“I’ve always stood up for myself.” (Kathy Burke)

I’ve recently been watching Kathy Burke’s All Woman on Channel 4 and absolutely loved it, partly for Kathy’s habit of greeting any nonsense like vaginal steaming/vajazzling etc with an incredulous ‘Faaaaaaack off!’ but mainly because she is so warm, funny and non-judgemental. I highly recommend it, not only for women although she is a brilliant female role model:

“’The thing with me is that I’m quite arrogant. I’ve got faith in my own talent and I always have. And if anyone turned around and said to me, ‘You’re never going to work again’, I used to say, ‘I will’.”

Here’s another quote from Kathy which I enjoyed, included here especially for confirmed Darcy adorer Fiction Fan:

“‘Who wants to get up at five every morning? I did four days on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and by the end of it, I was bored. I thought, ‘I’m over this now. Let’s go home. I’ve met Colin Firth, and he’s lovely. Now, where are the sandwiches?’”

I tried to find a copyright-free picture of Kathy to include but of course there aren’t any, so in honour of her TTSS experience, here are some copyright-free sandwiches instead:

This post is rapidly in danger of becoming Reasons I Love Kathy Burke and thus rivalling War and Peace for brevity. On with books! In honour of the programme I have chosen two novels around the theme of women’s rights and female friendship.

Firstly, a book I probably wouldn’t have picked up if it wasn’t for the recommendations from so many bloggers I trust, Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (2018). Mattie Simpkin was a militant suffragette, but now its 1928 and she’s looking for something to channel all that energy into.

“She couldn’t remember a time when her path hadn’t been lined with startled faces; they were her reassurance that progress was being made.”

So Mattie decides to startle her well-to-do neighbours in Hampstead by setting up a club on the Heath for girls: to learn fitness, politics, history and self-defence, amongst anything else Mattie thinks will be useful for the modern woman.

Mattie is hugely likable but her drive means she can be a bit oblivious to those around her. Her sweet friend Florrie, known as The Flea, lives with her in Mattie’s house in Hampstead, utterly devoted. Mattie relies on her to keep the domestic side of things running smoothly, without realising that The Flea has feelings for her, until a repugnant Mosley-loving acquaintance, Jacqueline Simpkin, points it out to her. It is the fractious relationship with Jacqueline that leads to one of the pivotal moments of the novel, where Mattie’s group is pitted against the Hitler Youth-lite that Jaqueline is involved with.

 “The battle is not yet over; ever day brings fresh skirmishes.”

Unfortunately Mattie makes a huge mistake in a matter moments, which has significant ramifications. Mattie has to reassess her understanding of some of the people she knows, and herself. This takes place without ever being worthy or moralistic. The situation evolves in such a way that I felt desperately sorry for Mattie, even though she was entirely in the wrong.

The historical detail is beautifully observed and presented almost incidentally. There is no nostalgia here: The Flea has worked as hard as Mattie for women’s suffrage, but doesn’t get the vote until the end of the novel, when women’s voting rights became equal to men’s (all over the age of 21). Until that point, only Mattie voted because she was over 30 and owned property. The victory of the suffragettes was, for 10 years, a middle-class victory.

For all the period detail, the central questions of the book remain relevant: what do you do when the thing that galvanized you no longer exists? How do you decide where meaning lies, and what if lies in difficult to reach places?

“ ‘We were a battering ram,’ Mattie was wont to say. ‘Together we broke down the door.’ But beyond that splintered door had been a dozen more doors and, scattered by their momentum, some women had tried one and some another, and some had given up and turned away, and it seemed to The Flea that all that unity and passion, all that wild energy, had dissipated. And she herself and her ilk, trudging soberly behind, had somehow ended up the vanguard…”

Old Baggage has a wonderful central character in flawed, individualistic Mattie and plenty to say without ever being heavy handed. The plot pulls you along and the ending is really moving without being sentimental. A treat.

Secondly, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988) which is set in Zimbabwe, and so forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of this, as since reading it I’ve discovered it’s considered a modern classic and was voted into the top 12 for Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. It’s a powerful tale of postcolonial female experience, written beautifully and certainly deserving of its classic status.

The tale is narrated by Tambudzai, known as Tambu, who is unflinching in what she tells us, opening with “I was not sorry when my brother died.” The reasons for this lack of remorse are personal – her brother was arrogant and unpleasant; and societal – his death opens up opportunities to Tambu that she was denied as long as there was a male child older than her.

“I was quite sure at the time that Nhamo knew as well as I did that the things he had said were not reasonable, but in the years that have passed since then I have met so many men who consider themselves responsible adults and therefore ought to know better, who still subscribe to the fundamental principles of my brother’s budding elitism, that to be fair to him I must concede he was sincere in his bigotry.”

Ouch!

The opportunity Tambu has is to leave her rural home and be educated alongside her cousin Nyasha at the convent school her uncle and aunt run. This side of her family could not be more different to Tambu’s mother and father; they have travelled, are educated and her cousins have forgotten essential parts of their Zimbabwean childhood:

“I had not expected my cousins to have changed, certainly not so radically, simply because they had been away for a while. Besides, Shona was our language. What did people mean when they forgot it?”

Tambu and Nyasha still forge a deep bond despite the differences that have opened up between them, but Tambu sees the price her cousin pays for her international upbringing.

“I missed the bold, ebullient companion who had gone to England but not returned from there. Yet each time she came I could see that she had grown a little duller and dimmer, the expression in her eyes a little more complex, and though she were directing more and more of her energy inwards to commune with herself about the issues she alone had seen.”

As Tambu settles into city life and her schooling she begins to understand more not only about herself but her country, and there are some wonderfully pithy observations about colonialism:

 “They had given up their comforts and security of their own homes to come and lighten our darkness. It was a big sacrifice that the missionaries made. It was a sacrifice that made us grateful to them, a sacrifice that made them superior not only to us but to those other Whites as well who were here for adventure and to help themselves to our emeralds…With the self-satisfied dignity that came naturally to white people in those days, they accepted this improving disguise.”

But really Dangarembga’s focus is human relationships, and how the patriarchy impacts on the most intimate of these. Her uncle, Babamukuru, enjoys enormous status at home and at work. Her aunt, Maiguru, is highly educated and capable, but only ever a second-class citizen. Their daughter Nyasha struggles with these constraints and her behaviour is loud and rebellious, and emphatically punished:

“Babamukuru condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of her femaleness, just as I had felt victimised at home in the days when Nhamo went to school and I grew my maize. The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I thought it had depended on. Men took it everywhere with them.”

Ultimately though, Nervous Conditions is a hopeful novel. Tambu is resilient and this is her coming of age story: with who she is, fitting in with neither family easily; with her desires for education and independence; and with her country. I started this with the opening lines of the novel, and I’ll end it with the beautifully constrained, considered final words:

“Quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when I can set down this story. It was a long process for me, that process of expansion.” 

To end, Kathy as part of Lananeeneenoonoo with French & Saunders and Bananarama, for Comic Relief in 1989. Beatles fans may want to look away now:

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“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.” (John Steinbeck)

This is my second post for Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) hosted by Meytal at Biblibio, and I’m hoping its also a sign that my blogging slump is coming to an end – fingers crossed! This week I’ve chosen two books linked by the theme of travel.

Firstly, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (2007, trans. Jennifer Croft 2017) which won the International Man Booker Prize last year.

Flights is quite a hard book to review, as it’s aptly titled and resists being pinned down in any way. It’s fiction, non-fiction, essay, philosophical musing, travelogue, digression… yet this fragmentary style still holds together and works as a whole. The unity is found through the recurring themes of travel, movement, restless and flight; and also of the human body at its most visceral – the collection of bone, muscle, skin and blood that enables human locomotion.

“A thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.”

The fiction sections include a man whose wife and son disappear when they are on holiday in Croatia; the wife of an elderly professor who is taken ill on a cruise; a woman who leaves her young family to live on the streets… all in perpetual motion. There are also historical sections looking at the fate of Chopin’s heart; the first naming of the Achilles tendon; cadaver preservation techniques, among other bodily concerns. The focus on the organic reality of living stops Flights from becoming too flighty, grounding all the fragments in a corporeal existence.

The consistent voice also ties these different pieces together, the sense that we are being told these stories, historical fragments and observations by the same narrator, a female traveller. She sets the focus on travel as she describes the airports, planes, buses and terminals she finds herself waiting in, and her conversations with those who cross her path:

“She says that sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death. But nomads and merchants, as they set off on journeys, had to think up a different time for themselves, that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time was linear time.”

Flights is a book you can dip into or read in a linear fashion. I did the latter and I’m glad I did as I could pick up the echoes across the different narratives that give a sense of unity to the book and to the world it evokes. However, it could work just as well by reading a section and focussing closely on it, as Tokarczuk’s writing is so rich. She has described her style as one of constellations, and the reason behind this individual approach is noted in Flights:

“Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth.”

Not a book for when you want a good meaty plot, but I still found it a compulsive read as well as a thought-provoking one.

 

Secondly, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenstrom (1981, trans. JM Coetzee 1983) which is set in South Africa and so forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

I felt a bit conflicted when I started this: the story of a young slave girl told by a white South African was problematic for me. I looked on Goodreads and no-one else seemed to have this issue. Then I thought that at the time of writing, when black South African voices were so thoroughly suppressed, maybe writing this was a huge political statement.

(I once attended a debate about queer/transgender stories being staged. One side felt only those who identified as queer/trans should tell those stories. The other side felt it was fine for straight/cis artists to tell such stories so long as they did their research and the resulting art was sensitive. The wider issue is something I often come back to and think about, and something I’m still thinking through, as I did with this novella.)

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is beautifully written and certainly a sensitive portrayal of a woman finding autonomy for the first time as she lives in the hollow of the titular tree on the southern African veld.

“I know the interior of my tree as a blind man knows his home, I know its flat surfaces and grooves and swellings and edges, its smell, its darknesses, its great crack of light […] I can say: this is mine. I can say: this is I. These are my footprints.”

The woman has ended up stranded in the veld as a doomed commercial expedition by her last owner has failed spectacularly. With no-one making demands on her for the first time, the woman is free to think and reflect:

“If I could write, I would take up a porcupine quill and scratch your enormous belly full from top to bottom. I would clamber up as far as your branches and carve notches in your armpits to make you laugh. Big letters. Small letters. In a script full of lobes and curls, in circumambient lines I write round and round you, for I have so much to tell of a trip to a new horizon that became an expedition to a tree.”

Like Flights, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is not a straight narrative. It moves back and forth in time, with no named places or persons, It has an almost hallucinatory quality – and the narrator may be hallucinating at times, given her exposure and lack of food –  but this never detracts from the horrors she has experienced. There are times she was treated well, but she was also repeatedly assaulted, raped, and had all her children taken as babies. We are the witnesses to her experience, recounted poetically but unflinchingly.

“One time I fled from the tree. I ran aimlessly into the veld, trying to get out of its sight by hiding behind a high round rock, and I opened my mouth and I brought out a sound that must be the sound of a human being because I am a human being and not a wildebeest […] but a human being that talks and I brought out a sound and produced an accusation and hurled it up at the twilight air.”

This is a short, powerful read with a distinctive female narrator who demands to be heard.

To end, a tenuously-linked 80s video as usual 😉 Well, the title offers travel advice! I’ve chosen it especially for Kate as she’s seeing a-ha soon:

“A library is a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity.” (Germaine Greer)

I really feel I’ve lost my blogging mojo over the last year. It started with the 2018 heatwave which killed off my reading for a few weeks; my reading recovered but my blogging never really did. I’m hoping Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) hosted by Meytal at Biblibio will help, but given we’re nearly halfway through, maybe not 😀 If any of you lovely bloggers have any tips on how to recover they would be gratefully received!

Anyway, here is what I hope will be the first of a few posts for WITMonth; starting with two novels loosely linked by themes of virginity, or lack thereof.

Firstly, Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (2007, trans. Clarissa Botsford 2014) published by the wonderful AndOtherStories. Set in Albania, its also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit (Dones is Albanian but wrote this originally in Italian).

Sworn Virgin looks at the experience of Hana, who has taken on a mostly extinct northern Albanian Kanun tradition. The tradition is that a family without male heirs can nominate a female to become a sworn virgin; she will live as a man and fulfil male roles. Hana took on the role willingly to avoid a marriage she didn’t want.

“ ‘It’s not that hard to be a man, you know?’ she says. ‘I swore never to get married, it’s a tradition that exists only in the north of the country. Let me explain: when there are no boys in a family, one of the girls swears to behave like a man and to remain a man for the rest of her life. From that moment on, she has to play all the roles and take over the tasks of a man. That’s why I became the son my uncle never had. Uncle Gjergj was my father’s brother; he took me in and brought me up after my parents died.’”

At the start of the novel Hana is travelling to the US to live with her cousin Lila and begin the process of becoming Hana again. Lila is highly feminine and doesn’t quite understand that for Hana, who has been living as Mark for 15 years, the transition back is not straightforward.

“ ‘You need to take off these men’s clothes.’

‘There’s no hurry.’

‘The sooner you get rid of them the better.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘I thought that was the deal. That you were coming here to go back to what you were.’

‘Yes, but there’s no hurry.’”

Hana has to adjust to a new country as well as a new way of presenting herself to the world. Although a story of immigration, Sworn Virgin is also a story of homecoming – to oneself. Hana has to decide how her appearance will express who she is, but also look at her life and think about what she wants. She had loved books and wanted to go to college, but had to return home when her beloved uncle Gjergj was dying. When her studies became impossible and she was facing marriage she didn’t want, she chose to become Mark instead.

“She had men’s clothes and a flask of raki in her pocket, and these had been her mirrors. She had needed nothing else. Up there in the mountains, time and place had been equal partners.”

 Although the sworn virgin tradition may be seem extraordinary to those of us unused to it, Dones has made a documentary about sworn virgins before she wrote this novel and to me it never felt sensationalist or exoticised. There is much in Hana’s story that is relatable. Sworn Virgin is about reconciling yourself to the past, and how it is never too late to make changes when you find you’ve outgrown certain decisions.

“Hana tries to bring her attention back to her body. The man she thought would still be tenaciously inhabiting her is no longer there. That man was only a carapace. Lila was right: Mark Doda’s life had been no more than the sum total of the masculine gestures Hana had forced herself to imitate, in the skin worn leathery by bad food and lack of attention. Mark Doda had been a product of her iron will.”

The focus on virginity is given a wider scope too. Hana’s virginity has become a burden to her, something to discard to help her move forward. Losing it is about Hana acknowledging herself as a sexual being with desires, and prioritising her own needs  – both sexual and non-sexual – in a way she hasn’t been able to before. This is dealt with non-romantically but still sensitively.

Obviously there is a strong theme of gender roles in Sworn Virgin, but for me it was first and foremost a character study of Hana, and the many binaries she has to adjust to: home/new country, rural life/urban life, family/independence.

“She tries to penetrate the unique spirit of the individual, she analyses their face and eyes, she tries to imagine the thoughts hiding behind those eyes, but she tends to avoid thinking about the fact that the thoughts are inextricably linked to male or female ego…She’s only just realizing now that for a long time she has had to consider things from both points of view.”

Secondly, from one extreme to the other. If there’s a character in literature not remotely associated with virginity, its probably Emma Bovary. Although I can’t stand Emma, I still picked up Sophie Divry’s Madame Bovary of the Suburbs (2014, trans. Alison Anderson 2017) with anticipation because I  had really enjoyed The Library of Unrequited Love. This isn’t quite so sparky as her previous novel, but then I don’t think its supposed to be, given as its dealing with a pervasive sense of middle class ennui.

M.A. (geddit?) is born in the 1950s and dies around 2025. In between, she is bored.

“You could not voice your feelings of dissatisfaction, because – and images from all over the world came to remind you – everything had been programmed for you to be happy.”

As the quote above shows, the novel is written in the second person. Normally I would hate this technique, but here I thought it worked quite well. The reader is constantly being told ‘you’ are doing/feeling these things, but we’re not. Essentially we feel the same sense of disconnect as M.A. does to her comfortable middle class life, living in the titular area, in a house she owns with her husband Francois, raising their children.

“In those days it didn’t bother you, or not for very long, that you never had a break. Inventing a marinade, discussing your daughter’s progress, teasing your husband about his incompetence at household chores; you got the impression that at last you were enjoying a certain return on your investment, after so many years of movement, migration, studies, pregnancies.”

Of course, as we know, Madame Bovary found one way to alleviate her boredom, as does M.A. with the vacuous Phillipe. Inevitably the affair is doomed, but unlike Emma, M.A. carries on. In this way I actually found it more depressing than its namesake; Madame Bovary is quite melodramatic, whereas this novel suggests there are plenty of lives of quiet desperation being carried out across the land.

However, I don’t want to suggest this is a bleak read, it’s not. The things I enjoyed about The Library… are evident here: the light touch, the wry humour:

“The eldest among us aware of what awaits the newlyweds once everyone has left, once the tables have been cleared, the last goodbyes are said, and we find ourselves in front of a refrigerator.”

Flaubert famously said ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’ Divry suggests ‘Vous êtes Madame Bovary’.

“Deep down no-one knows whether supreme happiness is attainable in one’s lifetime, physical pleasure remains one of its earthly traces, a trace we cling to, as long as we have the strength.”

To end, there’s an obvious 80s pop tune I could include on the theme of virginity, but for once I’m not going the obvious route 😊 I love the Pet Shop Boys and I don’t think I’ve ever managed to shoehorn them in so here they are singing about sinful urges:

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:

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: