Novella a Day in May #25

Quesadillas – Juan Pablo Villalobos (2012, trans. Rosalind Harvey 2013) 180 pages

Quesadillas is Juan Pablo Villalobos’ second novel, which I picked up having greatly enjoyed his first, Down the Rabbit Hole. Also, it’s published by AndOtherStories, who really are a wonderful publisher of contemporary, mainly translated, fiction. I highly recommend checking out their catalogue.

Back to Quesadillas. Like Down the Rabbit Hole, it is told from a child’s perspective, this time an older, more wordly child as Orestes (his father loves Greek mythology) is 13 years old. He lives with his five brothers, one sister and parents in a town where:

“there are more cows than people, more charro horsemen than horses, more priests than cows, and the people like to believe in the existence of ghosts, miracles, spaceships, saints and so forth.”

His mother insists the family is middle-class (unlikely as their home is “a shoe box with a lid made from a sheet of asbestos”) while his father swears profusely at the television:

“My father remained loyal to his healthy habit of insulting all politicians, applying a level of hostility in direct proportion to the devaluation of the peso.”

This is 1980s Mexico, where there is economic chaos and corrupt elections. Telling the tale from a 13-year-old’s point of view enables Villalobos to make astute political points about the impact of state mismanagement on the poor, without being overly didactic:

“ ‘we only have thirty-seven quesadillas and 800 grams of cheese left.’

We entered a phase of quesadilla rationing that led to the political radicalisation of every member of my family. We were all well aware of the roller coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas my mother served at home. We’d even invented categories – inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas …. [in which] the presence of cheese was literary: you opened one and instead of adding melted cheese my mother had written the word ‘cheese’ on the surface of the tortilla”

Orestes’ twin brothers (no prizes for guessing they’re called Castor and Pollux) go missing and Oreo (as he’s known) sets off with older brother Aristotle to find them. Aristotle is convinced they’ve been abducted by aliens. After a fight, Oreo heads off alone and experiences life on the road. He manages to make money through peculiar means (there is a slight vein of magic realism running through the novella which explodes in all-out weirdness at the end) before returning home.

“What they were asking me to do was to start making up some lies that tallied with their idea of the world, damn it. But I hadn’t come home to tell the truth or learn to lie. I had come back because the class struggle had worn me out and I wanted to eat quesadillas for free.”

Quesadillas has a strong narrative voice in Oreo and it is funny, engaging and astute. The humour and surreal elements never obscure the portrayal of corruption or poverty. An entertaining and thought-provoking read.

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Novella a Day in May #22

Under the Tripoli Sky – Kamal Ben Hameda (2011, trans. Adriana Hunter 2014) 104 pages

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda is published by Peirene Press who specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas, aimed to be read in one sitting. Under the Tripoli Sky (written in French by a Libyan author now living in Holland) is part of their Coming of Age series. It’s also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Hadachinou is a young boy living in Libya before the revolution of 1969. The novella details his experience growing up in Tripoli surrounded by women: his mother, her friends, their daughters. Through a series of sketches he builds up an evocative, affectionate but unsentimental view of the lives of women where men are either absent or a drunken threat:

“My father, a solitary man given to prayer, shut himself away in the small bedroom at the back of the house when he came home from his shop or from the mosque. … As for Uncle Hadi, he spent nights in the company of other drunkards. ‘If their young wives want some fun and relaxation, they have to search for it elsewhere,’ Aunt Nafissa often commented, with her usual bitterness towards the male gender.”

The women don’t really notice Hadachinou and so he is given extraordinary access to their lives and experience.

“The tea ceremony was the only part of the day when my mother and her friends could live their lives in real time and tell their own stories. At last they could talk about dreams, longings and anxieties all in the same breath, and their bodies were at peace.”

He also moves across other boundaries in the city, attending mosque, synagogue and church. There is a sense of an exile looking back, and Tripoli with its heat, light, and bustling activity is beautifully realised. What also adds to a sense of Hadachinou recalling with longing, is the focus on food. This is not the story to read if you are on a diet. As homemakers, a great deal of the women’s lives are given over to preparing food, and Hadachinou describes the various meals in mouth-watering detail:

 “Signora Filomena would take us to the pizzeria, where each of us could salivate over his or her choice of either a pizza with tomatoes and oregano flavoured anchovies, or an ice-cream with a subtle vanilla taste set off by crunchy slivers of bitter chocolate. She herself preferred the bar opposite and its famous sandwiches: grilled sardines between two slices of crusty bread whose dough was impregnated with olive oil infused with garlic and red chillies.”

Peirene’s inclusion of this as a coming of age story is understandable. Hadachinou undergoes his circumcision early in the novella; he also experiences awakening sexual desire. But while he is moving towards adulthood, this is very much a portrait of a city and a community on the brink of enormous change. It is stunningly written, capturing a society about to be torn asunder.

“Another person’s eyes are your origins and your kingdom. But other people can’t see you if they’re blinded by their search for an illusion…”

Novella a Day in May #20

The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul (2009, trans. Martin Aitken 2012, 189 pages)

This novella is published by Peirene Press who specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas, aimed to be read in one sitting. The Murder of Halland is part of their Small Epic series.

The story opens with a domestic scene, Bess and her partner Halland watching a detective series before he goes to bed and she returns to her study to continue her work as a successful novelist. By the third page however, she is woken by a man at the door claiming he is arresting her for the murder of her husband: Halland has been shot dead in the town square outside their flat.

“The wet cobbles glistened in the morning light. Normally, the square would be deserted. Now it was filling with people. Roses bloomed against the yellow and whitewashed walls.”

While The Murder of Halland could be classed as a crime novel, I think this is misleading.  The focus is not on finding out who killed Halland but rather the grief of Bess as she ricochets around the small town in confusion, discovering Halland wasn’t quite who she thought he was and wondering if she is grieving in the right way.

“I could see why Halland had hung up the picture. It was our first year together and we were happy. Anyone could see that. At least I could, now. Halland’s hair had turned completely white during his illness, but here his long mane was dark and only just starting to turn in grey. I traced the sharp line of his nose with my finger, his full mouth. He was looking at me, saying something. What did we say to each other in those days? What did we ever say? I couldn’t remember us talking. Did we even say good morning? Yes, we said good morning.”

Bess’ detached narration makes The Murder of Halland an unsettling read. We know it was not a happy relationship, but we don’t know exactly why. We don’t know in what way Halland was ill. All Bess’ relationships seem to occur at a step removed: she has tense phone calls with her mother, a half-hearted reconciliation with her grandfather, an estranged daughter who arrives back in her life but they don’t explore what this means for either of them…

This strange detachment meant that I started to doubt Bess’ reliability as a narrator. When I read crime fiction it’s weirdly, for comfort, partly because I stick to Golden Age, and partly for all the ends to be tied up nice and neatly.  The Murder of Halland is not this type of novel. It leaves the reader with many more questions than answers, most of all through it’s “WHAT????” ending . Surprisingly, I didn’t think this made for an unsatisfactory read. The Murder of Halland is an intriguing character study at a moment of crisis, as complicated and unresolved as life itself.

Novella a Day in May #13

Such Small Hands – Andres Barba (trans. Lisa Dillman 2017) 101 pages

Well, this was super creepy. Institutionalised children *shudder*

Seven year old Marina is in a car accident.

“’Your father died instantly, your mother is in a coma.’ Lips pronounce them without stopping. Quick, dry words. They come in thousands of different, unpredictable ways, sometimes unbidden. Suddenly they just fall, as if onto a field. Marina’s learned to say them without sadness, like a name recited for strangers, like my name is Marina and I’m seven years old. ‘My father died instantly, my mother is in the hospital.’”

After her mother dies, Marina is sent to an orphanage, taking a doll given to her by the psychologist, which she has also called Marina. The other girls are both mesmerised and wary of Marina.

“Marina shrank and we grew. She stood alone, with her doll, by the statue of Saint Anne, watching us. Or was it the doll who was watching? We didn’t know who the doll really was. Because sometimes she looked like Marina, and she, too, seemed to have a hungry heart, and clenched fists close to her body, and she, too, was silent even when invited to join in; and she nodded her head back and forth, something we’d never seen a doll do before.  And she seemed persecuted and excluded, too.”

Neither Marina or the girls understand the relationships they forge. There is fear and eroticism mixed in with tentative gestures towards friendship. Marina’s scar from the accident is a source of wonder.

“‘You can’t feel it?’

‘No. Well, only a little.’

Desire passed through the girl, too. Like stagnant water that suddenly begins to drain, imperceptibly.

And devotion mixed in with the desire.

‘Do you want to touch it?’

‘Yes.’

But the girl didn’t react right away.”

Barba gradually builds the tension and develops the girls’ games into something deeply disturbing and sinister, but wholly believable (there is an afterword which explains the real-life inspiration for the story). This tale will haunt me for a long time.

Novella a Day in May #11

Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig (1976 German publication; trans. Anthea Bell, 2009) 84 pages

Although I’ve since read and blogged about The Post Office Girl, this was the first Stefan Zweig I’d read and at first I wondered why everyone rated him so highly as a writer. Then I realised what he was doing in Journey into the Past was immensely clever.

It tells the story of a love affair between a student, Ludwig, and the wife of his employer, who is not named. The story begins with them on a train in the 1920s, and with Ludwig’s thoughts travelling back into the past to remember how they first met before the First World War separated them.

At first, I thought the description of the affair overblown and naïve.

“From that first meeting he had loved this woman, but passionately as his feeling surged over him, following him even into his dreams, the crucial factor that would shake him to the core was still lacking – his conscious realisation that what, denying his true feelings, he still called admiration, respect and devotion was in fact love  – a burning, unbounded, absolute and passionate love.”

At this point I was thinking Zweig perhaps wasn’t for me 😉

But as the story developed – they admit their love but it remains unconsummated, he goes abroad and then war breaks out, separating them for longer than they ever anticipated – it dawned on me that this style choice was entirely deliberate and conscious.  What Zweig shows us is a world before modern technological warfare, a world that was brutally torn apart. These naïve young lovers are part of a society, a life, that was utterly destroyed.

So although we know they are reunited, it is not with the same youthful self-obsession or indulgent love that they had previously.

“‘Everything is just as it used to be, don’t you think?’ she began, determined to say something innocent and casual, although her voice was husky and shook a little.  However he did not echo her friendly, conversational tone, but gritted his teeth.

‘Oh yes, everything.’ Sudden inner rage forced the words abruptly and bitterly out of his mouth. ‘Everything is as it used to be except for us, except for us!’”

Journey into the Past is not a depressing book despite portraying losses that are glimpsed and barely articulated. It is about the impact of international conflict on the lives of individuals in the smallest, most profound ways. Zweig questions whether those loses can be overcome, and I still don’t know what I think.

I feel foolish for my initial impression of this novella: I hadn’t realised I was in the hands of a master.

Novella a Day in May #8

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia – Piero Chiara (1970, trans. Jill Foulston 2015) 122 pages

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia was initially published in an Italian newspaper as a serial and is now available in English translation thanks to Pushkin, as part of their Vertigo imprint. It is a quick, snappy crime thriller that does not aim for trite resolution but rather an exploration beneath the surface of a life to the murky depths.

Corrado Sciancalelpre is “blessed with a special form of intuition, that peculiar mental agility that enables great policemen to delve into the minds of criminals.”

Thankfully, he is also happy married and liked in the town in northern Lombardy where he works – no tortured alcoholic with a secret past here.

A powerful lawyer, Esengrini, asks Sciancalelpre to investigate the titular vanishing of his wife. Every Thursday, Guilia has been going to Milan to visit their daughter at boarding school, but now she has failed to return and two bags of her things are missing too. Sciancalelpre agrees and what follows is essentially a police procedural, but the short length of the story ensures the pacing remains tight.

Sciancalelpre is resolutely unsentimental but not without sympathy. The more he investigates, the more he feels for the missing woman:

“He didn’t say ‘Poor Signora Giulia to Esengrini when he visited him in his office every few days towards evening. With Esengrini, he spoke only of the undeniably disappointing results of a search conducted throughout the whole of Italy with Signora Giulia’s photo.”

It’s impossible to say much more about a crime novella without including spoilers. Suffice to say there are plenty of red herrings, people and relationships who are not what they seem. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is a diverting read, when you’re in the mood for a crime novel you’ll finish quickly. It is not a simple tale though, and the resolution is a complex one that leaves questions unanswered. This wasn’t a source of frustration but rather felt realistic.

I really enjoyed this, Chiara’s first novel to be translated into English despite his huge popularity in Italy, and I hope there will be many more translations to follow.

Novella a Day in May #5

Cliffs – Olivier Adam (2005, trans. Sue Rose, 2009) 147 pages

Set over the course of a single night, Cliffs shows the enduring damage caused to the child – now a grown man – of a parent who dies by suicide.

The narrator is sitting on a balcony on the Normandy coast in the middle of the night, gazing at the cliffs where his mother died, while his partner and child lie sleeping in the room behind him. As he sits and smokes, he reflects on his life with his abusive father and his traumatised brother:

“We weren’t supposed to breathe move speak feel. We weren’t supposed to need anything, pocket money or comfort or affection or smiles or advice, we weren’t supposed to expect anything except the slaps, smacks or wallops he dealt out”

Later he meets other damaged souls, drawn together by a mutual recognition:

 “We’ve grown up in fear of our fathers, the troubled silence of our mothers, the empty space formed by abstract, imaginary places, without edge or centre.”

Cliffs isn’t a depressing book; it is a story of survival, of endurance even when we are irrevocably damaged by experience.

 “This way of life didn’t cure me of anything, it was merely possible when I couldn’t cope with any other kind of life, particularly the one I’d just left behind. It was a life of silence, space and absence, of maintaining an acute presence within objects, the shifting play of light, the still motion of water, the perfumes, the texture of the air. It was a life in which I finally found a niche, quiet but peaceful, a body filled with air and fog, a mind completely given over to the noise of the sea and the wind, the company of birds.”

Cliffs is beautifully written, but the beauty in no way detracts from the raw hurt experienced by narrator. It is an intense read, haunting and memorable.