Disoriental by Négar Djavadi tr. Tina Kover #WITMonth

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could end my review right there, those were the words I tweeted not long after I finished Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental while I was still in the moment of coming to the end of an excellent story of an immersive experience I wasn’t ready to be done with. It was a five star read for me, but I’ll share a little more of the experience to help you decide if it’s for you or not.

The novel is a dual narrative, set in the present and the past, where the protagonist – who for some time is nameless, with little said to explain how she came to be here – is sitting in a fertility clinic, waiting for her appointment. This immediately creates questions in the reader’s mind, as it is made clear there is something unusual about the situation, that she is taking a risk to even be there. This contemporary narrative, slowly builds the picture of who she is and the  circumstance she is in.

This interminable waiting creates an opening for her to reflect and remember, thus interspersed between what takes place in the present, is the story of her family, a long line of Sadr’s, beginning with her parents Sara and Darius, forced to flee Iran, who came to France when she and her two sisters were of school age.

The narrating of family stories, taking us back as far as her great-grandfather Montazemolmolk with his harem of 52 wives, serves to provide context and an explanation for why certain family members might have behaved or lived in the way they did, helping us understand their motives and actions.

The daughter Nour, born with unusual piercing blue eyes, her mother dying in childbirth, the man obsessed with making her his wife, her reluctance to go out being the object of unwanted attention, her children who desire to be free of restriction, the reading of the coffee cups, predicting the sex of the child of a pregnant woman; Uncle Number Two and his secret.

Darius, the timid elder son, sent to Cairo to study law, abandons his studies and pursues a doctorate in Philosophy at the Sorbonne. Eventually he returns to the family, changed by his studies and experiences and though quiet in person, wields a mighty sword through his journalistic pen and letters to a political regime he detests and chooses not to ignore.

It is a story that spans a changing, turbulent time in Iranian history, one that travels through highs and lows, for while the passionate intellectual is free to express their opinion and brings no harm, they continue to live within their culture, family and be an active part of their community and society. But when freedom of expression becomes a danger to the individual, the sacrifices that are made stifle and silence them, but don’t always make them safe. Life in exile, without the connections to friends, family, neighbours, reduces these adults to shadows of their former beings, unable to truly be themselves in a foreign culture.

I highlighted so many great passages in reading, but I’ve already passed the book on to someone else to read, so can not share them here yet. It is a reminder of another era, of people who had rich, cultural and intellectual lives, of families who fled persecution, not because of war, but because of their intellectual and philosophical activism and of how much is lost, when a new generation grows up within a culture no longer connected to their past, to their heritage and worse, in a country that has been subject to the propaganda of the media, and perceptions of that culture are tainted by the agenda of politicians and parties, and what they wish their populations to believe about foreign cultures.

I absolutely loved it, I liked the slow drip revelation of what this young woman’s life had become, having been severed from her country and community of origin and the colourful, abundant richness of the family history and culture, which while separate from her life today, existed somewhere deep in her psyche, in her genes, and in those non-genetic aspects we inherit from previous generations even without knowledge of what has passed.

It is as if she had a crystal ball to look back through the years, through lives she hadn’t personally experienced and discovered events from the past that created an aspect of who she was and would in turn, be passed on and live deep within the yet unborn child she desires to conceive.

Highly Recommended.

Buy a Copy of DisOriental via Book Depository

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys #ReadingRhys

voyage-in-the-dark

Voyage in the Dark is one of Jean Rhys’s early novels, about Anna, a young woman, who like the novelist, finds herself suddenly uprooted from her island home in Dominica, whisked off by her stepmother Hester, after the sudden and premature death of her father. There is little left to support her and so she must find her own way in London.

‘He was a planter my father. He had a big estate when he first went out there; then he sold it when he married Hester and we lived in town for another four years and then he bought Morgan’s Rest – a much smaller place.’

Hester, her stepmother is a woman who feels hard done by, she married Anna’s father and lived for a while in Dominica, clearly under certain conditions and was quick to return to England after his death, resettling herself in the North, sending Anna south to find a job to support herself, effectively abandoning her.

Not only did she not understand how that place and the way of its people were an intrinsic part of Anna, she openly disapproved of her contact with the black servant girl Francine and would act to remove her influence, the one person who had made Anna feel safe, happy and more at home than anyone else, a woman she could relate to but never be like. All that, now but a memory from her past.

I knew that of course she disliked me too because I was white; and that I would never be able to explain to her that I hated being white. Being white and getting like Hester, and all the things you get – old and sad and everything. I kept thinking, ‘No. … No. …No. …’ And I knew that day that I’d started to grow old and nothing could stop it.

She finds a job as a chorus girl in a travelling theatre and while staying in a seaside town, she and a friend meet two men, one of them Walter, stays in touch, they embark on an affair and for a while he supports her financially – another relationship with conditions, though one she adapts to and finds favourable.

However it prevents her from pursuing employment, she spends days not leaving her room, waiting to hear from him, descending into melancholy and depression, having left the joy, warmth and colour that had been in her life on the island for a dismal English existence far from the expectations of the mother country she had dreamed of from afar.

‘I’m sure it’s beautiful,’ Walter said, ‘but I don’t like hot places much. I prefer cold places. The tropics would be altogether too lush for me, I think.’
‘But it isn’t lush,’ I said. ‘You’re quite wrong. It’s wild, and a bit sad sometimes. You might as well say the sun’s lush.’
Sometimes the earth trembles; sometimes you can feel it breathe. The colours are red, purple, blue, gold, all shades of green. The colours here are black, brown, grey, dim-green, pale blue, the white of people’s faces – like woodlice.

Voyage in the Dark is a melancholy read, it’s a kind of coming-of-age that happens to people not because they have attained a certain age, but as a result of living outside the familiar, whether it’s moving from the countryside to the city or from one country to another and Anna suffers perhaps even more than many migrants, because she looks and almost sounds like she comes from within the English culture, yet is indeed a foreigner and completely alone, without a community or family to commiserate with. She wouldn’t fit in, even if she were to find others born in Dominica, because there too, they had lived in a rapidly disappearing world, a post colonial community without a purpose. While young and living on the island, she experienced little of the world’s (or England’s) perception of them, something hinted at in the way her friends would laugh at her, without her understanding why. Her slow acceptance that she will never fit in, leads to complacency, a lack of care for consequences, hopelessness, helplessness.

I have read a few books by authors coming from the islands and they remain some of my favourite books; Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, Maryse Conde’s Tales From the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood, Simone Schwartz Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, however they differ significantly from the work of Jean Rhys, because there is a much stronger sense of belonging, acceptance and inevitability in their storytelling. They aren’t a product of white colonialism, they have been affected by it, but they know where home is, that is where they stay and live and learn and struggle, their isolation is only ever temporary, for they are part of a community whether they want it or not.

Jean Rhys through her character Anna, feels and understands what it might be like to be those women who belong and wanted to be part of it, yet she also aspired to live an English dream, only to discover it was an illusion, that she must lower her expectations, make sacrifices and rely on talents never dreamed of in her previous life, to secure her position, one that exists at a lower class than she’d imagined being part of.

Dominica

Dominica

It is ironic, that she will experience the subservient, misogynistic role of the mistress, a metaphor perhaps for the role her own family and the generations before them inflicted upon the local population of the islands they inhabited. She will feel and experience that discontent that sits alongside silent acceptance of the role of the lesser, the disempowered, as women to men, as slave to master.

Interestingly, many of the reviews focus on the feelings evoked in her first love affair, for me the stronger, more poignant feelings portrayed, were the loss of her childhood innocence, her home, her family – the affair was something she fell into, exploitative on both parts, and sad in that it didn’t follow the path of new, young love, she falls straight into a pattern she will likely repeat, dependence on the experienced, older man, who wants a pretty plaything not a mate.

Written in a simple, easy reading style, the story seeps into your skin and leaves the reader somewhat bereft and disillusioned by the inevitability of it all, knowing that while Anna’s story ends at the beginning of her life in England, some will already know that Jean Rhys’s life continued in a similar vein and that she would rarely if ever find contentedness in her continuous search for a place and a person that could make her feel loved and at home like Dominica and Francine did for her invented character. Not surprisingly, it is when Anna remembers and invokes the past, using all the senses that Rhys’s prose really sings, leaning more towards that incantatory prose from the Caribbean that I have so fallen for.

“I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.” ― Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography

jeanrhysJean Rhys was born in the Caribbean island of Dominica in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a third generation white Creole mother of Scots origin (‘Creole’ was broadly used to refer to any person born on the island, whether of white or mixed blood). When she was sixteen she was sent to England to school, mocked due to her accent, left  and became a chorus girl. After a disastrous affair and disillusioned by events, she began to write, fictionalising many of her experiences and thanks to finding a mentor in Ford Maddox Ford, found moderate success.

She disappeared for some years only to make a comeback with her best-known novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), written as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a novel inspired by her indignation at the treatment of Bertha, the first Mrs Rochester, portrayed as the madwoman in the attic,  a woman who like Jean Rhys, had been brought to England from the Caribbean – it was written to give Bertha an opportunity to tell her story and to discredit Rochester’s overbearing, superior perspective.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún (Bolivia) tr. Sophie Hughes

AffectionsSelected in 2010 as one of The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists by Granta, Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections is his second novel and will be published in ten languages. It was the winner of an English PEN Award 2016.

The novel is less a story and more a set of loosely connected vignettes from the lives and perspectives of the three daughters of  Aurelia and Hans Ertl, a family who fled post-war Germany in the wake of their father’s position as a cameraman, (he had worked on several Nazi propaganda films), to live in exile in Bolivia.

One of his daughters Monika Ertl became involved with the survivors of Che Guevara’s guerrilla movement and was allegedly involved in the assassination of the Bolivian consul in Hamburg, a man said to have ordered the hands of Guevara be cut off and sent to La Paz.

Hasbún’s novel takes these threads and weaves a disparate narrative, that highlights different moments in the lives of all members of this family, whose life trajectory was dramatically altered by their geographic displacement.

No sooner have they arrived, than Hans, a climber, explorer, photographer, seeker of adventure announces he is quitting climbing and organising an expedition to find a lost Inca city named Paititi buried somewhere deep in the Amazon forest. Two of his daughters come with him, and for his eldest Monika, it becomes a first step towards a life of social activism, which will result in her involvement in revolutionary guerilla warfare.

With a father seeking adventure and a mother prone to melancholy, the girls find themselves in a place they can never truly call home, where they will always be viewed as outsiders and find it difficult to find solace even among their ex-pat community, which in a cruel twist of fate, view them similarly to the way they were regarded in post-war Germany, only now it seems futile to escape their fate.

“All that grind to end up back where I started,” he complained to me one day down the phone. He said he’d experienced something similar after the war, that they’d already made him feel like an outcast once before, that during that period they closed one door after another to him, but that this time he wouldn’t move an inch.

Also included in the narrative are what appear to be the responses to an interview or interrogation of one of Monika’s lovers Reinhard, who was her brother-in-law, probably in a follow-up to the assassination of the Bolivian consul.

//yes, she’s the only one who matters now, the misunderstood child, the chaotic, rebellious teenager, the woman who went on to lose all perspective and no longer knew where to stop and ended up hurting herself and others. //Yes, if you pressed me I would say this is the definition of her that sticks: the woman who went on to cause so much hurt.

Bolivian Author, Rodrigo Hasbún

Bolivian Author, Rodrigo Hasbún

It is a fragmentary novel that depicts a family set adrift, unable to remain united nor to be held together by their adopted community, the daughters seek to carve out a life of their own, struggling in isolation.

The piecemeal structure of the novel with its alternating narrators is symbolic of that disconnect and isolation, exile may have heralded adventure and discovery, however the expedition to discover a lost city, became the catalyst to the disintegration of all that once kept them together.

It’s not true that memory is a safe place. In there too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Pushkin Press for a copy of this haunting novella.

Further Reading

The City and the Writer: In Cochabamba with Rodrigo Hasbún – an interview by Nathalie Handal.

Buy a copy of Affections via Book Depository (Affiliate Link)

Seasonal Comfort Reads

Merry Christmas to you all, I hope you all have/had a wonderful, relaxing day spending it exactly as you wish.

tower-and-santa-336x280We had a unique Christmas Day, with a picnic lunch on the TGV (fast train) to Paris – delicious savoury canapés, no cooking required and no dishes to wash up afterward either.

I am looking forward to reading time, although I may not get much done, since there is so much to see and do here in Paris.

But first, some Christmas Book news!

Christmas DayThis season The Guardian ran a series on writers and readers’ favourite books to curl up with on biting winter nights.

As some of you might remember, as I mentioned and gave away a copy of this book last year, my seasonal comfort read is Paul Durcan’s book length poem Christmas Day.

Well, there might not have been any books under the tree this year, but having my review published by The Guardian on Christmas Day was the best gift of all!

Click here to read the review.

Joyeuses fêtes à tous!

joyeuses fete

The Exiles Return

Elisabeth De Waal was a poet, writer and the first women to gain a doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1923. Born in 1899 in Vienna, she was the eldest child of Viktor von Ephrussi and Baronness Emmy Schey von Kormola, her father and uncle sent from Odessa 30 years before, one to Paris the other to Vienna to create the family banking empire.

030413_2049_TheHarewith1.jpgWe may not have known of her, were it not for her grandson Edmund De Waal, the ceramist, who inherited 264 Japanese netsuke, and decided to share the story of the passage of these miniature artisan objects in his excellent The Hare With Amber Eyes, which I read earlier this year and adored – a 5 star read for me.

He traced his family history through the voyages and resting places of those well-travelled netsuke, one of the more significant journey’s being his grandmother’s return visit to Vienna after the second world war, her return from exile, where she was able to reclaim the netsuke (and sadly little else) thanks to an amazing story of courage by the family’s maid.

Hare Amber EyesHis father handed over the yellowing typescript along with school reports, essays, letters and a few diary entries, the things that had mattered to Elisabeth De Waal, that remarkably survived into the 21st century.

It was from this return journey that her inspiration came to write this novel, The Exiles Return where we enter the lives of three exiles, a Jewish laboratory professor, a Greek property developer and Resi, the daughter of a Viennese princess, who though born in America, seems ill-fitted to fulfill family ambitions, so spends a summer with her Aunt and cousins in Austria, a return to her roots.

Fifteen years after escape into exile Professor Adler returns to Vienna, Austria leaving behind a prestigious job and a reluctant, successful wife and daughter who have adapted to their New York life beyond the point of wanting to return, her financial independence empowering her with the will to resist him.

With a mix of hope and trepidation, Professor Adler fears what he might find yet desires to somehow recreate a still familiar past, to be back where he felt he belonged and re-establish a life. He looks up old friends and seeks reinstatement at the laboratory where he once worked, encountering that which looks familiar, though unavoidably changed by the past.

“They could exchange nothing but exclamations, well-worn phrases, just to express, however haltingly, feelings too deep for words.”

Exiles Return

The Exiles Return

Theophil Kanakis, descendant of a wealthy Greek family has returned to Vienna with the confidence and arrogance that plentiful money bring. He no longer desires financial success, he seeks pleasure and indulgence and the subtle manipulations inherent in ensuring he attains what he yearns for. Once he is re-established in the manner he wishes, he begins to issue invitations to a widening circle of friends and through his friendship with the gallant pauper, Prince Bimbo Grein, a younger set begins to frequent his salons which he encourages, the setting in which all the characters in the novel are in some way connected.

In the scene where Kanakis seeks an audience with an Estate Agent and comments and his gaze alights on two dark, heavily framed pictures hanging on the wall, we obtain a glimpse into what it may have been like for Elisabeth De Waal to encounter appropriated chattels.

“They are in no way outstanding or really valuable – a minor nineteenth century artist. I just thought they furnished the room, gave it a certain cachet, within the limits of what I could afford. They did in fact belong to an acquaintance of your family, Baron E_. You might possibly have seen them at his house. Baron E_ unfortunately died abroad, in England, I believe. His heirs, after they had recovered what could be traced of his property, had it all sold at auction; having no use for this old-fashioned stuff in their modern homes, I suppose. I acquired the pictures quite openly, publicly and legally, you understand.”

Palais Ephrussi, Vienna Elisabeth's Childhood Home

Palais Ephrussi, Vienna
Elisabeth De Waal’s Childhood Home

None of the characters seem to be based directly on the experience of Elisabeth De Waal, who was shocked and saddened by what she found when she returned to Vienna, but there is little doubt that the story she has written was influenced by that return journey as she captured the experiences of her three protagonists.

I really enjoyed the book and wanted to know even more in particular of the experience of Professor Adler, perhaps the closest to how Elisabeth De Waal may have felt. It is a novel that is appreciated all the more for understanding the life of the author herself, and I enjoyed it having read Edmund De Waal’s history of the family and imagining what Elisabeth may herself have experienced. For the period in which it was written, I find it compelling and modern literature.

Not like The Hare With Amber Eyes, but an important part of that story and an excellent companion novel; what a privilege that we now have the opportunity to read her work and that she is finally receiving the recognition she so deserves as a writer.

RilkeSo now, what about that correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke? Might there be a book in that? A sequel, Letters to a Young Female Poet perhaps?

“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Note: This book was kindly provided by the publisher, Persephone Books.