Archive for the ‘in translation’ Category

imageTranslated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is a psychologist and her deep insight into human nature infuses every page of her second novel to be translated into English.  At her recent Edinburgh Book Festival event she made the following points:

a) We each have more than one personality.  Our lives do not follow a single arc.
b) We spend a lot of time hiding our true nature.   We make ourselves attractive so that  others do not see the real person beneath.
c) We often choose not to see what is right in front of us.

The drama involving Eitan, his wife, and an Ethiopian illegal immigrant, Sirkit is designed to show how this plays out in life.

Eitan Green is a neurosurgeon.  He lives with his wife, Liat, and his two young sons in Beersheba.  They are happy despite his posting to a dusty, southern outback being a kind of demotion, a punishment for causing waves in his previous post in Jerusalem.  Yet Eitan’s life and all his assumptions about himself are changed in an instant.

He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man.

What is Eitan going to do?  The doctor in him forces him out of the car.  The doctor in him ascertains that the man, an illegal Ethiopian immigrant, is beyond help.  The man in him realises that reporting the accident could lead to the loss of his family and career.  Also that there are no witnesses.  So, surprising the honest Eitan in himself (see a) above), he drives off.

The following day, with Eitan feeling no guilt, there is a knock at the door.

The woman at the door was tall, thin and very beautiful, but Eitan didn’t notice any of those details.  Two others captured his full attention: she was Eritrean and she was holding his wallet in her hand.

And it is at that moment that Eitan’s universe tilts on its axis because the woman, Sirkit, holds more than the wallet, which Eitan dropped when examining the dying man.  She holds, for the first time in her life,  absolute power.  The lion, the predator within her, has been awoken and she is on the prowl. What does she want?  Not money.  She wants Eitan to establish an illegal field hospital for the multitude of sick Eritrean immigrants and for him to treat them, for free, whenever he is not working at the hospital.  However, don’t believe that Sirkit is motivated by altruism.  It takes a while for her motives to be revealed.  Bear in mind point b) above.

Which leaves us with point c) and Liat, Eitan’s wife, is the prime example of this.  She is a detective and ironically, tasked with finding the hit and run driver.  While the rest of the force is happy to sweep it under the carpet (it’s just another illegal immigrant), Liat is not. Yet when faced with Eitan’s ever-increasing absences, his deteriorating appearance, and the breakdown in their up-till-now model communications, she is not prepared to ask the questions that need asking – at least not until the point of almost no return.

The foregoing basically scratches the surface of the psychological drama at the heart of Waking Lions.  The relationship between Sirkit and Eitan, blackmailer and blackmailee,  isn’t confined to hatred.  Gradually the muscles of hatred grow tired said Ayelet Gunden-Goshar.  Which leads to more complications for Eitan. His involvement  makes him aware of the Etritreans and their plight for the first time.  He begins to feel empathy for them, which  means he does not walk away when circumstances lead to the balance of power shifting between Sirkit and himself.


Ayelet Gunden-Goshar 20.08.2016

At times the relationship between Sirkit and Eitan feels like a deadly embrace. There needs to be a catalyst to break it.  And that is provided by the fact that Eitan not only killed an illegal immigrant but also a drug-mule.  Not only does this provide the acceleration to the thrillery climax, it gives Gunden-Goshar opportunity to investigate the stratified nature of contemporary society in Israel.  At the bottom the illegal, and for the most part invisible Etritreans, who find they have not walked to a promised land.  Above them – just – the Bedouins, reduced to making a living by providing tourist shows.  And then the Jews:  the Arab Jews who are discriminated agrainst by the European Jews.

Such an informative and surprising novel with lots of content in its 409 pages.  I did feel a little drag around the half-way point, but, I suppose this reflects the situation Eitan was in at this point – there was no light at the end of the tunnel for him.  It may also have been the efffect of reading the novel in snatches, as I travelled back and forth to Edinburgh.  Regardless I’m glad I pushed on through.  I was well rewarded for my efforts.


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imageTranslated from Czech by Alex Zucker

Experts agree that animals are almost like people.. As long as they’ve got a nice place to live and something to keep them entertained, they can do without freedom … In a good zoo, where they’re well-fed and have a chance to socialize, most animals are happier than they would be … in lonely and dangerous freedom.

That quote neatly summarises the attitude of the Communist regime in 1950’s Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. Kovály’s novel demonstrates the impact of such on the citizens of Prague, or more accurately the impact on a microcosm of society, the 2 usherettes and their manager at the Horizon Cinema in Steep Street, who come under the close scrutiny of the security services following the murder of a young child in the projection room.

The ladies all have uncomfortable secrets.  At the centre is Helena Nováková, whose husband has been falsely imprisoned on charges of espionage.  Guilty by association, fired and spurned by her former publishing colleagues, she is now working at the cinema because it is the only way she can earn a living.  The regime cannot, however, accept her innocence, and so begin to track her every movement.  The manager is a state informant, tasked to do just this.  The second usherette is having an affair with a local police inspector, who, despite having solved the child’s murder, continues to keep a watchful eye on the cinema.

The puzzle of who is who and what they are up to is not easy to piece together – deliberately so, to reflect the realities and paranoias in 1950’s Prague. Chapters often begin with a knock on the door and the entry of an as yet unidentified character. There’s no way of knowing whether the entrant is friend or foe.  The culmulative effect of this found me breathing a sigh of relief when it wasn’t state security on the threshold.

In Part I the focus is firmly on Helena, whose experiences draw much from the life of the author herself  (explained in the introduction by Kovály’s son).  The narrative, often in first person, takes us deep into the thoughts of a lonely, confused woman who wants nothing more than to ease her husband’s predicament.  She is convinced by others that the best way to do this is to have an affair with a powerful man, Hrůza, who may be able to help.  For his part, Hrůza, who works for State Security, only wants to get closer to her to find evidence of her husband’s guilt (because, of course there is none).  He uses their relationship in the most cynical way with tragic consequences.  The big question is can Helena be said to have colluded with the State?

Thus ends Part 1 and Part II begins with the actual murder of the title.  The victim is Nedoma, the local police inspector, who has infiltrated his way into almost all of the various intrigues. The result is that he knows too much and everyone has motive to kill him. Some more than others.  Enter Vendyš, the official in charge of the case, a man with no political agenda, his concern a straight-forward murder investigation.  Did I say straight-forward?  No chance.  Although Vendyš, based on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe,  is an ample match for the twists and turns that present themselves in the case, no-one can match the interference from the powers that be.

There are many misdirections in the denouement. Only one character in the whole sordid tale has a crisis of conscience and seeks redemption with  a confession that satisfies the needs of the authorities.  That this isn’t the whole story  is revealed only in the final chapter when two fat men (one fat, one even fatter) converse.  Who these men are and what the information is passed onto them in the cinema is never revealed, but there is a delicious irony that, despite the intense levels of surveillance by the authorities, there are times when they can’t see what is right under their noses.

Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street is clever and satisfying.  It demands patience, however.  There are a lot of characters, many addressed by more than one name.  Action is often not on the page, but indirectly observed during conversations. At the heart is an expose of an inhuman and corrupt society but more than that, a hard and depressing lesson that true innocence in such is unsustainable.   To quote the epigraph from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast,  All things truly wicked start from an innocence.

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I’ll start the third Women in Translation month in usual fashion, listing the books read and reviewed in the past 12 months, but I’ll make no apology for the lack of linguistic diversity.  I’m concentrating on the German Lit TBR this year (actually, probably for ever and a day looking at the mountainous height of it.)

17 read, with 13 reviewed as per the hyperlinks.  Not a bad effort at all.  Titles of my favourite 5 are in bold.

Dark Heart of the Night – Leonora Miano
Translated from French by Tasmin Black

The Vegetarian – Han Kang
Translated from Korean by Deborah Smith

The Story of the Lost Child – Elena Ferrante
Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

They Divided the Sky – Christa Wolf
Translated from German by Louise von Flotow

August – Christa Wolf
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

This Brave Balance – Rusalka Reh
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

The Secret of the Water Knight – Rusalka Reh
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

Erebos – Ursula Poznanski
Translated from German by Judith Pattinson

Fly Away, Pigeon – Melinda Nadj Abonji
Translated from German by Tess Lewis

The Weight of Things – Marianne Fritz
Translated from German by Adrian Nathan West

Who is Martha? – Marjana Gaponenko
Translated from German by Arabella Spencer

Summerhouse, Later – Judith Hermann
Translated from German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

I called him Necktie – Milena Michiko Flasar
Translated from German by Sheila Dickie

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything – Daniela Krien
Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Translated from Norwegian by John Irons

Five – Ursula P Archer (Fantastic! – Review to follow)
Translated from German by Jamie Lee Searle

The Happy City – Elvira Navarro
Translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

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Dark heart of the nightTranslated from French by Tamsin Black

I read Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night during the recent Women’s World Cup of Literature.  I didn’t like it much to be honest, and decided not to review it.  But Women in Translation Month has changed my mind.  My fellow WWCOL judge put it through to the quarter finals and there may be a wider audience for this cruel tale of man’s inhumanity to man … African to African.  Despite the obvious nod to Conrad’s classic in the title of the – in the author’s opinion – mis-translated English translation, the theme is not post-colonial cruelty.

In a very direct way, Miano challenges African culture.  The novel is set in a fictitious African village, enabling her to reach outside her native Cameroon.  Her main character returns to the village, having been educated in France, an outsider now looking in, all critical facilities intact.  A catalyst for change maybe?  No chance,  Village customs and values are solid, held rigidly in place mainly by the women folk even though they themselves are miserable.  The existence of the village is threatened by revolutionaries in need of new “recruits” and when they descend on the village – in the words of Part One’s epigraph, If the sun is carnivorous, dusk is homicidal.

I might add graphically and sickeningly homicidal.

I have no wish to revisit those events which in my view turned the rest of the novel to ashes. But it was a brave move on the author’s part to critique her own continent so unflinchingly. Why?  I’m not going to answer that.  The author already has.  In that article, which also demonstrates the forthright and plain-speaking style of the novel, she also explains why she thinks the title is mistranslated, and why she demanded that the University of Nebraska withdraw the foreword in their edition of her novel!

That might explain why the novel in English is very hard to find.  I read a pdf version sent by the publisher. An e-book which I can safely say has not suffered the fate of other e-books I have read.  Instantly forgotten. This one not. Unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.


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This August will be as busy, if not busier,  than last August, although I hope to write a couple of new reviews especially for Women In Translation month hosted by Meytal at biblibio.

However, before starting on the new, here’s a quick recap of the books that have crossed my path since last August.  The lean towards works translated from German will surprise no-one who reads this blog for more than 5 minutes  ….

The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons – Monica Cantieni
Translated from German by Donal McLaughlin

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Elena Ferrante
Translated from Italian by Ann – Goldstein

Big Bad Wolf – Nele Neuhaus
Translated from German by Steven T Murray

West – Julia Franck
Translated from German by Anthea Bell

The Dark Meadow – Maria Andrea Schenkel
Translated from German by Anthea Bell

Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky
Translated from German by Tim Mohr

The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

Mr Darwin’s Gardener – Kristina Carlson
Translated from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik
Translated from Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts – Teresa Solana
Translated from Catalan by Peter Bush

Family Heirlooms – Zulmera Ribiera Tavares
Translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

Silence – Mechtild Borrmann
Translated from German by Aubrey Botsford

The Last Lover – Can Xue (Abandoned after 67 torturous pages)
Translated from Chinese by Annabel Finnegan Wasmoen

The Dark Heart of the Night – Leonora Miano (Review to follow.)
Translated from French by Tamsin Black

Delirium – Laura Restrepo
Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine – Alina Bronsky (Reread)
Translated from German by Tim Mohr

Links are to my reviews
My favourite three: Erpenbeck, Bronsky, Solana

So 15 read in their entirety and 11 reviewed – not too shoddy. In comparision I read 21 works by men in translation. The women are holding their own, without any positive gender discrimination on my part. I don’t expect #witmonth will change my behaviour in that regard, but I fully expect to discover a few more irresistable titles as the month progresses. Let the fun begin!

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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.


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

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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.


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