Bergeners – Tomas Espedal (tr. James Anderson)

They say you should never judge a book by its cover. But this adage is hardly apt for the Kolkata based Seagull Books, whose book covers are as enticing as the content within the pages.

Seagull Books has been doling out compelling literature in translation and it is good to see that it is being recognized for some major prizes as well.

Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners caught my attention because it was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year.

Bergeners
Seagull Books Edition

Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners opens in New York in the fancy Standard Hotel.

New York City. The Standard Hotel. Room 1103. The loveliest room I’d ever seen. So transparent, so open, so white and severe.

The city was in the room. The room was in the city, like a transparent cube with glass walls.

Tomas is there with his partner Janne but we are immediately told that it is not going to end well as Janne reveals her intention to end their relationship. It’s a break-up that unsettles Tomas greatly and in some way forms the core of his subsequent loneliness.

It’s not just Janne who has left him though. We learn later that his daughter from a previous marriage has moved out of their house (as young adults are bound to do) to shift to Oslo.

You don’t become lonely by being alone. It’s when you’ve got used to living with a lover and children and all the surrounding family and friends, it’s when you suddenly lose all this, all these things you’ve become fond of and reliant on, that you become lonely.

Bergeners is not a straightforward book by all accounts, quite indefinable infact. It has personal, autobiographical shades to it, and yet it is not your standard autobiography fare. The narration is an amalgam of diary entries, poetry, short stories, ruminations on art and reflections on the people of Bergen.   In a way the thin line between fact and fiction is quite blurred as is the narrative voice which shifts between the first person and the third.

There is a restless quality to the book as Tomas travels to places such as Madrid, Italy, Oslo, Nicaragua, Berlin and so on. And yet, paradoxically, he has reached a phase where he does not wish to travel any more…

You’ve done all your travelling, seen what you wanted to see, and what you haven’t seen, you can’t be bothered with.

There are some absorbing pieces on the process of writing as well. In one titled ‘The Writer Who Doesn’t Write’, Tomas travels to an upland village in Italy to meet the writer Harold Costello. The house Costello is living in is perfect, and yet he is staring at a dilemma…

I made a bit of money, travelled around Europe and stumbled on this house which I bought. I thought that this would be the perfect place too, the perfect house, the perfect place to write. I moved here to write. Everything in the house and in the garden and all around me was arranged with just one object, to write. But in all the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never managed to write anything worthwhile.

In a personal narrative of this sort, it’s not surprising to see the presence of other Norwegian authors, and here it includes the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Dag Solstad. As an aside, I have not read Knausgaard but I have read Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18 and it’s brilliant.

Espedal’s conversation particularly with Dag Solstad is laced with humour.

For some reason, I let it be known that I was reading Thomas Mann’s diaries in German. Yes, Thomas Mann wrote his diary every evening before he went to bed, said Dag Solstad. Every evening without fail that diary had to be written, every evening, every single evening before he went to bed. Why didn’t he just go to bed, roared Dag Solstad suddenly.

I am partial to art and like books that talk about art and there is some of that here as well. Once again, it is Dag Solstad who gives Espedal perspective on how the latter should be seeing Goya’s Black Paintings.

Well, if you want to view Goya’s Black Paintings in the Prado, you’ve got to walk straight through the first rooms without turning your head. You mustn’t stop or look at a single painting. Just go through as fast as you can with blinkers on, all the way to the innermost room of the museum. That’s where Goya’s Black Paintings are on display. After you’ve seen them, you must leave the museum immediately, in just the same manner as you came in, Dag Solstad said.

As I write this piece I realize that my review is possibly quite fragmentary as I can’t quite put a finger on how best to describe this wonderful novel, but perhaps that’s fitting given the nature and tone of the book itself. Essentially, to me this novel was an immersive experience and I will be exploring more Espedal.

Translation credits from the Norwegian go to James Anderson.

Death in Spring – Merce Rodoreda (tr. Martha Tennent)

Last time, I had highlighted how August was the month for Women in Translation (WIT), and the first book I had reviewed was Yuko Tsushima’s rather wonderful Territory of Light.

Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring is the second novel I will be discussing this WIT month.

Death in Spring (my edition is from Open Letter Books) was a novel that had been sitting somewhere at the back of my shelves, unnoticed, for more than a couple of years.

But then the novel received another lease of life when it was recently re-issued by Penguin Books under the Penguin European Writers series.

This, and the fact that it was once again favourably received by the blogging community, meant that it was time for me to extract the book from obscurity, dust off the pages and plunge right in…

Death in Spring
Open Letter Books Hardback Edition

Death in Spring is one of those strange yet compelling books that is difficult to write about.

In essence, the novel is about the power and force of nature, the burden of customs and the price of rebellion.

The novel is set in an unknown village where bizarre, cruel customs rule the roost. For instance, every spring the houses are painted with red powder that the men and boys gather from a cave braving the rough weather and howling winds.

Pregnant women are blindfolded…

They covered their eyes because if they gazed at other men, the children they were carrying would also take a peek and begin to resemble the men.

Then there are the faceless men…men who have been physically destroyed because they were made to swim from one end of the river to another to ensure that the water current does not obliterate the village.

Once a man had lost his face, he was always in the company of another faceless man. It was as though they had never had anything at all; being mutilated meant relinquishing whatever they possessed. When they were among themselves they talked about the water and the strange taste of the drink they were forced to swallow before swimming through the river.

Not to mention, every individual about to die is buried in the bark of a tree which has been marked out for him but not before cement is poured into his/her mouth to prevent the soul from escaping.

The novel is told from the perspective of a fourteen year old boy. In the earlier pages, he sees a man go into the forest and bury himself into a tree only to realize the shocking truth…

Death in spring. I threw myself on the ground, on top of the pebbles, my heart drained of blood, my hands icy. I was fourteen years old, and the man who had entered the tree to die was my father.

From thereon, he becomes fast friends with his wild stepmother, who is only a couple of years older to him. For this very reason he becomes the object of constant ridicule and jeer from the villagers.

The villagers used to say my stepmother was a bit retarded, but I didn’t think she was.

Various other strange characters people the tale. There is the elder Senyor who “lived at the top of the small mountain that was cleaved by a cliff and overlooked the village, protecting and menacing.”

There is the blacksmith who had a house at the entrance to the village, and who is entrusted with the task of making a plaque and a ring for every individual born in the village.

And there’s the prisoner who seems to be the only one to really gauge what is going on…the prisoners were essentially thieves whom the villagers punished “by taking away their humanity.”

As I mentioned earlier, nature is a powerful entity in the novel, apparent from the first page itself. The mass of water that descends from the mountains – “all the waters joined together in the delirium of joining and flowed endlessly.” The strong wisteria vines – “the wisteria that over the years upwrenched the houses.” And the pounding wind when the men climb the Maraldina mountain – “the wind was telling us that ours is a senseless job, something that was better left undone.”

In other words, in the battle between nature and man, nature often has the upper hand and how.

There are moments of rebellion too, and attempts to stifle them. Pretty much outcasts, in one chapter, the unnamed boy and his step mother go on a disruptive spree. They scrape the red powder from the cave, and throw it into the well – there is now a dearth of colour to paint the houses in the spring. They throw the paint brushes into the river. They go to the forest and wreak havoc by removing the rings and plaques from the trees and letting the bones of the dead spill out from the barks.

It’s their way of rebelling against the cruel, harrowing customs that the village insists on following.

The unrest that had commenced at the cave returned. Between young and old. For some time the young from the wash district had been saying that people should be left to die their own death. The old men from the slaughterhouse argued that everything should continue as before.

What is the driving force behind these destructive customs? Why do the old men insist on following them?

It’s fear. They want to be afraid. They want to believe, and they want to suffer, suffer, only suffer and they choke the dying to make them suffer even more, so they’ll suffer till their last breath, so that no good moment can ever exist. They are consumed by the fear of desire. They want to suffer so they won’t think about desire.

Death in Spring is the portrayal of a disturbing society steeped in death and decay, and Merce Rodoreda manages to do so in prose that is lyrical, poetic and hypnotic. Lush descriptions abound, an air of strangeness seeps through all pages of the novel and there is a fairy-tale like feel to the narrative. This is not a tale told in a linear fashion, rather it’s like art cinema – moody and atmospheric.

On one level, Death in Spring could be construed as a metaphor for the strange times we live in; the disquieting trend of certain nations resisting change and progress, wanting instead to re-live a ‘not-so palatable’ past.

The blurb on the back of my edition says:

A book for the ages, Death in Spring can be read as a metaphor for Franco’s Spain (or any oppressed society), or as a mythological quest novel.”

I cannot help but agree.

Translation credits from the Catalan go to Martha Tennent.

Territory of Light – Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

August is Women in Translation month – both authors and translators. And so, it only seemed fitting to kick it off with Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a novel which had generally received strong reviews and which I ended up liking a great deal as well.

Territory of Light
Penguin Classics Edition

When the novel opens, we learn that the protagonist has just separated from her husband and has moved with her daughter into a new apartment in Tokyo.

It’s an apartment that she takes to immediately suffused as it is with light – hence the title of the novel.

But once you got the door open, the apartment was filled with light at any hour of the day. The kitchen and dining area immediately inside had a red floor, which made the aura all the brighter. Entering from the dimness of the stairwell, you practically had to squint.

‘Ooh, it’s warm, it’s pretty!’ My daughter, who was about to turn three, gave a shout the first time she was bathed in the room’s light.

‘Isn’t it cosy? The sun’s great, isn’t it?’

Clearly, these are new beginnings, but not without its fair share of challenges, as the mother will gradually realize.

Her husband has no intention of providing child support citing his inability to do so although he dotes on the daughter. This means that the responsibility of providing for her child falls on her. Her daily routine involves dropping off her daughter in day care, after which she goes to her workplace and then picking her up on the way back.

Slowly, but surely as the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that the woman is struggling in her role as a single mother.

By the time I’d tidied up and finished preparing a breakfast which also served as lunch, it was after one o’clock. If I did the pile of laundry, the shopping and the cleaning, it would be time for dinner. There was some ironing and mending too. The very thought made me so tired I sank down again on to the tatami. Would this Sunday go by, like all the others, without a single thing happening? I felt myself waiting for something, more wearily than eagerly by now.

Her child is demanding and prone to weeping bouts in the night and the mother is at her wits’ end as to how to put an end to it.

Meanwhile, the mother’s loneliness also begins to come to the fore.

There is one poignant incident in the novel where she is trying to arrange a birthday party for her daughter. She is figuring out who to call, and realizes there are not many she can eventually invite.

And she finds herself latching on to relationships with men which are vague with no real future.

The strain of being alone and single-handedly raising her daughter besides initiating divorce proceedings with her husband, begins to get too much, something very subtly highlighted by the author Tsushima.

There are instances where the mother struggles to get up from her bed and is more or less always late in dropping off her daughter at daycare despite repeated warnings.

And in one particular moment of frustration, she leaves her daughter alone and goes off to a bar to relive “those carefree, lively times” only to return home late at night, drunk.

We both walked unsteadily, each belting out a different song. Multicoloured lights swarmed brightly and beautifully all around the station, and the road leading to my building glowed faintly red as it meandered through them, pulsing like a blood vessel.

Territory of Light is also a novel about control – about how the woman is struggling to control herself, and at the same time how society in a way is imposing its opinions on her without really helping her. For instance, many of the woman’s so called well-wishers point out to her the folly of divorce and why she needs to go back to her husband (ironically, it is the husband who wanted out, although that fact becomes blurred later on in the novel).

And then, there is an incident where her neighbours force her to put a blue mesh on her windows in order to put an end to her daughter’s misbehavior.

If all of this makes the novel appear bleak, it is hardly so. Tsushima’s writing is simple, lucid, invigorating, and there is a freshness to her prose that adds poignancy to the mother’s plight.

The novel is made up of twelve chapters, with poetic titles such as ‘The Water’s Edge’, ‘A Dream of Birds’, ‘Sunday in the Trees’, ‘The Magic Words’ to name a few. The gentle nature of these titles, however, bely the harsh reality of the mother’s life depicted in each of these chapters.

In a nutshell, being a single mother is hardly a piece of cake, something that Yuko Tsushima can attest to given her own background as a divorced mother. Hence, her startling ability to convincingly portray it in this novel.

Translation credits from the Japanese go to Geraldine Harcourt.