Two @PushkinPress reads for #WITMonth

After a somewhat harrowing start to my WITMonth reading, this week I have two novels from Pushkin Press which I found much easier-going. That’s not to say they are the lightest of reads though, as they deal with serious themes: trying to carve a space as a female artist in a patriarchal society, and bereavement.

Firstly, Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2018, trans. Brian FitzGibbon 2019). Set in the 1960s, Hekla is young woman named after a volcano, who leaves her remote town to move to Reykjavík in the hope of realising her dream of becoming a writer.

The story begins with her coach journey to the city as she attempts to read Ulysses in its original language (quite an undertaking even when it’s written in your first language):

“How many pages would it take to overtake the tractor if James Joyce were a passenger on the road to Reykjavík?”

This witty and serious woman also has to fend off the attentions of an older man who says he can get a place in the Miss Iceland contest:

“We’re looking for unattached maidens, sublimely endowed with both clean-limbedness and comeliness”

Bleugh. Hekla is not remotely interested. She goes to stay with her schoolfriend Ísey who is married and has started a family, a situation about which she seems conflicted:

“I didn’t know it would be so wonderful to be a mother. Having a baby has been the best experience of my life. I’m so happy. There’s nothing missing in my life. Your letters have kept me alive. I’m so lonely. Sometimes I feel like I’m a terrible mother.”

Ísey wanted to write too and her sections have a lovely phrasing and style. There’s no doubt she has talent but her choices have been made and at this moment in time they preclude writing. Hekla is much more single-minded, but she may struggle to get her voice heard as much as Ísey, because their society does not favour independent-minded female writers.

To pay the bills Hekla takes a job as a waitress at the Hotel Borg. The more experienced staff tell her tales of female staff getting fired because of the attention of male customers, and which stores have backdoor exits she can use to escape if she is followed.

Ólafsdóttir effectively demonstrates how the patriarchy supresses men too. Hekla’s best friend is Jón John, who is gay and sees his prospects for a happy life as being fairly hopeless. He is used by men for sex before they return home to their wives, and while he wants to be a costume designer the lack of opportunity means he fishes on trawlers:

“The most handsome boy in Dalir told me he that he loved boys.

We kept each other’s secrets.

We were equals.”

Miss Iceland isn’t a bleak tale because Hekla is so resilient, and I’ve probably made it sound much sadder than it is. Jón John is a very forlorn character who really moved me, but Hekla is pragmatic to the point of detachment. She is entirely honest with her boyfriend, failed poet Starkadur (a reference to Cold Comfort Farm?) that her interest in him is purely physical. In this way she reminded me of another fictional artist, Margery Sharp’s Martha.

Despite Miss Iceland being told from Hekla’s point of view, in some ways I finished it in a similar position to Starkadur, feeling quite distant from her as a character. Ísey and Jón John are much more engaging. However, I think that is clever writing on the part of Ólafsdóttir rather than a flaw in the novel. Hekla is a writer, she has that slight detachment when she is with people of only wanting to get back to her typewriter.

“In my dream world the most important things would be: a sheet of paper, fountain pen and a male body. When we’ve finished making love, he’s welcome to ask if he can refill the fountain pen with ink for me.”

Miss Iceland ends with a two major pragmatic decisions about how to navigate a society which will not allow free expression of who you are. It’s not optimistic but nor is it defeatist. It is frustrating though, which I think was exactly the point.

Secondly, Learning to Talk to Plants by Catalan writer Marta Orriols (2018, trans. Mara Faye Lethem 2020). I spend a lot of my working life talking about and dealing with grief, and I thought this was an excellent exploration of one woman’s first year grieving for her partner.

Paula Cid is a neonatologist who loves her job. Her partner Mauro has been killed in road traffic collision.

“I often think and speak of Mauro using the adverbs before and after, to avoid past tense.”

What no-one knows is that Paula and Mauro had been going through a tough time in their relationship, and the day he died he had told her he was leaving her for a younger woman.

“You liked to buy me shoes. I never told you but I wasn’t crazy about the ones you chose for me….They were shoes for a woman who didn’t have my feet, or my style that wasn’t really a style. They were shoes for a woman who wasn’t me.”

Paula was such a well-realised character, I really liked her and I really liked the fact that she didn’t always behave well, even though she was a fundamentally decent person. She throws herself into her work, which is not entirely commendable despite how vital her work is. She is a bit of a pain to her colleagues. She is not always easy with her father and her friends. She resents any suggestion that her grief is similar to anyone else’s:

“My pain is mine and the only possible unit for measuring or calibrating it is the intimacy of everything that compromised the how. How I loved him, how he loved me. How we were, uniquely, no longer us and, therefore, how I could uniquely grieve him.”

Reasonable, I think.

What I also liked is how Learning to Talk to Plants didn’t skirt round the issue of sex. Paula is in early middle-age, she is not ready to renounce her sex life, even though society thinks it an unseemly way for a grieving woman to behave:

“Pleasure that appears just four weeks after losing your partner forever feels too bold”

However, Learning to Talk to Plants is not about Paula’s relationship with men, or even with Mauro. It is about her relationship with herself, about taking the time to nuture herself, and rediscovering hope, however abstract:

“You said talking to plants was a private, transformative act, an act of faith for those who don’t believe in miracles. I get up, take a breath, and add to my list: Learn to talk to plants.”

Learning to Talk to Plants skilfully avoids cliché, mawkishness or sentimentality. I did feel sorry for those plants though…

To end, one of the younger members of my family has been channelling Axl Rose in her attire this week, despite having no idea who he is (probably for the best). Here is the Postmodern Jukebox version of Sweet Child O’Mine:

“Life is a very bad novelist. It is chaotic and ludicrous.” (Javier Marías)

Trigger warnings for suicide and rape

In a move that will shock no-one who’s read this blog in the past year, I totally failed to post as planned for Stu’s Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month in July. I did however read some Spanish and Portuguese language lit, and Stu has extended the month to include August so away we go!

I decided to use S&PLM as an incentive to dust off Javier Marías, who has been languishing in my TBR forever. I read A Heart So White (1992, trans. Margaret Jull Costa 1995) and The Infatuations (2011, trans. Margaret Jull Costa 2013).

What struck me reading both is that I’ve not really read anyone else with a style like Marías. He interweaves philosophical musing within a basic plot and manages this without any loss of pace. The plots are essentially a study of how people relate to one another, rather than event-driven and it works seamlessly.

For the sake of brevity (ha!) I’ll just look at A Heart So White here, in which newly-married Juan muses on the nature of romantic love and his relationship with his father Ranz.

“Ever since I contracted matrimony (the verb has fallen into disuse, but is both highly graphic and useful) I’ve been filled by all kinds of presentiments of disaster […] when they contract matrimony, the contracting parties are, in fact, demanding of each other an act of mutual suppression or obliteration”

This occurs near the start of the novel and I was really taken aback by the matter-of-fact tone regarding a subject that society generally sentimentalises. Marias builds the story using vignettes as Juan observes two arguing lovers on his honeymoon, returns to work as a translator, and stays with a friend in New York who has humiliating experiences through the personal ads. I wondered if AHSW was going to be a cynical and bitter tale of people behaving appallingly towards each other. However, despite observations such as:

“Any relationship between two people always brings with it a multitude of problems and coercions.”

Overall I found the tone resolutely clear-sighted and pragmatic, rather than bitter.

Ranz is a complex, slippery character. His first wife died and his second wife killed herself. Juan is the son of his third marriage. They are not close – Juan finds his father distant and self-focussed:

“He spoke slowly, as he usually did, choosing his words with great care (Lothario, alliances, shadows), more for effect and to ensure that he had your attention than for the sake of precision.”

[…]

“This was the whispered advice that Ranz gave me: ‘I’ll just say one thing,’ he said. ‘If you ever do have any secrets or if you already have, don’t tell her.’ And smiling again, he added: ‘Good luck.’”

Juan does find out the mysteries of his father’s past, largely with the help of his new wife Luisa. However, this does not create a sense of resolution, because I don’t think that’s what the novel is about. It’s not about neat endings, but rather the messy business of human relationships and how these are never neatly tied up, whether through legal institutions like marriage or even the finality of death.

Secondly, a Portuguese-language novel, The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida (1991 trans. Sheila Faria Glaser2004), which despite its mammoth title was only novella length. It was also an opportunity for me to visit another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, as Almeida is a Cape Verdean writer.

This was my first experience of Almeida’s writing and I really enjoyed his chatty, slightly irreverent tone. The titular 387-page document belongs to a successful importer-exporter, and the novella opens with its reading. Much to everyone’s surprise, the business is bequeathed not to Carlos, Senhor da Silva Araújo’s nephew, but rather his illegitimate daughter, unacknowledged in his lifetime.

“Still, it might have struck one as strange, or might have set the neighbours talking when, rather extraordinarily, on hearing over the radio the news of the passing of the esteemed merchant from this our very own marketplace, one of the most vibrant pillars of our city – Sr. Napumoceno da Silva Araújo- Dona Chica began to run around the house screaming and crying out, My protector, my god, What will become of me etc., a display different in every way from the measured grief she had shown on the death of her Silvério who, may he rest in peace, though no model of virtue was no scoundrel either.”

(The only thing that jarred for me in this novella was that Senhor da Silva Araújo rapes Dona Chica, his cleaner, before the two go on to have a mutually satisfying sexual arrangement. Patriarchal  fantasy I would say.)

The story moves back and forth across time with ease, building a portrait of a man who rose from shoeless poverty to leading businessman. He remains contradictory and somewhat unknown despite telling his life story in his own words. Although this could make for an unsatisfying read, for me this was the novella’s strength. It captured how complex people are, and how we can remain a mystery even to ourselves.

Senhor da Silva Araújo is not particularly likable. There are possibly some shady deals in his background. Despite being in love at certain points (much to the surprise of those who knew him), he is ignorant regarding women. He treats his nephew Carlos unfairly:

“Carlos has turned out to be an ungrateful relation and as the good man I am and always have been, I have the moral obligation never to forgive him.”

Yet Carlos is not perfect either, and Senhor da Silva Araújo is not wholly despicable:

“But the truth is, it began to be noted that Sr. Napumoceno sent for quicklime from Boa Vista at his own expense and donated to the City Council for construction projects for the poor. When he was questioned directly, he neither confirmed nor denied this”

There is one scene of awful misunderstanding with his daughter that is truly upsetting in its pathos. Overall, this is a portrait of a life lived, successfully in some ways, pitiably in others; a man weak and oblivious to others; who knew some happiness and some heartbreak. Hard to achieve in a novella length but Almeida manages it with skill.

To end, Seu Jorge singing one of my favourite Bowie songs in Portuguese:

“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:

“The inspector sat down on a stair, fired up a cigarette, and entered an immobility contest with a lizard.” (The Snack Thief, Andrea Camilleri)

Reader, I’ve been abandoned by a man.  He just left, with no word of when he will return and how I miss him.  He’s gorgeous, he lives in a place of outstanding beauty, he shares my food obsession and always brings the sunshine with him.

Apparently possession of a Y chromosome is necessary to become a police officer in Vigata

Apparently possession of a Y chromosome is prerequisite to becoming a police officer in Vigata

Image from here

Always a sucker for the BBC4 Saturday night foreign detective dramas, I am deeply traumatised by the ending of Young Montalbano, whose Sicilian sunshine was no end of help in getting me through these grey February days.  The deli across the road sells great arancini but carb-loading on the Inspector’s favourite food is not quite compensating for my loss.

The BBC tried to make up for the series ending by screening an interview with the author of the Montalbano books, 88 year -old Andrea Camilleri. The man is charm personified so if you have a chance to watch this interview in the next few weeks I definitely recommend it.  In the opening scene Camilleri pays tribute to Spanish crime writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban, after whom he named his creation.  So off I trot to Barcelona in the company of Pepe Carvalho, Montalban’s private detective, in the hope that Spanish sunshine will help keep my vicarious vitamin D levels up. For this post I’ve paired it with another Spanish crime novel, The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (tr. Isabelle Kaufeler), which I was delighted to win in a giveaway on Elena’s lovely blog, Books and Reviews.  Do head over to B&R for Elena’s insightful review of The Invisible Guardian and interview with the author. These two books are also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

In Tattoo (tr. Nick Caistor), Pepe Carvalho “an ex-cop, an ex-Marxist and a gourmet” is hired by a local hairdresser to identify a body that has been pulled out of the sea, badly disfigured but with the legend “Born to Raise Hell in Hell” tattooed on his back.  It’s a shame Montalban has died, because a cross-over novel penned by him and Camilleri would have been something to behold; their two protagonists are so similar that they’d either become bosom buddies or detest each other on sight:

“Strolling aimlessly around the market was one of the few ways that this tall, dark-haired man in his thirties, who somehow contrived to look slightly dishevelled despite wearing expensive suits from tailors in the smartest part of town, allowed himself some spiritual relaxation whenever he left Charo’s neighbourhood and headed back to his lair on the slopes of the mountain overlooking Barcelona.”

Carvalho’s investigation takes him from Barcelona to Amsterdam where he becomes embroiled in the drugs trade, gets badly beaten, and engages sex workers as informers. He is tough and cynical and in that sense very much in the line of familiar hard-boiled detectives, but Montalban has self-referential fun with this:

 “Carvalho did not want to seem too smart, or behave like a Chandler character facing a stupid, brutal LAPD cop.” 

This is Tattoo’s main appeal for me – a European sensibility brought to a Chandler-esque tale. I wasn’t keen on the violence towards women, particularly when one of them sleeps with Carvalho straight afterwards, but Montalban redeems himself slightly by having sex worker who is strong, independent, and not punished by rape and/or being killed off, which I didn’t entirely expect for a novel written in the 1970s. The tale is told with dry humour through some remarkable images: “the man had the mental recall of a great masturbator”. Quite.

This is the second Carvalho mystery and I didn’t feel I had to have read the first. Apparently the series becomes more politically engaged as it goes along, the ‘ex-Marxist’ element of the detective satirising Spanish politics, which is an interesting turn to take – for this reason I definitely plan on spending more time in Pepe’s company.

I do love me some Gaudi

Barcelona – I do love me some Gaudi

Image from here

From Barcelona to Basque country, and The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo. I am not a big reader of contemporary crime fiction, but I was intrigued by Elena’s review, which described how the Basque setting of Elizondo brought its own unique atmosphere to the novel:

“The Baztan forest is enchanting, with a serene, ancient beauty that effortlessly brings out people’s most human side; a childlike part of them that believes in fairies with webbed ducks’ feet that used to live in the forest… Amaia felt the presence of such beings in that forest so tangibly that it seemed easy to believe in a druid culture, the power of trees over men, and to imagine a time when communion between magical beings and humans was a religion throughout the valley”

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Image from here

Amaia is Inspector Salazar, deployed from Pamplona back to her home town to investigate a series of murders: young girls, strangled and laid out ritualistically. While the details of the dead are disturbing, I didn’t feel it was overly gory, and certainly not voyeuristically gruesome. We are never allowed to forget that these are young people, on the cusp of womanhood, robbed of their lives:

 “the girl’s small, pale face with tiny drops of water still trapped in her eyelashes acted like clamorous cries to which she could not help but respond”

As Amaia investigates the murders she also has to face the ghosts of her past, and although she is deeply troubled, she’s not the stereotype of a tortured, isolated, renegade detective. She is happily married (although the relationship is under strain), she has family around her including a loving, strong aunt,  and she follows procedure.

“This was her hometown, a place in which she had lived for most of her life. It was part of her, like a genetic trace, it was where she returned to in her dreams when she wasn’t dreaming about the dead bodies, assailants, killers and suicides which mingled obscenely in her nightmares”

What I thought Redondo did exceptionally well was mixing a recogniseable contemporary reality with the old religion, mysticism and mythology of the past; the investigation progresses through a combination of procedural police work with intuition and precognition. This never jars and adds to the eerie, unnerving quality evoked by the Baztan forest without losing the tension of the investigation. It’s an extraordinary achievement. My one reservation is that the dialogue occasionally felt a bit clunky, but I suspect this may be a translation issue as I imagine trying to capture natural speech is extremely difficult. The Invisible Guardian is the first in a trilogy and I’m really looking forward to the next two installments.

To end, a glimpse of where BBC4 is taking me after Sicily. I haven’t watched last week’s episodes yet, and although it looks great, I think I’ll need to get my vicarious sunshine elsewhere: