Novella a Day in May 2019 #17

Crimson – Niviaq Korneliussen (2014, trans. Anna Halager, 2018) 175 pages

I think Crimson might be the first ever literature I’ve read by a Greenlandic author, and as such its  another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Unfortunately, I think I might be a bit too old for this novella. My twenties were a lot of fun and a lot of stress; I have colleagues in their twenties and I enjoy their company but I’ve absolutely no desire to recapture or relive that time. So Crimson’s tales of five Greenlandic twentysomethings getting drunk, sleeping around, falling in and out of love and desperately trying to work out who they are held my attention, but didn’t really engage me beyond that.

Each section focuses on a different character. Fia is repulsed by her boyfriend’s penis and dumps him, but it is only when she sees Sara that she admits she is attracted to women.

“ ‘It’s over’ were my final words.

Then, just like that, I was free.

But the word ‘free’ didn’t bring with it ‘relief’.”

Instead Fia finds herself in the bewildering situation of living temporarily with her brother’s best friend, and trying to manage her feelings for Sara, who has a partner.

Inuk is Fia’s brother. He feels stifled by his home and flees to Denmark after his affair with a famous married man is exposed:

“Greenland is not my home. I feel sorry for Greenlanders. I’m ashamed of being a Greenlander. But I’m a Greenlander. I can’t laugh with Danes.

[…]

I’m terribly homesick but I don’t know what sort of home I’m longing for.”

Arnaq is Inuk’s best friend and Fia’s flatmate. She’s relentlessly social and struggling:

“My chapped lips are the colour of red wine, My hair is still partying. My makeup is smeared all over my face and I have huge bags under my eyes. My body is trying so hard to stay alive that I can’t concentrate on my polluted mind. I drink what’s left of the Coke, lie down on my bed and take out my mobile to check the time.”

Ivik is Sara’s partner and struggling with gender identity. Their story includes graphics of phone screens, showing how the drama of young lives is often played out by technology. But this prosaic language exists alongside the poetic as Ivik works out what they need:

“The sun brightens my eyes, which have only seen the world in black for a long, long time. I can smell the previously frozen earth melting. The warm breeze sounds like a song.”

Finally Sara, partner of Ivik and lust-object of Fia, tells her tale and brings the stories together. Sections of her narrative end with meaningless hashtags which was really annoying, e.g. #dontgotogether or #1#2. If the hashtags had been witty or expanding the perpsective this could have worked better.

Sara, who until this point has been somewhat idealised through the eyes of others, is shown to have her own problems, with feelings of dirtiness and unworthiness. Her sister has just had a baby and Sara notices the obsession with gender that this involves. It’s also a very modern birth announcement via Facebook, where Sara stalks Fia:

“She finally changed her profile picture. I’m unable to see all her photos because we’re not friends on Facebook, so I gaze at her new profile picture for quite a while. I catch myself smiling. I hover over ‘Add friend’ for a long time. No, if she was really interested, she would have sent a friend request. I log off. Go to Google. Google knows everything.”

I only write about books I recommend and it’s undoubtedly great to hear a young Greenlandic voice. Korneliussen was only 24 when she wrote this and she translated it herself into Danish. The writing sometimes seemed to me naïve and bit clunky, but as I said, I’m probably not the target audience for this novella. I’m grateful to Virago for giving English-speaking readers this opportunity to hear her, even if the subject matter bored me slightly. I’d definitely still be interested to see what Korneliussen writes in future.

To end, the title comes from the Joan Jett classic which means a lot to Fia and Sara:

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Novella a Day in May 2019 #15

The Blind Owl – Sadeq Hedayat (1937, trans. DP Costello 1957) 106 pages

This was a really challenging read, and though an astounding work, I was grateful for the novella length as it was tough to take.

Sadeq Hedayat was an Iranian writer and is considered an innovative titan of Persian literature; he’s a best-selling author in his home country. This novel was initially banned on publication, and according to Wiki there is still censorship of his work (I’ve not linked to the Wiki page because much to my horror there’s a picture of his dead body on it). Sadly, he died by suicide, and The Blind Owl certainly feels authentic in its portrayal of someone losing all sense of reality and suffering mental ill health. I’m giving this post a trigger warning for some pretty disturbing imagery in the third quote, although I’ve not picked the worst in the novella, I wanted to give a true sense of it.

“Will anyone ever penetrate the secret of this disease which transcends ordinary experience, this reverberation of the shadow of the mind, which manifests itself in a state of coma like that between death and resurrection, when one is neither asleep nor awake?”

The unnamed narrator earns his living by painting pen cases. He may or may not have killed someone:

“How could I have resisted it, I, an artist, shut up in a room with a dead body? The thought aroused in me a particular sensation of delight.”

It’s a disorienting narrative. It’s not clear what is true or false: the events described could be entirely in the man’s head and what The Blind Owl describes is him lying on his bed, thinking/hallucinating. It’s a stream of extremely disturbed consciousness. Images and events recur and shift slightly, adding to a sense of disorientation and being witness to someone’s spiralling thoughts.

“A sensation which had long been familiar to me was this: that I was slowly decomposing while I yet lived. My heart had always been at odds not only with my body but with my mind, and there was absolutely no compatibility between them. I had always been in a state of decomposition and gradual disintegration. At time I conceived thought which I myself felt to be inconceivable.”

The narrator has no compassion for humanity and this is what adds to making The Blind Owl such a tough read. He is misanthropic, and so the coldly related details of violence, dead bodies and decomposition are truly horrifying.

I don’t want to put people off reading The Blind Owl because it is truly a brilliant piece of writing, but definitely one for when you’re strong enough to take it, with a comforting escapist read lined up for afterwards.

“Am I a being separate and apart from the rest of creation? I do not know. But when I looked in the mirror a moment ago I did not recognise myself.”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #9

Just Like a River – Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib (1984, trans. Michelle Hartman and Maher Barakat, 2003) 110 pages

Just Like a River was Syrian writer Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib’s first novel, set in Damascus in the 1980s. It forms another stop on my much-neglected Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. The novella looks at the lives of a group of Syrians, with different chapters from different viewpoints. In this way, al-Khatib builds a picture of the individuals, Damascus, and the wider Syrian political situation.

Dallal is the young daughter of Yunis, a Chief Sergeant in the army. She struggles with the expectations placed on women where she lives and idealises life overseas:

“Young European women live alone. They rent rooms and come home at night when they like. Over there, men do not harass women in the streets but are polite like Doctor Morton White.”

Ha! Unfortunately we know she is sadly mistaken, in both this and in her assessment of her professor. He is self-centred and shallow, and exoticises Arab women without really bothering to get to know a single one:

“He had illusions that he would discover Arab women through Dallal. He would explore this Middle East that was shrouded in secrets.”

By returning to characters over various chapters al-Khatib deepens the individual portraits. Yusuf is in love with Dallal and his friend Zuhayr at first seems a real misogynist. Then it becomes apparent that his flippancy hides a deeper hurt, and he is as cynical about men as he is women:

“What do we offer them other than a mirror image of our fathers’ backwardness? We act as if we are only thieves or guards of their hymens.”

The portrayal of women is sympathetic, so Dallal is seen as young and naïve rather than ignorant and prideful. Her friend Fawziya is hurt yet optimistic:

“Fawziya was a disappointed woman. Her tempestuous love affair with Sami caused her to have a general disrespect for men, coupled with a longing for some certain, but unknown, man… She and her mother dealt with things just as one might expect two destroyed women in solidarity with each other would. They were two women betrayed by both men and time, and who persevered, waiting for a certain something, a certain man, a certain incident. This is why they spent so much time reading coffee cups and interpreting dreams.”

As they all deal with the day-to-day concerns of family conflict and unspoken feelings, the political situation is building in the background. When he is called to the army, Yusuf is not particularly concerned. As it becomes clear that the conflict may be escalating, he meets it with grim humour:

“ ‘They don’t give us good weapons or enough of them. Look, can’t you see how the bombs fall down like paper?’

Yusuf laughed. ‘I fear that we, not the missiles, are paper,’ he said.”

Just Like a River is an evocative and memorable portrait of a group of people struggling against the forces directing their lives, and themselves. If that makes it sound heavy or depressing, it isn’t. It looks at huge themes straight on, but does so with compassion and understanding.

“Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.” (Nawal El Saadawi)

August is Women in Translation month, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Do head over to her blog to read more about WITMonth and join in!

This week I’m looking at two authors who are titans of literature: Marguerite Yourcenar and the one-woman powerhouse that is Nawal El Saadawi.

Firstly, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951, trans. Grace Frick 1954). Yourcenar worked on this novel on and off for over 20 years and spent around 3 years writing it as her main focus. It is a letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor Marcus Aurelius when he knows time is limited. It is not a dry recounting of Yourcenar’s extensive research though, or a cringe-making attempt to dramatise historical events: “so I said to the Roman Senate, as we sat in the Roman Forum: I’m going to build a wall to keep out those pesky Scots who refuse to be subdued under the yoke of Roman Imperialism. And Scotland’s going to pay for it.”

Instead, Yourcenar uses historical events as a frame for an extended consideration of life and death. Hadrian is about as likable as the leader of a huge oppressive military force can be; he is focussed on peace wherever possible, and interested in the arts and philosophy. At the same time, he is politically astute:

“A prince lacks the latitude afforded to the philosopher in this respect: he cannot allow himself to be different on too many points at a time; and the gods know that my points of difference were already too numerous, though I flattered myself that many were invisible.”

His humility is believable, and I think Yourcenar’s master stroke is having Hadrian know he is facing an imminent death. Staring into the void, even a Roman emperor is bound to question what impact he has had, and whether he was a force for good. Reflecting on his role as leader of imperialist suppression is a bleak business:

“It mattered little to me that the accord obtained was external, imposed from without and perhaps temporary; I knew that good like bad becomes routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself. Since hatred, stupidity, and delirium have lasting effects, I saw no reason why good will, clarity of mind and just practice would not have their effects too.”

But Hadrian-the-man comes across just as clearly as Hadrian-the-politician. His grief at the death of his young lover Antinous is never maudlin or indulgent, yet the overwhelming grief that Hadrian clearly felt (he established a cult in Antinous’ name) is very moving.

“This simple man possesses a virtue which I had thought little about up to this time, even when I happened to practice it, namely, kindness.”

Memoirs of Hadrian is only 247 pages in my edition but it took me much longer to read than a novel of that length normally would. This is not because the prose didn’t flow: Hadrian’s voice is crystal-clear and the narrative is easy to follow, being mainly chronological with some deviations. It is however, a densely written book with so much to consider. Hadrian doesn’t waste a word: he’s a dying man, and an erudite, philosophical one. He’s got a lot to say and I had to think hard about most of it.

“Death can become an object of blind ardour, of a hunger like that of love”

[…]

“the time of impatience has passed; at the point where I now am, despair would be in as bad taste as hope itself. I have ceased to hurry my death.”

Secondly, the short story collection She Has No Place in Paradise by Nawal El Saadawi (1987, trans. Shirley Eber 1987) Set in Egypt, it is another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

If you ever want absolute confirmation that you are an under-achiever who is wasting their life, go and check out Nawal El Saadawi’s wiki entry. The first paragraph alone is enough to inspire deep feelings utter inadequacy 😀

I always find it hard to write about collections of short stories, but I thought She Has No place in Paradise worked well. El Saadawi has an excellent understanding of the form and each story felt complete in itself, yet still contributed to the collection overall painting a picture of late twentieth-century Egyptian society.

Some of the stories captured the determinedly everyday. In Thirst, a young servant girl running errands lusts after a cool drink from a kiosk:

“The tarmac of the street beneath her feet had softened from the intensity of the sun’s heat. It burned her like a piece of molten iron and made her hop here and there, bumping and colliding, unconsciously, like a small moth against the sides of a burning lamp. She could have made for the shade at the side of the street and sat for a time on the damp earth, but her shopping basket hung on her arm and her right hand clutched at a tattered fifty piastre note.”

It’s a simple tale conveying just a few moments in time, but El Saadawi is able to address big issues: the position of women, the class system, economics, how and where freedom of choice is exercised, how we weigh up choices when we have very little to lose. None of this is heavily executed; El Saadawi trusts the reader to draw wider conclusions than just the immediate situation.

“She had a salty taste in her mouth, as bitter as aloes, acrid and burning. She searched for some saliva with which to wet her salty lips, but the tip of her tongue burned without finding a drop. And Hamida stood in front of her, her lips surrounding the ice-cold bottle, each cell of her body absorbing the drink.”

Other stories are more ostensibly political, like the man being tortured to reveal the location of a printing press in But He Was No Mule.

“The press turns in your head, the lead letters chatter together like teeth and the word is born. It is only a word nothing but a word, yet the point at which all things begin, the point at which his life began and stretched throughout the years until this moment which he was now living. A long thread beginning at a point and stretching up to that gelatinous minute point around which his self was wrapped, enclosed and protected like a foetus in its mother’s womb.”

By having the victim in a state of near-delirium El Saadawi avoids having to present gory, gratuitous violence, but still manages to convey the brutality of the situation and the oppression taking place.

El Saadawi manages to maintain a light touch in addressing huge themes throughout the tales. The titular story treats the position of women in society and how religion is used as a means of control with a degree of humour, but it is humour with bite: a devout woman realises that her devotion to entering paradise is to enter somewhere which does not benefit her.

She Has No Place in Paradise is a masterclass in making the personal political and in doing so simply, without being didactic or losing sight of the story. Hugely impressive, much like Nawal El Saadawi herself.

To end, I was tempted to finish with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall in honour of Hadrian, but frankly the video creeps me out. So here’s something much more pleasant: Donia Massoud, born in Alexandria, spent three years travelling all around Egypt collecting folk songs. She then toured with her band playing traditional instruments. Here she is performing in Spain:

Novella a Day in May #22

Under the Tripoli Sky – Kamal Ben Hameda (2011, trans. Adriana Hunter 2014) 104 pages

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda is published by Peirene Press who specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas, aimed to be read in one sitting. Under the Tripoli Sky (written in French by a Libyan author now living in Holland) is part of their Coming of Age series. It’s also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Hadachinou is a young boy living in Libya before the revolution of 1969. The novella details his experience growing up in Tripoli surrounded by women: his mother, her friends, their daughters. Through a series of sketches he builds up an evocative, affectionate but unsentimental view of the lives of women where men are either absent or a drunken threat:

“My father, a solitary man given to prayer, shut himself away in the small bedroom at the back of the house when he came home from his shop or from the mosque. … As for Uncle Hadi, he spent nights in the company of other drunkards. ‘If their young wives want some fun and relaxation, they have to search for it elsewhere,’ Aunt Nafissa often commented, with her usual bitterness towards the male gender.”

The women don’t really notice Hadachinou and so he is given extraordinary access to their lives and experience.

“The tea ceremony was the only part of the day when my mother and her friends could live their lives in real time and tell their own stories. At last they could talk about dreams, longings and anxieties all in the same breath, and their bodies were at peace.”

He also moves across other boundaries in the city, attending mosque, synagogue and church. There is a sense of an exile looking back, and Tripoli with its heat, light, and bustling activity is beautifully realised. What also adds to a sense of Hadachinou recalling with longing, is the focus on food. This is not the story to read if you are on a diet. As homemakers, a great deal of the women’s lives are given over to preparing food, and Hadachinou describes the various meals in mouth-watering detail:

 “Signora Filomena would take us to the pizzeria, where each of us could salivate over his or her choice of either a pizza with tomatoes and oregano flavoured anchovies, or an ice-cream with a subtle vanilla taste set off by crunchy slivers of bitter chocolate. She herself preferred the bar opposite and its famous sandwiches: grilled sardines between two slices of crusty bread whose dough was impregnated with olive oil infused with garlic and red chillies.”

Peirene’s inclusion of this as a coming of age story is understandable. Hadachinou undergoes his circumcision early in the novella; he also experiences awakening sexual desire. But while he is moving towards adulthood, this is very much a portrait of a city and a community on the brink of enormous change. It is stunningly written, capturing a society about to be torn asunder.

“Another person’s eyes are your origins and your kingdom. But other people can’t see you if they’re blinded by their search for an illusion…”

Novella a Day in May #3

Jamilia – Chingiz Aitmatov 96 pages (1957, tr. 2007 James Riordan although the publishers don’t say if this was from Kyrgyz or Russian – Aitmatov wrote in both)

This novella, less than 100 pages in my edition, is a simple tale, perfectly told. It’s also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Narrated by Seit, the brother-in-law of the beautiful titular protagonist, Jamilia is reminiscent of The Go-Between, in that it is told from the point of view of the young observer of an older person’s love affair, from a time in his life when he is looking back on his past.

Set during the war, Jamilia’s husband is away fighting. An injured soldier, Daniyar, returns to the village where he was born:

“ ‘We are content and so are the spirits of our ancestors. And now, God willing, we’ll finish off the Germans and live in peace and Daniyar will raise a family like the rest of us, his own smoke will rise from the hearth.’

By invoking Daniyar’s ancestors they were saying he was one of us. And that is how a new kinsman appeared in our village.”

Daniyar, Seit and Jamilia travel regularly by cart to take the grain from the harvest to the train station. Aitmatov writes with economy yet is able to evoke a vivid scene with few words. He captures the land of Kyrgyzstan with true sensitivity and the land is an integral part of the story:

“Eager to reach home, the horses trotted briskly, the stones scraping beneath their feet. The cool wind brought with it the bitter pollen of flowering wormwood, and the faint aroma of ripening wheat. Mingling with the smell of tar and horse sweat, it all made us faintly dizzy.”

During the journeys back and forth, the quiet, unassuming Daniyar is teased by the vivacious Jamilia and Seit. Then Daniyar starts to sing, and everything changes:

“If only I could recreate his song. It contained few words, yet even without words it revealed a great human soul. I have never heard such singing before or since. The tune was like Kirgiz or Kazakh, yet in it was something of both. His music combined the very best melodies of the two related peoples and had woven them into a single, unrepeatable song. It was a song of the mountains and the steppe, first soaring into the sky like the Kirgiz mountains, then rolling freely like the Kazakh steppe.”

What lifts this tale above the ordinary is Aitmatov’s beautiful writing, but also how the story expands a simple, almost fable-like, narrative into something broader. Jamilia is about romantic love, but told at a step removed by a man who grew up to become a painter; it also becomes about art, and the transcendental nature of love and art. Jamilia falls for Daniyar because of his voice. Seit becomes seized with a desire to create, and takes his first tentative steps towards his life’s vocation. Jamilia is about how love, in all its variety of forms and circumstance, unites us all:

“I felt it was not simply a love for another person, it was somehow an uncommon, expansive love for life and earth.”

“STELLA! STELLA!” (Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire)

I’m not a big follower of book prizes although I like the Bailey’s Prize and usually try & read the Booker winner. However, the annual Stella Prize, which started in 2013 and awards outstanding Australian women’s writing, has lists which always look fascinating and wide-ranging. Currently the 2018 long list has been announced and the shortlist will be revealed on International Women’s Day, 8 March. I hadn’t read any of the winners and obviously this enormous oversight needed correcting. Also, Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest’s wonderful reviews of the last two winners convinced me I needed to rectify this sooner rather than later.

The 2017 winner was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. You can read Kate’s review here. It is an extraordinary novel, centred around the real-life event of The Artist is Present by Marina Abramovic, a 2010 performance art installation at MoMA in New York, which you can read about here.

Arky Levin is a film score composer, estranged from his wife and devoted to the city:

“When he moved to New York… and found the stars in their gaping darkness were nowhere to be seen, eclipsed by SoHo apartments and Midtown high-rises, Chinatown neons and flashy Fifth Avenue commercial buildings…he felt he had won. That humanity had won. New York was brighter than the universe bearing down on them. For this alone he had decided that he could live here forever and entirely expected to.”

Arky attends the installation for each of the 75 days it is in situ, and during this time he witnesses the profound effect the installation has on people. Marina sits one side of a table, and the public volunteers sit opposite her one at a time, gazing into her eyes. They can stay for as little or as long as they want, but they must make eye contact.

“Here in New York, where time was everyone’s currency, and to gaze deeply into the face of another was possibly a sign of madness, people were flocking to sit with Marina Abramovic. She wasn’t so much stealing hearts, he thought, as awakening them. The light that came into their eyes. Their intelligence, their sadness, all of it tumbled out as people sat.”

Such a simple but incredibly powerful idea, and the installation was a smash hit. Similarly, Rose uses a simple writing style to explore massive themes: love in many guises, loss, art, the desperate need for meaning in life and how we locate it. Arky learns about other and himself simply by sitting and watching the installation.

“Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity, you must be fearless.”

The Museum of Modern Love, as the title suggests, is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It is not a romance between two people. Instead it is a love story about people and all they can give to one another, as lovers, friends, relatives, artist and spectator. It is life-affirming without being sentimental. Rose acknowledges there is pain for people, but suggests that we have to get out there anyway, engage in acts of love in a myriad of ways, find connection and transcend.

“She was watching Marina Abramovic in her white dress on this final day of her enduring love. For hadn’t it been that for Abramovic? An act of love that said, This is all I have been, this is what I have become in travelling the places of my soul and my nation, my family and my ancestral blood. This is what I have learned. It is all about connection. If we do it with the merest amount of intention and candour and fearlessness, this is the biggest love we can feel. It’s more than love but we don’t have a bigger word.”

And here she is, on the last day, in the white dress:

In 2016 the winner was The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. You can read Kate’s review here. I wish I’d read The Museum of Modern Love after this, as it would have been a good aid to recovery. The Natural Way of Things is brutal, shocking, urgent and without doubt one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years. It has absolutely stayed with me.

A group of young women are kidnapped and held hostage in a large, bleak piece of land in the outback, surrounded by an electric fence. There is no escape, and gradually they realise no-one is coming for them.

“Nobody knows. They have been here almost a week. Nobody has come, nothing has happened but waiting and labour and dog kennels and DIGNITY & RESPECT and beatings and fear and a piece of concrete guttering, and now perhaps infection is coming too.”

Gradually it emerges that all the women have a sex scandal in their past. These are never fully explained but enough information is given for the reader to realise that in each case, the power lay with the men involved, and in each case, the women are the vilified parties. Possibly they have been taken by a moral fanatic, who we never see. Their heads are shaved, their clothes taken and replaced with basic garments, including Handmaid’s Tale style bonnets, which come to represent both a coping mechanism and gradual institutionalisation for some of the captives:

“they depend on them for the snug containment of their heads, covering their ears, the obscured vision. Verla can understand it, though only from a distance. She used to hold them in contempt for keeping the bonnets; not anymore. But still, for her herself, that limp, stinking thing felt more like a prison than this whole place.”

As food supplies dwindle and illness threatens, the women fight for survival in their various ways. Their jailers are pathetic and inept, but also men and they hold the power.

“He frowns down and Verla knows he is thinking ugh at the two filthy girls, that he is freshly fearful of the lice eggs in their matted hair, of Verla stretched white with illness, of Yolanda and her rusted weaponry. He fears their thin feral bodies, their animal disease and power.”

The Natural Way of Things is about how society figures men and women, where power lies, how that is wielded and how predator and prey lies barely concealed in human relationships. It is beautifully written, perfectly paced, and absolutely terrifying.

To end, what else?