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While The Women Are SleepingTranslated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

There’s been a lotta love shown for Javier Marías this #spanishlitmonth.  (Here, here, here and here, with more to follow no doubt.) Enough love to convince me that it was time to dust off the copy that the lovely Frances sent me back in 2011.  (Hangs head in shame.)

This short collection of stories (10 stories/130 pages), published over the course of 30 years, reads very quickly. They are not presented chronologically but the year of publication is noted at the end of each.  So, you could read them chronologically, starting with the one Marías wrote when he was only 14, The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga (published 1968 when he was 16) and ending with A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps (published 1998).

I didn’t bother with that.  I read from beginning to end noting a preoccupation with mortality, the ironic and the absurd.

The title story and the first of the collection sets the tone.  Two strangers sit talking at night by a deserted swimming pool.  Their wives are sleeping in the hotel rooms.  Or are they?  One of the conversationalists disclosing his absolute obsession with his much younger wife, who he met as a girl.  He is aware that the feeling, now reciprocated, won’t always be, and that before his wife walks aways he will have to kill her.  Is this a joke? It appears not but then he asks the other how certain he can be that she isn’t already dead. There’s enough ambiguity in his story to present his listener with a moral dilemma.  Should he check up on her at the risk of appearing mad, if she is alive and well?  How will he feel if he decides it is none of his business and she is already dead, or worse still, alive but found dead sometime in the future?  What would you do?

The preoccupation with death and what happens afterwards engenders a story written by a corpse, another featuring a series of love letters written by a dead person to a living one, a story of a haunted school, and a ghost who quietly listens as stories are read aloud.  None of Marías spectres are malicious, so these stories are not scary in any way.  They are more metaphysical pieces – the author trying to understand the possibilities of death – in a playful way.

My favourite story was An Epigram of Fealty.  An antiquarian bookseller has just put out some of his rare and valuable books in the window display, when a tramp begins to take a closer look, showing particular interest in the book worth £50,000.  Having been scowled at, the tramp leaves only to return with a few of his street mates.  At this the bookseller goes to shoo them away.  The tramp surprises him with the claim that he is none other than the author of said book, John Gawsworth, King of Redonda.  A likely story.  The bookseller sends them on their way but as he returns to his shop, he can’t help wondering if a) the tramp was telling the truth and b) how much the book would be worth with a signature!

That King of Redonda title a clue to Marías’s playfulness because he is the current King of Redonda and John Gawsworth, a London poet, once was.  More about the Kingdom of Redonda here. If ever, there were proof that fact is stranger than fiction, here it is!

However, I digress.  I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and I suspect that beneath the very entertaining surface, there are further layers to be mined.  These stories have certainly switched me onto Marías and I will definitely read more soon.

4stars.GIF

PS A great recommendation, Frances.  Feel free to send more my way anytime you want.  😳

So this was the week I ticked off something special from my bucket list.  I have always wanted to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform live in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Now admittedly they were in Stratford, while I was 312 miles away at the cinema in Hamilton, but in my comfy seat in front of the giant screen, I reckon I had a better view than anyone in the theatre.

The Merchant of Venice was my first introduction to Shakespeare.  Or rather the first Shakespeare I remember reading (because surely we would have been introduced to something more entertaining, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream?) Anyway, at 14, I hated it, and haven’t given it a thought in the 4 decades since.  Nor do I willingly read Will’s plays, having long since decided that they were written to be seen, not read.

At 50-something, when I finally revisited The Merchant of Venice, I was staggered (no exaggeration) at the validity of its themes for our modern world: Intolerance, hatred of minorities, anti-semitism, religious hypocrisy.  No further detail here because I will soon wade into murky political and religious waters and this blog is not the place for that. The relevance of those themes made clearer by the decision to stage the play in contemporary costume on a stage made of brass, which reflected the audience back to themselves.  This could be you, the underlying insinuation, however uncomfortable that may be.

No-one is perfect and that is particularly true of the characters in the play.  My sympathies swayed back and forth as seemingly honourable characters became stained.  Antonio, who wagers all for his friend, Bassanio (actually lover, no ambiguity about that in this production), lost my support when he spat (literally, no ambiguity about that either!) in Shylock’s face.  That was his most “courageous” action, for the rest of the play he was a love-sick wimp!  Portia, clever, witty Portia, frustrated me with her inability to see through gold-digger, Bassanio, and everyone, but everyone lost any respect I may have had for them for the sheer vindictiveness of the judgment against Shylock.  Talk about kicking a man when he is down.

Makram J Khoury as Shylock (courtesy of the RSC)

Makram J Khoury as Shylock (courtesy of the RSC)

Shylock was not the Fagin-like character calling for his pound of flesh of my memory. Makram J Khoury, a Palestinian-Israeli whose lines sometimes reflected personal experience, portrayed Shylock in a most humane and fragile manner.  Yet he seemed too insistent when it was time to take his knife to Antonio.  The strength of the play, though, is to make that lust for revenge entirely understandable.  But on this stage it felt out of character.  Nevertheless, Shylock, the most honourable of them all, stole the show.

And yet, I can’t say why but I’m not entirely satisfied.  Why would Jessica be in such a rush to betray her father as she did?  There were no explanations of this on stage.  (Have some scenes been skipped?)  I have no recollection of Laucelot Gobbo impregnating Portia’s maid.  (Have some scenes been added?)  Shouldn’t Shylock be as morally ambivalent as the Venetians? Am I, despite my insistence that I won’t do it, going to have to re-read the play after all?  Or will the Shakespearian afficionados among you point me in the direction of the definitive Merchant on DVD? Please.

DeliriumWinner of the 2004 Alfaguara Prize
Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Returning home from a short trip away, Aguliar receives a phone call asking him to pick up his wife from a hotel.  He arrives to find that Agustina has gone mad.  Worse still, it appears that she was staying there with another and now absent man.  To say that Aguilar is devastated is to understate the case, and yet, because he loves his wife, he takes her home and attempts to deal with her “delirium”, and to discover the truth of what happened when he went away.

That truth unfolds gradually as Aguilar’s narrative is intertwined with that of Midas, Columbian drug-trafficker and mysterious other man, and Agustina’s own. Her story is one of a troubled childhood, her relationship with an younger brother who had to be protected from bullies, the biggest being the father whom Agustina adored.  Midas’s story, while full of violence, crime and danger is also unexpectedly funny (in places), providing much needed comic relief from the swirling emotional turmoil elsewhere. Aguilar’s raw narrative is by far the most moving, even though he is not the most likeable of men.  Everyone has a history and Aquilar’s is neither flawless nor entirely honourable.

I can’t fault him though for his devotion to Agustina. As he relates their history, it becomes clear that she is the love of his life;  that he has already sacrificed much for her, and that he would willingly do so again.  Neither is this the first psychotic episode he has nursed her through.  I say “nursed”.  A better word would be weathered, because his narrative makes it clear that when Agustina is delirious, it is a case of submitting to her every whim, putting up with the impossible while waiting for the storm to subside.

And that is the essence of the narrative arc.  It drags in places, particularly at the start, but then, as the characters establish themselves and the many secrets begin to surface, it becomes ever more engrossing.  I’m not surprised this novel became a semi-finalist in the recent Women’s World Cup of Literature.

I’m delighted to have discovered it, just in time for #spanishlitmonth.

4_stars.GIF

Did you follow along over at Three Percent? If not, you can still catch up on all the action. The Women’s World Cup of Literature (henceforth WWCOL) came along just at the right time for a Lizzy in the doldrums. Returning from Germany to grotty Scottish weather – it happens every time. I’m all right now – the Edinburgh Book Festival programme has been published and Charlotte Square beckons. Still at the beginning of June the WWCOL was what I needed.

I don’t sign up for shadow judging – the committment is too great, but I thought, with a committment of one book a week, judging the WWCOL doable. OK it sometimes needed two books a week, but concentrated short spurts were also achievable.

For the record this is my WWCOL shelf. Let’s take it from left to right.

Lizzy's WWCOL

Judges’ names were drawn out of a hat and I was drawn to judge a second round match which would be played between the winner of Match 1 (China, The Last Lover vs Canada, Oryx and Crake) and Match 2 (The Netherlands, The Ministry of Pain vs New Zealand, The Luminaries).

Turnaround time was tight so I made a start on Can Xue’s BTBA winning novel, and quickly abandoned it at page 67.  The official judge of the match, Florian Duijsens, called it “utter torture”. I can only agree.  I then decided to reread Oryx and Crake (I think for the 4th time.) I found it as compelling as ever.  Finished it in one sitting, and I was delighted when it progressed to the second round.

I bought Dubravka Ugresic’s novel in the hope that it would see off Eleanor Catton.  (Nothing personal, Eleanor).  it didn’t and so my copy remains unread for now,  Was I going to reread The Luminaries, a book that hadn’t lived up to the hype on first reading?I decided I would because I suspected that I took it in too many little chunks first time round.  This time I took it in 5 huge gulps, but my initial impressions did not change.  There was no doubting the result of the match I judged in detail.  3-1 to Canada, and I had great fun writing this piece.

I was then called on to judge the third round match Australia, Burial Rights vs Cameroon, The Dark Heart of the Night.  You’re not.hallucinating – that is a purple kindle you see before you, and yes, I did read Cameroon’s entry as a pdf.  Not ideal – I couldn’t change the text size on the kindle  and eventually read it on an ipad.  I will review this in full for Women in Translation month in August, but, suffice to say it never stood a chance against Burial Rites, an historical novel that had previously entranced me and did so again.

This brings me to the semi-final Canada vs Australia, and a tough call which I was dreading.  In the end Canada proceeded to the final because of the one-sitting unputdownableness of Oryx and Crake – even on fourth reading.  It’s hard to argue with that.

What was going on in the other half of the draw though? Germany, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, was blasting all into oblivion.  Would one of the Spanish-language novels it was scheduled to meet in the semis stop it? The third round match – Columbia, Delirium vs Costa Rica, Assault on Paradise – looked really interesting.  So I purchased both and opted to read thr Columbian entry first,  A brilliant novel, which proceeded to the semis, and one I will review next week for #spanlshlitmonth.  Assault on Paradise remains unread for now.

I wasn’t called upon to judge Columbia vs Germany, which would have been even tougher than Canada vs New Zealand, but the other judges put Germany through setting up the Canada vs Germany final, and another reread for me.

I’ve been meaning to introduce rereading into my schedule, and I set myself a target of 4 for 2015. I didn’t expect myself to accomplish that during WWCOL though!  And it’s interesting to note that my initial impressions of a book changed only once. Oryx and Crake, always a good book, became a great book on fourth reading.

Which didn’t stop me voting for Germany in the final. Why? Because this was a football match and, if you’ve met Rosalinda, the main protagonist in Alina Bronsky’s novel, you will realise that there is no opposition on this earth capable of withstanding her relentless attacks! The majority of other judges agreed and Germay lifted the trophy!

Lizzy’s final scores: Books read 6 Re-reads 4 New reads 2 DNF 1 TBR 2

Short Stories from And Other Stories

I enjoyed Angela Readman’s short story Don’t Try This At Home when I shadowed the Costa Short Story Award in 2013. Although I didn’t pick it as my winner, I can say 2 years on, that it is the only story of the 6 that I remember. Not hard to do, this tale of a woman cloning her man, by slicing him in half every time she needs more from him, is pretty unforgettable, and is now the lead story in Readman’s first published collection. The story in which she won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014, The Keeper of the Jackalopes, is also included here.

Mixing the everyday with the fantastical, this is a collection to whizz through. By turns sad (the girl condemned to be a circus freak, the club-footed hunchback sent to live with the witch in the wood); by turns quirky and macabre (nothing more so than the lead title); by turns thought-provoking (just how would you react if a homeless old woman knew everything about you?). Always entertaining and very visual. You don’t read this pages, you watch them. No better way to expose the prejudices at the heart of many of these tales. Give me more!

Ivan Vladislavíc’s 101 Detectives could be a much more intellectual exercise. I’ll quote for a moment from the dustjacket. “Each story can be read as just that – a story – or you can dig a little deeper. take a closer look, examine the artifact from all angles and consider the clues and patterns contained within”.

I’ll save all that for a reread because first time through I was too busy enjoying myself. I wouldn’t say that every story hit the spot but the majority did. I loved the twist in the tail of the 101 Detectives, the dismount of the corporate ladder in Exit Strategy (was I meant to LOL reading this?) and the utter absurdity of the Industrial Theatre caused by the launch of the Ford Kafka. (As you can imagine lots of intertextuality to admire here!)

My favourite stories came towards the end; The Reading which charts the breakdown of the translator, as the author reads a harrowing account of her past, and The Trunks – A Complete History in which a dead man’s papers are retained for years by one hoarder after the next in the vain hope that a) they will be read and b) turned into a biography.

I recognise all the arguments but they have yet to subscribe wholeheartedly with the message of Claude’s trunks:

They were more than a warning about a debilitating fascination with the leavings of one life …… They were a prophecy of the distasteful end that awaits all those who set too much store by the written word. The pointlessness of paper.

Regardless, this collection has got me thinking and excited. Not at the prospect of the amount of paper material I will discard once the logic has permeated my brain cells, but at the amount of pleasure to come. Vladislavíc, although new to me, is an established multi-award winning South African author. & Other Stories publish a number of his novels, including The Restless Supermarket. Who can resist a title like that? Not me.

Don’t Try This At Home  4stars.GIF / 101 Detectives 4stars.GIF

JuneTranslated from Dutch by David Colmer

Gerbrand Bakker’s novels have taken the Anglophone word by storm.  The Twin (original Dutch publication 2006) won the IMPAC award in 2010; The Detour (original Dutch publication 2010) the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013. What will the world make of the recently translated June (original Dutch publication 2009)?

Firstly, it is typically Bakker – understated, detailed, focused on the everyday.  A quiet novel then?  With a dysfunctional family at its core – not really.

The main narrative is framed between the story of Queen Juliana’s visit to the northern provinces of Holland in 1969.  The point-of-view is special, and possibly controversial,in that it is told from a very human and, at times, very irritated queen’s point-of-view.  She is a momarch who is not afraid to deviate from her civil servant’s script and take a couple of extra minutes to talk to her subjects and stroke the cheek of a young child.

As the prologue ends, we discover that this event does not become a family highlight.  An unbearable tragedy unfolds later that same day.  We catch up with the family 35 years later and discover family members becoming progressively more eccentric as time passes, even as the burden of grief does not.

This does not make for an unremittingly bleak narrative.  Personalities provide light relief. Well, at least, until it becomes obvious that the woman seeking me-time, lying in the straw swigging a bottle of advocaat, isn’t simply throwing an egocentric strop.  She is a soul incapacitated by bitterness and grief; her husband and sons entirely incapable of dealing with her problems.  Adult pressures and general unhappiness are counterpointed by the lightness of Dieke, the 5-year old grandchild, who skips around the ramshackle farm in the obliviousness and innocence of childhood.

In front of her is the shadow cast by the farmhouse, stretching almost to the sheep shed. One of the two doors is hanging crooked on its hinges.  On one side of the sheep shed is the old dungheap , on the other a salt-stained, concrete silo.  The dung left on the slab is as black as ink and teeming with fishing worms.  There are elderberry bushes growing in the silo.

The physical state of the farm reflects the anguish of the family within.

The descriptive passages are as fine as any Bakker has written and his characters as real.  Yet I didn’t connect with this novel as I did with the two previous.  Perhaps the angles were too oblique?  More likely, The Detour, being one of my favourites of all time, is too tough an act to follow.

3stars.JPG

A quick visual recap of the action thus far:

WWCOL

The judging happens over at Three Percent, and today you’ll find my judging of the first second round match – Canada (Oryx and Crake) vs New Zealand (The Luminaries).

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