The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux (2016)

translated by Lazer Lederhendler (from French-Canadian into English).

Reading Women in Translation

French Canadian literature in translationMy final read of August for WITMonth was The Party Wall, French Canadian author Catherine Leroux’s third novel. It was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which annually recognizes the best in Canadian fiction – and has just announced its 14 strong long list for 2020. The translation by Lazer Lederhendler won the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation (French to English).

This novel is told in chapters about paired characters; mother and son, brother and sister, husband and wife; so it stops and starts as we leave one pair and move to the next. There doesn’t initially appear to be a connection (although there is) between the lives so the stories are quite different, creating the effect of reading short stories with the expectation that the threads will come together to reveal the tapestry.

The novel opens with Madeleine (actually it doesn’t but it’s the more memorable opening chapter), a woman who has lost her husband; she visits the spot where his ashes lie beneath a tree and talks to him often. Her son has left home and she hears of him through the many travellers who arrive looking for a bed for a night, people he has given her address. There is a sadness of loss of the other in her, an affliction which is given a bizarre (but true) cause when she is told she is not a biological match for her son, when at last he does return.

The Party Wall Catherine Leroux lighthouse

Photo by Kristina Gain on Pexels.com

From the window of her office, Madeleine looks at the watchman doing his rounds. This is what she does when her eyes need a rest. There’s the sea, of course, but it isn’t at all restful. It’s a struggle, a call, a mystery whispered with every rising tide. The watchman, on the other hand, is calm and predictable. Afflicted by gout, he has never taken a day off. He circles around the lighthouse like a grey satellite; his hobbling in no way diminishes his reassuring presence.

As their lives move forward, the theme of separation becomes apparent, its inherent wounding manifesting in different ways in each pair of lives.

Oddly enough, it was a long time before they realised they had both been adopted. Marie, haunted by her origins, preferred to wait before broaching the subject and kept the truth sealed inside her chest. As for Ariel, his sense of belonging to the Goldstein family was so powerful that he rarely gave any thought to the fact he had been born elsewhere, welcomed into the world by unknown hands, which had passed him on to someone else like a baton in a relay race that was to lead to as yet unseen heights.

Silence as a Familial Weapon

graveyard shift cemetery ghostly presence

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Carmen and Simon are siblings and we meet them around their mother’s deathbed, a woman who never revealed to her children who their father was, controlling them through withholding, keeping them attached through the sliver of possible revelation. Carmen runs marathons to forget, while Simon tries to avoid witnessing his marriage fall apart, removing himself by choosing to work the graveyard shift.

The term “graveyard shift” is perfectly apt: the darkness and silence of a cemetery always mask a ghostly existence, the invisible dramas of the dead and their mourners.

It’s a thought provoking and cleverly constructed novel, however the disjointed stories inevitably expose the weaknesses of one against the strengths of another, and so writing about it a week after reading highlights that which was memorable and that lost to the river of stories who are lost in the current.

Ultimately, what stays with the reader is the importance of the connections we do make, those we choose and those we pursue, for better or worse. A couple of the stories could have evolved into novels in their own right.

The Party Wall has its own logic and its own internal structure and systems: four stories that become intertwined as the book progresses. Three of those came about from extraordinary news stories I had come across. Catherine Leroux

Further Reading

Article CBC/Radio Canada: Catherine Leroux on the literary value of loose ends

Article: How Catherine Leroux ripped fiction from the headlines in The Party Wall

Article: 14 Canadian books make the 2020 longlist for $100k Scotiabank Giller Prize, 8 Sept 2020

Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani

translated by Sophie Lewis (from French)

Reality bites.

Sex and Lies Leila Slimani MoroccoThe last nonfiction book I read was also set in Morocco (at the time referred to as the Spanish Sahara) written by a foreign woman living openly with her boyfriend, it couldn’t be more in contrast with what I’ve just read here – although Sanmao does encounter women living within the oppressive system that is at work in this collection.

In Morocco the ban on ‘fornication’, or zina, isn’t just a moral injunction. Article 490 of the penal code prescribes ‘imprisonment of between one month and one year [for] all persons of opposite sexes, who, not being united by the bonds of marriage, pursue sexual relations’. According to article 489, all ‘preferential or unnatural behaviour between two persons of the same sex will be punished by between six months and three years’ imprisonment’.

Leïla Slimani interviews women who responded to her after the publication of her first novel Adèle, a character she describes as a rather extreme metaphor for the sexual experience of young Moroccan women; it was a book that provoked a dialogue, many women wanted to have that conversation with her, felt safe doing so, inspiring her to collect those stories and publish them for that reason, to provoke a national conversation.

Novels have a magical way of forging a very intimate connection between writers and their readers, of toppling the barriers of shame and mistrust. My hours with those women were very special. And it’s their stories I have tried to give back: the impassioned testimonies of a time and its suffering.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

In these essays Leila Slimani gives a voice to Moroccan women trying to live lives where they can express their natural affinity for love, while living in a culture that both condemns and commodifies sex, where the law punishes and outlaws sex outside marriage, as well as homosexuality and prostitution. The consequences are a unique form of extreme and give rise to behaviours that shock.

It’s both a discomforting read, to encounter this knowledge and hear this testimony for the first time, and encouraging if it means that a space is being created that allows the conversation to happen at all.

However, overall it leaves a heavy feeling of disempowerment, having glimpsed the tip of another nation’s patriarchal iceberg. We are left with the feeling that this is a steep and icy behemoth to conquer. Article 489 is not drawn from sharia or any other religious source, it is in fact identical to the French penal code’s former article 331, repealed in 1982. They are laws inherited directly from the French protectorate.

In a conversation with Egyptian feminist and author Mona Eltahawy about the tussle between the freedom desired and the shackles forced upon women, Eltahawy responded by using words attributed to the great American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who devoted her life to persuading slaves to flee the plantations and claim their freedom.

She is meant to have said: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew were slaves.” Emancipation, Eltahawy told me, is first about raising awareness. If women haven’t fully understood the state of inferiority in which they are kept, they will do nothing but perpetuate it.

Women are stepping out of isolation and sharing their stories everywhere, finding solidarity in that first step, sharing in a safe space, being heard, realising they are not alone.

May it be a stepping stone to change.

I read this book as part of WIT (Women in Translation) month and was fortunate to have been gifted it by a reader, since I participated in the gift swap, so thank you Jess for sending me this book, you can read her review of it on her blog, Around The World One Female Novelist at a Time.

International Booker Prize Winner 2020 + Edinburgh Book Festival

Back in late February thirteen novels in translation made the long list (see plot summaries here) for the International Booker Prize 2020 and then on April 2nd if you recall, these six novels below made the shortlist.

International Booker Prize 2020 shortlist logo

International Booker Winner 2020

After a delay of some months due to the Covid crisis, the winner was announced this evening, 29 year-old Marieke Lucas Rijneveld from The Netherlands, with The Discomfort of Evening and their translator Michele Hutchison.

The Discomfort of Evening International Booker Prize Winner 2020

Author, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Described as an exciting piece of poetic prose, a subject rarely grappled with – how children grieve, not a novel that allows the reader any distance, visceral and shocking in parts, readers either loved it or hated it or simply did not finish it.

It was probably the least talked about novel of the six, and its win tonight will have been surprising to many.

The Novel Description

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld The Discomfort of Evening International Booker Winner 2020Jas lives with her devout farming family in the rural Netherlands. One winter’s day, her older brother joins an ice skating trip. Resentful at being left alone, she makes a perverse plea to God; he never returns. As grief overwhelms the farm, Jas succumbs to a vortex of increasingly disturbing fantasies, watching her family disintegrate into a darkness that threatens to derail them all.

A bestselling sensation in the Netherlands by a prize-winning young poet, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut novel lays everything bare. It is a world of language unlike any other, which Michele Hutchison’s striking translation captures in all its wild, violent beauty.

I can’t say it was on my reading list, the dairy farming environment and strict religious upbringing, biblical references and childish fantasies were a turn off for me, but I did enjoy and was intrigued to listen to the author being interviewed this evening at the Edinburgh Book Festival, which is being held online, so I was able to attend.

Edinburgh Book Festival Online 2020Listening to the author read in Dutch was wonderful and the discussion between the judge, the translator and author worth listening to and may well influence more to discover what the book is about.

To watch that interview in replay, visit the EdBookFest site and check out some of the other interesting talks that are happening.

 

Further Reading

NY Times – A Dark Debut Propels A Dutch Writer to Reluctant Fame

The Guardian: My Family Are Too Scared to Read My Book

Naondel, The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff (Finland)

translated by Annie Prime (from Swedish).

Naondel The Red Abbey Chronicles feminist fantasy WIT MonthNaondel is the name of the ship that will bring the First Women to the island of Menos.

We have already been on the island in the first book of this series, Maresi, where there have been mentions of the names of those who came here first. We know about the safety of this island, a place from which men are forbidden to set foot and we know from the stories of those who are on the island of the menace that exists elsewhere.

The Abbey must never forget what was endured to create this refuge for our successors, a place where women can work and learn side by side.

Now we go back to the beginning, to when these women lived in their own very different communities, with their families and learn how they came to be living together, imprisoned within the same household, there due to the desire of one man, and what it was that drives them ultimately to leave everything behind and seek refuge on this island.

Thus, most of the novel is spent in the oppressive ‘diarahesi’, the place of confinement where Iskan, the Vizier has brought the women within the palace of Ohaddin, to serve and service him. It is an idle life of entrapment, where they have no power over their lives or of their children, reduced to objects of one man’s desire.

I am not unhappy. There is no space inside me for unhappiness.  I am shedding my skin.  Beneath this old skin is one even older.  It is thick and hardy. It shall endure. It has scars along the wrists – one for each offering…With the power of this place  flowing through me, with an offering to the veins of the earth – blood for blood –  there are no walls that can stop the old Garai from emerging.

For Kabira, this place was once her home, long before its inhabitants were eliminated, its geography changed to suit the man who made her his wife. She had powers that came from Anji, something he would steal from her and misuse, bringing decades of torment.

There are few whom I have loved in my overlong life. Two of them I have betrayed. One I have killed. One has turned her back on me. And one has held my death in his hand. There is no beauty in my past. No goodness. Yet I am forcing myself to look back and recall Ohaddin, the palace, and all that came to passe therein.

As each woman joins the diarhesi, with their unique skills and talent, though they initially are weakened by this small life they are bound to; unbeknown to them, they are being prepared for something greater, that will pave the way for others, allowing them too to dream of escape, to a place where women can be safe, healed, educated and thrive.

Naondel Red Abbey Chronicles WIT MonthThe darkness these women endure, the evil that is perpetuated by their ruler, is only alleviated by the foreknowledge that we already know these women will eventually escape it. So we read in anticipation of that event, in the meantime getting to know each of them and the powers they had before they were enslaved.

And so we learn the stories of Kabira the First Mother, Clararas who led their flight, Garai the High Priestess, Estegi the servant and second Mother, Orseola the Dreamweaver, Sulani the Brave, Daera the first Rose, and Iona, who was lost.

Each women is so interesting, it’s almost a pity that we know only as much of her story, as is required to bring her to the palace. Maria Turtschaninoff writes interesting female protagonists, each of the unique and together an even greater force, if they can release themselves from the misused power their master has stolen and act together.

While the women live under the rule of a villainous man, the author never had the intention to create an anti-men series, however the book centres on the lives of the women and how they deal with their dilemma.

We have seen more women in fantasy recently, but they are still very much alone. One lone, strong girl, surrounded by men. And she’s always an anomaly, the one girl. So for me it was important building a community, and my point is not to support the myth that girls can’t be friends.

Fortunately it appears that she has re-entered this world and told the stories of two other characters, which hopefully will be picked up by a publisher and translated into English.

I already have two books published in Swedish and Finnish set in this world, but in very different parts of it, telling very different sorts of stories: Arra and Anaché. One is the story of a mute girl who can hear the songs of the world, and the other of a nomad girl who challenges her whole tribe’s gender norms in order to save her people. Each book I have written has left me with characters and story threads I would love to keep exploring.

Further Reading

My review of Maresi, Book 1 in The Red Abbey Chronicles

Maresi, The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff (Finland)

translated by Annie Prime (from Swedish) – like Tove Jansson, Maria Turtschaninoff is from a Swedish speaking part of Finland.

A Utopian Island of Women

Maresi Finland YA WIT MonthRed Abbey is situated on the island Menos, run by women, a kind of educational refuge that has elements of sounding like a boarding school and a convent. On the mainland some are not even sure if it is myth or reality, but they send their girls there in hope that the rumours are trues. We learn that Maresi was sent there by her family during ‘Hunger Winter’ and that the abundance of food, the genuine care and education she is given makes it a place she adores.

There are many reasons why a girl might come to the island. Sometimes poor families from the coast lands send a daughter here because they can not provide for her. Sometimes a family notice that their daughter has a sharp and enquiring mind and want to give her the best education a woman can get. Sometimes sick and disabled girls come here because they know the sisters can give them the best possible care…Sometimes girls come as runaways… Girls who show a thirst for knowledge in cultures where women are not allowed to know or say anything. In these lands, rumour of the Abbey’s existence lives in women’s songs and and forbidden folk tales told only in whispers, away from enemy ears. Nobody talks openly about our island but most people have heard of it anyway.

The Red Abbey Maresi feminist fantasy YAThere are two maps at the front of the book, one of Red Abbey, a walled area showing various buildings, such as Novice House, Knowledge House, Body’s Spring, Temple of the Rose, named steps and courtyards and a map of the island drawn by ‘Sister 0 in the second year of the reign of our thirty-second mother, based on the original by ‘Garai of the Blood in the reign of First Mother’

As the novel opens a ship is sighted and the girls are joined by Jai, who becomes shadow to Maresi, it is clear she has been traumatised by an experience and continues to live in fear, believing that what she ran from will not relent until she is found.

Most of the first two thirds is made up of understanding their daily life, they are being educated both intellectually and develop a strong connection to nature. The community is able to survive and thrive due to their sustainable harvesting of a red dye from blood snails. Maresi loves nothing more than acquiring knowledge and spends every evening in Knowledge House reading the scrolls.

That evening I chose the ancient tales of the First Sisters. I have always loved reading about their journey to the island, their struggle to build Knowledge House and their survival in the first few years with nothing but fish and foraged wild fruits and berries as sustenance. Life on the island was difficult for the first few years. It did not get easier until some decades later, when they discovered the bloodsnail colony and the silver began to flow in.

Only women and girls are permitted on the island and when a threat seems imminent it requires the women to use all their knowledge and resources and it is as this happens that the girls begin to discover their unique talents and the courage to use them.

Sisterhood, Knowledge, Empowerment and True Courage

Bloodsnails Maresi Red Abbey

Photo by Alin Luna on Pexels.com

Described as a tale of sisterhood, survival and fighting against the odds, I chose this because it sounded like an empowering read for young women/adolescents and because it has been imagined and written by a woman from another culture/language, drawing on her storytelling tradition and experience.

I really enjoyed the story and characters and the community created on the island, it reminded me a little of Madeleine Miller’s Circe, who lives on an island, only she is in exile, so mostly alone, but it has that similar utopian feeling of the desire to create a nurturing environment where women live in harmony with nature and have access to education and knowledge, without the demands or agendas of men or the family dynamic and its expectations.

Maresi is the first in a trilogy, also described as feminist fantasy, the second book is Naondel and the the final Maresi Red Mantle.

Where Does the Inspiration Come From?

What was the inspiration behind the Red Abbey? And what kind of research did you undergo during the writing process? – from an interview by Bluebird Reviews 

It all started with a photograph exhibition.

I saw the exhibition many years before I began working on Maresi. It took place in Helsinki, and showcased photographs from Mount Athos, a Greek peninsula with a 1000-year-old monastic community. The pictures were breathtakingly beautiful and the houses of the monasteries represented crumbling splendour. Many of them were perched on top of steep cliffs, like eagles’ nests. I walked around with my notebook, making notes and getting very inspired.

And also, angry.

Because for a thousand years, no woman has been allowed on the island. Even today only male pilgrims are able to set foot on the island. The women get to take a boat ride and view the monasteries from the sea. And I thought “How is it possible that there’s a place today, in Europe, where women aren’t allowed?” This thought was immediately followed by: “And what would happen if I turned it on its head and there was an island, and an Abbey, where only women and girls are allowed? But because it would be set in my fantasy world, there would be a concrete reason why men are not allowed.”

Can you tell us a bit about the mythology of the Mother, Maiden, and Crone? What’s the background story and where did the idea come from? – interview by Huriyah Quadri, The Selkie

As I created the Red Abbey for the first book, I knew the women and girls had to worship something – it’s an abbey, after all – but in this fantasy world, our religions don’t exist. So I looked further back in history, to what humans believed in before the three monotheistic religions became dominant, and found goddess-worshipping cultures. I researched them, stole the best bits and made my own concoction.

The Author, Maria Turtschaninoff

Teenage and Young Adult author, Maria Turtschaninoff was born in 1977 and lives in Finland. She is the author of many books about magical worlds and has been awarded the Swedish YLE Literature prize and has twice won the Society of Swedish Literature Prize. She has also been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Carnegie Medal.

Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé (1995)

translated (from French) by Richard Philcox.

A Favourite Author

Maryse Conde Crossing the Mangrove WIT MonthMaryse Condé is one of my favourite authors and I’ve been slowly working my way through her books since she was nominated for the Booker International Prize in 2015, back when it was held every two years, for an author’s lifetime works.

I started with vignettes from her childhood, then moved on to a novel about her grandmother whom she’d never met, then her masterpiece of historical fiction Segu, her own favourite The Story of the Cannibal Woman, A Season in Rihata and now this very Caribbean novel Crossing the Mangrove, which I absolutely loved. Links to my reviews below.

This is almost a form of noir novel; a death provides the catalyst to revealing an island society, portraying all it diversity and colour, its social good and evil – poverty, discrimination and exploitation, and rather than seek a tidy resolution of that death, it demonstrates the folly of that way of thinking, creating instead, a thought-provoking insight into a multi-layered, multi-ethnic mix of minds and bodies, in their states of love, bliss, paranoia, anxiety and confusion.

It is such a great read, I had to force myself to pause halfway in order to savour it. I can imagine rereading it, it’s such a multilayered novel, that can be read for pure entertainment value or thought about more deeply in how it attempts through exquisite storytelling and characterisation, to lay bare the complexity of such a diverse community, it’s impossible to keep up with who is who is what from where, demonstrating how farcical that is anyway and yet nearly everyone contributes to it, the labelling, the judgements, the superiority and inferiority complexes. Brilliant.

“Life’s problems are like trees. We see the trunk, we see the branches and the leaves. But we can’t see the roots, hidden deep down under the ground. And yet it’s their shape and nature and how far they dig into the slimy humus to search for water that we need to know. Then perhaps we would understand.”

Can You Cross A Mangrove?

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Mangrove of Sainte Rose, Guadeloupe

The trigger for all of this, in a novel where every chapter takes the perspective of a different character, is the wake of a man found dead in the mangrove. No one really knew Francis Sancher but everyone had had an encounter with him and there were rumours aplenty.

“Nobody ever understands, Madame Ramsaran. Everyone is afraid of understanding. Take me, for instance. As soon as I tried to understand, to ask for an explanation for all those corpses, all that blood, they called me every name under the sun. As soon as I refused to go along with the slogans, they kept a serious eye on me. Nothing is more dangerous than a man who tries to understand.”

I don’t know about the mangroves in Guadeloupe, but recalling the mangrove swamp from a biology field trip at school, they are incredibly difficult to navigate, like a natural defence system, with spiky roots sticking up out of the water, preventing a way forward. They become a tangled array of wet and slimy roots, attracting many species of bugs, insects and critters and are found in locations where salt water and fresh water mix, a buffer between land and sea.  An apt metaphor for navigating a life, for understanding a complex society.

Stories in his Wake

We come to know more about this intriguing stranger who came to Rivière au Sel expecting to die, we learn who cultivated a desire for that to happen, who fell for his charm, a variety of voices that convey the life stories of this diverse group of villagers – young and old, men and women, siblings and parents, illiterates and intellectual elites, peasants and upper class Creoles, those who belong and those who would always be considered outsiders.

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

The multiplicity of voices, narrated through nineteen characters attendant at the wake, creates a portrait of the social, cultural, political, linguistic, intellectual and economic diversity of this Caribbean island society, complete with desire, unrequited love, arranged marriage, jealousy, disappointment, bitterness, greed, exploitation, revenge, racism, classism, joy and hilarity.

“I would say you are a man of great wisdom!” I murmured.

He smiled.

“Wisdom? I wouldn’t say that. Rather that I tried to untangle the skeins of life.”

The dead man is only given voice through those attending his wake, like the author who is given voice through her characters.

The quote above reminds me of all the narratives of Maryse Condé, of her life, her research including the all important oral histories and her own insatiable appetite for “untangling the skeins of life”, presenting them to us through her essays and novels. She truly is a magical and gifted writer, and in this novel she returns to a landscape closer to home, evoking it through this collection of characters beautifully.

“Now Francis Sancher is dead. But he alone has come to an end. The rest of us are alive and continue to live as we’ve always done. Without getting along together. Without liking ourselves. Without sharing anything. The night is waging war and grappling with the shutters. Soon, however, it will surrender to the day and every rooster will crow its defeat. The banana trees, the cabins and the slopes of the mountain will gradually float to the surface of the shadows and prepare to confront the dazzling light of day. We shall greet the new face of tomorrow and I shall say to this daughter of mine:

“I gave birth to you, but I misloved you. I neglected to help you flower and you grew stunted. It’s not too late for our eyes to meet and our hands to touch. Give me your forgiveness.”

In 2018 Maryse Condé was declared the winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature.

Further Reading

Tales From the Heart: True Stories From My Childhood

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother

Segu

The Story of the Cannibal Woman

A Season in Rihata

Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao

translated (from Chinese) by Mike Fu.

Literature Worthy of Translation

荷西 Sanmao Stories of the Sahara Echo ChenUsually when I come across a new book that sounds like my kind of read, meaning it is of cross-cultural interest, where a character (or person) from one culture (preferably not one I’m familiar with) encounters another, I’ll find others who’ve read it to discern whether it’s for me or not.

As soon as I saw the cover of Stories From the Sahara, I was intrigued. A fascinating and popular Taiwanese woman author of many books and essays, living in the Sahara with her Spanish lover; why has only one person I follow read this and why are we only hearing about this mysterious travel writer in 2020?

I don’t know the answer to my question (I suspect publisher’s had their radar tuned elsewhere in the past and perhaps the Anglosphere/Sinosphere head butting that takes place in the political arena affected their vision); but August is WIT (Women in Translation) month, a movement that’s gaining traction and interest, the genre and languages of books translated/published is widening and thanks to Eleanor at The Monthly Booking I bought this engaging and unforgettable read.

Thanks Mike Fu, who read the book as a young man and has translated it into English, he is now translating her next book, of their adventures in the Canary Islands.

Who is Sanmao? Echo Chen? Chen Ping?

Sanmao 荷西 Stories of the Sahara

Sanmao & José, Al Aaiun, Sahara

In 1973, an independent young Chinese woman, born Chen Ping on 26 March 1943 left her family home in Taiwan, after a family tragedy, to travel to the Spanish Sahara with her friend José. They married in 1974. She had first lived in Spain in 1967 attending university in Madrid.

While in the Sahara she was inspired to write vignettes of her life there, they were published in Taiwan and China to great acclaim. The first volume debuted in May 1976.

Sanmao died on 4 January 1991, at the age of forty-seven. She published more than twenty books, mostly semi-autobiographical essays, selling over fifteen million copies.

In a beautiful, moving essay, commemorating what would have been Sanmao’s 77th year, her niece Jessica Chen, remembers her Auntie, sharing something of the unique soul she was and the words of her grandparents, speaking of their tender, beloved daughter who, “had simply gotten off the train of life sooner than we expected”.

Grandpa and Grandma always said she was a special child with a gift from God, and the richness of her interior life was off-limits to others—unless she chose to let you in herself. Writing was the window she opened to the outside world. The people who understood this would naturally discover a path to her heart; those who didn’t could only stand at the window and gaze in from afar.

What was Sanmao doing in the Sahara?

Spanish Sahara Stories of the Sahara Sanmao

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

One day Sanmao was absent-mindedly flipping through the pages of National Geographic when she came across a feature on the Sahara. It was from that moment that she developed an obsession not just to visit, but to live there.

I only read it through once. I couldn’t understand the feeling of homesickness that I had, inexplicable and yet so decisive, towards that vast and unfamiliar land, as if echoing from a past life.

Arriving in Spain, she learned that 280,000 square metres of the Sahara at the time were designated Spanish territory. Her desire to go there deepened, torturing her with longing.

José went ahead of her, securing a job at a phosphate mine, found them a home, allowing her to fulfill that soul-whispered desire.

Book Review – Stories of the Sahara

Stories of the Sahara Sanmao Portrait I absolutely loved Stories of the Sahara, in its entirety and it will likely be my favourite nonfiction title of the year. It is so refreshing to read a travelogue by a woman from another culture and discover a writer beloved of Chinese and Taiwanese readers for decades.

I almost couldn’t get over how tough it was during that initial period and thought often about heading back to Europe. Amid that endless stretch of sand, it was so hot during the day that water could scald your hands, while night was so cold that you had to wear a heavy coat. Many times I asked myself why I insisted on staying here. Why had I wanted to come to this long-forgotten corner of the world all by myself? As there were no answers to these questions, I continued to settle in, one day at a time.

I hadn’t expected it to be so funny, so many of her observations and the things requested of her made me laugh out loud. It’s unlike any other travel memoir I’ve read; here is a sensitive, empathetic woman, bringing a completely fresh set of eyes, to a place few of us will ever have dreamed of living.

At her first glimpse of the periphery of Al Aaiún, as they walk from the airport towards her new home, she is in awe seeing tents, bungalows, camels and herds of goats in the sand.

It was like walking into a fantasy, a whole new world.

The wind carried aloft the laughter of little girls playing a game. An indescribable vitality and joy can be found wherever humans exist. Even this barren and impoverished  backwater was teeming with life, not a struggle for survival. For the residents of the desert, their births and deaths and everything in between were all part of a natural order. Looking out at the smoke ascending to the sky from their homes, I felt that these people were almost elegant in their serenity. Living carefree, in my understanding, is what a civilised spirit is all about.

The combination of her naivete, determination and feminism – her refusal to be stopped from doing what she wants – create some of the most hilarious and alarming moments. Her kindness and frankness gain her entry inside the culture and landscape, providing insights few are capable of accessing. People trusted her – yes they often took advantage of her – but she was a willing participant. They provided rich literary material, clearly!

This is one of those books I don’t wish to share much of what is inside, I prefer to say, “Read this, it’s so good!”

I was intrigued by the obsession she had to go and live in the Sahara, I was delighted that she lived at the wrong end of the street in among the permanent locals, I loved her sense of adventure, how she overcame boredom in searing heat, getting in the car and driving for hours in the desert. But it is her frankness, her empathy and sense of humour that  make it an unforgettable read.

Reading Women in Translation

I picked this up to read for #WITMonth and it’s one of the best, that combination of travel to a new place, meeting local people through the perception of someone from a culture other than our own, priceless.

“Travel with an open heart, then bring back home the feelings that you find.” Sanmao

Further Reading

Colombia University: Interview with translator: Mike Fu

Words Without Borders, Essay by Jessica Chen (niece) March 2020: Sanmao’s Footprints: Remembering the Writer on Her 77th Birthday

New York Times Obituary: Overlooked No More: Sanmao, ‘Wandering Writer’ Who Found Her Voice in the Desert

Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante

translated by Ann Goldstein.

Elena Ferrante’s debut novel was first published in Italy in 1991, translated into English in 2016. It became a literary sensation and earned its author the Elsa Morante prize, one of Italy’s most prestigious awards for literature.

A Drowning at Sea

Naples Italy Elena Ferrante Troubling Love

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Troubling.

A daughter Delia is concerned after a telephone call from her mother. Following her subsequent disappearance and death, she returns to her mother’s empty apartment, trying to retrace her steps to understand what had been going on in her life that lead to her abrupt departure. Her frustration with her mother is apparent from the first page.

Her sociability irritated me: she went shopping and got to know shopkeepers with whom in ten years I had exchanged no more than a word or two; she took walks through the city with casual acquaintances; she became a friend of my friends, and told them stories of her life, the same ones over and over. I, with her, could only be self-contained and insincere.

Strange things happen, some of which a neighbour helps explain, a woman who opens her door ajar at the slightest noise, thus aware of her mother’s visitors. Yet Delia doesn’t act rationally herself, she’s not the most reliable narrator and there is a sense of confusion and danger as we follow her reckless pursuit of clues across town and memories of the past emerge.

The Abusive, Possessive Artist

Troubling Love Elena Ferrante WIT Month Father Artist

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Nearly every past relationship recounted is troubled, she and her sisters lived in fear of their father all their childhood, often watching him beat their mother in fits of irrational jealousy, blaming her should any man glance her way, yet he’d spent his days painting images of her naked body on canvas, selling them to anyone who’d pay.

During adolescence I saw those figures of a woman leave the house in the hands of strangers who were not sparing in their crude comments. I didn’t understand and perhaps there was nothing to understand. How was it possible that my father could hand over, to vulgar men, bold and seductive versions of that body which if necessary he would defend with a murderous rage?

Amalia spent her marriage suppressing her natural gaiety and charm, her daughter learned of the danger, developing an instinct for it.

When we went to the movies without him, my mother didn’t respect any of the rules that he imposed: she looked around freely, she laughed as she wasn’t supposed to laugh, and chatted with people she didn’t know. So when my father was there I couldn’t follow the story of the film. I glanced around furtively in the darkness to exercise, in my turn, control over Amalia, to anticipate the discovery of her secrets, to keep him, too, from discovering her guilt.

Much of the novel is narrated through the gaze of others, adding to the awkward, vulnerable, exposed feeling of the women. It’s a narrative of deep unease, both in the present day and in its long reach back to the first encounter between the young Amalia and her future possessive husband.

A Free Spirit Escapes

Troubling Love Elena Ferrante WIT Month

Her mother couldn’t be contained, she was an enigma to Delia, raised in that fearsome household, exposed to it from a very young age, conditioned by it, fear and judgement had become a natural part of her psyche.

I realised I was summarising a woman without prudence and without the virtue of fear. I had memories of it. Even when my father raised his fists and struck her, to shape her like a stone or a log, she widened her eyes not in fear but in astonishment.

Her mother used to sew, her world was measurements and fittings and bodies. Garments play a part in the story, again, a mystery to Delia to unravel and try to understand, as if they too might be a clue to her disappearance.

For all the days of her life she had reduced the uneasiness of bodies to paper and fabric, and perhaps it had become a habit, and so, out of habit, she tacitly rethought what was out of proportion, giving it the proper measure.

As she follows random leads, trying to reconstruct her mother’s movements, she revisits scenes from childhood, drawing a picture of her mother, a vivacious woman full of life, spilling outside the restrained bindings of an oppressive marriage and tries to reconstruct the latter part of her life that she’d lived out separate from her family, though still perceived by her daughter and ex-husband as being in secret.

Maybe in the end all that mattered of these two days without respite was the transplanting of the story from one head to the other, like a healthy organ that my mother had given up to me out of affection.

I was reminded of the experience of reading The Days of Abandonment, there is an intensity to the narrative, its visceral descriptions, evoking reactions, everything feels up close and confronting, we are passengers in the seat of a mind slightly out of control, where new thoughts send the protagonist out in pursuit of the elusive and we must accompany her, reassured by moments of clarity and spun out by acts of recklessness.

Elena Ferrante The Lying Life of Adults WIT MonthThat’s Ferrante.

She has a new book due out in September The Lying Life of Adults said to have the same additive, page-turning qualities of her earlier novels.

Ferrante follows Giovanna’s life from age 12 to 16, charting her development from the sweet girl who adores her parents to a sulking, aggressive teenager who finds pleasure in self-abasement and making those around her uncomfortable. The premise is a fertile one for the author, an expert chronicler of adolescence and its many indignities, as well as its erratic, overwhelming passions.

Kathryn Bromwich The Guardian

Further Reading

My Review of other Elena Ferrante titles:

The Days of Abandonment

My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child

Frantamuglia (non-fiction)

The Guardian: Review: The Lying Life of Adults – a rebel rich girl comes of age by Kathryn Bromwich – Italians who queued up into the night for the reclusive writer’s new tale of painful adolescence won’t be disappointed

The Red Sofa by Michèle Lesbre

translated by David Ball, Nicole Ball

An Unexpected Trans-Siberian Railway Trip

le canapé rouge the red sofa michèle Lesbre

A French novella that I read in an afternoon, we accompany our Parisian protagonist Anne, on a train journey towards Lake Baikal, in Southern Siberia, a journey she makes on a local train, having spontaneously decided to find out why her friend Gyl is no longer responding to her letters.

For the first six months he had written often, telling me he had time to go fishing for omul in the lake and make kites for children.
And then, silence.

Once on the train and it’s a long journey, she has time to think and recall their friendship, they were lovers many years ago and while she holds no flame for him, the journey allows her to reflect on the highs and lows of their union.

I knew that the return trip is the real journey, when it floods the days that follow, so much so that it creates the prolonged sensation of one time getting lost in another, of one space losing itself in another. Images are superimposed on one another – a secret alchemy, a depth of field in which our shadows seem more real than ourselves. That is where the truth of the voyage lies.

Get To Know Your Neighbour

What she does spend time thinking of, is her recent past and another spontaneous decision, to knock on the door of a neighbour whom she has never seen, an elderly woman.

I had never run into her in the lobby of the building, not on the stairs. I knew all the other people who lived there, or at least their names and faces, but Clémence Barrot remained a mystery. No sounds would ever reach me when I walked by her door, and if I asked questions about her, all I got were laconic answers and knowing looks…A character!

The door is opened by a young girl and peering inside she sees the older woman sitting on a red sofa by a window. As an excuse for her curiosity she mentions there might be noise as she has people coming for dinner that evening. The woman asks her a favour in return for the anticipated inconvenience.

With a big smile, she retorted that she would rather we proceeded differently: for all past dinners, for this one and the next ones, she would only ask in exchange that I occasionally read to her a little, if I had the time.

Passionate French Women Who Faced Death Unflinchingly

And so we meet some bold French female heroines of the past, sadly a number of whom for their feminist inclinations in the wrong era, lose their lives at the guillotine.

“Tell me about that gutsy girl again,” Clémence Barrot would sometimes ask about Marion de Faouët and her army of brigands. She had, just as I did, a real affection for that child who had not grown up to become a lady’s companion despite all the efforts of the Jaffré sisters. No, she became a leader of men instead, an avenger of Brittany which had been starved during the 1740’s.

A wild beauty, faithful to her village, her loves and her ideals, Marion had been imprisoned several times before dying on the gallows at the age of thirty-eight.

While these stream of consciousness thoughts pass through her mind, various locals enter and exit the train. She is happy to be immersed in the languages of the area and in two books she has brought with her, Dostoevsky’s War and Peace and a book by the philosopher Jankélévitch.

Travel To Exotic Destinations Through Story

le canapé rouge the red sofa Michèle Lesbre WIT Month

Becoming particularly interested in one man whom she can’t communicate with – Igor – she imagines things about him from the little she observes and seeks him out more than one time when he disappears.

I had just read ‘There are encounters with people completely unknown to us who trigger our interest at first sight, suddenly, before a word has even been said…”

It’s an engaging read considering not much happens, but there is just the right mix of action and reflection and indeed, by the end a build up to a couple of dramas and quiet resolution.

I really enjoyed the read and was surprised at how captivated I was by the journey. I do love long train journey’s and hers was such an indulgent whim, that the suspension of what she will encounter is enough to keep the reader interested, and the relationship with her elderly neighbour provides a brilliant counterpoint and empathic adjunct, becoming the more significant event to the ‘thousands of miles’ distraction.

N.B. This was one of the many Seagull Books offered weekly to readers during the period of confinement.

Further Reading

Reviewed by Rough Ghosts 

Seagull Books: More of their extensive collection of titles by Women In Translation

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada tr. Chris Andrews

Evangalising Across the Argentinian Countryside

A reverend and his teenage daughter break down in the middle of nowhere on a steaming hot dry day, after he ignores her advice to get the problem checked before they left the last town (his home town). A visit that caused her to feel both sorry for  her father.

But her sympathy didn’t last. At least he could go back to places full of memories…Leni had no lost paradise to visit. Her childhood was very recent, but her memory of it was empty.  Thanks to her father, the Reverend Pearson, and his holy mission, all she could remember was the inside of his car.

Leni, now 16, hasn’t seen her mother since the Reverend dumped his wife and her suitcase on one of their road trips.

This happened almost ten years ago. The details of her mother’s face have faded from Leni’s memory, but not the shape of her body: tall, slim, elegant. When she looks at herself in the mirror, she feels that she has inherited her bearing. At first she believed it was just wishful thinking, a desire to resemble her. But since becoming a woman, she has caught her father, more than once, looking at her with a blend of fascination and contempt, the way you might look at someone who stirs up a mixture of good and bad memories.

The Lone Garagist

The Wind That Lays Waste Selva Almada

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A truckdriver tows them to ‘the gringo Brauer’s‘ garage, a man raising his teenage son Tapioca alone, the boy abandoned there by his mother when he was 8 years old.

Tapioca’s memories of his mother are vague too. After she left him, he had to get used to his new home. What interested him most was the heap of old cars. The dogs and that mechanical cemetery were a comfort in the first weeks while he was adjusting. He would spend all day among the car bodies: he played at driving them, with three or four dogs as co-pilots. The Gringo left him to it, and approached the boy gradually, as if taming a wild animal.

The father hadn’t finished school himself, his son could read, write and do sums so didn’t see why the boy needed to keep up with it. He decided Tapioca could learn by working and observing nature.

It might not be scientific, but nature and hard work would teach the kid how to be a good person.

Seeing the Light

Storm Thunder Wasteland

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The Reverend sees good in the boy and sets his righteous missionary sights on him. Leni sees what’s happening but doesn’t intervene.

Leni had conflicting feelings: she admired the Reverend deeply but disapproved of almost everything her father did. As if her were two different people. Earlier, she had told him to leave Tapioca alone, but if she had joined them on the porch now, she too would have been captivated by his words.

Brauer doesn’t appreciate the Reverend putting ideas in his son’s head, the tension mounts and none of them know yet that there’s a storm coming.

It’s a slow build-up, getting to know the characters, two men set in their ways, with children who rarely question their authority. They are used to being in charge. It’s a short, tense, reflective novella of these two unorthodox families whose lives intersect and cause a disruption, just as the storm breaks a long period of dry.