‘Look Who’s Back’ by Timur Vermes (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 6)

IMG_2040Having left Fukuoka early (time off for good behaviour…), the next destination on our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize tour is Berlin.  It’s 2011, and the city is once again the capital of a united Germany, a thriving metropolis gradually leaving the scars left by war and division behind.  But what if a familiar face returned to remind everyone of the city’s uneasy past?  Guess who’s back…

*****
Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes – MacLehose Press (translated by Jamie Bulloch, review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
A man wakes up on his back on a sunny afternoon in a small grassed area, the shouts of some boys playing football nearby the only sound to be heard.  Having sat up, he assesses the situation – apart from a sore head, he appears to be in good shape.  An office worker waking up after a midday snooze?  A hardened drinker getting up to another day in the park?  Not quite.  You see, this is no ordinary man.  This is Adolf Hitler, and – somehow – he’s back, and ready to take control of his city.

Of course, it’s not quite as easy as all that.  Over sixty years have passed since the end of the war, and Berlin has changed a lot:

“The last time I had seen it I remembered the city being terribly dusty and a kind of field-grey, with heaps of rubble and widespread damage.  What lay before me now was quite different.  The rubble had vanished, or at least had been removed, the streets cleared.  Instead there were numerous, nay innumerable brightly coloured vehicles on either side of the street.  They may well have been automobiles, but were smaller, and yet they looked so technically advanced as to make one suspect that the Messerschmitt plant must have had a leading hand in their design.”
p.9 (MacLehose Press, 2014)

In this new environment, the returning leader realises that it’s not going to be easy to regain his former power and make the Volk realise that the threat from the east is still present and dangerous.  However, a short time analysing this new world he’s been thrust into helps Hitler to see that there’s one area where he might be able to make an impression.  This is the age of the television – and, let’s face it, he’s always been a good speaker…

Look Who’s Back, which, in my head at least, always evokes shades of Eminem (Guess Who’s Back / Back again / Hitler’s back / Tell a Friend…) was a huge hit – and a massive controversy – when it came out in Germany.  While the war is a fairly common topic for discussion in the UK, the US and Australia, the result of having been on the ‘right’ side of affairs, Germans have to watch their step a little more, with any kind of sympathy for the Devil Nazi regime seen as an offence (Holocaust denial, for example, is a crime in Germany).  While it may just seem opportunistic, then, Vermes’ book is actually quite a brave move, a novel guaranteed to stir up a rather uncomfortable past.

If the characters thought that this was the real Hitler, then the whole thing would fall flat on its face.  However, sixty-five years after the end of the conflict, the former Führer is regarded as a comedian, an impersonator who takes his role so seriously that he never leaves character:

    “You really don’t want to look like other people, do you?” the newspaper vendor said.
     “Where do you think it would have got me if I had always done everything like so-called ‘other people’?” I retorted.  “And where would Germany be?
     “Hmm,” he said, silenced by my comment.  He lit another cigarette and said, “You could see it that way, I suppose.” (p.43)

This single-minded focus soon leads to a break.  From humble beginnings as a guest on a small comedy show, he rockets to stardom, a man mocking German society in a way most would never dare.

The most succesful aspect of the novel is the way in which contemporary society is lampooned lookin its confrontation with Hitler.  The television network falls over itself to promote their new star, though Hitler himself deplores the rubbish filling the airwaves (there’s an amusing passage in which we get his views on daytime TV…).  Once he becomes more famous, he is even able to attract politicians onto his show, proving his point about weak career politicians and their desperation to catch hold of the Zeitgeist.

It’s not just the television networks that are obsessed with the ‘comedian’.  The printed press is just as starstruck, with (initially) the exception of the powerful tabloid, Die Bild-Zeitung.  One of the most fascinating parts of the book for me was the section in which Hitler wages a campaign against the newspaper – anyone who has ever ‘read’ this particular publication will understand that it was a conflict where the reader’s loyalties are squarely behind the Führer…

Vermes never quite lets us forget, however, who we’re dealing with.  This is Hitler, and his views remain the same.  When the topic of Jews comes up, and all agree that this is no laughing matter, the two sides load the words with very different meanings.  Often, the writer’s way of bringing the reader back down to Earth is less than subtle, clumsy even.  However, on occasion, he can get it chillingly right, such as when at the height of his success, he is feted at the television network:

     And, just as in the Reichstag of old, the salute came resounding back: “Heil!”
     “Sieg…”
     “Heil!”
     “Sieg…”
     “Heil!!!” (p.282)

Look Who’s Back can be a little light at times, but this is a moment where the full enormity of the situation is there for the reader to see.  This man is not an amusing satirist, he’s a megalomaniac who plotted and ordered the murder of millions of people – and he’s on his way to a triumphant comeback.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, I don’t think so.  I enjoyed the book for the most part, and there’s a lot to like in certain areas, but this isn’t a book that lingers in the memory.  It reminded me a little of The Rosie Project (a book I’ve skimmed but not read in full), a bad-taste joke stretched out for hundreds of pages.  People will enjoy this because of the familiarity of the subject, and it’s certainly an enjoyable book (with an excellent translation by Jamie Bulloch), laugh-out-loud funny at times.  However, if I’d left this review much longer to write, I doubt I would have remembered much about it.

It’s not bad, it’s just not a prize winner ;)

Will it make the shortlist?
I doubt it.  There are five German books on the longlist this year, and with Erpenbeck having sewn up one of the six shortlist spots (famous last words…), I can’t see Look Who’s Back joining it (while I hadn’t read them at time of posting, the Kehlmann and the Schalansky are much more likely to progress).  This is another of the lighter books on the longlist, one of those the judges suspect will appeal to the average reader.  They’re probably right – and that’s as far as it goes :)

*****
Let’s leave Adolf to his new career and head northwards, where a much more literary, and melancholy, story awaits us.  We’re off to Sweden to spend some time on a farm, helping out in the fields and taking time out to observe the native birds.  A word of warning – watch out for the big black ones…

‘White Hunger’ by Aki Ollikainen (Review)

IMG_5178While Peirene Press have covered a fair chunk of Europe (and beyond) in their quest to bring us quality novellas in translation, some countries have had more attention than others.  Given Meike’s background, the focus on German-language fiction is understandable, but the latest offering is the third from Finland, a rather impressive proportion of Peirene books for a small country.  Of course, as always, it’s the quality, not quantity that counts, and after reading today’s book, I doubt many people will be disappointed that we’re crossing the Arctic Circle again…

*****
Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger (translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah) takes us back to the Finland of 1867, a time and place beset by famine and hunger.  As the luckier members of society let their servants go, so as not to have to feed them, the poorer Finns supplement their food with bark and grass.  When even this is not enough, it’s time to hit the road, to see if fortunes are better elsewhere.

This is the choice taken by Marja, and her children Mataleena and Juho, when her husband lies on his death bed in the middle of a harsh, unforgiving winter.  With no food left, she decides that setting out for St. Petersburg is the only way she and her family might possibly make it through the winter.  In such an intemperate climate, though, the chances of making it that far are virtually non-existent, and the surplus of migrants pouring out of the frozen north means that even the kindest of folk have no choice but to force the beggars to move on.  As the story progresses, it’s clear that not everyone will survive to see the following spring.

White Hunger is another excellent choice by Peirene, no doubt suggested by the Jeremiah mother and daughter translation team.  The blurb mentions Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the journey through a (semi-) deserted wasteland does have obvious parallels with that book.  However, you can also see links to other Peirene books (such as Beside the Sea and The Blue Room) with a focus on the mother, a feminine twist on the apocalyptic story.

Marja is forced to make an impossible choice, one which proves to be merely the first of many.  Leaving her husband behind is hard enough, but what should she do with her children?  The reader is left in no doubt that this will be a cruel journey, a trip across frozen wastelands:

“They are the ghosts of this winter, the statues of snow that the wind knocks up on the icy open sea.  The ship never came; winter came, without warning, overnight.”
p.63 (Peirene Press, 2015)

The statues of snow piled up on the sea are more than just eery figures in the twilight – they’re also a chilling foreshadowing of what is to come.

While the cold is bad enough, it’s hunger which is the real enemy.  With a steady supply of food impossible to come by, an empty stomach is a fact of life, and the story abounds with descriptions of the physical pain of a lack of food:

“Mataleena stares silently ahead.  Her stomach is hurting.  At first the pain pinches, but soon there is an angry cat scratching, scraping, sinking its teeth into the pit of her stomach.  Claws push through to her ribs from inside and the animal mauls her so brutally that she starts to writhe.” (p.55)

The irony here is that it’s not just the hunger that hurts: when food is available, the stomach struggles to cope with it after days of deprivation.

Everyone’s in the same boat, though, and there’s not a lot of sympathy to go around.  Those who try to acquire food that doesn’t belong to them will also feel pain, albeit of a very different kind, with the family witnessing several examples of on-the-spot justice during their travels.  Of course, as in any difficult situation, there are some people around who are prepared to help out, even if they don’t have much themselves.  One of the interesting features of the book is the way in which true character, whether good or bad, shines through in a time of need.

There’s more to the book than just the family strand, though.  The details of the journey are interspersed with scenes from a town, focusing on a doctor with a good heart but a weak – and easily led – body (although I’m probably being over-generous here…).  In contrast to the earlier scenes from the countryside, these parts show us views of the urban poor and their plight – it’s only towards the end that we see how the stories intersect.

As well as having an interesting story, White Hunger is beautifully written in places.  The language can be powerful, especially when describing the majesty of the climate and the landscape:

“The drifting clouds were low.  They pressed everything down with an unrelenting strength; the peninsula on which the town stood seemed on the brink of yielding.  A mass of whooshing water would then sweep over the villa Kalliolinna and the observatory, and, with a solemn roar, drown St Nicholas’ Church with its cupolas, and the Senate House.  The new Orthodox cathedral would plunge thunderously into the waves.” (p.21)

However, these descriptions are frequently interrupted by more earthy descriptions, looking at life and death, hunger and sex.  It’s a book of contrasts, just like the characters it contains, but one which keeps the reader’s attention to the last page.

Like most Peirene books, this is a quick read, and again, like the rest of its stable mates, it’s a book to be read more than once.  Enjoyable, well written and with an ending which perhaps leads you to consider the rest of the book in a new light, this is definitely one I’ll be picking up again at some point.  Perhaps I’ll leave it a few months, though – having first tried it during the Australian summer, I may get a different feel for the book if I try it on a cold winter’s night…

‘The Investigation’ by Jung-Myung Lee (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 5)

IMG_2040Having paddled our canoes back from Equatorial Guinea’s Atlantic islands, it’s time to head east on our literary voyage, as we make a trip to Asia.  While our next book hails from Korea, the setting lies just across the waters in wartime Japan, and it’s a story that looks at the fraught relationship between the imperialists and those whose home country (and tongue) has been suppressed.  Don’t worry if the prison gates close behind you: we’ll only be here for a short while – I promise…

*****
The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee – PanMacmillan (translated by Chi-Young Kim)
What’s it all about?
Yuichi Watanabe is being charged as a low-level war criminal for his duties at Fukuoka Prison towards the end of the Second World War, and the bulk of The Investigation concerns his story of the people inside the prison walls and the events that took place there.  The story proper begins with the young conscript guard being assigned to a special investigation.  His duty partner, Dozan Sugiyama, has been found brutally murdered, hanging from a rail with his lips stitched together, and it’s Watanabe’s job to find out who ended Sugiyama’s life.

The older guard was known for his sadistic nature, and there is no shortage of suspects for the crime, particularly among the Korean prisoners in Ward Three.  The intelligent Watanabe soon uncovers suspicious activities at the prison, his investigation focusing on a known Korean troublemaker.  However, something keeps him digging deeper, and an introduction to an unusual prisoner sheds new light on both the murder and Sugiyama.  Could it be that the heartless survivor of the Manchurian conflict possessed an artistic soul?

The Investigation is an interesting choice for the IFFP as the novel is part literary fiction and part thriller.  While there is a focus on who did it (and why), the crime is more an opportunity for the writer to examine the theme of Koreans in Japan during the war and the importance of language and literature.  The more Watanabe gets to know the poet, the more fascinated he is by his work, and his determination to clear up the puzzle stems just as much from his desire to protect the poet as from his sense of duty.

For much of the novel, though, Watanabe is actually less important than the other main characters.  There’s a constant focus on Sugiyama, a complex figure whose character is gradually unveiled in flashbacks.  The guard is undoubtedly brutal, but Watanabe comes to realise there’s more inside his colleague – having recently learned to read, the older man has suddenly become captivated by the magic of words…

The catalyst is the centre of all the action here, Tochu Hiranuma or, to give him his Korean name, Yun Dong-ju.  Yun is a young poet swept into prison under false pretences, his crime merely being Korean in an era of subjugation:

“He was no longer free, but he hadn’t ever known how it felt to be free; no Korean was free.”
p.106 (Pan MacMillan, 2014)

He has an innate need for words and books, and his poetry has a startling effect on Sugiyama, causing the guard to neglect his duties.

In truth, he has the same effect on the sensitive Watanabe, a man who misses his books.  In fact, the guard later learns that there’s something more than a love of literature that connects him to the poet:

“I turned the pages one by one.  This book had come to me from some stranger and stayed with the young poet before returning to me.  Rilke’s words had wandered thought the world, embracing and healing damaged spirits.  That night, the world became a little more beautiful.” (p.248)

Just like Sugiyama before him, he too begins to keep secrets from his superiors.  Of course, what he doesn’t realise is that they’re keeping secrets from him too.

The best part of the novel is the interplay between the poet and the two guards, the KoreanIMG_5182 prisoner and his Japanese captors.  Lee uses his characters to explain the importance of language in preserving identity, with the prisoners always looking for an opportunity to keep their mother tongue alive.  Names, obviously, play a huge role in the book, and major turning points occur when the guards begin to use the poet’s Korean name rather than his assumed Japanese one.  However, there are several other clever examples of language in other areas too, such as when the poet persuades the prison officials to include a rather subversive Verdi song in their concert…

Yun is a real-life figure, a famous poet in Korea and the whole reason for the book, and the sections involving him are excellent.  However, as a whole, the book isn’t that great.  The events around this centre are a little contrived, easy to guess and often fairly weak.  In many ways, this would have been a much better read if the writer had avoided the thriller aspects and simply related the story of two (or three) men in an unhappy time.  For me, there was enough to that story to warrant a novel without needing to throw in the thriller aspects.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, I don’t think so.  In parts, it’s an intriguing story, particularly when the two guards start to become involved with the poet.  However, the plot seems a little superfluous at times, and several of the twists are fairly obvious.  In addition, the prose was fairly pedestrian for the most part, a major drawback in a tale about a poet.  This is a bit of a mish-mash of styles, and while it’s enjoyable at times, I don’t think it’ll go any further.

Will it make the shortlist?
I doubt it (although LTI Korea will be hoping it does…).  However, as we’ve seen in recent years, strange things do happen *cough Bundu*…

*****
The prison gates are behind us, and we’re back on the road, this time heading to Europe.  The weather is nice and sunny in Berlin, perfect for a short getaway, and while we’re there, we might watch a bit of telly – I’ve heard there’s a new comedy show with a rather familiar face…

‘By Night the Mountain Burns’ by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 4)

IMG_2040Having wrapped up the three books I’d previously read and reviewed from the IFFP longlist, it’s time to get my journey on the road properly, and today’s first stop is certainly a fair trip.  We’re off to Africa for a story of a childhood a little different to those of most of my readers, a tale that looks at life on a small island with big secrets.  Let’s leave the bus at home today – I have a feeling that a canoe will be a lot more useful :)

*****
By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel – And Other Stories (translated by Jethro Soutar, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
By Night the Mountain Burns is a short novel in the form of a monologue told by a native of one of Equatorial Guinea’s Atlantic islands.  While the place is real, at times it appears more of a lost realm, an island removed from the wider world:

“If I’d studied geography, I’d give degrees of latitude and longitude, so that you might look the island up on a map, or on some other more modern means of looking for things.  In any case, I should mention that the island is African, and that the people who live on the island are black, every last one of them.  And that it’s surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.  Totally surrounded.  The black people I speak of live on a sliver of land that pokes out of the murky waters.”
(And Other Stories, 2014)

However, despite the odd superstition or two, this is a very real story, one in which an adult looks back at his childhood, explaining how life was lived on the island in times gone by.

The young boy lived in a large house with all of his relatives, and right from the start there are indications that his family is a little different from the others in the ‘big village’.  For one thing, there’s the mystery of the absent men.  While the island can be matriarchal, with women controlling land and plantations, the men are usually around; however, in the narrator’s extended family, the fathers and uncles have gone away (where, we’re not quite sure).  There’s also the small matter of the grandfather, a man who spends his days sitting on the upstairs balcony of a house deliberately built to face away from the sea.  Why doesn’t he have a canoe?  Why can’t he provide fish for his family?  Patience, dear listener – this is a story, and all will be revealed in good time…

While By Night the Mountain Burns is a novel, in style it’s much more similar to an oral By-Night-the-M-B-front-cover-CMYK-300x460recitation, a man simply sitting down and telling the story of his youth.  The language is simple, but effective, and the story has many of the features of spoken language, with frequent repetition, tangential anecdotes and pauses to reflect on what has been said.  This has much to do with the reason for the narrator’s story, something which isn’t revealed until the end of the novel.

Part of the appeal of the novel is the way in which the narrator (and writer) hides important facts, or rather omits them by accident, leaving the listener (or reader) to fill in the gaps as best they can.  The most important of these mysteries concerns the grandfather, an old man who never goes out to sit with the rest of the old men by the beach:

‘Did he not go because he didn’t know the others, didn’t know about the same things?  It was possible, and this reinforced my belief that he was an incomer.”

The truth, though has less to do with the grandfather’s origins and more to do with the man himself, a secret the children will eventually uncover when they dare to enter his bedroom…

However, there’s a lot more to the book than the narrator’s personal stories, and one of the major themes of the novel is the difficulty of life on a poor island.  Having grown up without luxuries, it takes a while for the narrator to realise that life could be different:

“When the lamp went out for some reason before we’d gone to sleep, it constituted something of an education for me: I started to learn about our life and started to realise that things weren’t the way I’d always seen them.  I started to realise that we didn’t have it so good.”

The reality is that the islanders often face a lack of just about everything, from tobacco to medicine, and their supplies are only restocked when fishing boats from the outside world happen to come by.  It’s a traditional way of life supplemented by rare treats from the modern world the islanders have never seen.

This mix of the traditional and the modern also extends to culture and religion.  While the islanders are devout Catholics, their practices are mixed with superstitious tendencies.  There are various ceremonies to protect the fortune of the islanders, ‘bad’ women who bathe naked in the sea, spirits who need to be appeased and saints you need to be introduced to before you can sleep peacefully in their village.  It’s not quite Catholicism as most people know it…

What adds an extra dimension to the story, though, are the darker elements the writer introduces.  There’s a woman attacked brutally in the street, a cholera outbreak which decimates the islanders, a fire which destroys their crops – all disturbing events on the island idyll.  Whether human or natural in nature, on a small island, when trouble erupts, sometimes there is simply nothing that can be done.  The narrator’s peaceful tone belies the reality of a life filled with tension.

By Night the Mountain Burns is an excellent story, told in a well-executed style.  Soutar’s translation captures the oral style nicely, recreating the narrator’s long yarn with its occasional childish quirk (such as when he talks about ‘the deads’).  It’s repetitive at times, deliberately so, something I found a little frustrating at times.  On the whole, though, it makes for an effective novel – something very different and definitely worthy of a place on the longlist :)

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I’m not quite sure…  The charm of the novel is its spoken style and its deliberate repetition and secrecy, but there were times when I would have liked it to move on a little more quickly.  I also felt that there was going to be something more involved, especially concerning the narrator’s family, and when the end came, I actually felt as if something was missing.  This is a good book, but I’m not convinced it’ll make my personal top six.

Will it make the shortlist?
I think it stands a very good chance.  Other reviews have been far more positive than mine (not that mine is negative!), and it’s a charming story which will please the judges.  Variety is often important for the shortlist, and having an African novel among the final six would definitely be something they’ll have in mind ;)

*****
After our brief island holiday, it’s time to move on; where next on our global odyssey?  Let me see…

Go to jail.  Go directly to jail.  Do not pass ‘Go’.  Do not collect 200 Yen.

That doesn’t sound too promising :(

‘Nacht ist der Tag’ (‘All Days are Night’) by Peter Stamm (Review)

IMG_5177Having read all of Peter Stamm’s previous novels (although I still have some of his short story collections to get to), I was looking forward to getting my hands on the latest one, which appeared in German a couple of years back.  Of course, there are limits to my enthusiasm (and finances), and I decided to wait until the paperback edition was released at the end of 2014 – which meant that I was able to see several reviews of the book, not all of which were that positive.  Pause for thought?  Perhaps…  But having enjoyed his first four novels, surely this one would be a success too?

*****
Nacht ist der Tag (All Days are Night) begins with Gillian, a beautiful, successful TV presenter, waking up in hospital.  As her memories slowly return, the reader finds out about the car crash that put her there, an accident which has left her husband dead – and seriously damaged Gillian’s face.  After the first of many operations, she returns home to brood over her misfortune, and to think about the cause of the accident, an argument with her husband which led to his driving under the influence.

The reason for the argument was Gillian’s secret meetings with Hubert, an artist and photographer she met on her show – and the photos he took of her.  However, she isn’t the only one whose life is altered by the impromptu session as the artist also sees his life take a different direction afterwards.  It’s a chance encounter that has changed both their lives – it’s only when they meet again that they realise how much.

I hate to say it, but those negative critics had it right – All Days are Night is most definitely not Stamm’s finest hour.  The energy and spark that characterises his other novels is missing here, and I found myself really struggling through some parts of the book.  Were I a book abandoner, this one would have been set aside before the end of the first half – which is about as bad as it gets…

What Stamm was trying to do in this book was paint a portrait of two people whose early success fades away.  Once life takes a turn for the worse, Gillian and Hubert are forced to reconsider the life lived thus far:

“Ihr Leben vor dem Unfall war eine einzige Inszenierung gewesen.  Ihr Job, das Ferhsehstudio, die schönen Kleider, die Städtereisen, die Essen in guten Restaurants, die Besuche bei ihren Eltern und bei der Mutter von Matthias.  Es musste falsch gewesen sein, wenn es so leicht zu zerstören war, durch eine Unachtsamkeit, eine falsche Bewegung.”
p.44 (Fischer Verlag, 2014)

“Her life before the accident had just been one big sham.  Her job, the TV studio, the beautiful clothes, the city breaks, eating out at good restaurants, the visits to her parents and Matthias’ mother.  It must all have been wrong, if it could be destroyed so easily, through carelessness, one false step.” *** (my translation)

Both Gillian and Hubert struggle to come to terms with the change in their circumstances.  Having been successful, they are unable to deal with a life slightly more ordinary.

Gillian is a seemingly attractive, successful woman, but there’s something a little flat about her.  This comes through in Hubert’s (slightly creepy) attempts to draw and photograph her – try as he might to draw out the life within, there’s nothing really there.  Of course, that might also be due to Hubert’s own issues with emptiness:

“Manchmal fragte sich Hubert, wann seine Schaffenskrise angefangen hatte.  Es war nicht plötzlich geschehen, irgendwann hatte er bemerkt, dass ihm das Malen keinen Spaß mehr machte und dass er seit Monaten nichts Neues angefangen hatte.” (p.145)

“Sometimes Hubert wondered when his creative crisis had begun.  It hadn’t happened overnight, at some point he had noticed that painting was no longer enjoyable and that he hadn’t started anything new for months.” ***

Just as Gillian has lost motivation, Hubert too seems to have had the life sucked out of him by their encounter.

The raw material is there for an interesting story, but somehow it doesn’t quite come together.  While Stamm’s usual work (Seven Years, Agnes) often has a spiteful, disturbing undertone which lends the story a unique air, this one is, at times, simply dull.  This is particularly true for the first half of the book, focusing on Gillian coming to terms with the accident and the flashbacks to her meeting with Hubert.  It sets the scene for the rest of the novel, but it’s rather boring and far too slow.

The book is also structured a little strangely.  The first half is written from Gillian’s viewpoint, and the second section is seen through Hubert’s eyes, with a third section, a sort of coda, rounding things off.  The overall effect is a little disjointed, the whole story failing to hang together somehow – in writing of a couple whose lives are off kilter, Stamm seems to have felt the same issues himself.

It’s certainly not all bad , and the second section, when the two meet again years later, does have some of the old Stamm magic, with Gillian, in particular, seeming a little more three-dimensional.  However, for me, All Days are Night is a rather disappointing book, not a patch on his earlier work.  Still, if you want to find out for yourself, Other Press published an English-language version last year in Michael Hofmann’s translation – perhaps you’ll enjoy it more than I did ;)  I’ll still be looking forward to Stamm’s next novel – I just hope it’s better than this one…

IFFP 2015 Round Up – Reviews 1, 2 & 3

IMG_2040Well, after the rather surprising choices made by the judges for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, it appears that I’ve got rather a lot of work to do.  Having only read three of their selections, I need to get through twelve more books before the shortlist is chosen on the 9th of April – to be honest, I think I’m going to struggle…

Before I get onto those books, though, I thought (as always) that I’d just give everyone a brief recap of my thoughts on the ones I have tried (links are to my reviews).  Without further ado, let’s get this show on the road – after all, as roads go, it’s a pretty long one…

*****
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Harvill Secker (translated by Philip Gabriel)
What’s it all about?
A middle-aged man decides to revisit an event which saw him ostracised by his friends during Murakamihis university days, discovering much about them, and himself, in the process.  Tsukuru Tazaki may think he’s lost his glow, but he’s to discover that he’s not quite as colourless as he always thought.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
This is a book I enjoyed a lot both times I read it, and while there are always going to be Murakami haters out there, most people seem to have seen this as a partial return to form.  It might not be up there with his very best works, but I think this one should make the final six.

Will it make the shortlist?
I’m leaning towards a yes here too.  It would be good to have a big name on the shortlist, and names don’t come much bigger in the world of fiction in translation.  I suspect that the panel will be reading Haruki’s name out come April the 9th :)

*****
Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard – Harvill Secker (tr. Don Bartlett)
KnausgaardWhat’s it all about?
Knausi’s back for the third year in a row, and this time he’s a schoolboy ;)  Boyhood Island sees everyone’s favourite grumpy Norwegian look back at his childhood, a time of football, bikes and girls. There is a cloud over the eternal sunshine of his early years , though – if you think the writer has a less than sunny disposition, wait until you meet his father…

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Possibly, maybe, not so sure.  I didn’t rate it as highly as the first two, but it did have a certain something.  I’ll probably have more of an idea once I’ve read more of the other longlisted books.  In a strong year, this is as far as it would go, but I’m yet to be convinced that this is a strong year.

Will it make the shortlist?
I don’t think so.  Knausgaard will have another three shots at making the shortlist (and winning the whole thing) – this won’t be his year.

*****
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck – Portobello Books (tr. Susan Bernofsky)
What’s it all about?
A girl dies, and then she doesn’t – a woman dies, and then she doesn’t, repeatedly.  Erpenbeck Erpenbeckshows us the life (and possible deaths) of a woman and looks at twentieth-century Europe along the way.  From the Austro-Hungarian Empire to post-reunification Berlin, taking in the Holocaust along the way, The End of Days shows us that everything depends on a multitude of actions which could easily have gone differently…

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Yes.  Of the three I’ve read, this is the one I’m backing to do best.  While I wasn’t a huge fan of Visitation, I loved The End of Days, and having looked at the rest of the longlist, there’s little there that I expect to match up to it.

Will it make the shortlist?
Almost certainly.  Female writer, previously shortlisted, Holocaust setting (in parts) – I’m ticking boxes all over the place here ;)  Definitely one to watch.

*****
That’s how far I’ve got so far – now there’s just the small matter of reading and reviewing around a dozen of the best books published in translation in the UK last year (well, according to the IFFP panel, anyway).  I have my doubts about a couple, but I suppose the proof will be in the reading.  Stay tuned for the next leg of my trip around the literary world – good, bad or bizarre, I’m sure it’ll be an interesting journey :)

IFFP 2015 – The Longlist

iffp2015logoAfter an agonising wait (which seems to have been going on for ever), we finally have the fifteen contenders hoping to take out the crown for the best book released in translation in the UK last yearyes, the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist is here!  The final fifteen have been announced over at the Booktrust site, and here they are in all their glory :)

*****
Bloodlines by Marcello Fois, translated by Silvester Mazzarella (MacLehose)
Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard, tr. Don Bartlett (Harvill Secker)
By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel, tr. Jethro Soutar
(And Other Stories)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami,
tr. Philip Gabriel (Harvill Secker)
F by Daniel Kehlman, tr. Carol Brown Janeway (Quercus)
In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomas Gonzalez, tr. Frank Wynne (Pushkin)
Look Who’s Back by Timur Vernes, tr. Jamie Bulloch (Maclehose)
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, tr. Andrew Bromfield (Peirene)
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, tr. Susan Bernofsky (Portobello)
The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky, tr. Shaun Whiteside (Bloomsbury)
The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee, tr. Chi-Young Kim (Pan Macmillan)
The Last Lover by Can Xue, tr, Annelise Finegan (Yale University Press)
The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed, tr. Sarah Death (Clerkenwell)
Tiger Milk by Stephanie De Velasco, tr. Tim Mohr (Head of Zeus)
While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, tr. Paul Vincent (Pushkin)

*****
Hmm.  I have to say that the list is somewhat… unexpected.  I’ve only read three of the choices above, IMG_2040and big names such as Per Petterson, Andrés Neuman, Elena Ferrante and Matthias Énard have fallen unexpectedly at the first hurdle.  That is, of course, if they were ever entered at all – sadly, the secrecy of the IFFP regulations means that we’ll never know…

Anyway, there’s no time to think too much about that – it’s time to get reading!  We at the Shadow Jury will do our best to get through the books in a timely manner – stay tuned for views and reviews culminating in a shortlist decision at some point :)

‘The Long Road’ by Kim In-suk (Review)

IMG_5176With a couple of honourable exceptions, most of the K-Lit I’ve read over the past year or so has been set in Korea itself, the majority in and around Seoul.  It’s no coincidence – Korean literature is notoriously inwardly focused -, but you can find the odd book set outside the peninsula if you look hard enough.  Today’s choice is one such book (another University library find), and the setting is a familiar one…

…well, for me, anyway.

*****
Kim In-suk’s The Long Road (translated by Stephen J. Epstein) is a novella set in Australia.  The main character, Han-yeong, has lived in the country for several years, integrating fairly successfully into his new life.  However, as time passes, he feels he has left a part of himself back home, and he quits his job as an architect in an attempt to work out what he needs to do next.

Along with Myeong-u, another expatriate, he heads off to Port Macquarie to see his brother, Han-rim, and the three men (and an Aussie helper) set out for sea to fish, drink and shoot the breeze.  As a storm passes over the boat, and the men huddle below, there’s plenty of time for talking and thinking – and it turns out that the three Koreans are far from happy with the hand life has dealt them.

The Long Road is (ironically) a short book with an interesting topic, treating the reader to a rare view of the Korean diaspora.  The three main characters, while very different men, were all forced to leave their homeland for the same reason, persecution by the brutal dictatorship of the 1980s.  However, what brings them together is less a need to find familiar faces from home than a yearning to return to the mother country; each of the three, whether they admit it or not, has lost a lot by leaving Korea.

Of the three, Han-yeong appears to be the one who has made the most of life Down Under.  He’s initially attracted to the relaxed, easy atmosphere and the 5.00 culture (no death by overwork here…).  However, the longer he stays, the less comfortable he feels:

“The problem wasn’t language.  He now knew that it was one thing to understand the words that were spoken and another to understand the feelings behind them.  Maybe the difficulties began when he felt comfortable enough with English not to have any real language problems.”
p.30 (Merwin Asia, 2010)

After a few years of life in a different culture, it might just be time to reconnect with his own.

In an attempt to work out his own issues, he takes on voluntary work at a newspaper, looking for stories of other Korean expats, and this is where he encounters Myeong-u.  He’s a later arrival, a dissident who recently received permanent residency in Australia, and Han-yeong (along with the reader) gradually learns of his story of torture and beatings.  Of course, PR isn’t really what Myeong-u wants – having been publicly labelled as being at risk of persecution, there’s now little chance of his ever going home.

The most comfortable of the three men, on the surface, at least, is Han-rim.  He left Korea after his protest song, the titular ‘The Long Road’, was banned, but once he arrived in Australia, he kept running, away from his family and community.  With his small boat (and his dreams of catching a whale…), he’s determined to be free:

     Han-rim turned away from the window and looked at Myeong-u.  “You should try to enjoy Australia now too, Myeong-u.  What can we do in a foreign country?  What would be the point of coming all this way if the goal was to knock ourselves out earning money?  You know what people with permanent residence can do?  Permanently enjoy the place.” (p.71)

That’s easier to say than do – the truth is that none of them, not even Han-rim, really feel that way:

A sense of crisis swept over Han-yeong.  “Enjoy.”  Was it a Korean essence remaining inside him that made the word feel like it represented a sin? (p.71)

Moving on is not quite as easy as Han-rim would have the others believe…

The Long Road is an interesting story of those who left Korea during a difficult time (many books of the same era focus on those who stayed and suffered).  The picture of the three men is a portrait of people mentally scarred by their struggle against authority.  Having fled the country, they then suffer further from the difficulties of exile and their inability to fully absorb an alien culture, hoping to return to the place which tormented and rejected them.

I’d have to say, though, that I’m not sure this is a book a newcomer to K-Lit would enjoy.  It’s far too allusive on the whole, and the casual reader really needs more background to fully understand why the men are so unhappy.  In other works I’ve read on the same period (e.g. There a Petal Silently Falls, I’ll Be Right There), there’s a much clearer focus, allowing the reader glimpses of what was going on, but The Long Road is far too oblique.  I also found it to have an uneasy length and fit – it’s both too short and too long in a way, a slightly awkward mix between a story and a novel which doesn’t really suit either length.

This is definitely one for K-Lit fans looking to broaden their horizons.  It’s a nice quick read, but not really in the same league as some of the other Korean books I’ve read this year.  Perhaps there’s a reason why there’s not a lot of Korean fiction set outside the country – maybe Korean authors really do create their best work when writing about home…

Shadow IFFP JURY 2014

Tony:

Yes, we’re back – and bigger than ever :)

Originally posted on Winstonsdad's Blog:

IMG_2040

This year Tony and I have brought together the biggest shadow jury . But a truly global  jury for a prize for world fiction . We have bloggers from the US , UK , France ,India and Australia .I feel we will really get the IFFP noticed around the world .

Chairman Stu blogger at winstonsdad , champion of translated fiction and starter of this shadow IFFp prize bringing the world of fiction to the readers so far 500 books from a 100 countries .Also twitter fan at @stujallen started hashtag #translationthurs to promote translated fiction . By day a support worker working with people with learning disabilties for the last twenty years .

Tony Malone is an Englishman based in Melbourne who teaches English as a second language to prospective university students .He is interested in foreign languages and literature , focusing in particular on German , Japanese and…

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‘The Cat Who Came in off the Roof’ by Annie M.G. Schmidt (Review)

IMG_5172It’s time for another review of translated fiction for children on the blog, which means that after a short absence, my trusty assistant Emily is back to tell you all about another classic tale.  I can assure you all that she’s very excited to talk to everyone about today’s choice, a story about a journalist, a cat and a woman – or should that be a cat or a woman?

*****
What’s the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called The Cat Who Came in off the Roof, and it’s by Annie M.G. Schmidt (and it’s translated by David Colmer).

What’s it about?
It’s about a lady called Minou and a man called Tibble.  Minou was a cat her whole life until she became a human!  She lives in Tibble’s flat and helps him keep his job as a journalist by picking up information from the Cat Press Agency (the CPA!), a group of cats who bring along news for Minou to tell Tibble – all for the price of a piece of fish.  Then, Tibble realises Mr. Ellmore has crashed into the fish shop, but no one believes him because everyone loves Mr. Ellmore (even though he is VERY nasty to cats), so Minou hatches a plan to get some evidence to make people believe Tibble.

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
It was a very good book :)  I like how Minou is always acting cattish – she purrs, hisses and rubs up against people!  She can also talk to cats, and that’s how she keeps Tibble’s job.

What was your favourite part?
I don’t have a favourite bit – I loved every bit of it!

Was it difficult to read?
Maybe a few bits were hard to read, but most of it was very easy, and I understood the story.

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
I think this is a good book for everyone, but girls will LOVE IT :)  When Minou turns into a lady, it’s mostly about helping her be a good human and not hurt anyone with her very sharp (pink) fingernails, and I think girls my age will like this a lot.

Emily, thank you very much.

*****
As you can see, Emily enjoyed this one a lot, and that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.  Schmidt has been described as ‘the Queen of Dutch children’s literature’, and Minoes (the original title of this book, published in 1970) is one of her best-known works.  In fact, in 2001 it was turned into a film which was both a commercial and critically acclaimed success.

Once again, Pushkin had one of the best translators on the case, with Colmer (who has brought work by Cees Nooteboom, Dimitri Verhulst and IFFP-winner Gerbrand Bakker into English) on duty here.  Having had a quick flick through the book myself, it does read nicely, with a most appropriate tone – whatever an appropriate tone is for a story about a cat turned into a woman:

     “Ssss…” said Aunt Sooty.  “I can’t blame her.  You must have done something ghastly to be punished like this.  Turned into a human!  What a horrific punishment.  I wouldn’t be human for all the canaries in China.  Tell me, was it a magic spell?”
     “I don’t know,” Minou said.
     “But you must know how it happened?”
     “I went out as a cat and came back as a human, that’s all I know.”
     “Incredible,” Aunt Sooty said.  “But it must have been your fault.  You probably did something terribly uncattish.”
p.16 (Pushkin Children’s Books, 2015)

It’s a lovely story, but without the right translator to get it across into English, it would all fall flat – credit to Pushkin for getting the best person for the job.

Another aspect of the book that both Emily and I appreciated is how it looks and feels.  It’s a beautiful design, and the cover is of the same family as those of the two Erich Kästner books Emily tried last year.  Hopefully, this will be the standard design for the press’ chapter books – they certainly look nice on my daughter’s bookshelf :)  I wonder what else might be coming up?

Anyway, The Cat Who Came in off the Roof gets a big tick from Emily (and me), so if you have a young girl, or boy, with a passion for reading (or cats), we can definitely recommend this one.  And if you’re enjoying our series of posts, watch this space – I’m sure there’ll be more of Emily’s adventures in translated fiction before too long :)