Longlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award

Translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor

Juan Salvatierra is a mute, silent from the age of 9 following a riding accident.  He lives a tranquil life with his wife and two sons in a village on the Argentinian border with Uruquay, spending his spare time painting in the shed.  When he dies and his sons begin to unfurl the canvas rolls, they discover a mural two miles long on which their father has told the story of the past six decades.    Only one year is missing and the by-now-middle-aged boys decide that it must be found.

Salvatierra’s motivation? Possibly because he was mute, he needed to tell himself his own story.  His sons’ motivation?  To make complete what had been interrupted, so that the painting can be displayed in its entirety. As they work their way along the mural, they revisit their childhood, their adolescence.  Nothing is omitted in this interlacing of lives, people, animals, days, nights, catastrophes in which the boys seem more alive in the light shining from the painting in some portraits he had done of us eating green pears when I was ten years old, than in our current lives with their legal documents and contracts.  (They are estate agents in Buenos Aires.)

The memories evoked are not always pleasant.  There are brief flickers of darkness but a spell is cast and the brothers pursue the missing section with a determination worthy of Don Quixote.  Yes, this is a quest, with the occasional dangerous moment though in the main this is a light-hearted adventure …. until the canvas from 1961 is found and with it Juan Salvatierra’s missing year …. and closely-guarded secret. 

More than the boys had bargained for, leading to discussions on whether what happens to someone belongs to his own time;  you shouldn”t bring it up again.  Conversely knowing the truth of a parent’s human foibles and mistakes can release you from their omnipresent grip, presenting you with the opportunity to strike out for yourself.  The narrator’s conclusion?

We occupy the places our parents leave blank ….. I inhabit the words that Salvatierra’s muteness left untouched. …. I feel that this place, the space of the blank page, is mine, independently of what the results might be.

What began as an adventurous quest for a missing painting has resulted in the discovery of the narrator’s own identity.


cf: Why this title should win the BTBA

It was a busy, busy month full of literariness but not much blogging.  Let me fill the gaps.

First weekend and I discovered Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Lyceum in Edinburgh.  (Actually I’ve been going to the theatre pretty regularly over the past few months but have never written about it.  Perhaps I should try my hand at being a theatre critic?) Anyway this play, about two vain and insufferable people, divorced from each other, who reconnect while on honeymoon with their new spouses, is pretty improbable but absolutely hilarious and definitely not politically correct. You wouldn’t get away with writing the spiralling domestic violence of the second act for laughs these days.  But I loved it and am really looking forward to seeing it again when I get my hands on the Anna Chancellor/Toby Stephens DVD, a version which has just come to the end of its London West End run.  I am also contemplating acquiring the BBC collection of Coward’s plays – can anyone recommend them?

Second weekend I attended the Folio Festival and the Folio Prize award ceremony ceremony in London.  I did manage to write about that.  I didn’t manage to get a ticket to the West End production of Private Lives, but I did bag myself a seat at Simon Callow’s one man show, Being Shakespeare.  This wasn’t quite what I was expecting – which was to see Callow transform into William Shakespeare himself.  Instead Callow narrated Shakespeare’s life story, showing episodes that influenced the plays and occasionally slipping into Shakespearian character.  Good but not as mesmerising as expected.

Around this time I had an unprecedented run of 3 5-star reads in a row.  I reviewed them here and here.  Then I started juggling longlist reads from the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, the IFFP and the BTBA.  Also preparing for next week’s Glasgow AyeWrite festival.  The books are good but it’s proving hard to match the magic from the beginning of the month ….

…. which might explain why I’ve watched three films in the last week.  (More than I’ve seen in the last year.) 

I thoroughly enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel and suspect I will add it to my personal collection when the DVD is released.  It is a wonderful, if tongue-in-cheek companion to the works of Stefan Zweig and Tilda Swinton’s cameo is fantastic.  Which is more than can be said for her main part in We Need to Talk about Kevin.  The problem with that film is that it was too arty and the editing gave away far too much, far too soon about the horror to come.  I wouldn’t have watched it to the end if a) I hadn’t read the book previously and b) wasn’t working my way through a mountain of ironing ….

The final film proved to be a real treat.  BBC Four are showing 4 Italian films based on the novels of Carlo Lucarelli.  I enjoyed his De Luca trilogy a couple of years ago and I’m going to enjoy the films even more.  Why?  Check out the actor playing De Luca ….. Bye for now.  I have a date with iplayer.

I’ve never had two 5-star reads in a row – never mind three!

1) Schottenfreude reviewed earlier this month.

2) The Boat – Nam Le  (2009)

A collection of short stories written by one of the Folio Prize judges, read on the way to and during the festival.   Looking at the awards it has garnered, I don’t think it hyperbolic to suggest that this book has won nearly every literary prize there is in Australia.   And rightly so.  I remember the buzz surrounding it on publication  and I bought the book only for it to wait for 5 years before picking it up again.  Kicking myself now of course.  One of the strongest collections of short stories I’ve ever read.  (And won’t it be interesting to compare it to the inaugural Folio Prize winning short story collection?)

Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia.  Speaking at the Folio Festival he said that he wasn’t interested in being the spokesperson for the Vietnamese immigrant, he wanted to explore more realities than that.  So while the collection is bookended with Vietnamese experiences (the first, an autobiographical (?) story of a Vietnamese author at the Utah creative writing centre and the last, the harrowing experience of Vietnamese boat people), other pages are populated by an adolescent hitman in Columbia, an elderly man dying of bowel cancer, high-school kids coming to terms with the mortality of their mother and the perils of dating, evacuees from Hiroshima (before the bomb), and feminist resistance in Iran.  The protagonists are all facing profound challenges and struggling to maintain control of their lives.  The worlds they inhabit are skilfully drawn and the psychologies intense, given the background stresses and dilemmas.

Do I have a favourite story?  Not really although, oddly, my least favourite Tehran Calling is proving to be the most memorable.  Le admitted that this was the story in which place was the most sketchy.  That may be so but the mood, the prevailing atmosphere of terror, brutality and claustrophobia is overwhelmingly oppressive.  My breathing’s constricting just thinking about it.  That being the author’s intention, I cannot but declare it a success.

I can’t find anything Le has published since. Is this a case of a successful debut being an impossible act to follow?  I do hope not.

3) The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (2012)

Another debut which has received mega praise in the blogosphere since its release.  I purposely avoided reading it until it became a book group choice.  Our discussion began with each group member summarising the book in an adjective.  Here are the results: enchanting, mystical, ethereal, magical, enigmatic, mysterious, whimsical, unputdownable.  Only 2 dissenting voices: putdownable and confusing.  You can’t please everyone but this pleased me.

There are oodles of positive blog reviews out there, so no need for me to repeat.  What I will say though, is that in contrast to Le (who to be fair didn’t live in Vietname for long), Ivey’s novel reads like a love-letter to Alaska and her familiy’s chosen way of life (growing their own food and hunting caribou, moose and bear for meat).  It was a revelatory read: Alaska not as harsh or as uninhabitable as I previously believed.  (Still in no rush to migrate.) And I was transported – not to the 1920′s but further back in time.  Life in these pages felt much less modern than the jazz age.  Engaging characters and a mystery – plenty to discuss at book group, particularly what happened to Faina.

The group guffawed when I said I thought she’d melted!  Perhaps I bought into the premise too much?

Shortlisted for the 2014 Folio Prize

I might as well say this upfront.  I was rooting for Schroder to emerge as victor at last week’s prize-giving ceremony.  I was utterly transfixed as I read this.  Could not wait to pick it up again when I had to put it down (which only happened twice).

I’ll say this as well.  I was rooting for Schroder to emerge as victor in the narrative – this despite what he does.  Not that it was ever likely, once he, a divorced man, takes his daughter on holiday …. without permission.  Kidnap in the eyes of the law but not according to Schroder’s increasingly desperate and agonising rationalisations.  

By the time he does this, you can see his point.  How he has backed himself into a corner by being too generous to his ex-wife during divorce and child care negotiations.  His attempts to regain lost ground doomed to failure … by a secret.  Something to do with the umlaut missing from his name and the Kennedys.

I shall say no more about plot so as not to spoil it for those who have yet to tread this reading path. However, be prepared to be put through an emotional mangle by as unreliable and as sympathetic a narrator as you will ever meet.  The format is that of a confessional, so we only get Schroder’s mentally distressed point-of-view.  We see his wife and his daughter and the assessment of their relationship and his motivations only through his eyes.  We can only judge him objectively through his actions and I was in no mood to judge him ….

…. until the backstory of his shabbiness towards his German-immigrant father unfolded.  This provided an emotional counterpoint to his all-consuming love for his daughter (and possibly an indication of why his wife was so dissatisfied).

I enjoyed the descriptions of the beautiful New England landscape (an area I hope one day to see for myself) which Schroder  and his daughter travel through on their trip; the beauty of the countryside in absolute juxtaposition to the ugliness of his family life.  What should have be an ideal and carefree escape increasing marred by realities and consequences which are not to be avoided.  A road to perdition, if you will.

3 weeks later,  I am still upset.  That is the sign of a brilliant read.  I have only one gripe. I skimmed pages 255-258 (Faber and Faber, hardback edition).  A case of overcooked mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.



Not a picture of my TBR … for once


You’d think I’d be satisfied with the 3 longlists announced in the last 10 days: The Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award.  Not a bit of it.  I’m eagerly anticipating the announcement of the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction on April 1.  That’s the longlist pictured above – one which won’t be publicised in full but which we can have fun guessing at in the meantime.

I’m pretty sure that bottom left is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and top right is my current read, Jhumpra Lahiri’s The Lowland.  Two books below that Hannah Kent’s superb Burial Rites.  Can you spot any more?

imageIt was a weekend of wonders.  One very much worth the 6:15 am start last Saturday as I boarded the train in deepest, darkest Lanarkshire, trussed up in full winter regalia (coat, hat, scarves, gloves) to arrive in London 6 hours later, said regalia bundled up and stuffed into suitcase.  Just what was that yellow object in the sky?

A quick dash down Euston Road to the digs to dump all extraneous items (including coat, hat, scarves and gloves – hip, hip hooray!) and then an even quicker dash back up Euston Road and I arrived in the courtyard of the British Library.  I hadn’t even reached the door of the conference centre when I heard a voice  behind me “Well, you’re a long way from home”.  It was not the Cheshire Cat but a voice I only normally hear in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.   Lovely. Not even 5 minutes in and I was among friends, home from literary home.

Other friends from the square had saved a plush seat for me in the air-conditioned conference centre.  As I settled in, notepad and pen at the ready, the panel for the 2nd event arrived and the real business of the weekend could begin.

From the start, it was obvious that the Folio Society had planned this festival with all the care and attention that is channelled into the creation of their gorgeous books.  They wanted it to be different – a conversation about literature and the creative art that brings great literature to the page.  Each event had a) a panel of 4 comprising a judge and a shortlistee of the inaugural Folio Prize plus two members of the Folio Academy, one of whom acted as chair and b) a specific aspect of literature to discuss: place, genre, context, etc.  This differentiated the discussions, which were always erudite and sometimes surprisingly wide-ranging and witty!  It also prevented them from becoming marketing exercises for the latest publications of those on stage, nor was any precious time lost listening to 20 minutes of a book I can read for myself! There were readings elsewhere over the weekend but I chose not to attend any of them.  As a result, I enjoyed an in-depth look at the art of creating literature from some of the best in the business.

Rather than transcribe my notebook, I’ve decided to let my scribblings inform upcoming reviews of titles from the Folio Prize shortlist and some from the pens of the judges themselves! I had plenty of time to read on the trains to and from London.  For now though a miscellany of pleasurable memories.

folio Festival5) Mark Haddon explaining the differences and pleasures of writing plays and novels.  With plays you get realtime feedback from the audience.  With novels you get a chance to delve into the details.  Currently researching a space novel, inspired by someone who has bought a one-way ticket to Mars, he is currently wondering what you do with two years worth of human faeces.  “I don’t know”, quipped Michael Chabon.  “But you have your title right there!”

4) Sergio De La Pava discussing how there are always more options than those that make the final script.  “If you think that’s  bad, you should read the stuff that didn’t make the final cut!”

3) A.S Byatt.  On form, on fire.   Wrote down more quotes of hers than anyone else.   “I have no wish to teach creative writing. I don’t want to read the unfinished creative writing of others and I certainly don’t wish anyone to read mine!”   “I hate show not tell.  Those are scenes in which everybody talks but no-one does any thinking”.

Lizzy Reads the Boat2) Sarah Hall on the craft of the short story.  The importance of entry/exit strategies in a short story and how a single sentence can derail it. Of course, given the outcome and Monday night’s announcement, it might be easy to have seen this as some coded message.  But I don’t think so, the judges didn’t decide the winner until Monday afternoon.  However, it became clear that there were some strong supporters of the short story in the judging panel: Nam Le, whose collection, The Boat, won nearly every Australian literary prize a few year’s ago; Michael Chabon, an accomplished essayist; Sarah Hall, whose story, Mrs Fox won the 2013 BBC National Short Story Award.  For those who suggested that this was a compromise decision, let me just say, I don’t think so!

1). The award-ceremony itself in the magnificent setting of the St. Pancreas Renaissance Hotel.  I’d been marvelling at this architectural wonder (which is right next door to the British Library) all weekend and I continued to marvel as I went inside to the ceremony.   The food was good, the wine was excellent and the company (@kimbofo and @utterbiblio) magnificent.

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All that remains is for George Saunders to enjoy his success and for me to wait impatiently for the Folio Society edition of Tenth of December.

I need expend no words explaining why this book was the first of my 2014 acquisitions to be picked up after successfully completing the TBR Triple Dog Dare.  I probably needn’t explain how the book ended in my TBR either but I will explain just how irresistible the title was.  Schotten (Scots) – Freude (joy) – What on earth is a book about the joy of the Scots doing with a German title?  Except it doesn’t mean that at all.  It means the joy of Ben Schott, a non-German speaker, who together with Dr Oscar Brandtlow, obviously had a whale of a time inventing German compounds nouns to explain the human condition.

This explains the unusual/unique shape of the book.  German compound nouns can be grow to inordinate lengths.  Here are a couple of examples:

Kraftfahrzeugsinnenausstattungsneugeruchsgenuss : The enjoyment afforded by the smell of a new car. (See footnote)

Überraschungspartyüberraschungsheuchlerei : Feigning surprise at a surprise party.

Not all the words are that long.  Here are some examples at the other end of the spectrum.

Fußfaust : Instinctively curling up your toes in mortification at someone else’s embarrassment

Betttrug : The fleeting sense of disorientation on waking in a strange bed.

German speakers will obviously delight in this volume, but you don’t need to be a German speaker to enjoy it.  For example, a German speaker would instinctively pick up the word play on the German words Bett (bed) and Betrug(fraud). However, the construction of and meaning of each German word is clearly explained thus:

Puns and idioms are explained on the adjacent page together with a miscellany of general information about the condition in question.  The resulting layout and design is an absolute pleasure and the sum total is sometime hilarious, but always clever and entertaining.


Miscellanies are Ben Schott’s speciality.  His obvious delight in compiling this book was matched by my obvious delight in reading it. But can I summarise my experience in one word?  I’ll think about that while you watch this recent discussion between Ben Schott, the quinessential (non-)German cultural icon @Neinquarterly and German translator Tim Mohr at the Deutsches Haus in New York.  A treat, if ever I watched one.

And finally, my one word summary: Fünfsterneleseerlebnis Five_Stars.GIF


Footnote: Not simply “new car smell” as translated in the book.


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