Intense passion does not last forever; it is brief, fleeting, abrupt, just like Simple Passion. Released by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Tanya Leslie’s brilliant translation, Ernaux’s latest English release encapsulates all that is great about her writing in a concise forty-eight pages.
A novella of autobiographical fiction, Simple Passion follows an unnamed, middle-aged, female narrator as she documents two years of a secret love affair with a man she names A. The writing is momentary, concise and fragmented, yet true to Ernaux, brimming with meaning. The book opens as follows . . .
“it occurred to me that writing should […] replicate the feeling of sexual intercourse, that feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgement.”
This is exactly what the narrator does throughout the remainder of the book; laying her lust and questionable choices bare for readers to see, hoping that they will suspend their moral judgement and allow her the space in which to explore the ins and outs of a passion that she once lived.
Whilst A. is the object of the narrator’s passion, it is the feeling and experience of passion itself that has that biggest hold over her – a feeling and experience that she strives to perfect. She recounts how she spends every waking hour of each day perfecting and preserving this passion . . .
“Quite often I felt I was living out this passion in the same way I would have written a book: the same determination to get every single scene right, the same minute attention to detail.”
Our narrator then, is completely and utterly at the mercy of passion, her life revolving around the preservation of this feeling.
What stood out most to me in Simple Passion, however, was not the narrator’s reflections on passion or clandestine love. Instead, the most striking part came at the end of the book where she enters into an unobstructed dialogue with the reader, sharing her thoughts on the process and implications of writing in footnotes. Of course, this dialogue has been there from the very beginning, but it is in these final pages that it becomes overt, with the reader feeling directly spoken to. We become part of our writer’s thought processes, and are permitted glimpses into her reflections on writing as she pieces together parts of her disjointed story. . .
“I know full well that I can expect nothing from writing, which, unlike real life, rules out the unexpected. To go on writing is also a means of delaying the trauma of giving this to others to read. I hadn’t considered this eventuality while I still felt the need to write. But know that I have satisfied this need, I stare at the written pages with astonishment and something resembling shame, an emotion I certainly never felt when I was living out my passion or writing about it. The prospect of publication brings me closer to people’s judgement and the ‘normal’ values of society.”
Once again, our narrator is laying her thoughts and feelings bare, sharing the process of her writing, and the implications it harbours directly with the reader. Whilst she may not answer any of the questions she provokes, she forces the reader to ask them; forces them to reflect on ideas of truth – more specifically the truth writing can show us that our minds cannot. For example, in the narrator’s case, writing down her experiences helped her realise something her easily infatuated and obsessed mind did not: passion is fickle.
Ernaux’s writing, however sparse, allows the reader to consider so much. As ever, she persuades us into thinking about the feelings we have as humans, but more notably, the way we shape those feelings, attempting to fit them into ‘perfect’ moulds. Whilst the narrator lays her obsession with passion bare for the readers to see, it is her reflections on writing that reveal the most about her. Therefore, whilst Simple Passion is undeniably about a love affair, Ernaux’s words ring true in a number of situations.
Crocodile Tears, by Mercedes Rosende, is the latest publication from Bitter Lemon Press. Expertly translated from the Spanish by Tim Gutteridge, this crime fiction novella is the publishers first release from Uruguay, and Rosende’s first appearance in English.
The intriguing plot begins in a dismal prison visiting room, where we meet Diego, recently charged with a kidnapping that does not appear to have gone at all to plan. His shifty lawyer, Antinucci is visiting to tell him that he will be released from the crowded prison in just one week–however, relief does not come easy to Diego, as it is clear that he is well and truly Antinucci’s puppet on a string and will soon have to pay for this favour. As the story quickly unravels further, we learn that ‘The Hobo’ (an abominable and hateful inmate at the prison) also wants something from Diego: reparation for protecting him inside, and for setting him up with the slippery lawyer Antinucci. ‘The Hobo’s’ role in the plot thus grows more and more important, especially when he too evades prison and seeks out Diego, demanding that he keeps his promise and assists him in an ambitious and somewhat naïve plan.
In the meantime, readers are also introduced to two more important characters. First, we meet Ursula Lopez, a downtrodden and somewhat troubled lady–and supposedly the wife of the man that Diego helped to kidnap. Recounts of her intriguing and questionable day-to-day activities are interspersed with flashbacks to childhood trauma, and conversations with the ghost of her father. We also get to know the somewhat stronger character of Captain Leonilda Lima, a member of the police force, who–despite being constantly dismissed and belittled by her male counterparts–is forceful and determined.
Flitting between all of these characters’ storylines, the plot continues to unfold in a cloud of confusion, with the reader piecing together what has happened only moments before the characters themselves do. As the cloud begins to lift, these characters inevitably cross paths, and we see the incompetent criminals of the story hash together a hi-jack that is far outside of their abilities, and certainly deemed to fail. It is only thanks to the two female characters in Crocodile Tears (all too often overlooked or dismissed by the men) and their impulsive yet confident decisions, that the fast-paced narrative continues to evolve. Ursula Lopez and Captain Leonilda Lima then, are most certainly the heroines of the story.
Crocodile Tears is both comical and clever. Rosende expertly writes an intriguing story that never gives too much away, persistently leaving the reader on edge. Her style, in Gutteridge’s English translation, is captivating, the character descriptions compelling, and the passages on the dismal and unforgiving Uruguayan city of Montevideo perfectly setting the scene for the multiple crimes that the reader is witness to. Thanks to Gutteridge’s brilliant translation, the anglophone reader is immersed deep into the heart of Montevideo, its petty yet hardened criminals, and its corrupt professionals.
After what has been an incredibly stressful year for the entire world, this Christmas I was looking forward to spending my two weeks off reading the pile of books that was nervously stacking up by the side of my bed. Top of my list was London Under Snow, by Jordi Llavina, translated by Douglas Suttle. I had been waiting to read this short story collection for a while now, and what better time to start than Christmas Eve? This wonderful collection was released in October of this year by Fum d’Estampa Press, a brilliant indie publisher launched in 2019, dedicated to bringing exceptional Catalan literature into English. In Fum d’Estampa’s own words they “bring the very best in European translated fiction in books that are beautiful to both read and hold.” London Under Snow is certainly no exception to this.
London Under Snow compromises of six beautifully written short stories, each with winter and the Christmas period as their backdrop. Whilst themes of memory, loss and nostalgia course through every story, each is unique, offering a glimpse into one moment of someone’s life. What is special about these delicate and melancholic snapshots, is the way that Llavina’s clever meta-fictional style expertly weaves personal experiences with imagined characters, leaving the reader unable to unblur the lines that he smudges between reality and fiction. This strong sense of ambiguity that Llavina thus creates, makes each story even more intriguing. These six unique meditations on memory cover some heavy themes, however, Llavina somehow manages to balance this perfectly with dry humour, allowing him to smooth ever so slightly the sharp edge to each story.
The opening story, ‘Hand and Racquet’ is set in a ‘London under snow’ and sets the tone for the rest of the collection. Woven within bleakly realistic descriptions of London are reflections on life and memory. However, what stood out most to me in ‘Hand and Racquet’ were its musings on fate and chance–a dilemma that I often find myself reflecting on. It is also with this opening story that Llavina’s meta-fictional style for this collection is perhaps most overt. The narrator himself is named Jordi, and he specifically discusses the logistics of editing and publishing the collection of stories that the reader has in their hands. Before launching into the second story in the collection then, Llavina cleverly forces the reader to beg the question: what is real and what is imagined?
With the second story, ‘My Andalusian Cousin’, Llavina casts his memory even further, writing of childhood and nostalgia. It is here that the reader notices Llavina’s keen eye for detail as he dissects the small trivialities of childhood that would otherwise be ignored or forgotten. With, ‘We, Too, Are Expecting’, the collection takes a darker turn, with Llavina’s delicate and lyrical prose allowing him to carefully and subtly approach the heavy topic of loss. ‘San Diego, For the Record’, however, brings Llavina’s lighter and more humorous tone back to life. A perhaps joyful story of legacy and charity, ‘San Diego, For the Record’ still carries the undertones of memory and loneliness that resonate throughout the collection as a whole. In this story Llavina’s keen eye for detail also shines–his vivid descriptions of even the most tedious elements of day-to-day life immersing the reader deep in the moment and the scene. With the penultimate story, ‘A Man Called Amat’, Llavina explores the idea of seeing the past through one person. One of my favourite lines from the collection is: “When we start to dig up our memories, above all, when we bring back to the present remote passages from our lives, it means untangling different figures from the past.” This weird and wonderful story expertly explores ideas of visiting our past through the people that shaped it, seeing our past through who was there.
With the final piece in the collection, ‘The Linden Tree’, Llavina brings the series full circle, reinstating the overt meta-fictional style that we saw in the opening story. Hand in hand with his somewhat existential reflections on memory, the passing of time, and death, Llavina’s meta-fictional style begins to offer potential responses to the question that the opening story evokes: what is real and what is imagined? ‘The Linden Tree’ allows us to not only cast doubt on the ‘reality’ of the previous stories we read, but more importantly, to cast doubt on the ‘reality’ of our own memories: “In a story […] everything, absolutely everything is true. […] The moment you tell it, it becomes real, and not only that, it becomes true. It all ends up as being true.” Like a grey, dull London under a crisp, white snow, Llavina embellishes his real, personal stories, topping them off with a layer of perfectly crisp imagination, and by putting these embellishments into words, “it all ends up as being true.”
London Under Snow is an absolutely stunning collection, brilliantly rendered into English by Suttle. A book of layers–be those real or imagined–that intertwine to form an incredibly moving and lyrical collection of stories on memory and loss, pitting the real against the imagined.
In this short blog post, I wanted to offer a very brief overview of three French independent publishers that I love! Much like the UK publishing industry, the French market is dominated by some huge publishing corporations, however, their independent publishing is thriving and home to some of the best literature in France. These indie publishers are those, that unlike the giants, dare to do something different.
Éditions Allia is one of my all-time favourite French publishers. They are an independent publishing house based in Paris and founded in 1982 by Gérard Berréby. Éditions Allia state that their aim is “to satisfy and unbalance a readership hungry for something else”, and this, they certainly do. A vast number of their publications are brewing with underlying themes of revolt–be that through ideas of political revolution, art, or contemporary dystopia. Looking broadly at the Allia catalogue, one can see a strong sense of so-called ‘paraliterature’, works that are often considered as un-literary, thus over-looked and forgotten. With over 800 publications to date, Allia is consistent in publishing brilliant works that resonate with their contemporary and current audiences and times.
Le Nouvel Attila is a small, yet powerful independent publishers based in Paris. Launched in 2004 by three students out of a building frustration with the literary sphere, Le Nouvel Attila is now thriving, and dedicated to cultivating and publishing “strange and foreign literature”. Their brilliant catalogue is a selection of “undefinable genres” and “literary weeds” and they pride themselves on publishing works that have been otherwise overlooked. Despite a keen focus on publishing foreign works in translation, Le Nouvel Attila is equally as proud of their selection of French authors.
Asphalte Éditions is another great example of a small publishing house and was launched in 2010. Whilst translations were originally at the heart of the project, the publishing house opened to French writers in 2014, however, their ethos remains the same: world literature. Asphalte publishes great contemporary works with strong narrative voices and writing that submits to atmosphere and rhythm. Asphalte states that their catalogue reflects an attachment to all of the places they publish from–an attachment to the spirit and the musicality of each place.
My picks from the list:
Éditions Allia, Le Nouvel Attila, and Asphalte Éditions are just three small, but dazzling gems that make up the French independent publishing sphere. They wholeheartedly dedicate their time to publishing otherwise overlooked French writers, and do the equally important job of seeking out literature from around the world to be translated into French. Each of them push boundaries in their own unique way, and without these three dedicated publishing houses, and many more small scale publishers in France, some brilliant French literature would be completely lost in the void.
For the seventh year running – thanks to the wonderful founder Meytal Radzinski – this August saw another ‘Women in Translation Month’, a whole month dedicated to promoting and celebrating female writers in translation. Like many, I devoted my entire month to reading only translated works from women, and like many, I attempted to reach out to many corners of the world. Although I read many women in translation all year round, I always seem to unintentionally have a very euro-centric focus to my reading. Perhaps this is partly thanks to what is available to me in popular book stores, or what mainstream publishers draw my attention to. Whilst five out of the eight of the books on this list do hail from outside of Europe, what I did read unfortunately did not stray too far from European languages – with four of these five being written in the colonial languages of French and Spanish. So, despite enjoying every book on this list, what this ‘Women in Translation Month’ has taught me is that I need to stretch my reading even further, venturing outside of languages that saturate the market for translated literature such as French and Spanish. By the time August has crept back up on us in 2021, I want to have expanded my reading experiences even further, and hope to have read many women in translation from lesser represented languages outside of Europe.
The first book I had the pleasure of reading this month was Wild Woman, by Marina Šur Puhlovski, translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books. Wild Woman is an ‘anti-love story’ written from the perspective of a young woman in 1970s Croatia. The narrative follows the evolution of the narrator’s relationship with a misogynistic and toxic man – a relationship that is built on lies, false hope, and fairytale fantasies. Marina’s writing is certainly brimming with countless intricate details, something that although at times was hard to keep up with, offers an insight into the narrator’s mind – a mind overwhelmed with fairytale love stories, literature and questionable notions of what love and life should be. This strong, yet very naive voice really drew me in to this very insular and personal story.
Translation as Transhumance
The next book I read was Translation as Transhumance, by Mirielle Gansel, translated by Ros Schwartz and published by Les Fugitives. This short memoir/essay collection offers an absolutely wonderful and personal exposition on translation and the translator’s experiences. Gansel shares her relationship with languages that have spanned lives and generations, and moved across nations. This exploration of her relationship with languages then evolves into an insight on her journey as a translator. As a translator myself, I devoured this book, finding Gansel’s musings on translation absolutely brilliant.
The next book had been on my list for a long time: The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes and published by And Other Stories. Set in Chile, this novel brings together three characters, all linked by their parents’ elusive militant past during Chile’s former dictatorship. The shadowy and simplistic prose burns slowly, not giving too much away, and acting as a reflection of the trio’s parents mysterious past. Whilst the narrative appears to not say a lot at all, there are layers and layers of meaning behind every sentence. Hidden behind descriptions of persistent heat and overbearing dust lie ideas of collective memory, trauma and forgotten bodies. A striking and unnerving read.
The Wind That Lays Waste
The next book on my list was another from South America – this time Argentina. The Wind That Lays Waste, by Selva Almada, translated by Chris Andrews and published by Charco Press was one of my favourite reads from this month. The novella takes place all in the space of one day, and brings together four unlikely characters: a priest and his daughter, and a mechanic and his apprentice. I absolutely flew through this novella that offers a beautiful reflection on parent-child relationships, belief, and what could have been. The “storm” and its aftermath acts as an allegory for much larger issues in the novel, issues that Almada handles with a precise, yet descriptive writing style.
Convenience Store Woman
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori and published by Granta Books has to be my favourite book from this month. Convenience Store Woman is a brilliantly hilarious criticism of the expectations that are placed on women in modern Japan. A number of times I laughed (and sometimes grimaced) out loud at this wonderful book that offers a striking and humourous commentary on common societal views of women in Japan. Punchy and to the point, it certainly doesn’t skirt around certain issues.
Eve out of Her Ruins
My next read was Eve Out of Her Ruins, by Ananda Devi, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman and published by Les Fugitives. This very short novella brought me straight back down to earth after the joy that was Convenience Store Woman. Whilst I absolutely loved the beautifully poetic language in Eve Out of Her Ruins, the forceful and extremely hard-hitting story was at times hard to read. It was heart-wrenching, and despite being at times difficult to digest, its juxtaposition with beautifully eloquent – almost poetic – prose, makes the tough narrative somewhat easier to face. An extremely difficult and jarring subject matter handled beautifully with wonderful prose.
My next read was Fish Soup, written by Margarita García Robayo, translated by Charlotte Coombe and published by Charco Press. This wonderful collection of short stories explores the lives of those people in the ‘middle’, those for whom life is not terrible, yet not so great either. In each story, we meet a character or characters from a part of society that is often overlooked – purely because it has nothing ‘interesting’ to offer. Robayo subverts this, proving to us that sometimes the mundane, the ‘average’ can also be interesting. Realistic and eye-opening, Fish Soup contains a myriad of bizarre stories about ‘normal’ people.
Winter in Sokcho
My final read for Women in Translation Month was Winter in Sokcho, by Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins and published by Daunt Books. This subtle and slow-paced narrative crept up on me, and its well-thought-out prose left me feeling somewhat uneasy. Throughout the novel, Dusapin sets the scene in such a way that the reader thinks something dramatic or disastrous is always just about to happen. This is due to the fact that Winter in Sokcho is filled with a number of underlying narratives such as the whereabouts of the narrator’s father, and the fragility of living so close to the border that separates North and South Korea.
What a wonderful reading month ‘Women in Translation Month’ was! The novels that stood out most to me out of this collection have to be Convenience Store Woman and Eve Out of Her Ruins – albeit for very different reasons! As I discussed in the introduction to this post, my aim now is to continue reading more women in translation with a focus on finding great books written from outside of Europe, and in typically overlooked, or lesser-represented languages.
Last week’s Borderless Book Club saw a fitting discussion for Women in Translation Month, with a session on the novel Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski, translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books. The director of Istros, Susan Curtis, joined us for the evening to offer her insight on what it was like to work with and publish the book.
Wild Woman, described as an ‘anti-love story’, is written from the perspective of a young woman in 1970s Croatia. We follow the narrator through the evolution of her relationship and subsequent marriage with a misogynistic and toxic man, a relationship that is built on lies, false hope, and fairytale fantasies. When we meet her at the beginning of the novel, it becomes quite clear that she is young and naive, almost clinging to, and falling madly ‘in love’ with the first person she sees, something that is perhaps reflective of her apparent low self-esteem. We follow her story as she navigates the difficult realtionship and marriage with this selfish and self-absorbed man, at the same time as being shown small glimpses as to what life in 1970s Croatia was like for a young woman. Susan explained that during this time, Croatian women were expected to both work and fulfil their ‘traditional roles’ at home, roles that men were exempt from. This is shown in the novel through several strong and exhausted female characters and their somewhat pathetic and lazy male counterparts. The wider context of Yugoslavia however, is not drawn on in the novel, meaning that this narrative could easily take place in any country and in any time and context. The narrator’s thoughts and experiences throughout the relationship are presented through a stream-of-consciousness style of writing with boundless run-on sentences, something that Susan said had to be slightly reworked in the English translation, due to the English language not lending itself well to such sentences.
Susan explained to the group that whilst Marina has been writing for her whole life, she was for a long time unable to find a publisher and many of her works received little to no critical or public response. However, fairly recently a small press became interested in her work, and is now publishing her backlist. Wild Woman is the first of Marina’s books to be translated into English and the character around whom it centres also appears in Marina’s later works at various stages of her life.
Moving on to the group discussion of the novel, it quickly became clear that we all enjoyed the read, despite the somewhat confused and circling writing style that is reflective of the narrator’s state of mind sometimes leaving us a little lost. Marina’s writing is certianly brimming with countless intricate details, something that although at times is hard to keep up with, allows an insight into the protagonist’s mind, a mind overwhelmed with fairytale love stories, literature and notions of what love and life should be like. For this reason, the narrator has a very strong yet highly unreliable voice, and despite appearing fairly determined, she is someone who is easily swayed by fantasies, thus, drawn into a relationship filled with false hope. It is this strong and unique voice that really draws readers in to this very insular novel that presents an extremely personal story.
We also talked a little about how the narrator’s partner remains unnamed throughout the novel, this means that he is constantly being referred to only by sickly ironic pet names such as ‘my one and only’. These nicknames only further frustrate the reader as we see that the narrator appears oblivious (or perhaps chooses to be ignorant) to his lies and unexplained spells of disappearance. As a reader, we also do not come to know the name of the narrator herself until the final pages of the novel, one interpretation of this was that perhaps until she finally freed herself from this relationship, she wasn’t ‘herself’, only understanding her identity in terms of her relationship and dedication to her husband.
Something that also became clear in the group discussion was that whilst we felt some sympathy for the narrator (despite her often frustrating decisions and obliviousness) we felt little to no sympathy for her husband, finding him incredibly unlikeable and manipulative. As a reader, it was very frustrating to see the narrator put up with this, and reading the final pages in which she finally breaks free of this relationship was wonderful. Personally, I think this is a very realistic representation of how some young relationships can pan out, with almost a dawn of realisation as you mature and change.
A very interesting discovery came out of a reader’s question on the repetitive references to the Witch of Grič throughout the novel. Susan found out that this referred to a series of seven novels set in Zagreb in the latter half of the 18th century that all centred around the same woman. An exciting conclusion was drawn that perhaps this is what Marina is attempting to do with the character in this novel, creating a modern-day rewriting of this story through her works following the same character at various stages in her life.
This week’s book club was once again wonderful, offering some great discussions and opening up a brilliant discovery on the book!
I am very much looking forward to next week’s book club, for which we will be reading Grove by Esther Kinsky, translated by Caroline Schmidt and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, another woman in translation!
This week’s Borderless Book Club saw a wonderfully insightful discussion surrounding Palestine +100, an anthology published by Comma Press and edited by Basma Ghalayini. For the evening we were joined by Becca Parkinson of Comma Press, Basma Ghalayini, and also Thoraya El-Rayyes, a translator of one of the stories in the anthology.
Palestine +100 is a fascinating and unique collection of short stories. The anthology asks twelve Palestinian writers to create a sci-fi story set in 2048, one hundred years after the horrific events of the Nakba. It seems that the idea of sci-fi acts as a broad term, with each writer creating vastly different worlds that incorporate ideas of the speculative, the dystopian and magical realism. This anthology proves that sci-fi is the perfect genre with which to talk about the past and present through imagining the future. For Palestine+100, the genre of sci-fi simply acts as a vehicle that allows each writer to explore more in-depth ideas of a repressed community.
Becca explained that Palestine +100 was Comma’s bestseller in 2019, and came after the success of their first book in this series, Iraq +100, an anthology in which contributors were asked to write a story 100 years after the UK and US invaded Iraq in 2003. Basma explained that book is coming in Arabic soon, going on to say that it seems fiction such as this is becoming more popular in Palestine, with a whole new generation of Palestinians thirsty to see themselves represented in literature. Basma explained that it was intentional to include writers in the collection who each had a very different relationship to Palestine, in this way, each story would offer a different perspective on the events, their impact, and their potential future. For example, some writers were born in Palestine and still live there, others grew up there and moved away, and some were even born outside of Palestine and are still living elsewhere. It was important to Basma that each of the writers had a bio in which they discussed how the Nakba affected them and their families. Basma said that she was pleasantly surprised by some of the optimism found within the stories, for example, some imagined cases in which the two ‘sides’ were living and existing somewhat peacefully together. However, Thorya disagreed, stating that she in fact found them to be very disturbing, dystopian and often saddening.
It is clear that the idea of movement is central to many of the stories. Basma explained that she believes this is due to the fact that Palestinians are always moving, crossing divisions, walls and borders. This coincides well with the genre of sci-fi in which time and space are often navigated, as a result, the genre of sci-fi lends itself particularly well to this topic. There was also a discussion on the idea of preserving memory and history, something that is often seen as a ‘duty’ for Palestinians, again, this is clearly seen throughout many of the texts in which ideas of silencing, forgetting and disillusion feature heavily, culminating in the idea of a collective memory and trauma that is, in some cases, impossible to forget.
Thoraya then talked to the group about how she came to translate the story written by Madj Kayyal, titled ‘N’. Thorya explained that she has worked with Comma before, and has a lot of experience translating experimental short fiction, this being her speciality. She explained to the group that she really enjoyed the process, finding the story incredibly thought provoking. Thoraya described ‘N’ as a story in which everyone gets what they said they wanted, however, despite this, something does not feel quite right. This is perhaps because no one is addressing the problematic past that led to this point, instead they escape through virtual reality, something which Thoraya explained she found quite disturbing.
We then moved onto a group discussion of the collection. Many of us found the stories to be very disorienting, perhaps this is due to the nature of sci-fi, or, perhaps on a more meaningful level, is intended to reflect on the disorienting reality of these people’s lives. We all agreed that each writer imagined an incredibly detailed futuristic world in each of the stories, with many of the characters and settings being very profoundly developed, something which must be difficult to do in the small space of the short story form.
It was quite surprising that virtual reality features so heavily in the book, appearing in a large number of the stories. Whilst it is certain that virtual reality is becoming more and more popular across the globe, it is interesting to see that many of these writers envisage it playing a key role in the future of Palestine – albeit a very disturbing one. It could be that this stems from something that we discussed earlier in the evening, the fact that for the Palestinian community, the past is almost impossible to avoid or to escape from, and plays a huge role in every Palestinian’s identity. Virtual reality then, is the only way to have respite from this traumatic past, and sadly, in many of the stories, the only way in which to ‘live’ in or experience peace.
Despite being an anthology set in the near future, in each of the twelve stories, the past lingers. Again, this comes back to an inability to forget, and the presence of a collective trauma and history that is embedded in and passed down through generations. It could also be considered that this focus on the past is a resistance to being silenced. Related to this focus on the past, the group also discussed the fact that no utopian futures were imagined in the collection. Basma explained that she believed a reason for this lack of optimism could be that it may be considered as too strong of a political statement, and a denial of the fact that unfortunately, things are currently getting worse.
I can certainly say that Palestine +100 is like no other book I have read before. Whilst each of the twelve stories dealt with similar themes such as memory and silencing, they all present very different futures, and very different ideas. Not only did I enjoy reading this brilliant collection, but I have also learnt a lot more about Palestine’s history (and present) through the eyes of twelve writers.
The next meeting will see a discussion on Wild Woman, by Marina Šur Puhlovski, translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books!
Last week’s Borderless Book Club saw a discussion of Inlands, published by Nordisk Books, written by Elin Willows, and translated from the Swedish by Duncan J. Lewis. The minimalist and stripped back narrative is written from the point of view of a young Swedish girl who has moved from the city to a remote Northern town in order to live closer to her boyfriend. However, within weeks of arriving, they split up, and despite there being no reason at all for her to stay, she does. We follow her as she explores her vast and bleak surroundings, and gets to know the ins and outs of the town, all from somewhat of a distance, born out of an apparent reluctance to grow attached to anything or anyone.
This week’s session was great, as we were lucky enough to be joined by both the author and translator. The evening started with an introduction to Elin, the author, and Duncan, the translator (and director of Nordisk). Elin Willows is a radio host and journalist living in Finland, however, she is from Stockholm, Sweden and has also lived in the Northern town in which the book is set. Elin explained that she moved there with the plan to stay for one to three months but actually ended up staying for a year and a half. She said that whilst the book is not based on this part of her life, the location, and some of the characters she met there inspired it, and she finds that she relates closely to some of the feelings that the protagonist experiences. Elin explained that she thought a lot about the seasons and the surroundings whilst writing, and this definitely shows, with the weather and nature almost becoming an antagonist in the book. Elin told the group that whilst she has been writing her entire life, having her book published is a dream that she never thought would come true. Inlands came to be published in English after Duncan came across the book and was drawn in by the spartan nature of the writing. Throughout the translation process, the pair would often keep in contact, working together closely on certain sections, with Duncan sending his drafts and Elin giving her feedback. A challenging aspect of translation and an element of the book with which Elin offered the most help was with the descriptions of the landscape. Duncan explained that rendering the Swedish words used to describe the landscape into English was particularly tricky, as there are simply not English words to describe these characteristics of the landscape of Northern Sweden. In order to help with the translation, Elin sent Duncan photographs of the scenery that she was describing, this allowed Duncan to recreate these descriptions in English as closely as possible.
Elin and Duncan then went on to talk about anonymity in the book. As a reader, we never learn the protagonist or her lover’s name and we also find out nothing about her ‘previous’ life. Elin’s reasoning behind this was that “a name says so much about a person”, therefore, she didn’t want to name her protagonist as she wanted her to be an open character that each reader to relate to, making up their own ideas of who she is, what she looks like, and what her story is. Duncan agreed with this idea of anonymity, stating that if a name or character description does not add to the narrative then he doesn’t necessarily believe that there is a need for it, he went on to add that the namelessness of the main characters also eliminates any connotations that a reader may have with that name already.
Elin went on to explain the interesting method she used to write Inlands. Throughout the writing process, she was extremely busy, therefore, she would write in ten-minute bursts every day, this is shown through the truthful, frank and economical style, a style that only highlights the character’s emotional disconnect from the world around her. Due to her method of writing in these short bursts, Elin ended up with a non-linear narrative, something which she stated is the ‘central nerve’ of the book. Elin then intervened further, ‘cutting-up’ and rearranging the order in which the writing naturally occurred. This non-linearity pulls the focus away from specific events, allowing the reader to notice and interact with the more important elements of the book such as the protagonist’s relationship with her emotions and the changes she experiences in her surroundings. The narrative jumps from winter to summer are also very disorienting and leave us perhaps just as disoriented as the protagonist is in this new place. The sense of place within the book is very important, and Elin explained to the group that place is something she could not help but write about. Having moved a lot, she is interested in the effects that place and change of place can have on an individual. The location of the book is particularly interesting, being closed off and impenetrable (even for the protagonist to some extent) it is distant and self-contained.
The next part of the session saw us move into a more detailed group discussion of the book. Despite the sparse and often melancholy narrative, we found the book incredibly immersive and calming. Perhaps on my part, this is because to some extent I can relate closely to some of the experiences that the protagonist encounters with regards to changing location etc., however, I think that the beautiful, albeit minimalistic descriptions of the unforgiving, yet somehow nurturing nature that the protagonist is surrounded by also has a part to play in this. One of the first things we talked about as a group was why we thought the girl decided to stay in this remote Northern town despite the one reason she chose to move there no longer being a part of her life. For me, it seemed that she enjoyed and almost relished in this emotional disconnect from everything and everyone around her, in this town she has no ties, no obligations, and this allows her to isolate herself further from life than she already has. We all agreed that she has a resistance to narrative, a resistance to the idea that she ‘has to do something’. We also briefly discussed the descriptions of the relentless summer sun and the endless winter, and the fact that despite the huge differences that this change in climate could have on a person, this really does not seem to evoke any changes in the protagonist’s habits or mood. Perhaps this is indicative of her desire for disconnect culminating in her attempt, and failure to connect to nature.
Our group then went on to discuss the mystery illness that the protagonist experiences. Like most areas of her life, we discussed the possibility that this denial or ignorance of her illness is perhaps an unwillingness to confront any conflictive or emotive aspects of her life, instead she just drifts through this illness in a naive state of denial, or ignorance. In this part of our discussion we discussed ideas of mental health and depression, and the sad reality of this character’s life: minimal interaction with other people, eating little, sleeping a lot, not cleaning. To finish our discussion we talked about the ending of the novel where the character makes a u-turn in the car. Someone bought up the interesting idea that this could perhaps not just be interpreted as a physical u-turn in her car, but also a u-turn on this part of her life, an indication that she has made the decision to leave this remote town and return to her previous life in the city…
I loved reading Inlands, and despite the short format of the chapters, I quickly became completely immersed in the novel. I found the concise narrative that dealt with themes such as isolation, loneliness and place incredibly truthful. This, along with the beautiful descriptions of her vast and desolate surroundings made for a wonderful read.
This week’s discussion was great, and it was great to be able to hear from both the author and the translator. I am looking forward to reading next week’s book, a collection of short stories that I am sure will provoke another very different, and very interesting discussion: Palestine +100, published by Comma Press.
This week’s Borderless Book Club welcomed Bitter Lemon Press to discuss Summer of Reckoning, written by Marion Brunet, and translated by Katherine Gregor. Bitter Lemon Press is a small independent publisher founded fifteen years ago that focuses on crime and noir translated literature. After reading a review of Summer of Reckoning in Le Monde, Bitter Lemon got in touch with the French publisher and proceeded to buy the rights. They then asked Katherine Gregor, a UK based translator from French and Italian, to translate the novel into English. I was interested to read this week’s book, as crime fiction is not a genre that I am usually drawn towards, and of course, it’s always good to delve into areas of fiction that I don’t typically pick up in order to avoid limiting my reading experience!
The summer of reckoning unravels in a small town in Southern France, and centres around the news of sixteen-year-old Céline’s pregnancy. Her quiet, stubborn, yet loving sister Jo is also tackling her own problems, and despite being a year younger than Céline, she remains a source of support and protection. Unfortunately, Céline’s parents do not react as kindly as Jo to the situation, her mother, Séverine being distant and cold and her father, Manuel, acting violently and angrily, simply determined to find out who did this to his daughter, and ‘make them pay’. Along the way, we also meet Céline and Jo’s problematic maternal grandparents and their father’s father, a Spanish immigrant. The family friends, Valérie and Patrick are central to the story, as well as Saïd, a neighbour and childhood friend of the sisters. In Manuel and Patrick’s eyes, Saïd is the prime suspect for Céline’s pregnancy, and for this reason, they hold a vendetta against him that is only fuelled further by their racism. Whilst Céline is not willing to divulge who the father is, she is adamant that it is not Saïd. Throughout the novel, Jo embarks on a friendship with a group belonging to the upper class, these characters are not behind the driving force of the narrative, but they do offer a glimpse into a different lifestyle to that of the main cast of characters, highlighting the striking class differences found in the South of France. As well as exploring class divides, the novel deals with a whole host of other serious issues such as racism, misogyny, immigration and xenophobia to name a few.
To begin the evening Katherine told the group of her experience translating the book. This was her first encounter with Brunet, Summer of Reckoning being the author’s first piece of adult literature. Katherine said she was hooked from the very first page, and that she enjoyed Brunet’s crisp and economical writing. She said that this style, unambiguous and clear cut, allowed for a somewhat straightforward and very enjoyable translation experience. Katherine said that she also fell in love with the location, and having grown up in France, the setting and some of the experiences that the characters encounter resonated with her.
Katherine then went on to discuss the translation of difficult content, explaining that she believes translating offers a sort of ‘cover’, almost a shield that protects the translator from the violence as they don’t experience it as closely as the author did. However, whilst Katherine said that translating the sensitive content wasn’t too difficult, as it never felt gratuitous, she explained that there was a particularly graphic scene that was extremely hard to translate, and that here, she had to take on the extract sentence by sentence, taking breaks in between. Another feature of the book that Katherine said was somewhat tricky to translate was its use of slang. In order to tackle this, she said she would sometimes listen to how the teenagers around her spoke, using this to help her rework the slang into English whilst also being careful not to anglicise too much. This reminded me of something that Edith Grossman has previously said on translation, stating that when she cannot capture the words she needs, she takes a walk in the city and waits for them to ‘slip off the tongue’ of a stranger, a passerby. She ‘hears’ her translation in the voices of the city.
Something else that might have proved difficult whilst rendering the novel into English is the fact that it flits between multiple points of view, however, Katherine said that this feature was, in fact, wonderful to work with. She explained that she loved translating the different voices, finding that as she read the French, she heard an echo: the English voice for each character. Towards the end of the discussion, Katherine also offered a beautiful analogy of the relationship between the source text author and translator, stating that she considers translation to be ‘like ballroom dancing, there is a partner who leads, and a partner who follows. If one is following someone who leads well, someone with clear, strong movements, the dance is easy…’
After a wonderful introduction, we split off into smaller groups to discuss the book in more detail. In our group, we started with a chat about the importance of the text’s location in relation to its central themes of poverty, racism and misogyny. I think that whilst these themes are unfortunately universal, the location is especially important for one in particular: racism. The type of racism we encounter in this book is centred around the idea of immigration and the stereotyping of a specific ethnicity. For this reason, I believe that the novel’s location in the South of France is important, as, whilst the town itself is not located directly on the Mediterranean coast, its presence is imminent, and key to understanding the issues of immigration and racism specific to France. France’s history with ex-colonies found on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean, (notably Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) is long, very problematic, and still very fresh. This has a strong impact on the type of immigration that France has seen, and still sees, and in turn, has an effect on the forms that racism and xenophobia take on in France. This ignorance is partly thanks to the questionable republican and secularist ideologies concerning France’s diverse population of second and third generation immigrants, ideologies that lead to blurry statistics surrounding immigration, minority communities and religion. This article from The Independent, first published in 2016, explains how France’s policies regarding diversity make minorities invisible and vulnerable: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/how-french-law-makes-minorities-invisible-a7416656.html This hostility towards immigrants from countries that France has a violent and extremely problematic colonial history with is reflected in Manuel and Patrick’s horrific treatment of Saïd. It is also reflected in the perhaps more subtle, but just as problematic, ignorance of the other characters (including police officers) that we see within the novel. Whilst these issues are bought to light within the pages of Summer of Reckoning, I do think that they definitely could have been explored in more detail, and I would have liked to see more from Saïd’s point of view. The fact that the story plays out in a small, isolated town, is very important, as the general stereotype here is that a small town is often myopic and has more closed-minded opinions. This is definitely seen with regards to Céline, as the whole town makes assumptions about her situation from afar.
We all agreed that Brunet offers an incredibly realistic representation of what it is like to grow up as a young woman in a small town, interacting with ideas such as misogyny and limited opportunities. Again, I think it definitely would have been interesting to see a reaction to these unfortunately realistic misogynistic views from the perspective of the female characters. Whilst we don’t necessarily see the sisters’ reactions to the misogyny surrounding them, Brunet does offer a rich and accurate portrayal of the dynamics of their relationship, one that is nuanced and quite touching.
To end our conversation, we talked about the crimes that appear within the novel. Whilst there is one very brutal and serious crime that sticks out from the rest, it seems that the central criminal act, the mystery that the rest of the story develops around, is Céline’s pregnancy. Throughout the novel, the reader, along with Céline’s relatives, are left guessing who the father of the baby is. However, it is only in the last few pages that this mystery is solved (though only for the reader). Although many of us guessed very early on in the novel who the father was, others were left surprised by the reveal.
I enjoyed reading Summer of Reckoning, and whilst the story is relatively slow-burning, I finished it very quickly thanks to the novel’s interaction with numerous voices and Brunet’s consise prose. I did enjoy the premise of the novel, however, I would say that I think Brunet attempts to dissect a huge range of issues in such a short book, thus, not giving each enough space for the exploration they deserve.
I am looking forward to the next meeting with Nordisk Books, and can’t wait to read Inlands, written by Elin Willows and translated by Duncan J. Lewis in preparation!
Last week’s book club saw a discussion of Margarita García Robayo’s Holiday Heart, translated by Charlotte Coombe and published by Charco Press. Joining us for the evening was the translator, Charlotte Coombe, editor, Fionn Petch, and co-founder of the press, Carolina Orloff.
Holiday Heart follows the breakdown of a marriage between two Colombian immigrants to the United States, Lucía and Pablo, and explores how each of them experiences displacement, belonging, and identity differently, perhaps one reason for the slow decay of their relationship. However, whilst this story is the driving force for the narrative, more importantly, Robayo sharply and uncomfortably introduces observations on ideas such as class, racism, and motherhood. Her precise and distinct prose follows Lucía as she leaves Pablo alone at home to wallow in his bitter self-pity and takes herself and their two children away to Miami in order to gain some perspective on her dying relationship.
Carolina opened the conversation by offering some words from Robayo, in which she discussed the idea of ‘middleness’, something that is seen throughout her works, and a theme that is very apparent in Holiday Heart. Carolina explained to the group that when she came across Robayo’s work, she was immediately blown away. Robayo’s prose is indeed quite unique with her use of dark humour and awkwardness often leaving the reader feeling slightly uncomfortable or uneasy. Carolina said she couldn’t put her books down, taking this as a sign that she had to be translated into English. Enter Charlotte Coombe, a translator from Spanish and French into English who came work on Holiday Heart after having translated a compilation of two novellas and a short story collection from Robayo, Fish Soup, also published by Charco Press. Beginning her discussion on the translation of each of the texts, Charlotte stated that she found Robayo’s voice really resonated with her own as she identified with her use of sarcasm and humour. Perhaps this had a positive impact on the translation experience, with Charlotte not having to ‘mould’ her voice into one that resembled Robayo’s. However, whilst the book explored similar themes to Fish Soup, for example, the idea of ‘middleness’, Charlotte said that the translation experience was quite different. She explained that working with these ‘awful’ characters was often very hard, and at the start of the translation process, she decided to highlight each of the controversial and shocking extracts that appear throughout the text so that she could later discuss them with her editor, Fionn Petch, and also with Carolina. The group said that they spent a very long time working on these sections (right up until publication in fact) with the aim to get it just right, a difficult task, particularly as Robayo didn’t want them to ‘tone anything down’. Fionn spoke about how political correctness is not so embedded into the Spanish language, unlike in English, meaning that certain words would have different effects in each. However, Robayo’s use of severe words were greatly emphasised in this text, and it was challenging to render this into English without becoming offensive, thus, there were points at which they had to stop and adapt Robayo’s words in order to be culturally sensitive. Whilst reading a text such as this, one has to remember that it is the characters that are doing or saying these things, and it should be taken into consideration that Robayo has chosen to write like this for a reason, potentially offering a form of social commentary and forcing people who act this way in real life to confront their actions. These characters are unfortunately very real depictions of certain people in today’s society. As Carolina stated: it has to be hard, it has to be uncomfortable, and we have to see and confront these sad realities.
Charlotte shared with the group that another difficulty in translation was choosing how to represent the two languages that appear within the text. In the Spanish language original the characters also often speak in English, something that is particularly tricky to represent in translation. In order to tackle this, Charlotte decided to add a gloss, for example, adding ‘she said in English’ in order to indicate a language change and the presence of two languages. Charlotte also chose to leave some Spanish words in the target text in order to retain the bilingual feeling that the source text had.
There was also a very interesting insight into how the title of the book came about. In Spanish, it appears as ‘Tiempo Muerto’, however, Robayo was adamant that in English translation, the title became ‘Holiday Heart’. Robayo actually wanted this to be the title for her Spanish edition, however, it was rejected by publishers. Charlotte talked more about the meaning behind the term holiday heart, explaining that when she researched the definition, she found one that offered two examples: heart flutters caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, for example, binge drinking, eating fatty foods, using recreational drugs, or, heart flutters caused by loud noise, for example, Fourth of July fireworks. This is significant because the opening pages of the novella see Lucía watching the Fourth of July Fireworks at the beach with her young children, this proves just how much thought goes into each of Robayo’s words – nothing is an accident, and each of her sentences are incredibly well thought out. This deceptively simple style of writing caused challenges in translation, and Charlotte explained that she spent a lot of time perfecting her rewriting of Robayo’s style.
After a wonderfully insightful discussion on the ins and outs of translating this book, we split off into smaller groups to discuss the themes explored within Holiday Heart in a little more detail. For myself, one of the main themes I found in my reading was displacement, and the attempt to find a sense of belonging or home, or, in fact, an attempt to avoid feelings of belonging or home. This idea of displacement ties into Robayo’s idea of ‘middleness’ that opened the session, neither Lucía nor Pablo seem to have a sense of belonging, each of them stuck in between countries, homes and nationalities. This sense of middleness seems to be something that bothers Pablo, and he is constantly yearning for some sort of connection to a place, specifically his home country, for example, he writes a novel based there, and persistently reflects on parts of Colombian life. On the other hand, Lucía seems to work for a sense of disconnect, of ‘middleness’. She scoffs at the idea of ‘home’, ‘origin’ etc., and actively unties herself from notions of the place in which she was born and grew up. However, despite not defining herself by where she is from, Lucía appears to be massively preoccupied with where other people are from, this being one of her many flaws. In our group, someone came up with the idea that perhaps these notions come from the fact that she is too individualistic to ‘belong’ to a group or nation, that she sees belonging to a collective as meaning she has to lose her individual identity.
Another main theme within the novel is the idea of dissatisfaction. This theme is presented most notably through the breakdown of Pablo and Lucía’s long term relationship, but also with motherhood, and perhaps with life in general. The breakdown of Lucía and Pablo’s relationship is the driving force of the narrative, with the reader expecting to find out what the catalyst was for this disastrous downward spiral that the pair seem to constantly feed with numerous selfish and destructive actions. However, we don’t receive an ‘answer’, the conclusion being that there wasn’t one big event that caused the breakdown of this relationship, instead, perhaps more realistically, after years of living with the same person, seeing the same face, and hearing the same stories, each of them grew slowly sick of one another, neither of them hiding their true feelings, and each accepting defeat. Pablo and Lucía come to the seemingly mutual, yet silent agreement to remain bitter and distant for the rest of their lives.
Our group also discussed the use of controversial language within the novel and the effects of this on the reader. I felt that in the majority of instances, this use of shocking and controversial language offered, as Carolina earlier stated, a sadly realistic view of certain people’s opinions, opinions that within Holiday Heart are portrayed as coming from extremely flawed, bitter and sad characters. Robayo highlights the flaws in these deeply embedded prejudices and holds a mirror up to people holding similar opinions. However, there was some discussion on whether Robayo’s portrayal of black characters such as David could have been more profound, or whether she could have given him a stronger voice in order to offer a more well-rounded narrative concerning racism, a narrative that subverts from the stereotypes of black men that are all too often seen in the media.
I loved reading Holiday Heart, and whilst the controversial themes Robayo explores within the novella were extremely jarring, their delivery, through Robayo’s concise, seemingly sparse, but well-thought-out style offered room for reflection, provoking thoughts and discussions that need to be had. The evening’s in-depth discussion on the translation of this very challenging novel was wonderful, and offered a real insight into the trickier and more weighty parts of translation, that despite being agonised over for months on end, may often be overlooked in the discussion of the English text.
Borderless Book Club returns in two weeks, with a somewhat different text, Summer of Reckoning, a crime thriller published by Bitter Lemon Press, written by Marion Brunet and translated by Katherine Gregor.