French Independent Publishers Focus

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: https://www.editions-allia.com

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.

My picks from the list:

LE NOUVEL ATTILA: http://www.lenouvelattila.fr

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.

My picks from the list:

ASPHALTE ÉDITIONS: http://asphalte-editions.com

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.

My Women in Translation Month

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.

Wild Woman

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.

“Translating [is] about opening up a mysterious dictionary from which to extract something bold, it [is] about reaching the limits of understanding, risking going beyond the literal meanings of the words in order to access their deep meanings.”

mirielle gansel, trans. Ros Schwartz

The Remainder

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.

Fish Soup

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.

Borderless Book Club ‘Wild Woman’

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!

Borderless Book Club ‘Palestine +100’

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!

Borderless Book Club ‘Inlands’

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.

Borderless Book Club: ‘Summer of Reckoning’

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!

Borderless Book Club: ‘Holiday Heart’

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.

Borderless Book Club: ‘Arid Dreams’

This week’s Borderless Book Club saw a wonderful discussion on Arid Dreams, published by Tilted Axis Press, written by Duanwad Pimwana and translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

Arid Dreams is a powerful collection of feminist short stories. The collection came to be published in the UK as Tilted Axis read the US version and loved it, deciding there and then to buy the rights and publish in the UK. This selection of feminist stories are unique in that the majority are written from the point of view of a male character, and showcase the shocking, but unfortunately truthful realities of toxic masculinities. For example, we read of a man whose desire for a woman diminishes when she is no longer ‘forbidden’, and of an inmate on death row whose final wish is for a prostitute to be told that he actually does have a penis, as, knowing he will die, he only cares about his pride remaining intact. In one of the few stories narrated by a female character, we read of a woman reflecting on what her life would be like if her controlling husband were to die as a result of his life-threatening accident. A powerful politician, she lives in his shadow and follows his rules. Later on in the collection, we read a tale from a young boy who reflects on the passionate jealousy and scary possessiveness that one of his colleagues has towards his wife, and of a doctor who is not qualified, but has grown to love the power and glory he holds due to his ‘title’. The collection ends with a poignant story about a political figure, who, close to winning presidency, lost out to a candidate much poorer than him. This dejected politician is now on the search for the second volume to the book he bought from a market stall as a child, however, when he succeeds in finding the second volume, he is left feeling disappointed. He had hoped to set out on this search, and fail, almost as a way of proving that the world was somehow against him.

The book club began with a chat with Mui, the translator. Mui is a former lawyer but retrained as a literary translator. When she began grad school, she realised she didn’t read enough Thai women, however, she kept hearing the name Duanwad and knew she had to read her. Upon finally reading Duanwad’s works, Mui loved her writing and reached out to her to ask if she could translate her. Mui revealed that despite being known for her novel Changsamran, Duanwad has written more short stories than anything else, Arid Dreams being a compilation of stories from four of her separate collections. To put together Arid Dreams Mui marked out stories from each collection that stood out to her and discussed her reasons with Duanwad. In Duanwad’s works, class is a very big issue, and this comes through strongly in Arid Dreams, with her earlier stories focusing on class, and her later writing focusing more on the human psyche – perhaps this is where gender issues become more of a focus. Mui told the group that she feels a lot of pressure as not a great deal of Thai literature is being translated and she worries that her translations will become an all-encompassing representation of Thailand, however, she does not want this to become the case. First and foremost she wants the stories to be read as stories about people, with place coming into play later. Mui has translated two of Duanwad’s books (including Arid Dreams) and hopes to translate more.

In the final part of the evening, we split off into groups to discuss some specific points on the book. To begin, we talked about the reasons and implications behind using mostly male narrators. Personally, I think that this is a collection of brutally honest stories that are a brave and unusual attempt to show the reality of some men’s ways of thinking, of some men’s constructions of what they think women should be. Most, if not all of the stories explore the very grim realities of toxic and fragile masculinity. It could be said that Duanwad holds a mirror up to these types of people, forcing them to look at how their actions and words really appear. I think it is a very unique and extremely interesting take on feminist story-telling. We also discussed whether masculinity and femininity played out differently in class in these stories. In my opinion, there weren’t any grand differences, and the collection highlighted the fact that sexism and toxic masculinity does not discriminate. Although these issues may play out in different ways, they are apparent across all classes. We ended the discussion with some speculation on what the chickens that appear in two of the stories, and of course on the front cover, may symbolise. One idea that I liked was that the chickens were representative of vulnerability.

This week’s discussion was brilliant and it was great to hear everyone’s takes on these brilliantly shocking stories. I am looking forward to meeting again in two weeks time to discuss Holiday Heart published by Charco Press, written by Margarita García Robayo and translated by Charlotte Coombe.

Borderless Book Club: ‘Snow, Dog, Foot’

Last Thursday I was very excited to be back at the wonderful Borderless Book Club, this time, for a discussion on Snow, Dog, Foot from Peirene Press, written by Claudio Morandini, and translated by J.Ockenden.

The meeting started with a chat about the translation of the book. The translator, J, came to this translation (their first full length) in quite a unique way. Snow, Dog, Foot came to fruition through the inaugural year of the Peirene Stevns Translation Prize, established in order to reach out to unpublished literary translators. Each year the prize focuses on one language, with participants being asked to translate the opening chapter of a book, in this case, Snow, Dog, Foot. The winner then goes on to complete the whole translation, commissioned and published by Peirene Press, with the opportunity to complete part of their work during a three month stay in a lodge in the Pyrenees. After graduating from Oxford in French and Italian, the prize came at a perfect time for J, who was unsure of what to do next. J explained that they were immediately hooked after reading the first chapter of the book, proceeding to download the PDF so they could finish the book before beginning the translation. J’s approach to the translation was to create a quick first draft, avoiding obsessing over and second guessing words and phrases (something that it is very easy to do in translation!), then going back to the completed first draft to begin fine-tuning. Jenny Higgins was also J’s mentor throughout the translation process, J said having a second Italian speaker was great for clearing up doubts, and that being able to discuss complex and difficult parts of the translation with someone opened up some really interesting conversations. The most challenging part of translation for J was writing the landscape, they said that they felt the atmosphere and the location were the most important elements of the novel, therefore, they were very tricky to translate and get right. It was very interesting to hear how J found completing their first translation, and such a wonderful one at that!

A warning that from here onwards there are spoilers.

Snow, Dog, Foot was a brilliant read, one of my favourite from the book club so far! The novella follows the strange and somewhat repulsive Adelmo, a cantankerous hermit living in a mountain recluse in the Italian Alps. We first meet him at the end of autumn as he is reluctantly heading down the mountain and into the village to stock up on supplies so that he can survive his long, solitary winter back up in the mountains. Someway up the mountain he comes across a dog that begins to follow him, annoyed by its apparent attachment, Aldelmo curses the dog and even kicks it, despite all of this, the dog sticks closely to his side and follows him home. Back at the house, the dog still shadowing him, Adelmo begrudgingly accepts that it is here to stay. Slowly his annoyance at the dog begins to wear off a little, and, seeing him as a potential companion, Adelmo begins to talk to the dog, who, after a while, speaks back. We also discover that Adelmo believes he is being spied on by a mountain ranger. The mountain ranger attempts to be friendly and make conversation with Adelmo, but his responses are blunt and rude, we even find out that he has thrown rocks at the mountain ranger in order to drive him away. With hints that Adelmo’s memory is blurred and confused from the very start of the book, here, it begins to become more obvious. Through Adelmo’s encounters with the dog and the ranger, we begin to see that his memory is very muddled, he repeats things to the dog and doesn’t remember conversations he has had with the ranger for example. The only memories of Adelmo’s that seem certain and well formed are those of the war and his childhood. Adelmo remembers hiding from the grey coated soldiers for days in a small nook in an old mine during the war, and offers a glimpse into his childhood where he lived under buzzing electric lines that made everyone ‘crazy’. With the arrival of winter, the man and the dog are snowed in, everything runs smoothly at first, however, their stock soon begins to rapidly deplete, so, rather than starve, Adelmo takes to picking the grime off his skin and consuming this. We are treated to very detailed and grotesque accounts of the man’s appearance, having not washed or cleaned his teeth for years and years, one can only imagine how disgusting Adelmo is. As the pair wait impatiently for the snow to melt so they can replenish their stock, Adelmo continues to reminisce on memories of the war and the buzzing electric lines, and continues to slowly eat the grime off his body. Finally, the snow melts just enough that they are able to leave the house, and the pair make a shocking discovery: the foot of a human corpse sticking out of the snow. As the snow slowly thaws to reveal the body, Adelmo thinks the man looks a little like the ranger, in fact, he thinks that he remembers shooting him. Upon the resurfacing of this hazy memory, the old man makes the sudden decision to take the body to the perfect hiding place, after all, he doesn’t want anyone to discover it and accuse him of murder. So, Adelmo drags the corpse up the steep mountain to the old mine that he hid in during the war. He digs out the covered entrance to the mine whilst the dog waits outside, he takes his time to do this, and the dog grows impatient, persistently whining. Eventually, Adelmo breaks through and pushes the body into the depths of the mine, he also decides to lie down alongside it, and it is here that Adelmo’s memory once again begins to become confused. Adelmo now thinks that he doesn’t recognise the dead man at all, so, who is he? As night falls the dog stops whining, Adelmo leaves the cave and upon seeing the dog asleep, he brings a rock down onto its head and kills it. In the closing pages, we see Adelmo lying alongside the cadavre, conversing with the body as he hears his brother searching for him outside.

After the chat on the translation of the novel, we broke off into groups to discuss the ins and outs of the story. One of the main points of discussion was on the dead body and who it belonged to. A whole range of interesting ideas were floated around, many that I had not even considered myself. My personal reading was that the dead body was that of Adelmo’s. Perhaps he died during after being found by the ‘grey coats’, and now his ghost is haunting the mountains. At the end of the novella then, it could be considered that Adelmo’s soul or ghost drags his or body back to his hiding or resting place. This could explain the unreliability of Adelmo’s memories and the fact that the most certain points of his memory are those before he died. This could also perhaps explain his ability to converse with the dog. Our group also talked about the significance of the setting, with the mountains and the landscape being the third protagonist of the novel. We all agreed that the landscape and climate were the driving forces behind the narrative, with nature having complete control over Adelmo, even undermining him, and, as mentioned, at the end of the novella he goes back to nature, submits to it as he lays surrounded by dirt and moss in his hiding place. This return to nature could explain why Adelmo makes the decision to kill the dog, detaching himself from everything that links him to the ‘real’ world.

I had a wonderful evening on Thursday discussing Snow, Dog, Foot! This week I will be reading Arid Dreams from Titled Axis Press, written by Duanwad Pinwama and translated by Mui Poopoksakul, in preparation for the next Borderless Book Club…

Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘Singer in the Night’

This week saw the final session for the online Translated Fiction Book Club where we discussed Singer in the Night by Olja Savičević, translated by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Istros Books.

A warning that there are spoilers throughout this post!

Singer in the Night is a Croatian novel in which we follow the protagonist, a television soap writer, Clementine as she searches for her old lover, Nightingale, an artist who has mysteriously disappeared after leaving a series of letters for his neighbours. The first person narrative from Clementine is interrupted by these ambiguous, sometimes bizarre letters from Nightingale and allows us a glimpse into the seemingly troubled artist’s life. Having moved away from Split and the apartment that she and Nightingale shared, Clementine returns in an attempt to figure out where he may have gone. Her journey takes her to his home village and his childhood house, then even further to a small village in Bosnia where their mutual friend Helanka lives. It is here that Clementine finds out that Nightingale has flown to the United States in order to find his estranged daughter. The final chapters of the novel, however, leave us questioning her entire story. It is clear within the final pages that we are potentially dealing with an ‘unreliable narrator’. Around halfway through the novel, we find out that Clementine has suffered head injuries from a car crash, injuries that have left her with symptoms of amnesia. However, it is not until we reach the final pages, that we find out that Clementine is in an insitution, where she repeatedly watches the artist Nightingale tell his life story in a television interview. Here, it begins to come clear that perhaps this whole story was a figment of Clementine’s imagination. In the penultimate chapter, we see Nightingale and Helenka in Detroit, a letter has arrived for Nightingale, a letter from Clementine (which we read in the closing chapter). Nightingale does not have the slightest idea who Clementine is, nor why she is writing to him. These final pages make the reader question completely the incredibly detailed story that Clementine has woven, a story that it seems she has built around this one television interview. Within this jarring and confusing story, the writer also explores themes of literature and art, as well as questions of linguistic and national identities through lyrical and juxtaposing language.

To introduce the session, there was a discussion with Susan Curtis, director of Istros Books, and Celia Hawkesworth, the translator of the novel. Istros publishes literature uniquely from South-Eastern Europe, its name coming from the old Greek for the Danube river that passes through the majority of the countries they publish translations from. Hawkesworth told us that, without much luck, she had spent many years trying to get Croatian books published in translation, therefore, when she met Curtis, she was delighted. The translator then went on to tell us about the break up of Yugoslavia, and how in the aftermath, many countries began attempting to form their own identities, part of this was creating new words in order that they spoke ‘different’ languages. Hawkesworth spoke of how several characters within the novel speak very different dialects, something that is almost impossible to convey in translation, as choosing an English equivalent for these dialects would mean displacing the novel. Therefore, Hawkesworth creates distinctive dialects or accents that seem to belong nowhere but are very particular to the individual speaking them. Sometimes the odd anglicism slips in such as ‘bloody’ or ‘love’ but these words are not at all too jarring, and the novel’s position in Croatia remains strong. In my opinion, here, Hawkesworth has dealt with a very tricky translation challenge, very well.

For the second part of the book club, we broke off into groups to discuss the novel in more detail. First of all, we talked about the use of language within the book and its marked accents and dialects. The placing of these juxtaposing dialects within the novel cause it to have a number of strong voices that intermingle and within our group we talked about whether this was perhaps representative of the various national identities found in post-Yugoslavia, specifically these peoples’ search for an identity. As Hawkesworth told us earlier, each country attempted to distinguish itself after the break up of Yugoslavia, leading to the forming of new dialects and words within the language that would differ from each other. The novel is set in a cultural quagmire, a difficult area of the world, still dealing with a number of fresh memories or wounds from the Yugoslav wars, the appearance of these strong and very different voices in the novel is perhaps representative of this. We then discussed the ending of the novel, which, as previously mentioned, made us readers question everything we had just experienced. The revelation of Clementine as an unreliable narrator definitely makes me want to return to the novel to see if I can pick up on any holes in her story. As mentioned, at the end of the novel, Nightingale claims to have no knowledge at all of who Clementine is, yet her vividly detailed account of their story does make me somewhat suspicious of this. Whilst Clementine’s version of events may be a tapestry of imagined situations, I do wonder if she and Nightingale did ever cross paths. Perhaps they did, or perhaps Clementine’s amnesia really has allowed her to weave such an intricate tale. Another interesting element that this ending brings, is that it contrasts completely with what a reader was perhaps expecting, it being the opposite of the normal endings that Clementine would be used to writing for her romantic soap stories. I think I will definitely revisit the novel soon to see if I can pull together my own idea of what the relationship (if any at all) between the pair consisted of.

I really enjoyed this week’s discussion of Singer in the Night, it was great to hear the discussion on translation, and also to hear other reader’s ideas on the story. Despite these online sessions originally being planned for six weeks, it seems pretty clear that we are all going to be in lockdown for far longer, therefore, when I heard that the book club would be returning under the name ‘Borderless Book Club’ I was delighted! So, I will be returning for the next meeting in two weeks where we will be back with Peirene Press reading Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, translated by J. Ockenden.