“Images are a way of writing. When you have the talent to be able to write and to draw, it seems a shame to choose one.” (Marjane Satrapi)

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!

Throughout August I’m hoping to post entirely about women in translation, and this week I’m looking at two women who are famous animators as part of their writing.

Firstly, Tove Jansson, who was the creator of the Moomins.

Jansson also wrote novels for adults and Sort Of Books have done a great job making English translations available. The True Deceiver (1982, trans. Thomas Teal 2009) is a simple, unsettling tale set over a winter in a snowbound hamlet in Finland.

Katri Kling is a young woman in her 20s who lives with her brother Mats and her nameless Alsatian dog, keeping herself to herself.

“Every night I hear the snow against the window, the soft whisper of the snow blown in form the sea, and it’s good, I wish the whole village could be covered and erased and finally be clean…Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where the dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases to twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual.”

Meanwhile, Anna Aemelin is an animator who lives on the outskirts of the village. If Katrin seems old beyond her years, Anna has stayed somewhat infantalised despite now being quite old. She eats soft food out of tins, has a cleaner to take care of the huge house she’s lived in her whole life, and has no idea how to manage her money.

“Perhaps the reason people called Anna Aemelin nice was because nothing had ever forced her to exhibit malice, and because she had an uncommon ability to forget unpleasant things. She just shook them off and continued on her own vague but stubborn way. In fact, her spoiled benevolence was frightening, but no-one ever had time to notice.”

Katrin sets her sights on Anna’s house, and so the two women collide:

“That’s where she lives. Mats and I will live there too. But I have to wait. I need to think carefully before I give this Anna Aemelin an important place in my life.”

What follows is a study of the tense, odd relationship that these two women build together. They are both quite damaged in different ways, and they are both loners. Mats has an unspecified learning difficulty and so he operates outside of this dynamic; it is very much about the two women. Mats is Katrin’s motivation though, and they are close without communicating much to one another:

“They owned a silence together that was peaceful and straightforward.”

This is not a story for those who like dramatic events and everything explained. What Jansson does expertly is portray these two women and the development of their relationship. She is entirely unsentimental – neither woman is particularly likeable – but the quiet, suffocating way she builds the story is compulsive.

“Anna walked faster, looking only down at the road. Several neighbours passed by, but she didn’t notice their greetings, just wanted to get home, home to the dreadful Katri, to her own altered world which had grown severe but where nothing was wicked and concealed.”

I really adore Jansson’s writing. It is beautiful but not overdone; pared down to its essence, she takes an incisive look at human relationships and never wastes a word. The True Deceiver is compelling and totally believable.

Secondly, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003, trans. Anjali Singh 2004). This is a graphic novel so please bear with me as I hardly ever read graphic novels and I’ve no idea how to write about it. Set in Iran, this is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Persepolis was made into a film in 2007 and uses the animation from the novel (it was co-written and co-directed by the author), so this trailer gives a good idea of the artwork:

Satrapi’s drawings are stark and simple in black and white and without excessive detail. As a result her images are incredibly strong and impactful, with nothing to distract from the central message each picture conveys.

The story is a powerful one. Marjane, born in 1970, grows up in tumultuous times in Iran. Her parents are liberal Marxists who allow their daughter a great deal of freedom, but after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 she has to wear a veil and be careful how she behaves in public. Young Marjane is religious and converses with God, but her favourite book is Dialectic Materialism where Marx and Descartes debate the meaning of the material world. “It was funny to see how much Marx and God looked liked each other. Though Marx’ hair was a bit curlier.”

Marjane learns about the history of her country and her family, having descended from Iran’s last emperor. Western culture appeals, while at the same time she knows that Britain conspired with the CIA in 1953 to depose Mossadeq after he nationalised the oil industry, to return the Shah to power (side note: when our previous Prime Minister Tony Blair was busy starting illegal wars in the Middle East, he had to be told who Mossadeq was, because he couldn’t understand Iranian hostility to Britain. I don’t even know where to begin with that.)

Her beloved uncle Anoosh is arrested and asks to Marjane for a final visit before he is executed. The scene where he holds her and calls her “Star of my Life” I found so moving. You can view it on Pintrest here (it’s really hard to write about a graphic novel without images! But I’m worried about copyright infringement ☹)

Persepolis follows Marjane as she leaves Iran for Austria, and her return four years later. We see her growing up, meeting boys, trying drugs, going to parties. She struggles to accept herself, feeling too Persian in Europe and too European in Iran. At times she loses her way, but always returns to her grandmother’s advice:

“There is nothing worse than bitterness and vengeance…always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”

Persepolis covers absolutely massive themes and is a remarkable achievement. International politics, religion, feminism, identity, social responsibility, extremism, idealism, familial love, are all here. The fact that it’s in graphic novel form mean that it never feels a heavy read and yet Persepolis doesn’t pull its punches or aim to make difficult truths easy for the reader. I’ve not remotely done it justice here.

To end, Marjane loves her hard-won Kim Wilde tape. Here’s the lovely lady herself aged 20, making her TOTP debut:

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“Trains, like time and tide, stop for no one” (Jules Verne)

Despite not thinking of myself as a remotely patriotic person, there was a 3 part programme on TV recently that was probably the most British thing ever, and I am so sorry it’s ended. Paul Merton travelling around the island by train (is it me or is he turning into Ian Hislop?), only getting off at request stops and chatting to those he meets. That’s it. Result: pure brilliance.

I share Mr Merton’s love of trains, and so this week I thought I would look at novels where they feature heavily.  This also enables me to fulfil the requirement of the Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit, to include a book about travel.

Firstly, Compartment No.6 by Rosa Liksom (2011, tr. Lola Rogers) which I was alerted to by Sarah’s review at Hard Book Habit and also by bookarino, where I was sure I had read a review but now I can’t find it on her blog – bookarino, if you reviewed please leave a link below!

The novel details the journey on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Mongolia undertaken by the two inhabitants of the titular compartment. Liksom describes the landscapes they pass through simply but evocatively, and succeeds in capturing a sense of place and of travel:

“An unknown Russia frozen in ice opens up ahead, the train speeds onward, shining stars etched against a tired sky, the train plunging into nature, into oppressive darkness lit by a cloudy, starless sky. Everything is in motion: snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people, thoughts. The train throbs across the snowy land.”

The atmosphere in the compartment is intimate and oppressive:

“All of Siberia slowly brightened. The man in his blue tracksuit bottoms and white shirt did push-ups between the bunks, sleep in his eyes, his mouth dry and smelly, the mucousy smell of sleep in the compartment, no breath from the window, tea glasses quietly on the table, crumbs silent on the floor.”

The man Vadim is repugnant: misogynistic, violent, anti-semitic, anti anyone who isn’t him. His attitudes and behaviour are repellent. Yet as they are forced together, a comradeship builds between him and the female traveller. She is presented a step removed: we never know her name, her direct speech is given only once and then she is quoting. Yet this works brilliantly at evoking the girl’s slightly numb, detached state as she runs away from her troubles and works her way back to facing them, with the help of the dreadful Vadim.

 “The girl looked out of the window at an entirely new landscape…she thought of that July day when she came back from her summer vacation in Finland and Mitka was at the station to meet her. She thought about how they had gone to the boarding house, run up the nine flights of stairs hand in hand, how the hallway had been filled knee-high with the fluffy heads of dandelions, how they’d run up and down the hallway like children, the dandelion fluff drifting in and out of the windows.”

Compartment No.6 is a short but haunting novel which will undoubtedly linger long in my memory.

Secondly, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950), which was adapted only a year later into the famous Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, albeit with several changes.

Strangers_on_a_Train_-_In_the_dining_car

Sadly my commuter train doesn’t look like this, despite being full of people hatching murderous plots

Successful architect Guy Haines meets bored, spoilt alcoholic Charley Bruno on a long haul train journey. He is reluctant to engage in chat, but Bruno is insistent, and Guy ends up telling him that he is travelling to meet his wife to ask for a divorce. Bruno meanwhile, hates his father and wants his inheritance.

“Bruno could be violent. He could be insane, too. Despair, Guy thought, not insanity. The desperate boredom of the wealthy…it tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.”

It is Bruno who comes up with the idea that they swop murders, Bruno killing Guy’s estranged wife for Guy killing his father. Guy doesn’t agree, but Bruno goes ahead anyway. Needless to say, he is a sociopath:

“whether Guy came through with his part of the deal or not, if he was successful with Miriam he would have proved a point. A perfect murder.”

“So long had he been frustrated in his hunger for a meaning of his life, and in his amorphous desire to perform an act that would give it meaning, that he had come to prefer frustration, like some habitually unrequited lovers.”

Bruno ends up stalking Guy, entirely obsessed with him, and it is this, rather than the murders or closing net of the investigation that provides the thriller element of the novel. Bruno is completely unstable and there is no telling what he might do as he exerts increasing pressure on Guy. Yet Bruno is vulnerable too, childlike and confused, and never admitting that it is sexual desire which draws him to Guy.

“Guy! Guy and himself! Who else was like them? Who else was their equal? He longed for Guy to be with him now. He would clasp Guy’s hand and to hell with the rest of the world! Their feats were unparalleled! Like a sweep across the sky! Like two streaks of red fire that came and disappeared so fast, everybody stood wondering if they had really seen them.”

There are definite overlaps with Tom Ripley, the sociopathic protagonist of several Highsmith novels. Bruno is a much less attractive character than Ripley, but there is the desperation and loneliness of the sociopath, the thwarted gay desire, and the doubling between characters, which Guy realises, much as he is reluctant to admit it:

“And Bruno, he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.”

Strangers on a Train worked well for me as a thriller, but without any glorification of murder or murderers.  Like The Talented Mr Ripley, what I was mainly left with was a sense of sadness at the destruction that desperate human beings can wreak on one another.

To end, a quick clip to shamelessly indulge my love of Buster Keaton:

“The weather is like the government, always in the wrong.” (Jerome K. Jerome)

What, in the name of Tomasz Schafernaker, is going on with the weather? (For those of you in countries where this legend doesn’t broadcast, he became my favourite –and I didn’t even know I needed one – when he ended a forecast with: “So, in summary…” then blew a raspberry and gave the thumbs-down. Succinct and accurate, Tomasz.)

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Image from here

Here in the UK we’ve had a weirdly mild winter, with the exception of 3 days this week which were the seasonal norm, and now we’re back to disconcertingly warm.  Meanwhile the east coast of the US has had the worst snow storm in 100 years. This has now passed and apparently skies have brightened, but please stay safe if you are there, reader. To give myself the sense of winter which is lacking here, I thought I would look at 2 snowbound novels. Inevitably, these will not be set in Britain, and so they also represent two more stops on the Around the World in 80 books reading challenge – hoorah! Coincidentally, they are also both collected short stories which do form a sort of narrative, so don’t be put off, short-story-phobes.

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Image from here

Firstly, A Winter Book by Tove Jansson, who I’ve written about before, a Finnish writer who wrote in Swedish, best known for the Moomins but a wonderful writer for adults too.  If you’re a fan of Jansson and have read her semi-autobiographical The Sculptor’s Daughter, then you might find this repetitive as the vast number of stories are taken from there. However, if you want to dip a toe into Jansson to see how you get on with her, this is as good a place to start as any.

Much is written from a child’s perspective and Jansson’s independent, stubborn and wonderfully inventive nature shines through. In the story Snow (I’m being resolutely obvious in my choices) she finds herself snowbound with her mother in an unfamiliar house.

“But I said nothing because I didn’t like this strange house. I stood in the window and watched snow falling, and it was all wrong. It wasn’t the same as in town. There it blows black and white over the roof or falls gently as if from heaven, and forms beautiful arches over the sitting-room window. The landscape looked dangerous too. It was bare and open and swallowed up the snow, and the trees stood in black rows that ended in nothing. At the edge of the world there was a narrow fringe of forest. Everything was wrong.”

Jansson’s world is small, yet enormous.  Much is set on her beloved island of Klovharu, and in Snow this is narrowed down to a single house, yet with her child’s imagination, it becomes a fairytale, in the Grimm sense, with a feeling of unreality and menace.

“Next morning the daylight was green, underwater lighting throughout the room. Mummy was asleep. I got up and opened the door and saw that the lamps were on in all the rooms although it was morning and the green light came through the snow which covered the windows all the way up. Now it had happened. The house was single enormous snowdrift, and the surface of the ground was somewhere high up above the roof.”

Jansson’s style is simple and pared back, which I think makes it all the more wonderful. It captures a child’s voice without artifice and is dramatic in its directness.

There is a similar sense of surreal wonder in The Iceberg, a delightful story where the young girl spots an iceberg floating nearby with a grotto hollowed out of it:

“My hands and my tummy began to feel icy-cold and I sat up. The grotto was the same size as me, but I didn’t dare to jump. And if one doesn’t dare to do something immediately, then one never does it.

I switched on the torch and threw it into the grotto. It fell on its side and lit up the whole grotto, making it just as beautiful as I had imagined it would be. …it was so unbearably beautiful that I had to get away from the whole thing as quickly as possible, send it away, do something! So I sat down firmly and placed both feet on the iceberg and pushed it as hard as I could It didn’t move.

‘Go away!’ I shouted. ‘Clear off!’”

This magical, humorous tale is pure Jansson: a truly memorable delight.

Secondly, A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov, a collection of his stories about being a newly-qualified doctor in an isolated practice, serving poverty-stricken rural Russian workers.

“The nearest street lamps are thirty-two miles away in the district town. Life there is sweet: it has a cinema, shops. While the snow is whirling and howling out here in the open country, there on the screen no doubt, the cane-brake is bending to the breeze and palm trees sway as a tropical island comes into view….”

He is the only doctor in the practice and finds himself woefully underprepared, his distinction in exams teaching him nothing about how to do his job.

“I tried to talk evenly and gravely, and to repress impulsive movements as far as possible, to walk and not run as twenty-four-year-olds do who have just left university. Looking back, I now realise that the attempt did not come off at all…I had been shown round the hospital and was left in no doubt whatever that it was generously equipped. With equal certainty I was forced to admit (inwardly of course) that I had no idea what many of these shiny, unsullied instruments were for.”

Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe in the 2012 TV adaptation

Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe in the 2012 TV adaptation

Image from here

Living in fear of a patient presenting with a strangulated hernia, Bulgakov somehow manages to muddle through, and actually seems to make a fairly decent doctor despite his own fear and misgivings: “I thought to myself: ‘What am I doing? I shall only kill the child.’ But I said: ‘Come on, come on – you’ve got to agree! You must! Look, her nails are already turning blue.”

Bulgakov’s writing throughout these stories might surprise fans of his surrealist masterpiece The Master and Margarita, as it is a determinedly realistic and linear narrative. However, it is bleak, funny, highly readable, and there are a few hints of what was to come once Bulgkov gave up his medical practice and turned all his attention to writing…

“Outside was a sight I had never seen before. There was no sky and no earth – only twisting, swirling whiteness, sideways and aslant, up and down, as though the devil had gone mad with a packet of tooth powder.”

To end, unapologetically cute footage of Japanese snow monkeys warming up in hot springs:

“Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” (Dorothy Parker)

Apparently you can have too much of a good thing.  This is not something I’ve experienced myself, but as it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged, I’ll go with it.  So even if you are an inveterate bibliophile there can be times when humungous, bicep-busting books can be off-putting, particularly if like me, you’re a non-Kindle using commuter.  You don’t want to be lugging The Count of Monte Cristo onto the train (or so my osteopath insists).  This week I thought I’d look at books that are small and perfectly formed: 1 novella and 1 short story collection that are little gems.

Firstly, Fair Play by Tove Jansson (1989 my edition trans. Thomas Teal 2007, 127 pages). Jansson is most famous for creating those weird hippo/mouse hybrid creatures the Moomins:

Recently I kept reading about how good her writing for adults is, so when I saw Fair Play in a bookshop I decided it was A Sign.  A Sign for me to spend money, which admittedly is what every bookshop says to me.  But Fair Play was worth every penny.  It is a beautifully observed, delicate portrait of two artistic women sharing a life together.  Jonna is a visual artist, Mari a writer:

“They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to.  There are empty spaces that must be respected  – those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.”

This is what Fair Play captures so well, the unspoken subtleties that exist in a long-term relationship, with the person you know better than anyone.  With a restrained lightness of touch, Jansson presents moments in time between the two women,  detailing events that seem simultaneously fleeting yet loaded with meaning.

“They hadn’t noticed the fog moving off….suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia.  Jonna started the motor.  They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

The novel has no ostensible plot, and there is no sense of time – each chapter could occur chronologically, or could be moving back and forth across the trajectory of their long relationship.  It doesn’t matter.  You finish the novel with the feeling of being allowed glimpses into two unique, intertwined lives, while understanding how we all essentially remain unknown.

“It’s gone so quiet,” Jonna said. “What did you think? Wasn’t that a good storm?”

“Very good,” Mari said. “The best we’ve had.”

Jansson’s writing is stark, yet beautiful. I will definitely be seeking out more by this writer.

Secondly, The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim (2009, Comma Press, trans. Jonathan Wright, 90 pages). The cover of this collection includes a quote from The Guardian, proclaiming Blasim “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive”. Like Fair Play, this was the first time I’d read this author, and it seems like such an oversight as he has so much to say that is important.  Blasim is a deeply political writer, by which I mean not that he is polemical, but that he is engaged with how literature works within a wider society:

“Because literature in this country is literature that goes through phases. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there have been incessant calls for writing to be intelligible, realistic, factual and pragmatic.  They are lamenting readers that don’t exist. They claim the writers of the past made the readers defect, whereas in fact for hundreds of years there were no readers in the broad sense of the word.  There were only hungry people, killers, illiterates, soldiers, villagers, people who prayed, people who were lost and people who were oppressed. Our writers seem to have grown tired of writing for each other.” (‘The Market of Stories’)

Blasim’s stories detail lives caught up in war: illegal immigrants, hostage experiences, propaganda- makers, asylum-seekers.  He is acutely aware of how stories are manipulated in this media-saturated world, and how there can be many truths held within the one story:

“This story took place in darkness and if I were destined to write it again, I would record only the cries of terror which rang out at the time and the other mysterious noises that accompanied the massacre. A major part of the story would make a good experimental radio piece.” (‘The Truck to Berlin’)

The short stories in The Madman of Freedom Square are all the more powerful for their brevity: there is a sense that in such unstable times, words are a luxury, and every one must count.  Certainly Blasim’s words count; his stories are powerful, extraordinary, bleakly funny on occasion, and deeply moving.

Back to frivolity: to end, a reminder that smaller is sometimes better (although frankly, when it comes to cookies, I’m still not entirely convinced…)