For this year’s Triple Dog Dare (which I’ve signed up to for two months, because March has plans of its own), I decided to read as many titles from the 2014 IMPAC Longlist as I can make time for. To fit Triple Dog Dare criteria, the books must have been in my TBR stacks on 31.12.2013. When I did a quick tally, I found there were 15 stashed away, and I decided to concentrate in the first instance on translated fiction.
Léon and Louise – Alex Capus
Longlisted for the German Book Prize 2011
Translated from German by John BrownJohn (2012)
If there’s any moral to this story, it has to be, love will find a way. Léon and Louise meet as teens in 1918 but just as their romance begins, they are caught up in an incident of war and separated, both believing the other dead. Léon marries Yvonne and settles down to family life (as far as his volatile wife will allow) while Louise becomes an independent mademoiselle. A few years later, Léon spots her on the métro and phase two begins only for the Second World War to separate the lovers again.
We know it doesn’t end there because the opening scene, that of Léon’s funeral in Notre Dame, sees a mysterious and uninvited woman in black pay respects to the dead man by ringing a bicycle bell. Her identity is never in much doubt (the novel’s title gives it away) but the incident sets the prevailing mood. While the characters live through the traumas and dof the 20th century, they do not despair. They are survivors and there is always an undercurrent of humour and charm. In fact, you could say that Léon’s existence is charmed. He is threatened only by his naïvety during the Nazi occupation and its immediate aftermath (and those scenes are heart-thumpingly menacing).
This is an accessible novel with interesting historical background. Its scope perhaps too ambitious for its page count (264) necessitating the peace-time decades to be glossed over and the chameleon-like qualities of the most complex character, Léon’s wife, to be summarised in a way that tells rather than shows. That was a shame because she was, for me, more multi-dimensional than the two title characters.
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
Translated from Italian by Ann Goldsmith (2012)
The two girls at the centre of Elena Ferrante’s novel are also survivors. Theirs, however, is a tale of a poverty-stricken childhood and adolescence in the Naples of the 1950’s. This is a harsh and violent world in which education depends on the parents’ willingness to make tough financial sacrifices. This wasn’t that long ago and I actually found this quite shocking. These girls are of my generation and of the working class yet with such a different experience to my own. Up to this point I found the novel entertaining but my attention was waning. Thereafter the fuse was lit and I was fully engaged.
Elena Greco meets her friend, the brilliant Lila Cerullo, on the first day of school. Lila, who can read despite coming from an illiterate family, is clever and charismatic from the start. She would be precocious, too, were it not for her violent father, keeping her firmly in her place and that means at home, labouring for him, instead on progressing onto middle school. Elena’s parents, though just as poor, are railroaded by a teacher into letting their daughter progress but their begrudging largesse comes at a price. While clever, Elena must work hard to succeed in her studies and maintain her friendship with Lila, to whom she remains devoted and in thrall.
This divergence of educational paths sets up two entirely different life journeys where for Elena, a typical adolescent, the grass is always greener. So, when Lila makes the most of her very limited options in the most advantageous match that she can, Elena is envious. She hasn’t understood the doors that remain open to her and the doors that are closing on Lila. It is Lila who presses on her the absolute necessity of continuing in education, even offering to pay for it.
“Thanks, but at a certain point school is over,” Elena says with a nervous, doubtless self-deprecating laugh. “Not for you,” Lila replies ardently, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”
In a novel written entirely from Elena’s point-of-view, this is really the first time that we hear Lila’s thoughts and they turn the premise of the title on its head. At this point the two girls are barely 16 and Lila realises the need to escape the constraints of her upbringing. For all her hopes, there are worryinging indications that her marriage won’t have the desired outcome. More hopefully, however, the scales fall from the severely myopic and bespectacled Elena as she comprehends the small-mindedness and boorishness of her family and her fellow villagers.
At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she (the teacher) had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.
I’m actually find myself fretting, hoping that this epiphany hasn’t come too late, following her ill-advised romance with Alfonso …. Don’t tell me if you’ve read the 2nd part of this trilogy. I’ll find out for myself very soon!
The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of A Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
Winner of the Swedish Booksellers Award 2010 / German Pioneer Prize 2011 / Danish Audiobook Award 2011 / Prix Escapades 2012
Translated from Swedish by Rod Bradbury (2012)
i’ve been blogging for just short of 7 years now and I’d never used the adjective before I awarded this the most preposterous 5-star read of 2013. I can’t sum it up any better. I mean whoever heard of a 100-year old man with enough flexibility in his limbs to climb out of a window? Let’s just say that’s the least strenuous of his adventures which turn into a cat and mouse chase across Sweden after he steals a suitcase containing wads of cash. A parallel narrative takes us back over his life and reveals that we are, in fact, dealing with a superman of sorts. That explains the steely determination and resilience of the old fellow who flees his own birthday party. It turns out that Allan Karlsson proved to be more influential to the course of 20th century history than Oppenheimer, Stalin, Franco, and Chairman Mao put together!
Suspension of disbelief is absolutely essential. So too the quelling of the conscience asking whether it is right to laugh. In places this comedy is blacker than black and in others absolutely immoral. Oh yes, people get away with murder – quite gruesome murders too. There’s an inept gang and an even more inept police inspector chasing Allan and his ever-growing entourage which comes to include an abandoned elephant. The question is who will muck it up first? (Answer – I can’t resist this – the elephant.)
A riot from beginning to end with hidden messages about the dangers of politics and politicians. I think that’s the message, not that I can prove it. I was too busy laughing to collect the evidence. Roll on the film!
Of the 152 titles on the IMPAC longlist, 41 are translations. Of those, I have now featured 10. Links to the others below.
The Detour – Gerbrand Bakker (Dutch) / 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool – Viola di Grado (Italian) / The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul (Danish) / The Dinner – Hermann Koch (Dutch) / The Brothers – Asko Sahlberg (Finnish) / The Guard – Peter Terrin (Dutch) / The Method – Juli Zeh (German)
I hope to read more before the shortlist is announced.
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