‘The Pointless Leopard’ by Colas Gutman (Review)

IMG_5198My little assistant, Emily, has had a lot of fun reading and reviewing the books sent to us by the kind people at Pushkin Children’s Books, and so far she’s enjoyed everything she’s read.  However, all good things must come to an end, and today sees Emily reviewing a book she didn’t enjoy quite as much as the others.  Let’s see what she has to say about it…

What’s the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called The Pointless Leopard, and it’s by Colas Gutman (and it’s translated by Stephanie Seegmuller).

What’s it about?
It’s about this boy called Leonard that doesn’t like the country or the walks that his parents take in it.  One day, he meets some talking animals and has a question for his parents – what are kids for?

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
I did *not* like it.  It was a bit boring because it was just about this boy and talking animals :(

What was your favourite part?
When it ended ;)

Was it difficult to read?
No way – it was sooo easy…

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
I think it would be a good book for kids that are just just just starting to read chapter books.  But for older kids, it wouldn’t be so good :(

Emily, thank you very much.

Oh, dear…  I’m afraid that this one was not a big success :(  Emily read it a couple of times, but she wouldn’t change her mind – for her, this was a bit of a baby book.  However, there are extenuating circumstances – I promise!

The Pointless Leopard is a fairly short and simple read, and Emily is simply (and paradoxically) both too old and too young for the book.  It’s thirty-five pages of spaced-out large print interspersed with Delphine Perret’s excellent sketches, and for a girl who has become accustomed to Erich Kästner books, this was one she could whip through in about five minutes (if that).  It’s little wonder that she wasn’t overly enamoured with it.

However, it’s actually quite a subtle story in many ways, and I think I probably appreciated it more than she did.  The whole concept of the book is the idea of children not having a use, and it’s an amusing little piece for adults, who have to assure their kids that they are good for something after all ;)  It is easy to read, but it would be great for a beginning reader, or for a parent to read to their child, with a few silly jokes for the young (and young at heart!).

Sadly, though, it wasn’t for Emily, so I doubt this one will be taking pride of place in her collection alongside The Parent Trap and Dot & Anton.  Still, we can’t like every book we read – perhaps that’s the lesson my daughter has to take from today’s experience.  It’s one I learned a long, long time ago ;)

‘F’ by Daniel Kehlmann (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 12)

IMG_2040Once again, we’re back in Germany where (hopefully) we’ll be a little less exposed to radioactivity than in our previous location…  This is our fourth visit to the country on this IFFP journey, and it’s a slightly more relaxed trip than those we’ve experienced so far.  Our hosts today are three brothers, all very different men, but with some rather unusual connections.  Oh, and watch out for their father too – he’s a man who tends to pop up when you least expect it…

F by Daniel Kehlmann – Quercus Books (translated by Carol Brown Janeway, review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Kehlmann’s novel starts off with a typically intriguing statement, one which sets the tone for the rest of the book:

“Years later, long since fully grown and each of them enmeshed in his own particular form of unhappiness, none of Arthur Friedland’s sons could recall whose idea it had actually been to go to the hypnotist that afternoon.”
p.3 (Quercus Books, 2014)

The outing Arthur takes with his three sons, twins Ivan and Eric and their half-brother Martin, turns out to be much more than just a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.  In its aftermath, he disappears, only to reemerge in the press as a successful writer, occasionally popping up to take his sons out for lunch at inopportune times.

Decades later, the three boys have grown up and have chosen rather different professions.  Martin, an overweight Rubik’s cube fanatic, is now a priest, albeit one without much belief in what he’s doing; Eric is a financial advisor to the rich, a man starting to sink into the mess he’s created for himself with his dodgy dealings; and Ivan, the most artistic of the three, has turned his talents to good, if corrupt, use.  However, as far apart as the men might appear, the truth of the matter is that you can’t choose your family – and they’re fairly difficult to escape, from too…

Kehlmann’s a writer I’ve been meaning to try for some time, so I was happy to see this on the longlist, and F is a novel most will enjoy.  It’s divided into several parts, the most important of which are the prologue (which chronicles Arthur’s disappearance and sets up the main part of the novel) and three main sections following each of the brothers.  As the story progresses, the reader is fed clues as to what is happening and each section explains some of the puzzling actions from the previous parts – which is not to say that everything is revealed.

One of the main ideas coming through in the novel is the necessity – and difficulty – of coming to grips with mediocrity.  As Ivan muses:

“What does it mean to be average – suddenly, the question became a constant one.  How do you live with that, why do you keep on going?  What kind of people bet everything on a single card, dedicate their lives to the creative act, undertake the risk of the one big bet, and then fail year after year to produce anything of significance?” (p.184)

While Arthur shot through and seemingly succeeded in his craft, his sons, all approaching middle age, are beginning to realise that their dreams, whether those involve fabulous wealth, eternal fame or Rubik’s success, are unlikely to ever come to fruition.  With that being the case, the brothers are forced to contemplate a life without excellence, an existence some will adapt to better than others.

There’s also the small matter of the link between the siblings, and that comes across most in the way that the twins, Eric and Ivan, are connected in ways even they don’t understand.  One of the major turning points of the novel is foreshadowed in earlier sections by seemingly trivial remarks and a simple slip-up which eventually turns out to be deadly.  That’s not the only family element, though – one short section in the middle has the writer trace the family’s history backwards through time, showing us the way in which the genes which make up the brothers got to the present day.  Which tells us – something…

You’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t really got  a lot to say about F, and that’s no surprise.  It’s an enjoyable read, and very clever at times, but it felt rather superficial for the most part and not a book that is likely to stay in my head for long.  In fact, the description about Arthur’s novel rings just as true for Kehlmann’s:

“The opening sets up an old-fashioned novella about a young man embarking on his life.  All we know about his name is its first initial: F.  The sentences are well constructed, the narrative has a powerful flow, the reader would be enjoying the text were it not for a persistent feeling of somehow being mocked.” (p.56)

Yes, it’s all very clever – but once the joke’s worn off…

Another issue I had with F is that it’s one of those books which could have been set anywhere, IMG_5196written by anyone.  If this had been published under the name of Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, I doubt anyone would have noticed, and while that’s fine in some ways, in others it’s a little disturbing.  I hope that this isn’t the future of international publishing, books which appear written to pander to the Anglo middle classes.  Perhaps I’m exaggerating a little here, but one thing I’m sure of is that it’s most definitely a Quercus book than a MacLehose one.

What I’ve written above is probably a little harsh; there’s little wrong with the book, and most readers will enjoy it.  Certainly, there are several worse works on the IFFP longlist (with one of those to be reviewed in the coming weeks…), and having the translator’s name (Carol Brown Janeway) prominently on the cover is something I have to applaud everyone involved for.  Let’s just say it wasn’t for me and move on :)

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, I don’t think so.  It was an enjoyable read for the most part, but there was nothing outstanding about it.  Clever in places (a bit too clever in some aspects), F is a book which plays around a little too much.  Some readers will enjoy that, but I never really thought that it hit the heights I was expecting.

Why did it make the shortlist?
Smooth, easy-reading, nothing here to scare the horses.  Look, people – translated literature is just like the books you usually read!  Don’t believe all that stuff about ‘difficult’ prose and cultural impenetrability – Danny K. is just the man for you :)

Let’s move on, then, leaving Germany behind once more (never fear – we’ll be back one more time before our voyage is done…).  It’s time to head south again, as we wind back the clock and visit an island off the Italian coast.  As different as the next stop is, though, there is something it has in common with today’s choice – it’s all about family…

‘The Poet’ by Yi Mun-yol (Review)

IMG_5201While I’ve got a few outstanding reviews to write (and a bit of rereading to get to), most of my IFFP duties are now done and dusted, which means I’ve got time to get back to other reading – and a huge pile of books waiting…  However, before I dive into the ARCs, there are a couple of library books which have priority.   One’s a book most of you will have heard about (and more about that soon).  Today’s choice, though, sees me returning to my Korean literature project, with a writer you should all try.  Let’s go for a little walk…

Yi Mun-yol’s The Poet (translated by Chong-wha Chung and Brother Anthony of Taizé) is a short novel looking at the life of nineteenth-century wandering poet Kim Sakkat, a work in which the writer explores Kim’s origins and attempts to work out the truth behind the myths.  It’s a blend of fact and fiction, based on a real-life character, an excellent look at what drives those who devote their lives to art and the pressures faced in a society founded on obedience to family and country.

The story begins when the four-year-old Kim Pyong-yon becomes aware of unrest in his family home.  Soon, his father addresses him and his elder brother, revealing some surprising news:

“Do you understand?  Your father is Kim Song-su of Koksan district in Hwanghae Province.  You’ve been visiting your mother’s family in Yongin and now you’re on your way back home with your uncle, you’re going to celebrate the New Year there.  In future, you must never regard your father’s or grandfather’s name as your own.”
p.5 (The Harvill Press, 1995)

The two poor boys are sent off with a loyal retainer to spend years with another of the father’s former servants, and it’s only later that Pyong-yon learns why they’ve been sent away.  Their grandfather, an army general, had been executed for treason for aiding a rebellion in the far north of the country, and in a society where treason is punished to the third generation, the boys are in mortal danger.

Later, the danger recedes, and the family are able to be reunited, but even if the law has forgiven them, the people haven’t.  As ‘traitor’s descendants’, the brothers are unable to regain their rightful place in society, and while the elder brother turns to alcohol and violence, Pyong-yon tries his best to rise through education.  However, it’s a plan doomed to failure, and the start of his poetic career is the first step on the road to a life of wandering and solitude…

I read several pieces by Yi Mun-yol last year, including some novellas and short stories, and he rarely disappoints, so I was looking forward to this one immensely.  It may not sound enticing to many, being a dry retelling of the life of an unknown (to most people) poet; however, it’s actually an intriguing tale, a story which focuses just as much on the causes of Kim’s actions as the actions themselves.  We follow the young boy as he grows up, experiencing his successes and failures, watching him develop through various stages until the very end of his life.

The key to his development is his struggle with the past, in particular, the unfair burden placed upon him by his treacherous grandfather.  The problem is that in a society where all citizens are called upon to display blind devotion to both family and state, choosing between the two is frankly impossible.  This comes to a head in the first major historical turning point of the tale, when the nineteen-year-old Pyong-yon wins a poetry competition with a piece condemning the actions of his grandfather.  It’s only later that he realises that far from redeeming himself in the eyes of the ruling classes, he’s actually offended against Korean sensibilities – you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t…

Once he realises that redemption is impossible, the road to poetry is open, and the catalyst for his eventual success is a meeting with a man in a distant mountain region, the ‘old drunkard’.  The old man has a poetic nature himself, and he becomes animated as he attempts to make Kim understand what poetry is really about:

“True poetry stands solely by its own worth.  It doesn’t have to grovel before the powerful, it has no need to be cowed in the presence of learning.  It doesn’t have to keep one eye on the feelings of the rich, it has no need to fear the hatred of the deprived.  It is not to be measured with the yardstick of what is right, or weighed only on the scales of what is true.  It is self-contained and self-sufficient.” (p.116)

The younger man, at this time, has not yet developed enough to be able to grasp his companion’s reasoning, but the day will come when he too will understand what poetry really entails.

What makes The Poet such an enjoyable read, apart from its languid pace and its sporadic dips into Kim’s poetry, is the way in which Yi tells us the story.  At times, he seems to be less of a novelist than a historian, a biographer sifting through historical evidence to careful determine what really happened.  The beauty of this approach is that there are many gaps in the story, and the writer is forced to guess what happened, as tentatively as possible:

“On careful inspection, it rather seems that even his deviation was not initially something permanent.  The conjecture that it might have been of limited duration, with room for a later return, is rendered tenable by the fact that after he left home, the first place he visited was the Diamond Mountains, famous for their scenic beauty.  There was the feeling that he was leaving the dust-shrouded world behind him for a time; there was evidently also the idea that once the wounds of his heart had been healed by attaining affinity with nature, he would return and start something new.” (p.106)

It’s a credit to the translators that this approach appears natural in context; I suspect that the combination of a Korean native and an English-speaking poetry lover made for a perfect translation team here :)

Returning to the writer, though, there’s more to The Poet than most Anglophones would realise.  The story starts, as mentioned above, with Kim’s family troubles, and this is a topic close to the writer’s heart.  You see, Yi Mun-yol’s father was a defector to the North, and that meant that the rest of the family stood under suspicion.  It’s a theme the writer wrote about in his novella An Appointment with His Brother, and this story approaches the same topic, albeit in a rather more oblique manner.  For those who know this, the story has that extra angle, with implicit criticism of the heavy-handed South Korean government and their attitude towards people like Yi.  In fact, as the story progresses, the poet’s attitude towards his grandfather changes; the more he learns about the events of the rebellion, the less he’s sure of his ancestor’s guilt…

Poetry, history, excellent writing and a great introduction by the translators (to be read, of course, after the book!) – this is a novel I’d highly recommend, especially if you have an interest in Korea and its literature.  In the end, though, it all comes back to poetry, and the poet himself.  The book is working towards an end, one described best in the introduction:

“The poetic vocation leads in the end to fullness in solitude; no audience and no words are needed, the poet is himself his poem.” (p.xii)

An interesting idea – but I enjoyed the words, anyway ;)

‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 11)

IMG_2040We’ve left the world of literary dreamscapes, finding ourselves on a train slowly making its way across the vast steppes of central Asia.  This leg of our IFFP journey promises to be a lengthy one, so while we’re waiting to arrive at our destination, let’s pass the time with a few stories.  Funnily enough, there’s one for just this very occasion – tickets, please ;)

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov – Peirene Press (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
What’s it all about?
A Kazakh man is in the middle of a lengthy train journey across the steppe when a boy gets on, selling food and drink, and playing the violin like a virtuoso.  Intrigued, the traveller decides to talk to the newcomer, only to find that he’s not a boy at all.  The violinist is actually twenty-seven years old, and the story of why he looks like a twelve-year-old is a fascinating one…

Yerzhan, the youthful musician, decides to tell the traveller his story, and it’s a tale by turns intriguing and chilling.  Growing up in an isolated two-house hamlet, the young man tells his audience of a childhood spent riding horses, developing his prodigious musical talents and playing with his neighbour, Aisulu, the girl he intends to marry when he grows up.  However, there’s a shadow on the horizon, often a literal one, and when he sets eyes on a lake one day, his future fate is sealed.

This was one of the few Peirene books I hadn’t read, and to be honest, I was surprised when I heard about its selection as I was fairly sure that Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room would be the one to make the cut.  If I’d thought about it a little more, though, I may well have opted for this one as it has all the hallmarks of an IFFP longlist book: a slightly exotic locale, a coming-of-age story under adversity, and a slightly political edge – perfect for the curious, well-travelled literary explorer ;)

The main part of The Dead Lake begins as a Bildungsroman, with Yerzhan relating events from his childhood, stories inextricably bound up with descriptions of the beauty of the steppe:

“For anyone who has never lived in the steppe, it is hard to understand how it is possible to exist surrounded by the wilderness on all sides.  But those who have lived here since time out of mind know how rich and variable the steppe is.  How multicoloured the sky above.  How fluid the air around.  How varied the plants.  How innumerable the animals in it and above it.  A dust storm can spring out of nowhere.  A yellow whirlwind can suddenly start twirling around the air in the distance in the same way that women spin camel wool into twine.  The entire, imponderable weight of that immense, heavy sky can suddenly whistle across the becalmed, submissive land.”
pp.45/6 (Peirene Press, 2014)

The weary traveller is treated to tales of the long trek to school (on a donkey); the harsh, snowy winters where the only way out of the house is through the window; the boy’s bravado when faced with wolves on the steppe.  Later, the two families that make up the small community experience the wonders of the outside world with the arrival of first radio, then television.  It’s a wonderful tale of the slow development of an isolated hamlet, and this alone would make for an interesting story.

More and more, though, something darker begins to cast its shadow across Yerzhan’s childhood.  The wide-open spaces contrast with the fenced-off, forbidden zone in the middle of the steppe – as nuclear testing becomes more frequent, there are rumbles across the land and dark, ominous clouds in the sky:

“The steppe appeared sombre, just like the faces of the people.  Leaden clouds swept across the sky without rain or snow.  Hollow clouds, neither resounding with thunder nor flashing with lightning.” (p.29)

Little do the people know the torment those clouds will eventually bring…

Yerzhan’s connection to the forbidden zone is his uncle, whose work leads him to spend time there.  It’s on a school trip to the zone (a propaganda visit to fill the children with national pride…) that the boy first sees the dead lake, a body of water straight out of Kazakh folklore, glittering in the sunlight:

“It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb.  A fairy-tale lake, right there in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water, reflecting the rare stray cloud.” (p.65)

Having been told the stories of the mythical dead lake as child, Yerzhan sees the water as a beautiful, deadly temptation.  Unfortunately, it’s one a teenager is unlikely to be able to resist.

The story, interesting in its own right, is enhanced by the way in which it is related by the traveller.  The calm, measured, detached style reflects the traveller’s distance from events, and in the final section, as the young man sleeps, the traveller fills the gaps in himself, wondering how Yerzhan’s story might end.  The reader is never quite sure what’s fact and what’s in the narrator’s mind; just as in another Peirene favourite, Next World Novella, the reader must be very careful to distinguish between the ‘real’ and imagined stories.

A word here on the publishers, who will be thrilled at having had a title longlisted for the IMG_5191fifth consecutive year (in fact, in all five years of their existence).  Peirene Press only publish three titles a year, all literary novellas, and their brand has obviously struck a chord with the various IFFP panels over the years.  It’s a fantastic achievement, one which should be acknowledged and celebrated a little more than it has been – well done to all involved :)

Returning to this book, the final scene sees Yerzhan leaving the train, allowing the traveller a glimpse of what the culmination of the young man’s story might be.  However, as is the case with the rest of the tale, it’s fairly ambiguous – the truth is that, like people passing through on a train, we’ll never know exactly what happened.  All we can say for certain is that in the race for military progress and supremacy, the casualties weren’t always brought about by the enemy; when you see the smoke rising above the steppe, it gives the expression ‘friendly fire’ a whole new meaning…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
This one was right on the cusp for me, one of several books vying for the final slots in my personal half-dozen.  As someone with a penchant for long, complex novels, novellas are always carrying a bit of a handicap into these prizes, but The Dead Lake, like most of the Peirene selections, deserved its place on the longlist – and possibly a little bit more ;)

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Not sure, really.  Having read the whole list, I would have predicted the judges would choose this one.  With Peirene having had so much success over the past few years, the judges obviously thought it was time to shine a light on other small presses, like And Other Stories and Pushkin Press, instead.  Good for them – but a shame for Peierene, Ismailov and Bromfield :(

Well, all train journeys come to an end at some point, and having crossed the steppes intact, it’s time to head back to… yes, you’ve guessed it – Germany.  In a slightly more urban story, we’ll be checking in with a rather unusual family, and we might even have time to catch a show.  Now, how does a date with a hypnotist sound?

‘The Last Lover’ by Can Xue (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 10)

IMG_2040While IFFP journeys do provide the odd trip into the unknown, for the most part we literary travellers find ourselves following well-worn paths, revisiting the wars of the twentieth century or experiencing yet another Bildungsroman, wherever it may be set.  However, just occasionally, the bus leaves the highway, and we find ourselves experiencing something a little different, a refreshing change from the usual fare.  Sometimes, when you have no idea where you’ve ended up, you might just find yourself in exactly the right place :)

The Last Lover by Can Xue – Yale University Press (translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen)
What’s it all about?
No idea.

Make an effort at least…
If you insist…

Joe is an average white-collar worker at a company manufacturing clothes for large businesses.  His wife, Maria, likes jewellery and spends her days weaving tapestries at home.  She has cats too:

“Joe couldn’t get used to Maria saying strange things, although she’d always had this habit.  Her strangeness had been passed on to the two African cats.  Not long before, the brown-striped female had even bitten their son.”
p.8 (Yale University Press, 2014)

Joe’s boss, Vincent, is having a bit of a mid-life crisis.  Vincent’s wife, Lisa, is frantic, chasing her husband all over town (and beyond).  Joe’s biggest client, Reagan, the owner of a gigantic, ever-expanding ranch somewhere in the south of a vaguely described, generic country, is going crazy, abandoning his responsibilities and chasing after Ida, an immigrant from an unnamed land in the east.  With me so far?

Imagine, then, a book in which these characters randomly move around, visiting places that may or may not exist, moving easily between dreams and reality (if there is such a thing), confusing daily life with events experienced while asleep, or while reading, a novel in which geography is merely a state of mind and where permanence is subjective.  That’s Can Xue’s The Last Lover for you.

Already, I can hear most of you heading for the door, and I’m not going to lie to you – many readers won’t enjoy this book (even on the esteemed literary institution that is the IFFP Shadow Panel, there are several people who couldn’t, or didn’t want to, get to grips with Can’s novel).  However, if you’re the kind of reader who is prepared to suspend their disbelief, one who devours Kafka for breakfast, a person who thinks Murakami would be a decent writer if only he were prepared to be a little less realistic once in a while, well then, step this way – The Last Lover may well be just the book for you :)

Still, the bizarre nature of the book makes analysing it problematic.  Unlike, say, Murakami, who usually provides a guide into his works in the shape of a sympathetic first-person narrator, Can throws us headlong into a world where everyone knows the rules and logic of existence – except us.  The characters will smile, then argue, proclaim their love for a partner then leave without a word; they’ll be desperate to get somewhere, then spend an hour reading a book instead.  The reader is handicapped by a lack of knowledge regarding the target culture, but safe in the knowledge that the only person who does have that knowledge is the writer herself.

However, if you look hard and long enough, several themes do emerge from beneath the dreamscape.  One of the major ideas explored is that of  partnership and relationships, particularly that of  Joe and Maria.  As the husband goes off on his business trips, and drifts in and out of his imaginary book world, the wife works his experiences into her tapestries, living her husband’s life vicariously in fabric.  While the couple appear to have little in common, living separate lives, in fact they are connected by something intangible, and the shared absences make their marriage stronger (yes, I realise that makes no sense).

Another of the main themes is an obsession with East and West, with the ‘western’ setting featuring several ‘eastern’ characters.  Many of the ‘western’ men, including Joe’s son, Daniel, are obsessed with Asian women, the prime example of this being the mysterious Arab or Asian woman, all dressed in black, who flits in and out of the story, turning the heads of all the men who encounter her.  As the book progresses (it rarely develops…), the setting actually moves into ‘Asia’, as Joe and Vincent attempt to understand where their lives are taking them – without success, naturally.

This also comes through in the focus on home and homelessness, with many of the characters being migrants.  People like Ida, who escaped from a terrible mudslide in her home country, and Kim, the enigmatic manager of Reagan’s estates, have settled in a new land without quite being able to settle down.  They feel a longing for home, unable to throw off the strangeness of the new, and with the bizarre world she’s created, the writer ensures that we feel the strangeness of a new world too.

There’s also an obvious focus on reading in the way that we experience a dream world stronger than reality.  After decades of reading, Joe has created a mental refuge every bit as detailed and colourful as the ‘real’ world, one which others are starting to take notice of.  Even Vincent has an interest in his employee’s actions:

“Originally he’d thought he was tracking down the Arab woman, but now he had entered Reagan’s demon-possessed realm.  He’d often heard people speak of intersecting dreamworlds.  At his own company Joe was involved in this shady kind of business and he was making experiments through reading.” (p.36)

Anyone who reads my blog will be well aware of the power of books and imagination – The Last Lover merely takes the idea that little bit further :)

It’s not just in the content, however, that The Last Lover is strange.  The bizarre effect of the story is heightened by the writing style, deliberately disjointed and off-putting, with a host of flat stock characters who share names and pop up in different places.  We’re also assaulted on every page by bizarre leaps of logic, sentences and paragraphs which have you looking around for clues to the meaning:

“A strange man walked out of the building.  Glancing back, Joe saw that the door to the basement was already shut.  Joe scanned the wall for signs of rain, but there were none.  Whose house was so like his own?” (p.222)

OK…  Perhaps a little context would help, you muse.  Believe me, it wouldn’t…

Even the grammatical structure of the writing  can add to the confusion.  There are many simple IMG_5189sentences, switching from one idea to the next with little logical sequence, and the writer frequently uses unfamiliar word order and unusual word choices.  Of course, this is where the translator (Annelise Finegan Wasmoen) comes in, and in a different book you’d be forgiven for doubting her work, suspecting clumsy word choices and mistranslations.  However, here the language is almost certainly deliberately off-kilter, and the decision to keep some of the Chinese onomatopoeic words (‘weng weng droning’, ‘ze ze tongue clicking’, sha sha rustle’) is also a good one, adding to the sense of estrangement.

In the end, it’s all deliberate, and there’s a method to the obvious madness:

“Continuing on, the depiction was an account of everyday life flowing like water.  Her neighbours were a few names not to be remembered, and, later on, even the name Hailin became vaguely intermingled with them, and the descriptions changed to cloudy water.  Also, he didn’t know what were the intentions of the book’s author, who suddenly dropped into a vulgar tone to start praising freedom.” (p.77)

Like the author of Joe’s fictional book, Can Xue has written her piece, and it’s up to us to interpret it as best we can.  In fact, if we’re looking for a way to sum up The Last Lover, perhaps Murakami, in 1Q84, sums it up best:

“If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation…”

One thing I can assure you of here – explanations are very thin on the ground ;)

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Obviously ;)

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
To be honest, I’m amazed it made the longlist…  This was always a book more suited to the American Best Translated Book Award (whose longlist it also made), and with the easy-reading focus of the IFFP, it was very surprising Can’s novel made it into the last fifteen.  For once, hats off to Tonkin and co. – but the shortlist was always likely to be a step too far.

Well, normal service has been resumed, and we’re leaving the world of dreams and make-believe behind to return to books more related to our daily lives.  Our next stop takes us out onto the Steppes of the former Soviet Union, where we’ll meet an unusual man who will tell us an unusual story.  A word of warning – swimming costumes are not required…

‘Dot & Anton’ by Erich Kästner (Review)

IMG_5186I’m a busy bunny at the moment, what with a new course having just begun at work (and the small matter of my IFFP reviewing, of course…), so it’s good that I have an assistant to help with some of my reviewing, even if I end up doing the bulk of the admin…

Without further ado, then, here’s Emily with another of her choices (a review copy sent by Pushkin Children’s Books), a classic of children’s literature available for Anglophone children to read for the first time :)

What’s the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called Dot & Anton and it’s by Erich Kästner (and it’s translated by Anthea Bell).

What’s it about?
It’s about a girl called Dot and a boy called Anton.  Dot’s family is very rich while Anton’s family could live two weeks on the price of the opera tickets that Dot’s parents bought.  Along with Dot’s governess, Dot and Anton sell matches and shoelaces on the bridge, so the governess can make enough money for her fiancé to take over Dot’s apartment!

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
I really liked it!  It was funny and a really good book.  The story was exciting, and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened.

What was your favourite part?
My favourite bit was when the maid, fat Berta, was dancing the tango with the policeman because it was really funny :)

I also liked the afterthoughts after each chapter.  One of them said:

“As I was writing that, I suddenly realized that this afterthought really ought to be read by grown-ups.  So next time there’s trouble at home, open the book at this page and give it to your parents to read, will you?  That never does anyone any harm.”
p.89 (Pushkin Children’s Books, 2015)

I think that was very funny :)  The introduction was good too.  It was named ‘This Introduction is as Short as Possible’ when it was really, really long!

Was it difficult to read?
Some bits were difficult, but I think I understood it all.

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
I think it would be a good book for boys and girls because it has two main characters, a boy and a girl, so it doesn’t really mean it has to be a boy book or a girl book because there are no boy and girl books.  It’s also very, very funny, and in the end everything is happy :)

Emily, thank you very much.

Emily seems to be a star in her own right now – the parcel that came to our house was addressed to her, not me, and contained a lovely personal note from our contact person at Pushkin (which pleased the little miss no end!).  The most interesting part of it all, though, was what Emily said when she saw the book:

“As soon as I opened the package, I knew it was going to be a good book because the cover was like the other ones.”

Which is something I’m sure Pushkin will be very happy to hear :)

This actually touches on something I was discussing on Twitter a while back about book branding (a discussion in which Pushkin was heavily prominent).  Pushkin have always had a strong brand, in terms of both the kind of book they publish and the look of those books, and we were wondering whether that was holding up with the greater range and variety of titles offered since the change of ownership.

That’s a question for another time, but what Emily said here was very interesting.  She was referring to the other Kästner books she’d read, and Annie M.G. Schmidt’s novel The Cat Who Came in off the Roof, all of which had the same style of cover (from the same designer).  Very quickly, Emily has recognised it as a brand, a guarantee of quality reading (for her, at least), and I’m sure she’s very keen to see more of these chapter books, aimed at the same kind of reader.  I know that these books have taken pride of place on her own personal bookshelves :)

Once again, Kästner’s delightful story has been translated by Anthea Bell (another guarantee of quality) and accompanied by Walter Trier’s classic illustrations.  I’ve only flicked through it, but the style is similar to the other two we’ve seen, particularly in the light-hearted tone and the way in which the writer frequently breaches the fourth wall (as Emily mentioned above).  It’s a style that draws you in, right from the first page:

‘What was I going to say just now?  Oh yes, I remember.  The story that I’m about to tell you this time is extremely odd.  It is odd because first, well, it just is odd, and second it really happened.  It was in the newspaper about six months ago.  Aha, you’re thinking as you whistle through your teeth, Kästner’s stolen someone else’s story!
     But he hasn’t.” (p.7)

It’s a start that’s guaranteed to have you wanting to know more :)

Hopefully, Emily and I have whetted your (or your children’s) appetite for this one.  Thanks again to Pushkin for making this available – let’s just hope that there are more of the same on the horizon soon.

And don’t forget what we said about the covers!

IFFP 2015 – Two Shortlists (and more besides…)

IMG_2040As regular readers will no doubt be aware, the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced earlier this week, with six books remaining from the fifteen longlisted selections.  Before that, though, the intrepid members of the Shadow Panel had also whittled down the choices to an even half-dozen (although, of course, we were dealing with sixteen of the best…).  Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the American equivalent, the Best Translated Book Award, was just getting started, with a twenty-five-strong quality-packed longlist.  But let’s leave that for later – back to the IFFP…

The official shortlist saw most of the obvious also-rans leave the field, but I wouldn’t say that the final six were all obvious choices.  Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days was a given, and the Murakami was always likely to attract a lot of love.  It was also great to see indie publishers well represented.  By Night the Mountain Burns is now both the first long- and short-listed book for And Other Stories while the inclusion of In the Beginning Was the Sea and While the Gods Were Sleeping meant Pushkin Press were the only publishers with two shortlisted titles.  The only one of the six I wasn’t too impressed with was Daniel Kehlmann’s F – it’s certainly got its backers, but I’m not one of them (as you’ll see when my review is eventually posted…).

It will come as no surprise that there was little overlap with the Shadow Panel’s selections; in IMG_5187fact, only the Erpenbeck and Murakami titles appeared on both lists.  The alternative shortlist was rounded out by Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake (yet another Peirene Press title we thought worthy of progression), Marcello Fois’ Bloodlines (an excellent story of a Sardinian family’s tribulations through time), Tomas Bannerhed’s wonderful debut novel The Ravens (describing a young boy’s childhood and his father’s struggles with depression) and…

a0a94-img_5135Mathias Énard‘s Zone!  Having called in this book, we were always likely to move it on to the shortlist, but it’s not only Stu and myself who have enjoyed it.  All the other shadow judges who have tried it so far have agreed with us – I wonder why the ‘real judges’ didn’t…

Once again, I much prefer our list to the official one (even if, personally, I’d have loved us to select the Erwin Mortier book), but this year has given us more of an insight into the nature of prize judging.  With a record eleven bloggers shadowing the prize, things have gone very differently this year, and where in the past one or two people have had a disproportionate influence over proceedings, this time around we’ve all had to be content to see books we loved fall by the wayside (Joe has touched upon this in his round-up of the Shadow proceedings).

Which is not to say that we sympathise with the real judges completely…  At the Booktrust site, the panel chair, Boyd Tonkin, wrote:

“I’m delighted by the diversity, the originality and the reader-friendly accessibility of this year’s shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.”

Now that’s a comment which gave us all pause for thought – is ‘reader-friendly accessibility’ really what we’re striving for here?  Immediately, memories of the great Booker controversy come swimming back, a storm in a teacup which ended up spawning the Folio Prize in its wake.  Of course, for lovers of fiction in translation, if it’s a more serious approach you want, you only have to switch your focus across the pond…

All of which brings me to the BTBA longlist – not quite as large as the notorious IMPAC Prize BTBAselection, but still pretty lengthy ;)  The initial impression for me, having concentrated on the IFFP list for so long, was the rather surprising omission of The End of Days, a book with a writer, a translator (Susan Bernofsky) and a publisher (New Directions) made for these events.  Still, even without that novel (and a couple of other hot tips), the eventual longlist was still a fascinating one.

I won’t go through the whole list here (please click through to the official page for that), but it’s full of great books, many of which were already on my radar.  I’ve read five so far (Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s Paris and Can Xue’s The Last Lover), and I’m hoping to get to Énard‘s Street of Thieves very soon too.  The list has a fascinating mix of titles, and it just goes to show that when your aim is to choose the best piece of fiction in translation available, and when you go out of your way to consider books (and, of course, when ‘reader-friendly accessibility’ is not really a priority…), you actually can come up with a decent longlist.  I hope the appropriate people are listening…

So, after much rambling, it’s time to get back to work, reading and reviewing, hoping to stumble across another gem of fiction in translation.  Having finished all the IFFP books now, I just need to finish off the reviews before it’s time to start discussing the winner (and I might even find the time to partially reread a couple of the titles).  It’s not easy, this panel lark, but it can be rewarding too…

…well, as long as you do it the right way, that is ;)

‘The Neck of the Giraffe’ by Judith Schalansky (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 9)

IMG_2040It’s time for our third IFFP-related stop in Germany, and this time we’re taking the scenic route.  We’re paying a brief visit to a town somewhere in the former GDR, where we’ll make the acquaintance of a teacher, one you’ll be very glad you never had as a youngster. Pay attention at the back, there – I’ll be testing you on this later…

The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky – Bloomsbury (translated by Shaun Whiteside)
What’s it all about?
Inge Lohmark is a biology teacher, and a woman who really believes in natural selection.  It’s the start of the school year, and as she casts her eye over the specimens she’s been allotted this time around, she soon classifies them, distinguishing between the possibles and the lost causes.  While Inge is an effective teacher, of both biology and physical education, hers are not classes anyone looks forward to.

However, the times are changing.  The Charles Darwin Grammar School (seriously…) has been bleeding students for quite some time, and the threat of closure is ever-present.  As the teachers reluctantly begin to consider alternatives, the zealous headmaster hints to Inge that she should work on her classroom manner – and perhaps start looking for other jobs too.  For a woman like Inge, though, change is not really an option, and so the biology teacher finds herself facing an uncertain future, one in which she is not among those fittest that always manage to survive…

This one is a book I’d heard mentioned many times as Schalansky is an up-and-coming writer on the German literary scene.  It’s been promoted in various places (such as New Books in German), and it’s definitely got something.  The Giraffe’s Neck is single-minded in its focus on its main character, creating a slightly claustrophobic story where we only have the teacher’s words to tell us what’s going on.

Inge is an excellent creation, a woman who is nasty without really wanting to be.  In this, she’s the epitome of the East German teacher, living by the maxim ‘be cruel to be kind':

“Her colleagues simply didn’t understand that they were just damaging their own health by showing any interest in their pupils.  After all, they were nothing but bloodsuckers who drained you of all your vital energy.”
p.3 (Bloomsbury, 2014)

Not for Inge the joys of developing a close relationship with her class – she’s most certainly not the touchy-feely type.

However, as the story develops, we sense there’s more to her than her iron classroom IMG_5188discipline.  There are hints that she’s entering menopause and the issue of her distant relationship with her partner (an odd, absent type, obsessed by ostriches…), not to mention the growing realisation that she may be over the hill pedagogically.  The biggest problem, though, is her daughter Claudia over in the USA.  We sense that there’s a reason Lohmark junior is living thousands of miles away from home…

The Giraffe’s Neck, while centred on Inge, is also a book which reflects the environment it’s set in.  It takes place in the East, in a small town of fading glories.  The area is dying, with young people moving away as soon as possible, leaving a hollow shell behind:

“Besides, the city, or what was left of it, was slipping into its midday sleep, quiet and unreal, like everything abandoned by human beings.  People used to warn of the danger of overpopulation.  Since then there must have been a few billion more on the planet.  No sign of that here, though.” (p.56)

While some of the older folk (like one of Inge’s colleagues) still believe in the virtues of communism, it’s a lost cause, and the town (and many of the people) have found themselves on the wrong side of history.  It remains to be seen whether Inge can extract herself from her past before it’s too late.

Schalansky’s book features yet another excellent translation, this time by Shaun Whiteside (the one real highlight of this year’s IFFP is that there have been many good translations – which hasn’t always been the case in the past).  It has a very tightly controlled style and voice, giving Inge a clear, defined personality, owing in part to the short, spiky sentences and fragments Schalansky and Whiteside have chosen to use.  Having said that, these fragments won’t be to everyone’s taste – I can imagine some readers getting tired of the style, especially when little is happening in the plot…

On the whole, though, The Giraffe’s Neck is an intriguing read, and the story is all pulled together nicely in the final few pages.  I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say that there’s no happy ending here – this is a story with a rather pessimistic view of the world:

“We dragged the past around with us.  It made us what we were, and we had to deal with it.  Life wasn’t a struggle, it was a burden, you had to bear it.  As best you could.  A task to perform from the first drawn breath.  As a human being you were always at work.  You never died of an illness, only ever of the past.  A past that had not prepared us for this present” (p.188)

Sadly, Inge can’t get over her past – she’s doomed to, if not extinction, then an ignominious retirement…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, I don’t think so, not quite.  There’s a lot to like here, but I wouldn’t put it in my top six.  For one thing, I’m not a huge fan of short, fragmented sentences, which makes this unlikely to appeal overly.  There’s also a bit of a lull in the second half, which doesn’t really pick up again until the last few pages.  Definitely an interesting book, but not one of the best ones this year.

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Schalansky v Erpenbeck = no contest here, at least for these two books.  Schalansky v Kehlmann, though…

Bidding Germany (temporarily) farewell again, we find ourselves heading east – or is it west?  A country that seems familiar, yet strangely odd – a voyage through books and dreams.  Strap yourselves in – this will be no ordinary journey…

IFFP 2015 – The Shadow Shortlist!

IMG_2040As you will undoubtedly have noticed, a group of hardy literary explorers (including myself) have been slogging their way around the world, experiencing all the delights that this year’s crop of Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlistees have to offer.  While not all of us have managed to visit all the locations so far, we have managed to get enough of an overview to be able to cut the original list down to six finalists – and when I say the original list, of course, I’m including the book we called in after it was inexplicably rejected by the ‘real’ judges ;)

So, enough waffling – who made the (Shadow) grade in 2015?

The shortlisted choices of the 2015 IFFP Shadow Panel are (links are to my reviews):

Bloodlines by Marcello Fois
(tr. Silvester Mazzarella)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
(tr. Philip Gabriel)
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov
(tr. Andrew Bromfield)
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
(tr. Susan Bernofsky)
The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed
(tr. Sarah Death)
Zone by Mathias Énard
(tr. Charlotte Mandell)

So, there you have it – for better or for worse, those are the selections of the eleven-strong Shadow Panel.  Very soon, you’ll be able to compare it with the real thing – which half-dozen books will be more to your liking?

That’s not the end of the journey, though.  Over the next month or so, we’ll be publishing reviews, revisiting some of the books and putting our heads together to come up with the eventual winner.  Drop in when you can to see how the journey unfolds – whether the ending is happy or otherwise, it’s sure to be a memorable experience ;)

‘Life of a Counterfeiter’ by Yasushi Inoue (Review)

IMG_5181When Pushkin Press decided to venture into Japanese literature, their first author of choice, Ryu Murakami, was already fairly well known in the Anglosphere.  However, their second major Japanese writer, Yasushi Inoue, though previously translated, did not have the same kind of reputation in the West, and for most people the Pushkin books represent their first encounter with a major Japanese author.  Bullfight and The Hunting Gun have already been rather successful – I wonder how the latest in the series will fare…

Life of a Counterfeiter (translated by Michael Emmerich, review copy courtesy of the publisher) contains the titular novella along with two short stories, ‘Reeds’ and ‘Mr. Goodall’s Gloves’.  The three pieces fit well together, with each relating stories about the life of an acquaintance, all told in Inoue’s (and Emmerich’s) usual, casual style, and taken as a whole, they provide an interesting perspective on how our view of those we know can be altered by a little digging into the past.

The main show here is, of course, ‘Life of a Counterfeiter’, and for anyone who has read The Hunting Gun, the first page immediately pulls the reader back into the writer’s comfortable, semi-formal world.  When invited to attend a memorial service for a famous artist, one whose biography he has put off writing for far too long, the narrator of the piece is unwilling to make the trip:

“I must admit I was somewhat diffident about presenting myself to the family.  For better or worse, work would make it impossible for me to participate in the ceremony anyway, but in all honesty it came as a relief that this was the case – I felt as if I had been saved.”
‘Life of a Counterfeiter’, p.11 (Pushkin Press, 2015)

What follows this Inouean example of tentative statements and long clauses is an explanation as to why the writer has put off his work, and a gradual shift of emphasis from the artist to one of his former friends, a man whose life turns out to be much more intriguing than the writer could have imagined.

In the course of a trip to examine Ōnuki Keigaku’s work, the writer discovers that many of the paintings attributed to him, in one particular Japanese coastal area at least, are actually skilful fakes.  A former friend of the painter, a man going under the name of Shinozaki, sold the paintings to unwitting art lovers, an action which leads to a confrontation and the end of the friendship.  However, the narrator believes there’s more to the story than he’s been told, and his enquiries lead him to an isolated village – and a rather sad story…

‘Life of a Counterfeiter’ is a beautiful tale, like the others in this collection a story within a story, in which Inoue gradually sketches out the descent of a talented man into obscurity and death.  As the novella develops, the shadowy image of the counterfeiter appears in greater detail, each piece of information allowing the writer (and the reader) to see Shinozaki – or Hara Hōsen, to give him his real name – in a different light.  Overshadowed by the more talented, and more successful, Ōnuki, Hōsen is unable to resist the temptation to imitate his friend in order to make some money, a decision which is to prove his downfall.

What follows is a wonderful depiction of his decline, with Inoue drawing a sympathetic picture of a man whose talents could have brought him a comfortable, if unspectacular, existence.  The tragedy of the story is that the paintings he copies, while inferior to Ōnuki’s in many ways, do have their own qualities, a fact which is not lost on the narrator.  It poses the question of what we mean by a fake – when a copy is a decent work of art in its own right, does it deserve a life of its own?

The companion pieces in this collection are much shorter stories, but both continue the themes of lives lived in obscurity being remembered, secrets of the past finally coming to light.  In ‘Reeds’, a newspaper article about a father looking for his lost son nudges the writer into reflecting on events from his past.  One thing leads to another, and he soon comes across a childhood memory which doesn’t make sense – until he pursues it to find out who the young woman in his memory is.

‘Mr. Goodall’s Gloves’, another meandering journey into the past, has a further Proustian moment, as a chance encounter with a piece of calligraphy has the narrator thinking back to his grandfather’s mistress, a woman he lived with in his childhood.  A woman who had to fight hard for her position in society, the mistress treasured a pair of gloves she received from an English gentleman at a function in Tokyo.  However, it’s only now, decades later, that the narrator is able to uncover the true significance of the gloves, realising that they are a symbol of the woman’s struggle for acceptance.

All three stories are excellent, and Emmerich’s translation is, again, wonderfully done, creating a voice which, while perhaps straying from the sentence structure of the original, brings across the intention of Inoue’s narrators.  The end effect is a slightly nostalgic air, with the narrators (figures who are inevitably closely connected to Inoue himself) displaying a new-found sympathy for the people whose true nature is revealed by the careful excavation of historical facts over the course of the stories.  All three of the main characters are shown to be slightly flawed, but none are quite as they were seen by their contemporaries.  As Hōsen’s widow explains:

“It’s not that he was a bad man, he was just born to live an unhappy life.” (p.65)

It’s a description which could just as easily be applied to the later stories’ female protagonists too…

The third of Pushkin’s Inoue books is another success, then, and with the completion of this ‘traffic-light’ trilogy (with their distinct red, green and amber covers), here’s hoping that the publishers, and the translator, are planning to mine deeper into the writer’s collected works.  Having brought Stefan Zweig back into the consciousness of the wider Anglophone community, there’s every chance that Pushkin is planning to do the same for Inoue.  Here’s one reader, at least, with his fingers firmly crossed :)