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Tag: Translated fiction

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

I read this weeks ago as part of the MBI longlist (it has since made the shortlist) and I thought it was excellent. I’ve put off reviewing it because I didn’t feel I could do it justice, but here we go.

Vásquez is an acclaimed novelist who has won prizes for his earlier books. This latest release is a long and complicated set of stories focusing on two political murders in his home country of Colombia. One occurred in the 1940s and the other nearly half a century earlier. Both politicians were Leftists who presented a threat not only to the ruling parties but to powerful Colombian elites. The character who becomes involved in understanding these historical events and the conspiracy theories to which they’ve given rise has the same name as the author, and shares many characteristics and experiences as the author, but is not exactly the author. Yes, we are in the world of autofiction, but this version is quite different, to my mind, from the kind of autofiction practiced by Rachel Cusk, Olivia Laing, or Edouard Louis.

Whereas those authors tend to look inward, Vásquez the character acts as the reader’s guide to the histories, showing at first the kind of skepticism a “rational” reader would, but then slowly recognizing the ways in which conspiracies can represent a way to make sense of official explanations that aren’t entirely convincing or satisfactory. We also learn quite a bit about Vásquez the person (the character Vásquez, that is), and he doesn’t hesitate to show us both his more and less admirable qualities. The result is a novel in which the reader swings from long discursive sections about political murders in 1948 and 1914 to poignant, heart-in-mouth descriptions of Vásquez’s wife’s pregnancy and the birth and infancy of their twin daughters.

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Awards lists galore

The Man Booker International Prize shortlist was announced yesterday. As many news stories about the list have noted, it is dominated by women. The six books are:

  • The Years by Annie Ernaux, tr. Alison Strayer (France/French)
  • The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, tr. Jen Calleja (Germany/German)
  • The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, tr. Anne McLean (Colombia/Spanish)
  • Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, tr. Marilyn Booth (Oman/Arabic)
  • Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Poland/Polish)
  • The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran, tr. Sophie Hughes (Chile/Spanish)

I’ve only read two of the list so far and liked them both. I had two more on hand and was able to buy the remaining two through Kobo UK. I haven’t decided whether I’ll try to read them all before the 21 May announcement, but I’ll read at least some.

I like the list. I’m sorry that After Dusk didn’t make it, but I’m also relieved that The Faculty of Dreams, which many readers rated very highly, was left off. I am just not up for a “literary fantasy” that treats Valerie Solanas as a totem for 21st-century feminists. It might be an excellent piece of literature, but the GR reviews have made me think that the less you know of the actual time, people, and intellectual debates, the more you are likely to (a) be impressed by the book; and (b) think you’re learning something about the real person. Solanas was a complicated and troubled woman whose relationship to feminism and gender theory isn’t easily summarized. The novel feels exploitative, even though the author is clearly sympathetic, in part because Solanas guarded her intellectual property so vehemently and had zero respect for affluent middle-class feminists. But that’s another blog post’s worth of off-topic material.

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At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong

[Content warning: Off-page suicide]

This is another installment in my Man Booker International longlist reading project. At Dusk is by Hwang Sok-yong, a renowned Korean writer of whom I was of course ignorant. He is both an author and a political activist and was imprisoned in the 1990s for having gone to North Korea. The novel is translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

This is a short but densely packed novel. Park Minwoo is a successful architect in his late middle age. Park was one of the only two children in his slum neighborhood who went to high school and he went on to attend the most prestigious university in South Korea. He is married and has a daughter, but his daughter settled in the US after her medical training and his wife went to stay with her and never returned. So while he’s materially and professionally successful, Park’s personal life is much less rewarding.

Alternating with Park’s story is that of Jung Woohee, a 29-year-old woman who directs plays in a small fringe theater and works in a convenience store at night to support herself. She has a mother and sister who live in another, smaller city whom she rarely sees. Woohee is committed to being an artist but wonders if she’ll ever escape her marginal existence. She lives in a mildewed bedsit and has one friend, the slightly older Kim Minwoo, who is also barely making it, working in contract construction jobs until recently when he was laid off. They’re not romantically involved, perhaps because they don’t see how they can make a joint life together, but they are close. They’re disaffected and frustrated but they both keep going.

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The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann

This is one of my MBI Longlist reads. Poschmann is a highly acclaimed poet and novelist in Germany but her work does not appear to have been widely translated and promoted in the US or UK. This novel won a major German literary prize when it came out.

[Content Warning: discussions and suggestions of suicideal ideation and activity]

The story is narrated by Gilbert Silvester, a member of the academic precariat who wakes up one morning after having had a dream that his wife is cheating on him. He accuses her, she denies it, and he decides to leave her and fly immediately to the most remote place he can find: Tokyo. After a long and restless flight he lands in Narita and picks up a handful of Japanese classics in English, including a volume of the great poet Basho’s haikus.

Tokyo is not an obvious place for Gilbert to go: he is a coffee drinker flying to the ultimate land of tea, a scholar of beards as they are depicted in art and film in a land where men rarely wear beards, and without much of a plan beyond escaping his current trauma. But his journey is soon shaped by two events: he meets Yosa Tamagotchi, a young Japanese student who is afraid he has failed his exams and is planning to commit suicide; and a desire to reproduce Basho’s journey to the Pine Islands, famed for their natural beauty.

After persuading Yosa not to throw himself in front a train, Gilbert takes him back to his hotel room, where Yosa treats him with deference and politeness. Yosa has been consulting a book entitled The Complete Manual of Suicide and Gilbert persuades Yosa to postpone his plan and come with him on his journey. Yosa stipulates and Gilbert accepts the condition that they will visit sites of famous suicides that are described in the Manual and which are considered particularly memorable and beautiful. These combined destinations take the two men on a journey from south of Tokyo back to the city, then on past Fukushima and finally, late in the novel, to the Pine Islands, with stops at many sites of natural beauty along the way. Poschmann is known for her writing about the natural world and it is beautifully depicted and translated here.

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Life in the Court of Matane by Éric Dupont

Note: This review was first posted at Goodreads.

I hadn’t heard of Éric Dupont until his most recently translated novel, Songs for the Cold of Heart, was long- and then short-listed for the 2018 Giller Prize, which is my loss. I had planned to read that first, but then I discovered this novel, which precedes and foreshadows it. I suppose Life in the Court of Matane counts as autofiction, because it is very much the author telling us his story (neither the narrator nor his sister are ever named), but it doesn’t read like a lot of the autofiction I’ve been reading over the last couple of years. Oh, it’s definitely a coming-of-age story that is still very alive for the author/narrator, but the Éric of today recedes and is less important than the Éric of then. That’s not always a feeling I get from autofiction.

The book is divided into several large sections, each named for an animal (the original French title is Bestiaire), and each animal represents both an experience and a life lesson. The English title refers to the family and its life in various towns on the Gaspé Peninsula, with Matane being the one in which they live longest during this period. The Court of Matane is presided over by Éric’s father, who is referred to as Henry VIII, and his common-law wife, Anne Boleyn. Éric’s mother, who is of course Catherine of Aragon, is present in the early sections but then vanishes when Anne appears because Henry refuses to let his children utter her name, let alone visit her. Anne is strict but not completely unloving, while Henry is volatile and self-centered. The depictions of this working-class, ordinary family are presented through metaphors of court life, and it works brilliantly. It reminded me how much adults can be despots to children, and how much children are subjects in the adult world, completely at their mercy. When the adults are loving and generous the way Éric’s grandparents are, life is wonderful. When they’re not, such as when Henry VIII drinks excessively or Anne refuses to treat the children as the siblings they are to her new baby, life is harsh.

And of course, these relationships extend beyond the family. In the Catholic Church dominated world of rural Quebec, the nuns and priests exert considerable control over the children too. And relations among the children reflect adult hierarchies: Henry VIII is a policeman, which makes him suspicious in the eyes of the village folk, and that suspicion structures the children’s relationships with their peers. Éric himself is imaginative, fascinated by both the natural and human world around him, and of course that makes him an outsider and target of the schoolyard bullies. He dreams of escape.

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