Booker International Prize Shortlist 2022

In my recent absence, six translated novels have been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize including book from six languages: Korean, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish, Hindi and Polish.

Wildly original works of literature that will captivate readers, this year’s shortlisted books all explore trauma, whether on an individual or societal level. 

Translated literary fiction

Summaries of the novels are below, with the judges comments. The winners of the prize will be named on 26 May 2022.

The Shortlist

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (Japan) Translated by Sam Bett, David Boyd

HeavenTold through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy subjected to relentless bullying, Heaven is a haunting novel of the threat of violence that can stalk our teenage years.

Instead of putting up resistance, the boy suffers in complete resignation. His sole ally is a girl classmate, similarly outcast and preyed upon by the bullies. They meet in secret to take solace in each other’s company, unaware that their relationship has not gone unnoticed by their tormentors.

Mieko Kawakami’s deceptively simple yet profound work stands as a testament to her remarkable literary talent. Here, she asks us to question the fate of the meek in a society that favours the strong, and the lengths to which even children will go in their learnt cruelty.

An intense, claustrophobic novel, Heaven uses its tale of middle school bullying to enact
Nietzsche’s critique of morality.

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (Argentina) Translated by Frances Riddle

Elena KnowsA unique story that interweaves crime fiction with intimate tales of morality and the search for individual freedom.

After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit.

Chronicling a difficult journey across the suburbs of the city, an old debt and a revealing conversation, Elena Knows unravels the secrets of its characters and the hidden facets of authoritarianism and hypocrisy in our society.

“Claudia Piñeiro’s short and deeply felt novel, evokes the loneliness of ageing and the uncertainty of memory. Frances Riddle’s brutal yet sparing translation suggests the shadows and light of noir without ever eclipsing the very human tragedy at the core of the book.”

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse (Norway) Translated by Damion Searls

A New NameJon Fosse delivers both a transcendent exploration of the human condition and a radically ‘other’ reading experience – incantatory, hypnotic, and utterly unique.

Asle is an ageing painter who lives alone on the coast of Norway. His only friends are his neighbour, Åsleik, a traditional fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in the city. There, in Bjørgvin, lives another Asle, also a painter but lonely and consumed by alcohol. Asle and Asle are doppelgängers – two versions of the same person, two versions of the same life, both grappling with existential questions.

Written in melodious and hypnotic ‘slow prose’, this is the final instalment of Fosse’s Septology, the major prose work by ‘the Beckett of the twenty-first century’ (Le Monde).

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (India) Translated by Daisy Rockwell

Tomb of SandAn urgent yet engaging protest against the destructive impact of borders, whether between religions, countries or genders.

In northern India, an 80-year-old woman slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease of life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two. To her family’s consternation, Ma then insists on travelling to Pakistan, confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition.

Despite its serious themes, Geetanjali Shree’s light touch and exuberant wordplay ensures that Tomb of Sand remains constantly playful – and utterly original.

A loud and irresistible novel.

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) Translated by Jennifer Croft

The Books of JacobOlga Tokarczuk’s portrayal of Enlightenment Europe on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.
In the mid-18th century, as new ideas begin to sweep the continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following.

In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires as he reinvents himself again and again. He converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order with scandalous rumours of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs.

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (South Korea) Translated by Anton Hur

Cursed BunnyBora Chung presents a genre-defying collection of short stories, which blur the lines between magical realism, horror and science fiction.
Korean author Bora Chung uses elements of the fantastic and surreal to address the very real horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society. Anton Hur’s translation skilfully captures the way Chung’s prose effortlessly glides from the terrifying to the wryly humorous. Winner of a PEN/Haim Grant.

While the stories in Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung blend elements of horror, fantasy and the surreal, each is viscerally rooted in the real fears and pressures of everyday life.

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2022

From a longlist of 79 novels, including 30 novels in translation, the committee has shortlisted six novels. These novels were all nominated by libraries around the world. Celebrating 27 years, this award is the world’s most valuable annual prize for a single work of fiction published in English, worth €100,000 to the winner.

The list includes two novels in translation and a debut novelist, with authors from France, Ireland, Canada (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, Alderville First Nation), New Zealand and Nigeria.

Below are the shortlisted titles with judges comments and the two I have read linked to my reviews:

Dublin Literary Award shortlist 2022
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (New Zealander) Published by Europa Editions
Nominated by Auckland Libraries, New Zealand and Dunedin Public Libraries, New Zealand.

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel Germany – New Zealander Catherine Chidgey opens a new chapter of Holocaust literature as she tells the story of Greta Hahn, who is the wife of a concentration camp manager and doesn’t know – then doesn’t want to know – what goes on behind the fence.  When her Nazi husband becomes convinced that only a prisoner can save Greta from dying of cancer, Dr. Weber enters her parallel universe at the edge of the camp.  The prisoner-doctor treats Greta because he hopes it will help his Jewish wife and their young daughter who have been forcibly separated from him and sent further East.  Slowly he bursts Greta’s bubble of oblivion and she is forced to confront the horror to which she has been an accomplice.

Chidgey expertly choreographs this desperate dance of death as the Allied liberating army comes closer and closer, and surviving long enough to be freed becomes the ultimate challenge. Remote Sympathy, harrowing but ultimately hopeful, is a passionate warning against the dangers of our wilful ignorance in the face of oppression which is, sadly, of urgent relevance today, and every day.

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop (French) Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis  Published by Pushkin Press Nominated by Bibliothèque de Reims, France

At Night All Blood is BlackAt Night All Blood is Black is a carefully crafted, heart-wrenching, passionate, and engaging story about the insanity of war and its devastating toll on humanity. Told from the perspective of Alfa Ndiaye, a 20-year-old Senegalese who, like his friend, Mademba Diop and many other young West Africans were conscripted by European imperial powers – in this case, France – to fight in World War I. The novel raises fresh concerns about the issues of war, humanity, identity, sexuality, racism, violence, and colonialism as it explores strong emotions like love, apathy, fear, and indignation towards war.  The plot hinges around the gruesome death in battle of Mademba, and Ndiaye’s refusal to carry out the “mercy killing” for his friend.  From that point onward, Ndiaye begins to spiral towards insanity, consciously becoming the “dämme”, “demon” or “savage” his European trench-mates think him to be.

Alternately horrific and lyrical, the novel moves back and forth between the Senegalese village of Ndiaye’s youth and the brutal chaos of the trenches.  For such a slim book, Diop’s novel manages to attain a kind of epic scale, sweeping back and forth between Africa and Europe, between world-historical events and village life.  Holding all of this together is the narrative voice of Ndiaye.  Diop combines traditional African tropes with modern literary devices, giving the novel a rhythmic quality, as Ndiaye repeats phrases like “God’s truth”, “more-than-brother”, “I swear to you”, “I know, I understand”, whispering gently in our ears as he carries us into the dark heart of twentieth-century history.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (Nigerian) Published by Faber & Faber
Nominated by Helsinki City Library, Finland

Akwaeke Emezi trans literatureAkwaeke Emezi’s novel opens with a chapter of only one sentence: “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.”  From that first sentence, we are immersed in contemporary Nigeria in all of its complexity, where tight family and community bonds are woven into the submerged stories of gay, bisexual and transgender people, and where groups such as the ‘Nigerwives’ (foreign-born wives of Nigerian men) form one of the cultures that make up the mosaic of Nigerian society.  Emezi’s novel manages to balance an unflinching realism with something of the quality of a folktale or a myth.  On one level, this is a very directly told story of two people coming of age and grappling with sexualities that struggle to find expression.

As readers, we encounter these lives almost like “a stack of photographs” being handed around at a wake (to use an image from the novel).  At the same time, The Death of Vivek Oji is shot through with mythic elements.  Oji is born on the day of their grandmother’s death, and there is a sense in which her spirit inhabits the person they will become.  The burning market foretold in that opening line is both an entirely credible part of the novel’s world, and a kind of symbolic crucible, out of which a new identity is born.  “I was born and I died”, Oji tells us at the novel’s end.  “I will come back.”

The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin (Irish) Published by John Murray
Nominated by Cork City Libraries, Ireland

Dublin literary award shortlist 2022Danielle McLaughlin’s novel is set in Cork. Its curator protagonist Nessa , is organizing a retrospective of the work of a Scottish-born sculptor, Robert Locke. Locke established himself in West Cork, at the end of the 1960s, after years of wandering. Locke’s studio and his sculpture ‘Venus at the Hotel Negresco’, known colloquially as ‘The Chalk Sculpture’ will become a permanent exhibit in the museum where Nessa is employed. Nessa has worked long and hard for this event and has nurtured a relationship with Locke’s widow Eleanor and daughter Loretta. Women attribute healing powers to the statue, fetishizing it as a cure for infertility. At a public lecture on Locke’s work, another woman, Melanie Doerr, comes forward and tells Nessa that she was the model for the monumental piece, claiming that Locke spent a period of time with her in 1972. These are lost months in Locke’s biography, when Locke disappeared without trace, turning up later, like an unkempt beggar, on Eleanor’s doorstep offering neither explanation nor apology. While Nessa’s professional life revolves around the mystery of Locke’s disappearance and the veracity of Melanie Doerr’s claims, Nessa’s own personal life is in turmoil. She struggles with the aftermath of her husband’s affair, their threadbare finances, and their teenage daughter’s behavioural problems.

McLaughlin creates a compelling portrait of a life spent in pursuit of art and happiness. She summons up contemporary Cork, the universality of marital woes, and the everyday frustrations of middle-age in elegantly chiseled prose.

Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg)
Published by House of Anansi Nominated by Ottawa Public Library, Canada

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021– This book is literary art. It’s charming, witty, insightful and unforgettable. The way Simpson writes is completely unique. The love and honour about which she writes among Anishinaabeg (an indigenous people in Canada) and the land is both poetic and lyrical.  Narrators include Mashkawaji (they/them), who lies frozen in the ice, remembering a long-ago time of hopeless connection and now finding freedom and solace in isolated suspension. They introduce us to the seven main characters: Akiwenzii, the old man who represents the narrator’s will; Ninaatig, the maple tree who represents their lungs; Mindimooyenh, the old woman who represents their conscience; Sabe, the giant who represents their marrow; Adik, the caribou who represents their nervous system; Asin, the human who represents their eyes and ears; and Lucy, the human who represents their brain.

The novel unfolds as a constant conversation and interaction between the seven selves that make up Mashkawaji. Simpson skilfully brings each of the characters to life on the page so they feel real and not just metaphorical.  Ultimately, the novel provides powerful insight into how Indigenous people have tried to sustain their identity and their old traditions as they navigate living in the modern world. This is a unique, charming and lyrical novel that combines poetry song and prose.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (French)
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne Published by Picador, Pan Macmillan
Nominated by Bibliothèque publique d’information, Paris, France

The Art of LOsing Alice Zeniter – Deriving its title from the piercing first line of Elizabeth Bishop’s arch poem “One Art”, The Art of Losing follows three generations of an Algerian family from the 1950s to the present day—as they progressively lose, in the fog of conflict and post-colonial transition, their country, their roots, and their innocence. The narrative wings its way from the contested highlands of Northern Algeria to a French refugee camp, to the streets of Paris and back, borne forward by a cast of nuanced characters: from the patriarch Ali to his granddaughter Naïma, heir to a new digital age in which old prejudices and presumptions persist. Each is profoundly human in their passions, griefs, vanities, contradictions and silences. The family’s journey unspools in a deft weave of fiction and research, as the narrator fills in with compassion and imagination what the clan’s muteness about the past have refused to yield.

Symphonic in historical and emotional scope, the novel is by turns infuriating, unflinching, wry, recalcitrant, sensual, aporetic, courageous. It offers insights at every scale, from the national and the individual, about the fluid nature of identity; how our relations to place and to each other situate and perhaps free us. Refusing easy answers, pat politics and cultural caricatures while acknowledging their presence and seductive power in our time, The Art of Losing is a loving and clear-eyed sifting of the stories we tell ourselves.

* * * * *

The winner will be announced on Thursday 19th May during the International Literature Festival Dublin which runs from the 19th to the 29th May 2022.

The International Booker Prize Longlist 2022

Libraries, Women’s Fiction, Works in Translation – The Awards

It’s book award season and yes, there are plenty of them; I do enjoy seeing what libraries around the world are nominating in The Dublin Literary Award, then there are the more commercial choices in the Women’s Prize for Fiction announced this week, the literary International Booker Prize (works translated into English), then later in the year, that blend of the two, the cross genre Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

Today the International Booker Prize announced 13 books on its long list, works of fiction translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland, originating from 11 languages and 12 countries – including Hindi for the first time.

The 13 nominated books are:

Tomb of SandTomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (India), tr. Daisy Rockwell (Hindi)

An urgent yet engaging protest against the destructive impact of borders, whether between religions, countries or genders.
In northern India, an 80-year-old woman slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease of life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two. To her family’s consternation, Ma then insists on travelling to Pakistan, confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition.

Despite its serious themes, Geetanjali Shree’s light touch and exuberant wordplay ensures that Tomb of Sand remains constantly playful – and utterly original.

The Books of JacobThe Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), tr. Jennifer Croft (Polish)

A portrayal of Enlightenment Europe on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.
In the mid-18th century, as new ideas begin to sweep the continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following.

In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires as he reinvents himself again and again. He converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order with scandalous rumours of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs.

Elena KnowsElena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (Argentina) tr. Frances Riddle (Spanish)

A unique story that interweaves crime fiction with intimate tales of morality and the search for individual freedom.
After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit.

Chronicling a difficult journey across the suburbs of the city, an old debt and a revealing conversation, Elena Knows unravels the secrets of its characters and the hidden facets of authoritarianism and hypocrisy in our society.

Cursed BunnyCursed Bunny by Bora Chung (Seoul), tr. Anton Hur (Korean) (short stories)

A genre-defying collection of short stories, which blur the lines between magical realism, horror and science fiction.
Using elements of the fantastic and surreal to address the very real horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society.

The translation skilfully captures the way Chung’s prose effortlessly glides from the terrifying to the wryly humorous. Winner of a PEN/Haim Grant.

HeavenHeaven by Mieko Kawakami (Tokyo) tr. Samuel Bett and David Boyd (Japanese)

Told through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy subjected to relentless bullying, a haunting novel of the threat of violence that can stalk our teenage years.
Instead of putting up resistance, a boy suffers in complete resignation. His sole ally is a girl classmate, similarly outcast and preyed upon by the bullies. They meet in secret to take solace in each other’s company, unaware their relationship has not gone unnoticed by their tormentors.

This deceptively simple yet profound work stands as a testament to a remarkable literary talent. Here, she asks us to question the fate of the meek in a society that favours the strong, and the lengths to which even children will go in their learnt cruelty.

ParadaisParadais by Fernanda Melchor (Puebla, Mexico) tr. Sophie Hughes (Spanish)

Written in a chilling torrent of prose by one of Mexico’s most thrilling new writers, Paradais explores the explosive fragility of Mexican society.
Inside a luxury housing complex, two misfit teenagers sneak around and get drunk. Franco, lonely, overweight, and addicted to porn, fantasizes about seducing his neighbour – an attractive married woman and mother.

Meanwhile Polo, the community’s gardener, dreams about quitting his gruelling job, fleeing his overbearing mother and their narco-controlled village. As each face the impossibility of getting what they think they deserve, Franco and Polo hatch a mindless and macabre scheme.

Love in the Big CityLove in the Big City by Sang Young Park (Seoul) tr. Anton Hur (Korean)

An energetic, joyful, and moving novel that depicts both the glittering night-time world of Seoul, and the bleary-eyed morning after.
Young is a cynical yet fun-loving Korean student who pinballs from home to class to the beds of recent Tinder matches. He and Jaehee, his female best friend and roommate, frequent nearby bars, where they suppress their anxieties about their love lives, families and money with rounds of soju and freezer-chilled Marlboro Reds.

In time, even Jaehee settles down, leaving Young alone to care for his ailing mother and find companionship in his relationships with a series of men – including one whose handsomeness is matched by his coldness, and another who might end up being the great love of his life.

Happy Stories MostlyHappy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (Jakarta, Indonesia) tr. Tiffany Tsao (Indonesian)

A powerful blend of science fiction, absurdism and alternative-historical realism that aims to destabilise the heteronormative world and expose its underlying rot.

Inspired by Simone Weil’s concept of ‘decreation’ and drawing on Batak and Christian cultural elements, the author puts queer characters in situations and plots conventionally filled by hetero characters.

In one story, a staff member is introduced to their new workplace – a department of Heaven devoted to archiving unanswered prayers. In another, a woman’s attempt to holiday in Vietnam after her gay son commits suicide turns into a nightmarish failed escape. And in a speculative-historical third, a young man is haunted by the tale of a giant living in colonial-era Sumatra.

The Book of MotherThe Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman (Parisian living in New York) tr. Leslie Camhi (French)

A remarkable debut novel of an exquisitely wrought story about a daughter’s inextinguishable love for her magnetic, mercurial mother.
Beautiful and charismatic, Catherine, aka ‘Maman’, smokes too much, drives too fast, laughs too hard and loves too extravagantly. During a joyful and chaotic childhood in Paris, her daughter Violaine wouldn’t have it any other way. But when Maman is hospitalised after a third divorce and breakdown, everything changes.

As the story of Catherine’s traumatic childhood and coming of age unfolds, the pieces come together to form an indelible portrait of a mother as irresistible as she is impossible, as triumphant as she is transgressive.

More Than I Love My LifeMore Than I Love My Life by David Grossman (Israel) tr.Jessica Cohen (Hebrew)

Sweeping story about loving with courage that confronts our deepest held beliefs about a woman’s duty to herself – and to her children.
On a kibbutz in 2008, Gili is celebrating the 90th birthday of her grandmother Vera, the adored matriarch of a sprawling and tight-knit family. Festivities are interrupted by the arrival of Nina, who abandoned Gili as a baby. Nina’s return precipitates a journey from Israel to the island of Goli Otok, formerly part of Yugoslavia.

It was here, five decades earlier, that Vera was tortured as a political prisoner. And it is here that three women will come to terms with the terrible moral dilemma Vera faced, that permanently altered the course of their lives.

PhenotypesPhenotypes by Paulo Scott (Sao Paulo, Brazil) tr. Daniel Hahn (Portuguese)

A smart and stylish account of the bigotry lurking in hearts and institutions alike.
In this complex tale, two very different brothers of mixed black and white heritage are divided by the colour of their skin, as racial tension rises in society and a guilty secret resurfaces from their shared past.

Scott probes the old wounds of race in Brazil, and in particular the loss of a black identity independent from the history of slavery. Exploratory rather than didactic, a story of crime, street-life and regret as much as a satirical novel of ideas, Phenotypes is a seething masterpiece of rage and reconciliation.

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse (Norway) tr. Damion Searls (Norwegian)A New Name

A transcendent exploration of the human condition and a radically ‘other’ reading experience – incantatory, hypnotic, and utterly unique.
Asle is an ageing painter, living alone on the coast of Norway. His only friends are his neighbour, Åsleik, a traditional fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in the city. There, in Bjørgvin, lives another Asle, also a painter but lonely and consumed by alcohol. Asle and Asle are doppelgängers – two versions of the same person, two versions of the same life, both grappling with existential questions. Written in melodious, hypnotic ‘slow prose’, this is the final instalment of Fosse’s Septology, the major prose work by ‘the Beckett of the twenty-first century’ (Le Monde).

After The SunAfter the Sun by Jonas Eika (Denmark) tr. Sherilyn Hellberg (Danish)

With irrepressible urgency, Eika’s astonishing fiction juxtaposes startling beauty with grotesquery, balancing the hyper-realistic with the fantastical.
After the Sun opens portals to our newest realities, haunting the margins of a globalised world that’s both saturated with yearning and brutally transactional.

Under Cancún’s hard blue sky, a beach boy provides a canvas for tourists’ desires, seeing deep into the world’s underbelly. An enigmatic encounter in Copenhagen takes an IT consultant down a rabbit hole of speculation that proves more seductive than sex. Meanwhile, the collapse of a love triangle in London leads to a dangerous, hypnotic addiction. And in the Nevada desert, a grieving man tries to merge with an unearthly machine.

* * * * *

I haven’t read any of these, though I did just read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, so I’m intrigued by her new translation, but at close to 1000 pages, unlikely to be any time soon. I have been keen to read Elena Knows, A Charco Press (best of contemporary Latin American literature) publication for a while. Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs was a popular read, so I expect Heaven will be equally widely read.

It’s an interesting mix of names that regularly come up among those who read translations, and a new wave of more modern tales, addressing current contemporary issues.

It is always interesting to see the reactions, the reviews, and who will make the shortlist of six to be announced on 7 April. The winners (author + translator) will be announced on 26 May 2022.

Do any of these titles jump out at you with interest?

For me, it was Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Hope, not a book I was aware of, but both an interesting subject and a rare translation from Hindi! Tilted Press are such trailblazers!

Marzhan, mon Amour by Katja Oskamp tr. Jo Heinrich

A totally delightful, kind-hearted, empathetic read.

Peirene Press German Literature Women in TranslationMarzhan Mon Amour is a memoir-ish novel, collective history and a character study of a group of people living in and around a multi-storied communist-era plattenbau prefab apartment building in the working class quarter of Marzahn, East Berlin, told through the eyes and ears of a woman facing her middle years.

The middle years, when you’re neither young nor old, are fuzzy years. You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re heading for. You spend these years thrashing about in the middle of a big lake, out of breath, flagging from the tedium of swimming. You pause, at a loss, and turn around in circles, again and again. Fear sets in, the fear of sinking halfway, without a sound, without a cause.

The narrator is a 45 year old woman (referred to in some articles as the author herself), whose partner is ill, requiring her to abandon her career as a writer and take up something else. She retrains as a chiropodist and joins Tiffy who offers beauty treatments and massage and Flocke who does nails, in a salon at the foot of an eighteen storey building.

Katja Oskamp Peirene Press German literature

Photo XU CHENPexels.com

If the opening paragraph quoted above, sounds melancholy, it represents a turning point.  Leaving the writing studio for the salon, though initially motivated for financial reasons, provides both practitioner and patient an incredible sense of connection, community and perhaps even at some level, healing.

Many of the clients have lived there since the housing estate was built forty years ago,

…now bravely coming to the ends of their lives with their walking frames, their oxygen cylinders and their state pensions, sometimes spending whole days not speaking to another soul, pouring out their famished hearts to us when they come to the salon, gratefully absorbing every touch, happy for once not to be treated like imbeciles…

Fed up with rejections, she becomes part of this small team and larger community, seeing her regular clients, getting to know them, listening, observing, caring for them, being part of the fabric of a unique, idiosyncratic neighbourhood.

Marzhan mon amour chiropodist chiropody Katja Oskamp

Photo Nico BeckerPexels.com

In each chapter, we meet another client, another character, a life, shared in an engaging and often humorous way, as she participates in the ritual of what is something between a pedicure and reflexology, an hour long treatment of the feet, listening to or being silent with the person who occupies that quiet hour, a temporary escape from their day to day lives.

A chronicler of their personal histories, we witness the humanity behind the monolith structures of these housing estates, the connections created between the three women and the warmth and familiarity they provide to those who cross their threshold.

And that one day of the year, when they close the salon and go together on an outing, described in a way that will make you almost feel like you are experiencing it yourself.

Superbly translated, Jo Heinrich, had this to say about the experience:

There are poignant sections, but it’s an ultimately life-affirming book; it’s funny and warm-hearted, the characters (mostly) feel like good friends and Katja’s writing is so well crafted that it was always a joy to retreat to.

I absolutely loved it, Katja Oskam has penned an ode to an unappreciated, disparaged area, its ageing population and the power of touch. If you’re looking for an uplifting, life-affirming afternoon read, look no further.

Highly recommended.

Katja Oskamp, Author

German literature in translation ChiropodistKatja Oskamp was born in 1970 in Leipzig and grew up in Berlin. After completing her degree in theatre studies, she worked as a playwright at the Volkstheater Rostock and went on to study at the German Literature Institute in Leipzig.

Her debut collection of stories Halbschwimmer was published in 2003. In 2007 she published her first novel Die Staubfängerin. Her book Marzahn, Mon Amour, published by Hanser with the subtitle ‘Stories of a Chiropodist’, was selected for the ‘Berlin Reads One Book’ campaign and thus literally became the talk of the town.

She is a member of PEN Centre Germany. Marzahn, Mon Amour is her first work to be translated into English, published in Feb 2022 by Peirene Press.

Further Reading

Review: World Literature Today by Catherine Venner

N.B. Thank you kindly to the publisher Peirene Press for the Advance Review Copy.

A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux tr. Tanya Leslie

A book that can be read in an afternoon, this is my first read of Annie Ernaux’s work, one I enjoyed and appreciated. I did find myself wondering why the French title La place was changed to A Man’s Place. I find the change in title unnecessarily provocative and limiting.

La Place autofiction memoir French literature women in translationAt only 76 pages, it is a brief recollection that begins in quiet, dramatic form as she recalls the day her father, at the age of 67, unexpectedly, quite suddenly dies.

Other memories arise as she recalls this shocking one and it is this same recollection she will end the book with, albeit alongside a few other now restored memories, once she has written her way through many others as she attempts to create a tableau of anecdotes that describe the man her father was, their family, social status and surroundings.

A child who will rise into and feel comfortable within a middle class environment, marrying into it, she then tries to look back, remember and understand the characteristics and desires of her family – her father in particular – now that she dwells on the other side, among the petite bourgeoisie.

Having decided she has no right to adopt an artistic approach to write about him (the novel), she embarks on a more neutral tone.

I shall collate my father’s words, tastes and mannerisms, the main events of his life, all the external evidence of his existence, an existence which I too shared.
No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing comes to me naturally, it is the very same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news.

Neither fiction or nonfiction, this work has  been described as an autosociobiographical text, one that explores their lives and the social milieu within which they are surrounded, dwell and evolve.

Though she only met her grandfather once, she sketches him through overheard comments, a hard man that no one dared quarrel with, a carter for wealthy landowning farmers.

His meanness was the driving force which helped him resist poverty and convince himself that he was a man. What really enraged him was to see one of the family reading a book or a newspaper in his house. He hadn’t had time to learn how to read or write. He could certainly count.

French memoir autofiction nonfictionErnaux’s father was fortunate to remain in education until the age of 12, when he was hauled out to take up the role of milking cows. He didn’t mind working as a farmhand. Weekend mass, dancing at the village fetes, seeing his friends there. His horizons broadened through the army and after this experience he left farming for the factory and eventually they would buy a cafe/grocery store, a different lifestyle.

Ernaux shares memories, observing her father and her own growing awareness of the distance between his existence and way of being and that witnessed at the homes of friends she becomes acquainted with, as she straddles the divide, living in one world, familiar with the other, neither judging or sentimentalising the experiences as she notes them down.

In front of people whom he considered to be important, his manner was shy and gauche and he never asked any questions. In short, he behaved intelligently. Which consisted in grasping our inferiority and refusing to accept it by doing everything possible to conceal it.

They are a snapshot in time and of a place and way of life of a certain social class and milieu, one she is able to preserve by collecting these memories in a kind of obituary to both her father and the places he lived and worked, the people he loved, the mannerisms and behaviours he engendered.

His greatest satisfaction, possibly even the raison d’être of his existence, was the fact that I belonged to the world which had scorned him.

Annie Ernaux, Author

Annie ErnauxBorn in 1940, Annie Ernaux (née Duchesne) was born in Lillebonne and grew up in Yvetot, Normandy, where her parents ran a café and grocery store. She was educated at a private Catholic secondary school, encountering girls from more middle-class backgrounds, and experiencing shame of her working-class parents and milieu for the first time. After studying at Rouen University she became a school teacher.

Her books, in particular A Man’s Place (La Place) and A Woman’s Story (Une femme) have become contemporary classics in France.

One of France’s most respected authors, she has won multiple awards for her books, including the Prix Renaudot (2008) for The Years (Les Années) and the Marguerite Yourcenar prize (2017) for her entire body of work. The English translation of The Years (2019) was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize International and won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation (2019).

The main themes threaded through her work over more than four decades are: the body and sexuality; intimate relationships; social inequality and the experience of changing class through education; time and memory; and the overarching question of how to write these life experiences.

Fitzcarrraldo Editions have now translated and published seven of her works into English.

A Sister’s Story by Donatella Di Pietrantonio tr. Ann Goldstein

We first encountered the two sisters in an earlier novel, A Girl Returned. At the time they first met, the elder, the narrator, was being returned to her parents without explanation, 13 years after having been adopted and raised by another couple.

She had given me to another woman to bring up, and yet I had remained her daughter. I will be forever.

Though raised in different neighbourhoods, circumstances, economic conditions and under extremely different parenting, from the moment Adriana first encountered her previously unknown older sister, she became attached, fiercely. Of their mother, our narrator had mixed feelings.

She roused in me an inextricable knot of tenderness and revulsion…

My mother occupied me inside, true and fierce. She remained in large part unknown: I never penetrated the mystery of her hidden affection.

Ann Goldstein Italian literatureIn A Sister’s Story, we encounter them again; the novel opens with the recall of a graduation celebration at Piero’s parent’s country home. Again the novel is narrated by the unnamed elder sister.

I have a photograph of the two of us, in love, looking at each other, Piero with the laurel on his head, eyes of devotion. At the edge of the frame Adriana appears: she entered the shot at the last moment, and her image is blurry, her hair draws a brown wake. She has never been tactful, she interjects herself into everything that has to do with me as if it were hers, including Piero. For her he wasn’t very different from a brother, but nice. My sister is laughing blithely at the lens, ignorant of what was to come for us.

As the narrative returns to the present, the elder sister awakes in a hotel, having travelled overnight from Grenoble back to Italy, confused memories interrupt her thoughts, the result of a telephone call she received that set her out on this journey.

In a now familiar style, unique to Donatella Di Pietrantiono, the present is a mystery, we don’t know why she has returned to where her family came from or what the phone call was about, there is much to fill in since she left. It is clear she has cut ties with many people from her past; the phone call reluctantly yet urgently drawing her back.

Related but moulded by different values and role models the sisters held different aspirations and expectations and behaved nothing like each other. They are deeply connected strangers.

As children we were inseparable, then we had learned to lose each other. She could leave me without news of herself for months, but it had never been this long. She seemed to obey a nomadic instinct: when a place no longer suited her, she abandoned it. Every so often our mother said to her: you’re a Gypsy. Later I was, too, in another way.

photo of teenage girls sitting on the pavement

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The last time the sister’s saw each other, Adriana arrived on her doorstep with a baby, named after their belated brother Vincenzo, denying she was in any danger.

The novel, while moving towards the revelation of the telephone call, explores the complicated relationship between sisters who’ve been formed and wired differently, their desire and struggle to be around each other, their bond and indifference, their separate struggles and opposite ways of dealing with them.

I don’t know when I lost her, where our intimacy was stranded. I can’t trace it to a precise moment, a decisive episode, a quarrel. We only surrendered to distance, or maybe it was what we were secretly looking for: repose, shaking each other off.

It’s an enjoyable read, enhanced by having read the earlier story;  while the first novel was compelling and urgent in a way that made me not want to put it down, the sequel was reflective and mysterious. I enjoyed seeing how the sisters evolved into adulthood in such different ways, trying to hold on to their connection, challenged by the ongoing effect of those formative years.

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for providing me with a review copy.

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

Though it is a relatively slim book compared to what we have come to expect from Elena Ferrante, this novel is just as effective as others at getting to the crux of a woman’s suppressed wound and subsequent behaviour, leaving the reader much to reflect on.

psychological thriller film ItalianI just love the way her novels cast women in various stages of life, and this one, like Troubling Love is set over a summer, but couldn’t be more different, despite the common element of intensity. Our protagonist here is an empty nester.

In The Lost Daughter, an ambiguous title that is left to the reader to decide, Leda, a middle aged divorcée, is facing a long summer; her young adult daughters have now left home, moving to Canada to be with their father.

For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them.

Though she speaks with them every day, the closeness they had when they were physically present, creates a space, an absence, that begins to fill with other memories, that reach further back to her own childhood.

Freedom and Longing

As the novel opens, she has decided to depart for the summer to the beach, renting an apartment in a seaside town and is looking forward to the freedom. A Professor of English literature, she has brought her work with her, balancing her time between preparation for the year ahead and relaxing at the beach.

I love the scent of resin: as a child, I spent summers on beaches not yet completely eaten away by the concrete of the Camorra – they began where the pinewood ended. That scent was the scent of vacation, of the summer games of childhood.

She drives out of town to find a quiet place and this becomes her preferred beach for the summer. Parked under the pines, she walks through the wooded area to the small beach beyond.

In less than a week, it had all become a peaceful routine. I liked the squeak of the pinecones opening to the sun as I cross the pinewood, the scent of small green leaves that seemed to be myrtle, the strips of bark peeling off the eucalyptus trees.

motherhood obsession Maggie GyllenhaalShe becomes acquainted with the regulars, the boy who puts out the chairs and umbrellas, a young woman with her child, a pregnant woman – part of a large Neapolitan family.

She doesn’t know them, but they feel familiar, they remind her of the family she grew up in, the family she moved away from, both physically and literally.

They were all related, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws, and their laughter rang out noisily. They called each by name with drawn out cries, hurled exclamatory or conspiratorial comments, at times quarreled: a large family group, similar to the one I had been part of when I was a girl, the same jokes, the same sentimentality, the same rages.

Observation and Obsession

She watches in particular, the young mother Nina, and her daughter Lena, eventually engaging with them, observing the family dynamics, revisiting old feelings, remembering events from the past.

She talked to the child and her doll in the pleasing cadence of the Neapolitan dialect that I love, the tender language of playfulness and sweet nothings. I was enchanted. Languages for me have a secret venom that every so often foams up and for which there is no antidote.  I remember the dialect on my mother’s lips when she lost that gentle cadence and yelled at us, poisoned by her unhappiness: I can’t take you anymore, I can’t take any more…That woman, Nina, seemed serene, and I felt envious.

The Lost Daughter Elena Ferrante doll little girl the past

Photo by Isabella CarvalhoPexels.com

When a small drama occurs, it creates an opportunity for her to interact with them; it is from this moment the tension mounts and we realise there is much we do not know about our protagonist, about her motivations for acting the way she does. A sense of unease permeates.

I loved the way this begins like a joyful beach read, the feeling of the end of a teaching year, a mature woman about to enjoy a summer without responsibilities, her children gone, the only clue to something more sinister in the air, a reference halfway to her destination, when an unprompted feeling from the past arises and changes her mood.

It is the promise there is more to this woman than what we have witnessed thus far. We read attentively, alert to anything that seems odd, wondering what might be causing her to be so attentive to this family.

When you finish reading this novella, as I have just discovered now, a few days after finishing it, if you want to experience one final gasp of realisation, go back and reread the first page, that first one page chapter.

The Lost Daughter, The Film

I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to seeing what Director Maggie Gyllenhaal and Actor Olivia Colman will bring to the text, in the film that is due to come to the screen at the end of December.

Gyllenhaal is said to have written a letter to Ferrante asking if she could adapt the novel, to which Ferrante responded yes, if she were to direct it herself. The premiere at the Venice Film Festival received a four minute standing ovation.

The thing that drew her to Ferrante, she said, was the writer’s ability to say “these things out loud that I hadn’t really heard anyone say out loud, about mothering, about sex, about desire, about the intellectual life of women, about the artistic life of women.”

You can watch the trailer here.

Further Reading

Interview Guardian, Aug 2020: Elena Ferrante: ‘We don’t have to fear change, what is other shouldn’t frighten us’

Screenrant Film Review, Oct 2021: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter Is Exquisite & Nuanced by Mae Abdulbaki

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2021 Runner Up + Winner

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation is awarded annually to the best eligible work of fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction, work of fiction for children or young adults, graphic novel, or play text, written by a woman, translated into English by a translator(s) of any gender, and published by a UK or Irish publisher.

The prize launched in 2017 with the aim of addressing the gender imbalance in translated literature and increasing the number of international women’s voices accessible to a British and Irish readership.

The Long and Shortlist

Translated literary fiction makes up only 3.5% of the literary fiction titles published in the UK, though it accounts for 7% of the volume of sales. You can see the list of 115 eligible titles here, the longlist of 17 titles here (including descriptions of the books) and the shortlist of 8 titles here as shown in the image below.

In 2021, there was a runner up and a winner.

literary fiction memoir short stories novels women in translation

The Runner Up

Strange Beasts of China (Science Fiction/Fantasy) by Yan Ge, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang, published by Tilted Axis Press.

Strange Beasts of China Yan Ge

“Yan Ge imagines a landscape of marvels and terrors that eerily resembles our own everyday world… These fables of love and loneliness, belonging & exclusion, solidarity and otherness, assume an agile and genial English voice in Jeremy Tiang’s translation.”

The Winner

And this year’s winner is….

An Inventory of Losses (Essays/Experimental) by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith,  published by MacLehose Press.

An Inventory of Losses Judith Schalansky

Described as:

“The stylistic flair, and variety of voice, in Jackie Smith’s mesmerising translation, turn Schalansky’s reminder that ‘Being alive means experiencing loss’ into a journey full of colour, contrast and bittersweet pleasures. A thoroughly memorable winner […] that will surely endure.”

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation Longlist 2021

This £1000 prize was established by the University of Warwick in 2017 to address the gender imbalance in translated literature and to increase the number of international women’s voices accessible by a British and Irish readership. The list includes titles published in the UK, translated into English.

In 2020, A Multi-generational Saga

Last year the prize was awarded to The Eighth Life (a family saga that begins with the daughters of a Georgian chocolatier, through wars, revolutions and generations), by Nino Haratischvili, translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.

The 2021 prize is judged by Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin and Susan Bassnett.

“These long-listed titles not only span cultures and continents from China to Georgia, and from Thailand to Poland, they also cover a spectrum of literary forms. The list includes poetry, fiction of many kinds – from futuristic fables to family sagas – as well as a range of imaginative non-fiction, from family memoir and biographical essay to social history.

In every case, the artistry of the translator keeps pace with the invention of the author. Each book created its own world in its own voice. The judges warmly recommend them all.”

The 2021 Longlist

From 115 eligible entries representing 28 languages, seventeen titles have been longlisted for the prize. (Book descriptions below are extracted via Goodreads)

The longlist covers ten languages with French, German, Japanese and Russian represented more than once. Translations from Georgian and Thai are represented on the longlist for the first time in 2021.

women in translation prize 2021

Maria Stepanova and her translator from Russian Sasha Dugdale feature twice on the longlist with In Memory of Memory (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe Books). Also longlisted are previous winners of the prize Annie Ernaux and translator Alison L. Strayer who won in 2019 for The Years. Writers Jenny Erpenbeck, Hiromi Kawakami, Esther Kinsky and Yan Ge, and translators Elisabeth Jaquette, Frank Wynne, are all on the longlist for the second time.

The shortlist for the prize will be published in early November. The winner will be announced at a ceremony on Wednesday 24 November.

The Longlist

Nana EkvtimishviliThe Pear Field, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (Fiction/Historical) (Peirene Press, 2020)

The Pear FieldIn post-soviet Georgia, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, on the corner of Kerch St., is an orphanage. Its teachers offer pupils lessons in violence, abuse and neglect. Lela is old enough to leave but has nowhere else to go. She stays and plans for the children’s escape, for the future she hopes to give to Irakli, a young boy in the home. When an American couple visits, offering the prospect of a new life, Lela decides she must do everything she can to give Irakli this chance.

Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020) (Memoir)

A Girls Story Annie ErnauxAnnie Ernaux revisits the summer of 1958, spent working as a holiday camp instructor in Normandy, and recounts the first night she spent with a man. When he moves on, she realizes she has submitted her will to his and finds that she is a slave without a master. Now, sixty years later, she finds she can obliterate the intervening years and return to consider this young woman whom she wanted to forget completely. In writing A Girl’s Story, which brings to life her indelible memories of that summer, Ernaux discovers that here was the vital, violent and dolorous origin of her writing life, built out of shame, violence and betrayal.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Not a Novel, translated from German by Kurt Beals (Granta, 2020) (Essays/Nonfiction)

Not a Novel Jenny ErpenbeckA collection of intimate and explosive essays on literature, life, history, politics and place. Drawing from her 25 years of thinking and writing, the book plots a journey through the works and subjects that have inspired and influenced her.

Written with the same clarity and insight that characterize her fiction, the pieces range from literary criticism and reflections on Germany’s history, to the autobiographical essays where Erpenbeck forgoes the literary cloak to write from a deeply personal perspective about life and politics, hope and despair, and the role of the writer in grappling with these forces.

Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Fantasy/Science Fiction) (Tilted Axis Press, 2020)

Strange Beasts of China Yan GeIn the fictional Chinese town of Yong’an, human beings live alongside spirits and monsters, some of almost indistinguishable from people. Told in the form of a bestiary, each chapter introduces us to a new creature – from the Sacrificial Beasts who can’t seem to stop dying, to the Besotted Beasts, an artificial breed engineered by scientists to be as loveable as possible. The narrator, an amateur cryptozoologist, is on a mission to track down each breed, but in the process discovers that she might not be as human as she thought.

Hiromi KawakamiPeople from My Neighbourhood, translated from Japanese by Ted Goossen (short stories/magic realism) (Granta, 2020)

People From My NeighbourhoodFrom the author of the internationally bestselling Strange Weather in Tokyo, a collection of interlinking stories that blend the mundane and the mythical—“fairy tales in the best Brothers Grimm tradition: naif, magical, and frequently veering into the macabre”.

A bossy child who lives under a white cloth near a t­ree; a schoolgirl who keeps doll’s brains in a desk drawer; an old man with two shadows, one docile and one rebellious; a diplomat no one has ever seen goes fishing on a lake no one has heard of. These are some of the inhabitants of this neighbourhood. In their lives, details of the local and everyday—the lunch menu at a tiny drinking place called the Love, the color and shape of the roof of the tax office—slip into accounts of duels, prophetic dreams, revolutions, and visitations from ghosts and gods.

Mieko KawakamiBreasts and Eggs, translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Fiction/Feminism) (Picador, 2020)

Breast and EggsBreasts and Eggs explores the inner conflicts of an adolescent girl who refuses to communicate with her mother except through writing.

Through the story of these women, Kawakami paints a portrait of womanhood in contemporary Japan, probing questions of gender and beauty norms and how time works on the female body.

Esther KinskyGrove, translated from German by Caroline Schmidt (Fiction/Travel) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Grove Esther KinskyAn unnamed narrator, recently bereaved, travels to Olevano, a small village south-east of Rome. It is winter, and from her temporary residence on a hill between village and cemetery, she embarks on walks and outings, exploring the banal and the sublime with equal dedication and intensity. Seeing, describing, naming the world around her is her way of redefining her place within it. Written in a rich and poetic style, Grove is an exquisite novel of grief, love and landscapes.

Camille LaurensLittle Dancer Aged Fourteen, translated from French by Willard Wood (Nonfiction/Art/Biography) (Les Fugitives, 2020)

Little Dancer Aged FourteenThis absorbing, heartfelt work tells the story of the real dancer behind Degas’s now-iconic sculpture, and the struggles of late nineteenth-century bohemian life of Paris.

Famous throughout the world, how many know her name? Admired in paintings in Washington, Paris, London and New York but where is she buried? We know her age, 14, and the grueling work she did, at an age when children today are in school. In the 1880s, she danced as a “little rat” at the Paris Opera; what is a dream for girls now wasn’t a dream then. Fired after  years of hard work when the director had had enough of her repeated absences, she had been working another job as the few pennies the Opera paid weren’t enough to keep her family fed. A model, she posed for painters or sculptors, among them Edgar Degas.

Drawing on a wealth of historical material and her own love of ballet and personal experience of loss, Camille Laurens presents a compelling, compassionate portrait of Marie van Goethem and the world of the artists’ models themselves, often overlooked in the history of art.

Scholastique MukasongaOur Lady of the Nile, translated from French by Melanie Mauthner (Fiction/Rwanda) (Daunt Books Publishing, 2021)

Our Lady of the Nile Scholastique MukasongaParents send their daughters to Our Lady of the Nile to be moulded into respectable citizens, to protect them from the dangers of the outside world. The young ladies are expected to learn, eat, and live together, presided over by the colonial white nuns.

It is 15 years prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and a quota permits only two Tutsi students for every twenty pupils. As Gloriosa, the school’s Hutu queen bee, tries on her parents’ preconceptions and prejudices, Veronica and Virginia, both Tutsis, are determined to find a place for themselves and their history. In the struggle for power and acceptance, the lycée is transformed into a microcosm of the country’s mounting racial tensions and violence. During the interminable rainy season, everything slowly unfolds behind the school’s closed doors: friendship, curiosity, fear, deceit, and persecution.

A landmark novel about a country divided and a society hurtling towards horror. In gorgeous and devastating prose, Mukasonga captures the dreams, ambitions and prejudices of young women growing up as their country falls apart.

Duanwad PimwanaArid Dreams, translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (short stories) (Tilted Axis Press, 2020)

Arid Dreams Duanwad PumwanaIn 13 stories that investigate ordinary and working-class Thailand, characters aspire for more but remain suspended in routine. They bide their time, waiting for an extraordinary event to end their stasis. A politician’s wife imagines her life had her husband’s accident been fatal, a man on death row requests that a friend clear up a misunderstanding with a prostitute, and an elevator attendant feels himself wasting away while trapped, immobile, at his station all day.

With curious wit, this collection offers revelatory insight and subtle critique, exploring class, gender, and disenchantment in a changing country.

Olga RavnThe Employees, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken (Science Fiction) (Lolli Editions, 2020)

The Elpmoyees Olga RavnA workplace novel of the 22nd century. The near-distant future. Millions of kilometres from Earth.

The crew of the Six-Thousand ship consists of those who were born, and those who were created. Those who will die, and those who will not. When the ship takes on strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew is perplexed to find itself becoming attached to them, and human and humanoid employees alike find themselves longing for the same things: warmth and intimacy. Loved ones who have passed. Our shared, far-away Earth, now only persists in memory.

Gradually, the crew members come to see themselves in a new light, each employee is compelled to ask themselves whether their work can carry on as before – what it means to be truly alive.

Structured as a series of witness statements compiled by a workplace commission, Ravn’s crackling prose is as chilling as it is moving, as exhilarating as it is foreboding. Wracked by all kinds of longing, The Employees probes what it means to be human, emotionally and ontologically, while delivering an overdue critique of a life governed by work and the logic of productivity.

Judith SchalanskyAn Inventory of Losses, translated from German by Jackie Smith (Essays/Experimental) MacLehose Press, 2020)

An Inventory of Losses Judith SchalanskyA dazzling cabinet of curiosities from one of Europe’s most acclaimed and inventive writers.

Each of the pieces, following the conventions of a different genre, considers something that is irretrievably lost to the world, including the paradisal pacific island of Tuanaki, the Caspian Tiger, the Villa Sacchetti in Rome, Sappho’s love poems, Greta Garbo’s fading beauty, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, and the former East Germany’s Palace of the Republic.

As a child of the former East Germany, the dominant emotion in Schalansky’s work is “loss” and its aftermath, in an engaging mixture of intellectual curiosity, with a down-to-earth grasp of life’s pitiless vitality, ironic humour, stylistic elegance and intensity of feeling that combine to make this one of the most original and beautifully designed books to be published in 2020.

Adania ShibliMinor Detail, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fiction/Palestine) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Minor Detail Adrania ShibliMinor Detail begins during the summer of 1949, one year after the war that the Palestinians mourn as the Nakba – the catastrophe that led to the displacement and expulsion of more than 700,000 people – and the Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence. Israeli soldiers capture and rape a young Palestinian woman, and kill and bury her in the sand. Many years later, a woman in Ramallah becomes fascinated to the point of obsession with this ‘minor detail’ of history. A haunting meditation on war, violence and memory, Minor Detail cuts to the heart of the Palestinian experience of dispossession, life under occupation, and the persistent difficulty of piecing together a narrative in the face of ongoing erasure and disempowerment.

Małgorzata SzejnertEllis Island: A People’s History, translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye (Nonfiction/History) (Scribe UK, 2020)

Ellis Island A Peoples HistoryA landmark work of history that brings voices of the past vividly to life, transforming our understanding of the immigrant experience.

Whilst living in New York, journalist Małgorzata Szejnert would gaze out from lower Manhattan at Ellis Island, a dark outline on the horizon. How many stories did this tiny patch of land hold? How many people had joyfully embarked on a new life there — or known the despair of being turned away? How many were held there against their will?

Ellis Island draws on unpublished testimonies, memoirs and correspondence from internees and immigrants, including Russians, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Germans, and Poles, along with commissioners, interpreters, doctors, and nurses — all of whom knew they were taking part in a tremendous historical phenomenon.

It tells many stories of the island, from Annie Moore, the Irishwoman who was the first to be processed there, to the diaries of Fiorello La Guardia, who worked at the station before going on to become one of New York City’s mayors, to depicting the ordeal the island went through on 9/11. At the book’s core are letters recovered from the Russian State Archive, a heartrending trove of correspondence from migrants to their loved ones back home. Their letters never reached their destination: they were confiscated by intelligence services and remained largely unseen.

Far from the open-door policy of myth, we see that deportations from Ellis Island were often based on pseudo-scientific ideas about race, gender, and disability. Sometimes families were broken up, and new arrivals were held in detention at the Island for days, weeks, or months under quarantine. Indeed the island compound spent longer as an internment camp than a migration station.

Today, the island is no less political. In popular culture, it is a romantic symbol of the generations of immigrants that reshaped the US. Its true history reveals that today’s immigration debate has deep roots. Now a master storyteller brings its past to life, illustrated with unique photographs.

Maria StepanovaIn Memory of Memory, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (essay/fiction/memoir/travelogue/historical) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021)

In Memory of Memory Maria StepanovaWith the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled with calm, steady hands, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century.

In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with rare intellectual curiosity and a wonderfully soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

Maria StepanovaWar of the Beasts and the Animals, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Poetry/Experimental) (Bloodaxe Books, 2021)

War of the Beats Maria StepanovaStepanova is one of Russia’s most innovative and exciting poets and thinkers. Immensely high-profile in Russia, her reputation has lagged behind in the West.

War of the Beasts and the Animals includes recent long poems of conflict ‘Spolia’ and ‘War of the Beasts and Animals’, written during the Donbas conflict, as well as a third long poem ‘The Body Returns’, commemorates the Centenary of WWI. In all three poems Stepanova’s assured and experimental use of form, her modernist appropriation of poetic texts from around the world and her consideration of the way that culture, memory and contemporary life are interwoven make her work pleasurable and relevant.

This collection includes two sequences of poems from her 2015 collection Kireevsky: sequences of ‘weird’ ballads and songs, subtly changed folk and popular songs and poems that combine historical lyricism and a contemporary understanding of the effects of conflict and trauma. Stepanova uses the forms of ballads and songs, but alters them so they almost appear to be refracted in moonlit water. The forms seem recognisable, but the words are fragmented and suggestive, they weave together well-known refrains of songs, familiar images, subtle half-nods to films and music.

Alice ZeniterThe Art of Losing, translated from French by Frank Wynne (Historical Fiction/Algeria) (Picador, 2021)

The Art of LOsing Alice ZeniterNaïma has always known  her family came from Algeria – until now, that meant little to her. Born and raised in France, her knowledge of that foreign country is limited to what she’s learned from her grandparents’ tiny flat in a crumbling French housing estate: the food cooked for her, the few precious things they brought with them when they fled.

Of the past, the family is silent. Why was her grandfather Ali forced to leave? Was he a harki – an Algerian who worked for and supported the French during the Algerian War of Independence? Once a wealthy landowner, how did he become an immigrant scratching a living in France?

Naïma’s father, Hamid, says he remembers nothing. A child when the family left, in France he re-made himself: education was his ticket out of the family home, the key to acceptance into French society. Now, for the first time since they left, one of Ali’s family is going back. Naïma will see Algeria for herself, will ask questions about her family’s history that till now, have had no answers.

Spanning three generations across seventy years, The Art of Losing tells the story of how people carry on in the face of loss: the loss of a country, an identity, a way to speak to your children. It’s a story of colonisation and immigration, and how in some ways, we are a product of the things we’ve left behind.

* * * * *

I haven’t read any of these, though many are familiar, as I have seen them reviewed and discussed. The range of genres is impressive, making it an eclectic selection. I’m interested in The Lady of the Nile, Minor Detail, and Annie Ernaux is an author I’m keen to read, though where to start, as she has seven short memoirs now in English and I keep thinking I ought to read a few in French.

Have you read or heard of any of these titles? Tempted by anything?

Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat tr. Marilyn Booth

Those Who Are Lost

Lebanese Arabic LiteratureWritten in three parts, this award winning novel by Lebanese author Hada Barakat, is composed of a series of six letters written in a stream of consciousness narrative that are interlinked.  The letters are read, but not by their intended recipient, found between the pages of a book, dug out of a bin or otherwise encountered. They prompt the finder to write their own letter.

They are a kind of confession, written by the marginalised, floundering in exile. The letters excavate a depth of feeling that is raw, that traverses memory, hurts, an indifferent ability to cause pain, love, sorrow, longing, an abuse of kindness, a deterioration of the psyche.

“With this novel, I wanted to really listen to those millions of wandering souls who can’t speak for themselves: migrants. Their desperation to leave their country, no matter the cost, even if they know their lives will be at stake.”

Some of the letters are written to a family member, others to a lover, others to nameless recipients.

They are all experiencing deep loss having either been removed from all they’ve known or been connected to, or have been abandoned. Below, I’ve chosen a quote from each letter to give a sense of the narrative.

An undocumented immigrant writes to his former lover. He is unkind and doesn’t understand why she tolerates him. We learn that his mother put him on a train alone when he was eight or nine, effectively abandoning him, a sacrifice to gift him the education she never had. A man across from him is watching him through the window. Paranoia.

I’ve never written a letter in my life. Not a single one. There was a letter in my mind, which I brooded over for years, rewriting it in my head again and again. But I never wrote it down. After all, my mother could hardly read, and so I expect she would have taken my letter to one of the village men with enough education to read it to her. That would have been a disaster though!

a book in arabic writings

Photo by SafaPexels.com

A woman in a hotel room writes to a man from her past. She finds a perplexing letter in the pages of the telephone directory in the room. She wonders whether it was the man who penned it or the woman to which he wrote who left it there and why. It was clearly unfinished. She recalls the sweet succulence of the medlar fruits they ate walking the streets of Beirut.

This sweetness has nothing to do with the act of remembering. It’s not the delicious and sweet because it is linked to the past, to the time of our youth, where nostalgia for that time gives everything we can’t bring back a more beautiful sheen. Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I once was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure, unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.

flowers desk pen letter

Photo by KoolShootersPexels.com

An escaped torturer recounts his crimes to his mother. He got the idea to write a letter from observing a woman taking some folded papers from her handbag, read them, then tear them in half and drop them in a bin. He retrieves them.

You would say I deserve all this. You might even disown me, calling me the Devil’s offspring. And if I think of my father, I’d have to admit that you have a point. Still, after all that I’ve been through, is there any point in believing that if I asked you to pardon me, you might do it?

I know you won’t, I know there’s really no hope.

A former prostitute writes to her brother. She is on a plane that had been delayed due to the arrest of a passenger. She found a crumpled up letter shoved between the seat and the wall.

I know why security took him away in handcuffs, because I have a letter in my pocket that this man wrote to his mother. He must have tried to hide it before they reached him, because it’s not the kind of letter anyone would just forget about or be careless enough to lose.

A young queer man recounts to his estranged father his partner’s battle with AIDS. He stumbles across a letter written by a woman in a storage locker at a bar he worked in. That was two years ago, recently he reread it.

I read it again and again, as if I knew that woman personally. Or as if I could actually see her in front of me, asking someone’s forgiveness but discovering she could not get it. And not just because her letter would never arrive. It’s about the need we all have for someone to listen to us, and then to decide they will pardon us no matter what we have done.

Those Who Are Searching

In this second part, brief extracts focused on those who have some connection to the letter writers, those who are trying to find their place, searching, also at a loss.

Those Who Are Left Behind

Finally, the mailman leaves his own note, sheltering in the bombed out remains of the post office.

Neither the internet nor anything else would do away with the need for my rounds, not even after internet cafés were springing up everywhere like mushrooms.

Displaced, at a loss, rootless, untethered. Like the roll of the dice they were born into a place and era where stability, home and belonging would be denied them.

Haunting, at times disturbing, it is a compelling read, the rootlessness and isolation felt by the reader, due to the manner in which the letters are written. The edge of despair palpable. It’s as if the one who stayed, surrounded by destruction, is the only one left with a sense of belonging.

Further Reading

Article: The Return of the NonProdigal Sons by Hoda Barakat

Hoda Barakat

Winner International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2019Hoda Barakat was born in Beirut in 1952. She has worked in teaching and journalism and lives in France. She has published six novels, two plays, a book of short stories and a book of memoirs, as well as contributing to books written in French. Her work has been translated into a number of languages.

She received the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ in 2002 and the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite National’ in 2008.

Her novels include: The Stone of Laughter (1990), Disciples of Passion (1993), The Tiller of Waters (2000) which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and My Master and my Lover (2004). The Kingdom of This Earth (2012) reached the IPAF longlist in 2013. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, given (at that time) every two years to honour a writer’s achievement in fiction. Voices of the Lost won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction ((IPAF) in 2019.

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me a review copy