Fish Soup – Margarita Garcia Robayo (tr. Charlotte Coombe)

Charco Press books have been the highlights of my reading so far this year. I had already loved and written about The German Room by Carla Maliandi.

And now it is Fish Soup by the Colombian author Margarita Garcia Robayo, another equally wonderful offering, from the same publisher.

Fish Soup

Fish Soup comprises two novellas ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, and ‘Sexual Education’ as well a collection of seven tales titled ‘Worse Things’.

The opening lines of ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ hit you right in the gut.

Living by the sea is both good and bad for exactly the same reason: the world ends at the horizon. That is, the world never ends. And you always expect too much. At first, you hope everything you’re waiting for will arrive one day on a boat; then you realize nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead. I hated my city because it was both really beautiful and really ugly, and I was somewhere in the middle. The middle was the worst place to be: hardly anyone made it out of the middle.

Our narrator is a woman, tired and self-aware, obsessed with escaping both her life and her country (Colombia).

She is emotionally detached from her family with not much respect for them. Her dad “was a pretty useless man. He spent his days trying to resolve trivial matters that he thought were of the utmost importance in order for the world to keep on turning.” Her mother “every day was involved in some family bust up.”

Stories of travel offer our narrator glimpses of hope, of running away and not coming back. There’s Gustavo, the local fisherman living in a shack by the sea, who enthralls her with his stories of travel. She keeps coming back to him even though “he stroked her down there with two fingers” when she was a young girl.

Even when she does fall in love with a man called Tony, there’s that cynical feeling that it’s not going to last.

Tony would cling to my back like a limpet, his arm around my waist, and whisper in my ear: one day we’ll get out of here. Me: we’ll always be here, waiting for a hurricane to come.

Escaping, leaving, getting out of the rut are feelings that permeate the consciousness of our narrator with the result that they form the focal point around which her relationships and even her profession is based.

She manages to find a job as an air hostess with an airline, even though Tony doesn’t like it. The route she is assigned to is Miami and even if it involves frequent visits to the same city, for her it is still a start.

Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.

An affair with the captain of the plane, not surprisingly, ends up nowhere like all her relationships. And there are moments of regret, of whether chances have passed her by and she failed to grab them or latch onto.

‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ is a beautiful novella. Despite the all-pervading cynicism, wariness and the tiredness, there is something lyrical and poetic about Robayo’s writing that makes it intense and absorbing.  It is a novella about the frailty of relationships, of missed chances and regret, of why travel may not always be the answer to everything.

The second novella that also packs quite a punch is ‘Sexual Education’. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.

Here’s how it opens…

“In girls, just like in other fauna, moisture attracts all sorts of nasties.”

The characters that people this novella are part of the narrator’s inner circle of friends. There’s Dalia ‘a bad apple’ who doesn’t care about going to university, preferring to travel instead.

Others – me included – thought that backpacks and dreads and Latin American travels were an invention of poor people who liked to think they were bohemians. Dalia was not poor, but she smoked weed and that was enough to make her feel bohemian.

Then there’s Karina, a real devotee of Mary…

She had convinced everyone that the Virgin talked to her in her sleep and gave her instructions about how to behave at moments of moral conflict.

‘Sexual Education’ is essentially a novella that explores the existence of opposing forces side by side – sex and confronting desires as against celibacy and self-denial.

Between these two novellas, ‘Worse Things’ (a collection of seven short stories) is sandwiched. These stories examine frayed relationships, death and illness.

In ‘Like a Pariah’, Ines who is dying of cancer, refuses to have people fussing around her and insists to her son “I’m perfectly alright.”

In ‘Worse Things’, Titi, who suffers from a debilitating condition causing obesity, prefers staying in his room, engrossed in games.

In ‘Better than Me’, Orestes is trying to connect with his distant daughter Becky, sometime after his other daughter Rosa has committed suicide.

In ‘Fish Soup’, one of the stories, from which the overall title of the book has been taken, an old man is beset by the smell of overpowering fish soup. This is a strange tale in which the man’s dreams and reality merge making it disorienting to distinguish one from the other.

Overall, Fish Soup is a very strong collection, stimulating and refreshing despite the tiredness of the characters. Most are struggling to keep head above water and fight even if they perceive their circumstances to be bleak and meaningless.

The blurb at the back of my edition states:

Throughout the collection, Garcia Robayo’s signature style blends cynicism and beauty with a rich vein of dark humour. The prose is at once blunt and poetic as she delves into the lives of her characters, who simultaneously evoke sympathy and revulsion, challenging the reader’s loyalties throughout the remarkable universe that is Fish Soup.

Highly recommended!

 

The Pumpkin Eater – Penelope Mortimer

I had a great run with NYRB Classics last year, as two of their books made it to my Best of 2018 list. Those two were – Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig and The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart.

Very keen that 2019 begins on a strong note as well in terms of reading, it only made sense to turn to NYRB Classics again, as I have yet to be disappointed by whatever I have read from their catalogue so far.

I was not wrong. The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer turned out to be heartbreaking and compelling read, yet another winner from the publisher.

pumpkin eater
NYRB Classics Edition

The Pumpkin Eater is a poignant novel about the challenges and pitfalls of marriage and motherhood told through the eyes of a woman narrator, whose first name we never learn, she is always referred to as Mrs Armitage. It is a tale of her descent into despair, and her gradual and tentative recovery.

The name of the novel comes from the following children’s nursery rhyme, also printed in the book at the beginning…

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater,

Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.

He put her in a pumpkin shell

And there he kept her very well.

When the novel opens, Mrs Armitage (Mrs A) is at the psychiatrist, asked to talk about herself. It is quite a moving and touching opening, displaying how Mrs A is prone to bouts of hopelessness, and yearning to be useful.

‘When I was a child my mother had a wool drawer. It was the bottom drawer in a chest in the dining room and she kept every scrap of wool she had in it. You know, bits from years ago, jumpers she’d knitted me when I was two. Some of the bits were only a few inches long. Well, this drawer was filled with wool, all colours, and whenever it was a wet afternoon she used to make me tidy her wool drawer. It’s perfectly obvious why I tell you this. There was no point in tidying the drawer. The wool was quite useless. You couldn’t have knotted a tea-cosy out of that wool, I mean without enormous patience. She just made me sort it out for something to do, like they make prisoners dig holes and fill them up again. You do see what I mean, don’t you?’

‘You would like to be something useful, ‘he said sadly, ‘Like a tea-cosy.’

Mrs A is married to Jake Armitage, who is now a successful screenwriter, a vocation that earns him good money and promises travel. They live in a large, comfortable home with servants who look not only after the house but also Mrs A’s growing brood of children.

Incidentally, Jake is Mrs A’s fourth husband – one of her earlier husbands had died, and she had divorced the other two. Not all her children are from Jake, there are many from her previous marriages too.

From very early on, Mrs A’s insecurity about her purpose in life, and a persistent feeling of fear is very vividly conveyed.

She is enveloped by a sense of emptiness and her so-called comfortable existence only compounds her feeling of isolation. Clearly, the comforts come at a price, not just financially but emotionally as well. Her home and her children are what define Mrs A. But now that there is the household staff to take care of both, what is left for Mrs A to do?

And yet she keeps having more children, possibly because that is the only thing that she knows to do best, which she feels gives meaning to her life much to Jake’s chagrin.

Jake, meanwhile, is anything but an ideal husband. He is quite clear about not wanting to father any more children, there are enough of them already as it is. And he is prone to having extra marital affairs, which keeps Mrs A on the edge because she is fearful of actually discovering them.

Mrs A also keeps referring to the tower (a new house) under construction, a place where the family will move to, a happy ending of sorts. But to the reader it never really comes across that way. It only gives an inkling of the false sense of hope that Mrs A harbours, a dream that will never really shape into reality.

When we went there it looked bleak and foolish, like a monument to a disgraced hero, a folly built for some cancelled celebration.

Through a series of flashbacks, we are also given a glimpse of Mrs A’s childhood, her unrequited love for a clergyman’s son, and her blooming friendship and fascination with Ireen, which only turns to deep disappointment when Ireen comes to stay with them.

Some sketchy details also emerge about Mrs A’s previous marriages although never in any great detail. And the children (who are never named either, the exception being her teenage daughter Dinah) are never presented as individuals but rather as a conglomeration of voices that keep running in and out of the house and demand her attention.

We are also given a hint of the difficult relationship she is likely to have with her children, when three of her very eldest possibly from her first marriage, are sent away to boarding schools when she is about to marry Jake. This is a decision that is taken by Mrs A’s father so that it becomes easier for Jake to provide for the family, a decision that Jake wholeheartedly agrees with. Mrs A’s opinion is not really considered.

All of these incidents only cement the fact that the major decisions in Mrs A’s life are largely taken by the men in her life, and her feelings and views are not given much weight.

If all this gives an impression that it is a bleak tale, it is, only that it is wonderfully written by Penelope Mortimer and in Mrs A she has created a character that is honest, frank, confiding and engaging so that her story tugs at your heartstrings. Large sections of the novel are written in dialogue, at which Mortimer clearly excels.

‘Don’t you think sex without children is a bit messy, Mrs Armitage? Come now. You’re an intelligent woman. Be honest. Don’t you think that the people you most fear are disgusting to you, and hateful, because they are doing something for its own sake, for the mere pleasure of it? Something which you must sanctify, as it were, by incessant reproduction?

‘You really should have been an Inquisitor,’ I said. ‘Do I burn now, or later?’

It really is a feminist novel in some sense, questioning a woman’s role in society as only a mother and a home maker without any other profession or vocation to give her a sense of identity and independence or even solace.

In the introduction to this novel, Daphne Merkin has given an account of Penelope Mortimer’s life and her tumultuous marriage with John Mortimer.

On reading it, one realizes how autobiographical The Pumpkin Eater is – Mrs A’s relationship with Jake is akin to her married life with John Mortimer.  The big difference though is that while Mrs A was dependent on her husband, Penelope Mortimer was not. She was an established author and she had her writing to fall back on, to help exorcise her demons.

On The Pumpkin Eater, Merkin further states:

Despite the passage of more than four decades, its concerns – the essential differences between men and women when it comes to matters of love and sex, the loneliness at the heart of life that can’t be assuaged by marriage or children – have not dated.

Novel 11, Book 18 – Dag Solstad (tr. Sverre Lyngstad)

The only existential novel I remember having read many years back is Albert Camus’ The Stranger/The Outsider – a novel that famously opens with the lines “Maman died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

It’s a book that stayed in my mind, and I made a note of exploring more ‘existential-themed’ novels in the future, should I come across a good one.

And then I stumbled upon this Norwegian classic when it was translated into English around 7-8 years back. It’s a book I had never heard of, although it garnered critical acclaim in Norway when it was first published there. What more, the author Dag Solstad was also a completely new name to me, but obviously quite well known in his own country.

As my history of book buying suggests, I don’t always read a book as soon as I buy it. And this one was nicely shelved somewhere in the house. Then I came across it when scanning the bookshelves for my next read.

In some sense, it was kind of a rediscovery, and I wasted no time in going through the first few pages, feverishly making my way towards the end.

Novel 11 Book 18
Harvill Secker Hardback Edition

The rather mysteriously titled ‘Novel 11 Book 18’ is the story of a man who realizes that actual life does not really meet his expectations. And so he decides to drastically bring his expectations in line.

Bjorn Hansen is a married man with a two-year old son living in Oslo with a comfortable job as a civil servant in one of the ministries in the big city. One day he abandons his wife and child to live with the wonderfully named Turid Lammers in a smaller Norwegian town of Kongsberg.

That relationship doesn’t end too well later either as is evinced in the opening lines of the book:

When this story begins, Bjorn Hansen has just turned fifty and is waiting for someone at the Kongsberg Railway Station. It has now been four years since he separated from Turid Lammers, with whom he had lived for fourteen years, from the very moment when he arrived at Kongsberg, which before that time barely existed on the map for him. When he arrived at Kongsberg eighteen years ago, he had only a few personal belongings, such as clothes and shoes, plus crates and crates of books. When he moved out of the Lammers villa, he also took away with him only personal possessions, such as clothes and shoes, besides crates and crates of books.

But let’s rewind.

Hansen’s decision to leave his wife and move in with Turid Lammers is not necessarily well thought out. Hansen “knew that the most desirable happiness on earth was a brief happiness.” And he believes that he has found this kind of happiness with Turid. This is how he dwells on the subject in a matter-of-fact way:

He had to go to Kongsberg, to her (Turid), otherwise he would come to regret it for the rest of his life. Indeed, the absolute certainty that he would have regrets made returning to Tina and their son, to continue as before but now without a secret love, impossible. And so he disclosed his secret to his wife and cut loose from his marriage.

Bjorn Hansen, in the meanwhile, settles down gradually in his new life. He accepts the job of the town’s treasurer, for which he is overqualified, and has to endure the wrath of his colleagues who were passed on for this post.

And, he also decides to be part of the town’s theatrical society; persuaded to do so by Turid, who is the centre of attention of Kongsberg’s drama circle.

Initially, Bjorn Hansen begins to enjoy being part of the theatre group, helping on the productions (light operas, if you will) from the sidelines and yet not directly involved in the acting as such. But then he is gripped by this feeling that the theatre needs to put up plays that are more serious and substantial. He becomes fixated by the idea that they need to showcase a play by ‘Henrik Ibsen’ – Norway’s famous playwright.

He began to throw out hints that perhaps they should try for something big. All this enthusiasm, all this experience of how to conduct oneself on the stage, all this delight in precision and in displaying one’s abilities – couldn’t it be used for something more than performing operettas, which while capable of kindling a gaiety of spirit both in the actors and, not least, in the public, could nevertheless make one feel rather dejected, or outright weary, with all their intellectual vacuity, everything considered, after the lights came up in the hall, the public had gone home, and they sat in the dressing-room removing their make-up? What if they rose to a level where one could feel the blast of real life? What if they had a shot at Ibsen?

Since the idea was Hansen’s and Turid helps him bring it to fruition, Bjorn Hansen assumes the title role in the play with Turid as his wife. But the production flops badly. And it highlights the tragedy of Bjorn Hansen’s life – he has some ambition, but lacks ability.

They couldn’t do it. It was all too clear that this was something for which they lacked every qualification. Bjorn Hansen had insufficient radiance to enable him to make Hjalmar Ekdal’s (the protagonist in the play) painful gestures. That was the bitter truth. He had not enough acting technique, and hence no radiance.

Meanwhile, we are told that Bjorn Hansen has one friend, Herman Busk. They like discussing books – Bjorn Hansen in particular likes books “that showed life to be impossible and contained a bitter black humour”. But he is now bored with those and wants “a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.” 

And then, close to about halfway through the book, we come across a ‘twist’, prompted by Bjorn Hansen’s realization:

Just imagine, to live an entire life, my own life at that, without having found the path to where my deepest needs can be seen and heard!

He hatches an incredulous plan and decides to put it into action.

It was a plan whereby Bjorn Hansen would actualize his great No, his great Negation, as he had begun to call it, through an action that would be irrevocable.

I will not reveal what happens.

And while by itself, the plan might seem farfetched, in the context of the narrative, it doesn’t really seem so.

Which brings me to the narrative itself.

The prose in the book is deliberately plain, mechanical and sometimes repetitive. While that may put off some readers, I thought the book was compelling and interesting precisely because of it. Something about the matter-of-fact tone of the story-telling made it quite seductive, luring you into the tale, wanting you to keep the pages turning.

There is a certain detachment in the author Solstad’s storytelling and this also manifests when talking about the characters – they are always referred to by their full names, and not by either just their first names or surnames.

But there are moments of black humour in the tale, as seen from this quote:

The two years that went by before he managed to tear himself away from [Turid] were a total nightmare, which here will be passed over in silence.

This can easily be summed up as an existential novel – a man suffering a mid-life crisis. And while all of this might appear bleak, it isn’t really so. And this is where the author excels – it’s the prose, which is clinical and unemotional, and yet takes the novel to a completely different level.

Translation credits go to Sverre Lyngstad.