One of my favourite UK based independent publisher is Fitzcarraldo Editions, which specializes in publishing contemporary literature, a combination of translated lit and those with English as the original language. What distinguishes them are the covers – plain and simple, and yet stylish and striking. These covers come in two colours – Blue (for fiction), and White (for non-fiction, typically essay collections). I have read only the ‘Blues’ so far, and these are some of them that I have loved and would recommend.
Of course, this list will evolve and change, as I keep reading more of their books, and also begin delving into the ‘Whites.’
POND by Claire-Louise Bennett
Pond is an intriguing book, an absorbing and lyrical work, and can be interpreted as either a short story collection or a novel with chapters of varying length, all with the same protagonist. Some of these chapters are just one page, others run into twenty pages. Essentially, the book dwells on the thoughts of a woman living by herself in a rented cottage on the west coast of Ireland as she ponders over the pleasures and pitfalls of a life in solitude. Bennett has flair for making poetic observations about mundane, everyday life, and at the same time also creating a slightly unsettling atmosphere. This was the first book that I read from the Fitzcarraldo catalogue, and since then I have always kept an eye on their new releases, which are always interesting and well worth exploring.
THE DOLL’S ALPHABET by Camilla Grudova
The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories, each fantastical, and weird but in a good way. Here’s how the first story ‘Unstitching’ opens:
One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out. Greta was very clean so she swept her old self away and deposited it in the rubbish bin before even taking notice of her new physiognomy, the difficulty of working her new limbs offering no obstruction to her determination to keep a clean home.
Another strong story ‘Agata’s Machine’, is a tale of two eleven year olds – the narrator and Agata, who is a genius excelling in maths and science. One day, Agata shows a sewing machine in her attic to the narrator, and for days on end both the girls are mesmerized by it. This then is an unusual, dark story about obsession and indulging in destructive activity and what happens when it gets out of control.
Sewing machines, dolls, factories, mermaids, babies are some of the recurring motifs in this collection, and a general air of dirt and dereliction permeate all of these stories. Grudova has a way of drawing you into her surreal, unusual world with prose that is enthralling. There is also a whiff of feminism in some of the stories, and an abundance of anachronistic subjects, an ode to something ancient, an older era. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness. Each of these stories is haunting, dark, striking and will stay in your mind for a long, long time.
TELL THEM OF BATTLES, ELEPHANTS & KINGS by Mathias Enard (Translated from French by Charlotte Mandell)
I love Mathias Enard and pretty much plan to read everything he’s written. I was mesmerized by Compass, and the only reason why I have not included that book here is because I read the Open Letter edition.
But his shorter and latest work, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is also excellent. At the end of this slim novella, Mathias Enard lists a series of factual events with proof of their existence. One of them in essence is that the Sultan had invited the celebrated sculptor and artist – Michelangelo – to build a bridge over the Golden Horn in Constantinople. There is no record that Michelangelo ever took up this offer and travelled to the East. That’s because he never did.
But Mathias Enard cleverly builds his story around this premise – What if Michelangelo had accepted the Sultan’s project?
Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants then is a wonderful slice of alternative history that also allows Enard to revisit his favourite theme – the meeting of the East and the West in the pursuit of art. It is a short book and a great entry point into Enard’s work, if one is daunted by his bigger books.
HURRICANE SEASON by Fernanda Melchor (Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes)
Right from the beginning, the pace of Hurricane Season never lets up. Set in the decrepit village of La Matosa in rural Mexico, the book begins when a group of boys playing in the fields come across a corpse floating in the irrigation canal, immediately identified as that of the Witch. The Witch is a highly reviled figure in the village, an object of malicious gossip and pretty much an outcast to most of La Matosa’s inhabitants.
The murder of the Witch then forms the foundation upon which the bulk of the novel rests. We are presented with four main narratives which circle around and closer to her murder, providing more details as the novel progresses. But other the gruesome killing itself, Melchor highlights a toxic environment where the characters are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty, casual violence, and sexual abuse ingrained into their psyche with no hope of a better future.
Despite such a dark subject matter, Hurricane Season is brilliant and incredibly fascinating. Melchor’s prose is brutal, electrifying and hurtles at the reader like a juggernaut. The sentences are long and there are no paragraphs but that in no way makes the book difficult to read. Rather, this style propels the narrative forward and ratchets up the tension, always keeping the reader on the edge. A cleverly told tale with a compelling structure at its heart, Melchor’s vision is unflinching and fearless.
THE OTHER NAME (SEPTOLOGY I-II) by Jon Fosse (Translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls)
I have been waxing eloquent about The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse, one of my favourite books this year, and one which I will highlight again here. The Other Name is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.
As I write this, I have been reading another latest Fitzcarraldo Edition – The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer, a novella that is less than 100 pages, and as fascinating as I expected. Maybe, it will join the list the next time I compile one.