Scattered All Over the Earth – Yoko Tawada (tr. Margaret Mitsutani)

Language and identity seems to be the major theme of my August reading. Just a few days back I reviewed Audrey Magee’s brilliant novel The Colony, which touched upon those topics, and now here I am writing about Yoko Tawada’s Scattered All Over the Earth which highlights those very ideas but in a completely different and unique way. This was my first Tawada and I liked it so much that I definitely plan to read her earlier books particularly The Emissary and Memoirs of a Polar Bear.

Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop.

The novel is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.

“Even when an empire sinks to the bottom of the sea,” he said, “it doesn’t disappear from history because it lives on in memory, from generation to generation, and then somebody decides they want to revive it. But isn’t there something frightening about the idea of bringing an empire back to life? Of course it’s fine to fix something that’s broken, to restore it to its original condition. But doesn’t the idea of reviving an empire bother you?”

The book opens in Copenhagen with Knut, a Danish linguist, sprawled on the sofa watching TV. Knut lives alone, his parents divorced when he was a kid, and his relationship with his mother is hazy and strained.  While flipping TV channels, Knut comes across an interview with the other central character in the book, Hiruko. We learn that Hiruko was a citizen from the ‘land of sushi’ forced to relocate once her country of origin disappeared. Hiruko now resides in Odense, having secured a post at the Märchen Centre. Having created her own language called ‘Panska’ or ‘homemade language’; it’s how she communicates with the immigrant children who attend the centre where she narrates stories showing picture dramas.

“recent immigrants wander place to place. no country obliged to let them in has. not clear if they can stay. only three countries I experienced. no time to learn three different languages. might mix up. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language most scandinavian people understand.”

As a linguist interested in all sorts of languages including the ones that have vanished and are no longer spoken, Knut is struck by the interview and immediately calls up the TV station to connect with Hiruko. He discovers that Hiruko is keen to travel to Trier in Germany to visit the Umami festival where a ‘dashi’ competition is set to take place.

“I’m sure that sometime in the future, when fish are extinct, people will rely on chefs to extract fish traces, distant memories of fish from plants that grow in the sea. That is my project: I call it ‘Dashi Research’.”

On learning that a man named Tenzo is hosting it, Hiruko is excited about the prospect of connecting with someone from her vanished homeland, a chance to seek out her roots and communicate in her now extinct language in a world where she often feels adrift. Knut, interested in how the encounter between Hiruko and Tenzo will play out, decides to join her.

On their quest to locate Tenzo, their travels take them to Trier, Oslo, Arles where they meet a host of people along the way; chance meetings which quickly transform into easy friendships. They come across Akash, a Marathi speaking, red sari-clad transgender student; Nora, a blonde German who has arranged the Umami festival at the Karl Marx House in Trier and is also Tenzo’s lover, and then Tenzo himself whose case is that of mistaken identity – he is not Japanese but a Greenlander. Not to mention, a mysterious character called Susanoo, who disillusioned with the robots his father designs in Fukui turns towards a career in ship building in Kiel, only to completely change course again and become a sushi chef in Arles.  

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole.   

The themes depicted are pretty wide-ranging. First up is the idea of language, nationality and loss of identity, a topic touched upon through Hiruko’s dilemma. In the modern world, borders, nationalities, clear-cut identities heavily define an individual, but what happens when these are obliterated? What becomes the fate of people who find themselves in the murky in-between, those caught in a Kafkaesque position of belonging nowhere on paper – refugees and immigrants in particular? As her country no longer exists, Hiruko and the rest of her kinsfolk become stateless refugees overnight forced to migrate all over the globe, struggling to eke out new identities and begin life anew.  Other characters like Tenzo are surprised to discover how race and identity matter so much in urban cities, things he had hardly ever given a thought to during his childhood in remote Greenland (“I wasn’t ashamed of being an Eskimo, but a whole life with just one identity seemed kind of dull”).

We get an inkling of the fraught complexities of language and communication as the novel progresses and how helpless refugees are almost always at the receiving end, their fates sealed by the whims, fancies and random policies of governments. For instance, in the dystopian world of Tawada’s creation, Hiruko invents the homemade language because she desires to procure residency in Scandinavia; however, Europe wants to pare down welfare costs and are more than willing to pack refugees off to America where English-language speakers are in demand, but Hiruko afraid of being deported to America refuses to speak English freely even though she can. Tenzo, meanwhile, displays a flair for languages conjuring up a ‘second identity’ for himself (“Learning a new language that would give me a second identity at the same time was much more fun”). One can’t help but feel that language is probably a theme close to Tawada’s heart given her background – Tawada was born in Tokyo but has lived in Germany for 40 years and writes in both German and Japanese.

“Once when I asked Cho who had taught him all this tuff, like how to press rice into little oblongs for sushi, or what to boil to make dashi for miso-shiru, or how to make perfect agedashi tofu, he told me he’d learned it all from a French chef at a hotel where he’d worked in Paris. I was shocked. “When the original no longer exists,” he said, “there’s nothing you can do except look for the best copy.”

The debilitating impact of climate change as well as natural and man-made disasters is another theme explored in the novel. Japan’s disappearance forms the cornerstone of this idea but through Susanoo’s monologue we are also introduced to how the construction of nuclear power plants affects a community as livelihoods dependent on nature (read: fishing) are lost. Then there’s the dead whale whose survival skills are destroyed by the greed of oil companies boring laser beams deep into the sea to detect oil deposits.

But what I really loved about the novel was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.   Tawada’s modern world might be a complex, frightening space but no such barriers exist in the way her motley band of travellers openly befriend one another on parameters not related to race, class, identity and language.

The novel is also delightfully funny in places largely fuelled by cultural misunderstandings. I am reminded of a particular conversation between Hiruko and Akash intently engaged in a heated discussion about the origin of the word Osho, whether it’s a proper noun (the famous sage Osho with his ashram in India), or a common noun (osho, which means Buddhist priest).

As far as the book’s structure is concerned, the reader is presented with myriad points of view – first-person retellings with each character narrating a chapter or two. The language is plain but the story is richly imagined, and the narrative is drenched with an energy that propels it forward turning it into an immersive, absorbing read.

Scattered All Over the Earth, then, is a fascinating prism of a novel refracting a slew of varied ideas; a delectable mash-up of exotic ingredients that are a joy to savour. Highly recommended!

The Colony – Audrey Magee

Audrey Magee’s The Colony came on my radar thanks as always to Book Twitter and also because of its inclusion on the 2022 Booker Prize longlist. It’s such a terrific novel, very deserving of the accolades being heaped upon it.

More than halfway through the book, Mr Lloyd, an Englishman and Mr Masson, a Frenchman, are typically engaged in another one of their combative conversations. Mr Masson, a linguist and a passionate supporter of endangered languages, resents the Englishman, fearing his unhealthy influence on the island’s residents, the unwelcome changes that will be felt not only in how they communicate but also in the way they think. Mr Lloyd, a painter, looking to revive his artistic career, has arrived on the island seeking solitude and introspection, some much needed inspiration for his art, but the Frenchman’s presence threatens to derail his plans. The two can’t stand each other and Masson, particularly, laments how Lloyd’s presence is slowly resulting in the island’s younger generation switching to speaking English rather than preserve their Irish roots. Lloyd, of course, does not see the problem in that; it is after all a matter of choice. And he, in turn, goads Masson, questioning the Frenchman’s hypocrisy – why does Masson wax so eloquently on Irish heritage and criticize England, when his own country France has colonized Algeria. So why isn’t Masson fighting to preserve Arabic culture in Algeria?

This is just one of the many ideas and exchanges that lace Audrey Magee’s The Colony, an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

A LAYERED STORY & VIBRANT CAST OF CHARACTERS

The Colony is set around the time of the Troubles, a very violent period for England and Ireland who were at loggerheads over the fate of Northern Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Carrying his easel and other painting paraphernalia, he enlists the help of two boatmen to ferry him across the waters to the island, even though he is fairly warned of how arduous the journey will be. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, complaining of certain aspects of the cottage rented not being to his requirements, but eventually settles down. Lloyd is explicitly told not sketch the island’s residents, but while he initially agrees, soon enough he breaks that rule.

After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and known to the islanders because he had stayed there in the prior years too for the purposes of his research. To Masson, an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence.

The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two.

We then come to the island’s residents themselves, four generations of a fisherman family residing there; a family which forms the cornerstone of Masson’s research.

The oldest is Bean Uí Fhloinn, the great grandmother, who is ancient in every sense of the word and speaks and understands only Irish, refusing to let outside influences sway her. She remains Masson’s favourite character, a sort of a symbol of her heritage, a potent bulwark against foreign influences. Masson assiduously records her talk on his tape-recorder, reveling in the unique inflections and patterns in her manner of speech. Her daughter, Bean Uí Néill, understands English but does not speak it and in that sense is closer in outlook to her mother. The next generation, Bean Uí Néill’s daughter Mairéad and Mairéad’s son James are a different kettle of fish (pun intended), more welcoming of the Englishman and his thinking. Lloyd’s influence is palpable in Mairéad and James; Mairéad begins to speak some English when she is with him, while James the truly bilingual one in the family, easily fluent in both English and Irish, sticks to speaking English around him. James is enamoured by Lloyd’s profession as an artist and aspires to be an artist himself ready to travel with Lloyd to London for an exhibition; he rebels against his family tradition of being a fisherman, not interested in the least to emulate his late father, uncle and grandfather – fishermen who drowned many years ago in a storm.

James seethes about being holed up on the island and while he performs his duties of catching rabbits for dinner, he shows no aptitude for training as a fisherman. Slowly but surely he begins to spend more and more time with Lloyd, entranced by his paintings, and even begins to dabble in art himself. James also dislikes Masson for the latter’s insistence on calling him by his Irish name Seamus, despite James vocally expressing his displeasure.

Mairéad grieves her husband who drowned along with her brother and father and begins wondering whether household chores are all she is destined to do and if there is life beyond the island. She sleeps with Masson, which everyone is aware of; and in an intense desire to venture into unchartered territory she also begins to secretly model for Lloyd during the day, a fact that she keeps to herself although suspicions are subsequently roused.

Last but not the least are Francis and Micheál…Francis is Mairéad’s brother-in-law and wishes to eventually marry her, he is conservative to the core and remains dubious of Lloyd’s intentions. While Micheál is the typical businessman who sniffing an opportunity, promises both Masson and Lloyd a quiet accommodation without informing beforehand of the other man’s presence, purely motivated by money.

The island seems cut-off from the mainland, but news from the north filters through to its inhabitants leading to fraught discussions. Alternating between the narratives on the island are short reportage-type paragraphs highlighting bombing and terrorist activities, as well as murder and killings rampant from both the Irish and the English side.  

THOUGHT-PROVOKING THEMES AND IDEAS

The Colony, then, is an allegorical tale; a rich, unique, multilayered novel on the complexities of colonization, the nuances associated with embracing global culture, evolution of society and what it means to preserve culture and heritage in an ever-changing world. It’s a meditation on language and identity and how the two are often interconnected.

The legacy of colonialism and its complications, particularly, forms the nucleus of the novel. Going back in history, European countries such as Britain, France, Netherlands, Spain and Portugal among others were notorious in amassing colonies in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries; they were rivals showing off not only their military strength but also the nations they ruled which were termed as “colonies”; countries they captured through the guise of trade and by taking advantage of their political weakness. Yes, there was progress made in infrastructure, healthcare and literacy, but one could not deny the loss of identity, widespread exploitation and constant conflict either.

In the book, the gradual death of Irish language and heritage and the emergence of English as a potent force is a topic explored through Masson’s dissertation as he observes the four generations of inhabitants on that remote island.  Often, history is an account of victories and conquests, the winners script the narrative, the vanquished are pushed to the margins, their stories obliterated. The same holds true for languages, why some die, others evolve and a few like the English language take centre-stage globally. As various nations seek progress, growth and rapid change in the quest for better opportunities and improved standards of living, the language that is widely accepted globally becomes the chief mode of communication, and in the tryst between English and Irish, the annals of history gave greater weight to the former.

The novel also explores the tug of war between the idea of embracing new cultures and expanding one’s outlook versus fiercely protecting one’s heritage and resisting change – James is the voice of the younger generation, ambitious, willing to experiment and seek better opportunities for himself rather than being tied down by tradition and the old way of life. His great grandmother is the complete opposite, preferring to preserve her roots, resisting change with an iron will and happy to be self-sufficient and exist within the confines of the island; content with her world however narrow it is and not at all interested in broadening her outlook. 

Masson, himself, is a complex character in this regard. He might hate the English for playing a major role in diminishing the worth of the Irish language and roots, but has somewhat of a complicated history himself as evinced from the series of flashbacks that offer glimpses into his childhood. Born to a French father and an Algerian mother, Masson’s mother takes great pains to educate her son in Arabic but Masson resists it with all his might as he identifies more with his French roots. Masson’s father is an uncouth soldier, and the mother finds herself increasingly isolated, yearning for a life of literature, culture and ideas. She finds solace in frequenting Arabic cafes with its atmosphere of intellectual discussions, and tries to project some of her hopes onto Masson but to no avail. Here’s Masson’s father inwardly lashing at the Algerians…

…indifferent to his status as a decorated soldier, indifferent when those men should be on their knees in gratitude to him for his service to the country, for risking his life against the savages in Algeria, those dirty nomads who emerged from the desert sands to demand independence from France when it was France that paved their streets, educated their children, built their towns, their town halls, their schools, hospitals, houses, supplied their water, their sanitation. All of it built by France.

The book also dwells on questions of what constitutes art, the professional but nebulous relationship between an artist and his pupil, what can be recorded and what can’t and how the views accordingly vary, and of course the process itself of creating art.

He drew waves pounding the rock, sea hammering the cliff, ocean crashing into the island. He drew water foaming and frothing, water splashing, water surging, page after page, none of it capturing the thundering roar of the Atlantic Ocean on its passage east from America, south-east from the Arctic Circle. How do you draw noise, Mr Lloyd? How do I paint the clangour of battle between ocean and land, sea and rock? The sounds reverberating against the stone, cracking the air? The raucousness of gulls? Of terns? I draw them open-beaked, but still they are silent.

UNIQUE WRITING STYLE

There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths. As the book progresses, often, we see shifts in perspectives in the middle of a paragraph reminiscent of Galgut’s writing particularly in The Promise. Through her crisp, spare writing style punctuated with bursts of poetic intensity, Magee brilliantly conveys a stream of ideas and brings out the intricacies of the themes she explores through myriad perspectives. The first quarter of the novel has a filmic feel to it particularly when we are inside Lloyd’s mind as he perceives his surroundings in terms of paintings he might be inspired to create.

They left the harbour, passing rocks blackened and washed smooth by waves, gulls resting on the stagnant surface, starting as they rowed past.

self-portrait: with gulls and rocks

self-portrait: with boatmen, gulls and rocks

TO CONCLUDE WITH SOME POINTS TO PONDER

In a nutshell, The Colony is a brilliant book, a worthy inclusion on the Booker Prize longlist, one that explores contentious issues – colonialism, violence, culture – that remain topics of intense debates even today. As an Indian, it forced me to think a bit about British colonial rule in India and its implications. While Indians have reaped benefits of being fluent in the English language and have emerged as a force to reckon with on the global centre-stage, the question still remains – would we have progressed had the British not ruled the country for over 200 years? Amartya Sen has penned a very insightful article in this regard for The Guardian. I’ll leave you with the following paragraphs from his piece…

“It is extremely hard to guess with any confidence what course the history of the Indian subcontinent would have taken had the British conquest not occurred. Would India have moved, like Japan, towards modernisation in an increasingly globalising world, or would it have remained resistant to change, like Afghanistan, or would it have hastened slowly, like Thailand?

“I was persuaded that Marx was basically right in his diagnosis of the need for some radical change in India, as its old order was crumbling as a result of not having been a part of the intellectual and economic globalisation that the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution had initiated across the world (along with, alas, colonialism).

There was arguably, however, a serious flaw in Marx’s thesis, in particular in his implicit presumption that the British conquest was the only window on the modern world that could have opened for India. What India needed at the time was more constructive globalisation, but that is not the same thing as imperialism. The distinction is important.”

A Month of Reading – July 2022

July was a great month of reading in terms of quality; an excellent novella, a terrific short story collection, and two impressive crime novels. And of course, the sixth book from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – Deadlock – for #PilgrimageTogether.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first four you can click on the links.

MAUD MARTHA by Gwendolyn Brooks

First released in the US in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel published by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet. It’s a striking and evocative portrayal of black womanhood in 1940s Chicago told with poetic grace and intensity.

Composed of 34 vignettes, sometimes bite-sized, sometimes running into not more than four pages, these mini-portraits build up to beautifully convey not only the experiences and dreams of the titular character but also the broader aspirations of her community and the difficulty in attaining them due to class and race barriers. 

Maud Martha lives life on her own terms, and refuses to let regrets, disillusionments and the cruelty of racism bog her down. It’s her refusal to let ways of society always dictate her actions that is testament to her spirit and individuality and gives the novella its power.

TIME: THE PRESENT SELECTED STORIES by Tess Slesinger

Time: The Present is a superb collection of 19 stories exploring marriage, relationships, unemployment and class differences  where Tess Slesinger displays the kind of psychological acuity that make them so distinct and memorable.

Most of these stories were published in the 1930s in various journals and publications and capture the great turmoil of the period; a country grappling with the Great Depression and its crippling, sobering consequences on everyday living as well as the grim prospect of the Second World War looming large.

Some examples – “The Friedmans’ Annie” is superb and poignant, a terrific portrayal of the internal drama of a woman and an incisive tale of class differences and manipulation, while Slesinger’s flair for sarcasm and sharp, biting observations are on full display in the piece “Jobs in the Sky.” “Ben Grader Makes a Call” explores the psychological consequences of unemployment on a relationship, while “Missis Flinders” is a scalpel-like, hard-hitting tale of an abortion, the emotional burden of which sets in motion the unraveling of a marriage.

What’s remarkable about Time: The Present is the sheer variety of themes on display marked by Slesinger’s grasp on a wide range of subjects. At once astute, razor-sharp, gut-wrenching, tragic, perceptive and wise, Time: The Present is a magnificent collection, one that definitely deserves to be better known.

SUNBURN by Laura Lippman

Sunburn takes its name from the opening scene in the novel. Adam Bosk is drinking at the bar of a rundown motel called High-Ho in the equally dead-end town of Belleville, Delaware. He observes an attractive redheaded woman, our protagonist Polly, just a few barstools away from him, all by herself and lost in thought. Her shoulders are peeling from too much exposure to the sun.

Adam finds her presence in this small, unremarkable town a bit disconcerting. Belleville is not the kind of place that screams tourism; on the contrary, it’s the sort of place that no person will even look at twice. But for that matter, the same could be said of Adam. What is Adam Bosk also doing in this run-of-the-mill town?

Sunburn, then, is a riveting piece of noir fiction that explores themes of identity, violence, survival and trying to start life afresh. With Lippman’s flair for sharp dialogues and the creation of an unforgettable, tough-as-nails female lead, Sunburn is smart, expertly-paced and intelligently written, and well worth one’s time.  

IN THE WOODS by Tana French

Tana French’s In The Woods, the first in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is a fascinating gothic mystery, but also a beautifully written novel of memory, identity and childhood trauma.

The place is Knocknaree, a small County Dublin town, sparsely developed with its housing estate bordered by the deep, dense woods quite vast. During that particular summer in August 1984, three children aged twelve – Peter Savage, Jamie Rowan and Adam Ryan – ventured into the woods as usual, but two of them never returned. Fast forward to twenty years later.  Our narrator is Rob Ryan, newly accepted into the elite Dublin Murder Squad, having assiduously worked his way to get there. We immediately learn that Rob Ryan is actually Adam Ryan, but he has deliberately changed his identity to begin life anew and leave his troubled past behind.

Also, a new recruit is Cassie Maddox, one of the very few women to find a place on the squad. Cassie is a tough young woman, exhibiting a flair for human psychology and profiling, adept at navigating the trickier moments of misogyny displayed by a heavily male squad. After a warm, cozy evening of wine, music and conversation reminiscent of their student days, Rob and Cassie quickly become best friends, pairing up to take on cases.

Gradually building up a solid reputation and a good solve rate, Rob and Cassie go from strength to strength until they land up with the Devlin case. For Rob, the Devlin case is a trigger for his old ghosts returning to haunt him. Strictly from a point of view of conflict, Rob shouldn’t be on the case, but he can’t tear himself away, a part of him wants to know the truth. What if the two cases are linked?

It’s a deliciously slow-burn of a novel (although at times one does feel it’s a tad too long), but French’s prose is electrifying and gorgeous, blurring the lines between literary fiction and traditional crime. 

DEADLOCK (PILGRIMAGE 3) by Dorothy Richardson

Deadlock is the sixth installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel and Interim.   

Just like in Interim, in Deadlock, Miriam continues to be in London, residing at Mrs Bailey’s on Tansley Street and working at the Orly dental practice for Dr Hancock and the partners on Wimpole Street.

The striking feature about Deadlock is Miriam’s relationship with a Russian Jew boarding at Mrs Bailey’s – Michael Shatov. At first, Shatov comes to Miriam to improve his English, and as the book progresses, Miriam is stimulated by Shatov’s intelligence and towering personality and gradually finds herself attracted by him. Deadlock is peppered with intellectual conversations between the two on myriad topics such as Russian Literature, particularly Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, philosophy, the meaning of race, and the advantages of English privilege, and sometimes on events that are personal to both.

They even kiss in the final chapters but one gets a sense that this is not a relationship that will move forward, one of the reasons being that Miriam baulks at the idea of converting to Judaism should she marry Shatov, although he has no expectations from her in this regard.

In the middle sections of the book, a translation project given to Miriam by one of Mrs Bailey’s boarders, a Frenchman called Lahitte gives Miriam much pleasure as she revels in the joys of solitude and writing, of sitting at her desk in her room absorbed in her work. Here’s a passage from that chapter that highlights that feeling…

It was a curious marvel, a revelation irrevocably put down, reflecting a certain sort of character….. more oneself than anything that could be done socially, together with others, and yet not herself at all, but something mysterious, drawn uncalculatingly from some fund of common consent, part of a separate impersonal life she had now unconsciously confessed herself as sharing. She remained bent motionless in the attitude of writing, to discover the quality of her strange state. The morning was raw with dense fog; at her Wimpole Street ledgers she would by this time have been cramped with cold; but she felt warm and tingling with life as if she had been dancing, or for a long while in happy social contact; yet so differently; deeply and serenely alive and without the blank anxious looking for the continuance of social excitement. This something would continue, it was in herself, independently.

And the chapter concludes with the following paragraph of the joys of her room which she experienced when she first came to stay at Mrs Baileys…

Rising from the table she found her room strange, the new room she had entered on the day of her arrival. She remembered drawing the cover from the table by the window and finding the ink-stains. There they were in the warm bright circle of mid-morning lamplight, showing between the scattered papers. The years that had passed were a single short interval leading to the restoration of that first moment. Everything they contained centred there; her passage through them, the desperate graspings and droppings, had been a coming back. Nothing would matter now that the paper-scattered lamp-lit circle was established as the centre of life. Everything would be an everlastingly various joyful coming back. Held up by this secret place, drawing her energy from it, any sort of life would do that left this room and its little table free and untouched.

But she also remains wary of the shortcomings of her writings as evinced by the criticism heaped upon her by the celebrated writer Hypo Wilson (HG Wells in real life) when she shows him some of her translations. We getting an inkling of it in her conversation with Shatov…

“Well. What did he say?”

“Oh, nothing; he made a great opportunity. He didn’t like the stories.”

“Remarkable!”

“I did it all the wrong way. When I accepted their invitation I wrote that I was bringing down some translations of the loveliest short stories I had ever read.” I was suddenly proud, in Lyons, of remembering “short stories” and excited about having something written to show him at last. The sentence felt like an entry into their set.

“If he did not agree with this I pity him.”

“I don’t know how it would have been if I had said nothing at all.” He might have said look here this is good stuff. You must do something with this.

“I tell you again this man is superficial.”

As I mentioned earlier, Miriam is not convinced by the fact of what it means for a woman to convert into Judaism, a point that stops her from committing to Shatov. But another factor exists too, embedded in Shatov’s past from which Miriam recoils. The details are never explicitly clear (or maybe I missed it), but opaque allusions by Shatov such as “Remember I am no more that man,” probably indicate that maybe he slept with prostitutes.

There are other events that take place – Miriam is briefly fired from the dental practice where she honestly states her views on how pathetic it is to be employed and receive a pension, while the owners of the practice continue to live a life of wealth and well-being. But she is subsequently reinstated.

“In the train I saw the whole unfairness of the life of employees. However hard they work, their lives don’t alter or get any easier. They live cheap poor lives in anxiety all their best years and then are expected to be grateful for a pension, and generally get no pension. I’ve left off living in anxiety; perhaps because I’ve forgotten how to have an imagination. But that is the principle and I came to the conclusion that no employers, however generous and nice, are entitled to the slightest special consideration. And I came back and practically said so. I told him that in future I would have nothing to do with his Mudie books. It was outside my sphere. I also said all sorts of things that came into my head in the train, a whole long speech. About unfairness. And to prove my point to him individually I told him of things that were unfair to me and their other employees in the practice; about the awfulness of having to be there first thing in the morning from the country after a week-end.”

Finally, there were moments in later parts of the book when some of the chapters were heavy going, particularly the one where Miriam attends a philosophy lecture and I found myself skipping over many details because it bogged down the reading experience. But overall, I would say I enjoyed Deadlock and the Miriam-Michael Shatov sections were very interesting and more than made up for some other parts that were not. Next up is Revolving Lights!

That’s it for July. Since August is WIT Month, I finished the brilliant Space Invaders by Nona Fernandez (tr. Natasha Wimmer) as well as The Colony by Audrey Magee, a brilliant book on colonization longlisted for the Booker Prize. Plans on the anvil also include the seventh book from the Pilgrimage series – Revolving Lights.

Space Invaders – Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

It was the release of Space Invaders and The Twilight Zone by Daunt Books that first put me onto Nona Fernández and I’m so glad to have discovered her. Space Invaders has also been published by Graywolf Press in the US, and boy it’s impressive.

Early on, in this gem of a novella by Fernández, one of the characters called Riquelme is in Estrella Gonzalez’ house playing Space Invaders, both children completely engrossed in this video game.

The green glow-in-the-dark bullets of the earthlings’ cannons scudded up the screen until they hit some alien. The little Martians descended in blocks, in perfect formation, shooting their projectiles, waving their octopus or squid tentacles, but Gonzalez and Riquelme had superpowers, and the aliens always ended up exploding.

Riquelme is the only one from the group of children, around which this novel centers, to have visited Gonzalez’ house and he remembers hours after hours of playing Space Invaders with Estrella, this vivid recollection now the only point of connect between the two.

Space Invaders is a video game whose goal is to defeat wave after wave of descending aliens with a horizontally moving laser to earn as many points as possible. Launched in the 1970s, it became a cultural phenomenon; quickly becoming one of the most influential video games of all time.

Using this cult game as a motif and through a series of visions, dreams and fragmented memories, Nona Fernandez brilliantly captures the essence of growing up in the shadow of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship in Chile.

These set of childhood friends are now adults, but they remain haunted by events when they were young, particularly those around their mysterious classmate Estrella Gonzalez, who one day suddenly disappears. These shards of memories that pierce their consciousness are often slippery, the lines between fact and fiction blurred, but they conjure up an evocative image of troubled childhood in an increasingly complex adult world, a world far out of the reach of children and which they couldn’t comprehend at the time. The atmosphere of menace and lurking danger is palpable; an uneasiness that seeps into their bones that they can’t quite put a name to.  

They vividly remember rigid school assemblies (“We spread out, each of us resting a right arm on the shoulder of the classmate ahead to mark the perfect distance between us”), and class performances imbibing nationalistic fervor (“Year after year I take part in this perpetual disaster, that it seems, will never end”).

Estrella, herself, is a potent force in their dreams, but the dreams are all different (“Different as our minds, different as our memories, different as we are and as we’ve become”). The way each of her classmates remember her is also unique to each – Acosta dreams about her hair pulled back in two long braids, Zuniga sees “her face framed by long, thick black hair”, Fuenzalida doesn’t care much for physical traits but is captivated by Estrella’s voice, because Fuenzalida believes that “in dreams voices are like fingerprints.” Maldonado dreams about letters, an exchange of correspondence with Estrella where the latter displays a different personality unlike her usual quiet self, and last but not the least is Riquelme, the only classmate to have stepped inside Estrella’s home and who dreams of “spare hands” which morph into nightmares. These hands are nothing but green prostheses worn by Estrella’s father after losing his real hands in an accident.

Now Riquelme dreams about that never-seen cabinet full of prostheses and about a boy playing with them, a boy he never met. The boy opens the doors of the cabinet and shows him the orthopedic hands lined up one after the other, orderly as an arsenal. They’re glow-in-the-dark green, like the Space Invaders bullets. The boy gives a command and the hands obey him like trained beasts. Riquelme feels them exit the cabinet and come after him. They menace him. They chase him. They advance like an army of earthlings on the hunt for some alien.

As if a tensed childhood wasn’t enough, as the children grow up they are thrown headlong into the murky realm of politics, even if it’s a path they would otherwise not have chosen given a choice. But what does “going into politics” really mean? What does it mean to be in the resistance?

Suddenly things sprang to life in a new way. The classroom opened out to the street, and, desperate and naïve, we leaped onto the deck of the first enemy ship in a first and final attempt doomed to failure.

Pinochet’s regime was the epitome of cruel military dictatorships marked by repeated violations of human rights as citizens – particularly those opposing the regime – mysteriously disappeared, were tortured or executed (“Coffins and funerals and wreaths were suddenly everywhere and there was no escaping them”). The US’ alleged support to the government is also subtly alluded to, particularly exemplified by the Red Chevy (another cultural reference) driven by Estrella’s nebulous uncle Claudio.

Time isn’t straightforward, it mixes everything up, shuffles the dead, merges them, separates them out again, advances backward, retreats in reverse, spins like a merry-go-round, like a tiny wheel in a laboratory cage, and traps us in funerals and marches and detentions, leaving us with no assurance of continuity or escape. Whether we were there or not is no longer clear.

While the content of Space Invaders is an amalgam of dreams and fragments, what also makes this novella so novel is its structure and voice. Fernández fashions her novella into four sections which she calls First Life, Second Life, Third Life and Game Over – in tandem with the rules of the actual game where the players are given three lives to shoot the aliens before they reach the screen edge. And then, like in Greek plays, the narrative voice is first person plural where this close-knit circle of friends forms the chorus that builds up into a crescendo; individual first person narratives sometimes materializing from these collective voices.

Space Invaders, then, is a stunning achievement, a haunting dream-like novella of what childhood means during a particularly brutal regime, the loss of innocence it entails; of events which are buried deep into the recesses of the mind but not entirely forgotten, and how these memories resurface later in our adult lives in all their imperfection as we try to ascribe some meaning to them. Life under dictatorship like the Space Invaders is a game but atleast the video game has straightforward rules that the children understand, unlike real life under junta rule whose very nature remains opaque and unfathomable (“We are the most important piece in the game, but we still don’t know what game it is”).

WIT Month: Some Excellent Books from Scandinavia & The Baltics

August is Women in Translation (WIT) Month, and last week I wrote a post on some of my favourite reads from Japan, Korea & China. In today’s piece, I will focus on Scandinavia and The Baltics.

A CHANGE OF TIME by Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, A Change of Time is a beautiful, quiet and reflective novel told through the diary entries of a schoolteacher called Frau Bagge. The novel begins when her husband, Vigand Bagge, a mocking and cruel man, and who is also a respected village doctor, passes away. Subsequently, the novel charts her response to his death and her attempts to build herself a new life, find herself a new place and identity and discover meaning in life again. An exquisitely written novel.

THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS & OTHER STORIES by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

The Trouble with Happiness are terrific stories of fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style. The book is an amalgamation of two collections – “The Umbrella” and “The Trouble with Happiness” with around ten to eleven stories under each.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of her insecurities to spill out. In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl, while “One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved.

In the “Two Women”, a woman looking to be luxuriously pampered in a salon so that she can leave her growing anxieties on the backbench for a while, comes out feeling more rattled than ever; while in “The Little Shoes”, an ageing woman laments her middle-age exacerbated by her lovely, spirited daughter and the possibility that her second husband is infatuated with her. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Ditlevsen’s terrific memoir Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

The Trouble with Happiness, then, is a biting, scalpel-sharp, devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading. 

THE ANTARCTICA OF LOVE by Sara Stridsberg (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner)

The Antarctica of Love is a brutal but beautiful tale of chronic drug abuse, fragile familial relationships, isolation, death and loss. The first thing that strikes you about the novel is the unique and distinct voice – Inni is our narrator but she is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, after she has been violently murdered. We follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife.

Thus, the narrative arc swings back and forth between three time periods – Inni’s troubled past with her family; the present which records the hours before her death when she is captured by the murderer; and the future, or to be more precise, the days and years after Inni’s death, where we are shown snapshots of how her family is getting on without her.

The story of Inni’s life is a tale soaked in sadness, a life filled with trauma and tragedy that leaves her vulnerable and shaken, sowing the seeds of chronic drug abuse. At its core, The Antarctica of Love is a pretty disturbing book given its dark subject matter, but what elevates it to the next level is the richness of the writing – prose that is haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty.

THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways.

LOVE by Hanne Orstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

Love is an unsettling novella set over the course of a single evening and night in a remote village in Norway during winter. Vibeke and her son Jon have just moved into this small village a few months ago. We are told in the opening pages that tomorrow is Jon’s birthday and he will turn 9 years old.

From the outset, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of disconnect between mother and son. Jon is pretty sure that Vibeke is going to bake a cake for his birthday tomorrow and decides to give her all the space she needs to do so. Vibeke, meanwhile, has forgotten her son’s birthday – something that is clear to the reader, but not to Jon. On that particular night, Vibeke and Jon are out of the house, but on their own with no inkling of what the other is upto.

Ørstavik infuses enough tension in her writing so that at the end of the chapters you are left wondering whether it will all turn out well for both mother and son. That the story is set in the depths of winter in a country close to the Arctic, serves as an atmospheric and stark contrast to the protagonists’ search for warmth and a sense of belonging.

THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS by Gohril Gabrielsen (tr. John Irons)

I read The Looking Glass Sisters before I started my blog, so I haven’t written a full length review of it. As far as the basic plot goes, here’s the blurb:

“Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The younger needs nursing and the older keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…”

The novel is a dark, deeply unsettling tale of a tenuous sibling relationship, loneliness, isolation and the challenges of caregiving. It’s a first person narrative from the point of view of the unnamed handicapped sister, and it gradually becomes apparent that she could well be unreliable. For instance, we are shown instances of how her sister Ragna is cruel to her, but as readers we realize that the responsibility of looking after her sister coupled with her continuous demands has taken its toll on Ragna too. It begs the question – Who is really cruel to whom? I read The Looking Glass Sisters as soon as it was published (in 2015), and even all those years later, there are aspects of it that have stayed with me even today. It remains one of my favourite Peirene titles.

SOVIET MILK by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)

The first in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series, Soviet Milk is a poignant tale of a mother and her daughter and the difficult life they are forced to live in Latvia, which is under Soviet occupation. It explores the notion of motherhood, oppression, the freedom to choose one’s calling in life and the frustration of living in exile.

The novel is set over a period of time – from 1944 to the fall of the Berlin Wall – and is narrated in the first person and alternates between the central character (the mother) and her daughter. The characters are not named and to us they are referred to as the mother, the daughter and the grandmother.

Despite her mother’s moods and descent into depression, the daughter is more positive and pragmatic as she goes about her life. She also finds relief in the strong attachment she shares with her grandmother and step grandfather. Yet, her beliefs in the State are tested when under the tutelage of a brilliant teacher, her eyes are opened to a whole new world of knowledge and ideas.

SHADOWS ON THE TUNDRA by Dalia Grinkeviciute (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

In those horrific days of the Second World War, Dalia and her family (mother and brother), along with a host of fellow Lithuanians were deported to Siberia to work in labour camps there. In a harsh and tough environment, where blizzards recurred often, the weather was bitingly cold, and where the living conditions were ghastly, Dalia survived that period on true grit, hope, and sheer willpower.

She wrote her memories on scraps of paper and buried them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They were not found until 1991, four years after her death. Shadows on the Tundra is the story that Dalia buried, and is the second book in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series.