While being nominated for prizes is no guarantee that a book is high quality (after four years of shadowing the IFFP, I can assure you of that…), it can be a useful indicator of how likely you are to enjoy it. That’s even more the case when the work is noticed by several prizes, so with today’s book having been longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award and having actually taken out this year’s (American) PEN Translation Prize, I had very high hopes. Let’s see if the judges got it right with this one 😉
Baboon (translated by Denise Newman, electronic review copy courtesy of Two Lines Press) is a collection of short stories from Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt. It’s not an overly long book, and most readers would be able to finish the stories in a couple of hours or so, but there’s an impressive variety of styles and subject matter to enjoy. Though the stories vary in length and setting, certain themes run through the collection, and the overall picture is of people struggling with their flaws in a grey, depressing world.
When it comes to people struggling, family is a word that instantly comes to mind, and several of Aidt’s stories feature disjointed groups of people uneasily tied together by blood and circumstance. ‘Sunday’ is a subtle story, written in simple, descriptive sentences, in which a blended family negotiates another suburban weekend. As dull as that may sound, once you’ve read ‘The Car Trip’, a blow-by-blow description of a holiday doomed to failure, you’ll be longing to get away from the vomit and back to a quiet, lazy Sunday afternoon.
This idea of an ill-fated day out is also the topic of the opening piece, ‘Bjulberg’. Written in a dramatic, breathless style, it’s the story of a day trip gone awry, an excursion symptomatic of the relationship between the two adults. It’s not a very cheery tale:
“I pull myself away from the child and fling the yellow kid’s bike into the bushes. I think how it looks like evidence from a grisly crime. Someone will come across it one day. They’ll find my fingerprints on the frame and Sebastian’s on the handlebars. Perhaps yours as well. Maybe they’ll think we murdered the child.”
‘Bjulberg’ (Two Lines Press, 2014)
Part of the success of the story is the way the reader is plunged into the woods along with the characters, only finding out gradually who they actually are – and what gender they are too…
I read (somewhere – sorry…) that the writer deliberately conceals her characters’ genders for as long as possible, for effect, and this technique crops up several times here. One example of this is the story ‘Blackcurrant’, where a couple picking fruit on a farm move silently through a blisteringly hot day. The uncertainty in terms of identity merely adds to a sense the reader has that everything about the short tale is slightly off-kilter. And when we get to the boy in the stable…
The gender issue also dominates ‘Wounds’, with a traveller in a foreign hotel trying to avoid being caught up in a liaison with an ageing English woman. Unsurprisingly, there’s a twist in the tale; however, despite the inevitability of the bedroom action, it’s not really the reveal you might have been expecting.
If it’s sex you want, though, there are several other stories to choose from. ‘Starry Sky’, one of the more bizarre tales, chronicles a couple’s search for ever greater heights of lust, with the man eventually needing to take his desires elsewhere. Meanwhile, in ‘Conference’, a chance encounter with a former lover, a man who looms larger than life, has a woman struggling to control her emotions, even though she has no desire to rekindle the flame.
However, as well as the many mentions of sex, there’s also a focus here on violence. In ‘Candy’, a simple mistake leads to abuse and fighting, a frightening escalation of emotions from a harmless error. This is also the case with one of the most disturbing stories, ‘Torben and Maria’, a short, sharp story of abuse:
“She hits her small child, until the screaming stops. It’s a boy and his name is Torben. Not many people call their sons that any more.”
‘Torben and Maria’
The short, simple, matter-of-fact sentences emphasise the violence, and the more we read, the more we understand that violence begets violence, ending in a spiralling cycle of abuse.
While most stories are grounded, though, some are simply bizarre. Examples of this include ‘The Green Darkness of the Big Trees’, a story of a man struggling with life, and his encounter with a woman who can’t leave him alone. In the weirdness stakes, however, there’s nothing that compares to ‘Interruption’, a longer story featuring a man with an unexpected house guest. There are shades of Can Xue here – it’s crude, sexual and very, very strange 😉
The last piece in the collection, ‘Mosquito Bite’, then ties together many of the themes explored in the rest of the book. A longer story, it begins with a one-night stand and shows the man involved spiralling downwards, his health deteriorating at a frightening rate, with the people around him unable to do anything about it. As the story progresses, we see friends and family wondering just how much they can take, asking themselves if the obligation of love really extends all that far…
Baboon is an impressive collection, subtle and dark at times, and Newman’s translation captures that nicely, with an impressive variety of styles evident throughout the stories, switching from simple, clipped sentences one moment to long, rambling paragraphs the next. A book that came to mind as I read Baboon is Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge (although Baboon is probably not quite as nasty or twisted as the Japanese writer’s work…). What’s good about Aidt’s work is that it’s a very even collection, while containing a variety of stories, and I can’t really say that there were any that I didn’t enjoy (even if there are a few I haven’t mentioned above). Perhaps, in this case, the judges really did know what they were talking about 🙂
If that’s whetted your appetite for Aidt’s work, there’s more on the horizon. Open Letter Books will be publishing her debut novel, Rock, Paper, Scissors, in August, and I’m sure that’s only the start – I’ll definitely be interesting in checking out how her writing translates to a longer format. In any case, I’d say there’s a good chance the various translation prizes will be having a close look at Aidt again next year – perhaps you should too 🙂