‘Una vez Argentina’ by Andrés Neuman (Review)

Una vez ArgentinaJuly is drawing to a close, which (inevitably) means that another Spanish-Language Literature Month is almost at an end.  Before we wrap up all things Hispanic here at the blog, though, we have one last review to finish off the event in style, looking at a rather personal book by a well-known writer.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated into English (yet), meaning that many of my readers won’t have the pleasure of trying it – consider this my little contribution to the public service then, summarising the book for you all :)

*****
Una vez Argentina (Once Upon a Time in Argentina) is an autobiographical work by Andrés Neuman, the writer of such excellent novels as Traveller of the Century and Talking to Ourselves.  It’s an opportunity for the Argentinean-born writer to look back at his family history, with the book starting in the time of his great-great grandparents and running right up to his own teen years (despite this edition being revised and expanded last year, Neuman has resisted the temptation to add anything of his later life!).

The book consists mainly of sketches of his relatives, with the writer looking back at his family tree, while discussing his parents’ courtship and also his own younger years growing up as a football-mad boy in Buenos Aires.  However, the book is also a story of the country, hence the title.  The time covered is one of unrest in Argentina, and the small dramas of the Neuman family history often give way to history on a larger scale, as we see how politics can affect family matters too…

Una vez Argentina is an entertaining book, written in an excellent style, swinging from light to heavy, personal to political, and back again.  Neuman handles the contrasts well, even when we move from meandering family anecdotes to heavier, more sombre (and more upsetting) events – there’s usually a wry comment to relieve the tension:

“Era probablamente miembro, con perdón del oxímoron, de los servicios de inteligencia de la dictadura.”
Chapter 5 (Alfaguara, 2014)

“He was probably a member, excuse the oxymoron, of the dictatorship’s intelligence service.” *** (my translation)

Una vez Argentina is a story of a family and a country, leading to an end many will know from the start.  You see, the time of the narrative ends, in a way, with the writer’s departure for Spain as a teenager, his family bidding the country they grew up in farewell.

As mentioned, much of the book focuses on family, and the majority of the chapters relate the background and actions of Neuman’s ancestors and relatives.  Having seen the writer at the Melbourne Writers Festival a couple of years ago, some of these details were already familiar, but at one point, it all became a little too familiar – which is when I realised that the chapter in mention was an adaptation of one of the stories from his short-story collection The Things We Don’t Do!  That early piece is just one of many entertaining stories of his enterprising relatives (hat makers, artists and union activists) which the writer has pieced together and expanded upon.  The information came from oral histories but also from family records – in particular, Grandma Blanca’s notebooks and the recorded tape message to a future Andrés from Great-Aunt Delia.

While the family is one focus, there’s a lot here about Neuman himself too.  The book starts with his birth, where he’s already showing himself to be someone who doesn’t always act as he’s supposed to:

“Cuando nací, mis ojos estaban muy abiertos y, por desconocimiento del protocolo, no tuve a bien llorar.  El médico me examinó al trasluz como si tratara de una gruesa hoja de papel.  Yo le respondí con otra mirada, supongo que curiosa.  El médico dudaba entre zarandearme o desentenderse del asunto.” (Chapter 2)

“When I was born, my eyes were open wide and, not knowing the protocol the occasion demanded, I didn’t cry.  The doctor examined me in the light as if I were a thick sheet of paper.  I responded with a look of my own, one of curiosity, I suppose.  The doctor seemed unsure as to whether to shake me or wash his hands of the entire matter.” ***

What follows in little Andrés’ upbringing are boys and toys, football and Matchbox cars (and, later, in a nod to his first novel, Bariloche, magazines hidden in a jigsaw box…), and eventually, the nascent writer emerges, having overcome his initial, stubborn, refusal to read.  These sections are mostly amusing and light, but the tone switches at times, with several poignant moments (e.g. the first death he encounters, remembering his lost relatives).

However, the darker side of the story is mostly reserved for the history.  The twentieth-century was a murky period in Argentina’s past, and the dark period of the ’60s and ’70s brought a military junta, multiple arrests and disappearances, and even, apparently, book burning:

“Exactamente nueve meses antes de mi nacimiento, en la ciudad de Córdoba, el Tercer Cuerpo del Ejército había organizado una quema colectiva de ejemplares secuestrados en librerías: ardieron en su gloria Proust, García Márquez, Neruda y otros perturbadores.” (Chapter 5)

“Exactly nine months before I was born, over in the city of Córdoba, the Third Army Corps had organised a collective burning of titles seized from bookshops: Proust, García Márquez, Neruda and other provocateurs burned in all their glory.” ***

The real world intrudes sharply into family anecdotes, making the reader aware that life wasn’t as rosy as the writer makes it appear at times.  We learn of the relatives forced to flee the country, the people arrested (and later dumped in the woods) by special forces and the time his father was caught up in the university shut-downs…

Neuman does a wonderful job of talking about a multi-talented family, full of businesspeople, artists and musicians (I highly doubt my own family tree would be quite as interesting…). Over the course of the book he also explores his identity, reflecting on the time he became aware of his Jewish (and Indigenous) origins, and his first, innocent loves.  With the writer being two years younger than me, several of the stories ring bells, with mentions of watching Sylvester Stallone movies and hearing Desireless’ Voyage Voyage bringing back memories of my own childhood.  Occasionally, we see things from very different viewpoints, though:  I’m sure my experience of the Falklands conflict was not the same as his.  And as for the Hand of God… ;)

Of course, with this one not having made it into English as yet, I was reading this in Spanish, and, despite my limited command of the language, for the most part it was a straightforward read (mainly because I was reading it on my Kindle with the help of an inbuilt ES-EN dictionary…).  The book runs to 255 pages in the print version, divided into 75 short chapters. and in English I would have knocked it off in a couple of days.  However, in Spanish, I read it over the course of a few weeks, with the second half finished over an intense four-day burst, and I think I enjoyed the book more for spacing it out.  Sadly, while helpful in many ways, the Kindle version did fall down in one crucial area – I only discovered the invaluable list of family members *after* I’d finished the book :(

Will Una vez Argentina make it into English?  I’m not entirely sure.  It’s a great read, but I’m not completely convinced that the average Anglophone reader will care enough about the doubly personal tale of Neuman’s family and Argentinian history.  Of course, if (like me) you’re a fan of Neuman’s work, then you may well be tempted.  This is the second of his works (after Bariloche) that I’ve tried in Spanish, and if nothing else is forthcoming in English soon, I’m sure I’ll be tempted to try another one :)

One aspect of the book I’m still not completely sure of is whether it’s truly non-fiction or not.  Is it simply a stylised family history, or (in a Knausgaardian manner) have some elements been altered to enhance the story?  I suspect that fact does win out over fiction for the most part, but (as is always the case when a skilled writer is involved) it doesn’t really matter:

“Personajes imaginando lo que recuerdan, recordando lo que imaginan.  ¿Es verdad?  ¿Es mentira?  No son esas las preguntas.” (Chapter 4)

“People imagining what they remember, remembering what they imagine.  Is it true?  Is it a lie?  Those aren’t the right questions.” ***

A good story is always worth listening to, and this book contains many great stories.  When coming to the end of the book, with the writer’s departure for the old world imminent, I felt the sense of loss (and the new struggle of finding a space between two worlds) almost as much as him – and if that’s not the sign of a good storyteller, I’m not sure what is ;)

‘The Book of Tokyo’, eds. Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks & Masashi Matsuie (Review)

IMG_5277Having enjoyed several of Comma Press’ excellent series of city books (The Book of Rio, The Book of Gaza and the Chinese Collection Shi Cheng: Ten Cities), when I heard that a Japanese version was being published, I got very excited.  Unfortunately, I had a rather long wait on my hands – while the book was originally announced for early 2014 (or maybe even 2013?), the finished article only arrived this month.  So, was it worth the wait?  Let’s find out…

*****
The Book of Tokyo – A city in short fiction (edited by Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks and Masashi Matsuie) does exactly what it says on the cover.  This is a collection of ten stories set in the Japanese capital – ten modern writers brought into English by ten different translators.  The focus here is on contemporary writing, with something (hopefully!) for everyone :)

As a reader with a focus on J-Lit, I’d heard of most of the writers, yet I’d only actually tried a few of the authors before.  Foremost among those was, of course, Banana Yoshimoto, and ‘Mummy’ (translated by Takami Nieda) is typical Banana fare (I’m sure fans will love it…).  In this one, a young woman walks into a dangerous situation and gets out to tell the tale; the moral, if there is one, seems to be that ‘young people are stupid’.  Luckily, Hitomi Kanehara’s ‘Mambo’ (tr. Dan Bradley) is a better take on a random encounter.  This bizarre tale from the writer of Snakes & Earrings and Autofiction consists mainly of a taxi conversation between two strangers, one in which the two talk about sex and relationships far too intimately for such a casual encounter.

Another writer I’d encountered previously was Hiromi Kawakami (The Briefcase/Strange Weather in Tokyo and Manazuru), and her contribution, ‘The Hut on the Roof’ (tr. Lucy Fraser), was one of my favourites here.  It looks at a woman living an inner-suburban life in a world of small shops, little intimacies and big secrets, with shopkeepers becoming friends through repeated encounters.  While there are no major reveals here, it’s a slice of life away from the Ginza lights, warm and clever and one most readers would enjoy.

A few other writers with work out in English are also featured in The Book of Tokyo, with Shūichi Yoshida perhaps the best known.  However, ‘An Elevator on Sunday’ (tr. Ginny Tapley Takamori) is not his usual thriller fare, instead telling a nostalgic story of a young man at a crossroads, his daily life interspersed with memories of his ex-girlfriend.  It’s a portrait of a less common kind of Japanese character, a single young man living in a small apartment, working if and when he can.

Kaori Ekuni’sPicnic‘ (tr. Lydia Moëd) is perhaps more typical of J-Lit with its picture of a married couple on weekly picnics.  However, from the start, we get the sense that something’s not quite right:

We are happy, I thought.  I was suddenly enraptured by the soporific scent of summer and the bright open air.  Kyoko’s cool fingers, the lively atmosphere around us, a full stomach.  The words – ‘We are happy’ – came into my mouth and I just said them.  After a little while I heard her say ‘That’s good’, in a soft, smiling voice.  That’s good.  Isn’t that a strange answer?”
‘Picnic’, p.17 (Comma Press, 2015)

Ekuni creates a surprising sense of darkness beneath the languid, lazy surface of a picnic in the park, unsettling the reader despite the lack of any real cause.

Of course, there are many new writers to discover here too.  Nao-Cola Yamazaki’s ‘Dad, I Love You too’ (tr. Morgan Giles) is a day in the life of the famed Japanese salaryman.  The main character is a hard worker whose wife has left him, yet he’s not a man to be worn down by the daily grind of Tokyo life:

“Just being alive – it’s great.”
‘Dad, I Love You too’, p.94

It’s a piece highlighting the joy of the little things in life, with something good to be found in each little action…

Some of the other stories are a touch more negative, though.  Toshiyuki Horie’s ‘The Owl’s Estate’ (tr. Jonathan Lloyd-Davies) is a depressing look at western women in Japan through Japanese eyes (a little clichéd for my liking) while Mitsuyo Kakuta’s ‘A House for Two’ (tr. Hart Larrabee) is a creepy (and infuriating) story in which a grown-up woman fails to see how her mother is manipulating her.

The plight of Japanese women in a hyper-patriarchal society is best expressed in Osamu Hashimoto’s ‘Vortex’ (tr. Asa Yoneda) in which a middle-aged woman reflects on her life, a typical progression on the Japanese conveyor belt of life.  She grows up as Tokyo (a fairly young city) does, and the story allows the reader an insight into Japanese family ties, touching on loyalties, obligations, cliques and the ever-present threat of judgement – all of which leaves little time to think about what people really want:

“The more she wondered what she wanted to do, the more the not knowing weighed on her.  What she didn’t realise was that she’d never in her life done something because she wanted to.  The things she needed to concern herself with had always presented themselves to her at the appropriate time.  But there was no more to come.”
‘Vortex’, p.135

The final years of the woman’s life bring the realisation that she has been following someone else’s script.  Having to live her life according to her own desires is a scary prospect…

…which is far too sad a note to end the review on, so let’s go back to the first story instead.  In ‘Model T Frankenstein’ (tr. Samuel Malissa), Hideo Furukawa gets us away from the land of cherry blossoms and geisha, instead delivering a story of a Tokyo within a Tokyo, one with goats, an unexpected arrival in the big city and a monster that likes nothing better than separating people’s limbs from their torsos.  Yep, twelve pages of bizarre antics which even include a love story – that’s a better way to wrap up the review ;)

The Book of Tokyo, then, diverges at times from what many might regard as ‘typical’ J-Lit, but it’s an excellent introduction to some great modern writers.  Added features include an introduction by Emmerich, a noted translator from Japanese in his own right (cf., for example, my posts on Yasushi Inoue), and short biographies of all the writers and translators.  All in all, it’s another little gem from Comma Press, one I’d encourage you to have a look at.  And if you like it, of course, you can always go back and see where else Comma can take you – they have plenty of other armchair city tours just waiting to be discovered ;)

‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’ by E.L. Konigsburg (Review)

IMG_5263While all of the books from Pushkin Children’s Books that Miss Emily has covered so far have been translations, some of the range did first appear in English, and today’s choice is one of those.  It’s a famous story in its homeland, an early work by a very well-known writer, and judging by her smile, it looks as if my assistant is pleased with it too – let’s go and find out :)

*****
What’s the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and it’s by E.L. Konigsburg.

What’s it about?
It’s about a girl called Claudia who decides to run away because she’s tired of being a perfect A+ student.  She and her brother Jamie run away to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they end up sleeping in the Queen’s bed and having baths in a fountain!  They also soon find a mystery to solve.  Is the popular angel statue just a copy, or is it actually by a famous artist?  Claudia and Jamie try to find out :)

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
I liked it a lot, and the mystery is very mysterious.  Claudia and Jamie aren’t exactly getting along at the start, but soon they find that they can still get along.  I also liked the bits when Jamie called his sister Lady Claudia!

What was your favourite part?
I didn’t really have a favourite part – I liked it all :)

Was it difficult to read?
Not really, well maybe the name of the museum and Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler :(

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
I would recommend this book for people who like museums, running away and playing cards for money.  It might be better for older boys and girls – some bits are a bit complicated.

Emily, thank you very much.

*****
E.L. Konigsburg is a legendary name in American children’s literature, but I’d never heard of her, or this book, before the review copy dropped into our letter box (a reminder that my generation wasn’t quite as America-focused as the more recent ones).  According to my quick skim through her Wikipedia entry extensive research, she is one of only six writers to have won the Newberry Medal, an award given to the author of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”, on two separate occasions.  Which must be a good thing :)

The main story is introduced by a letter to her lawyer from the mysterious Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler herself, one which gives the reader a fair idea of her character:

“I can’t say that I enjoyed your last visit.  It was obvious that you had too much on your mind to pay any attention to what I was trying to say.  Perhaps, if you had some interest in this world besides law, taxes and your grandchildren, you could almost be a fascinating person.  Almost.”
p.7 (Pushkin Children’s Books, 2015)

Ouch.  Of course, those who have read the book will realise that these first lines contain several hints as to what is to unfold in the rest of the book…

There’s no translator involved this time, of course, but that’s not to say that the book is just a copy of an American version.  It’s a lovely little book in its own right, with a bright cover and French flaps, and Miss Emily has happily added it to her collection, where it’s nestling nicely between her Erich Kästner books and The Cat Who Came in off the Roof.

Another success then, and a book we can recommend for you (or your children!).  Just be careful if you do decide to buy it for your little ones – you might be giving them ideas for the next time they take a trip to the museum.  If you see them accumulating small change and packing some snacks in their backpacks ‘for later’, you’ll know who’s to blame ;)

‘All Souls’ by Javier Marías (Review)

IMG_5279After three books by new discoveries, it’s time for Spanish-Language Literature Month to take a turn towards the familiar for the final two weeks.  I’ve got an old favourite lined up for next Thursday, and today’s post also sees me returning to a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past.  While the writing is very Spanish, though, the setting is a little closer to my (original) home – there’s something very English about where we’re going today…

*****
Javier Marías’ All Souls (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) is a short novel set in Oxford, a fictional account of the writer’s own time in the English university town.  An unnamed Spanish lecturer is spending two years at the world-renowned institution, giving the odd lecture and holding a translation class in which he invents etymological roots for words he’s never heard of.  With ample time outside his undemanding academic schedule, he’s able to observe the traditions of both town and gown, giving us a most Spanish take on a rather foreign environment.

However, two years is a long time, and observation only goes so far – if the time is to pass comfortably, there’s something more our narrator requires.  Luckily, at one of the famed high tables at his host college, he catches the eye of Clare Bayes, a lively, attractive woman who stands out among the assembled gathering of academics.  The fact that she’s married is of little consequence, to either of them, and it proves to be just another minor detail in the college’s social life.  You see, Oxford is a place of secrets, and the relationship is just another rumour, swirling around in a sea of hidden information…

After enjoying the first couple of his books I tried (A Heart So White, The Infatuations), I’d been meaning to return to Marías for a good while now, and this was a welcome reintroduction to his writing.  It’s a nice, relatively-slight work, with his beautiful, unhurried prose evident from the start.  One of the first chapters features a lengthy description of an old porter, one whose senility means he’s in a different year every day, taking the Spanish Don for whoever happened to be doing his job at that time:

“In Oxford, just being requires such concentration and patience, such energy to battle against the natural lethargy of the spirit, that it would be too much to expect its inhabitants actually to stir themselves, especially in public…”
p.4 (Vintage International, 2012)

It’s evident from the start that time moves along rather differently here in Oxford.

The backbone of the plot (not that this is overly important) is the relationship between the narrator and Clare Bayles, but never fear – this is a casual affair, never destined to ruin anyone’s life.  As much as it has to do with desire, it’s about killing time in comfort in a town of dreams.  Clare is the ideal choice for this dalliance.  As we learn more about her, we find that she too has a slightly foreign background, sharing in the slight differences which make foreigners stand out from the locals:

“As is well known, the English never look openly at anything, or they look in such a veiled, indifferent way that one can never be sure that someone is actually looking at what they appear to be looking at, such is their ability to lend an opaque glaze to the most ordinary of glances.” (p.41)

Marías makes a lot of the behaviour of the outsiders, their direct stares contrasted with the polite, unseeing English gazes.

This contrast between the English and the outsiders provides another key pillar of the novel.  Our Spanish friend is very much an outsider looking in, examining, commenting, aware of his transience.  Thanks to the writer’s wonderful eye for detail, we are shown the curious split between the university and the ‘real’ town, moving from the vagrants on the street to the behaviour at the colleges, both behind doors and in public.  One of the comic highlights of All Souls is a bizarre extended scene at a ‘high table’ (a formal dinner), which at moments, in its farcical nature, is akin to something from Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue.

In fact, All Souls is a book which meanders between subject matters and styles at times.  In parts, there’s a feeling of a more eloquent Bill Bryson, Notes from a University Town, perhaps.  Later, as a new obsession develops, that of a long-dead minor writer, the book turns Sebaldian, culminating in the appearance of a photograph (which I’m assuming is actually of the writer in question).  It’s here that the line between fiction (which the majority of the novel is) and the writer’s own stories becomes most blurred; lest we forget, Marías did spend those years in the city.

While I doubt many readers would make the connection, for me Marías’ story of an academic abroad also has echoes of another writer sent to England, eighty years earlier.  Natsume Soseki’s time in London was far from what he’d hoped for on leaving his native shores, and like him, the narrator of All Souls feels the dull, grey, tedium of English life at times:

“But even before that, right from the start and especially at weekends, I’d always taken a lot of notice of the rubbish bin, for Sundays in England aren’t just ordinary, dull Sundays, the same the world over, which demand simply that one tiptoe through them without disturbing them or paying them the least attention, in England they are, as I believe Baudelaire described them, Sundays in exile from the infinite.” (p.73)

Harsh as that sounds, as someone who lived through Sundays in the UK in the 1980s, I can only concur…

However, Marías’ stint appears to have been a far more comfortable and exciting time than that of his Japanese counterpart.  Yes, both enjoyed days wandering around bookshops, but at least the Spanish writer (or at least his fictional alter-ego) had a comely companion with whom to while away the hours.  I also doubt that Soseki spent his nights at tacky discos on the outskirts of Oxford, deciding which of the slightly overweight young visitors from surrounding villages to take back to his bachelor pad ;)

Despite the meandering style (which is reflected in my meandering review…), there is, in a very Marías-like manner, a central idea to the book, and just as is the case in A Heart So White, everything comes together nicely at the end of the novel, allowing the reader (and the narrator) to bid farewell to those dreaming spires with a sense of closure.  In a book which looks at transience, it’s apt that we realise that we are just a small part of an ongoing story.  The narrator knows that Oxford will go on forever, and that Will the porter might one day greet future visiting dons with his name, the Spaniard’s brief stay having been woven into the fabric of the university’s history…

Another enjoyable read, then, with Margaret Jull Costa on her usual wonderful duties, for, let’s face it, much of the joy of reading Marías comes from his prose, and the translator has more than a small part to play in ensuring that the English reads as it does.  The writer certainly owes his translator thanks for ensuring that the English version brings his style and tone across.  Perhaps All Souls isn’t one of Marías’ biggest successes, the mixture of themes and ideas distracting at times, but it’s certainly a nice warm-up for some of the writer’s major works.

Before I go, there’s one final aspect of All Souls I haven’t really mentioned, and that is that it frequently touches upon the number of Oxford academics who find employment in the British secret service, a point which will be more important in the writer’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, also largely set in Oxford.  I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to get around to those books, but All Souls has been good preparation for that – and a very pleasant way to while away a couple of cold, very English-like winter days.  Tea, anyone? ;)

‘June’ by Gerbrand Bakker (Review)

IMG_5265Prizes aren’t everything, but it’s certainly nice to win them, something Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker knows all about.  The first of his novels to make it into English, The Twin, won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award back in 2010, and this was followed up by the success of The Detour (Ten White Geese in the US) in 2013’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  That’s quite an accomplishment, even if it does raise expectations for subsequent books.  Still, no pressure, eh, Gerbrand? ;)

*****
The latest of Bakker’s books to make it into English is June (translated by David Colmer, review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications).  It starts in 1969 with a royal visit, the Dutch Queen visiting small towns and villages in a rural area to get close to her people.  As one of the visits draws to a close, a woman comes hurrying up with her child, just in time to see the Queen before she leaves.  There’s a touch on the cheek, a photograph and – much later – a sobering end to the day.

Almost forty years on, the Kaan family are spending a hot day at their old farmhouse.  While five-year-old Dieke is happy enough running about, the other family members are more troubled.  Uncle Jan is out at the cemetery, tending to the grave of his dead sister.  Grandmother Anna, meanwhile, has shut herself up in the hayloft, dreaming of what might have been:

“Anna began getting visions of a daughter who squatted down next to her chair to ask softly if she was enjoying herself, before handing out sheets of paper with a song she’d written for the occasion, a song to be sung ‘to the tune of’, the same daughter who had earlier exclaimed cheerfully how lovely it was to finally see baboons in real life.”
p.82, (Scribe Publications, 2015)

As the sweltering June day draws on, we see how the ghosts of the past (one in particular) affect the present.  Two days separated by decades – one a day to remember, the other to forget…

In June, the attentive reader will find definite echoes of Bakker’s other novels.  The country setting, with its wide-open spaces and isolated towns is reminiscent of the landscape of The Twin, while the background spite and repressed anger of both the previous books are evident here as well.  This is a novel where little happens, but anything might; it’s all about what’s going on beneath the surface.

The forty years since the Queen’s visit have not been kind to anyone, and there’s a palpable sense of an end of an era.  The once bustling farm has been reduced to an old duck and one fed-up bull; the trees are beginning to sicken, needing to be felled.  Even the house itself seems to be on its last legs, with missing tiles, balconies on the verge of collapse and cracks suddenly appearing in the windows, brought about by the blistering heat of the day.

It’s not just the house feeling the effects of a hot, uncomfortable day, with the family affected too.  For some, the weather merely causes listlessness; for others, irritation, or even anger.  Poor Dieke is confused by the events of what, for her, is just a normal day:

“It’s as if everyone’s gone crazy today.  Her mother’s grumpy and she doesn’t know why.” (p.198)

As the family go about their business, old grudges are recalled and unresolved arguments bubble to the surface.  The rain threatening to break the dry spell isn’t the only storm brewing in the distance.

The character studies are the strong point of June, with a multitude of viewpoints given in many short chapters.  Most of the attention is spent on the Kaan family (old Zeeger and Anna, Klaas and his daughter Dieke, the other sons, Jan and Johan), but there are also several important figures outside the family.  The baker, the man who caused the young girl’s death so long ago, is one of them, along with the widow, Dinie Grint, whose son is intimately connected with at least one of the Kaans.  The photos and memories they share help us to piece together what actually happened back in 1969.

I also enjoyed the way the novel is bookended by the visit of the Queen.  In these sections, Bakker very cleverly sketches out a very human monarch:

 The Queen pats her hair into place.  “Are you sure you won’t take a small glass of sherry?”
“No, thank you, ma’am, really not.”
“Then I’ll have another half a glass for you.”
(p.11)

I have to say that I find it hard to imagine Queen Elizabeth doing that – this is a fascinating glimpse of a very different style of royal family…

Despite these good points, truth be told, I wouldn’t say the book works overly well.  June was actually written before The Detour, and I think it was a wise decision to leave this one for later translation.  There’s obviously a lot the writer wants to say, but the reader (or this reader, at least) is never quite sure what the point is, with the book failing to cohere, leaving the impression of a messy tangle of half-developed ideas.  It ends well, with a longer section revisiting the past, but it doesn’t quite make up for the slow, meandering middle parts.

If you’ve read his other books, though, you’ll probably enjoy this one.  It has a similar style, with another excellent translation from Colmer, whose prose catches the tense undercurrents bringing the flaws and idiosyncracies of the minor characters (such as Dinie Grint’s casual, hypocritical racism and homophobia) to the fore, and I’m sure it’ll find its fans.  Still, I don’t think this will be bringing more silverware to the Bakker cabinet.  In truth, like the storm which never seems to arrive, June just doesn’t quite get where it wants to go.

Women in Translation Month Ideas

WITMonth15August, for the second year in a row, is shaping up to be Women in Translation Month (hosted by Meytal Radzinski of the Biblibio blog), and it’s an event I’m looking forward to immensely.  Last year saw an impressive range of posts on the blog, and this year I’ll again be going for a whole month of reviews of WIT books.  While I haven’t fully planned my reading as yet, I’ve got a fair few ideas as to what might make the cut; if you want to find out what, then carry on reading ;)

*****
A good starting point, as always, is to see what review copies are languishing on the shelves, and with a couple by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein) lying around, that’s at least one of the choices sorted.  Another book I’ve been meaning to get to is Machi Tawara’s Salad Anniversary (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter) – a best-selling collection of (fairly) contemporary Japanese poetry from Pushkin Press.   It’s certainly something different and will bring an extra dimension to my list.

In addition to the paper review copies, there are plenty of likely choices on my Kindle too.  One I really should have got to a long time ago is YMTN_WALL_COVER_CMYKan Ge’s White Horse (tr. Nicky Harman), a Chinese novella which will be good for reading between longer works.  I’ve also got a copy of Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green (tr. Jordan Stump); having enjoyed Three Strong Women, I’m looking forward to seeing how this one measures up.  Finally, Alisa Ganieva’s The Mountain and the Wall (tr. Carol Apollonio) is one of the latest books from Deep Vellum Press.  It’s set in the Russian republic of Dagestan and promises to be a fascinating read.

That’s not nearly enough, though, so it’s a good job I’ve got good libraries to help out.  On a recent trip to my local university library, I found a couple of contenders for August.  Yan Gui-ja’s Contradictions (tr. Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi-young) will probably be my K-Lit contribution, a book I’ve seen recommended elsewhere (even if I don’t really know much about it).  Meanwhile, another J-Lit offering is Train de nuit avec suspects (tr. Ryoko Sakaguchi and Bernard Banoun) by Yoko Tawada, an author who writes in both Japanese and German.  So why is the title in French?  All in good time…

deceiverI’m also waiting on a couple of books from the public library system, both prize winners in their own right.  Tove Jansson’s a writer I’ve been meaning to return to for some time, and The Great Deceiver (tr. Thomas Teal), which took out the 2011 Best Translated Book Award, seems a good place to start.  Meanwhile, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize will be represented by its first female winner, Marta MorazzoniThe Alphonse Courier Affair (tr. Emma Rose) won the prize back in 2001, but hardly anybody actually knew that until earlier this year when the online omission was rectified.  Of course, I’m reliant on the two ILLs getting here in time…

Much as I tried to keep my credit card in my wallet, I did end up buying one book for the occasion.  This year I’ve reread two books by Jenny Erpenbeck  – Heimsuchung (Visitation) and the IFFP-winning Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) -, and that’s led me to order another one, a recent book called Dinge, die verschwinden (Things that are Disappearing).  It’s a non-fiction work, a book of short essays on objects which are fast becoming yesterday’s news – and it should be with me very soon ;)

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So, those are my plans, tentative ones, at least (they’re always subject to change, of course!).  I hope my list has whetted your appetite for the month, and who knows?  Perhaps, you’ll consider one of the books for your own Women in Translation Month list.  Speaking of which, I’d be interested to hear what my readers have lined up for the event.  If you have any interesting books ready to go, please let me know :)

‘Woman in Darkness’ by Luisgé Martín (Review)

IMG_5267So far for Spanish-Language Literature Month, I’ve looked at two writers whose work I hadn’t previously tried, and that trend continues today with a third new discovery.  The publisher, however, is very familiar, as this is another novel published by Hispabooks, a Madrid-based press focusing on contemporary Spanish literary fiction.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve read several of their books, some of which (e.g. The Happy City, Antón Mallick Wants to be Happy) have been fairly light.  However, today’s offering is certainly not one of those – it could only be described as, well, dark…

*****
Luisgé Martín’s Woman in Darkness (translated by Michael McDevitt, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short novel looking at secrets, lies and the hidden desires deep within.  The story begins with Guillermo, a man approaching forty with a beautiful wife and a kid on the way.  Not all is as it seems, however, as he confesses one day to his friend, Eusebio; you see, for some time Guillermo has been visiting Marcia, a dominatrix who degrades him mercilessly before sending him back to his domestic bliss…

When Guillermo is killed in a traffic accident (his ‘affair’ still a secret to his wife), Eusebio decides that Marcia needs to know, and having worked out her address, goes to tell her.  However, when he sees how beautiful she is, he promptly falls in love with her instead… or does he?  Julia, as she is more properly known, treats Eusebio with tenderness, which confuses our friend somewhat.  Is this really the same woman who humiliated and degraded his friend?  If so, why doesn’t she want to do the same to him?  Thus begins his slow descent into madness…

A phenomenon I’ve only recently become aware of is that of trigger warnings, and while in general they’re not something I believe in much, in this case I feel I owe it to the reader to give them a heads up.  I’m warning you now: if you don’t want to read about some of the less usual (and in many cases illegal) forms of sexual gratification, this is not the book for you – the word darkness is in the title for good reason.  I’ll also throw in a second trigger warning for good measure: those expecting a Fifty Shades… knock-off should stay away too – the writing is a little too sophisticated for that ;)

Woman in Darkness is, in essence, a fascinating story of a man’s inability to deal with his lover’s hidden past.  Once Guillermo’s relationship with Julia/Marcia starts to become serious, he becomes ever more obsessed with what Guillermo told him about her:

“Eusebio loves Marcia, but when these images flash through his mind, he feels like retching – nausea, loathing, helplessness.  He cannot believe she is capable of such things.  Marcia is sweet, sensitive, bashful.  She is apt to blush when undressing.  She caresses him tenderly, gently.  She abhors violence.  The woman Guillermo spoke of – cruel and unhinged – cannot be the same one who lingers long over every kiss, exploring the hollows of his flesh until he shivers in delight.”
p.82 (Hispabooks, 2014)

When his attempts to elicit her secrets fail,  he decides to research the world of sexuality, and in doing so he discovers a lot about his own desires.  But does he really want these things?  And, if so, how did he not know this before…

Martín’s novel is also a story of the double lives people lead, with most of the characters introduced in Woman in Darkness turning out to have secrets.  Eusebio relates anecdotes of hidden lives (for example, the tragic tale of Uncle Marcelinho and the hole in the sock…) and he discovers more through his trawls through the adult websites he begins to frequent.  While the people he chats to there tend to have unusual sexual preferences, in person, in their ‘other’ lives, they’re ‘normal’, friendly.  Eusebio realises that it’s impossible to tell from the surface the dark secrets hidden within, yet getting beneath that surface often comes at a price (as he’ll soon find out).

From the start of the book, the author plays on the importance of names, with many of his characters rechristening themselves.  There’s Marcia/Julia, of course, and also Guillermo (whose real name is Segismundo) and his wife Olivia (born as a Nicole).  When you add to those the whole host of online pseudonyms, you get the impression that a change of name can bring about a change of character or, at least, allow an existing character trait to rise to the surface, temporarily suppressing what we think of as ‘normal’ behaviour.

And if there’s one thing Woman in Darkness addresses, it’s what ‘normal’ behaviour, our ‘normal’ character, is.  Guillermo certainly has his doubts before his first session with Marcia, fearing that his ‘true’ character might be displaced:

“Would he become a monster, a grotesque laughingstock, a circus clown?  Would his free will be at the mercy of his instincts, his basest impulses?  Would he abandon Olivia to give himself over to a life of debauchery and lurid urges?” (p.32)

These doubts are mirrored by Eusebio’s constant questions, his wondering whether the world he’s researching in order to find out more about his partner is something he secretly wants to be a part of.  In fact, his story is a tragedy – his uncertainty about Julia and her love for him leads him to throw it all away…

While there’s a lot to like about the book, it’s certainly not perfect.  It takes a little while to warm up with some clumsy scene-setting at the start of the story, and even later on there’s a little too much info-dumping at times.  However, it does make for fascinating reading, with the best aspect of book being Eusebio’s gradual disintegration, a collapse we are allowed (in a slightly voyeuristic way…) to witness first-hand.  In desperately trying to make Julia confess to her past life, Eusebio tours the shadowy side of sexual behaviour, hoping to understand her better.  If only he’d just ask…

Woman in Darkness is unsettling at times, but certainly enjoyable (for its premise and writing, at least).  A blurb on the back of the book mentions Japanese writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (Quicksand, Some Prefer Nettles), and while Martín’s novel is much more graphic than Tanizaki’s work, what the two writers do share is a desire to explore the idea of ordinary people hiding extraordinary secrets:

“Do all those who surround him have a secret to hide?  Is the heart of everyone he has ever known cloaked in spider webs?” (p.122)

The answer is a definite yes – what we see on the surface is nothing compared to what lies beneath.  Martín certainly believes that what really makes us human is what we keep concealed, deep in the darkness of our souls.  Whether you’d ever want to actually see it is another matter entirely…

‘La lectrice’ (‘Reader for Hire’) by Raymond Jean (Review)

IMG_5261We all know that books are not to be judged by their covers, but sometimes the designers make it very difficult for even the most tolerant of readers to keep an open mind.  As you can see from the photo to the left, today’s book most certainly falls into that category, a wonderful example of how not to sell literary fiction.  Luckily, the version of the book most of you will stumble across has a slightly more appropriate picture on the front – even if there is a hint of what’s to come in this particular image ;)

*****

Raymond Jean’s La lectrice (AKA Reader for Hire) is the story of Marie-Constance, a thirty-four-year-old married woman living in a small French town, with no job or children to distract her.  One day a friend makes a surprising suggestion:

“Tu as une merveilleuse voix, c’est idiot de n’en rien faire, et plus idiot encore de rester inactive, une femme doit absolument avoir une occupation à notre époque […] pourquoi ne mets-tu pas une annonce dans les journaux pour proposer d’aller faire la lecture à domicile chez les uns ou les autres?”
p.5 (Actes Sud, 1998)

“You’ve got a wonderful voice, it’s stupid to let it go to waste, and even more stupid to hang around doing nothing, a woman has to have something to occupy herself in the modern age […] why don’t you put an ad in the papers offering to go and read to people in their homes?” *** (my translation)

Marie-Constance doesn’t find her friend’s idea such a bad one, and soon enough she’s at the office of the local newspaper, paying the fee to have a small ad inserted in the local newspaper – and then she waits.

Before too long, she receives the first reply, and she’s on her way into her new career as a reader for hire.  Her first clients include a teenager in a wheelchair, a rich Hungarian countess with a passion for Karl Marx and a busy mining CEO who wants to become more cultured.  In all of her engagements, Marie-Constance tries to be professional, wanting to make a real go of her new direction – the problem is that she’s a woman with a lot of appeal, one who finds it hard to stick to a purely professional relationship…

As many of you will no doubt have realised by now, La lectrice is the original of Peirene Press’ latest offering, Reader for Hire.  The Peirene cover is slightly less risqué than the one shown above, but the lipstick smudge shown indicates that the seventeenth in their collection is a slight departure from the usual style of their books.  La lectrice may not be a comedy, but it’s a much more uplifting book than most of its Peirene stablemates, easy to read and without the usual death, drama or psychological anguish – which is a *good* thing ;)

Most of the action comes from Marie-Constance’s attempts to be a professional in her chosen career, an endeavour complicated by the fact that the people she reads to don’t exactly make it easy for her.  The teenaged Éric is little bother, even if he likes her to wear a skirt which rides up her thighs.  The Countess Pázmany, while theoretically bedridden, is determined to take Marxist theory and put it into practice.  And then there’s little Clorinde, a clever child with a busy mother who wants her little girl to have a good education – but sometimes girls just want to have fun ;)

The harder Marie-Constance tries to be good, the more things go wrong, and in a town as small as hers word soon gets around.  Accused of disturbing the peace, the police soon become involved, even if they’re not exactly sure what she’s done wrong.  In truth, her transgressions are of the social variety, practicing aloud what most believe should be done silently.

It takes a while, but eventually we realise why this is all happening.  Marie-Constance is fairly matter-of-fact when describing herself and makes efforts to develop a professional appearance for her nascent career:

“Nous avons pris des cafés et des portions de tarte.  Roland dit très gentiment que des lunettes m’iraient sûrement bien et me donneraient la petite touche intellectuelle qui me manque peut-être, donc augmenterai ma crédibilité…” (p.37)

“We ordered some coffee and cake.  Roland suggested in a kindly manner that glasses would certainly suit me and would lend me that intellectual touch that I might otherwise be missing, increasing my credibility…” ***

The truth, though, is that Marie-Constance is just too charismatic to be a simple reading machine – beautiful, engaging and seductive, she’s a woman who wants to be involved with the world.  Very quickly, she finds herself drawn into her clients’ lives, and they’re all to eager to be a part of hers.  It’s a subtle reminder of the hypnotic power the written (and spoken) word can have.

La lectrice is great fun, an amusing story with excellent touches of humour, yet it does hide a reader_web_1_220_330darker side.  The novel paints a picture of people seeking intimacy: the busy CEO and Clorinde’s mother feel the lack of time which their succees entails while Éric and the countess are trapped inside their rooms, desperate for something to brighten the day.  The irony is that Marie-Constance herself is in the same situation; the more the story progresses, the clearer it becomes that she too is in need of a little diversion and intimacy…

The story is fairly simple, but an excellent read nonetheless, and there’s really only one word to describe it – French.  La lectrice has a rather casual un-Anglo-Saxon approach to intimacy, exemplified by the husband’s surprising attitude when Marie-Constance asks for some rather delicate advice (and a bedroom scene which has to be seen to be believed…).  It may be a little clichéd to talk about Gallic flair, but if the cap fits… ;)

As you can tell from the review, this is a very different Peirene book, leaving me to wonder what other readers will make of it.  It’s all about the process of reading and where it can take you, a topic close to our hearts in these parts.  Some, however (like the policeman), are not quite as convinced of the virtues of literature:

“…vous comprenez très bien ce que je veux dire et de quoi je parle… la lecture, la lecture!… c’est bien beau la lecture, mais elle n’est pas un alibi pour n’importe quoi…” (p.95)

“…you know full well what I mean and what I’m talking about… reading, reading!… reading’s very good and all, but it’s not an alibi for whatever you want…” ***

Which is where he’s mistaken.  Marie-Constance knows only too well that when you start off reading, where you end up is a mystery waiting to be solved.  I’m sure that’s something most of my readers can relate to, so why not pick up Reader for Hire and see where your reading takes you? ;)

‘Three Generations’ by Yom Sang-seop (Review)

IMG_5256A man I’ve name-checked a few times over the past year or so during my education in Korean fiction is Charles Montgomery, Mr. KTLIT.com himself, but today’s mention is a little different.  You see, over at his site, one of the featured posts is one in which he discusses his introduction to Korean writing, a first foray into K-Lit which turned out to be an unsuccessful one.  The book in question turned out to be too culturally bound for a beginner, and he abandoned it for something a little more accessible – but that’s not the way we do things over here.  Consider this another challenge accepted – let’s see if we can work out why Charles suffered so much in his first K-Lit adventure…

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Yom Sang-seop’s Three Generations (translated by Yu Young-nan) is a lengthy novel, first published serially in 1931 during the Japanese colonial period.  In this story of a wealthy Seoul family dealing with a changing society, we meet Jo Deok-gi, a student at Kyoto University back in town for the holidays.  The young student is staying at his grandfather’s house, a bustling residence, as his father has become the black sheep of the family (both for his Christianity and his embarrassing affairs) – in fact, Deok-gi is to become head of the family after his grandfather’s death.

While back in Seoul, Deok-gi runs into some familiar faces.  Kim Byeong-hwa, one of his old school friends, has seen his life turn out somewhat differently to that of Deok-gi.  Having argued with his father, he’s broken off ties with his family and become an activist involved with various underground organisations.  There’s also Gyeong-ae, a beautiful young woman who has a rather unexpected connection with Deok-gi’s family, one which the straight-forward student feels compelled to acknowledge.  Deok-gi’s own family affairs are also complicated, and as friends and family begin to pressure him on all sides for support, the poor student feels the pressure – it’s all a bit much for a nice, respectful boy from Seoul…

Of course, I’ve had a fair grounding in K-Lit now (having read more than forty Korean books over the past year or so), but unlike Charles, I enjoyed Three Generations.  The book is an excellent introduction to the literature of the time, much better than my own first steps last year, Yi Kwang-su’s The Soil.  Yom’s novel is far more nuanced, less two-dimensional and didactical, with a whole host of interesting, well-drawn characters, lending the book an air akin to a Natsume Soseki novel in parts.

I’d be the first to admit that the reader may require a little background knowledge to enjoy it fully, though.  The first problem area is that of family, even more important at the time than it is in Korea today.  Deok-gi is unable to escape the figure of his father Sang-hun, a man conspicuous by his philandering and hypocrisy.  Sang-hun has his regrets, especially regarding the child he had with Gyong-ae and the cowardly way he covered up the affair rather than starting a new life with her:

“If Sang-hun could do it all over, he would surely find a way to keep her instead of tossing her away so heartlessly.  At the time, though, he hadn’t had the courage.  He had trembled with fear that rumors might spread all over town – throughout the church at the very least – and since he didn’t know how to take responsibility for his actions, he just walked away.”
p.116 (Archipelago Books, 2005)

While it’s difficult to feel sympathy for him, his actions are partially explained by his position, hamstrung as he is by his reliance on his own father, still the head of the family (and the keeper of the purse-strings).  Unable to make his own decisions, Sang-hun drifts along, his frustration exacerbating his flaws.

While the family issues are fairly clear, if a little frustrating for the modern (western) reader, the societal situation is a little more opaque.  This was probably to help the novel avoid censorship, but it may make it difficult for some readers to understand exactly what (or who) Byeong-hwa and his friends are conspiring against.  In fact, the Japanese are rarely mentioned in the book – the majority of the novel focuses on the squabbles between the Koreans themselves.

There’s little doubt, though, that Byeong-hwa is a dissident in training, waiting for his opportunity to strike at the oppressor.  Despite his comfortable background, he’s already shown his willingness to swim against the tide in the way he’s broken with his family for religious reasons:

“It makes no sense to keep up this barrier between you and your father.  Can’t you see it as an ethical matter between father and son, instead of an undermining of your beliefs?”
“Well, whatever you want to call it, when parents drive a child away because he doesn’t parrot their words and follow their faith, how else can he live his own life without being their possession or slave?”
(p.51)

Having acquired a sense of class-consciousness, Byeong-hwa refuses to pretend to believe in his father’s religion, preferring to live in poverty while working towards his goals.  There’s an interesting contrast here with Sang-hun’s position (and the older man’s acceptance of his father’s domination in exchange for financial support) – Byeong-hwa is a much more modern man…

…and Gyeong-ae, the other major character of the book, is a very modern woman.  She probably wouldn’t stand out so much in a western novel, but here she’s luminescent.  In a society where women are subservient and forced into fairly closely prescribed gender roles, she refuses to play the part she’s been given, flaunting her differences.  She’s a single mother, often to be found in western clothes, aggressive and affectionate in equal measures, and the relationships she develops with Byeong-hwa and Deok-gi, while rather different in nature, are equally fascinating.

While he comes and goes, Deok-gi is at the heart of all that happens in Three Generations.  A well-behaved young man, he’s torn between disgust at his father’s behaviour and the reverence he knows he should feel for his elders; his grandfather’s commands put him in a rather difficult position.  In a letter to Byeong-hwa, he reveals his frustration with the older generations, unable to take it up with his relatives directly:

“But more than that, older people sowed the seed of tragedy by confining younger generations to their own warped experiences, thoughts and habits.  And they got what they deserved because they made the mistake of turning a blind eye to young people’s plights and didn’t teach them how to think and behave when their dreams were shattered.” (p.214)

He’s a man who grows throughout the story, though, and by the end of the novel he’s ready to take the stage.  It turns out that his grandfather’s decision is probably a very good one…

For its time, Three Generations is a fairly modern (Korean) novel with a lot more subtlety than some I’ve tried.  Yom’s characterisation is effective, with the protagonists drawn in shades of grey, lively without becoming cartoons or stereotypes.  This is even true for the almost Dickensian host of minor characters, a bunch of backstabbing money grabbers, jostling for position for the time after the eventual death of the head of the family.  There’s a complicated web of priorities and loyalties amongst a stifling atmosphere of family ties and obligations – and a suspicion of foul play too.  Even if some of the more subtle cultural by-play goes over your head, there’s plenty in the story to keep most readers interested.

When reminded of Three Generations on Twitter, Charles said “…reading that book is like swimming through a tank of molasses in a cassock”.  I wouldn’t agree, and I think he might see it differently second time around too.  Yom’s novel is an effective portrayal of Korean society at a fascinating time where both writer and country needed to tread a fine line between Korean sensibilities and Japan’s desire for complete control.  Also, in a society that had been unchanged for centuries, the writer shows how modern life was slowly starting to take effect, weakening the grip of traditional norms.  Much as I enjoyed it, though, there’s one thing I would agree with Charles on – it’s probably not the ideal entry point into K-Lit.  Let’s see if we can agree that it’s one for the more experienced traveller and move on ;)

From IFFP to Man Booker International Prize…

150707 MBI2016 Announcement web bannerOne of the problems of submitting an article well in advance is that subsequent events can make you look slightly foolish, and that’s certainly happened with my recent piece on the Shadow IFFP judging process. You see, just a couple of days before it went live over at Shiny New Books, there was news of a major change for the prize, one which would totally restructure the fiction in translation scene. The announcement was of the merger of two prizes, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Man Booker International Prize, into one – from 2016, the new Man Booker International Prize, concentrating on books not writers, will be the only show in town.

There have already been several articles on the news in the mainstream press (of which the best piece by far was Daniel Hahn’s piece in The Guardian), and people haven’t exactly been quiet online either. Unlike many of the newspaper write-ups, aficionados of fiction in translation have been a little less hesitant to accept the new prize with open arms – yes, it’s probably going to be a good thing overall, but that doesn’t mean the move is without its issues. In view of that, here’s what I’m attempting to pass off as a summary of the views I’ve seen so far (although you’d be right in suspecting that I’m focusing on views I mostly share…).

For me, the discussion of the change can be divided into three parts – the good, the bad and the sad. The positive effects are, perhaps, the easiest to explain, as the shift to the new Man Booker International Prize will provide a well-needed image boost for the annual prize. While the IFFP was well run, it was probably a little low-key in its approach to mainstream literary culture. The Man Booker name brings prestige and, more importantly, a vast amount of marketing know-how too, with the new prize able to tap into the existing framework (and online presence) of what is perhaps the most effective literary prize in the Anglosphere.

There’s also the small matter of money. The amount put up for the winners will certainly do a lot of talking, and fiction in translation needs all the conversation and discussion it can get. The new prize will award ₤50,000 to the winners (to be shared between the writer and translator), with a total prize pool of ₤60,000. Having put up a lucrative award, the organisers will be hoping that publishers who have been reticent to enter the IFFP in the past will be a little more likely to publish and promote translated literature.

Despite these benefits of the new move, there is one major drawback, and that’s the fact that where we had two prizes we now have just one. The IFFP and Man Booker International Prize were two distinct entities with differing approaches to promoting the wonders of translation, one focusing on a book, the other on a writer’s complete body of work. Now that second idea has gone, and it’s a shame as there’s space (and a need) for both.

It hardly comes as a surprise, though, as the demise of the writer prize has been on the cards for a while now, mainly because the Booker people shot themselves in the foot by focusing on English-speaking writers. The Man Booker International Prize was set up to honour a writer from anywhere in the world, pitting Anglophone and non-Anglophone writers against each other, making it even more embarrassing that of the first five winners, three were from North America and four wrote their work in English. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it appears that László Krasznahorkai’s recent win showed just what might have been if the prize had focused on authors writing in the many other languages our planet has to offer.

After the good and the bad comes the sad, and the most disappointing aspect of the new change for me (and for many others) has been the overshadowing of the IFFP. I’ve found it amazing how much the coverage has been focused on the Man Booker International Prize, with the IFFP a mere uncomfortable side-note. Yes, the Booker people are taking the prizes forward, yet the truth is that the new prize is the IFFP redux under the Man Booker badge. That’s not something you’d appreciate from much of the press coverage (Hahn, again, is the honourable exception here). Much as I’ve struggled with some of the decisions that Boyd Tonkin and his various panels have made in the past, the IFFP was still a worthy prize which did something nobody else was doing in the UK at the time – there’s a little sense of rewriting history here, one which leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Still, what’s done is done, and there’s no point in looking back too much. While we hope for another career award at some point, there’s still the American Neustadt Prize and, of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature to cover that particular base. I’m looking forward to the first edition of the new prize, when I’m sure I’ll be teaming up with another group of eager bloggers to Shadow the event.

Before we move ahead into the new era, though, let’s just hope that the Man Booker people honour the history of both prizes. This year saw the rediscovery of the ‘missing’ first female IFFP winner (Marta Morazzoni), showing how easy it is for the past to be forgotten. It’d be a tragedy to see more than two decades of winners disappear from memory, just because their prizes were won under a different banner. Let’s move forward, by all means – just don’t forget the names of the giants upon whose shoulders the next generation of writers and translators will stand…