Thursday, 28 August 2014

'Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay' by Elena Ferrante (Review)

While Women in Translation Month is all about highlighting the overlooked, it's also nice to celebrate those female writers who have already managed to become well known in the Anglosphere.  Of course, if you're looking for big-name female writers in translation, nobody quite seems to have captured attention over the past year or so like Elena Ferrante, the elusive, reclusive Italian writer whose Neapolitan Novels have impressed so many readers.

With the third in the series about to be released, Ferrante's reputation seems set to keep rising, but does the latest instalment measure up to her earlier books?  Well, I'll let you know very soon, but be warned -  it's impossible to discuss this book without giving away details from My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New NameIf you'd prefer not to know, please look away now...

*****
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (translated by Ann Goldstein, e-copy supplied by Europa Editions) continues seamlessly from The Story of a New Name, with Lenù introducing her new novel at a bookshop.  When a middle-aged man is less than complimentary about her work, she's taken aback, so it's fortunate that a white knight appears to defend her - none other than Nino Sarratore, her childhood friend (and crush...).

While Nino disappears again soon after, his work as a university lecturer means that he's in the same field as Lenù's fiancé, Pietro, and it's inevitable that they will catch up again.  Lila, however, is back in Naples, and with little contact between the two old friends, it seems as if their friendship has finally run its course.  Little does Lenù know, though, that she's fated to return to her hometown again and again - it's not quite as easy to turn her back on Naples as she'd like...

Those Who leave..., the third book in the Neapolitan Novels series (the series was originally meant to be a trilogy, but it will now extend to four books), looks at the friends' adult years, with a focus on marriage, kids and work, as well as a generational shift.  The spotlight, though, is on Lenù, as we are shown her life in Florence after marriage.  Initially, she is overjoyed by her success as a writer, but this soon passes and her liking for her new family also turns sour:
"...what am I to the Airotas, a jewel in the crown of their broad-mindedness?.." 
p.50 (Europa Editions, 2014)
With the inevitable, premature addition of kids, the intelligent writer soon gets bogged down in the minutiae of domestic life, her plans of a glittering career slowly fading beneath a pile of nappies.  It's a bit of a dull life...

Outside Lenù's apartment, though, things are a little less sedate.  This is the late sixties, a time of unrest throughout Europe, and students are rioting in the hope of creating a new world order.  In these tempestuous times, especially in the universities, there is a real sense of danger, from which Pietro is certainly not exempt (he's not exactly a man of the new era...).  While her next book is a bit of a struggle, Lenù is able to dabble in journalism, tempted into becoming a voice of the people.

While her friend plays with theory in Florence, Lila is living the practice down south.  Nothing seems to get on top of her, and even in a exploitative factory, her intelligence shines through.  She soon becomes a focus for action against the management, and as the pressure builds, matters are always going to come to a head.  You see, in terms of violence, whatever the rest of Italy can do, Naples can always do better...

Those Who Leave... is an entertaining book, but, in truth, I don't quite rate it as highly as I did the first two; there's a sense of its being a bridging book, a continuation of The Story of a New Name and a set up for the final part of the series.  Part of the beauty of the first two books was the electric relationship between the two women, a tie which, while never broken, was often stretched or tangled:
"I simply listened, overwhelmed.  With her, there was no way to feel that things were settled; every fixed point of our relationship sooner or later turned out to be provisional; something shifted in her head that unbalanced her and unbalanced me." (p.222)
This is largely absent here as the two women go about their separate lives, and even when they do meet, it's usually in the presence of others, and the expected confrontation is avoided.  Several times the tension builds to what we think will be a dramatic scene, only for the emotions to ebb away without ever coming to the boil.

The focus here is much more on Lenù, and that isn't necessarily a good thing.  Her life in Florence, as mentioned, is a little dull, and she actually develops into a fairly unpleasant character over the course of the novel, particularly in the second half.  In My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, she is our voice, our eyes, and she always cut a fairly sympathetic figure, especially when Lila managed to bring her down with a sarcastic comment.  Not any more - at times, she's downright obnoxious...

Why?  Well, throughout the second half of the book, she shows herself to be selfish, lazy and aggressive, in addition to being annoyingly passive when she should be doing getting things done.  The story is basically setting up Nino's return, and this means that poor Pietro is in for some pretty shoddy treatment.  I actually thought that for much of this book, a view through the husband's eyes would have been much more interesting, looking at the friends and their families with the eyes of an outsider.  Perhaps we'd see Lenù then in a very different light.

Again, I hasten to assure you all that I did enjoy the book, and I do think it's worth reading.  However, it's not a book that can really be enjoyed without having read the previous two novels first, and I still believe that it doesn't quite match up to those.  Having said that, I suspect that my doubts will be set against a tidal wave of support for the book when other reviews start coming in.  One of the key ideas of the novel is the frustration Lenù feels at being stuck at home with the children, having to put her career on hold while she sacrifices herself for her family, and I suspect that this aspect of the story will be appreciated far more by other readers.

The reality, though, is that Those Who Leave... spends a lot of its pages building up to the final book in the series.  The lack of interaction between Lila and Lenù in this third volume is slightly frustrating - surely the final book has to bring their relationship to a head:
"Too many bad things, and some terrible, had happened over the years, and to regain our old intimacy we would have had to speak our secret thoughts, but I didn't have the strength to find the words and she, who perhaps had the strength, didn't have the desire, didn't see the use." (p.19)
I have a feeling the climax to the Neapolitan Novels will be a rather stormy one.  This is a relationship which needs to be examined further, and I'm hopeful that the two friends will finally get to the core of their friendship next time.  It's definitely time for a good, long talk, one in which those 'secret thoughts' are finally revealed...

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

'Aller Tage Abend' ('The End of Days') by Jenny Erpenbeck (Review)

Having already tried a book in French for Women in Translation Month, it was inevitable that I was going to get to something in German as well.  In fact, I had two books to choose from, and I was planning to go for one by an author I hadn't tried before.  However, in the end I opted for the book I'm reviewing today.  Why?  Well, quite apart from the reputation of the writer, I wanted to talk about a book that the non-German speakers among you will soon have the chance to read too.  Now that I've got your attention...

*****
Jenny Erpenbeck's Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) is an excellent novel spanning the majority of the twentieth century.  We start off in Galicia, now the Poland-Ukraine border region, but at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where a couple are mourning the death of their young daughter.  The tragic loss of the infant has a devastating effect on the whole family, with the father unable to stay and console his wife - leaving her to support herself by what we can euphemistically call 'other means'.  But what if...

...the child never died at all?  Having spun out her tale, the writer then drags us all back in time, imagining an alternate history in which the baby is saved from death.  And, of course, with the daughter still alive, the fate of the parents and other family members also changes, whether for better or for worse.  Resurrect the baby/girl/woman four times, and that's what you can expect from Erpenbeck's latest work :)

It's a fascinating book and a very clever idea, a novel built around the central concept of Was wäre wenn... ('What if...').  Aller Tage Abend consists of five different books, each set in a different period.  The five sections look at different times in the central character's life (her name is fairly unimportant and only really appears towards the end of the novel), although it's probably more accurate to say that they deal primarily with her death.  With that subject matter in mind, you can imagine that the story has some rather powerful scenes.

Between the five books are four 'Intermezzos', and it's here that time is rewound.  As the central character's grandmother notes:
"Sie weiß schon sehr lange, was ihre Tochter von heute auf morgen lernen wird: Am Ende eines Tages, an dem gestorben wurde, ist längst nicht aller tage Abend."
p.23 (BtB, 2014)

"She has known for a good while what her daughter will have to learn overnight: the end of a day where someone dies is by no means the end of all days." *** (my translation)
While the grandmother's words are more in the vein of 'life goes on', in Erpenbeck's world they are taken more literally.  We go back and see how other decisions could have been made.  One change of heart, one wrong turn, a file moved to the right instead of the left - and suddenly life really does go on.  Think of the film Sliding Doors, and you'll begin to get the idea.

While a few themes are evident, particularly the role of women in the twentieth century and the problems of European Jews, Aller Tage Abend is not really focused on any particular area, moving straight from the micro of a personal tragedy to the macro of universality.  The book seems to hinge on the fate of one person, showing how things would have been different with and without her.  However, the more we read, the more we get the feeling that individuals aren't really that important. History moves on, countries come and go; are people really that important?  Life always goes on, even if it's not yours...

The book is actually less about one woman at five different times than about five completely different people.  Erpenbeck shows that our life is not a continuum, a flowing stream of life ending in death, but a series of small, potential deaths:
"Zu vielen Zeiten ihres Lebens hat sie irgend etwas für immer zum letzten Mal gemacht, ohne zu wissen, dass es das letzte Mal sein würde.  Also war der Tod gar kein Augenblick, sondern eine Front, lebenslang?" (p.226) 

"At many times in her life, she had done something for the very last time, without actually knowing that it would be the last time.  Did that mean, then, that death wasn't a moment, but a continual, lifelong struggle?" ***
Each day, while connected to the one before, is a brand new day, another twenty-four hours of struggle against the possibility of death.

The observant reader will probably be connecting Aller Tage Abend with another of Erpenbeck's novels, Heimsuchung (Visitation).  Of course, the structure is similar, and the two books could almost be read as companion pieces.  In one, we see history rooted to the spot; in the other, it moves around in the form of the woman.  For me, though, Aller Tage Abend is a much more successful book.  Its five sections (plus the Intermezzos) worked much better than the dozen or so parts of Heimsuchung, and each book is very different (monologue, diary entries, narration).  Death sometimes ends the section, but occasionally begins it too.  While I wasn't a big fan of the first part's detached style, I was enthralled by what came after.

I'm very glad that I decided to choose this one out of the two I bought especially for Women in Translation Month, and (as noted in my introduction) soon you can get your hands on it too!  The English translation is out on the 1st of November, courtesy of New Directions (and Susan Bernofsky), and the English title is The End of Days.  So, get yourself a copy, and you too can enjoy another great translated novel by a female writer :)

No need to thank me, just doing my job ;)

Monday, 25 August 2014

Tony's Reading List at the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival - Part Two

As you may have seen yesterday, the first half of my day at the Melbourne Writers Festival ended on a bit of a sour note, but after a couple of sandwiches and a walk in the unseasonal sunshine, it was time to get back into the thick of things - and luckily the next session was much more to my liking :)

*****
After a couple of low-key events in the ACMI Cube, it was upstairs to Cinema 1 for the main session of the day, an audience with well-known Australian writer Gerald Murnane.  Moderator Antoni Jach introduced Murnane with a string of superlatives, including "...our best bet for a Nobel prize in the next ten years or so...", all of which are probably true.  Of course, what he didn't say was that Murnane is the grumpy old man of Australian literature and with him you never know what you're going to get.  Happily for us in the audience, today was a good day :)

Ostensibly, the writer was there to discuss his latest novel, A Million Windows, but this was a fairly free-range session with the discussion wandering throughout his career (although the one book I have read, The Plains - review pending - wasn't mentioned).  In fact, there were several mentions of two books which haven't even been published yet - one a treatise on horse-racing (which Murnane thought was non-fiction until his publisher told him otherwise), the other (Border Districts) a book he wants to be his last (which is why it won't be published until he's sure he's done with writing).

While some interesting things were said about his approach to writing, particularly in talking of his debut work, Tamarisk Row, with his unconventional style and lengthy, overwhelming sentences, the main thing I got from the session was the way in which an accomplished writer with a distinguished background had everyone in the palm of his hand, despite the fact that he doesn't really like this kind of thing (at the end he quipped that we were lucky as we might be the last ones to ever see him do a festival session!).

Murnane is funny and irascible, prone to wandering off on tangents (Jach was well aware that his role was to allow the writer as much range as he wished) and always ready with a good yarn.  At one point he brought out an essay from his university time so that we could hear the lecturer's comments bemoaning his lack of understanding of morality in literature.  At which point he claimed that he still has no idea what she was talking about - but it never stopped him writing all his books...

He's also very good for quotations, and I wasn't the only one in the audience scribbling away furiously to get his one-liners down on paper.  For example, on being free from the early pressure to make his work 'publishable': "I'm almost in the position where I can insult readers now."  Or on being a fairly normal bloke when out in the community and not writing: "I didn't see any need to grow a beard or wear a beret - apologies to those who do."  Or on his failure to become a poet, a disarming "I gave it away", an Australianism for giving something up...

There's too much to discuss here, whether it's his liking for a sympathetic narrator in the vein of Hardy or Trollope, or his dislike of dialogue (which he says conceals more than it reveals), but I definitely came out of the session wanting to read more of his work, which can only be a good thing.  Mention was made of his appearance in the Music & Literature magazine, and that's something I'd like to have a look at - first, though, I want to try some more of his books :)

*****
Murnane was always going to be a hard act to follow, but the last session of the day was entertaining nonetheless.  It was back to the Cube for the second of the City-to-City talks, and this time Nic Low was chatting to Liliy Yulianti Farid and Ahmad Fuadi about Jakarta.  Fortunately, both are fairly fluent in English, which avoided the embarrassment of the earlier Shanghai session...

The two writers talked about the disproportionate influence the capital has on Indonesian culture (apparently 80% of national book sales are in the Jakarta region), a fact which is merely a reflection of the same trend in all walks of Indonesian life.  Where in China, for example, Beijing and Shanghai are competitors, Jakarta is in a league of its own, and people from the provinces are well aware that they have to make the move there one day if they want to become a success.

However, things are changing, and both writers talked about the role they play in making things happen.  Fuadi briefly mentioned Bali's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, including (I think...) some visits to Australia by Indonesian writers, and after I asked the pair about the apparent lack of Indonesian fiction in translation, Farid outlined her work with the Lontar Foundation and the Inside Indonesia magazine.  Indonesia is also guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair next year, so the government is now putting a lot more energy (and money!) into getting Indonesian fiction into English and German.  Hopefully, there'll be a few new authors for us to discover over the coming years :)

*****
And that's all for 2014!  I greatly enjoyed my busy day in out of the sun at the festival, but I wouldn't say I'm completely happy with the whole event.  The City-to-City sessions weren't really what I expected, focusing more on general information than on the literary side of the cities (although the two Indonesian writers did speak about this a little more during the question time), and the Shanghai session was only saved by the humour of Ouyang Yu.

The main issue I have, though, is that as far as translated fiction goes this was pretty much it.  The whole festival runs for eleven days, but if you're looking for non-Anglophone writers, you're out of luck, and I think that for a multicultural city like Melbourne, it's a bit of a shambles really.  Here's hoping that next year the organisers decide that overseas writers can be found outside the UK and the US and that there'll be a few big names on the programme.

I'm not holding my breath, though...

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Tony's Reading List at the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival - Part One

Friday the 22nd of August was a beautiful late-winter day in Melbourne, and it also happened to be the day for my annual visit to the Melbourne Writers Festival.  I only go in for one day, but I do my best to make the most of it, and this year I managed to fit four events into about five-and-a-half hours.  And what, exactly, did I see?  Well, stick around, and you'll find out...

*****
One of the main reasons I ended up making the trip in to the big city was the (free) event with Spanish writer Nicolás Casariego, whose novel Antón Mallick Wants to be Happy I read a few days before heading to the festival.  This was actually a late addition to the programme after the cancellation of another event, and many of the people who attended were actually unaware of this - the printed programme still had the old details...

The event was MCed by local academic and translator Lilit Thwaites, and considering that the majority of the people in the small ACMI Cube room had heard of neither the book nor the writer, it all went fairly smoothly.  Both Thwaites and Casariego read short extracts from the novel, and they then discussed the book, particularly in relation to similarities between the writer and the eponymous hero of the novel.

The book (which I will be reviewing in early September) is the diary of a man seeking happiness, and one way in which he does so is through an analysis of self-help books and classics.  Casariego said that the reading was perhaps the best part of the writing process; however, he's not a fan of self-help books himself, believing that they're rather aggressive and help to create egotistical monsters.  As for the other books he read in the search for Antón's happiness, he actually preferred some of the more pessimistic ones...

Antón Mallick... is a funny book, something which Casariego says isn't true for all of his works.  One of his biggest challenges was to temper the use of humour in the book, lest it overpower and overshadow the story (certainly, the early sections have a lot of scenes where getting a laugh is the main focus).  The style of the novel, written in the form of a diary, is also important as it allowed the writer to play with the reader.  For one thing, he was able to be a little less politically correct than is normally the case as Mallick is writing for himself, with no need for self-censorship.  However, it also allows him to be a little tricky as there's no guarantee that Antón is telling even himself the whole truth...

Never one to hold back, I asked Casariego a question at the end of the session.  You see, with so many loose ties at the end of the novel, I was wondering if the writer had ever considered a sequel to Antón's quest for happiness.  The answer was a fairly firm 'no', but now that the idea had come up... ;)  If Antón Mallick does return for a second outing, then, you know who to thank/blame :)

*****
After a thirty-minute break spent chatting to Lilit, getting my book signed by the author and cramming a sandwich down as fast as possible, it was back to the cube for the second of the day's events.  This was one of the four City-to-City events designed to give insular Australians more information about some of our Asian neighbours, and the first in the series was on Shanghai.  Author Nic Low was the moderator, and the guests were famed Sino-Australian writer Ouyang Yu (Sino-Australian in that he's lived and worked here for a good while) and two fellow Chinese academics, Gong Jing and Hongtu Wang.

In all honesty, this was by far the weakest of the four sessions I attended.  As an ESL teacher, I've spent many an hour listening to Chinese students reading a prepared script while other students struggle to understand what's being said, and this hour was like a flashback to presentation moderations of times past.  Jing, in particular, merely read a text talking about her life in Shanghai and then barely offered a word in English for the rest of the hour.  When you add to that the fact that the session actually had very little to do with literature, you can imagine how disappointed (and bored) I was for the most part...

Luckily, the third member of the panel was a far better, and more charismatic, speaker, and Yu entertained and informed the small audience with his Shanghai experiences.  From his anecdote about his introduction to Australian literature (when getting his first academic position, all he knew about it was that in Patrick White's fiction "people farted a lot"), to the poems he wrote on his return to Shanghai, about a cheap hotel room and a student who simply could not master a point of English grammar ("She wrote 'Aftering I finished the exam, I felting bad.' - I felt bad too."), Yu was a relaxed, witty speaker - I really must get around to reading one of his books...

Still, it wasn't quite enough to make this a session I would recommend to others, and I walked out hoping that the rest of the day would be better.  The good news?  It definitely was - but you'll have to wait until next time to find out why ;)

Friday, 22 August 2014

Tony's Reading List Goes Korean

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that my major focus on the blog in 2014 has been Korean literature, and it's an area which will be occupying a fair chunk of my time in the coming months too.  Today, then, I'd just like to talk about a few things related to K-Lit in the hope that a few of you out there might find the urge to check them out.

No pressure... ;)

*****
The first of my items today is the contest currently being run by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, one in which they ask you to post a video review of a Korean Short Story.  But I don't have any short stories, I hear you shout/whinge...  No worries - there are two collections of free stories for you to choose from: twenty classic K-Lit tales are available here; and fifteen twenty-first century stories can be accessed here.  See - easy :)  Just click on this link for details of how to enter, with the possibility of winning yourself a USD500 Amazon Gift card...

*****
Of course, I'd quite like to win that Gift Card for myself, so I've been working hard on the stories - so much so that this has become my new project.  Yes, I now have my own Youtube channel, and with the exception of a few V-Logs from several years back (a time when health issues made it tricky for me to post normal reviews), all my videos are of the LTI Korea stories.  To date, I've posted six videos, covering eight of the twentieth-century stories, and I'm planning to review all of the free stories on this channel.  So, if you want a laugh (and you're interested in how I look - and talk- in real life), why not drop by and have a look?  They're all fairly short, promise...

*****
Of course, I've been reading a lot more Korean literature than just the stories mentioned above.  So far in 2014, I've read and reviewed almost twenty works of Korean literature, and there are many more to come before the year is out.  Almost half of these have been from the Dalkey Archive Press Library of Korean Literature, and that would be a great place to start for anyone interested in taking their first steps into K-Lit.

However, if you've still got cold feet, and are unwilling to commit to a long work, there's still a way to get a taste for Korean literature.  Quite apart from the LTI Korea stories mentioned above, Charles Montgomery's excellent Korean Literature in Translation site has a section dedicated to bringing you free stories in English.  Just head over to the site, download one of the stories, and say thank you to Uncle Charles ;)

*****
There you have it - my summary of what's going on in K-Lit around these parts.  Hopefully, I'll have persuaded you to give it a try, whether it's from literary or mercenary reasons ;)  And if you do develop a taste for Korean writing, just stay tuned to the blog as there'll be many more Korean literature reviews to come in the last few months of 2014 :)

Thursday, 21 August 2014

'There a Petal Silently Falls' by Ch'oe Yun (Review)

As I noted in my post on O Chong-hui, the Modern Korean Fiction collection, in addition to containing some wonderful stories, proved to be an excellent starting point for finding new books and authors to explore.  The collection only had a few stories by female writers, but those were some of the better ones in the book, and Ch'oe Yun's 'The Gray Snowman' was definitely one of my favourites.  So would Ch'oe's other work measure up to that one?  The answer is a resounding yes...

*****
The beautiful book in the picture is There a Petal Silently Falls (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, and Kichung Kim, from Columbia University Press, review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Footprint Books).  It's a collection of three stories, a thirty-page tale sandwiched between two novella-length pieces, and the three selections come from a five-year period between 1988 and 1993.  Each has a very different style, with the selection outlining the writer's ability to experiment with different forms and content matter.

The shortest piece, 'Whisper Yet', is about a woman on a family 'vacance' at a friend's orchard.  Over the course of a lazy summer day spent with her daughter, memories of the woman's childhood home come back to her, in particular those involving a helper at the family's orchard.  His name was Ajaebi, and he struck up an unlikely friendship with the woman's father (only later did she discover just how unlikely it was...).

It's a story set in the immediate post-Korean-war period, a clever piece about the secrets adults keep from children.  However, it's also one whose underlying message is that having differing ideologies is not necessarily an obstacle to developing a friendship, with Ajaebi and the narrator's father being on opposite sides of the political divide.  The politics here aren't especially foregrounded, though, and this is a lovely, subtle story which evokes memories of pleasant summer days in the sun :)

*****
The politics are much more evident, however, in the title story, perhaps the most well known of the three.  In an emotionally-charged debut piece of writing, Ch'oe creates the story of a girl found by a construction worker as she is wandering the streets.  The initial scenes are loaded with rape, violence and then silence, but as the story progresses, we are shown that the story is about much more than just one unfortunate girl.

In fact, 'There a Petal Silently Falls' is an allegorical story picking at the open wounds of the Kwangju uprising in 1980, when a large group of rebellious inhabitants in the southern city were slaughtered by government troops:
"As you pass by the grave sites scattered throughout the city, you may encounter her, a girl whose maroon velvet dress barely covers her, a girl who lingers near the burial mounds.  Please don't stop if she approaches you, and don't look back once she's passed you by.  If your eye should be drawn to the flesh showing between the folds of that torn, soiled dress, or drawn to something resembling a wound, walk away with downcast eyes as if you hadn't seen a thing."
'There a Petal Silently Falls', p.3 (Columbia University Press, 2008)
The girl is a shell-shocked refugee wandering ever-northwards, psychologically scarred after having witnessed her mother's death.  In order to protect herself, she has draped a 'curtain' over her memories, a self-imposed barrier to help her forget what she's seen.

It's a story in three voices, with alternating chapters told from differing points of view.  One strand follows the girl as she journeys towards Seoul; the second is told by the man who finds (and violates) the girl, only to be tormented by guilt afterwards; the final one is the voice of an uncertain 'we', which turns out to be student friends of the girl's missing brother.  While assigning roles to these voices is a risky affair, it's tempting to see the girl as the people of Kwangju and the man as the state, sharing the character's post-massacre regrets (wishing that she - and the whole country - could return to normal).  And the students?  They are the voice of the ordinary people of Korea, following the rumours of the uprising as it spreads northwards in the form of the girl...

It's an excellently-structured piece of writing, utilising the chorus of voices to conceal parts of the story until the appropriate time arrives.  There's a gradual release of details, and the full horror of the troops' attack on Kwangju only becomes apparent towards the end of the story.  I'd have to say that as a first offering, it's a very impressive work.

*****
Five years on, 'The Thirteen-Scent Flower' also criticised Korean society, albeit it in a more general, and sophisticated, manner.  The story starts as a kind of fairy-tale in which Bye, a young man obsessed with dreams of the Arctic, runs into Green Hands, a young woman with nothing to live for (but with a skill for tending plants).  Having recognised the unique connection between them, off they go in his truck to the mountains, where they discover a rare, unnamed flower and settle down in the idyllic surroundings.

There's a lilting, fairy-tale quality to the story, aided by the discovery of the wondrous flower high in the mountains:
"Wind Chrysanthemum.  Commonly known as the Arctic Flower.  Hardy plant living in a land of bitter cold, your tender blossoms streaming in winter's north wind beneath high clouds; your delicate purple blossoms reaching out for the sunlight shining through the clouds, symbol of your thirst for life; your fifty-five petals ever mindful that your beauty is based on the number five; your snow-white scent a distillate of the manifold desires embodied in your small form, a sad dedication to the world."
'The Thirteen-Scent Flower', p.139
Having tracked the plant down, Bye and Green Hands begin work on developing different varieties, each of which has its own, inimitable scent, and the more their work progresses, the more people come to join them in their high-altitude community.

Gradually though, real life seeps into Ch'oe's fairytale.  You see, when a flower as rare and beautiful as this is found, society demands that it be exploited for the common good.  Pharmaceutical companies, perfume designers, botanists, resort developers - they all come flocking to the mountains to see how they can use the flower to make money.  Everyone wants a piece of the magical and delicate flower, yet with a limited supply, not everyone can get what they want...

'The Thirteen-Scent Flower' is a critique of the commercialisation of modern life, a society where fairy tales are rarely permitted to have a happily ever after.  Anything beautiful which is uncovered must be harnessed for the good of the people - that's what we call progress...  It's a story which is as powerful in its own way as 'There a Petal Silently Falls', but in its subtle approach it's perhaps an example of a more developed writer.

*****
This book is a superb collection, and if I'd had the time (and energy...), I could easily have explored each story in a lot more depth.  It's definitely a collection I'd urge you to try, and I'm looking forward to exploring the web to see if any more of Ch'oe's work has made it into English.  Before that, there's one more thing I should do, though - head back to my trusty copy of Modern Korean Fiction and see which K-Lit author I should check out next ;)

*****
Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website :)

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

'Numéro Six' ('Number Six') by Véronique Olmi (Review)

Looking back at my reading list recently, I noticed that the last few months have been totally devoid of any foreign-language reading - by which I mean reading books in a language other than English (reading books originally written in another language is a different story altogether).  While Women In Translation Month is all about promoting books others might like to read, I also felt it was time to stretch myself a little and try a couple which aren't available in English yet.  Who know?  After reading my reviews, maybe someone will decide to bring them out in English at some point.

I wouldn't hold my breath, though...

*****
Many readers will be aware of Véronique Olmi's Beside the Sea (translated by Adriana Hunter), which was Peirene Press' debut offering, but virtually none of her other works have made it into English thus far.  However, my French-language edition of Bord de Mer actually came with a companion story, the enigmatically-named Numéro Six (Number Six).  It's no coincidence that the two works are bundled together.  As well as being Olmi's first two published works of fiction, the stories complement each other nicely as they both look at parent-child relationships - just from differing viewpoints.

The story begins with a family on the beach, nicely lined up for a family picture, but this peaceful scene soon turns sour:
"Le père leur demande de ne plus bouger, de sourire à l'objectif.  Il regarde dans son Leica.  Quleques secondes, puis il relève la tête, inquiet.  Il les regarde tous.  Il les compte.  Il les recompte.  Son cœur s'emballe.  La dernière, Fanny, n'est pas sur la photo.  N'est pas dans la groupe.  N'est pas sur la plage."
p.87 (J'ai Lu, 2010)

"The father tells them to keep still, to smile for the camera.  He looks into his Leica.  A few seconds, and then he raises his head again, troubled.  He looks at them all.  He counts them.  He counts them again.  His heart races.  The youngest, Fanny, isn't in the photo.  Isn't in the group.  Isn't on the beach." (***My Translation)
We then switch to the point of view of the missing child and wade into the ocean with her, waves breaking over us as we slowly make our way into deeper waters.  If only someone could come and save us...

Decades later, Fanny Delbast, the child in the water, picks up the tale of her life as she watches over her father.  She is now fifty years old, and her father, a former doctor and war hero, has just reached his century, an old man enjoying the quiet of his final years.  What seems like a perfect father-daughter relationship has a darker side, however.  Fanny, 'numéro six' in the Delbast family, is a woman who has craved her father's attention all her life, and this book is the story of how she tried to get it - starting with her journey into the water.

One of the main themes Olmi looks at in Numéro Six is the fragile bond between a daughter who idolises, and idealises, her father and a man who doesn't really notice her much at all.  Her decision to take on the responsibility for his care in his twilight years is anything but altruistic, even if her brothers and sisters see it this way.  With the mother who monopolised her father's affection finally gone, it's Fanny's turn to sit by her father's side:
"J'ai mis toute mon énergie à trouver cet endroit.  Je te voulais près de moi.  Dépendant de moi.  Quel soulagement pour le aînés, ils n'y croyaient pas, ils ont dit qu'ils pouvaient payer, que le prix ne devait pas être un obstacle, surtout que rien ne m'arrête dans mes recherches.
 Rien ne m'a arrêtée." (p.90)

"I put all my energy into finding this place.  I wanted you close to me.  Dependent on me.  What a relief for the others, they couldn't believe it, they said that they'd pay, that price was no object, just as long as nothing got in the way of my research.
 Nothing got in my way." ***
As we travel through her early life, we see why she longs for her father's affection so much.  An afterthought, a late, unexpected addition to a large Catholic family, she is less Fanny than numéro six, just a number, the last of the children.  Any trick she thinks of to draw her father's attention seems to backfire, her efforts ignored or repulsed.  She even goes to the extreme of faking a debilitating illness in her childhood - one which renders her virtually bed bound for an entire year.
 
In truth, though, the more the story develops, the less Numéro Six is about the daughter and the more it becomes the story of the father.  While the man of the now is a hundred-year-old child waiting for his life to end, the narrator gradually shows us more of his roles.  He was a respected doctor, a feared family head, a loving young son and, perhaps most importantly, a soldier during the Great War, one of the sons of France who responded to the call to arms in 1914.

Learning about the war years through her father's letters, the only things Fanny received from the carving up of her parents' estate, she gains an insight into the emotions behind the paternal mask.  Much of her father's behaviour in later years (his fierce love for his wife, his need for silence) can be explained by what happened during the war years, his dreams haunted by memories of life in the trenches and those who were left behind on Flanders' fields.

For me, the lasting memory of the book is of the father, a man who fought for his country but suffered from the effects of the conflict for his whole life (it's a book which is particularly poignant in the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War...).  Fanny is very clear about what she wants from life, needing her father close to her - there's no room for anyone else:
"L'homme de ma vie, c'est toi." (p.107)

"The man of my life is you." ***
Sadly, as much as she tries to claim her father for herself, she never quite gets there.  By the time her mother has left the scene, the man she has waited for her whole life is no longer really there any more...

Numéro Six is fairly short, even shorter than Bord de Mer, but it provides the reader with a lot to think about.  While I've focused more on the father, another review could easily concentrate on the daughter, looking at the dangers of her intense desire to appropriate her father's love.  It'd be nice to think that it'll make its way into English eventually (I actually preferred it to the earlier story), but I suspect that it's unlikely to happen.  It's an awkward length, too long for a short-story collection, and too short to be published as a stand-alone publication.  Still, if your French is up to it, it's well worth a read - and if there's any publisher out there who wants to prove me wrong... ;)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

'Sworn Virgin' by Elvira Dones (Review)

Part of the motivation for Women in Translation Month is redressing the gender inequality in the world of translated fiction.  However, as we all know, literature isn't the only area where the numbers don't quite add up.  Today's book, instead of pushing for equality of the sexes, takes a rather different approach to the issue, though - it seems like a good example of the old saying "if you can't beat them, join them"...

*****
Elvira Dones' Sworn Virgin (translated by Clarissa Botsford, e-copy courtesy of And Other Stories) begins on an aeroplane headed for the USA as Mark Duda, a prospective immigrant from Albania, prepares to land, looking forward to starting a new life in the states.  Cousins are there to welcome Mark to the new country, and the welcomes are warm, greeting the new addition to the expatriate community.

Once back at the home of Lila, Mark's cousin, things get a little more serious.  It's time to make a start on an ambitious project, one which has brought the Albanian from the mountains to the outskirts of the American capital.  You see, Mark's real name is actually Hana - and it's time for the self-sufficient mountain man to blossom into the young woman who has been trapped inside for so long...

Sworn Virgin isn't a transgender tale in the usual sense.  Instead, it's a thought-provoking story based on a real-life phenomenon, that of the sworn virgins of the mountainous northern regions of Albania.  A woman who, for whatever reason, decides not to accept the subservient life of a woman, can legally become a man, taking on the responsibilities (and privileges) of the gender.  While this involves guns, cigarettes and lots of raki, there's also one major sacrifice to be made.  Taking this step is also tantamount to making a vow of chastity.

The story jumps back and forth between Albania and the States, exploring the reasons for Hana's decision to become Mark and the long, arduous process of shedding her male persona:
"I've been a man for fourteen years."  Lila tries to drown her gaze in the oily dregs of the coffee.  "It's not going to be easy," she says finally.  "Not for any of us."
(And Other Stories, 2014)
Hana isn't the only one who's going to struggle with the change.  For example, Shtjefën, her brother-in-law, has seen Hana as a man all his life...

To understand why Hana became Mark, we need to see the background, where the young student is caught between two worlds.  While the communist era pledges equality, things are very different in the deeply conservative mountain regions.  With a sick uncle to care for (her parents having died many years earlier), there's a need for Hana to observe tradition, and (as a fellow student remarks) freedom of action is fairly thin on the ground:
"Free from what, Hana?" he mutters, while she pulls away from him.  "Free from where?  We're just like horses, going round and round in circles."
This is as true for the people in Tirana, under a communist regime, as it is for those in the mountains.  

Once in America, Hana adapts well in some ways to life as a woman in a new country.  She's used to solitude, and she's a hard worker with good language skills.  However, in others she struggles somewhat - she's not really one for dresses, make-up and talking about her feelings.  The final challenge is the most daunting, though, as her goal is to have a real relationship (the 'sworn virgin' is exactly that).  As she begins to meet men, will she be able to alter her mindset and let someone in?

The focus of the book is, naturally, Hana, but Dones also spends time looking at the problems of some of the other characters.  While Hana's niece, Jonida, has thrived in the States, her parents aren't quite as happy.  Shtjefën is working like a dog to make a living, and Lila is, in many ways, more trapped by her gender role than Hana.  A housewife, a cleaner, a fading beauty - her dreams are buried beneath her family responsibilities:
"Because I'd have to go back to school for years and I have a home to run and a daughter to take care of.  I can't afford to pay for another course.  It's too late now."
Despite her attempt to mould Hana in her own image, life as a woman in America isn't as wonderful as Lila would have her cousin believe...

Sworn Virgin works very well, and Dones is especially good at showing the struggles Hana faces in dropping the Mark persona, with Hana having to deal with much more than just superficial, cosmetic changes:
"On the outside she looks almost like a woman.  What's missing is her vision, the point of view from which she is supposed to read the world."
A vital part of her transformation is adopting a female philosophy, a different way of seeing the world - which is not to say that her thinking is completely masculine.  In fact, she often gets caught between two modes of thought.  Despite this, one criticism I'd make of Sworn Virgin is that the novel focuses too much on Hana, and Mark doesn't get a look in.  We see a lot of what caused the change, and a lot of the difficulties of changing back.  It would have been great to see more of how Mark fitted into his community and the practicalities of life as a 'man'.

It's still a great story though, one in which, as Ismail Kadare notes in his (brief) introduction, while it may seem that Hana is gaining something by becoming Mark, in fact, she's losing a lot more.  Hers is a life of many sacrifices, not all of which are willingly made - you see, becoming a man isn't all it's cracked up to be...

Thursday, 14 August 2014

'Spirit on the Wind (and Other Stories)' by O Chong-hui (Review)

One of the standout stories from when I recently read the Modern Korean Fiction collection was 'Wayfarer', a wonderful story by O Chong-hui (AKA Oh Jung-hee) about a woman deserted by friends and family after a traumatic event.  Eager to try more of her work, I looked around to see what else was out there, and if you're looking for a (free) taste of Korean literature, there is (of course) only one place to go - over to Korean Literature in Translation to see what Uncle Charles has found out there on the net.  It turns out that there are a fair few of O's stories you can sample online for free - perfect for another Women in Translation Month post :)

*****
The first story I tried, 'Evening Game' (tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé), was immediately recognisable as a work by the writer of 'Wayfarer'.  It's a story about a woman past marrying age at home with her father, and O never shies away from making her character less than perfect:
"Dizzy from Anaemia and panting from the reeking smell that made me nauseous, I'd stood before the mirror, studying the fine wrinkles and filthy patches of ringworm on my dry skin.  The stains on the gas range tarnishing the stainless steel would prove more malevolent and last longer than my memory of them."
Old before her time, she's trapped at home playing cards with her father every evening.  Why?  Well, there are some secrets in her past which will eventually be revealed... 

Next up were a couple of shorter tales, one of which I uncovered for myself at the Acta Koreana site.  'Weaver Woman' (tr. Miseli Jeon) is a slightly atypical story looking at a woman and her largely silent husband, one with rain, flowers and symbolism which went flying well over my head.  'Garden of my Childhood' (tr. Ha-yun Jung), on the other hand, is recognisably one of O's stories.  It follows a young girl roaming the streets of a country town, the new home of her refugee family as they wait for their absent father to return.  A sub-plot of the mystery of the missing chickens reveals how the family is managing to adapt to their new circumstances - I think you can guess how that one plays out ;)

'Chinatown' (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is a longer, fairly well-known story, and acts almost as a continuation of 'Garden of my Childhood'.  A refugee family moves from the country to the city to restart their lives in a poor, dirty neighbourhood.  It's a coming-of-age story, a portrait of a young girl moving from childhood to puberty, but it's also a story which is built on images - the dirty children, bombed-out buildings and the 'Chinese' houses on the hill.  Like much of O's work, it's a story within a story, and we move back and forth between life in the new neighbourhood and vivid memories of the move to the city.  This is a story you'll find in at least two publications, but you can try it here for free, thanks again to the kind people at Acta Koreana.

*****
I've raced through the first four stories, and I had good reason to.  You see, good as they were, the best one by far was a much longer piece, Spirit on the Wind (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton).  This is a substantial novella in four parts, and it centres on a woman who keeps deserting her husband and child, running off without warning, only to turn up again days (or weeks) later.  The reader soon begins to wonder what exactly is wrong with her - have no fear, we'll soon find out...

Unusually for O, the first and third parts are actually narrated by the husband, Se-ju, an old-school Korean man who expects his wife to do everything for him at home.  He loves his wife (and shows a surprising amount of support and faith in her), but as she disappears time after time, he comes to realise that he just can't do it any more:
"When she returned and our life resumed just as before, our wounds seemed at first glance to have healed.  But with her next absence they would open up, more livid and deep than ever.
 Those wounds never really healed.  On the surface they may have received balm, but it was all a deception.  Like a steady drip of water that undermines a foundation before one realizes it, those wounds had suffused our life, encroaching upon our dreams, our hopes, our trust in each other" (p.18)
While Se-ju himself has his faults, it's tempting to sympathise and believe that the wife is expecting a little too much from him...

Se-ju's wife, Un-su, is a bit of an enigma, and the reader initially wonders whether she's depressed or simply selfish.  The truth, of course, is a little more complex.  It's not giving too much away to reveal that childhood, war-related, trauma is at the heart of her problems, and it's not until the very end of the book that we find out just why she has to disappear so often.  The second and fourth parts of the story are told in the third-person, following Un-su on her journeys, and the more we learn about her past (and her present), the more our sympathies gradually start to shift.

Spirit on the Wind is an excellent novella, beautifully written and translated (by the well-known husband-and-wife team of Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, names aficionados of Korean writing will come across frequently).  In their brief preface, the translators talk of modern K-lit as a literature of trauma, and this story is certainly a good example of that.  However, it's also typical of a woman's struggle in a patriarchal society, with Un-su's issues exacerbated by her husband's attitude and pressure from other family members.

The book is also full of beautiful imagery, though, making Spirit on the Wind a joy to read.  Again, the themes of the story provide links to the writer's other work, especially when, late in the story, Un-su returns to Incheon, the setting of 'Chinatown'.  While I've enjoyed O's other stories, though, this one stands out in my mind as the best of her work I've read so far.  It's one I would recommend as a good introduction to women's writing in Korean literature - especially, of course, as the PDF is available to download for free :)

*****
I did read one more story, 'Lake P'aro', but I'm leaving that one for another time. You see, there is a longer collection of the writer's stories available in English, River of Fire, (which contains 'Lake P'aro'), and I'm hoping to get hold of a copy in the near future.  Stay tuned for more about O Chong-hui/Oh Jung-hee very soon :)

*****
Image (retrieved 23/7/14): http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh_Jung-hee (Spanish Wikipedia)

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

'The Blue Room' by Hanne Ørstavik (Review)

When considering books from publishers for Women In Translation Month, one small press definitely stood out.  In addition to releasing sets of three related novellas each year, Peirene Press have also kept the gender balance fairly even, with their first fourteen books equally split between male and female writers.  With that in mind, and having not read the latest Peirene offering, opting for today's book was an easy decision to make.  If only all life's decisions were as simple...

*****
Hanne Ørstavik's The Blue Room (translated by Deborah Dawkin, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a psychological novel set in two different places.  The first is the blue room of the title, the bedroom of Norwegian student Johanne, where the unfortunate young woman wakes one morning only to find that she can't open the door - because it's been locked from the outside.

Naked, confused and distressed about being unable to get to the airport (she was about to embark on a trip overseas), she is forced to spend the day thinking about why she's being kept in her room.  The second setting for the story, then, is Johanne's mind, and we're immediately taken back a couple of weeks to her first meeting with the handsome Ivar, the catalyst for all that has followed.  However, wherever and whenever Johanne's memories take us, one thing is certain; there's a shadowy figure in her subconscious, and it's someone very close to home...

The Blue Room is an excellent book, and after one reading it's up there with my favourite Peirene books (probably my favourite of the ones I've read in English).  A fascinating read, it's also frustrating at times, as the writer takes us on a trip through the psyche of a damaged, submissive young woman.  In following Johanne's thoughts of the past two weeks, we are given a look at the problem of family relationships and the dangers arising when family members become that little bit too close.

Johanne is an intriguing creation.  While she's an intelligent, popular and presumably attractive young woman, she's also wracked with doubts, convinced she's not up to the challenging life path she's drawn up for herself.  She's a psychology student who's keen to jump to conclusions, swinging from happiness to self-loathing in seconds, and the minutely-detailed plans she has are shattered by the appearance of the charming Ivar.  Of all eventualities, it appears that love is the one she's least well-equipped to deal with...

Which is not to say that she doesn't want to be loved; in fact, she's desperate for affection.  However, Johanne is actually looking for a lot more:
"Why can't somebody take care of me?"
p.146 (Peirene Press, 2014)
This simple plea is key to her personality, revealing a longing to be dominated, a wholly submissive nature which is in danger of taking over her life.  The relationship with Ivar, which, for most people, would be a joyous time, is overshadowed at times by her depressing thoughts.  Her mind is full of disturbing images, her fantasies, nightmares, of what might happen if she allows herself to get swept away.

If you're wondering where this all comes from, you don't have to look very far.  A recent Twitter meme was asking for examples of bad parents in literature, and Johanne's Mum would be right up there.  As well as showing us a fragile young woman, Ørstavik also creates a portrait of the mother as a highly damaging influence, a controlling, manipulative shadow hanging over poor Johanne's life.  This is a mother-daughter relationship which goes a little too far (as shown by some quite disturbing scenes on the toilet..).

Of course, she is the one who has locked Johanne in her room, leaving her daughter to have a good think about her actions.  The mother herself, though, is not without her own issues, as we learn through the rare glimpses of the past which slip through Johanne's subconscious.  The daughter's fear of men stems from the mother's own experiences:
"Men are so simple.  Controlled by sex and power.  Like robots", she said. (pp.51/2)
With Johanne reliant on her mother for accommodation and living expenses if she's ever going to achieve her plan of  building up a psychology practice (an idea which someone else planted in her mind...), she feels as if she's using her mother, a feeling which leads to guilt.  In truth, though, it's most definitely the mother who is abusing her position.

Ørstavik's novel is a wonderful piece of writing, with an excellent translation, a book which skilfully inserts occasional, shocking images amongst the stream of mundane thoughts running through Johanne's mind.  For the most part, the book is written in short sentences, but the sentences become longer, and more emotion laden, when Johanne gets excited, the plain descriptive prose being overrun by frantic, violent thoughts.  In addition to the themes covered above, there are several other areas which could be explored at length, such as the importance of Johanne's faith in both helping and suppressing her and the symbolism of her back pain, a feature which comes up again and again in the story.  Someone else will have to follow those themes up, though ;)

As with most Peirene books, intertextual reading is also tempting.  Meike picks her books very carefully, and while the three works released each year form a whole, there are always nods back to previous offerings.  In terms of an unreliable narrator who offers the reader incomplete information, Next World Novella springs to mind, while the focus on a mother smothering her child will inevitably lead to thoughts of Beside the Sea.  Perhaps the guiding ethos of the Peirene empire is that mother does *not* always know best...

However, with its central theme of parental domination, perhaps it's The Mussel Feast which best complements The Blue Room.  Without giving too much away, the book is really all about Johanne's day in her room and what will happen to the mother-daughter bond when she gets out.  While the reader will be hoping Johanne manages to break free, it's difficult to see someone so guilt laden being able to stand up to her oppressor when she appears so trapped, both mentally and physically:
"But what do we do with the guilt?  Being ignorant of the moment things began, we can repeatedly deny guilt, pointing ever further back to a previous event as the starting point - it wasn't me.  I prefer to think the opposite.  To think of myself as guilty of everything, thus giving me a responsibility and a duty to change." (p.15)
It's all very well for Virginia Woolf to ask for a room of one's own - it's of no use unless you're able to go in and out without needing to ask for permission...