“Increasingly I have felt that the art of writing is itself translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else.” (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Oh dear, my blogging mojo is taking a while to get back. It’s been weeks since I read these two short story collections for Women in Translation Month and I’m only writing this now. Given that I find writing about short story collections difficult at the best of times, I beg your indulgence, Reader…

Firstly, Dark Paradise by Rosa Liksom (1989 trans. David McDuff, 2007) which I picked up having greatly enjoyed Compartment No.6 back in 2016. This was a dark, violent collection of stories, split into two sections, Domestic and Foreign. The stories are not titled otherwise and are very short, frequently only a few pages, with unnamed narrators describing their extreme actions in a matter-of-fact voice. Hence I’m going to have to give a trigger warning for descriptions of violence and blood.

In the first story, a woman locks herself in her bedroom after the death of her husband:

“She took a heavy vase from the floor and threw it at the mirror which shattered into large and small pieces. The shards cut her all over. Some of the wounds were deep – they gaped and spurted blood. The sheets were stained red, her body throbbed, and the blood smelled of something old and oppressive.”

This is a choice image to begin the collection, as it captures what is in store: sharp, fragmentary glimpses into violent and unhinged worlds. Unlike the first story, many that follow are told in the first person. A woman who viscerally hates her husband of two weeks; a man who obsessively cleans his flat; a social outcast who lives with his mother:

“It all started some time before my eighth birthday. I was lounging in an armchair in the parlour watching Mom make dinner in the kitchen. That was the first time the realisation came to me. I got this terrible nauseous feeling, a flash of lightening cut right through my brain and Mom suddenly looked to me like some sort of mutant, a caricature of a human being. I know that’s when it started, and the years have only made it clearer to me that even then, as a little kid, I was one hundred percent correct: I hate all women.”

There are some brief glimpses of light. Not every encounter ends in violence, though most do, and there are some affectionate relationships, like the woman and her daughter who are chocoholics:

“Then I walk home and my daughter is back, she’ll have had three mugs of cocoa and a package of chocolate biscuits. She eats chocolate too, and biscuits, and potato chips. I’ve hardly had time to get the door open when she’s shouting for chocolate. But she has to wait until I’ve taken off my coat and sat down in front of the TV. Then I give her one of the bars and take the other for myself. We watch TV, eat chocolate and occasionally I have a cigarette.”

Liksom is such an accomplished writer. In just a few lines she establishes character, tone, setting. She’s sparse and uncompromising. This is not the collection to read when you’re feeling fragile or want characters to root for, but if you feel like being pummelled into nihilistic despair for about an hour (and sometimes I do, sometimes I want a truly destabilising read) then this is for you.

Secondly, Death of an Ex-Minister by Nawal el-Saadawi (1987, trans. Shirley Eber 1987). I first looked at el-Saadawi’s work for WITMonth 2018 and then again this year when I was undertaking Novella a Day in May, and I’m always so impressed by how she weaves her politics into stories that never suffer under the weight of the issues she’s addressing: often corruption, the role of women, and sexuality.

The titular story has a government employee talking to his mother as silent interlocutor, about a junior colleague that has incurred his ire:

“But I was angry Mother, because when she talked to me she raised her eyes to mine in a way I’d never seen before. Such a gaze, such a strong and steady look, is daring in itself, even impudent, when it comes from a man. So what if it comes from an employee, a woman? I wasn’t angry because she did it, but because I didn’t know how she did it, how she dared do it.”

I thought this was such a clever way to explore a man realising that he has been a cog in machine, a subservient bureaucrat, and send him spiralling into crisis.

In The Veil, el-Saadawi deals with female sexual desire completely unabashed:

“My eyes fall on to his naked body and hairy thighs once more. The expression on my face, as I look at his body, is not the same when I look into his eyes, for my problem is that what I feel inside shows instantly on my face. His eyes are the only part of his body with which I have real contact. They dispel strangeness and ugliness and make my relationship with him real in the midst of numerous unreal ones.”

She always has plenty to say but is never preachy and often has an underlying humour. The tone in Masculine Confession (another silent female interlocutor, this time a sex worker) is wry:

“I loved my masculinity and from the start I realised it was the reason for my being privileged. I always had to prove its existence, declare it, show it to people to make it clear and visible and that it was not open to doubt […] I love my wife like I love my mother, with the same sort of spiritual, holy love. In other words, a love in which I take everything and to which I give nothing. That’s ideal love.”

In Camera is perhaps the most powerful and tender, where a young woman accused and tortured by the state is watched in a courtroom by her family:

“I feel the air when it touches you and hunger when it grips you. Your pain is mine, like fire burning in my breast and stomach. God of Heaven and Earth, how did your body and mine stand it? But I couldn’t have stood it were it not for the joy of you being my daughter, of having given birth to you. And you can raise your head high above the mountains of filth.”

Death of an Ex-Minister captures a variety of voices finding their way in late twentieth century Egypt. El-Saadawi is all the more powerful because of her compassion – she writes about flawed humans, fighting, loving, scared and brave. Her characters are always believable and always compelling.

To end, a move that will shock regular readers of this blog to their core: I’m going to end on some tasteful music for once 😀 Stunning harmonies from singers of traditional Finnish Sami music:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #23

The Year of the Hare – Arto Paasilinna (1975, trans. Herbert Lomas 1995) 135 pages

Following on from The Cat yesterday, I thought I’d look at another novella about a relationship with an animal today; the international bestseller about a man who leaves his life behind after injuring a wild hare.

Vatanen is a journalist deeply unhappy with his career, metropolitan life, and his marriage.

“Their flat had become an extravagant farrago of shallow and meretricious interior-decoration tips from women’s magazines. A pseudo-radicalism governed the design, with huge posters and clumsy modularised furniture. It was difficult to inhabit the rooms without injury; all items were at odds. The home was distinctly reminiscent of Vatanen’s marriage.”

The novel opens with him in a car with his photographer, hitting a hare with their car. The hare limps off and Vatanen follows it. He splints its leg and takes care of it, deciding never to return to his life.

What follows is a series of episodes in which Vanaten meets various eccentric characters as he travels further north in Finland, having adventures and finding the presence of the hare promotes honest and open conversations with people.

“If it’s difficult to teach an old dog to sit, as they say, then it’s even more difficult to teach an old Lapland roue to swim.”

The Year of the Hare is picaresque, and the emphasis is on the escapades rather than the characters. I didn’t feel I really knew Vananten any better by the end of the novella, but it had been mostly fun spending time with him and the hare.

I say mostly, because there were a couple of episodes I had to skip. These involved cruelty to animals. There was one particularly horrible incident where Vatanen tortures a raven, and there’s an extended bear hunt towards the end. But skipping over these parts still left a lot to enjoy, and the sense of Finland and its landscape is beautifully evoked.

“When, that evening, Vatanen slowly ski’d back from Vittumainen Ghyll to Laahkima Gorge, accompanied by his hare, he no longer thought about Kaartinen’s strange world. There was a half-moon, and the stars were glimmering faintly in the frozen evening. He had his own world, this one, and it was fine to be here, living alone in one’s own way. The hare ambled silently along the trail ahead of the skier, like a pathfinder. Vatanen sang to it.”

A slightly bonkers, occasionally surreal tale about following your own path and keeping an open mind as to who might accompany you part of the way.

The Year of the Hare was made into a film two years after publication, but I can’t find a trailer for that Finnish version. Its been a bestseller in France, so here is a trailer for the French film adaptation from 2006. Christophe Lambert is immediately too likeable as Vatanen but the atmosphere and scenery look spot-on: