‘The Tale of Genji’ by Murasaki Shikibu (Review – Part Two)

IMG_5249Yesterday, I started my review of The Tale of Genji, but it turned out be a little long for one post (great for an undergraduate essay, though!).  Let’s continue today, then, with some more ramblings on Japan’s most famous literary work, focusing on some of the similarities and differences between today and the Heian period, and a celebration of the work of the translator – shall we?

*****
For the modern (Western) reader, part of the beauty of The Tale of Genji lies in its otherness.  It was actually a historical novel in its own time, set mostly in the tenth century (and written towards the start of the eleventh) and was very much a tale of the upper echelons of society.  The book abounds in detailed descriptions of ceremonies, music, wine and arranged marriages, with frequent presentations of gifts of robes and cloth to visitors and messengers whenever they arrive with love poems or summons to the court (the former being far more common than the latter…).

It’s a work which is alien in many ways, mainly due to the vast gulf in both time and space separating the text from the modern Anglophone reader.  With no medical knowledge to speak of, healers were reduced to performing prayers for the sick, with rich benefactors commissioning teams of monks to chant healing sutras.  The women who inspired such lust in the testosterone-fuelled nobility rarely appeared in daylight, being mostly hidden behind blinds, shutters and curtains, meaning that the more adventurous of the men would take risks just for a glimpse of a comely silhouette outlined against a thin veil.

However, not everything in Genji’s world was totally foreign – many of the preoccupations of the time are still important today.  Another of the main themes of the novel is the political jockeying for position which went on in the capital, the division into ‘left’ and ‘right’ echoing the state of  politics today:

“All the past examples he knew suggested that those who rose to dizzying heights when young do not endure.  In this reign his rank and fame had risen beyond his merit.  Yes, he had outlived the annihilation of his painful fall, but he still doubted that his glory would last.” (p.330)

Politics, then as much as now, was a very dangerous game to play, and Genji, while powerful, also has some fairly influential enemies at court.

Another similarity with modern times is that of love and courtship, with the families of beautiful young women determined to catch the eye of well-connected young men (single, in possession of a good fortune…).  While we may think our society has moved beyond that, we might just be kidding ourselves.  I’m sure many students at the University of St. Andrews were hoping to bump shoulders (or more) with the future British monarch, and even back in Japan, the majority of women taking tennis lessons in the 1980s for the first time had an ulterior motive…

Sadly, another similarity with modern life is the gender imbalance, and The Tale of Genji could easily be (and probably has been) read as a story of the plight of women, a case-study of a sex of second-class citizens:

“A woman should feign ignorance of what she knows and, when she wants to speak on a subject, leave some things out.” (p.35)

The above quotation comes from a conversation early in the book in which some men are complaining about women with learning (who put them in difficulties by having the temerity to be better at Chinese poetry than their pursuers…).  The men get to swagger around pretending to be important while the women are left to hang around mending clothes and chatting, replying to notes and pining for lovers (or avoiding them…)

The men of the novel, on the other hand, are prone to stalking their prey, pushing their way behind curtains, maddened with lust.  Sadly, the women’s reputation is thus shattered, even if they didn’t invite the men in.  For many of the women who attract the attention of these overgrown boys, there’s a stark choice between surrendering their body or pursuing the life of a nun (although even this is not always sufficient protection).  One of the most annoying aspects of the novel is the sickening whingeing of the men when women fail to relent and sleep with them, their constant laments of the women’s ‘cruelty’ ringing hollow when contrasted with their subsequent behaviour; in truth, they’re just spoiled boys who can’t play with their toys…

*****
While, I’ve already said far, far too much about the book, it would be remiss of me to finish without a mention of the translation.  You see, this is not just Genji, this is the Tyler Genji, and Royall Tyler has done a fantastic job.  In addition to translating the main text, Tyler has also done sterling work in his translations of the poems which pepper the text, an integral part of the story.  When you also consider the footnotes, the lengthy introduction, the maps, the list of characters and the various other appendices provided, you’ll realise what a huge undertaking this is.  In addition, this isn’t just an everyday translation from Japanese; the language of
the original Genji was an old form of Japanese with little connection to the present variety.  It’s a little like translating a text from Old English – written in hieroglyphics ;)

There’s no time here for a long comparison, but I did borrow the Edward Seidensticker version from the local library, and having had a flick through various passages, for me, there is no comparison between the two versions.  The Seidensticker Genji is an easier read, but that’s all it has going for it – the Tyler version has adopted a much more impressive tone, more worthy of the subject matter.  This is especially true in the poetry where Tyler has adopted a syllable-based style mirroring the original.  Seidensticker’s poems are supposedly closer to the original ideas, but appear a little less poetic, more Homerian than Heian.  As always, though, I’m sure there’ll be dissenters out there, and I’d love to hear from the Seidensticker (or Waley) adherents :)

Let’s not forget, though, whose achievement this really is, even if the woman behind the book is still somewhat of a mystery.  Not a great deal is known about her life, and Murasaki Shikibu isn’t even her real name (Shikibu is a title of office of one of her male relatives, while the name Murasaki is taken from her main female creation).  She’s a mystery in many ways, yet a great writer who left us this epic book…

…and it is an epic, a challenging, wonderfully absorbing novel.  The Tale of Genji is not a story to read and forget, but rather a book to reread and rediscover, a work to accompany us throughout our lives.  As the reader develops, so too does their understanding of Genji and his companions, and I’m sure that each reread will be a slightly different experience.  Yes, it’s a lengthy tale, one which demands a lot from the reader.  However, it’s definitely worth the effort, and I look forward to the next time I travel back to the era of Genji and his friends :)

‘The Tale of Genji’ by Murasaki Shikibu (Review – Part One)

IMG_5249There are big books, and there are BIG books.  Today’s choice is a BIG book, not just in size and weight, but in history, importance and (most importantly) enjoyment, and it’s one I’ve been meaning to get around to for far too long now.  It’s time to take a trip back into history, winding the clocks back a thousand years or so.  The language is different, the manners are foreign and the way people spend their days doesn’t quite fit in with today’s lifestyle.  One thing hasn’t changed though – boys will still be boys…

*****
The Tale of Genji (translated by Royall Tyler), written at the start of the eleventh century by a lady living somewhere in the royal court (later given the name of Murasaki Shikibu), is undoubtedly one of the classics of world literature.  A long, long time ago in a galaxy country far, far away, the Emperor was borne a son by one of his junior wives.  Despite his preference for the wife, and the son, power struggles in the court meant that he would never be able to leave the throne to his latest child.  Instead, the child became a ‘commoner’, and ‘Hikaru Genji’, as the child was quickly dubbed, grew up outside the royal family, but still in a life of luxury.

Genji also had a gift of good looks, and boy did he use them.  This was an age when men of high standing were permitted to, nay encouraged to, explore the availability of the opposite sex, and when it came to exploring, none were as adventurous as the shining one.  However, after years of amorous conquests, he settles on one young lady (if not for the most romantic of reasons), and what follows is somewhat unexpected given the events of the first part of the book – a true love story…

*****
I’m sure many readers will be a little puzzled by my tongue-in-cheek summary of the novel, but (as anyone who’s read the book will know), that is definitely one way of introducing The Tale of Genji.  The problem is that there are so many other aspects to the novel that one measly blog post, no matter how in depth it might be, could never really hope to do more than scratch the surface.  This is a book which on its own can represent a nation’s literary, if not cultural, past – just mention the word ‘Genji’, and you’ve already evoked more than a thousand years of history…

But what’s it really about?  Well, it’s an epic novel (in my version, 1120 pages) encompassing  the traditional 54 chapters, the content of which is, well, pretty much what I described above.  The first half of the book, especially, is all about Genji and his many, many women:

“He had feared that Genji’s looks might suffer once his hair was put up, at least while he remained so young, but not at all: he only looked more devastatingly handsome than ever.”
p.16 (Penguin Classics, 2003)

Rich, handsome, cultured, nice-smelling – oh, and permitted by the prevailing culture to basically assault any woman who takes his fancy -, this is a recipe for disaster, particularly for the reputation of any beautiful woman in the vicinity of the palace.  I won’t lie – there are parts of the book which can make for rather uncomfortable reading…

If this is how the book continued ad nauseam, it wouldn’t be the classic it is, though.  The truth is that The Tale of Genji is a book which gives itself the scope to examine a man’s life in detail.  It really is the tale of Genji, as we follow him all through his life.  The way in which the child becomes an adolescent, then a young man, then a leader of the realm and finally an old man wishing only for the tranquility of a temple in the mountains allows us to forget (some of) his early transgressions.  In fact, while in his youth he pursues many women, he cares for them all in his own way, and even does his best to help those forgotten by others when their beauty begins to fade.  He also mellows with age (somewhat..), even if sparks of the old flame surface from time to time:

“Despite himself he could not help seeing that that old habit of his, to suffer agonies for impossible desires, was with him still.  This was beneath him.  Not that he had not done far worse, but he reminded himself on the subject of his early escapades that the gods and buddhas must have forgiven errors committed in his thoughtless youth, and that thought reminded him how much better he now understood the perils of this path.” (p.360)

This is a book which explores a man’s character, his strengths and, especially, his weaknesses – which, having got to know him, we can (mostly) forgive.

*****
The more I read of the book, the more I thought of another writer who used his work to follow the life of a man, a certain Anthony Trollope.  No, wait, I’m going somewhere with this…  Anyone who has read the Palliser novels will know that while the main topic appears to be British politics, the overarching theme of the series is an examination of the life and character of one character.  Plantagenet Palliser is a man born for great things, even if he didn’t really want them, and while Genji and Palliser are rather different in character (the Englishman is a born worker where his Japanese counterpart is much more of a dreamer), they are connected by their inability to escape their birthright.  The truth is that both the Duke and His Grace would turn their backs on the world if they could.

Surely their love lives are very different, though?  Superficially, yes, but if we look deeper, there are similarities between their great loves.  Murasaki and Glencora are both young women forced into marriage with an older man (in Murasaki’s case, through immense and distasteful trickery) and both feel abandoned throughout the work (one for other women, one for politics).  However, as the books develop, the two women come to love their husbands, and both are loved deeply, in turn, by the men; when the inevitable, tragic, early end arrives, the men are inconsolable.  Drawing a long bow?  Perhaps – the Genji-Palliser parallel was one which I had in mind constantly while reading The Tale of Genji, though…

*****
With the overwhelming charisma and presence of His Grace, one of the surprises about The Tale of Genji is the fact that the main man himself doesn’t make it to the end.  Murasaki passes away around two-thirds of the way through, and her husband doesn’t survive her by much (his passing is marked, poignantly, by an empty, unnumbered chapter entitled ‘Vanished into the Clouds’).  After his death, there are a few, bumbling, connecting chapters before the start of a new narrative, one in which the next generation comes to the fore in the shape of Genji’s grandson, Niou, and His Grace’s supposed son, Kaoru.

This last third of the novel has two main purposes.  The first is to continue the rivalry between the two (dead) friends and protagonists from the main part of the novel, Genji and Tō no Chūjō.  While it may seem that the young men are both of Genji stock, the truth is that they’re not – and blood, as always, will out.  You see, in matters of the heart, Genji was always a step ahead of his contemporary ;)

The second theme of this last part of the book is the comparison it engenders with the original story, and its inevitable lack of the gloss of the earlier story.  It’s true that Niou and Kaoru are handsome, virile men, intelligent and cultured, their robes exuding the subtle fragrances of incense.  However, when set next to Genji and his generation, they are merely young boys, copies of the original.  In many ways, the continuation of the story merely serves to confirm to the reader (and listener) how times have changed for the worse – the good old days really were better.  Plus ça change…

*****
And that’s as far as we’re going today –  I’ve got more to say, just not here.  Tomorrow, in the second half of my ramblings, I’ll be looking at past and present, gender inequality and the wonders of translation – do join me ;)

‘Fuzz McFlops’ by Eva Furnari (Review)

IMG_5253As readers of my blog, you’re all very keen on books, that much is certain, and I suspect that many of you will have a soft spot for rabbits too (just a feeling I have!).  That being the case, today Emily introduces a book, courtesy of the kind people at Pushkin Children’s Books, that might well take your fancy.  It’s a tale featuring bunnies, floppy ears and a touch of romance – what’s not to like?  Without further ado, here’s Emily to tell you about the most literary rabbit in the western hemisphere :)

*****
What’s the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called Fuzz McFlops and it’s by Eva Furnari (and it’s translated by Alison Entrekin).

What’s it about?
It’s about an old bunny called Fuzz McFlops who had one ear shorter than the other.  He wrote sad poems and stories like Birds in a Cage and The Withered Carrot because he was always grumpy and upset.  And then one day he received a letter from Charlotte – she did not appreciate his sad poems and tried to write them happier.  At first, Fuzz is shocked that she had the courage to change his poems, but soon he grows used to these letters and is anxious to meet her.

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
I liked it mostly, especially the song Ears.  Fuzz looks quite funny and as well as one big ear, he has one big eye!

What was your favourite part?
My favourite part (apart from the end) was when Fuzz met Charlotte because they wrote the song together :)

Was it difficult to read?
No, it wasn’t difficult to read.

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
I would recommend this book to people who like bunnies, rabbits (not guinea pigs) and poems.  Also, this is a book for anyone with different ears!

Emily, thank you very much.

*****
I wasn’t overly convinced that Emily would be into this one (despite the presence of the bunnies).  Fuzz McFlops isn’t the longest of tales, and it doesn’t have an involved plot like many of the books she enjoys.  Happily, though, she seemed to enjoy it, getting on board with the story of the two lovestruck rabbits :)

It’s an interesting tale, a story of embracing your differences.  You see, Fuzz, despite his literary success, is one sad bunny:

“My name is Fuzz.  I am a poet and a writer.  I am a loner and don’t like to leave my burrow.  When I was young, I had a hard time because one of my ears was shorter than the other.  My classmates always made fun of me…”
p.9 (Pushkin Children’s Books, 2015)

Poor Flops needs to be dragged out of the shell he’s built to protect himself from the taunts of the outside world, and Charlotte proves to be the key to drawing him out.  It’s a clever take on the topic of difference for children, showing the reader that’s it’s our unique features which make us special.

This is also a very visual book.  The story is accompanied (and surrounded) by pictures, with asides in the form of songs, poems and instructions – there’s also a lengthy post-script which looks at the use of text types.  All of these features, text and illustrations, come courtesy of the writer, obviously a multi-talented person :)

Once again (and I make no apologies for mentioning this repeatedly in these posts), Pushkin have commissioned  a great translator, treating their children’s fiction as seriously as their adult books.  Alison Entrekin has translated, amongst other works, Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, Chico Buarque’s Budapest and Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue  – and it turns out that she’s yet another of those translators I never realised were Australian!  She’s rendered the story of Fuzz in a simple style, one which encaptures the sadness (and nervousness) of the courting bunny nicely :)

Fuzz McFlops is another fun, short read, and (most importantly) a book which receives Emily’s tick of approval.  Having polished this one off, she’s already checking the letter box, hoping to get more treats from overseas.  I do wonder what’s up next for my little reviewer… ;)

‘Hollow Heart’ by Viola Di Grado (Review)

IMG_5243Italian?  Yep.
Female?  Uh-huh.
Published by Europa Editions?  That’s right.
Frantic, sweeping, emotion-laden writing?  Correct.
New book out in English in 2015?  Absolutely.
Elena Ferrante?  Nope…

*****
If you believed Ferrante was the only female Italian author in town, think again – today’s post looks at another great writer, a name you might be hearing more about in the future.  Viola Di Grado’s debut novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, was published by Europa Editions a couple of years back to a fair bit of praise from online reviewers, even if it didn’t receive a lot of publicity in mainstream outlets.  Hopefully, this time around she’ll get a little more attention – it’s certainly a book that merits it.

Hollow Heart (translated by Antony Shugaar, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is just as strongly written as its predecessor, taking the black, manic tone of the earlier book and pushing it into a new territory – beyond the grave.  The novel begins with an end as Dorotea Giglio is introduced to the reader in dramatic fashion:

“In 2011, the world ended: I killed myself.”
p.11 (Europa Editions, 2015)

From here, you’d expect the book to backtrack and explain how she got to this point, and it does to some extent.  However, Dorotea is not a woman to let death get in her way, and the main focus of Hollow Heart is on what happens next, with the writer examining the topic of life after death, both above and below ground…

Anyone who has read Di Grados’ first novel will feel at home here in her dark story of an underworld which spends much of its time above the surface.  The first part, especially, contains breathless writing, aggressive, sweeping and angry – Dorotea’s voice is sardonic and biting, and wonderful throwaway lines abound:

“At the supermarket across the street I bought red plastic plates, red forks, red party cups, a bottle of cheap spumante, a frozen paella, and a bag of single-blade disposable razors.  There was a two-for-one sale, but I thought one death would be enough for me.” (pp.20/1)

This beginning of the book is a maelstrom of passionate outrage as the young woman attempts to come to terms with her life – and death.

Gradually, we are told how and why she got to this point, with a failed relationship and long-term depression pushing her towards an early grave.  It’s only later, though, that we learn (and see) that the mental illness she faced (and faces) is a family affair:

She went to bed.  I lay down next to her.  She turned over on her side, one hand under her right cheek.  I turned over on my side, one hand under my right cheek.
     Two hours later the phone rang.
     “Ciao, sweetheart, it’s Aunt Clara, can I talk to your mama?”
     “Ciao.  No, you can’t, she’s sleeping.”
     “Why didn’t you go to school today?”
     “I have to stay here to make sure Mama doesn’t die.”
     She decided to come over.  (p.43)

With a mother struggling to cope, Dorotea is forced to grow up quickly, and while she makes it to her mid-twenties, it’s a wonder that her departure didn’t happen earlier.

While Hollow Heart does explore Dorotea’s life, it’s her death that is the main focus of the novel, as she discovers that life really does go on.  She eventually becomes a part of a community of spirits, meeting more people and welcoming the recently departed to their new world (even if suicides are the social outcasts of the afterlife…).

The idea of life after death may be a cheering one, but in Di Grado’s mind it’s not as good as it sounds.  There’s nothing to do as you’re unable to feel – death is merely a continuation of life where you have become invisible to the living, ghosts consigned to the past:

“Here’s the worst thing about death: the inherent racism of the human language.  While the living gorge themselves on the present indicative, all we can hope for are moldy leftovers of the past tense.  If you want even the tiniest helping of a verb in the present tense, you must necessarily have the obscene badge of a beating heart pinned to your chest.” (p.75)

The only comfort is to be found in watching the living and taking vicarious pleasure in their miserable struggles…

…or in watching yourself…  You see, while the spirit remains, the body does not, and Dorotea takes great pleasure in observing the slow, steady decay of her earthly remains (deciding to keep a dispassionate – and somewhat disturbing – diary of her return to the earth).  It’s not only the body that decays, though.  As Dorotea’s mother grieves, the family house, too, falls slowly apart, adding to the filth and squalor pervading the book.

Hollow Heart is a heartbreaking story of the girl and then the woman, a poor soul tainted by her DNA, destined to kill herself, only to find that’s there’s more to come.  The book is very similar in many ways to Di Grado’s first novel, but perhaps even more depressing.  Where 70% Acrylic… maintains the rage throughout its long Leeds December, the initial anger and bile displayed in Hollow Heart slowly gives way to numbness.  In the end, Dorotea seems to (forgive the pun) give up the ghost…

Returning to my introduction, the Ferrante comparison may have been a little contrived, but there’s more linking the writers than gender, nationality and publisher.  Di Grado is from Catania in Sicily which, while further south than Naples, is still far away from the big, richer northern cities.  Both writers have examined difficult mother-daughter relationships in their works (compare Di Grado’s books with Ferrante’s Troubling Love or The Lost Daughter).  More importantly, though, both writers inject their work with emotion, their stories pushed along by anger and betrayal.  If you like Ferrante’s work (and many do), you could do worse than give her younger counterpart a try ;)

For me, Hollow Heart isn’t quite as good as 70% Acrylic 30 % Wool, but there’s no shame in that (I reread the earlier book after finishing this one and was blown away again).  With all the fuss about publishing female writers in the media recently, one of the areas overlooked was exactly who we should be reading.  Let me address that now – Ferrante is one, naturally, and Di Grado is certainly on that list too.  Off you go, then ;)

‘I Have the Right to Destroy Myself’ by Kim Young-ha (Review)

IMG_5237Recently, in my review of Your Republic is Calling You, I talked about how Kim Young-ha’s work, with some exceptions, hadn’t really hit the spot for me (and how his sometime collaborator, translator Chi-Young Kim, had so far impressed me even less…).  However, I’m nothing if not fair, and I was determined to give the pair one last chance, especially as the book I had in mind was one I’d had my eye on for quite some time.  So, was this to be the pair’s finest hour, or would it be another disappointment?  Let’s find out…

*****
I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is a novella set in mid-90s Seoul, a story in which a shadowy narrator talks about a group of young people going about their lives in the Korean capital.  A man with a calm demeanour, he first talks us through his daily routine, frequently alluding to his ‘work’, before introducing the reader to one of his ‘clients’, a young woman known mainly by her nickname ‘Judith’.

As Judith bounces between two brothers, C and K, the writer portrays a woman who seems able to cope with anything life can throw at her, provided she has enough Chupa-Chups to hand.  However, appearances can be deceiving.  Judith’s life is far from happy, and her reason for meeting the narrator is to cure her problems – once and for all.

After the relative disappointments of Your Republic is Calling You and Black Flower, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself comes as a relief, a story I enjoyed from the very start.  A dark, brooding piece full of end-of-millenium angst, it has much common with works by writers like Park Min-gyu and Bae Suah, and it works much better than Kim’s longer, genre books.  This appears to have transferred across to the translator’s work too – the writing here feels far clearer and more focused, the sparse style fitting the mood of the book.

While the narrator’s work is only revealed explicitly late in the book, it’s clear early on what his job entails:

“They call responding to my ad in the paper: “We listen to your problems.”  Having read this simple sentence, they wait until nightfall to dial.  I talk until early in the morning to people with various problems…”
p.8 (Harcourt Books, 2007)

In a city full of people tired of life, the narrator of the story has taken it upon himself to offer them a way out.  He seeks out those who might need his help and counsels them through the path they are to follow, easing their way out of a tiring, depressing world.

Judith is not the only ‘client’ whose story is revealed, with the narrator relating encounters with two other women who cross his path.  One is a nameless Hong Kong woman he meets on a holiday in Vienna, a former ‘mannequin’ who has fled a life of voyeurism and sexual domination.  The other is a beautiful performance artist called Mimi, charismatic yet withdrawn, wondering where her art is taking her.  All three of the women struggle with life, and all feel the urge to walk away from it all.  The question is who will finally take the plunge – and how…

The book is also a story of two brothers, Judith’s lovers.  Much of our time is spent with C, a video artist, a man cut off from the outside world by his cameras and screens (evoking the brother-in-law in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian).  Naturally withdrawn, he has an odd relationship with Judith, one unlikely to be based on love or affection:

“She’s like mildew that has invaded his life.  She’s the kind of mold that wouldn’t have appeared if he had lived austerely, the kind that breeds only in the dark, neglected corners of a building.  She has infected his life, not caring what he wants.  He hates himself for trudging through the snow looking for a woman who was having sex with his brother on the day their mother was buried.” (p.44)

C is unable to give himself fully, a fact that becomes evident when he later meets Mimi as well…

The younger brother, K, is very different.  He’s the driver of one of Seoul’s notorious ‘bullet taxis’, a man longing for speed but destined never to reach the velocity he desires.  K is unable to understand his brother, or the relationship he has with Judith, but he’s just as frustrated by his own limitations.  In their own ways, the brothers are just as unhappy as the women they encounter.

There’s a distinct cinematic feel to the book, with C’s project merely one manifestation of the visual environment.  Kim paints striking images of C and Judith stranded in the snow, K blistering down the highway at 180 km/h in the dark, and Mimi feverishly swinging her paint-splattered hair across a white canvas.  This visual sensation is enhanced by the narrator’s frequent allusions to art.  The three images he describes (Klimt’s Judith and Holofernes, Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus and David’s The Death of Marat) are all evocative and highly relevant to the story.

In short, this is a story of a society where death seems an attractive option.  It explores the emptiness of life – cold, hard, impersonal, brutal -, and introduces the people suffering in its midst to a man who can make it all go away.  I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is an excellent reflection of a soulless modern society, and (I have to say) the cover’s pretty great too ;)  I’m very glad I gave the Kims another chance – it just goes to show that there’s always room for hope.  It’s just a shame that nobody thought to say that to the characters…

‘Bonsai’ & ‘Ways of Going Home’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

IMG_5244After enjoying my recent reads of Alejandro Zambra’s short-story collection My Documents and the novella The Private Lives of Trees, I thought I might have a quick browse through my local library database to see if they had any more of the Chilean writer’s work.  Lo and behold, it turns out that not one, but two of Zambra’s books were available – a few quick clicks, and they were winging their way to my local branch, ready to be picked up a week later…

OK, the pretence is over – it’s been Alejandro Zambra week all along.  Let’s see it out in style :)

*****
Bonsai (translated by Carolina De Robertis) was Zambra’s breakthrough prose work (he’d already published a couple of poetry collections).  It’s not exactly the longest of books, a one-sitting read for me, but it’s a novella which shows his style and preoccupations, even if it’s perhaps a little more experimental than some of his later work.

From the beginning, the writer makes it clear how the story is to unfold:

“In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death, Emilia’s death.  Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio.  Julio and Emilia.  In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die.  The rest is literature.”
p.9 (Melville House, 2008)

Bonsai is the story of a love affair, deceptively simple, but laden with stark truths.  Knowing from the start how the featured relationship will end lends the story a sombre tone.

The story itself, though, is less a clear narrative than a series of loosely connected threads.  Zambra creates stories within stories, with many of them linked by the idea of the bonsai.  There’s a book the couple read together, the novel Julio claims to be transcribing for a famous, eccentric author and, of course, the tree Julio later cultivates.  It’s obviously a symbol of something – just don’t ask me what ;)

The book is written in a wry style with some dry, throwaway humour.  It also comes across as a IMG_5245rather detached narrative, giving the reader the feeling that they’re floating above the stories, never overly engaging with the characters.  This is mainly due to the way Zambra positions his protagonists, using them as puppets, existing merely to move his ideas along (very different to the closer style used in My Documents and The Private Lives of Trees).  It’s a little slight for me at times, especially for a breakthrough work, but it’s a book I enjoyed nonetheless :)

*****
Ways of Going Home (translated by Megan McDowell), a more recent work, has some similarities with Bonsai, but it’s a slightly longer, more subtle book.  It begins with a story from the narrator’s childhood, one starting with the 1985 earthquake and the impact it had on his life.  That night he meets Claudia, a girl a few years his senior, and the rest of the first part examines his relationship with her – which isn’t actually that fascinating…

However, just when you’re starting to lose faith with the book, it all changes, as the second section introduces us to Zambra, or one of his alter egos.  You see, it turns out that the first part is just the start of a book he’s writing…  From here, the story starts to become more complex as he uses his fragile relationship with an ex-girlfriend to look back into a shared past, one which neither of them really wants to acknowledge.

IMG_5246Of all Zambra’s books, Ways of Going Home is the one which focuses most on the problems Chile faced in the 1980s, with the first real mention of the Pinochet era.  The boy in the first section spends his time spying on Raúl, a neighbour who doesn’t welcome attention from the people around, but it’s only later that the truth about the man is revealed.  Of course, his neighbour’s activities aren’t the only things hidden from the curious eight-year-old…

One of the key ideas here is about how children saw the era, watching their parents, knowing that something was up, but not really understanding what.  In a way, the story is more about the older generation than that of the writer:

“The novel belongs to our parents, I thought then, I think now.  That’s what we grew up believing, that the novel belonged to our parents.  We cursed them and also took refuge in their shadows, relieved.  While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in a corner.  While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of airplanes.  While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.”
pp.40/1 (Granta Books, 2013)

Looking back to his youth through adult eyes, the narrator begins to understand more about his parents, realising just what was happening all those years ago.  The problem is that this isn’t necessarily a good thing – when you talk to your parents, the secrets which are revealed may not be ones you wanted to hear about…

*****
So, after a week of Zambra, what can we say about his writing?  Well, for one thing, he’s not one for long works – Ways of Going Home, at 139 nicely-spaced pages, is easily the longest piece of those I’ve read.  He has a pleasing style, not flashy, but casual and absorbing.  Much of his work sees him examining his past, and that of his homeland, but he has a way of being selective with what he shares of both areas.  He enjoys discussing books – there’s a lot here about the writer and his art, words and literature.  Oh, and  we also get women, cigarettes, football and enough cats to make even Murakami envious ;)

I certainly enjoyed my week with Zambra, but for now that’s all he wrote (in English, at least).  Many thanks to the writer, the various publishers and the translators (especially McDowell) for the week’s reading – it’s been a lot of fun :)  Although I’ve read a few books by the same author in a short space of time before, this is the first time I’ve looked at a new writer in such a compressed period before.  Perhaps  it’s something I should do again – let me know what you think…

‘The Private Lives of Trees’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

treesRecently, in my post on Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In Her Absence, I talked about wanting to try more of a writer’s work when you enjoy a book by a new discovery, and today’s review is another example of this tendency.  A while back, I looked at My Documents, a collection of short stories by the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, and right after reading that one, I was able to get hold of another of his works – which I devoured immediately.  This, then, is part two of what is fast becoming Zambra week on the blog – enjoy ;)

*****
The Private Lives of Trees (translated by Megan McDowell, review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books) is a novella which takes place over the course of a night in Santiago.  Julián, a married man with a step-daughter, is telling little Daniela a bedtime story, an ongoing tale which binds the speaker and the listener.  The protagonists of the story are two trees, a poplar and a baobab, at a local park, and as Julián talks about the trees’ musings on the bizarre behaviour humans display, he and Daniela have one ear turned to the door, waiting to hear footsteps outside.

Verónica, Julián’s wife, is out at an art class, and when she’s not back before Daniela’s bedtime, he begins to imagine all kinds of reasons for her delay.  However, as the trees could tell you, people are strange creatures, and it takes him a long time to accept that there might be a different explanation for her absence.  Perhaps she’s not coming back at all…

The Private Lives of Trees is a short book, little more than an extended anecdote, but it’s a delight to read.  It’s the story of a small family, a domestic tale with little real action, and like the rambling story of the talkative trees, Zambra’s novella appears relatively aimless:

“This is precisely the problem: in this story there are no enemies.  Verónica has no enemies, Julián has no enemies, Fernando has no enemies, and Daniela, except for an insolent little classmate who spends all his time making faces at her, has no enemies either.”
p.15 (Open Letter Books, 2010)

However, appearances can be deceiving.  There are no enemies that we can see, but perhaps Julián should be on his guard.  After all, where can Verónica have got to so late at night?

Gradually, the bedtime tale is replaced by the couple’s back story, showing us their first meeting, Julián’s seduction of the uncertain Verónica and the development of the little family.  Our ‘hero’ (if you need one) is a professor of literature (at four different universities!) and a writer whose first book features a man ‘conscientiously tending a bonsai’.  For anyone familiar with Zambra’s work, that idea might seem oddly familiar…

This isn’t the only time Zambra teases the reader.  Throughout the book he tells us that it’s all a story, but one which hasn’t quite finished:

“But this night is not an average night, at least not yet.  It’s still not completely certain that there will be a next day, since Verónica hasn’t come back from her drawing class.  When she returns, the novel will end.  But as long as she is not back, the book will continue.  The book continues until she returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return.” (p.17)

To start with, the delay is merely an annoyance, an obstruction to the action.  However, the more these words are repeated, the greater the tension becomes, and we realise that this endless wait is what the book is about.  Eventually, the reader, like Julián, is desperate for Verónica to turn the key in the door…

I mentioned Muñoz Molina’s In Her Absence above, and in many ways, this is a very similar story (only the place has changed – the male narrator is at home, while the wife is absent…).  You could describe it as a novella, but it’s really just a long story, and it has a very similar feel to those in My Documents, with events seemingly unconsciously drifting along, creating a story somewhere along the way.  Once again, there’s a great translation by McDowell, one that’s very smooth and has the effect of drawing you into a story that could (and perhaps should) be rather mundane.

If we examine events closely, then nothing really happens; there’s no need for us, or Julián, to feel worried as there’s no real reason for Verónica to leave.  The Private Lives of Trees has little to do with reason or logic, though, and we gradually become more and more certain that she’s gone for good.  It’s the paranoia we all feel when life doesn’t go to plan, a long, dark night of doubt and fear…

All in all, then, this is an enjoyable read, and my second Zambra can be chalked up as another success.  With only two more of his books available in English (Bonsai and Ways of Going Home), it wouldn’t take too much time and effort to read all of his translated works – it’s a tempting proposition…  Rest assured that I’ll let you know what I think of those, when and if I get to them – with the emphasis on ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ ;)

‘My Documents’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

IMG_5236While Fitzcarraldo Editions haven’t released many titles as yet, it appears that they’re going for quality over quantity, with an interesting range of fiction and non-fiction tied together by the French-style plain covers.  Today’s post looks at the second in the blue-cover series of fiction works, and while the title, referring to computer files, belies the traditional exterior, the contents are very much an example of classic writing :)

*****
Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents (translated by Megan McDowell, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of short stories by a Chilean writer already well known in English for short works such as Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees and Ways of Going Home.  The book contains eleven stories, each running to somewhere in the region of twenty pages, and while most of the pieces are fairly restrained in terms of plot (there are very few major events here), each of them manages to catch the reader’s interest and hold it throughout.

The stories making up My Documents contain a wide range of themes, but there are a few which are repeated throughout the book.  One of these, particularly in the earlier stories, is childhood, with the title piece one of the standouts.  This story is a cool, calm reminiscence of the writer’s childhood days, showing us an eight-year-old in 1980s Chile, a boy whose days are filled with music and religion.  Gradually, due largely to his grandmother’s influence, his interests change, and he sets off on a path towards the literary future awaiting him.

If ‘My Documents’ is a fairly happy tale, ‘National Institute’ takes a somewhat darker look at the writer’s formative years, a whirlwind account of six years of tough schooling.  While there’s fun in the playground, there’s also the intense pressure of competition and cruel, sadistic teachers attempting to bring the students down:

‘I’m not going to keep you from graduating.  I’m not going to expel you, but I’m going to tell you something that you will never in your whole life forget.”
‘National Institute’, p.122 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015)

It’s the students who have the last laugh, though, as the teachers’ influence ends the moment the boys’ school careers are over:

“I don’t remember what he told me.  I forgot it immediately.  I sincerely don’t know what Musa told me then.  I remember that I looked him in the face, bravely or innocently, but I didn’t retain a single one of his words.”

Cool and defiant to the last…

A further theme covered in the collection is relationships, usually in the sense of how they develop and implode.  A good example of this is the story ‘Memories of a Personal Computer’, a diary of sorts centred on a computer a man buys shortly before meeting a woman.  The relationship is chronicled in terms of how they use the PC: sex reflected in the monitor, photos of their holidays stored and arranged, then hidden notes on the collapse of their love.  In addition to examining the way people living together can grow apart, the story shows just how ubiquitous computers have become.

Another story of a failed relationship is told in ‘Family Life’, in which a middle-aged man house-sits for a distant relative who has been posted overseas with his family.  As he wanders around the house, the lonely man sees evidence of the kind of life he has been unable to build for himself:

“He imagines going into the living room, where a very beautiful woman, a woman who is Consuelo, or who looks like Consuelo, hands him a mug of coffee, raises her eyebrows, and smiles, showing her teeth.  Then he goes and makes that cup of coffee for himself, which he drinks in quick sips while he thinks about a life with children, a wife, a stable job.  Martín feels a sharp jab in his chest.  And then a word that was by now inevitable looms and conquers: melancholy.”
‘Family Life’ (p.190)

With the house’s owners in Europe, Martín decides that this is an ideal opportunity to build a fake background for himself, one which will enable him to move on with his life.  The problem is that when the family comes back, he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do…

Above all, though, My Documents is a work which looks at authors and writing, with the majority of the stories touching on the theme.  One of my favourite stories, ‘I Smoked Very Well’, a smoker’s account of his struggles to quit, gradually turns from the topic of tobacco to its necessity to the process of writing.  Little did the protagonist think when he made his decision to give up cigarettes that it would have an effect on his writing too:

“Cigarettes are the punctuation marks of my life.  Now I live without punctuation, without rhythm.  My life is a stupid avant-garde poem.”
‘I Smoked Very Well’ (p.145)

It’s a wonderful story, with most pages containing quotations I was tempted to copy down.  As the story unfolds, the writer comes to realise that he may have to make a difficult choice – a healthy life without inspration or a shorter existence full of good writing.

The final story, ‘Artist’s Rendition’, continues the theme as a writer with a job to complete uses events from his youth to flesh out a story, cannibalising and altering history.  It’s a story within a story, one of abuse, heartache and sadness, and as the writer frantically attempts to get his piece in before the deadline, the reader is shown the truth between the lines, a truth that has been waiting decades to be revealed…

There’s a lot more to My Documents than what I’ve touched on above; another reviewer might, for example, touch on the insights given into Chilean society (usually alluded to rather than explicitly stated).  Most stories, rather than focusing on one issue, draw several ideas together, leaving the reader to ponder what the main point is.  Different readers will have different focuses, all perfectly valid, but slightly divergent.

Given the focus on writing, it comes as a relief that the style is effective and smooth, not flashy, but wonderful to read.  McDowell has done some excellent work here, catching the tone and voice of Zambra’s protagonists, mainly jaded, late-30s writers looking back at their lives.  On a more personal note, I was very happy with the way ‘football’ is the word of choice throughout – once a cursory mention of soccer is made, football is referred to constantly (and it’s another topic that crops up frequently in the background).  Perhaps this was just done for the UK edition, but believe me – it makes a *huge* difference ;)

My Documents is a book I’d been meaning to get around to reading for a while, and I’m very glad I found time for it – this is a book most of you (my erudite, well-read, digital acquaintances) will enjoy :)  Like a lot of good literature, it’s not always about the ‘what’, but the ‘how’.  A good example of this is in ‘The Most Chilean Man in the World’, a story where the title is based on a joke and a linguistic mix-up; in the end, like many things in life, the story (and the joke) is all about the journey, not the destination.

It’s a journey that  definitely appeals – perhaps I should try some more of Zambra’s work soon…

All About Women

IMG_5247Wherever you are, there’s been no missing the topic of the week in the publishing world, Kamila Shamsie’s plea for a year of publishing women in 2018.  The piece has, inevitably, engendered heated debate, with passionate arguments on both sides of the divide.  It’s an interesting question, and it’s certainly far from clear whether the idea constitutes a necessary ‘fix’ or gender quotas at their worst…

Where it’s become interesting for me (and for many of my readers too, I suspect), is the way the discussion has spilled over into the area of literature in translation.  And Other Stories founder Stefan Tobler has become the first person to meet the challenge, pledging to have an all-female list for 2018.  I’d say that there’s a fair chance that other (small) publishers will soon follow suit, so the move towards a year of female-written books might not be quite as far-fetched as it first appeared.

Personally, I’m not convinced that it’s a great idea – a year is a long time, and while the idea is meant to overturn perceived discrimination, in itself it’s inherently discriminatory.  It’s also unrealistic to expect the big boys to play along; the majors will publish what they think will sell, and if that’s more men, then that’s what we’ll get.  In fact, not everyone agrees there is an imbalance, anyway (see the reply of Hannah Westland from Serpent’s Tail for another view on the topic).

However, while we might debate the matter in terms of publishing in general, fiction in translation definitely does have a gender imbalance, and it all starts with what gets published.  Even a casual glance at the latest Three Percent figures for 2015 (earlier in the week – more books have been added since…) show this.  A very quick, unscientific poll I did showed that around 45 of the 167 books recorded for the year were by women, a result which is close to the standard quoted figures.

There are a number of people on the case, trying to rectify this imbalance.  Katy Derbyshire, translator and curator of the love german books blog, has been going through statistics and dreaming up plans for a prize for female-written literature in translation.  Biblibio’s Meytal Radzinski  introduced a Women in Translation Month to the blogosphere in August last year, and there’s another one planned for later this year.  There are plenty of ground roots efforts to increase the gender balance in translated fiction, then – but is that enough?

Of course, there is a need for publishers to do their bit.  I encounter more translated fiction than most, and I can definitely see the gender imbalance.  Of the seventy works in translation I’ve read so far in 2015, twenty have been written by women while fifty have been by men.  I wouldn’t even say that I’ve been looking for books by men – if anything, the opposite would be the case…

So, what should we be doing?  As I mentioned above, while some publishers might rally to the cause, most won’t.  In addition, as many have rightly argued, preferencing women risks neglecting other so-called ‘minorities’ (e.g. LGBT, people of colour).  For me, a year of publishing women sends the wrong message – a month, on the other hand, why not?

I’ll continue to look for great literature in translation, and I’ll be very happy to receive books written by women.  However, if you think readers in general are going to give up on books by some of their favourite writers, just because they’re by men, you’re sadly mistaken.  The key to improving the gender balance is to get more people reading the great books already out there.  The more people become aware of writers like Elena Ferrante, Yoko Ogawa, Valeria Luiselli, O Chong-hui and Jenny Erpenbeck, the more they’ll want to read writing by these great authors.  By all means, continue to push for more translations from female writers – just don’t forget to read the excellent stuff that’s already available ;)

*****
On that note, please check out the current football/female writers event going on over at the Three Percent site, the Women’s World Cup of Literature – if you can’t find something that interests you there, then you’re simply a lost cause ;)

‘The Story of My Teeth’ by Valeria Luiselli (Review)

IMG_5240Most overseas writers have to wait for years, even decades, to have their work appear in English, but not Mexican author Valeria Luiselli.  Having released a collection of essay-style musings (Sidewalks) and a thought-provoking novel (Faces in the Crowd) which swiftly made it into English translation, she has been showered with critical acclaim, most recently receiving an honourable mention in the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.  Of course, with all that success come high expectations, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader excited to receive a copy of her latest work – the problem here is that high expectations are rather difficult to live up to…

*****
The Story of My Teeth (translated by Christina MacSweeney, review copy courtesy of Granta Books) is, for the most part, the story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez.  Born into obscurity in Mexico, by all accounts an unattractive child, he rises from the position of Personnel Crisis Supervisor (he’s always handy in a tricky situation) to become a world-famous auctioneer.  He’s a man who can sell anything, equipped with an array of intriguing methods to coax money from the wallets of unsuspecting buyers.

In addition to his rather average looks, dental issues have always plagued Señor Sánchez Sánchez, so he’s very interested when an article in the newspaper catches his eye:

“I read a story that day in the newspaper about a certain local writer who had had all his teeth replaced.  The writer, apparently, was able to afford the new dentures and the expensive operation because he’d written a novel.”
p.14 (Granta Books, 2015)

While writing a book might be beyond him, his success in auctioneering eventually enables him to get some replacement dentures of his own, leaving him with a pile of loose teeth.  What to do, what to do…  Perhaps one last auction?

The Story of My Teeth is, to say the least, an interesting and ambitious book.  Short, but fascinating, quirky and tongue-in-cheek, the madcap antics come as a surprise after the melancholy style of Faces in the Crowd.  There’s a lot to enjoy here, in terms of both story and writing, but I do wonder whether Luiselli’s existing readership will come along for the ride.

The story is certainly entertaining enough.  Sánchez Sánchez is an enigmatic fellow, skipping from story to story with a brusque manner and laughs aplenty.  He’s kind enough to introduce us to the tricks of his trade, explaining his unique styles of auctioning goods off.  Two of the more interesting methods are the allegoric, in which he tells stories tangentially (very tangentially…) related to the item being sold, and the hyperbolic.  What’s the hyperbolic, I hear you ask?  Well, let’s just say that it appears to involve lying (literally) through his teeth…

Of course, there’s a method in the madness, a deeper, more philosophical side to the story.  Gustavo (or Luiselli, if you prefer) is a shameless name-dropper, and many of the anecdotes involve thinly disguised writers, philosophers and mystics who have been pulled into the writer’s web.  For example, here’s Uncle Marcelo Sánchez Proust on women:

“You have to find a madame,” he would say, “who tempers the fury that accumulates during the long sleepless hours of men who are sensitive to the elasticity of time.” (pp.66/7)

Quite… À la recherche du dent perdu, perhaps?

Explanations are forthcoming.  In the afterword, Luiselli explains how the book developed, a project in which sections were recorded by a voice actor and played to factory workers.  Feedback was given, and the next part was created.  As the writer says:

“The formula, if there was one, would be something like Dickens + MP3 ÷ Balzac + JPEG.” (p.181)

It’s more a project, an art piece, than a novel (with photographs too).  Even the translation, adding MacSweeney’s helpful ‘Chronologic’ (a timeline with the main events of the protagonist’s life and some explanation as to who the people randomly dropped into the text are), is a variation on the original.  Also, the last chapter, written from a different viewpoint, helps to put the story into perspective, revealing that all is not quite as it seems.

Yes, it’s all very clever, and it’s obviously fun to try to identify all the literary and philosophical allusions.  Other writers mentioned include Enrique Vila-Matas, Sergio Pitol, Virginia Woolf, Yuri Herrera and Alejandro Zambra – oh, and Luiselli herself, of course.  At one point there’s even a discussion on what seems suspiciously like an extract from Sidewalks, in which Gustavo strips some of the glamour from the scene…

But is it actually a succesful novel? Here, I’m not so sure.  If I’m being mean, The Story of My Teeth appears a bit try-hard, flashy, all smoke and mirrors, and you wonder whether there’s actually anything hidden beneath the sparkly exterior.  Of course, it’s quite possible that there is – perhaps I just haven’t been clever enough to get it (which begs the question as to who will – apart from the writer….).  In some ways, it’s a book that may make more sense on a second reading.  That presumes, though, that there’ll be a second reading.  While I was keen to reread Luiselli’s first two books, I can’t say I’m itching to open this one again straight away…

I suspect that I’ll be in the minority here (and I’m certainly not panning the book), but for me The Story of My Teeth doesn’t live up to the standard of Luiselli’s previous work.  I’ll give it another go at some point, but I’m not sure I’ll quite unravel the mysteries hidden within Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez’s stories.  If anyone can shed more light on it than I’ve done, please let us all know :)