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Given that Nick Barley, Director of EIBF, was chair of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, and a second judge, Daniel Hahn, was on site to chair well over a dozen events, it was a given that the Man Booker International Prize would be a focus of this year’s festival.  Here are the two of them discussing the judging of the prize.

Wednesday 16.07.2017 was a key date for the Man Booker International Prize with 3 events in Charlotte Square.

Event 1) The Power of Translation

As we queued to attend this event, we were handed samples of Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen: one page of the original and the equivalent page in English translation.  “Surely not a translation slam!”, I thought.  (Oh, how I miss those.) Indeed it was not.  Instead Nora’s translator, Misha Hoekstra, and Kari Dickson, standing in for Don Bartlett, joined both Nick Barley and Daniel Hahn to discuss the particular challenges of translating these two Man Booker International shortlistees.

Now, of course, an hour is not enough to discuss the translation of two whole pages of two different novels in any depth, and so we didn’t.  Following a brief synopsis by Daniel Hahn of the other shortlistees and the characteristics which led to their shortlisting (Fever Dream, irresistibly creepy, cannot be read slowly; Judas, the use of biblical King James English mirrors the deep resonance of the original Hebrew; Compass, enormously ambitious, rich, full of stuff, requiring the translator to replicate the research; A Horse Walks into A Bar, captivating, unbearably uncomfortable, a unique if seedy comedian’s voice with untranslatable jokes, which the translator had to substitute with her own), the discussion turned to specifics with relation to the Scandinavian contingent.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal 

a) The title reflects the way learners are taught to turn in Denmark.  Why not Mirror, Signal, Manoeuver? asked Nick Barley.  Because that’s not how turning is taught in the USA replied Misha Hoekstra, and the same translation was to be published in both countries, So we stuck to the Danish original.

b) Of the translation in general, he also said that Dorthe Nors wanted to keep the beauty of his American English rather than translate it into British English.  (At this point I’m tempted to say – discuss.  But I shall refrain.)

c) Expletives – Rather than translate the Danish expletives, I thought about what the driving instructor would say if (American) English was her native tongue.

4) He changed the rhythm of the lyrical sections of the novel to make the prose more musical.

5) In what seemed to be a direct answer to those who find Sonja wish-washy, someone (probably Daniel Hahn or Nick Barclay) pointed out that observation is her revenge.

The Unseen

a) Norway’s population is equivalent to Scotland’s (5 million) but is spread out over a much larger area.  Each town has its own dialect (note dialect, not accent).  The dialect of the island of Barrøy (or so I assume) in the extract of The Unseen was unrecognisable to the two Norwegian speakers in attendance. (Kari Dickson and one audience member) So how did the two Dons (translators Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) approach the problem of translation? By inventing a new English dialect merging Scandinavian words used in English with the elongated vowels of Lancashire.

c) The landscape is a central element of The Unseen and the language used is highly specific.  So the differences between a tussock and a mound matter.  But what happens when there is no English equivalent?  Then the translator has to decide if what is lost in translation is compensated for what is won.

Event 2) Samanta Schweblin

Apologies to Karl Geary who was sharing the stage with Samanta Schweblin and must be edited out of this post, because of its remit.  Consolation is offered, hopefully, by the fact that I have added Montpellier Parade to my wishlist.

I reviewed Fever Dream a couple of months ago and so I’ll only add additional insights here.

a) Rescue Distance, the original Spanish title, is not a phrase invented by Schweblin.  It is one well understood in Argentina. Schweblin applied it not only to the central mother and child relationship but also to the distance between ourselves and the planet.  “What happens when we cannot measure the danger?”, she asked.  And made me think twice about my consumption of soya beans.

b) She wrote the novel 12 times.  The story wouldn’t work until she found David’s voice.

c) Key thought-provoking thought: “As an Argentinian I know nothing about Latin America, until I moved to Berlin.”

Event 3) David Grossman in conversation with Nick Barley

Of course, the winner of the Man Booker International Prize had to make an appearance as the culmination of the afternoon’s events. And I was delighted because although I was rooting for The Unseen to take the prize, I can see why the judges – unanimously, according to Daniel Hahn, deemed this the winner.

Before moving into the event, may I indulge you with a few thoughts of my own? (No? Then skip the next 5 paragraphs.)

Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I would not have read A Horse Walks into A Bar without its win, and almost abandoned it after the first sitting.  It is the tale of a stand-up comedian, going into meltdown on stage.  It’s crude (I hate crude), it’s vicious and nasty (I detest that kind of comedy).  As a result, the jokes that made me laugh were few and far between. (Were they Grossman’s?, I now wonder.  cf notes from Event 1 above.)

It was saved, however, by the introduction of the retired judge.  A former friend of the comedian’s, who was implored to attend a performance.  “Do you remember me?”, asks Douvaleh Greenstein during a phone call.  Eventually the judge does.  “Thank God”‘ says Douvaleh. “I thought I’d made you up.”

And that need, that desperation reeled me in. I wasn’t going to stop reading until I knew what had caused it.  And even if watching this car-crash of a performance was extremely uncomfortable, I couldn’t avert my eyes.   I’m not entirely sure that Douvaleh transformed from a repellent character into one I wanted to embrace (as per Nick Barley), but I certainly softened my opinion of him.

That trajectory mirrors that of Douvaleh’s audience – or at least those that stayed to the end of his performance.  It’s only when a sympathetic female audience member, who knew him as a child, reminds him “you were a good boy”, that the cruel, vicious routine begins to transform into something completely different,

The Man Booker International Prize judges were “bowled over by Grossman’s willingness to take emotional as well as stylistic risks”. I can see that. A Horse Walks into A Bar is anything but traditional, runs a gamut of risks including offending and alienating the reader.  Whoever heard of stand-up comedy without laughs?  But my word, the psychological intensity! Although The Unseen remains my favourite on this year’s Man Booker International Prize shortlist, Grossman’s novel is the one that will elicit an emotional response from me for a long time to come.

Nick Barley was keen to put A Horse Walks Into A Bar into the context of Grossman’s work as a whole, specially as the third in a loose-knit trilogy exploring grief.  Grossman  was 2.5 years into writing To the End of the Land, a novel about a woman who has lost her son in a military operation, when his own son was killed in action against Hizbollah.  “I didn’t know if I could save the book”, said Grossman. “In the end, the book saved me. Writing literature is the best way to force me into my life.” He followed up with Falling Out of Time, in Barley’s words “a Homeric journey into the depths of grief.  I shed tears on every page.”   “Art is the closest a secular non-believer like myself can get to the intersection of life and death” said Grossman of Falling Out of Time.  “How little I understood what I was writing at the time, and I now understand that books take place in a writer’s blind spot.” In this context A Horse Walks Into A Bar examines the way humour, as irrational and illogical as it may seem, allows movement in the congealed world of grief.

Finally, in an echo of what Samanta Schweblin said earlier in the day, Grossman told us that he had had the story of A Horse Walks into A Bar for 24 years.  It wasn’t until the character of Douvaleh appeared that he knew how to tell it and write himself a worthy Man Booker International winner.

As I have read very little science fiction, and own a small number of unread sci-fi classics on my shelves, I have that decided that the science fiction thread of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival is an ideal opportunity to get to know the genre a little better.

So, in preparation, my gorgeous Folio Society edition of The Martian Chronicles was pulled off the shelves and read early in July. It promptly became my 5-star book of the month! Not because of Mick Brownfield’s wonderful illustrations either. Simply because of Bradbury’s extraordinarily imaginative and vivid storytelling. Bradbury’s brio in short.

The Martian Chronicles isn’t a novel per se, although the story arc has a beginning, middle and an end. Rather it is a set of 26 interlinked short stories chronicling man’s conquest of the planet Mars – doomed conquest I might add, because, as we know, from the sorry story of man’s governance of the earth and his fellow creatures, as a species we’re not capable of happy endings. You may disagree. But there you have my natural pessimism and the reason why Bradbury’s work struck such a chord with me.

Still, on a story-telling level, The Martian Chronicles is superlative. The first three stories tell of the three failed expeditions, Not that man didn’t make it to the planet. He did, but he faced a hostile indigenous population, clever enough not to register its hostility, and cold-hearted enough to eliminate its enemies without them having a chance to defend themselves.

During these three stories, told from different points of view (the first a Martian, the second and third from the respective captains of the earthly missions), it is established that the Martians’s secret weapon is telepathy. They can see not only the present but also the nostalgia for the past in men’s minds. Man is naive and unintuitive in comparison, and, by the time the traps are lain and the pennies drop, escape is impossible.

And yet, the fourth expedition is met with an almost uninhabited planet. Man has a secret weapon too. Chicken pox!

Which leads me to Magrs insights:

1) Science fiction is not about the future it is about the present and The Martian Chronicles (1950) is specifically about 1950’s Cold War America.

You know it’s America, because disease wiped out most of the indigenous population when the Europeans arrived. Also the Martian and human townships are reminiscent of the small, cozy towns of the 50’s. The ever-present threat of nuclear war places it firmly in the Cold War era ….

… although that threat appears closer today, than ever before. With two – shall we say, – mavericks, bouncing egos off each other, who knows where we’ll end up? Hopefully not as depicted in story 21.

2) Science fiction is a response to real life, often a critique.

And that often makes Bradbury’s bleakness comical in its knowingness. So for example: the hurt feelings of the astronauts in story 2, when the Martians seem entirely underwhelmed with the success of an impossible journey. Or – my favourite – when Bradbury summarises the trajectory of man’s colonisation of Mars.

But after everything was pinned down and net and in its place, when everything was safe and certain, when the towns were well enough fixed and the loneliness was at a minimum, then the sophisticates came in from Earth. They came on parties and vacations, on little shopping trips for trinkets and photographs and the ‘atmosphere’; they came to study day apply sociological laws; they came with stars and badges and rules and regulations, bringing some of the red tape that had crawled across Earth like an alien weed, and letting it grow on Mars wherever it could take root. They began to plan people’s live and libraries; they began to instruct and push about the very people who had come to Mars to get away from being instructed and pushed about.

Recognise the sociological inevitabilities/imperatives there?

3) The heart of the Martian Chronicles is a matter for discussion.

If the book is, as Magrs, described it a pomegranate (non-hierarchical, a cluster of individual sacs, coalescing to form a whole), where is the heart, the pulse, if you like?

Is it a theme? Such as the evils of colonialism, or the incapability of man to learn and thus the inevitability of repeating past mistakes (my reading).

Or is it something entirely more personal? Magrs spoke of his troubled childhood and the disillusion that results when people reveal themselves to be other than their public persona. (His father, in particular.) The moment when the mask slips. It’s true, there are many such moments in The Martian Chronicles.

That aside, for Magrs, the true heart lies in the story of The Martian, a weakened native, survivor of the chicken pox, now trying to find a place to live safely. Thanks to his telepathic powers, he assumes the form of Tom, the dead son of an elderly human couple, in order for them to accept him into their home. Yet he wishes to remain separate for other human incomers. When he is forced to go into town, Tom is lost, as he shapeshifts into the lost daughter of another bereaved couple. In his weakened state, the Martian is no longer in control of his powers and his empathy for others forces him into another self, It ends badly; his identity and being pulled to smithereens by the needs of others. The lesson for Magrs, a gay teenager in North East England of the 1970’s? That you can’t be all things to all people. You have to preserve yourself.

I love these reading workshops in which authors and translators discuss their personal experience of works by others. They are always illuminating, with plenty of food for thought. May they remain in the festival program for many years to come.

The last 12 months have simply flown by!  Mind my “gap year” has been packed with home improvement projects (still WIP) and lots of travel.  Year 2 is likely to be similar (though not quite as manic), but for now, it’s time to return home i.e to my favourite place in Scotland, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

This year’s festival is bigger and better than ever, with over 1000 events in 17 days.  Charlotte Square just isn’t big enough for this programme, so there are two new pop-up venues in George Street.  I have mixed feelings about that at this point – will it change the atmosphere of the festival i.e dilute the cosy nook feel of the square? We shall have to wait and see …

There haven’t been many reviews on the blog in the past few weeks as I have been reading ahead.   The books to the right in the picture below are either completed or current reads.

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The Books of EIBF 2017

The pile on the left is TBR.  I wonder how many will move to the right in the next couple of weeks, and I fear (yes, that is the word) how many books will join the TBR, given the number of strategically placed bookshops!  I do intend to focus on book reviews, not event reviews,  on the blog this year.  My twitter stream @lizzysiddal is where ongoing commentary of the festival will be.

When launching the festival in June, the director of EIBF, Nick Barley, invited the world to “come to Charlotte Square to be inspired and challenged”. Well, I’m ready, and I’m on my way!

I’ve had my eye on this game, hosted by Kate, for a while, never quite finding the time to join in until today.  The idea is to freely associate books based upon one common initial link.

1. Today’s starter for 10 is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with Darcy perhaps the world’s most popular literary crush.  Not mine as it turns out because …

2. Prince Andrej from Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the man for me!

3. Andrej would be Andrew if he lived here in Scotland, and I’m spoilt for choice for the next book with so many Andrews to choose from.  Let’s go with the town, named after the Scottish patron saint, and The Book of St Andrews, an anthology that accompanies me whenever I visit.

4.  What do I think of whenever I think of St Andrews?  The two-mile long beach, the best bookshop in Scotland, or the bottle dungeon in the ruined castle, the horror of which haunts me,  and was so effectively captured in Belcampo’s short story Funeral Rights, contained in the Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories.

5. I can’t mention Dutch Literature without thinking of W F Herman’s The Darkroom of Damocles, my favourite novel of all time. (Note to self – it is time for a reread.)

6. The sword of Damocles is an allusion to the ever-present threats to those in power. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” as King Henry says in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two.

7.  Which brings me rather neatly to my current read.  New Boy, the latest release in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, is Tracy Chevalier’s homage to Shakespeare’s Othello, another leader who discovered peril where he least expected it. There is also a circular link back to Pride and Prejudice.  Wasn’t Mr Bingley, once upon a time, the new boy on the block?

IMG_0037Sometimes judging a book by its cover is the right thing to do!   When I saw the hand-stitched embroidery effect of the cover of The Disappearances, the needle  pulled me right in as it were.  And it was no stitch-up.  This young adult novel delivered on my anticipation in every way!

Imagine a world in which every 7 years something huge disappears. Reflections, for instance.   The stars in the sky.  Dreams.  Imagine the foreboding at the end of each 7-year cycle, knowing, wondering and fearing the next disappearance.  This is the world which greets 16-year old Aila and her younger brother, Miles, when they are sent to live in Sterling with family friends, following the death of their mother, and the drafting of their father to fight into WWII.  The town is not only cursed, but unwelcoming and hostile.  The people hold Aila’s mother responsible.  She had been the only person to leave the town and retain the faculties lost to others.  Why?  Obviously she was the one to cast the curse, and her children are regarded with suspicion.

Those suspicions may be well-founded.  For not only does the next disappearance arrive bang on time, but another follows almost immediately.  The disappearances also spread from three towns to a fourth. The arrival of Aila and her brother has strengthened the curse!

This story is full of opportunity to explore typical young adult themes:  the loss of one’s parents, being the outsider in a hostile environment, coping with the  bullying that ensues.  Fortunately Aila and her brother have their protectors: the family that has taken them in, Professor and Mrs Clifton and their handsome son, Will, with whom Aila falls in love.  Oh yes, the trials of unrequited first love (remember them?) made so much worse by that unexpected fifth disappearance, which threatens to reveal Aila’s closely guarded secret.

In addition there is the necessity of understanding and unravelling the curse.  Aila feels impelled to do this if she is to clear her mother’s name.   The stories that the people of Sterling tell do not gell with her memories of her mother. Fortunately, just before leaving home, Aila discovered a notebook, full of her mother’s incomprehensible scribblings.  Now that she is in Sterling though, they seem to point to a connection between the disappearances and Shakespeare.  Whatever can the bard have to do with these mysterious events?

There was a ring too, which her mother was about to return to a man named Stefen.     Who is this man and what was he to her mother?   A parallel narrative uncovers the history of this unfortunate, and this is altogether darker and more twisted than anything Aila and her brother experience or can imagine.  And in one section, particularly cruel to animals.  (At first, this section struck a discordant note, but then, for all its magical elements, The Disappearances, always retains one foot in the real world, and experimentation on animals is – for good or ill – a part of that.)  Stefen’s narrative also explains his desperation to get his hands on the ring, and the reason why he is ultimately a threat to Aila and her brother Miles. Yes, he’s the villain, and yet, it is hard to hate him.  His story is the dark side of the charmed existence of Aila’s mother, and his bitterness all too easy to understand.

I liked that subtlety is Murphy’s writing – the world isn’t black and white.  I loved the magic realism (not usually my thing) fused with the period feel of the 1940’s,  and the literary mystery involving Shakespeare, requiring the tenacity of a motivated adolescent in a pre-internet world to solve it.  (Aila must read; search engine shortcuts were not an option for her.) The promise of the rich tapestry on the book cover was fulfilled in every detail.  But I’ll let Aila summarise – she’s better acquainted with this story than I am.

When just the right things come together, there is always a bit of magic. And when just the wrong combination of things do, there is tragedy.

Expect magic, tragedy and delight if you pick up The Disappearances. There is an extract available here, and, should you wish to read more, Pushkin Press have kindly made three copies available to giveaway to UK readers.  To enter, please leave a comment, preferably with the title of your favourite young adult novel, as I’d like to incorporate more of these into my own reading. Winners will be notified on Friday 11th August 2017.

Earlier this week this list  of 10 essential German novels, all written by men, started recirculating around Facebook. It’s not what you want to read during Women in Translation Month, is it?  So Tony from Tony’s Reading List and I curated the following alternative list:

1) Malina – Ingeborg Bachmann
Chosen by but not yet read by myself. Top of my German-lit TBR!

2) The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine – Alina Bronsky
Chosen and reviewed by myself.

3) Child of the Parish – Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.


4) Visitation – Jenny Erpenbeck
Chosen and reviewed by myself.

5) Summerhouse, Later – Judith Hermann
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

6) The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun
Chosen and reviewed (if somewhat negatively) by myself.

7) Blumenberg – Sybille Lewitscharoff
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

8) Transit – Anna Seghers
Chosen by myself.  Shares top spot of my German-lit TBR with Malina.  Tony’s review is here.

9) The Mussel Feast – Birgit Vanderbeke
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

10) Cassandra – Christa Wolf
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

What do you think of our alternative list?  All titles are available in English translation, should you be tempted to read them. Is there another work that you would like to see included? If so, which title would you replace it with?

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As is now traditional here, I like to start Women in Translation Month with a list of the women in translation I have read during the past twelve months.  This year’s list consists of 19 books translated from 10 languages.  The titles of my favourite five are in bold, and, when you see them, you’ll realise that I can’t wait for another novel from Ayelet Gundar-Goshen!

Listed in the order I read them.

Hotel Bosphorus – Esmahan Aykol
Translated from Turkish by Ruth Whitehouse

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Innocence Or Murder in Streep Street – Heda Margolius Kovaly
Translated from Czech by Alex Zucker

The Trap – Melanie Raabe
Translated from German by Imogen Taylor

The Decision – Britta Böhler
Translated from Dutch by Jeanette K Ringold

All Russians Love Birch Trees – Olga Grajsnowna
Translated from German by Eva Bacon

The Golden Yarn – Cornelia Funke
Translated from German by Oliver Latsch

The Boy – Wytske Versteeg
Translated from Dutch by Sarah Welling

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George
Translated from German by Simon Pare

Craving – Ester Gerritsen
Translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchison

When the Doves Disappeared – Sofi Oksanen
Translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers

Rasputin and Other Ironies – Teffi
Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson

One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Memoirs of A Polar Bear – Yoko Tawada (Review to follow)
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

The Story of My Teeth – Valeria Luiselli
Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

The Bird Tribunal – Agnes Ravatn
Translated from Norwegian by Rosie Hedger

Fever Dream – Samantha Schweblin
Translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal – Dorthe Nors
Translated from Danish by Misha Hoekstra

Go Went Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck (Review to follow)
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky