My favourite book of January (Normal People), and a pile of translated fiction I got for my birthday the other day.
My favourite book of January (Normal People), and a pile of translated fiction I got for my birthday the other day.
A couple of days before Christmas I woke in the early hours struggling to breathe and feeling sweat trickling down my back and covering my brow. I’d had a bad dream. It’s not unusual for me to sleep badly, I often wake up worrying about stuff but this was unusual for me; I don’t normally dream at all, let alone have nightmares. Something had spooked me though; I sat up startled and confused unable to piece together what had happened in my night terror to distress me so much – faceless people I didn’t recognise lurking in doorways, a beaker full of spit, another containing teeth, a third holding paintbrushes. Metal coat-hangers clattering in the background (this is something I had nightmares about a lot as a child), me emerging from a winnebago confused and feeling and unseen menace. And that’s it. That’s as much as I remember. When I tried to understand what it was all about the following day, an explanation felt just out of reach, as though an important puzzle piece was missing. I couldn’t quite work it out.
This is exactly how I felt reading Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. The Catalan writer’s posthumously published novel is an oppressive read and horrific in places. This story is narrated by an unnamed young man describing life in a restless and rules-driven society governed by weirdness and occult-like regimens. Where the status quo is a given. Noone questions the strange reoccurring activities the villagers carry out every year. The residents are compliant with the horrific traditions they adhere to. Treating each other with contempt and casting out our committing violence against anyone stepping out of line. I never quite got to grips with what was going on or what it all symbolised. Like my night terror, I had a notion that the answer would be on the next page, or perhaps the one after that – and when it didn’t emerge, I wondered whether my capacity to understand was just not quite developed enough; I’m not bright enough to comprehend the meaning. Though I did manage to work out that the oppression of village life symbolised life for many Spaniards under Franco’s dictatorship.
I may not be clever enough to understand what the heck this book is about or what was going on most of the time but I am clever enough to realise the quality of Rodoreda’s writing. Her description of nature, mountains, butterflies, rivers and woodland are utterly sublime, even though most of these natural features are the cause of some of the horrors meted out to the villagers. Her prose is dreamlike and ethereal, shifting and repeating, sometimes surprising you by jerking from one moment to another. Many scenes are described as viewed from a distance; from the back of a crowd, from behind a shrub, from up a tree, rarely straight on, as though described by an onlooker rather than a participant. It’s this style that reminded me of my nightmare where I felt removed from and confused by the scene I dreamt.
The only other thing I fathomed was the source of the oppression:
Let suffering be removed, but not desire, because desire keeps you alive. That’s why they are afraid. They are consumed by the fear of desire. They want to suffer so they won’t think about desire. You’re maimed when you’re little, and fear is hammered into the back of your head. Because desire keeps you alive, they kill it off while you’re growing up, the desire for all things, in that way when you’re grown…
Life without desire of any kind, is a life lived in fear and not worth living at all.
Everyone in our house does anyway, even the most reluctant of readers (I thought the Ladybird Expert books may help with GCSE revision; let’s see). As usual, mine is the biggest pile. I finished Cassandra Darke by Christmas Day night and have almost finished Death in Spring – which I don’t really understand but am enjoying nevertheless.
In an effort to write up some of the scribbles I’ve penned in my notebook this year, I’m shamelessly stealing an idea I saw at The Tate bookshop in November. More of these to come.
P.S. I know my handwriting is appalling – sorry.
This time last year, I suggested we talk about love. Shall we do it again? I think we should.
This year has seen even less writing here than last year. Despite the lack of new “content” I got lots of visitors (that story’s for another time). Although I’ve not been active here, I’ve been writing bits elsewhere and short pieces for work. My year’s been hectic beyond belief with nothing more than everyday life and surviving it, which has inevitably impacted my reading choices. In the main, I’ve chosen slim volumes this year; brevity has been everything.
Writers have to work hard with short fiction (I’m not suggesting that writers of longer fiction don’t work hard btw). I continue to marvel at how writers use style and language to convey a story in a short volume. What they leave out tends to be almost as important as the words they include. Their omissions make the reader toil for their literary enjoyment. This is a good thing for a reader like me – I like to be challenged. I like filling in the gaps.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ve fallen in love with shorter fiction. I got so much enjoyment from all the slim volumes I’ve read this year – I’ve loved being immediately plunged into a plot, getting swiftly to the nub of the tale and being propelled to a conclusion. My head can’t seem to cope any more with layered plots and lengthy, multi-character tomes. I’ve felt a massive sense of achievement when putting books back on the shelf in quick succession. Also, from a practical perspective, small books are much easier to commute with!
Much of what I’ve read this year has been about love – check the 3 books I wrote about earlier in the year as good examples. Other stand out titles include Ask The Dust by John Fante, Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, In Love by Alfred Hayes, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner and The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. I could go on, but I’m already breaking all the rules of brevity in writing….
All these books deal with love in its myriad forms; passionate, obsessive, platonic, married, secretive, contented, fractious. You get the idea. Tin Man by Sarah Winman is a beautiful example of a love story about longing and grief. It affected me emotionally (not with Essex Serpent-ine tears, admittedly). I got a tight, heavy feeling in my chest that means I’ve read something moving. I felt enormous compassion and empathy for the main characters. The warmth I feel for it has encouraged me out of my hiatus.
Tin Man is a story of 3 people whose lives are linked through shared experience, compassion, friendship and love for each other. The story of their lives is revealed through Ellis and Michael’s recollections and memories, with Annie featuring as the glue that binds them and the reason for their estrangement despite being firm childhood friends. It’s tinged with regret and sadness overshadowed by a tragedy only hinted at until near the end and which prompts the memories. With her subtle and muted prose, Winman manages to evoke a feeling of loss and yearning for the relationship, creative and career decisions that might have been. How would their lives be, had they chosen differently? A feeling I suspect most of us can relate to.
The bond and connection between Michael and Ellis is emotionally strong. There is a touching moment when Michael worries about how he will be received by his old friend after a long period away with no contact. He turns up unannounced and is greeted as though he’s never been away – it made my heart sing.
For me, this book and that passage in particular perfectly articulates what love and friendship is about. When two people experience intimate emotional moments and connection they remain unbroken by time and space. The moments and connection eternally bind them, no matter how many days or years go by or how much geography separates them, the moments, even if fleeting, still exist in their memories as though they were recent encounters. (I’m getting a lump in my throat just writing those words, and I’ve not even had a festive sherry yet!).
Winman navigates us through the decades, deftly providing a glimpse of working life disappointments, trips of discovery to the South of France, life with Aids in the 1980s/90s and carefree summer days by the river. Over a few pages we become intimately involved with these characters until we understand them fully. I love writing that does this. I know I’ve told you very little about what TinMan is about; It’s about love – you don’t really need to know much more and in hindsight maybe that’s all I should have written.
In the spirit of this theme of love and friendship, I’m going to add the same line I closed last year’s post with, and it’s as fitting this year as it was then.
Care for others even when they don’t care for you. All. The. Time.
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.
Stu is currently doing a Pushkin Press fortnight – check out his blog for loads of great translated fiction
I’ve never been to Caerphilly, but maybe I should make the effort. Thomas Morris’ collection of small town stories set in this South Wales town is never going to be a tourist board advertisement, but Caerphilly’s charms shine through as the constant in each of the tales in his debut; its castle and moat, the park with swans and interloper sea birds, its position in a bowl landscape and surrounding hills, the mining museum up the valley and the Tesco, which if not of interest to visitors is definitely a landmark to the residents and makes a regular appearance. It’s Morris’ focus on banalities and the ordinariness of his characters’ worries and concerns that gives this series of ten venn diagram style stories, where characters pop up again in tales that are not solely theirs, such an authentic feel.
Small town life is like that; every day goings-on peppered with the weird and surreal. Some of the weird and surreal becomes town gossip for a few days, sometimes it’s just the fears and doubts of the characters themselves as they muse their humdrum existence and ask themselves that universal question; “is this really it?” But We Don’t Know What We Are Doing isn’t a depressing account of the state of life in towns like Caerphilly. It is a celebration of the town where Morris was raised, of small moments of joy (the father accompanying his stag son to Dublin and texting his wife reassurance as he tucks up his inebriated child; the mother who manages to engage with a girl who rarely speaks, the two-time widower who is excited to walk out with a possible new love interest), of characters we recognise from our own lives, of issues most of us face day to day. Yes, there is strangeness in some of the stories, but life is strange (so too the afterlife featured in the last instalment where characters continue their 2nd life – still in Caerphilly).
This book was a delight. I devoured it in a couple of sittings. It made me laugh, it made me wince, I felt sadness and sympathy. You can’t ask more than that from good fiction, each story a mini piece of pleasure to relish.
Morris is one of a number of writers making waves in short fiction. This collection won Wales Book of the Year 2016. Other collections to check out are Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home and Colin Barrett’s Young Skins.