“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: