding Tim Parks’ comments on the Primo Levi anthology Goldstein edited – and it soon became clear that I’d only succeeded in making her night even more uncomfortable than it already was.  While she was very polite about it and tried to explain to the audience what I was talking about and how she had tried to stay out of the drama, she seemed visibly affected by it all.  Afterwards, I made a point of going over to her (risking the wrath of the snarling attendants…) to apologise for putting her on the spot…

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So, not the best of talks, then…  It’s a shame, as I think Goldstein could have provided a lot more information and entertainment (if she’d been allowed to).  This isn’t the first time I’ve been to a talk hijacked by the person whose job it was to keep the conversation flowing (Eleanor Catton’s talk at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival last year is one that comes to mind…), and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  Sadly, though, as I made the long train and bus journey home, I was wondering if it was really worth the effort.  Maybe next time I’ll just stay at home and read instead…

‘When Adam Opens His Eyes’ by Jang Jung-il (Review)

IMG_5443It’s been a while since I last read one of the books from the Dalkey Archive Library of Korean Literature series, but today marks my thirteenth review from the collection.  While I still have a couple on my shelves, this is a special post as it rounds off my look at the initial ten books (it’s taken me long enough…).  It’s a short one, but there’s a lot there to enjoy whether you’re keen on social commentary or teenagers doing what they do best.  Let’s take a trip to Daegu…

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Jang Jung-il’s When Adam Opens His Eyes (translated by Hwang Sun-ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a year in the life of a young Korean student, a boy like any other of his age around the world:

I was nineteen years old, and the things I most wanted to have were a typewriter, prints of Munch’s paintings and a turntable for playing records.  Those things alone were all that I wanted from the world when I was nineteen.  But so humble were my desires that, in comparison, my mother’s wish for me to enter Seoul National University, or my younger cousin’s dream of joining the Samsung Lions baseball team when he grew up, seemed even more out of reach.
p.5 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)

There are some differences, though.  Having failed the notoriously competitive national university entrance exam, rather than opting for a lesser institution our friend decides to have another shot at making it into Seoul University – which means a year of keeping his head down at a cram school in the city.

Within a couple of months, though, this idea goes out of the window.  Adam (a name he was given by an ex-girlfriend for being her first sexual experience) quickly gets bored with the student-in-purgatory existence, instead roaming the streets of Daegu and reading in the library by day, and watching people dancing in clubs at night.  When he meets Hyun-jae, a high-school girl trying to let off some steam, Adam’s year off begins to get more interesting, but the two know full well they’re only hiding from the inevitable.  Korea’s brutal society will always get you in the end…

When Adam Opens His Eyes runs to about one-hundred pages, making up one year in the life of its protagonist, twelve months in which he learns a lot about himself and moves towards deciding what it is he wants to do with his life.  There’s something very Norwegian Wood about the premise, but while it was written around the same time as Haruki Murakami’s novel, Jang’s story is set much later, running from late 1987 until after the Olympic Games of the following year.  For a foreign reader, it helps to know that this was a time of change in South Korea, with a weak form of democracy just around the corner, even if the violent demonstrations of the eighties hadn’t yet died away completely.

Not that Adam himself is too caught up in the political events of the era.  He takes advantage of his year off to relax after the hell of high-school study, sleeping around when he can and using his time to read, write, translate and generally experience as much of life as possible.  With his brother having fled to the US to study in a more congenial atmosphere (and his mother working all hours cleaning toilets to give her children a future), he is left to his own devices, enjoying his brief moment of freedom.

His experience is mirrored by that of Hyun-jae, to whom he is attracted right from their first encounter.  In many ways, she throws herself even more into hedonism than Adam, desperate to relieve the stress of her final year of school.  She wanders in and out of Adam’s life, random encounters throughout the city inevitably leading to sex, hoping that she can forget the pressure she’s under, at least temporarily.  Sadly, she (like the reader) is only too aware that this is a brief interval of happiness before the crushing weight of Korean society comes down on her again.

While I mentioned Norwegian Wood earlier, When Adam Opens His Eyes is far more reminiscent of the work of Ryū Murakami.  There’s a little violence, some self-abuse and a fair amount of sex (in many positions and with a range of partners).  In truth, though, it’s far tamer than what you might find in, for example, Almost Transparent Blue, and the blurb’s claim that “…this is a sensational and highly controversial novel…” only goes to show how conservative Korea was in the late eighties.

As a Bildungsroman, it works well enough, though, and Adam’s growth throughout the year towards the decision he makes about his future contrasts with Hyun-jae’s tragic downward spiral:

She told me she believed in reincarnation and that she was very fearful of being reborn as a high-school student in Korea.  “Being reborn as an insect because of my many sins would be much better,” she observed. (p.59)

It seems that ‘Hell Choseon’, the view of Korean society as a Dantean underworld, is no new phenomenon.  It just remains to be seen how Adam manages to find his own slice of Eden.

*****
But there’s more…

Tacked on to the main show is a short story, ‘The Seventh Day’, and it’s here that the gushing praise of the blurb might be more appropriate.  It begins with a couple in bed and a description of a tender coupling, before going back to where the two met – they bump into each other at a bank’s cash machine and notice that they’re reading the same book.  How sweet:)

Erm, no.  That book happens to be George Bataille’s Eroticism, and over the seven days of Jang’s story, the couple’s antics become ever more disturbing, violent and, let’s say, mindblowing.  ‘The Seventh Day’ turns out to be an exercise in pushing the envelope in a way When Adam Opens His Eyes only really hints at; while the novella is interesting enough in its own right, particularly in its look at society, many will see something far more fascinating in this added extra:)

The MBIP 2016 Winner is…

MBI2016 Logo RGB pinkWell, anyone with even a passing interest in fiction in translation will already have heard the news by now, but for those who may have been otherwise occupied over the past day or so, the Man Booker International Prize judges announced their winner last night (UK time) – and a popular one it was too.  This year’s prize, the first since the passing of the baton from Booktrust and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, went to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith and published by Portobello Books: congratulations to all involved!

Han’s three-part story of a woman turning her back not only on meat, but also on family and society, was the early front-runner for the prize, and it came as no real surprise that it took out the award.  More of a shock, though, is the fact that our Shadow Panel (for the second time in a row) went for the same book as the official judges.  While I won’t say I told you so, my review of the book (published on the 5th of February, 2015) did end like this:

“And speaking of long waits, while the announcement of the longlist for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is just around the corner, I can’t help thinking that this is a book which has every chance of making the cut for the 2016 version.  Quite apart from the obvious merits of the book, it has all the features of a work which will catch the eye of a panel looking for something a little different from the norm…

…we’ll only have to wait about thirteen months to see if I’m right😉

Now if only I’d foreseen the introduction of the international Booker too…

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Of course, Han Kang is a writer on the rise and has already avoided the fate of being a one-hit'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang (Review) wonder in translation.  Her follow-up work in English, Human Acts, is an excellent novel exploring the ripples of the South Korean government’s crack-down on protestors in the city of Gwangju in 1980; in fact, given that it was published before the cut-off date, I was a little surprised it didn’t also make the longlist.  Alas, as yet that’s all there is of her work in English (with the exception of the story Convalescence, translated by Jeon Seung-hee in Asia Publishers’ bilingual edition).  However, I did hear rumours that more is on the way…

…and those rumours should be pretty accurate seeing as they originated with the translator of The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Deborah Smith.  It seems incredible now, but Smith was virtually unknown as recently as a couple of years ago.  I remember hearing her discuss Korean literature on the That Other Word podcast with a certain Daniel Medin – whom you may know as one of this year’s MBIP judges.  Fast forward a couple of years, and Smith is now a prize-winning translator, working with presses in the UK and the US (watch out for future releases of books by Bae Suah in Smith’s translation, from Deep Vellum and Open Letter).  And if that wasn’t enough, she has also started her own press, Tilted Axis, to promote fiction from parts of the world we don’t hear enough from.  It’s safe to say that she is a very busy person…

While Smith and Han have deserved all the praise that’s come their way, I’d have to say that the other part of the team seems to have been a little overlooked.  For publisher Portobello Books, this is the second consecutive prize after Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (translated by Susan Bernofsky) took out the final IFFP last year, which surely deserves some congratulations.  Several of Erpenbeck’s books had already appeared in English, both in the US and the UK, so that win was perhaps less of a surprise, but this was the first book by Han, an unknown (in the Anglosphere) female Asian writer.  A potential risk?  Perhaps – if so, it certainly paid off.

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Having commented on the winner, I’d also like to look at the prize itself to see if the Bookerisation of translated fiction in the UK has brought about any major shifts.  Early on, if I’m being completely honest, there didn’t seem to be much of a change with matters rolling quietly along as usual (in fact, up to the shortlist stage our Shadow Panel seemed to be promoting the prize more than anyone…).  However, from my viewpoint at least, there was a definite shift through the gears once the shortlist was announced.  Suddenly, social media was awash with comments and discussion, and this continued over the following month with podcasts and interviews coming thick and fast on the Man Booker site.  This ability to market the prize was one of the biggest potential advantages of the move to the brave new world, and I’d have to say that judging by the photos I saw of the shortlist and prize announcement evenings, everything is on a different level this year – very Bookerish.

IMG_5384If the framework of the prize (including the prize money) was beefed up, however, the same couldn’t really be said when it came to the judging.  While you can’t really fault the final decision, there was a definite sense that (in a manner which suggests the judges were paying homage to the IFFP) readability and marketability were definitely seen as advantages in the choice of books at all stages.  There was nothing terrible there (although a few of our Shadow Judges might beg to differ…), yet the shortlist, especially, felt overwhelmingly ‘nice and safe’.  Many of the spikier, or more complex, longlisters failed to make the cut (e.g. Death by Water, Ladivine, Tram 83), and there must have been a few red faces when the American Best Translated Book Award was taken out a few weeks ago by Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman) – an excellent book from local favourites And Other Stories.  At which point I’d like to point out that the omission of Spanish-language literature was one of the biggest criticisms we levelled at the MBIP longlist😉

Still, my overall impression of this year’s prize is fairly positive, and it’s certainly succeeded in creating a buzz around translated literature (with the recent news of good sales in the field certainly helping).  I’ll be back next year with my shadowy colleagues to see the start of another new era – Boyd Tonkin, longtime head of the IFFP/MBIP panel is putting his red pen away and making way for another chief judge.  Will this herald a new direction for the prize?  Who knows – but it’ll be fun to find out:)

And the (Shadow) MBIP 2016 Winner is…

MBI2016 Logo RGB pinkWell, the announcement of the winner of the Man Booker International Prize for 2016 is almost upon us, with one lucky writer, author and publisher set to be honoured at a swanky ceremony in London (at which I will *not* be present…).  However, we first have some other unfinished business to resolve; namely, revealing the winner of our highly-prestigious Shadow International Booker Prize!  On Saturday, I posted on the history of our group, looking at the judges of past prizes, and our previous winners, but now it’s time to add another book to the roll of honour.  Without further ado…

The winner of the 2016 Shadow MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL Prize is:

'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang (Review)

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian
(Portobello Books, translated by Deborah Smith)

Congratulations to all involved!  From the moment it was released, The Vegetarian was talked about  as a potential IFFP/MBIP longlister, and the positive reviews have been rolling in ever since.  As a reader who has been devouring Korean literature over the past couple of years, I’m very happy to see this recognised, and I hope that much more of Han’s (and Smith’s!) work will become available in English before two long.  Our fifth Shadow Laureate, then, and our second female winner in a row – but the first from outside Europe:)

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However, The Vegetarian didn’t have it all its own way – in fact, this year proved to be easily the closest one ever in terms of of our shadow voting.  At the shortlist stage, seven books stood out ahead of the rest, with Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (tr. Roland Glasser) narrowly missing out, and in the next round of voting, Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine (tr. Jordan Stump) only failed to make the final head-to-head vote on a countback.

In fact, this year’s winner just squeaked over the line ahead of another excellent book – one which the official panel decided not to shortlist…

Our HONOURABLE MENTION for 2016 GOES TO:

IMG_5384

Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water
(Atlantic Books, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm)

Long before I started reading K-Lit, I was already a keen aficionado of fiction from just across the sea, and Death by Water is another excellent novel from the old man of Japanese literature.  This is the second in a series of books featuring Ōe’s alter-ego, Kogito Choko – with several of these still untranslated, let’s hope that the publicity from this prize will help push someone towards rectifying that state of affairs soon.

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And so end our endeavours for 2016…

As usual, congratulations are due to Chairman Stu for being the originator of this idea, and we must thank all of our fellow jurors too. Tony, David and Bellezza clocked up their third tour of duty this year while Grant and Clare came back for a second judging stint.  Lori Feathers was the only new judge this year – I trust she enjoyed her first shadow experience.  It’s been another interesting and exhilarating journey around the literary world, and even if we didn’t always (an understatement…) see eye-to-eye with the official judges, I’d like to congratulate them as well – if only for giving us all something to complain about😉

I hope all my readers (if there are any out there) have enjoyed the journey too.  While it’s nice to pack your suitcase and dust off your passport, sometimes it’s fun to just sit back at home and travel vicariously in the company of your favourite (or soon-to-become favourite) authors.  Hopefully, over the course of the past couple of months, I’ve been able to introduce you to some interesting books you might not otherwise have read (or heard of), and you might even have been inspired to seek out more work by these writers, or from these countries – and that’s what it’s all about.

Anyway, that’s more than enough for today (I’m sure I’ll be back when the real judges announce their winner) – let’s see if next year will be as much fun:)

A Shady Past: The History of the Shadow Panel

MBI2016 Logo RGB pinkThe 2016 Man Booker International Prize announcement is almost upon us, with the winner revealed on Monday.  That means, of course, that the Shadow Panel announcement is also just around the corner (as always, we’ll be stealing their thunder a matter of hours before the official decision is revealed).  Before we get to that, though, I thought it would be nice to look back a little to the origins of our little quest to keep the judges honest; you see, while this is our first Shadow MBIP, it’s actually the fifth time we’ve thrown ourselves into the quest to find the best work of translated fiction published in the UK.  Let me refresh your memory about how things have gone in previous years…

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Stu Allen (Winstondad’s Blog) founded the Shadow Panel back in 2012, and I was a late addition to what turned out to be a seven-strong initial group.  Back then, of course, we were shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and big names that year included Haruki Murakami (1Q84) and Umberto Eco (The Prague Cemetery) – although the biggest book belonged to Péter Nádas, with Parallel Stories coming in at a shelf-breaking 1300+ pages…

Right from the start, we realised that our views would rarely coincide with those of the official And The Winner Is...panel, led by our arch-nemesis Boyd Tonkin.  An early leaked report suggested that the shortlist would contain one book from Israel and one from Germany – which it did, except that they weren’t the ones we’d been expecting…  In the end, we were fairly disappointed by the official winner, Aharon Appelfeld’s Blooms of Darkness (translated by Jeffrey M. Green), much preferring our inaugural champion, Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale (tr. Victoria Cribb).

*****
The following year saw a streamlined five-person Shadow Panel tackle one of the stronger lists in recent memory.  Quite apart from the first appearance of Karl Ove Knausgaard, we enjoyed books by Ismail Kadare (The Fall of the Stone City), Andrés Neuman (Traveller of the Century) and eventual winner Gerbrand Bakker (The Detour, translated by David Colmer).  Of course, there was also Chris Barnard’s Bundu, which we all placed safely near the bottom of our pile – and which Tonkin and co. shortlisted…

Big Time IntertextualityThis decision was even more bizarre when you consider that Satantango (tr. George Szirtes), omitted from the shortlist, went on to win the Best Translated Book Award and help László Krasznahorkai receive the Man Booker International Prize (for career achievement) in 2015.  In our own final run-off, Satantango was highly commended but ended up losing in a split-decision (3-2) to a popular winner, Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque (tr. Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey).

*****
In 2014, six intrepid bloggers took on the task of reading a longlist with a few big (and familiar) names.  Knaus81b91-img_4872i was back, and so too was Javier Marías, with The Infatuations.  While most of us were pleased with the eventual choice of Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, that had more to do with our affection for the publisher (Comma Press) than the book itself, as it failed to make our shortlist.

This year, we were very close to crowning our first female winner as Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge and Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast were both near the top of our rankings.  However, in the end we opted for Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels (tr. Philip Roughton), a wonderful book and our second Icelandic winner in three years:)

*****
Although we didn’t know it at the time, 2015 was to mark the final edition of the IFFP, so it was only fitting that we assembled the largest and most international Shadow Panel yet, eleven bloggers spread over four continents.  While there was some surprisingly innovative writing included on the longlist (for example, the later BTBA winner from Can Xue, The Last Lover), this year saw us finally lose our tempers with the official panel after they saw fit to leave out one of our expected favourites, Zone by Mathias Énard (tr. Charlotte Mandell).

EODAfter lengthy deliberation, we decided to call the book in, and it went on to prove a sound decision, with Zone only falling at the very last hurdle by seven votes to four.  The winner, of course, was pretty much a foregone conclusion, with Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (tr. Susan Bernofsky) the favourite from gun to tape.  Erpenbeck thus became our first female winner, and only the second in the history of the official prize (after Marta Morazzoni’s The Alphonse Courrier Affair, translated by Emma Rose, in 20o1) – although that information only came to light by accident at the start of the 2015 process…

*****
So there you have it – a short history of the Shadow Panel :)  Our eight judges for this year’s edition are well aware of the weight of the past on their shoulders, but I feel that we’ve done a good job with our deliberations and are confident that we have chosen a fine book as our winner.  You’ll have to wait a couple of days to find out what it is, but I can tell you one thing – this was by far the closest decision ever…

*****
Here are all of our judges so far (if you spot any errors, let me know!):

Stu Allen (2012-2016) * Tony Malone (2012-2016) * Mark Stanforth (2012-13)
Gary Moon (2012-13) * Lisa Hill (2012-13) * Rob Burdock (2012)
Simon Quicke (2012) * David Hebblethwaite (2014-2016) * Bellezza (2014-2016)
Tony Messenger (2014-2016) * Jacqui Patience (2014)
Grant Rintoul (2015-2016) * Clare Rowland (2015-2016) * Emma Cazabonne (2015) Julianne Pachico (2015) * Chelsea McGill (2015) * Joe Schreiber (2015)
Lori Feathers (2016)

‘Thus Bad Begins’ by Javier Marías (Review)

IMG_5440Having first tried the work of Spanish writer Javier Marías a few years ago, I made a conscious decision last year to start making my way through his back catalogue, reading another five of his books (including all three in the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy) over the past twelve months.  As you can imagine, then, when news emerged of a new book appearing in English, once again translated by the wonderful Margaret Jull Costa, I was keen to get hold of a copy as soon as possible, ready to enjoy another week or so in the company of the Spanish master, his English assistant and their marvellous sentences.  So much for the anticipation – let’s see if the reality lived up to what I was expecting…

*****
Thus Bad Begins (published by Hamish Hamilton) is set in Madrid in 1980, where the Franco era has ended and people are beginning to explore the new freedoms available.  One of those people is the narrator, Juan de Vere, a young man working as a general assistant to film director Eduardo Muriel (a stern gentleman in his late forties with a dramatic patch over one eye).  Juan’s role entails spending time at the Muriel’s apartment, and it isn’t long before the young man notices Muriel’s cruelty to his wife, Beatriz, a beautiful woman whom the husband insists on insulting whenever possible.

De Vere is puzzled by this behaviour, obviously linked to a secret in the couple’s past he’s unaware of, but there are other secrets out there waiting to be uncovered.  One day Muriel summons Juan and charges him with a delicate and unusual task, one involving an old family friend, Doctor Jorge van Vechten.  Rumours have reached Muriel’s ears of certain indiscretions, sordid behaviour, even, committed by his friend, and before deciding what to do, he wants Juan to somehow draw the good doctor out to see if there’s any truth in the stories.  However, in an era of conciliation and progress, delving into old stories might not be such a great idea – perhaps the two men should just leave the past in the past…

Thus Bad Begins is very clearly set in 1980, and with good reason.  Marías has placed his story in a country moving on, but not yet completely free of the influence of the right (and of the church).  As a result, divorce is as yet unavailable, meaning Muriel is unable to free himself completely from his onerous marriage.  This is also a time of sexual freedom after the restrictions of the previous decades, as Juan (who is narrating looking back from the present day) explains several times, also stressing the permissive atmosphere prevailing in a pre-AIDS era.  The reader senses that this information may become important at some point, but as always in Marías’ work, we’re not quite sure how.

Juan starts to delve into the past, wanting to know more about the two secrets he has become aware of: Van Vechten’s offences and Beatriz’s betrayal of her husband.  As he goes about this task, two themes, both familiar to Marías readers, emerge from the confusion.  The first is concerned with the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War and the way in which abuses have been covered up; the other is sexual power, with the writer fascinated by the allure of aggressive men.  The two combine, and we’re never quite sure which is going to be the main focus of the novel.

It all makes for an interesting story, and yet any reader with more than a passing acquaintance with Marías’ work will be a little disappointed with Thus Bad Begins.  Yes, there’s still lots to like (the usual languid pace, long conversations and a palpable sense of abuse of position), but there’s a feeling we’ve been here before.  Perhaps having read Your Face Tomorrow recently adds to this feeling as the themes are certainly similar.  In the trilogy, Marías also wove the abuses of the civil war into his story, showing how those who brutally eliminated their opponents later pretended they were the good guys.  There was this same fascination with sexual power, women caught up in a spell, hypnotised by the naked aggression, unable to free themselves.

You can’t help but have the feeling, though, that this is a pale imitation, Marías by numbers – the question, of course, is why.  While the writing is excellent in parts, it’s not always up to the standard we’ve come to expect; at times, it appears cheesy and clichéd (perhaps partly due to the youth of the narrator at the time of the story).  Perhaps the subject matter adds to this feeling, with much of the book being rather obvious and crude (on occasion downright creepy).  As always, there’s a hope (perhaps even an expectation) that the ending will tie everything together, but in truth, this time it comes as a bit of a let down with no real surprises.  The book gently meanders towards its conclusion, in a style less Marías than that of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels.

Thus Bad Begins is also slightly different from the writer’s earlier work in another way.  We, of course, get the usual Shakespeare quotation (the title comes from Hamlet), but the underlying focus here is less on literature than on film.  The main introduction to this world is Muriel, but there’s also something in the way Juan narrates the novel, lending the story a cinematic, almost noir air:

…when you see yourself as a character out of a novel or a comic or a film and try to emulate them; perhaps I was imitating Hitchcock’s creations, suggested by that season of films to which Muriel had taken me, unresisting, and in which there are often long sequences during which no one says a word, no dialogue at all, just people coming and going from one place to another, and yet you sit, eyes glued to the screen, feeling increasingly intrigued and anxious, even when sometimes there’s no objective reason to feel that. (pp.178/9)

This sense extends to the novel as a whole – with Juan tailing Beatriz, stories of dinner parties full of dashing men and statuesque women and a heart-stopping race against time to a hotel room, you almost feel you should have some popcorn handy…

Of course, this is judging Marías by Marías’ standards, not by those of most writers, and there’s still much to enjoy in Thus Bad Begins.  There are many excellent conversations and extended scenes; one which has lodged itself in my memory is from the start of the book, where Juan spies on Beatriz in the corridor as she pleads with her husband for an embrace.  As the young man crouches uncomfortably in the shadows, Muriel rejects his wife’s advances in the most brutal of fashions:

‘You just don’t get it, do you?  You never will.  You’ll never understand what it was that you did, it’s of no importance to you, it wasn’t then and it never will be for as long as you live, which I hope won’t be much longer, yes, let’s hope you die soon…
p.81 (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Another aspect of the book I found successful was the sinister characterisation of Van Vechten.  Marías successfully sketches out his main antagonist, a true wolf in sheep’s clothing, leaving us in no doubt as to the doctor’s capacity for the evil Juan suspects him of.  While the good (?) doctor is certainly larger than life (with teeth suitable for a big, bad wolf), he never slips into parody, remaining a fascinating individual.

This evil, though, belongs to a bygone era, and Muriel (and perhaps Marías too) firmly believes that in a new age these wrongs should be left behind.  Juan’s young idealistic belief that wrongs must be punished contrast with the pragmatism of the older generations – in effect, there’s a national contract of forgetting the past:

The promise of living in a normal country – with elections every four years, the legalization of all political parties, a new constitution approved by the majority, no censorship – and, one imagined, the rapid implementation of a new divorce bill – with trade unions, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and no bishops meddling with the law of the land – all of that was far more alluring than the old quest for an apology or the desire for reparation. (p.34)

The price for peace is silence, allowing everyone to move on, yet while that’s true in general, the exception occurs when you are personally affected by these events.  This is shown in the interesting contrast between Muriel’s views about actions which don’t directly affect him (e.g. the doctor’s behaviour) and those of his wife, which most certainly do…

Overall, Thus Bad Begins is an interesting enough read, but it’s certainly not one of Marías’ best moments; of the eight I’ve read, this is clearly the weakest.  Marías fans will read it regardless, but if you’re wanting an introduction to his work, I’d start elsewhere (e.g. A Heart So White).  The question I was left with on finishing the book was whether this is just a blip or a continuation of a downward trend (not everyone was that keen on his previous novel, The Infatuations, either).  Thus bad (writing) begins?  Let’s hope not…

‘Modern Family’ by Cheon Myeong-Kwan / ‘Rust’ & ‘Swamp’ by Yang Gui-ja (Review)

IMG_5431When I  made my last visit to the uni library in January, little did I know that the two books I picked out that day were to lie around neglected for the following few months (in hindsight, with my January in Japan reading to consider, along with my Man Booker International Prize duties, I really should have known better…).  Still, I have a little more time now, and my staff access means that I’ve been able to hold on to the books for far longer than I would have thought.  Let’s see if these two, both by writers who have featured on the blog before, were worth the wait😉

*****
Some readers may remember the name Cheon Myeong-kwan from my post on the Ku Sang Young Writers Prize and his winning entry, ‘Homecoming’, and for those who liked the sound of that one, one of his longer works is now available, published in the US last year by White Pine PressModern Family (translated by Kyoung-lee Park) is narrated by 48-year-old Kim In-ho, a failed film director with a mountain of debts and a failed marriage:

Everything that could be sold was.  First on the list was a ten-year-old secondhand car.  It wasn’t long before the television, refrigerator, washing machine, and laptop were sold as well.  Those were soon accompanied by my books and video collections, leaving only a worn-out mattress in the middle of the room.  I’d have sold my body if I could, but who’d want a balding, forty-eight-year-old man?
p.9 (White Pine Press, 2015)

With nowhere to turn, a call from his elderly mother proves to be most timely, and before long he decides to swallow his pride and move back home.

As it turns out, he’s not the only one.  His elder brother Han-mo, a slightly simple layabout also known as Hammer, has been there ever since getting out of prison, but the arrival of their younger sister Mi-yeon (with her teenage daughter Min-gyeong in tow) is a surprise to everyone.  All of a sudden, the dysfunctional family is back under one roof, and with a long hot summer ahead (accompanied by Hammer’s dubious bodily hygiene), things are bound to erupt.  Blood may be thicker than water – but what if the blood’s not all that thick in the first place?

For anyone used to stories of government abuse, exploitation of workers or (going even further IMG_5429back) the struggle against Japanese colonialists, Modern Family is a bit of an eye-opener.  Cheon’s novel is populated by gangsters, prostitutes, bitter old ladies and teenagers with attitude, a welcome contrast to the usual po-faced literary fare.   Slapstick at times, violent and disturbing at others, the best comparison I can come up with is that of Ryū Murakami, and there are definite touches here of some of the Japanese writer’s lighter works.

There’s also a lot of humour in Modern Family (which is definitely rare in the K-Lit we see in English), but while it develops into a light-hearted family romp, with In-mo wondering what he’s done to end up in the middle of such a pack of losers, you do begin to wonder if there’s really anything of substance about the story, or whether it’s just a fun way to while away a couple of hours.  Watching In-mo and his family sink deeper into caricature is only entertaining for so long…

However, Cheon is a better writer than that, and he cleverly turns the story into a vehicle for In-mo to realise that despite his university education (and his one mainstream movie), he’s the failure of the family and that the others have been helping him.  Having realised his selfishness, he seeks redemption, and when the opportunity presents itself, he decides to put his family first for once, no matter how painful that might be.  In fact, this message of family first is developed nicely (and cleverly) over the second half of the book, and even if I wouldn’t exactly say that there’s a happy ending, things do work out, sort of:)

*****
Another familiar name is Yang Gui-ja, with both Contradictions and A Distant and Beautiful Place reviewed on the blog last year.  Today’s choice is a slightly shorter book, though, one of the Jimoondang series of introductions to Korean authors, this one featuring two of Yang’s stories, ‘Rust’ and ‘Swamp’.

‘Swamp’, translated by Steven D. Capener, features a well-off housewife who decides to visit an old friend, a former teacher who has retired to the country.  As the two women prepare lunch and catch up on gossip, the teacher receives an unexpected phone call which changes the women’s plans.  An old friend, one she hasn’t seen for twenty years, is now in the country and is waiting for her at a shop near the house.  The narrator is quite happy for the man to join them for lunch, but she senses that there’s more to his visit than her friend is letting on.  Only later, when they drive him to the airport, however, does the full story come out.

IMG_5430With the story written in 1999, the twenty years ago takes us back to the late seventies, and anyone who has dabbled in K-Lit will be able to put the pieces together when told of a teacher who suddenly emigrated to the US and stayed there.  Another story which touches on this theme of intellectuals falling foul of the government is O Chonghui’s ‘Lake P’aro’, but Yang’s handling of the topic is a little softer (until, that is, the final pages when we see what finally drove the teacher to leave the country…).  A short piece, but well-constructed, ‘Swamp’ certainly measures up to some of Yang’s other work.

*****
Which, unfortunately, is far more than I can say for the title story, ‘Rust’.  This one focuses on a man who, wanting to become a journalist, got sucked into working in magazine advertising instead.  It’s a much earlier piece, and while there is some interest in the man’s struggle to cope with a job he’s not cut out for, it’s nowhere near as interesting as ‘Swamp’.

The biggest problem, though, is that ‘Rust’ features another of those awful translations that you used to come across in Korean literature (thankfully, far less common now).  Ahn Jung-hyo is the culprit here, with the text full of stilted, uncomfortable language, in addition to containing some horrible mistakes.  Don’t believe me?  How about these:

To drive along the cruising lane only was very boring.
They were sensitive about the parking spots, as they would have to pull out of again in less than an hour.

All during this while his beige steed was asleep at a nearby parking lot, its rein tied to the pole.
The prospect (prospective!) client…
The advertisement (advertising!) company…

It’s a shame to end the post on this negative note, but as Korean literature begins to establish a small presence in the Anglosphere, it’s important to ensure that the translations are as professional as possible.  For every The Vegetarian, There A Petal Silently Falls or Nowhere to Be Found, there’s (unfortunately) a One Spoon on This Earth or a ‘Rust’, showing how far the art of literary translation from Korean to English has come (and had to come).  Let’s hope that this improving trend continues and that we can eventually put efforts like this one far behind us…

‘The Snow Queen’ by Hans Christian Andersen (Review)

IMG_5441It’s been a while, but today sees the return of my trusty assistant (who has been otherwise occupied with school, her iPad and piles of other books which my wife reserves on the library database on a daily basis).  Emily’s here to talk about another of Pushkin Children’s Books’ beautiful offerings – even if it’s not one she really loved.  Let’s see what went wrong today😦

*****
What’s the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called The Snow Queen, and it’s by Hans Christian Andersen (and it’s translated by Misha Hoekstra).

What’s it about?
It’s about a boy and a girl who are best friends.  Then, one of them gets glass in their eye from a magic mirror, and the Snow Queen takes him away!  After that, the girl has to go and save her friend without her shoes (because she dropped them in the lake… long story!).

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
No.  It was a bit scary for me because they talked about knives and stuff.  And there was glass in the eye which made me feel uncomfortable😦

What was your favourite part?
My favourite part was when the girl freed the boy, and they went back home and lived happily ever after!

Was it difficult to read?
No, I just didn’t like it much.

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
I would recommend it to boys and girls that think of themselves as grown-ups😦

Emily, thank you very much.

*****
With Frozen fever still running hot in my house, I had high hopes for The Snow Queen, but unfortunately what may have been tame in 1844 is still a little too creepy for my sensitive 21st-century reader.  While there isn’t much that is overly scary or gruesome (unlike some of Grimm’s grimmer tales…), the general tone is somewhat sinister.  I doubt many kids would be that bothered, to be honest, but Emily is not one of those kids😦

Still, for those who do enjoy their stories a tad less sacharine, The Snow Queen is an intriguing read.  It’s not a book I tried during my own childhood, so I was interested enough to flick through and find out what it was all about, and in fact the opening section, describing the Devil’s mirror and its shattering into pieces was oddly familiar (I have the feeling it might have been used in a song at some point – if anyone can help me out…).  Poor Kai, a cheerful boy, is the one who suffers here:

It was one of those splinters of glass from the shattered mirror, the Devil’s mirror.  You remember – the terrible mirror that turned anything great and good into something puny and ugly – the glass that made anything plain or evil look bigger, that made every blemish or mistake stick out.  And a splinter had gone right into his heart too.  Soon it would become just like a lump of ice.  The splinter no longer hurt – but it was there all the same.
p.20 (Pushkin Children’s Books, 2015)

Hmm, that is pretty creepy – perhaps Emily was right after all😉

Once again, Pushkin have assembled an excellent team for the job.  Some of you may remember Hoekstra from his translation of Dorthe Nors’ Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, and illustrator Lucie Arnoux also worked on In Their Shoes, another of Pushkin’s fairytale volumes.  Throw in a large, clear font and a beautiful cover design, and you’ve got a book worthy of any beginner’s library.

My little princess may not have loved this, but if the younger residents of your castle enjoy fairytales (or movies with princesses who sing far too much), then you should definitely give The Snow Queen a try.  Here’s hoping that Miss Emily picks this up again in a few months or so, hopefully with a better result.  Until then, I suppose I’ll just have to let it go…

Sorry.

‘The Portable Museum – Issues 1 & 2’, from Ox and Pigeon (Review)

OxFor those who have never heard of Ox and Pigeon, it’s a digital-only press set up a while back to bring relatively unknown Spanish-language literature to the masses.  I’ve already covered a couple of their titles, both here on the blog (Chilean writer Álvaro Bisama’s Dead Stars) and elsewhere (my review of Salvador Elizondo’s Farabeuf appeared last year over at Necessary Fiction).  Their latest release is Issue 3 of what they like to call The Portable Museum – but what happened to Issues 1 and 2?  Well, coincidentally enough…😉

*****
The Portable Museum (digital review copy courtesy of the publisher, all stories translated by Lucas Lyndes) is an interesting idea, a digital magazine containing stories by Spanish-language writers which are appearing in English for the first time.  Each issue costs a few dollars, meaning it’s an inexpensive and convenient way to sample a few writers you might not have otherwise come across, with the first two volumes containing a total of nine stories (four in the first, five in the second), the majority by Latin-American authors.  What’s more, each story is preceded by a brief introduction, featuring a biography and more information about the story and the collection it originally appeared in.

Issue 1 kicks off with Mexican writer Fabio Morábito’s ‘The Mothers’, and it’s certainly an impressive start to the project.  A bizarre piece, it recounts an annual ritual where a town is inhabited each June by creatures hanging in the trees, descending only to look for prey.  The twist is that these creatures are simply mothers:

It was commonplace to hear at dawn, coming from a vacant lot or a building under construction, the panting of the mothers subduing their prey.  One could approach with complete calm because a mother who already had her prey did not represent any danger.  The victim (an office worker, a manual laborer), gripped between large thighs, would twist like a worm in the beak of a bird.  The mother did with him as she wished for the whole month of June.

Over the course of the story, we are told what the mothers get up to, and how it all ends – the why is something we are left to imagine for ourselves.

Next up is another story from Bisama, ‘Nazi Girl’, a strange tale in which a woman raised by PM1admirers of Hitler and the Nazi aesthetic grows up  to enjoy bondage and trysts with a man who turns out to have a secret history.  It’s just unfortunate for the woman that she’s there when that secret comes to light…  This is followed by a story by another Mexican writer, Antonio Ortuño‘The Japanese Garden’ has a boy remembering his experiences with a girl paid to spend time with him in his youth, one he later seeks out again after learning that she has become a prostitute.

The most notable writer featured in Issue 1, though, is undoubtedly Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas, and the collection is rounded off by his piece ‘Loves that Last a Lifetime’.  In this story, a woman living with her grandmother returns from a visit to an old friend (one she secretly adores) with bad news that she needs to break gently in consideration of her grandmother’s ill health.  Part of the charm of this one is the cat-and-mouse game the narrator plays with her grandmother (who is angry at being left to her own devices for a few days), with this story within a story serving to string out the news – which is still a surprise when it comes.

*****
The five stories in Issue 2 come from five different Spanish-speaking countries, and the collection kicks off with the only piece by a female writer (Hebe Uhart from Argentina).  ‘The Event Planner’ is a rambling tale about a woman sick of taking care of the people who come to give talks at her university (and when she recounts what they get up to, you’re inclined to believe she has good reason to be).  This is followed by Uruguyan author Mario Levrero’s excellent story ‘The Boarding House‘, a mesmerising, one-sentence look around a labyrinthine boarding house, a Hotel California (or, perhaps, Montevideo) the writer longs to leave…

Leaving Latin-America, Spanish writer Javier Sáez de Ibarra’s ‘The Gift of the Word‘ is a polyphonic affair, with a man caught in flagrante at a brothel interspersing his comments with a variety of voices (one discussing Nietzsche, another Brod and Kafka, others chatting about their families, including a woman talking to her unborn child).  There is a connection of sorts, but it takes a couple of reads to see how the pieces are linked.

There’s nothing obscure, however, about Dany Salvatierra’s ‘Conversation by the Pond’.  In the first lines, the Peruvian writer’s tale grabs the reader’s attention:

On the afternoon they were supposed to go to the zoo, Rosario realized she had forgotten to get her mother out of the freezer.

PM2From here, the story develops into a bitter stand-off between a middle-aged woman trapped in a bitter existence and her mother, an old woman who refuses to die, even though she has every reason to.  The resolution is excellent, and I’ll leave it to you to find out how it all ends – it’s safe to say, though, that there will be blood😉

Rounding things off, again from Mexico, is Juan Villoro’s ‘Mariachi’, in which a wildly famous Mariachi singer alternates between chasing women and complaining about the price of fame.  Sick of his concerts and dull interviews, he’s talked into starring in a Spanish indie film, mainly in the hope of getting close to an attractive woman.  However, the new career has a rather unexpected effect on his reputation, leaving him with a lot to live up to…

*****
Two short collections with some excellent stories at a price that won’t break the bank – and ready for download whenever you are :)  I enjoyed my time wandering the halls of this particular museum, and for those interested in more of the same, Issue 3 is the first of two focusing on Buenos Aires, with five writers from the Argentinian capital featured this time around.  I suspect this is an institution I’ll be visiting again in the near future…