A Change of Time – Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

I have been having a good run with Archipelago Books in the year so far, having read and loved Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga and Difficult Light by Tomás Gonzélez. An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans was pretty impressive too, and now Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time is another worthy addition to this list.

A Change of Time is a gorgeous, reflective novel of a woman re-inventing herself after the death of her husband and reclaiming her lost sense of self, brimming with sentences that ache with beauty and sadness.

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, the story is narrated to us through the diary entries of the schoolteacher and protagonist Lilly Hoy or Fru Bagge as she is now known.

In the opening pages, we learn that Fru Bagge has been visiting the hospital every day to be near her ailing husband Vigand Bagge, who is a respected doctor in the village of Thyregod. It’s immediately clear that something is amiss, notably communication between the two is sorely lacking. It seems that Vigand, although, well aware of the serious nature of his illness, chooses to keep his wife in the dark. Even when the time comes for him to finally admit himself in the hospital, it’s with the realization that he has single-handedly made arrangements for it without his wife having any clue.

Why was I not allowed to help you when you were dying, Vigand?

On Vigand’s death, Fru Bagge, married to him for some 20 odd years, is suddenly alone and must fend for herself. Gradually, their personalities revealed to us dip by dip, give us a sense of how the Bagges were an ill-matched pair.

We were married for twenty-two years. And although it has been a time in which many things have happened – a world war, motor cars, electricity, women’s suffrage – indeed an entire world would seem to have wound down and been replaced by a new one, I would still venture that those years have been one long and unbroken day.

Vigand Bagge is a competent doctor and the villagers look upon him with awe, but he is mostly a stoic, cruel, sarcastic man lacking empathy and the requisite bedside manner. He is a practical man, sometimes extremely so, and is impatient with those who unabashedly display their weaknesses. There is a tendency in him to mock people, and here even his wife is not spared.

On his death, Vigand does his duty of providing well for Fru Bagge with clear instructions, so that she can lead her life with dignity with no worries on the financial front. But with security and comfort of money, comes the painful and inevitable knowledge that there was a serious lack of connect in their marriage. It could be that Vigand was several years older to her, and never therefore treated her on an equal footing, adopting a more condescending attitude. It was a marriage that lacked compassion and tenderness, qualities that Fru Bagge wanted more than anything from her husband, but, alas, in vain.

Can one ask a person to show that they love you? Reason, that most faithful onlooker to the tribulations of others, says no.

But what says unreason?

Vigand’s death, thus, suggests a kind of freedom for her to embrace life anew. But it also leaves in its wake a trail of bitterness for all the years she has already lost.

In my darkest moments I understand only too well what misfortune can leave a person in such a place. Bitterness is a very soft and comfortable armchair from which it is difficult indeed to extract oneself once one has decided to settle in it.

As the novel progresses, the diary entries begin alternating between Fru Bagge’s past and the present. In the immediate now, she must choose a new accommodation for herself. And in an act of defiance, she buys back the car Vigand had sold and begins to learn driving.

In stark contrast to her present, though, a series of flashbacks reveal a different facet of her personality – her growing ambition of being a teacher, and her efforts to realize that dream.

Thinking back, I almost feel envious of that young schoolmistress. In fact, there is no almost about it.

A scent of missed opportunities also wafts in the air, a sense of ‘what could have been’ – possibilities of serious relationships with a man from her student days, and later in Thyregod itself when she accepts a teaching position.

At its core, A Change of Time is a character study or a portrait of Fru Bagge/Lilly Hoy – the promise of making a mark in her youth wiped away by years of repression and being undermined in her marriage. In many ways, the book’s title heralds the dawn of a fresh start for Lilly. It is also a subtle depiction of changes that Lilly introduces or accepts to enhance the life of the village and its inhabitants, particularly, in the teaching profession, and also in many ways, one of the various lifelines thrown to her to help her regain her lost bearings after Vigand’s death.

Atmospheric and lyrically written, A Change of Time is wonderfully slow-paced in a way that is soothing for the soul and swells with warmth and tenderness, but is also suffused with a tinge of sadness and melancholia. Inherently inward-looking and fraught with potent silences, it’s a novel of finely etched characters and restrained emotions…and a quiet meditation on things left unsaid, finding pleasure and a sense of purpose in the smallest of things, and a chance of having a second go at life.

We are often told that being alone is a harbinger of loneliness, but there is nothing worse than being lonely in a marriage. While it’s perfectly fine to feel disoriented at first, if the end of a debilitating relationship means a newfound hope for freedom and joy, then it’s worth embracing it with open arms.

This strange gravity, the peculiar peace that descends in the evenings when the houses turn inwards and people retire to bed. I have begun to expect it, to look forward.

The Faces – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally)

Danish author Tove Ditlevsen became known to the wider world a couple of years ago when her stunning memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy, were released. With the dexterity of an alchemist turning minerals into gold, Ditlevsen mined her real life for raw material which she transformed into polished, haunting works of art. Those elements are very much on display in The Faces too, written around the same time as the memoirs.

Reality disappeared behind her like someone on a railway platform as the train pulls away.

The Faces is about a woman’s journey through mental illness and recovery, unique for its striking language and poetry in prose – all hallmarks of Ditlevsen’s writing.

Our protagonist Lise is a famous author of children’s books, although she hasn’t penned anything in the last two years. While professionally, a writer’s block has hampered her creative output, in her personal life too, Lise is on the edge. To her ex-husband Asger, “a wife who wrote something as ridiculous as children’s books was suddenly a liability.” Her current husband, Gert, has been consistently unfaithful to her, not exactly the ideal husband material. Their housekeeper, Gitte, is a toxic influence on the family – she is sleeping with Gert as well as Lise’s elder son Moyen.

Lise is shown to be persistently tired, preferring the comfort of her bed and her pills. Then one night, in the novel’s first chapter, Gert confesses to her that his previous lover, Grete, has committed suicide. It profoundly unsettles Gert and Lise now feels stained by this incident too. One day, while having her bath, Lise overhears a heated conversation between Gert and Gitte through the bathroom pipes. Convinced, that they are plotting against her to induce her to take her own life like Grete did, Lise confronts them. Their vehement denial leaves Lise feeling dazed and confused. Yet her sense of unease is not quelled.

Finding her home environment increasingly unbearable and claustrophobic, Lise yearns to get away from it all. This desire compels her to overdose, not because she wants to die, but because she sees it as an opportunity to be transported somewhere else – a hospital.

Lise’s stay in the psychiatric hospital, then, forms a substantial chunk of the novel. It’s only in the hospital that the full extent of Lise’s illness becomes clear to the reader. Sadly, Lise may have escaped Gert and Gitte, but their voices continue to torment her. These taunting voices, playing on the frayed edges of her mind, are vividly real to her even when the reality is completely different. They assail her from all nooks and crannies, from the pipes to the non-existent speaking devices by her pillow. It’s not only the voices though, as she is increasingly haunted by disembodied faces too. Not only does Lise hear Gert and Gitte, she also sees them all over the hospital. To Lise, the faces of various staff members morph into the faces of these two, hounding her endlessly.

Lise is treading on eggshells as she tries to convince the doctors she is fine, while appearing surprised and disoriented on learning that they can’t experience the visions and hear the voices as she does. To complicate matters, Lise is wracked by guilt of being selfish and self-absorbed in her woes, for not being alive to the suffering of the wider world – a guilt that Gitte’s voice rubs like salt on her wound causing her much anguish.

As the title of the novel suggests, faces feature predominantly in the novel and the masks we allegedly don to keep up appearances forms one central theme.

They slept, and their faces were blank and peaceful and didn’t have to be used again until morning. Maybe they had even taken off their faces and placed them prudently on top of their clothes, to give them a rest. In the daytime the faces were constantly changing, as if she saw them reflected in flowing water.

Ditlevsen essentially offers a glimpse into the lived experience of mental illness, the inability to separate reality from illusion. By sleight of hand, she recreates the experience of madness from the inside, letting us explore the shifting contours of Lise’s mind and her unreliable perception of the world around her.

Brief, intense and awash with sublime imagery, Ditlevsen’s writing is beautiful and clear as always, and the plethora of metaphors and similes dotting her prose are breathtaking. For instance, the voices which came back to her “could be unraveled from each other like the strands of a tangled ball of yarn.” A random childhood day was “preserved in her mind like a thousand-year old insect encased in a lump of amber.” When looking in the mirror, “three delicate wrinkles lay like a pearl necklace around her neck”, while the morning light “had a yellow, withered cast to it, like fading snapshots left in a drawer that no one opens anymore.”

As Lise limps towards a tentative recovery underlined by her fear, the reader is aware of the path being anything but smooth given the complexity of her feelings. For we can’t help but wonder despite everything – Would Lise prefer the comfort and solace in madness far more than the bitter ugliness of reality?

Minor Detail – Adania Shibli (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette)

Some of my favourite books last year were published by Fitzcarraldo Editions – Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor and The Other Name by Jon Fosse. Both found a place on my Best Books of 2020 list. Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail was also released last year, and my interest was piqued after I heard her speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Having finally given her book a try, I can say that it is very, very good.

Minor Detail is an intense, searing novella of war, violence, memory and erasure at the heart of which lies the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

In the book we are told this – The war in 1948 was labeled the War of Independence by the Israelis, while Palestine mourned this very war likening it to a catastrophe that led to the displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians.

It forms the backdrop against which the author Adania Shibli sets her story. The novel is essentially structured into two sections of more or less equal length. The first part begins one year after the war mentioned above, in the summer of 1949. We are transported to the Negev desert, a region scorched by the blistering sun, where the heat moves in waves giving the impression of a shifting mirage.

Nothing moved except the mirage. Vast stretches of barren hills rose in layers up to the sky, trembling silently under the heft of the mirage, while the harsh afternoon sunlight blurred the outlines of the pale yellow ridges. The only details that could be discerned were a faint winding border which aimlessly meandered across these ridges, and the slender shadows of dry, thorny burnet and stones dotting the ground. Aside from these, nothing at all, just a great expanse of the arid Negev desert, over which crouched the intense August heat.

An Israeli patrol is stationed in this harsh desert to establish boundaries and comb the area for any infiltrators. Shibli focuses her lens on one particular Israeli soldier who is not named but is the commander of the platoon at that station. In the beginning, we learn that this commander has been possibly bitten by a spider and an infected wound with pus begins to develop on his thigh.

The monotony of the commander’s daily rituals and the routine drills, in a way, mirror the sameness of the desert landscape all around the platoon. This tedium is broken, however, when on one of their reconnaissance trips, they encounter some Bedouin nomads. The men are all killed and a lone girl is captured by the soldiers and brought to the camp. Initial plans of installing the girl in the kitchen come to naught. She is instead cleaned and doused with petrol, the scent of the fuel clinging to her body, and kept in a separate hut where the soldiers, shockingly and repeatedly, violate her.

In the second part, the narration is in the first person, by an unnamed Palestinian woman residing in present, modern-day Ramallah. She begins by describing her routine of sitting at the table by the window in the morning drinking coffee before heading for work. We are then given a glimpse of life under Israeli occupation, a Kafkaesque world of innumerable security checkpoints, border controls, continuous roar of bombing, constrained lives and peak anxiety of staying within boundaries.

Since I lack the ability to evaluate things rationally, situations like these have a severe impact on me; they shake and destabilize me to the point that I can no longer fathom what is permissible and what is not, and I end up trespassing even more borders, worse ones than before. Yet all my fear and anxiety and internal turmoil dissipates when this trespassing occurs within the confines of my solitude. Solitude is so forgiving of trespassed borders; it was only thanks to my time spent alone, sitting at my table in the mornings, ‘working’ on something, that I was able to make my discovery.

This woman comes across a newspaper article which mentions the incident of the Bedouin woman, and it begins to haunt her. But it’s not the act itself, horrific as it is, that catches her attention. Episodes such as these – she explains to the reader – are quite commonplace in occupied territory. What sticks with her is the date, a ‘minor detail’ as she calls it in the larger and much graver scheme of things – the incident in question took place exactly 25 years earlier to the day our narrator was born.  Wanting to glean more information on the case, she embarks on a perilous journey in her quest to find the truth of an atrocity that has long been forgotten.  

What’s clever about the novella is the difference in tone and viewpoints in both the sections. Section One is in the third person, and Shibli has employed a very formal tone in describing details and events in keeping with the military environment which is the focal point in that part. So much so that even the shocking treatment of the Bedouin woman is very clinically described – all facts and devoid of any emotion despite the magnitude of the crime. Section Two is more personal since it’s a first-hand account of the unnamed woman narrator and her obsession with an event on which she is trying to find some answers. As the book progresses towards its dramatic conclusion, echoes of the first part begin to seep into the fabric of the second – the woman narrator experiences some of the same sights and smells surrounding the Bedouin woman.

One of the core themes that the book explores is the threat of erasure. More often than not, history recognizes only the victors and not the vanquished. Writing and hearing the latter’s stories is a crucial step in ensuring that they are remembered even if their existence has been obliterated. But that is often a gigantic challenge. For instance, as our narrator makes her way from one region to another, she finds that a substantial chunk of Palestinian villages have been wiped off the face of the earth and they no longer exist on maps.

Minor Detail, then, is Adania Shibli’s riveting and fresh perspective on a very complicated region. Her prose is crystal clear, deceptively simple and haunting. In Part One, she brilliantly captures the environs of a scorching Middle East desert, its endless barren sand dunes and the dreariness of largely uneventful days for the soldiers. What’s more, the catalog of repetitive tasks performed by commander takes on a mesmeric quality and elevates the level of fear and tension in that section. In Part Two, she excels in describing how alienation and heightened dread are elemental states of living under occupation, as our narrator navigates the labyrinth of security checks on her travel from one zone to another.

Will our narrator be successful in her mission of arriving at the whole truth? More importantly, will she be able to do anything about it, will it really matter given her status?

In a nutshell, Minor Detail is a piercing meditation on the tragedy faced by war victims – individuals whose lives are deemed trivial and inconsequential and are lost somewhere in the wider sweep of history. On one level, it is critical to hear their voices and to dig out their stories from the rubble, if we are serious about gaining a wider perspective on humanity. And yet, the harsh reality cannot be escaped – that we may never find the answers that we seek.

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

It was good to read a Tove Jansson novel after a long time. The first book of hers I read – The True Deceiver – was dark and brilliant and it had found a place on my Best Books of 2011 list. It had also won the Best Translated Book Award that year. Having seen a lot of love for The Summer Book, it seemed like the obvious next choice, and I can now say that I join the chorus of praise for this novel.

The Summer Book is 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.

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened.

Sophia, her father and her grandmother spend the summer on an unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. Sophia is young with her whole life spread before her, a life that teems with infinite possibilities. The grandmother is in her twilight years with decades of experience under her belt but now weighed down by physical impediments. Sophia is wild, impetuous and prone to bouts of anger, while the grandmother is wise, unsentimental and sometimes cranky.

But the two learn to co-exist and navigate each other’s temperaments and fears. As far as books go, they are unconventional individuals simply because both are not in the prime of life and yet there is something about the relationship between the two that makes The Summer Book such an engrossing read.

It’s a book where nothing much happens and yet the small moments build up to paint an enchanting picture of family life during a Nordic summer.

Together, Sophia and her grandmother go for strolls along the coastline, they build a miniature Venice from wood, keep a cat, and build boats out of bark. Despite the huge age gap between the two and stark, contrasting personalities, the pair gels quite well and also embark on various adventures together. In keeping with the setting, each of the vignettes is like a self-contained island and depicts an idea around an event. For instance, a child called Berenice comes to stay on the island with them and is fearful of everything, an unknown visitor builds an ugly house on an adjacent island, a raging storm swirls around the island wreaking havoc, a midsummer evening is spent enjoying fireworks, and Sophia even sleeps in a tent alone.

They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy. It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.

But more often than not, Sophia and her grandmother have illuminating conversations – sometimes solemn, sometimes laced with humour. They discuss God, nasty relatives, fear, love and even death.

In a chapter called “The Visitor”, the grandmother laments,

Nasty relatives. They tell him (her friend Verner) what to do without asking him what he wants, and so there’s nothing at all he really does want.

There is another beautiful piece called “Of Angleworms and Others” where Sophia is voicing aloud her thoughts on these creatures, and the grandmother is scribbling them down. When angleworms are split in two, the two parts become individual selves and grow. But do they experience pain? Sophia quips,

Nothing is easy when you might come apart in the middle at any moment.

And she makes a profound observation…

They realized that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.

This particular observation hints at an element of darkness in the novel, an occurrence only mentioned once, but which hangs like a Damocles sword over the family – the death of Sophia’s mother. This is conveyed to the reader in only a couple of lines, but its spectre cannot be entirely forgotten.

Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.

Meanwhile, Sophia’s father is both an absence and a presence – he is not the central character but remains a figure in the background going about his work, while the centrestage belongs to his mother and daughter.

The idyllic Scandinavian summer is beautifully evoked – luscious landscapes, the blossoming of flowers, sounds and smells of waves, the immenseness of the sea, the serene, calm weather alternating with the rage and fury of storms.

I loved the tenderness shown by the grandmother towards Sophia as she assuages her fears and patiently bears out her outbursts. What’s remarkable about the novel is the portrayal of two perspectives together – the characters are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of life – the young Sophia who is curious, inquisitive with burning questions about the world, and the old grandmother who is mature but is beset by her own fears, always knowing that she is veering towards the end of her existence and hating the discomfort and dependence this entails.

And yet, for all her inexperience, there are moments when Sophia seems wise beyond her years, specifically when they talk about death. And the grandmother, for all her maturity, displays the inner child within her as she and Sophia engage in various activities on the island.

Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways. The unchanging facet of island life is like a rock, an anchor against the turmoil and tempestuous moods of the sea and everything around it. It’s a testament to the fact that while life is unpredictable and has an uncanny ability to throw up challenges, there is comfort and solace to be found in the solidity of family rituals and relationships.

Dead Girls – Selva Almada (tr. Annie McDermott)

I first heard of Selva Almada last year, when Charco Press released her excellent novel, The Wind That Lays Waste, which fuelled my appetite for more of her work. So I had high expectations from her second book published this year – Dead Girls – and I must say it turned to another impressive offering.   

Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina.

It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved, where “being a woman” was the primary motive for these heinous acts being committed.

In 1983, Maria Luisa Quevedo, a fifteen-year old girl, working as a maid, was raped, strangled and dumped in a wasteland on the outskirts of the city of Sáenz Peña.

Sarita Mundín was twenty when she disappeared in March 1988. One year later her disfigured body is found washed up on a river bank in the Córdoba province.

The case of nineteen-year old Andrea Danne, who was training to be a psychology teacher, is even more disturbing because she was murdered while sleeping in her bed in the alleged safety of her own home in San José.

Almada’s investigation into these three murders reveals a shocking societal structure where casual violence is the norm rather than the exception, and while men are the clear culprits, this misogynistic attitude has been ingrained into the psyche of the women too.

I didn’t know a woman could be killed simply for being a woman, but I’d heard stories that gradually, over time, I pieced together. Stories that didn’t end in the woman’s death, but saw her subjected to misogyny, abuse and contempt.

In her introduction, Almada tells us that she completed writing the book in three months, but the research required for it took three years. As part of her extensive fieldwork, Almada pored over police reports, case files and newspaper articles. She communicated with the family members of the three victims either by meeting them personally or through mail. She also had extensive consultations with the Señora – a medium and a tarot card reader – to gain some perspective on the circumstances surrounding those three deaths.

Dead Girls is as tense and gripping as a crime novel but what sets it apart is that Almada is not interested in finding out who committed the murders. The investigation is more to seek out patterns, threads of similarities between the murders of which there are plenty – widespread gossip when these deaths were discovered, lack of serious intent by the police or the law to nab the culprits, and the general sense of apathy – of how little the society cared for what happened to these girls.

Hence, the focus of the book is entirely on the victims, to ensure that their stories do not sink into complete obscurity. Given the unforgivable nature of these crimes, any attempt to extensively explore the motives and reasons behind them would only mean devoting more space to the perpetrators. Why give them that importance?

We are given a glimpse of the potential suspects in each case and the arrests made, but we are also told that lack of concrete proof hampered efforts to build a watertight case with the consequence that the criminals went punished and the murdered girls never got justice.

What also comes to the fore is the malicious gossip and “trial by the public” aspects in each of the three cases. Absence of solid evidence, at the time, did nothing to prevent tongues from wagging, with the result that the victims’ families suffered too. For instance, in Andrea Danne’s case, her mother found herself at the receiving end and judged harshly for slipping into a state of shock and displaying a calm demeanor because this response did not fit in with society’s expectations of wailing and crying. 

Though Almada’s narrative centres on these three girls, while also giving a flavor of the community and neighbourhood they were a part of, she also weaves in elements of her own personal experiences, of the dangers she herself faced as a woman.

I don’t remember a specific conversation about violence against women, or any particular warnings from my mother on the subject. But the topic was always there.

In her powerful introduction as well as in the epilogue, Almada makes it clear that her fate could easily have mirrored that of Maria Luisa, Sarita and Andrea, and if she is alive today it’s only because of sheer luck.

At the beginning of the book, Almada writes:

Violence was normalized. The neighbour beaten by her husband, the teenager next door who put up with her jealous boyfriend’s tantrums, the father who wouldn’t let his daughters wear short skirts or make-up. All the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet: if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.

Almada is, of course, referring to the environment in Argentina. But really, the violence she points to, unfortunately, has global resonance and is the story of pretty much any country.