An Untouched House – Willem Frederik Hermans (tr. David Colmer)

I have been having a good run with Archipelago Books lately, having read and loved Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga and Difficult Light by Tomás Gonzélez. It only made sense to read more of their books for #ReadIndies month and An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans fit the bill perfectly. This is my second book by Hermans, I was previously quite impressed by Beyond Sleep. Hermans does have a flair for farce as was evident in both these books.

An Untouched House is a spare, taut war thriller sprinkled with doses of absurd comedy that considerably heightens its narrative power.

The novella is set during the waning months of the Second World War, where the intermittent fighting between the Nazis and the Soviets is still going strong.

Our unnamed narrator is a Dutchman who hasn’t seen his homeland for the past four years. Having escaped the German camps quite a few times, our narrator is now a part of a group of partisan soldiers led by the Soviets.

These partisans come from an assortment of countries – the group comprises Spaniards, Bulgarians, Romanians et al. The only common thread that binds them together is their fight against the Germans. Otherwise, these partisans are as different as chalk and cheese. Language being a big barrier, most of them do not understand each other and often orders given are misunderstood.

Our unnamed narrator is confronted with a similar predicament. Not understanding the orders of his sergeant, our narrator forges ahead and finds himself in an abandoned spa resort town. The exact location of this town is not revealed to the reader, and it doesn’t really matter. Moving on further, he comes across a massive house that appears empty.

I realised that this would be the first time in a very long while that I had entered a real house, a genuine home.

For our weary and disgruntled narrator, worn down by years of continuous fighting punctuated with periods of imprisonment, the cleanliness and warmth of the house is a miracle. Its cocoon-like environment is in stark contrast to the war outside and the noise, death and destruction it implies.

Some doctors explain love at first sight as arising not from what you see but from what you smell. Humans are so sure they can’t trust others that things that are said or shown never convince. Smell – the weakest over a distance, able to be suppressed by perfume but never defeated – cannot dissemble because it is constantly being produced. Stench is everywhere, unavoidable. Only stench tells the truth.

For the first time in many years, our narrator is offered a glimpse of a world before the war, and he is now zealous about seeking refuge here.

He discards his dirty soldier clothes and immerses himself in the luxuriousness of a bath and clean towels, while all around him the war rages on with its barrage of bombs and fires.

When the Germans re-capture the spa town, they install themselves in the house, when our narrator introduces himself as the owner of the house. Having donned on the clothes of the actual owner, the Germans have no way of ascertaining our narrator’s true identity and the side he is fighting for.

And yet, our narrator knows his position is precarious. First things first, he needs to thoroughly explore and familiarise himself with the house to douse any suspicions.

A library full of books on fish and a locked room – features beyond the grasp of our narrator, only deepens the aura of mystery surrounding the house.

All the books were about fish. That meant the owner was a fish fancier! I knew something, but I didn’t want to know anything, not his name, not what he looked like, nothing! He had never existed, that was the truth! He had been the intruder, not me. He would be dead at the end of the war; I would stay here forever.

And then the real owner of the house turns up…

An Untouched House, then, is a study of the horrific impact of war and the primal response that it induces – survival. Despite the rampant confusion, our narrator’s faculties of observation continue to work with icy precision, and that the house where he takes shelter becomes the story’s second main character.

For the narrator, the empty house is akin to an oasis in a desert and he is ready to go to any lengths to preserve this, including adapting to any role that will ensure his survival. The novella also succeeds in imparting a core message – the folly, chaos and pointlessness of war. The notion that war is a highly organised affair seems inherently bizarre as this novella progresses, especially since murder and mayhem takes centrestage.

At less than 100 pages, An Untouched House pulses and throbs with dramatic tension. In a writing style that is forensic yet mesmerizing, Hermans, in his unique way, confronts us with the idea of the violent absurdity of war and its terrible consequences for those unwittingly involved.

The Wall – Marlen Haushofer (tr. Shaun Whiteside)

The Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer is not new to me. A few years ago I had read her novel The Loft, which I had loved at the time, but I knew that her best regarded work was the dystopian and feminist classic The Wall. The current lockdown, therefore, seemed like the ideal time to delve into it and what a brilliant novel it turned out to be.

The Wall is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love.

The narrator is an unnamed middle-aged woman and when the novel opens, she is in an Alpine hunting lodge writing about the two and a half years she has spent in the forest, and the events leading upto it.

I’ve taken on this task to keep me from staring into the gloom and being frightened. For I am frightened. Fear creeps up on me from all sides, and I don’t want to wait until it gets to me and overpowers me. I shall write until darkness falls, and this new, unfamiliar work should make my mind tired, empty and drowsy. I’m not afraid of morning, only of the long, gloomy afternoons.

These events which are recounted in a couple of pages are simply this – the woman accompanies her cousin Luise, her brother-in-law Hugo and their dog Lynx (a Bavarian bloodhound) to spend the summer in the couple’s well-equipped hunting lodge in the Alpine forest. One evening, Luisa and Hugo head down to the village, but our narrator and Lynx stay behind in the lodge. The next day, our narrator realizes that the couple is not yet back which strikes her as quite strange.

While taking Lynx out for a walk, she bumps against an obstruction she can’t see and is stunned.

Fortunately, thanks to Lynx’s obstruction, I had slowed down, for a few paces on I gave my head a violent bump and stumbled backwards.

Lynx immediately started whining again, and pressed himself against my legs. Baffled, I stretched out my hand and touched something smooth and cool: a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air. I tentatively tried again, and once more my hand rested on something like a window-pane. Then I heard a loud knocking sound and glanced around before realizing that it was my own heartbeat thundering in my ears. My heart had been frightened before I knew anything about it.

She can see on the other side of this invisible wall, and what she notices is alarming. In one of the huts, on the opposite side, the dwellers have been turned into stone. Clearly, an unimaginable catastrophe has struck and the narrator and Lynx have been spared because they were not on the other side when it occurred. In a way, the narrator is possibly the last woman standing although she has not yet grasped the significance of this.

Against such a terrifying backdrop, the rest of the book then is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest.

It is a source of comfort to her that the dog Lynx is by her side, and on one of their expeditions she comes across a cow who has also survived and who she brings back to the lodge.

At this stage, the narrator still harbours hope of being rescued but meanwhile she must adapt to her new circumstances, carry on with day to day living and caring for her animals. And that involves some hard, physical work.

She converts a cabin into a byre for Bella the cow. She learns to milk the animal so that she can feed herself, Lynx and a cat who is also now part of this small, odd family. She manages to find a patch of land where she can grow potatoes and beans. Then there is the hay harvest that she must attend to, chopping and stocking wood supplies for the winter and cooking meals everyday however meager.

These are activities the narrator notes down in her diary, and it becomes a source of the tale that she is writing for the reader.

The work is not easy and the fact that the woman has not done it before makes it all the more harder. But she manages to get it done even when it begins taking a toll on her body.

As you can see, there is not much in terms of plot per se, but The Wall makes for a terrifying and gripping read simply because the woman is in unchartered territory with unknown dangers lurking around and the reader is on the edge wondering how she will make it through.

It’s her love for her animals and her instincts to take care of them that keep her going. But naturally, she is beset by fears and forebodings. And she is also prone to bouts of depression, understandably so, fuelled by her circumstances and also changes in weather that oscillates wildly between periods of calmness and violent storms and cold winters.

There are successes – she helps Bella deliver a healthy calf, the potato field sprouts a good supply of potatoes, which means that she and her animals are never hungry. Plus, she manages to hunt deers too, an activity she loathes and never gets used to, but one which she must carry out to provide meat for the dog.

And there are setbacks too – coming to terms with the loss of some of her animals which inevitably happens despite her best efforts to care for them, and surviving an illness in the dead of winter.

As she is writing her account, the narrator is of course focusing on the physical aspects of survival. But she also talks about the thoughts swirling in her head about life, about caring, the differences between her old life and new, and the meaning of it all. To me, these were some of the most quotable and striking paragraphs in the novel. Here’s one…

If I think today of the woman I once was, the woman with the little double chin, who tried very hard to look younger than her age, I feel little sympathy for her. But I shouldn’t like to judge her too harshly. After all, she never had the chance of consciously shaping her life. When she was young she unwittingly assumed a heavy burden by starting a family, and from then on she was always hemmed in by an intimidating amount of duties and worries. Only a giantess would have been able to free herself, and in no respect was she a giantess, never anything other than a tormented, overtaxed woman of medium intelligence, in a world, on top of everything else, that was hostile to women and which women found strange and unsettling.

The deep bonding with her animals is one of the highlights of the book, so sensitively portrayed. I loved how the narrator had such a wonderful connection with Bella the cow.

I often look forward to a time when there won’t be anything left to grow attached to. I’m tired of everything being taken away from me. Yet there’s no escape, for as long as there is something for me to love in the forest, I shall love it; and if some day there is nothing, I shall stop living.

Loving and looking after another creature is a very troublesome business, and much harder than killing and destruction. It takes twenty years to bring up a child, and ten seconds to kill it.

Despite the bleak circumstances, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes The Wall so extraordinary. At first, she expects to be rescued and go back to her old way of life. But as the seasons roll one after the other and the months turn into years, she comes to terms with her new reality and learns to accept it. The setbacks hurt her deeply but she finds the strength to take it in her stride and look forward to new beginnings.

In the city you can live in a nervous rush for years, and while it may ruin your nerves you can put up with it for a long time. But nobody can climb mountains, plant potatoes, chop wood and scythe in a nervous rush for more than a few months.

I knew The Wall was highly regarded, and I can confirm that it is every bit as good as everyone says it is.

My Top 12 Books of 2018

Like the last couple of years, I was very lucky that 2018 turned out to be a great reading year too.

So much so that I struggled to whittle the list down to twelve. But after much dilly-dallying, I am happy and satisfied with the list that finally took shape.

In a year that was challenging, these books gave me pure joy and ideas to think about; it’s in them that I sought solace and found hope.

They cover a range of themes and topics – women wanting to live life on their own terms, survival, hope, loss, motherhood, friendship, and family.

A quick look at the statistics:

Half of them are translated works of fiction from countries as diverse as Argentina, Norway, Korea, Guadeloupe, and Lithuania. A majority of these books are by independent publishers.

And of the twelve books, nine are written by women.

So without much ado, here are my Top 12 Books of the Year, in no particular order, with a small description on each. For a detailed review on each one of these books, please click on the title of the book in question.

Top 12 of 2018

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz

A young woman struggles to adapt to motherhood. But rather than internalize her despair and retreat into a shell, she rebels – expressing her rage at conventional norms, and venting out on her husband and her family. Ariana Harwicz’s prose is so visceral, it bruises but in an exhilarating way.

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas

This is a haunting, unsettling tale of two Norwegian eleven-year old girls, Siss and Unn, both as different as chalk and cheese but drawn to each other to form an unlikely friendship. Tarjei Vesaas’ prose is as clear as ice and as brilliant as a diamond. There is a dreamlike quality to the narrative that explores the themes of loss, friendship and the power of nature.

Ice – Anna Kavan

We are in surreal territory here as a man obsessed with a fragile, silver-haired girl, chases her across the icy wastes of a dystopian landscape. Only to keep losing her again and again. This is a wonderful example of Anna Kavan’s ‘slipstream’ fiction – there is a slippery and elusive feel to it all and where the conventional contours of a narrative structure do not apply. Kavan is at the height of her descriptive powers, and the passages describing the frozen settings are particularly sublime.

The White Book – Han Kang

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian made it to my Best of the Year list in 2015 (pre-blog days), and was unlike anything that I read that year. The White Book is a completely different book, but brilliant in its own way. Hang Kang focuses on white objects as a medium through which she explores themes of grief, loss, finding peace and solace. The novel is in the form of fragments, short paragraphs each fitting on a page, and told in a style that is haunting and lyrical.

The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy

Anything that comes from the pen of Deborah Levy is essential reading. Her earlier novel Swimming Home was brilliantly unsettling, and her last novel Hot Milk made it to my Best Books of 2016 list. The Cost of Living is Levy’s memoir or a ‘living’ autobiography as it has been called. Levy divorces when she is approaching fifty, and now has a challenging task ahead of her – supporting her sons, and continuing her writing amidst many upheavals. It’s this transition that she describes in her trademark sharp prose, brimming with wit, warmth and keen insights.

Shadows on the Tundra – Dalia Grinkeviciute

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.

Basic Black with Pearls – Helen Weinzweig

Here is the intriguing blurb from NYRB Classics – “Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are arranged by an intricate code based on notes slipped into issues of National Geographic. But something has happened, the code has been discovered, and Coenraad sends Shirley to Toronto, the last place she wants to go.”

Told from Shirley’s point of view, it quickly becomes clear that things are not what they seem, and we are left with a narrative that is surreal and disorienting, but all in a good way. Is this then a straightforward espionage tale or something deeper and complex? Weinzweig’s idea for this multi-layered novel was inspired by the Canadian artist Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series – the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere.

Missing – Alison Moore

Jessie Noon is in her late forties, living alone with her dog and cat as companions, somewhere along the Scottish borders. Her second husband walks out on her one day, leaving an enigmatic message on steam on the bathroom mirror. As a translator Jessie fusses over choosing the right words in her work, and yet ironically, in her dealings with others, she comes across as lacking tact. Meanwhile, Jessie’s days are filled with routine, and through the minute details of everyday life, Alison Moore slowly teases out the tragedy that took place in Jessie’s life in her late teens, and the heartbreaking impact it has had on her adult years. This quiet novel really tugged at my heartstrings.

Bergeners – Tomas Espedal

Espedal’s Bergeners is a difficult book to describe. It is personal with autobiographical shades to it, and yet to call it a traditional autobiography would be doing the book great injustice. The narration is an amalgam of diary entries, poetry, short stories, ruminations on art and reflections on the people of Bergen. It’s a book where Tomas copes with loneliness, reflects on writing and meets fellow Norwegian authors such as Dag Solstad in exchanges that are laced with humour.

The Bridge of Beyond – Simone Schwarz-Bart

Set in the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, this is an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, the grim legacy of slavery, and the story of the protagonist Telumee and the proud line of Lougandor women she continues to draw strength from.

With wonderfully named characters such as Toussine and Telumee and a village deliciously called Fond-Zombi, Schwarz-Bart’s storytelling is slow, sensual, hypnotic and rhythmic. Every page pulses with the energy and vitality of these three generations of women. There are dollops of beauty and warmth, wisdom and sadness.

The Cemetery in Barnes – Gabriel Josipovici

Josipovici’s novel begins on a quiet note in Paris and then moves on to become darker and unsettling. In just 100 pages (the shortest book on the list), we are introduced to three stories across three time spans in three places (London, Paris, Wales), all involving the protagonist who is a translator and good at his work. Our narrator ruminates on the art of translation, makes frequent references to Orfeo, the French poet du Bellay’s poems, and Monteverdi’s opera – and because of Josipovici’s masterful storytelling skills, it all feels seamless and lucid without ever coming across as either complex or knotty.  But the best thing about this book is how wonderfully ambiguous it is making it open to multiple interpretations.

Welcome Home – Lucia Berlin

As the daughter of a mining engineer, Lucia’s family moved often to places such as Idaho, Montana, Kentucky, Arizona and to Santiago in Chile. This trend of perpetually being on the move continues in her adult life as well and she travels/lives in New York City, Mexico, New Mexico and California. In this period, she goes on to marry and divorce thrice. Subsequently, by doing various jobs (hospital ward clerk, switchboard operator, cleaning woman and so on), she hopes to support her writing career and raise her four sons all on her own.

Welcome Home is Berlin’s unfinished memoir recounting her childhood years up to the point she was married to and living with her third husband Buddy Berlin. Through this, and a selection of letters also included in the book (and corresponding with this period), we get a glimpse of her real life that was as endlessly rich, adventurous, and fascinating as the stories she wrote.

Other Notable Mentions…

So, there you go. The twelve books above were fabulous, and I hope that next year shapes up to be a rewarding year for reading too.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I struggled to narrow the list down to twelve as a result of which there were a few books that did not make the cut. But they were excellent nevertheless, and so deserve a shout out (with links to the detailed reviews):

Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You (A hard-hitting novel of an abusive marriage)

Mariana Enriquez’ Things We Lost in the Fire  (A collection of eerie and gothic stories set in Argentina)

Lesley Blanch’s Journey into the Mind’s Eye  (A travel memoir and an ode to Russia and Siberia)

Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk  (The first book in Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series set in Latvia under Soviet Occupation)

Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light  (A bracing novel on a young, single mother’s struggles to raise her daughter), and

Rachel Cusk’s Kudos (The concluding novel in Cusk’s brilliant ‘Outline Trilogy’, which I have not reviewed here). One of the striking features of this trilogy was the concept of self-annihilation of the narrator, in the sense of her being more in the background. It’s the other voices that dominate and the narrator is like a sponge for the most part absorbing various viewpoints.

Happy reading!

Shadows on the Tundra – Dalia Grinkeviciute (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

Peirene Press is an interesting publisher. In 2016, three of its books made it into my Best of the Year list.

Every year, Peirene publishes three translated books from Europe, all bound together by a theme. The 2018 one is called ‘Home in Exile’ and I have already reviewed the first title in this series – the wonderful Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk. It is set in Latvia under Soviet occupation.

And now we have the second one – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute, superbly translated by Delija Valiukenas. And the author’s country of origin? Lithuania.

I can confidently say that this book will find a place in my Best of 2018 list.

Shadows on the Tundra
Peirene Press Edition (‘Home in Exile’ Series Book Two)

Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible tale of the author Dalia’s hard and unbearable years in a Soviet gulag when she was a young girl, and her indomitable spirit and will to survive no matter what.

In 1941 at the height of the Second World War, many Lithuanians were deported from Kaunas in Lithuania to a harsh prison camp in the unforgiving Siberian tundra. There, all of them were forced to work in deplorable and inhuman conditions.

The author Dalia was 14 at the time she was deported along with her mother and brother Juozas.

Here is how the book opens…

I’m touching something. It feels like cold iron. I’m lying on my back…How beautiful…the sunlight…and the shadow.

I am aware that a phase of my life has come to an end, a line drawn underneath it. Another is beginning, uncertain and ominous. Twenty-four people lie nearby. Asleep?

It becomes evident that the deportees are not taken directly to the camp, but with several stops along the way. The first few pages describe this journey, with the deportees having no clue what their final destination will be. In fact, many are in denial and harbor considerable hope that they are being transported to America, that free land.

It’s only when they reach Trofimovsk, the site of the gulag much above the Arctic Circle that the harsh reality sets in.

To say life in the gulag is hard is an understatement. It is deep winter. The tundra is excruciatingly cold and blizzard after blizzard keeps pounding the region.

Sky and earth clash. Our barracks shake. Whirling like a dervish in the spaces between the ceiling boards, the snow descends in a vortex on the people huddled and shivering beneath their tatters. The polar elements sweep across the tundra, obliterating everything that is alive. The din outside merges into one deafening rumble of sound. The savage elements are clamouring for atonement.

In such an environment, Dalia describes the horrific and squalid conditions they are forced to live in. There is no ready habitation. The deportees have to build their barracks themselves right from scratch.

Then there is the work itself. It involves pulling logs tied by ropes from the mouth of the river and up a steep hill. It’s a grueling job, and quite simply back-breaking. And not something a young girl can manage in ordinary circumstances.

But Dalia pushes on through determination and sheer force of will. In fact, her strength of character and her courage shines on every page and makes the book quite incredible.

…that somewhere life is free and beautiful. I feel myself getting stronger, more determined; my desire to live, to fight, to endure intensifies. I want to take life by the horns, I want to take charge of it rather than have it knock me about. We’ve got a life to live yet, Dalia, and a battle to fight. Life may be a cruel enemy, but we will not surrender. So what if I’m only fifteen.

And then there is something to look forward to – school. Hours spent in school are the brightest points of the day for her, but this period of solace does not last for long.

Not everybody makes it through though. The deportees are treated badly. They are made to work hard but are fed poorly. Famine and starvation rule the roost. Diseases are just around the corner. Many of the deportees don’t survive and the corpses keep piling up.

The landscape is bleak and desolate.

Ahead of us is the mouth of the Lena River, which is several kilometres wide and fettered in ice. Wherever the wind has cleared the snow, the ice is as smooth as a mirror. We hear booming, a sound like muted cannon going off. That’s the ice quaking. Huge fissures appear that reach down its entire depth.

Dalia observes her fellow deportees and exhibits keen insight on their characters. These are people who had a life back in Lithuania – they were individuals, they were unique in their own way and had hopes and dreams.

All of that is reduced to nothing in the gulag. There is nothing to distinguish them, they are treated like a herd of cattle. Through sheer desperation, cheating and stealing become the order of the day. But Dalia understands this and chooses not to judge. After all, everyone is looking to just about survive.

What makes Dalia keep going is her spirit and zest for life. Hope sustains her and she refuses to give up.

Oddly, I never thought that I might die. I believed absolutely that no matter what the future had in store, I would survive. It was as simple as that. During the days that followed, a kind of tenacity began to take shape as part of my character. I felt a growing desire to confront life, to grapple with it, to prevail. I was convinced of my survival.

Even in the cold tundra, she manages to find moments of beauty.

Yet what splendor above. The northern lights are a magnificent web of colour. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea, the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, 100-metre-pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the aurora borealis.

And there are always some nostalgic moments – the happy life she led in Lithuania and the prospect of an exciting and full life ahead. Little did she know what fate had in store for her!

They say that it is during adversities that a person’s mettle is really tested. Dalia goes through hell but she fights back and that alone makes her truly extraordinary and extra special. While Shadows on the Tundra gives a horrific glimpse of Soviet cruelty, it is Dalia’s resilience and unbreakable spirit that makes her tale gut-wrenching and yet ultimately quite uplifting.