During August I was back in reading mode after a busy period, so here is a brief impression of the books I read for Women in Translation month, an annual reading challenge I participate in as it fits appropriately with the kind of books I like to discover, those coming from countries and cultures other than Anglo, originally written in another language.
The reason they are highlighted in August is an attempt to raise awareness of the very narrow choice we give ourselves by only reading books in English, or from one’s own country and to highlight the fact that even when we do read outside our first language, the majority of books published, promoted and reviewed are written by men.
WIT Month is an attempt to redress the balance, and the hope is that publishers also respond by making more of an effort to seek books from voices that are little seen in print.
So this was my stack of possibles, there were eight books to choose from, I read six of them and I’m still reading the seventh (being back in another busy period, it may take a while to finish).
I read three books translated from French, one from German, one from Arabic (Egypt), one from Turkish and the one I didn’t read Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo (I have read and enjoyed her novel The Door) was originally written in Hungarian.
Here are the summaries below, click on the title to read the full review:
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
Wow, this was a novel like other, translated from the French, embracing long descriptive, metaphoric passages, as it navigates 24 hours in the life of a young surfer, through snapshots of all he comes into contact with, or those whose lives will be affected by what has just happened to him. It is unique, original, dramatic, insightful, gut-wrenching at times and stays with you for a long time after, due to its thought-provoking subject.
In the process of writing the book, the author’s father had a heart attack, putting the writing on hold sent her thoughts to even greater depths:
“A few months later I was in Marseille and I wanted to understand what is a heart. I began to think about its double nature: on the one hand you have an organ in your body and on the other you have a symbol of love. From that time I started to pursue the image of a heart crossing the night from one body to another. It is a simple narrative structure but it’s open to a lot of things. I had the intuition that this book could give form to my intimate experience of death.”
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck 🌟🌟🌟
One I’ve tried to read over the years, but never got past the first few pages, this time I succeeded, though wasn’t wowed by it. A German novel focusing on a property by a lake, which we are reminded in the opening pages has been there for millions of years, since the glacial age.
The chapters that follow highlight aspects of the lives of a few human dwellers over a period of about one hundred years, shadowed by the tumultuous history of a landscape and the psyche of those who’ve tried to live in and control it.
“As the day is long and the world is old, many
people can stand in the same place, one after the other.”
– Marie in Woyzeck, by George Buchner
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
I’m no sentimentalist, but when this one abruptly finished, a little salt water leaked from my eyes, witnessed by my 15-year-old son, staring at me in disbelief. It’s brilliant.
A woman sits in a Paris fertility clinic and spends the entire book giving up little updates on what that is all about, while she reflects on her childhood and upbringing in Iran, the lives of her parents, her gender confusion, her great-grandfather and his harem of 52 wives, the blue-eyed gene they all carry, the political activism of her parents, which would send them across the Kurdish mountains to exile in France via Turkey.
The Open Door by Latifa Al-Zayyat 🌟🌟🌟🌟
A unique and riveting view on a young woman’s coming of age in Cairo, Egypt, the roller coaster of emotions she goes through as she hits that turbulent period of becoming aware of the effect she has on a young man and what his proximity does to her.
It is heightened by the fear of how she will be perceived and judged by her peers, family and society, causing her to suppress her feelings and turn inward, when she really wants to express herself or explode. Which path will she choose?
“In ‘El Bab El Maftuh’ (The Open Door), Latifa al-Zayyat took on the widespread misogyny in Egyptian society like no other writer before her. The novel criticised the way women had to behave and dress, without attracting the slightest attention to themselves; the self-hatred with which the protagonist Laila grows up because she is a girl; and the social barriers that are placed in front of young women in the name of tradition and morality.” Sherif Abdel Samad
Smoking Kills by Antoine Laurain 🌟🌟🌟🌟
Another light-hearted novella from one of my favourite French authors for humorous literature, this time he makes a parody of the newly introduced smoking laws, shining a hazy light on the reactions of some members of French society to the law and their efforts to avoid cooperating with it.
One man in particular seeks out a hypnotherapist and then wishes to undo the effect. It’s a laugh-out-loud entertaining read that will delight fans of The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook.
The Other Side of the Mountain by Erendiz Atasü 🌟🌟🌟
It reads like a mix of memoir, history and storytelling, as one woman reflects on her mother’s life, how little she knew of her and struggles to try to understand through what she has left behind.
It’s a theme I’ve noticed recently, the lack of understanding from only knowing a mother for the adult part of her life, the events that shaped her buried deep, coming out in behaviours misunderstood by the generations that follow, pondered on when it’s too late to find out more.
The story is told in the shadow of a period of Turkish history that traverses the Ottoman period to the Republic and beyond, across three generations of women. A little disjointed with the change in narrative perspective, but a thought-provoking and informative read.
“The Revolutionary aim of the Republic was to create a social and cultural synthesis of East and West, and so bright students were sent to leading European universities to be educated not only in the sciences and technology, but also in literature, music and art.”
Hannah’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson
Another story of three generations of women, this time in Sweden and how the environment and attitudes of their community affected the way they dealt with life’s challenges as perceived by their daughters.
Here, a grand-daughter looks back and tries to understand her grandmother, digging into questions never previously asked, ( now demanding of her dying mother) wondering what had been behind the mask this fearful woman presented and how that might have affected her own mother, set against a history of people living on the border of Sweden and Norway from the late 1800’s until to the present.
‘Why isn’t she a proper Gran? Whose lap you can sit on and who tells stories?
And her mother’s voice: ‘She’s old and tired, Anna. She’s had enough of children. And there was never any time for stories in her life?’
She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir
And finally the book I am reading now, the author’s debut novel, an autobiographical, philosophical novel on the human condition, said to have been written as an act of revenge against the women who came between the author and her long time partner Jean-Paul Satre.
The novel’s main character, Françoise, is based on de Beauvoir, and Pierre a thinly disguised Sartre. A younger woman, Xaviere, enters their lives as they form a ménage a trois. Xaviere is a mash-up of sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz.
Have you read any good novels by women in translation recently? Or any of the above?
Do any of those above interest you?