“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.” (John Steinbeck)

This is my second post for Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) hosted by Meytal at Biblibio, and I’m hoping its also a sign that my blogging slump is coming to an end – fingers crossed! This week I’ve chosen two books linked by the theme of travel.

Firstly, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (2007, trans. Jennifer Croft 2017) which won the International Man Booker Prize last year.

Flights is quite a hard book to review, as it’s aptly titled and resists being pinned down in any way. It’s fiction, non-fiction, essay, philosophical musing, travelogue, digression… yet this fragmentary style still holds together and works as a whole. The unity is found through the recurring themes of travel, movement, restless and flight; and also of the human body at its most visceral – the collection of bone, muscle, skin and blood that enables human locomotion.

“A thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.”

The fiction sections include a man whose wife and son disappear when they are on holiday in Croatia; the wife of an elderly professor who is taken ill on a cruise; a woman who leaves her young family to live on the streets… all in perpetual motion. There are also historical sections looking at the fate of Chopin’s heart; the first naming of the Achilles tendon; cadaver preservation techniques, among other bodily concerns. The focus on the organic reality of living stops Flights from becoming too flighty, grounding all the fragments in a corporeal existence.

The consistent voice also ties these different pieces together, the sense that we are being told these stories, historical fragments and observations by the same narrator, a female traveller. She sets the focus on travel as she describes the airports, planes, buses and terminals she finds herself waiting in, and her conversations with those who cross her path:

“She says that sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death. But nomads and merchants, as they set off on journeys, had to think up a different time for themselves, that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time was linear time.”

Flights is a book you can dip into or read in a linear fashion. I did the latter and I’m glad I did as I could pick up the echoes across the different narratives that give a sense of unity to the book and to the world it evokes. However, it could work just as well by reading a section and focussing closely on it, as Tokarczuk’s writing is so rich. She has described her style as one of constellations, and the reason behind this individual approach is noted in Flights:

“Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth.”

Not a book for when you want a good meaty plot, but I still found it a compulsive read as well as a thought-provoking one.

 

Secondly, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenstrom (1981, trans. JM Coetzee 1983) which is set in South Africa and so forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

I felt a bit conflicted when I started this: the story of a young slave girl told by a white South African was problematic for me. I looked on Goodreads and no-one else seemed to have this issue. Then I thought that at the time of writing, when black South African voices were so thoroughly suppressed, maybe writing this was a huge political statement.

(I once attended a debate about queer/transgender stories being staged. One side felt only those who identified as queer/trans should tell those stories. The other side felt it was fine for straight/cis artists to tell such stories so long as they did their research and the resulting art was sensitive. The wider issue is something I often come back to and think about, and something I’m still thinking through, as I did with this novella.)

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is beautifully written and certainly a sensitive portrayal of a woman finding autonomy for the first time as she lives in the hollow of the titular tree on the southern African veld.

“I know the interior of my tree as a blind man knows his home, I know its flat surfaces and grooves and swellings and edges, its smell, its darknesses, its great crack of light […] I can say: this is mine. I can say: this is I. These are my footprints.”

The woman has ended up stranded in the veld as a doomed commercial expedition by her last owner has failed spectacularly. With no-one making demands on her for the first time, the woman is free to think and reflect:

“If I could write, I would take up a porcupine quill and scratch your enormous belly full from top to bottom. I would clamber up as far as your branches and carve notches in your armpits to make you laugh. Big letters. Small letters. In a script full of lobes and curls, in circumambient lines I write round and round you, for I have so much to tell of a trip to a new horizon that became an expedition to a tree.”

Like Flights, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is not a straight narrative. It moves back and forth in time, with no named places or persons, It has an almost hallucinatory quality – and the narrator may be hallucinating at times, given her exposure and lack of food –  but this never detracts from the horrors she has experienced. There are times she was treated well, but she was also repeatedly assaulted, raped, and had all her children taken as babies. We are the witnesses to her experience, recounted poetically but unflinchingly.

“One time I fled from the tree. I ran aimlessly into the veld, trying to get out of its sight by hiding behind a high round rock, and I opened my mouth and I brought out a sound that must be the sound of a human being because I am a human being and not a wildebeest […] but a human being that talks and I brought out a sound and produced an accusation and hurled it up at the twilight air.”

This is a short, powerful read with a distinctive female narrator who demands to be heard.

To end, a tenuously-linked 80s video as usual 😉 Well, the title offers travel advice! I’ve chosen it especially for Kate as she’s seeing a-ha soon:

“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.

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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:

“Going underground, going underground” (The Jam)

There were a few blissful weeks over the summer when everyone took their kids on holiday and my commute to work was almost bearable, because it was done with approximately two-thirds less people than usual.  Now those halcyon days are well and truly behind us and everyone’s back at work, I thought I’d try reading about public transport to see if it fills me with new-found affection for my early morning travel.  Given that I’m reading during said commute, with my book touching my nose and my head wedged into someone’s armpit, there’s still some way to go, despite the efforts of some wonderful staff.

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Firstly,  Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. This was the first of Hay’s three crime novels, and is part of the British Library Crime Classics re-issues, which I completely adore. I love these so much I even bought one full-price the other day, rather than waiting for them to turn up in charity bookshops, which is something I never do.  This could be the start of a slippery slope….

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The wonderfully-monikered Miss Euphemia Pongleton is found strangled by her own dog leash on the stairs of Belsize Park station (for those of you who know the Misery Northern line – see, it can get worse – you could be dead).   Suspicion falls on her wastrel nephew Basil Pongleton, whom she was constantly inheriting and disinheriting:

“It’s awfully difficult to explain and I had a ghastly time with the police yesterday. Wonder they didn’t arrest me right away, but they’re keeping an eye on me. I noticed a fishy-looking fellow with police-feet lounging opposite my window in Tavistock Square this morning”

The dialogue is definitely part of the appeal of golden age detective fiction for me, it’s just wonderful. While Basil is dithering around making matters worse, his eminently more sensible cousin Beryl tries to unravel the mystery.  Miss Pongleton lodged at the Frampton Hotel, and each of the eccentric fellow boarders has their part to play.  My favourite was Mrs Daymer:

“a middle-aged lady who liked to accentuate the gaunt strangeness of her appearance by unfashionable clothes. She would explain proudly that they were of hand-woven material…perhaps their intimate connection with the sheep justified their particular unwieldiness”

Mrs Daymer, who gives off a smell of wet sheep in the rain, is unperturbed by the murder as she writes crime fiction and likes to “suck [people] dry” for her novels. Between her and Beryl, they manage to piece together what happened.  This being the golden age, there is a missing will, confusion over some pearls and an obese terrier (ok, so that last one isn’t really a trope but I had to give him a mention). Murder Underground is not the most taxing mystery (I’m useless at guessing who done it, and even I got this one quite early) but it’s a great example of this period in detective fiction, and very readable.

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If only this poster was right… unfortunately I find it the swiftest way to passive-aggressive tutting, both given and received.

Secondly, Metroland by Julian Barnes. I don’t always get on with Julian Barnes.  I can see he’s a highly accomplished writer, but I find him coldly intellectual and distancing.  However, in Metroland I think he does capture something about a certain time in late adolescence and the wish for a brave new world. Christopher and his friend Toni live in the suburbs at the tail end of the Metropolitan line, and wish they didn’t:

“Toni and I prided ourselves on being rootless. We also aspired to future condition of rootlessness, and saw no contradiction in the two states of mind; or in the fact that we each lived with our parents, who were, for that matter, the freeholders of our respective homes.”

Yes, Christopher and Toni are hugely pretentious snobs.  They desperately wish to be French, which leads them into unintentionally hilarious scenarios like trying to be flaneurs along Oxford Street.  They also talk about art with a capital A:

“Art was the most important thing in life, the constant to which one could be unfailingly devoted and which would never cease to reward; more crucially it was the stuff whose effect on those exposed to it was ameliorative.”

Oh dear.  But in case you’re wondering why on earth you would want to spend any time in this idiot’s company,  I do think it’s worth it.  As I said, I find Barnes can be cold, but actually his portrait of Christopher is quite affectionate, and although you laugh at his pretentions, he’s not contemptible, just young and striving for something different to that with which he has grown up.  Christopher gets his wish and moves to France, but of course he doesn’t quite end up living the life he imagined. Metroland is about how its not always a disaster to not achieve your dreams, and how ordinary can also equal happy.

To end, a wonderfully British reaction to an unusual happening on the tube (for those of you not of these isles, rest assured that the response from passengers at the end is actually a huge outpouring of unconditional enthusiasm, I promise you):