Category Archives: Translation

Affections – Rodrigo Hasbún trans. Sophie Hughes

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I’ve just spent a tense couple of days with this book.  Tension is definitely the overriding emotion I take from this compact family saga.  I’m not very good with any sort of familial stress – I don’t cope too well with it, so the tensions between the three sisters in this story and the strain between each of them and their father as well as the mounting political hostility in revolutionary Bolivia, put me on edge.

Hasbún’s fictional account of the Ertl family’s experiences in La Paz, Bolivia isn’t a rip-roaring adventure tale, although they are not a straightforward family by any means, instead he tells their less than ordinary story with an understated air of something falling apart until it’s beyond repair.  German Hans Ertl was a explorer and legendary cameraman, famed for filming Nazi propaganda with Leni Riefenstahl.  He fled Germany after the war.  This book starts shortly after his wife and daughters join him in South America in the early 1950s.  Hasbún chronicles their individual stories and a basic history of revolution in Bolivia through a series of commentaries and accounts told by various characters in and around the family.  As the book progresses it is clear that eldest daughter Monika’s radicalisation and involvement in the Marxist guerrilla movement still just about intact and operating in difficult conditions post Che Guevara’s capture, torture and murder, is central to the story and ultimately the fate of the family.  Monika’s experiences when accompanying her father on a filming expedition in the jungle and her failed marriage into an old German mining family, part of the rising Bolivian expat elite, drive her underground and earns her the title of “Che Guevara’s avenger.”

This is fiction short on factual explanations of the Ertl family’s back story.  There is also no information relating to South American politics or the reasons for the rise in post-war Marxist revolutions and guerrilla skirmishes in countries like Bolivia.  Hasbún does not expand on Cuban and Russian involvement in funding and training radicals, nor does he elaborate on the CIA bankrolling hit squads and far reaching spy networks to stamp out any sign of communism in South America.  I had to do my own background reading to fill in some gaps.  If you like your fiction complete with every factual detail ticked off, you may find this book frustrating.  It’s not Hasbún’s intention to give us a history lesson.  What his narrative suggests and the structure of this novel alludes to is a family never quite unified and now in free-fall.  The eventual geographic dislocation of the Ertl family members and the gaping differences in their values mirrors the national political turmoil and divisions amongst Bolivia’s people.

This is a book about being an outsider; an outsider in your birth country, an outsider in your adopted country and an outsider in your own family.   What Hasbún does so brilliantly is expose how the family members are never quite accepted in their chosen employment or choice of home and cause. On page 13 alone there are two sentences demonstrating two types of isolation:

“La Paz wasn’t so bad, but it was chaotic and we would never stop being outsiders, people from another world: an old, cold world.”

“With her recurring panic attacks she had somehow managed to wangle it so that everything revolved around her even more than before, and Trixi and I had to resign ourselves to being minor characters, a bit like Mama in relation to Papa.”

Hasbún deftly highlights the extremes of values and morals in one family unit by drawing the readers attention to Monika’s actions as antithesis to her father’s notoriety as they act in polar opposite political systems.  There are also flashes of violence and gore, nothing too extreme and often mentioned in passing, just to remind us how tough, dangerous and perilous it is to fight for your cause.  And we don’t only witness conflict on a macro level, Hasbrún also shows us internal strife.  Monika is only one of several conflicted characters; showing utter disdain for her father and what he stands for while idolising him and desperate for his approval.  In such a short narrative he’s invaded our consciousness with all of this information.  Clever.

If you are interested in stories about how our actions affect the lives of others and how those actions can ripple through time or stories about how family members can have opposing values despite having the same experiences or fiction based on fact where not every detail is set out for you so you can investigate further at your leisure, then I absolutely recommend this book to you.  It’s an elegantly put together family chronicle and beautifully translated.  I found it fascinating and a pleasure to read, despite the family tensions putting me on edge.

 

Tony has tipped this book for The Man International Booker Prize long list

Stu is currently doing a Pushkin Press fortnight – check out his blog for loads of great translated fiction

Grant has reviewed this book too

So has Jacqui

Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakmi (trans. Allison Markin Powell)

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Do you ever feel you’re not a fully paid up member of the Grown-ups Club?  I know I do despite being almost half way through my 40s; I regularly behave immaturely, have toddler type meltdowns or completely forget I’m no longer an invincible 24 year old.  Tsukiko, the narrator of Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo feels the same.  She seems to have regressed over time.

His behaviour was commensurate with his age….I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult….as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person.

Tsukiko is unsure about many things; how she came to be 37, alone, uncomfortable in her life and around others.  She is a loner and lonely.  One thing she becomes certain of is the importance of her friendship with Sensei.  Mr Matsumoto is Tsukiko’s old Japanese teacher from school, widowed and in his 60s, to her he is only ever Sensei – teacher.  They meet by chance in a bar and strike up conversation.  They continue to meet at the bar, but never by design.  Kawakami describes the development of their relationship through a series of short chapters outlining unspectacular excursions to markets, art galleries and amusement arcades until it is clear that this is no longer just a friendship, but love. Tsukiko declares herself early on and then immediately worries about it.

I had screwed up.  Grown-ups didn’t go around blurting out troublesome things to people.  You couldn’t just blithely disclose something that would then make it impossible to greet them with a smile the next day….It was somehow absurd.  Me declaring my love for Sensei to his face, Sensei taking it almost completely in his stride yet without responding to my declaration – everything seemed as if it was part of a dream.

The age difference between the two is never a huge concern; Kawakami doesn’t allow them to dwell on it instead she reminds the reader through the characters’ very sweet exchanges.  Sensei regularly teases Tsukiko and chastises her for unladylike behaviour and continued poor aptitude for identifying and reciting poetry.  He is reserved and she blurts things out without thinking.  He imparts his mature wisdom, making her feel even more childish and wonder at her behaviour.  She thinks he’s old-fashioned and deliberately behaves in a way she knows will irritate him.  Only near the end of the book does age become a concern for them both and they wonder how best to navigate around the issues they foresee – death and sex.

This book contains no sex (sorry for that spoiler), despite Sensei making it very clear to Tsukiko that physical intimacy is essential no matter how old you are, it’s extremely important but food plays a huge part in their story and I understood it as a literary substitute for sex.  Kawakami describes in great detail various dishes the two eat at the bar and elsewhere, different ways the dishes can be prepared and how best to source the best ingredients. The pair also drink an inordinate amount of sake.  Eating and drinking become the rituals that cement their relationship.

There is a dreaminess to Tsukiko’s narration and I was sometimes unsure whether she was sure of her reality.  Some of her dialogue is in quotation marks, some not – this made me wonder whether she was having some conversations in her head rather than speaking out loud.  She often talks to Sensei over distances, calls to him in the night, imagines a life with him.  She wonders at the stars and moon, she enjoys living in her own head which reinforces her childlike qualities.

I haven’t read a lot of Japanese literature, but what I have read, I’ve throughly enjoyed.  Strange Weather in Tokyo will now be added to my growing list of “Japanese books to haunt and admire.” There’s something quite comforting and satisfyingly challenging about the understated style, the magical realism and dreamlike quality of the writing from this region that pull me in.  The exoticism of a culture I’ve never experienced also intrigues me.  This short and gentle book about love that is destined to find its path was a beautiful place to start my reading year.

Vertigo – Boileau & Narcejac trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury 

A few years ago when my children were much younger and we were too skint and tired to go out much,  we started catching up with classic movies and foreign language films we’d never, but should have, seen.  Our LoveFilm subscription was well used during these years.  Flicking through the “films you must see” lists identified a Hitchcock sized gap in our knowledge of his back catalogue which we worked hard to plug.  Vertigo is a particularly disturbing one and based almost frame by frame on the chapters in this book (although the ending is different) by French crime writing duo Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac.

This is less a classic crime thriller and more a claustrophobic, psychological melodrama dripping in behaviour so obsessive it drives the main character, Flavieres, to the brink of madness. His innocuous task, carried out as a favour to an old friend, to follow and observe the friend’s wife who is behaving oddly and thought to be suicidal, swiftly spirals into stalkerish obsession with this ethereal creature. Even his eventual friendship with this woman does little to tone down his increasingly bizarre means to remain close to her. Several years later he impossibly catches a glimpse of her once more, setting him on his previous destructive path.

The stifling atmosphere of this book is made even more stark by the references to German invading forces moving ever closer to Paris and the later depressing descriptions of the post-war state of that beautiful city.  As Flavieres’ behaviour becomes more desperate, he begins to unravel, he’s unhinged, so the pace picks up hurtling the reader forward to witness the tragic end you know must be coming; I read the last pages through the gaps between my fingers, like I watched the end of the film, not really wanting to read/watch but having a gory fascination with needing to know how it all ends.

As a character Flavieres is rather pathetic,  but I had enormous sympathy for him.  He is used so abominably and thrown to one side by someone he thinks of as a friend. Over the course of the book his personality changes immensely because of this woman who he believes will alter the course of his life; she does have that effect, but not as he’d imagined.  And here’s the cleverness of this twisted psycho-drama; as you read on, you know this sort of thing could happen to any of us. Brilliant.

Pushkin Press have released a series of 20th century European crime fiction named after this book.  The Vertigo series jacket artworks are all similar to this one; bold colours and overlaid text very reminiscent of mid-century modern designs. Check them out here.

Max has also done a review of this one here. He’s recently done a review of another Boileau-Narcejac She Who Was No More here.

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler trans. Charlotte Collins

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With a title like A Whole Life you’d be forgiven for expecting a much longer book.  It’s the economy of Seethaler’s prose that allows him to fit so much into so few pages (149), and what a beautifully quiet story it is.  Reminiscent in sentiment and pace of that ever popular Williams classic Stoner and comparable in content and tone to Train Dreams by Denis Johnson with a similar seam of sadness weaving through the prose, this is a restrained and unpretentious piece of fiction.

Forest and mountain man Andreas Egger’s life is the one we follow through this miniature epic.  Starting with his attempt to rescue an almost dead local goatherd, Seethaler returns to reveal the beginning and then the rest of Egger’s life with such a deftness and lightness of touch that you almost don’t realise you are reading, it feels as though the story is being orally related, like an old friend is acquainting you with the relatively uneventful tale of a mountain dwelling loner.  And here’s the thing with this book; other than a devastating avalanche and a period of internment in Russia during the war nothing much else of earth shattering consequence happens.  Yet the landscape descriptions and mountain village life portrayed in these pages draws the reader in more than many blockbusting tomes can.

There is also something slightly mystical and ethereal about parts of this book, particularly near the end, which made me think deeply about what it must be like to be old, alone and sometimes confused, how it would be very likely and understandable to start hearing and seeing ghosts from your past.

After living through Egger’s life with him, his choice of retirement abode is unsurprising if a little unorthodox, but absolutely the right place for him to spend his remaining days.  His ending befits his life, and for this I was grateful to Seethaler for not writing Egger an overly dramatic or morose demise; it is a quiet understated end just as he had lived his life.

A Whole Life is beautifully written, beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins and beautifully packaged by Picador (swoon at that cover), I absolutely loved it and I’d like to think you will too.

 

 

(I think that’s 11 sentences – need to get a grip!)

 

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante trans. Ann Goldstein

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The one thing you can often expect from Bildungsroman is little plot and that’s ok if the characters’ journeys are captivating enough to keep your attention from start to finish.  I’m generally a fan of this genre (although I have a secret dislike for Catcher in the Rye – there, I’ve said it!), I’m a patient enough reader not to be troubled by the lack of “action” and I’m very happy witnessing characters develop, grow and learn about themselves.  My Brilliant Friend, the first installment in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, introduces us to Elena and Lila, friends from an early age, this book charts the ebb and flow of their connection as the girls endure the hardships of post-war Italy and how the social norms in their small community shape their lives and choices – all narrated by Elena.

The thing Ferrante excels at is the detailed and spot-on depiction of the intensity of women’s relationships; mother-daughter and girlfriends.  Elena’s voice in this book, which ends when the girls are 16, was very reminiscent for me of that love/hate emotion and natural competitiveness that springs from close friendship during formative teen years; the realisation that your friend is brighter than you, more beautiful than you, expresses herself better, is more confident around boys, is all-round more popular and it pricks that oddest of mixed feelings, jealousy and admiration.  It either spurs you on to be better or leads you to detest your friend.  Elena feels all of these things towards Lila and sometimes we get a glimpse that Lila also feels jealous of Elena’s good fortune at being able to continue her education when Lila can’t.

Ferrante is not afraid of confronting ugly human behaviour and presenting it with shocking honesty.  The complacent violence towards women and girls in this book is treated with accepted normality as is Elena’s first and unsolicited sexual experience at the hands of the father of a boy in her year at school, but perhaps more shocking to readers could be how Elena feels about and reflects on this episode.

Mostly though, this book is about two girls finding their way in life, making the best choices available to them from very few options in a neighbourhood governed by hierarchy, violence and tradition.

“Was it possible that only our neighbourhood was filled with conflicts and violence, while the rest of the city was radiant, benevolent?”

 

 

 

 

Fatale – Jean-Patrick Manchette trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith

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In the forward of this new edition, David Peace describes how, shortly after submitting his latest crime noir manuscript in 1977, Manchette realised that his editors didn’t like it very much.  In anger at their reaction, he requested it be published outside the legendary “Serie Noir” and wrote “This negative response clearly shows what I should never forget: I alone understand what I do.”  Manchette’s confidence in Fatale is not without foundation.  I haven’t read any other “Serie Noir” or Manchette books, but this one hits hard in its 112 pages.  In fact it feels like a 12 round bout stuffed into 3 rounds, climaxing with a KO; it’s a mini dynamo.

Provincial politics can be corrupt and nepotistic and if you are an outsider it is difficult to gain access and favour, but Aimee Joubert (a woman with dodgy motives) capitalises on the inevitable secrets in Bléville’s society and outwits the sweaty bourgeois fat-cats by extorting huge amounts of cash in a spectacular double bluff which involves her offering her services as an assassin.  She appears from nowhere, is disciplined in her research and training, infiltrates the community with her charm and good looks, then smacks the crooked officials between the eyes during a dizzyingly violent final scene.  I rooted for her from the first page when she confronts a woodland hunter in a spectacular and astonishing fashion.  This is more than just a cruel melodrama though, there is a political commentary undercurrent surging through this perfectly formed piece of crime fiction. I love it when a book surprises me like this and it only took a couple of hours to read.

Serpent’s Tail have just released this edition along with several other world literature titles, all with similarly retro pulp jacket artwork and I found it at my wonderful local library.

 

11 sentences – must try harder!

Neues Wilhelm Busch Album – Wilhelm Busch

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Wilhelm Busch (1832 – 1908) was a German humorist, poet and illustrator.  His wood engraving illustrations satirised almost all parts of society but particularly Catholicism, religion in general, morality and everyday life in towns and villages across Germany.  This beautiful anthology belonging to my mother, was given to her by a neighbour when she was 12.  It was a firm feature of my own childhood.  I vividly remember my sister and I leafing through the fine pages fascinated and vaguely disturbed in equal measure, because like Grimm’s fairy stories, some of Busch’s cautionary tales end badly for his characters.

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Busch is best remembered for Max and Moritz the cheeky twosome who terrorise hardworking folk in their local community.  This collection opens with the Max and Moritz series “Eine Bubengescichte in sieben Streichen”  my translation “A rogue’s story in seven pranks” This is Dennis the Menace in double.  Each “Streich” shows the boys carrying out pranks ranging from stealing cooked chickens, loading their teacher’s pipe with gunpowder or stuffing beetles under an elderly gent’s bedclothes.

All pretty fun and seemingly harmless until the last prank.  After slicing rips into a farmer’s corn sacks, the farmer catches them and stuffs them into a bag.

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The farmer takes them to the miller who promptly tips them into his mill, grinding them into small pieces.

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The ground up bits of Max and Mortiz are gobbled up by the ducks.  A really gruesome end.

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Busch ends the seventh prank with the villagers rejoicing at the demise of the young irritants!

wp-1448828219987.jpegOther everyday farcical gems include the warring neighbours who beat the living daylights out of each other; the miller’s daughter who dispatches 3 thieves in grim fashion; the couple who trash their house while chasing a mouse; the guy driven to distraction by his toothache.

The series called The holy Antony of Padua told over 10 chapters guides us through this priest’s life from birth to arrival at the pearly gates all the while mocking the church and its hypocritical practises.

Most of the illustrated stories are accompanied with verse, which honestly I sometimes found tricky to make out.  This is due to the typeface which is a form of old German handwriting style called Suetterlin – really tricky to work out sometimes; even more difficult in Busch’s original hand (see below).  This is featured later in the book which covers his life, career and includes prints of his sketches in progress.  There is also some of his longer stories at the back of the album.

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His illustrations are delightful if slightly grotesque.  The characters are either portly with rosy cheeks and bulbous noses or they are skinny and wiry and frankly not to be trusted.  The violence is slapstick.  There’s always someone being bashed with a broom, falling through the floor or tripping and injuring themselves in some foolish act.  All really good fun.

This is a beautiful anthology of a little known commentator of life in late 19th century Germany.  I’ve enjoyed dipping into it again after years of having forgotten all about it.

Thanks to my mum for letting me borrow it!

I read this for German Literature Month

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