“I go six of one and half a dozen of the other, but no-one remembers me saying that when I did, back in 2003.” (Richard Ayoade)

August is Women in Translation month, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. I’ve been faithfully reading translated fiction throughout the month but I have failed miserably at blogging about any of it. Usually when bloggers disappear for a bit they’ve gone on holiday/fallen in love/started a new job. I have no such exciting excuses – I’m at the same job, feeling bitter about a lack of holiday & the nearest I’ve got to romance is shamelessly objectifying Tom Burke in the new Cormoran Strike adaptations on the BBC:

In a bid to catch up, here is a quick summary of the 6 novels I’ve read in translation, all quite short but all punching well above their weight in terms of powerful, affecting stories. They also include 2 more stops (France & Greece) on my much neglected Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Colette – The Other One (1929, trans. from French by Elizabeth Tait & Roger Senhouse 1960)

Given I’m such a Francophile, it came as a great surprise to me that I hadn’t yet visited France as part of #AW80Books so I’ve rectified the situation with Colette’s tale of infidelity and complex family dynamics over the course of a summer in a villa in France.

Fanny is married to Farou, and awaits his return in a villa where she lives with her stepson Jean and companion Jane, with whom Jean is in love. Fanny subsequently comes to realise that Jane is one of Farou’s many extra-marital dalliances.

It’s a slim novel (157 pages in my edition) and in a sense very little happens. What The Other One offers is a beautifully written, subtle exploration of the psychological complexities that exist between people who are inextricably bound up in one another’s lives, with all the love and pain that can entail.

“Fanny turned on Jane her Paris smile, well made-up and full-lipped, and Jane, whose fair hair lit up a corner of the room, was instantly extinguished.”

Marguerite Duras – La Douleur (1985, trans. from French by Barbara Bray 1986)

I’m overcompensating now by staying France, with Duras’ typical mix of autobiography and fiction, regarding her war experiences. At the start of La Douleur she writes that the work is based on diaries she discovered which she doesn’t remember writing. The six stories/diaries move back and forth across the period of the war and create the sense of a fragmented narrative which explores the desolation and destruction of war and the impossibility of telling a tale of such insurmountable human loss in only one way. I found it incredibly powerful.

“Suddenly freedom is bitter. I’ve just come to know the total loss of hope and the emptiness that follows; you don’t remember, it creates no memory. I think I feel a slight regret at having failed to die while still living. But go on walking, I move from the street to the sidewalk, then back into the street. I walk, my feet walk.”

Sun-Mi Hwang – The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly (2000, trans. from Korean Chi-Young Kim 2013)

This is the story of a hen named Sprout. She decides she wants more from life than laying eggs to be taken away: she wants to live in the wild and raise a chick.

This fable is incredibly clever, in that you can read it to a child but there is plenty for adults here too. It’s a story written with great lightness of touch, and as such the lessons it teaches are various, depending on what you find in it. It could be about (for starters): going your own way in life, questioning authority, facing fears, attitudes to immigrants, the value of empathy, adoptive families, familial love, finding freedom…

“Sprout was the best name in the world. A sprout grew into a leaf and embraced the wind and the sun before falling and rotting and turning into mulch for bringing fragrant flowers into bloom. Sprout wanted to do something with her life, just like the sprouts on the acacia tree. That was why she’d named herself after them. Nobody called her Sprout, and she knew her life wasn’t like a sprout’s, but still the name made her feel good. It was her secret.”

The edition by Oneworld books also features lovely illustrations by Nomoco, worth seeking out.

Penelope S Delta – A Tale Without a Name (1911, trans. from Greek by Mika Provata-Carlone 2013)

Another fable, and another lovely edition from Pushkin Press whose description explains that this is ‘one of Greece’s best loved stories.’ It tells of an indulgent arrogant king who takes his nation into ruin and the son and daughter who bring it back to prosperity under a policy of meaningful employment for the greater good.

“Time always passes. But if you consume yourself in idle things you waste it; whereas if you do work that has a purpose, you make good use of time.”

It’s also a militaristic tale – much emphasis on vanquishing enemies and building armies – but ultimately it is about social responsibility. I don’t think it’s a stretch to see it as deeply political: Delta’s father was a mayor who narrowly avoided execution, her diplomat lover was assassinated and she killed herself the day the Nazis reached Athens. A Tale Without a Name presents complex political ideas in a deceptively simple style.

Han Kang – Human Acts (2014, trans. Deborah Smith 2016)

This novel caused me to deviate from a wholly WITMonth August, as I was so upset by it that I had to read a British Library Crime Classic to recover. I approached it wholly ignorant of the political turmoil that South Korea had experienced in the 1980s. Kang pitches us into the student uprising in Gwangju in 1980. It begins with a boy searching for the body of his friend amongst the piles of corpses that a brutal regime creates.

“Why would you sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers? Why cover the coffin in the Taegukgi? As though it wasn’t the nation itself that murdered them.”

Human Acts follows various people all connected to the uprising, and Kang absolutely does not pull her punches. What the piles of bodies mean in human terms is explored fully both in terms of the emotional ramifications and the hard reality of how to deal with so many bodies. It’s a novel that deals with extreme brutality in sensitive, subtle prose.

“Their faces had been covered in white paint, erased. I swiftly shrank back. Necks tipped back, those dazzling white faces were angled towards the thicket. Staring out into the empty air, their features a perfect blank.”

The novel contains scenes of torture that are hard to bear, but never gratuitous. In the final part of the novel, Kang explains her own links to the story, and how this is not quite fiction. It’s astonishing that someone personally affected by the tragedy can write something so carefully constructed, but this is what she has achieved. The story is crafted but absolutely unflinching in looking at atrocities inflicted by governments and their devastating fallout.

“She had no faith in humanity. The look in someone’s eyes, the beliefs they espoused, the eloquence with which they did so, were, she knew, no guarantee of anything. She knew the only life left to her was one hemmed in by niggling doubts and cold questions.”

Elena Ferrante – The Lost Daughter (2006, trans. from Italian Ann Goldstein 2007)

Finally, I’m a bit undecided about the Neapolitan quartet and feel slightly baffled as to why its garnered quite so much praise, but I did enjoy this novella from Ferrante and those who love the quartet will find much that is familiar here: a flawed female narrator, conflicts with loved ones, a sense of violence close to the surface.

Leda takes a holiday alone in southern Italy. She is disturbed by a loud extended Neapolitan family and a certain event draws her into their sphere. During the course of the holiday she reflects on her life and the repercussions of the choices she has taken, on herself, her marriage and her daughters.

“My daughters make a constant effort to be the reverse of me. They are clever, they are competent, their father is starting them out on his path. Determined and terrified, they advance like whirlwinds through the world, they will manage better than us, their parents.”

Leda isn’t likeable but the narrative is compelling and pulls you along to deliver a short sharp shock.

As regular readers will know, I need no encouragement to indulge in an 80s pop video. Here’s one that was a massive hit in the original German and in English translation. It’s about nuclear war; of course we have no worries about such an event now…

“Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.” (George Steiner)

Last week I looked at a Nordic mystery as part of Women in Translation month, and this week I thought I’d make it the central theme – head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth. The need for Women in Translation month was brought home to me when I went to my TBR shelves thinking “No problem! I have loads of translated literature waiting to be read.” Well, yes, I do, but looking at the titles I suddenly realised it was very much dominated by male writers.

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I’m glad you asked, Mads. Firstly, The Vegetarian by Korean writer Han Kang (2007, tr. Deborah Smith 2015) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. You probably don’t need me to tell you how good The Vegetarian is; it was the glowing reviews and enthusiasm from bloggers that led me to pick up this novel in the first place. The hype was well deserved – The Vegetarian is an unsettling, brutal and beautifully written tale which has stayed with me long after I finished it.

It is the story of Yeong-hye, the titular herbivore, told from three points of view: her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister, over the course of a few years, from the point she starts refusing to eat meat. Her husband can’t believe that his wife – whose main appeal was that she impinges on his life in no way whatsoever – would do something so antisocial.

“As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.”

Yeong-hye’s behaviour is not rooted in any of these ‘reasonable grounds’ but in a deep disturbance at thought of eating meat, something which is not easy to cope with or explain:

“Something is lodged in my solar plexus. I don’t know what it might be. It’s lodged there permanently these days. Even though I stopped wearing a bra, I can feel this lump all the time. No matter how deeply I inhale, it doesn’t go away. Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of all the animals I ate are lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives stick stubbornly to my insides.”

Yeong-hye’s behaviour exposes the fractures in her family: the tensions, hidden desires, and loyalties which on one occasion spills over into physical violence. She can’t be what her husband wants her to be. Subject to her brother-in-law’s sexual fetishes, she cannot answer all of his needs either. Nor can she start eating to please her sister who sees her wasting away. Her deterioration – mental and physical – is painful but her determination is relentless.

“Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absent minded, as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn’t bright or light-hearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.”

The Vegetarian is a short novel, 183 pages in my edition, but it punches far above its weight. Kang’s voice is strong and unique, her writing all the more dramatic for its concise understatement, and she refuses to offer any easy answers. Disturbing and brilliant.

Images from here and here

Secondly, a classic of Spanish literature, Nada by Carmen Laforet (1945 tr. Edith Grossman 2007). Andrea, a young student, leaves her rural home to attend university and moves in her with grandmother, aunt, two uncles, her uncle’s wife, a green-toothed maid and a dog. Although filled with youthful hope for opportunities and change, the atmosphere is unsettling from the start:

“We rode down Calle Aribau, where my relatives lived, its plane trees full of dense green that October, and its silence vivid with the respiration of a thousand souls behind darkened balconies.”

Once inside the house, things worsen. The house is cluttered, dirty, filled with layers of past glories.

“That bathroom seemed like a witches house, the stained walls had traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair. Everywhere the scaling walls opened their toothless mouths oozing dampness. Over the mirror, because it didn’t fit anywhere else, they’d hung a macabre still-life of pale bream and onions against a black background. Madness smiled from the bent taps.”

The Spanish Civil War – over six years previously – is mentioned in passing but never dwelt upon, though there is the sense that this is a family and a city, possibly a nation, dealing with the aftershocks of trauma. The family are entirely dysfunctional, locked in abusive, sado-masochistic, manipulative relationships to a greater or lesser extent. Andrea’s uncle Juan savagely beats his wife Gloria; her aunt Angustias tries to control Andrea through a  mix of overbearing affection and oppressive boundary-setting; her uncle Roman plays  cat-and-mouse with just about everyone he encounters. Andrea’s friend Ena offers a possibility of escape:

“Ena never resembled on weekdays the rash girl, almost childish in her high spirits, that she turned into on Sundays. As for me – and I came from the countryside – she made me see a new meaning in nature that I’d never thought of before. She made me understand the pulsing of damp mud heavy with vital juices, the mysterious emotion of buds that were still closed, the melancholy charm of algae listless on the sand, the potency, the ardour, the splendid appeal of the sea.”

Nada is a gothic tale without a doubt, but never quite spills over into the camp that gothic often skirts along. The novel had to pass through Franco’s censors, and while its not overtly a political tale, I think the Gothicism helps disguise the fact that it is a tale of a society in shock; of resistance to oppression; of survival and escape.

“The memory of nights on Calle de Aribau comes to me now. Those nights that ran like a black river beneath the bridges of the days, nights when stagnant odours gave off the breath of ghosts.”

To end, an example of gothic that doesn’t skirt around camp but rather dives straight in – quite the maddest film I’ve ever seen: