Canada: inside story

August 3, 2012

This book had lots going for it. The British Centre for Literary Translation’s director Dr Valerie Henitiuk, a Canadian national, told me it was one of the best translations she’d come across. In addition, as a Quebecois classic, it would be the first French-Canadian novel I’d ever read. And it was feminist literature – something I’ve had a fascination with ever since my year of reading women opened my eyes to some of the riches in this frequently overlooked field of writing. Nevertheless, even with all this promise, I could not have imagined the treat I had in store.

Split into three parts, Nicole Brossard’s Mauve Desert takes storytelling and translation apart from the inside. The first section follows 15-year-old Mélanie as she speeds across the Arizona desert in her mother’s car, ‘moving forward in life, wild-eyed with arrogance’, while also fleeing the insecurity, awkwardness and tenderness of life at her lesbian mother’s motel. Next, the middle part catalogues the experience of Maudes Laures, who finds Mélanie’s story in a second-hand bookshop and spends two years obsessing over its meaning and the actions of its characters and author, Laure Angstelle. The final section is Maudes Laures’s translation of Mauve Desert, which is at once similar to and very different from the original text.

Rich, ambiguous and fluid, Brossard/Angstelle’s writing sweeps the reader into the heart of teenage longing, using fine details to evoke intense experience. Long, sultry afternoons around the pool consist in the glint of wet tiles and the snaking of a hose pipe, while the rush of speeding through the desert shimmers on the horizon and in the dizziness of dehydration. Deliberately ambiguous, ‘both in focus and out of the frame’ as Mélanie describes her driving experiences, the narrative opens up a vast landscape of multivalency so that we can often never be sure exactly what is taking place. ‘Reality had a meaning, but which one?’ reflects Mélanie at one point.

As Maude Laures discovers, this confusion is precisely the point. While she strives to get to the heart of the text that has obsessed her, picking apart places, characters and events, and even at one stage imagining an encounter with Laure Angstelle herself in which she berates and interrogates the author over her treatment of one character, she finds herself dazzled by ‘the inexorable light that transforms lives of flesh into the bare bones of narrative’. As she records and analyses conflicting assertions that she finds in the text and her discourse with it, some sort of truth emerges like a line drawn through a cluster of points on a graph, tying trends and outliers together into a kind of coherent whole.

Yet, as Laures’s translation in the final section shows, this whole will not be the same for any two readers. Filtered through her consciousness and the result of her interaction with the novel, Laures’s rendering of the text (here of course given another layer by virtue of having been translated in reality by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood), is a new work. It picks up fresh angles and possibilities in the story and even adds things not in the original, as well as sometimes making passages awkward and stilted. Mélanie’s brush with some aggressive road-users is a good example:

Original: ‘At the junction of Route 10 and Route 25 are dozens of motorcycles, guys smoking as they look at the sky. Two girls are talking. One of them flashes me a peace and love sign while the other one, barely set back in the spatial plane, gives me a violent f**k with her finger, then with her fist. I press on the accelerator. I know reality. Fear, it doesn’t matter when you accelerate; fear vanishes like a dark spot in the rearview mirror.’

Translation: ‘At the junction of Route 10 and Route 25, a gang of bikers are smoking with their noses in the air. Two girls are talking, a bottle of beer in hand. One of them flashes me a victory sign and the other one, barely set back in the spatial plane, violently “up-yours” me with her middle finger, then the whole fist up. I accelerate. I know reality. Fear is nothing, it’s nothing when one is fast so fast. Fear faints dark spot in the rearview mirror.’

This exploration of the mysterious alchemy of translation and the anxieties around the authenticity of such renderings – as Laure Angstelle puts it in her imaginary dialogue with Maude Laures: ‘How am I to believe for a single moment that the landscapes in you won’t erase those in me?’ – is utterly engrossing. It is without question one of the most innovative things I’ve ever read.

However, it does come with a health warning for e-reader fans. While normally a Kindle enthusiast, I would encourage anyone planning to read this to do so on paper. Flicking back and forth between the third and first sections to compare the two versions of the novel is maddening on-screen, whereas it would be a breeze in a hard copy.

Alternatively, of course, you could buy yourself an e-version and a paperback and read it like that. It’s certainly worth it.

Mauve Desert (Le Désert Mauve) by Nicole Brossard, translated from the French by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood (Coach House Books, 1990, 2010)

Barbados: rum and water

July 13, 2012

I was very tempted to read a book by George Lamming as my Bajan choice. He’d been recommended by Trinidadian writer Vahni Capildeo, who I got in touch with through London-based literary organisation, Exiled Writers Ink. ‘Perhaps it’s just being from the region,’ she told me, ‘but I find some of the newer generation of Caribbean international prose writers like rum and water whereas he’s the rough spirit itself…’

This got me wondering about this next wave of Caribbean writers. Who where they and what were they writing about? Why did some of their work strike Capildeo as watered down?

While thinking about this, I stoogled (stumbled while googling – or should that be gumbled?) upon Glenville Lovell. Born and brought up in the Bajan village of Parish Land, Christ Church, this dancer-turned-writer had leapt on to the world literary scene in 1995 with his first novel Fire in the Canes to wide critical acclaim. He clearly set a lot of store by the tradition of storytelling he’d grown up with and I was intrigued to read that his performance background meant that he sometimes used music and choreography to develop his works. Perhaps I would come to regret this, but I was going to take a closer look.

Lovell’s second novel Song of Night unpicks the aftermath of a crime of passion from the perspective of the killer’s daughter. Ostracized by her small community of Bottom Rock, Cyan, or ‘Night’, must draw on her own resourcefulness and tenacity to survive. But in a society eroded by the tides of rich tourists that sweep through it, it’s difficult for a lone young woman to fend for herself without surrendering much of her pride and identity.

For all its tough subject matter – murder, prostitution, arson, drug use, domestic abuse, abortion and rape all have a part to play in the narrative – this is an extraordinarily beautiful book. Much of this comes from Lovell’s, use of imagery and fine ear for voices, which creates some taught dialogue. The text also bustles with anonymous commentators who gossip about the book’s spiralling events, conjuring a powerful sense of village life, a technique Marlon James would later use in John Crow’s Devil (my Jamaican book).

The focus of the novel is by no means parochial, though. Indeed, in many ways this is a book about the relation of Barbados to other nations and in particular the US. After decades of independence from British rule, the island seems to be sinking under another more insidious form of colonialism:

‘The once-colonized were free and willing to be colonized again by the burnt smell of suntan lotion, by the sight of broiling white flesh oozing green in the midday sun [...] the businessmen and women, lonely housewives, schoolteachers, and policemen turned pleasure-seekers. They brought with them a sense of ownership, of the world belonging to them. And why not? The world spun on the edge of the American dollar.’

With this influx of rich Americans and Europeans comes the dilution of local identity, pride and purpose. Making money at any cost is the priority for many, while Bajans who aspire to more than a life of servicing the needs and desires of the world’s wealthy folk dream of emigrating to the US – although as rich African-American Koko points out, the land of the free has its own restrictions and limitations.

Nevertheless, there is no question that a lot of the richest Bajan culture now exists far from the island’s shores.  ‘All the writers live overseas,’ observes Koko, inviting the reader to look through her to Lovell, sitting in his New York apartment, writing passionately, sadly and angrily about a country he himself has left.

Playing these issues out in the plot, Lovell brings Night’s story to a gripping and bitter climax. He creates a powerful and memorable allegory for the wave of change overwhelming the island, while keeping all his characters, with the possible exception of the preacher who tries to save Night, vibrant, individual and strong. If this work feels watered down in comparison to  books by previous generations of Bajan writers, that may be precisely the point. But if that’s the case, Lamming must be strong stuff indeed.

Song of Night by Glenville Lovell (Soho Press, 1998)

Cuba: stellar work

June 19, 2012

One of the strange things about translated books is that they reach us quite a while after they were written. Sometimes, as in the case of smash hits like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, this might be only a matter of a few months. More often than not it takes several years.

Then there are books like Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales, which was published in Spanish in 1940 and only made it into English 64 years later. These burst into an era very different from the moment in history in which they were created, a bit like light reaching us from extinct stars.

The book was a recommendation from David Iaconangelo, the founder of Zafra Lit, a bilingual blog dedicated to new Cuban short fiction. He described the stories as so well-written and original that they were ‘somewhere between a work of anthropology and fiction’, and said Cabrera’s work documenting the way various African and Cuban cultures fused in the tales she recorded had had a major influence on later writers such as Alejo Carpentier. I was also intrigued to see from Fernando Ortiz’s introduction to the Spanish edition that this is apparently the first book ever published by a Havana-born woman. Clearly, I was going to have to take a look.

Iaconangelo was certainly right about the originality: I’ve never come across stories more extraordinary than these. Operating in a universe of turtle-men, tiger-men and elephant-men, where stags ride horses, fishermen negotiate with their prey and earthworms compete for the hands of beautiful heroines, these tales pull apart the threads of reality’s backdrop and invite the reader to step through to the weird, cruel and magical cosmos beyond.

Language itself buckles, blends and warps in its attempt to contain the vibrant currents that flow through these tales, with the cultural fusion reflected by the inclusion of utterances from the now extinct creolized dialect Bozal, as well as phrases from Lucumi, Congo and Abakua tongues. As one footnote explains, ‘the original meaning of many of the African words in this book has been lost’, giving a lot of them the mysterious quality of magical incantations, for which they were used in some Afro-Cuban circles.

In addition, the stories themselves test the limits of the language in which they are couched: in ‘Bregantino Bregantin’, for example – in which men are banished and women live along with a single male bull – communication changes so that ‘all masculine words not directly related to the bull were eliminated from the language’. The effect of reading this in the original, gendered Spanish must be particularly striking.

For all their strangeness, however, the stories nevertheless manage to comment on the world around them. Indeed, the distance that some of the more surreal episodes create probably grants the narratives more leverage to attack racism and the hypocrisy of institutions like the Church – ‘all of us are children of saints, and all of our meanness and the pleasure we take in sinning comes directly from them,’ begins one particularly mordant tale.

There are also moments of exceptional beauty, as in the opening paragraph of ‘The Mutes’:

‘On the first night, the moon looked like a thin strand of hair. On the next, like the edge of a transparent sickle. Next it looked like a slice of juicy honeydew melon, and then like a round millstone. Finally it dropped off into the night’s deep mouth, where the Eternally Hidden, the person whom no one has ever seen and who lives at the bottom of the bottomless, smashes up all the old moons with a stone to make stars while another moon is on its way.’

Brave, beautiful, weird and maddening, the stories that Lydia Cabrera gathered and filtered through her own writerly imagination are a lesson in how to break the rules and create something astonishing. As a collection, this book shouldn’t work: it’s inconsistent and erratic; characters stroll on half way through narratives and divert them another way; some stories peter out and the voice varies wildly between tales. But then, superficial logic would also tell us we shouldn’t be able to see light from stars that no longer exist.

Afro-Cuban Tales (Cuentos negros de Cuba) by Lydia Cabrera, translated from the Spanish by Alberto Hernandez-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)

This was a recommendation from novelist and blogger Stephanie Saulter. She said that as I’d enjoyed Gaiman’s American Gods she thought I might like this ‘wonderfully dark fantasy that weaves folk tales and superstition into a real-life story of betrayal, deprivation and alienation’. I was intrigued.

Set in the fantastical town of Gibbeah – where birds attack humans and certain houses assume magical powers – Marlon James’s debut novel John Crow’s Devil examines the lengths that fear and hearsay will drive people to. When the self-proclaimed ‘Apostle’ York strides into the midst of a church service to drag the drunkard Hector Bligh, known as ‘the Rum Preacher’, from the pulpit, many see it as the wake-up call their sleepy community needs. But as the Apostle assumes control and begins to preach an erratic gospel of fire, brimstone, vengeance and violence for all those who do not stick to the path of righteousness, a darker truth emerges that tips the town into a spiral of hell.

James excels at portraits of outsiders. All his major characters harbour some secret suffering that sets them apart from the community and on course for the collision that blows the narrative into the stratosphere in the closing stages of the book. There is the self-loathing and prudish church administrator Lucinda, the fanatical and warped Apostle, the lonely widow who harbours the Rum Preacher, and of course guilt-ridden Bligh himself.

James puts these individual stories against a backdrop of suspicion and narrow-mindedness – ‘a town that preferred things black or white’ where ‘church people, through their stares, created a boundary of shame that few climbed over’. Oscillating between a more detached third-person narrative style and a collective, community voice, he weaves a web of whispers that evokes small-town gossip-mongering in all its terrifying yet seductive fullness:

‘Yes baba! Rumour jump from her yard and race down the street and stop at Mrs Fracas house, then Mrs Smithfield house where it pick up two more story, then it hop and skip and jump from one yard to the next, then it race to the grocery shop where it bounce and bounce like American ball. And every time rumour bounce, the story pick up something new.’

This use of multiple, characterful voices combines with superlative, supple writing that is more than equal to the horrors it unfolds – among them one of the most graphic and powerful flogging scenes going. What in another writer’s hands might descend into cheap sensationalism here grows in stature and subtlety with every twist of the knife. An outstanding piece of work. Thanks for the tip-off, Stephanie.

John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James (Macmillan Caribbean, 2008)

Grenada: a class act

June 3, 2012

As the UK and Commonwealth mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, here’s a book from one of the 16 sovereign states around the world that still count her as their constitutional monarch.

I heard about writer Merle Collins through the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, an annual literary festival that takes place in Trinidad & Tobago, which writer Vahni Capildeo tipped me off about. Now in its second year, the event is home to the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and Collins’s short story collection The Ladies are Upstairs was on the 2012 shortlist.

The characters in Collins’s stories are people caught between worlds. Whether she’s describing the elderly woman Rain, ‘still lost in a childhood she couldn’t forget’, or the young man trapped between the strange disappearance of the woman hitchhiker he picks up on a lonely road and the conclusions of his rational mind, the author delights in pitting conflicting influences against one another in the rugged terrain of the psyche.

As the title suggests, class has a considerable part to play. Several of the characters, in particular Doux, who links the majority of the stories together, run up against the limits imposed by station. ‘You Should See Them in Church with Glasses on!’, in which the young Doux is unjustly accused of stealing during her first job as a maid, is particularly memorable.

In addition, Collins’s fascination with psychogeography and the pull of the supernatural makes for several deliciously spooky tales. ‘Big Stone’, an account of a midwife’s eerie encounter with a child during a walk home at dusk, is the best of these. Telling the story exclusively through reported speech, which gives the narrative a weird and distant feel, the writer draws on the atrocities buried in the Isle of Spice’s colonial past to create a compelling and unnerving backdrop:

‘What kind of night? Well, you know how those old estate places were. Those places used to have a lot of pain and wickedness in the past, but she wanted to emphasise that they were not like that today.’

The shared cast of characters, myths and memories that tie many of the stories together, give much of the work a familiar feel, so that by the final tales you feel as though you are part of the community, with a stake in the common heritage on which they rest. This makes the last piece – in which Doux, now an old woman living in an alarmed granny flat with her daughter in the USA, contemplates her loss of independence and approaching death – particularly moving.

Seen in the context of the celebration of one woman’s 60-year stint at the head of an association of a quarter of the world’s nations, this striking yet subtle collection of stories from one of its remotest corners reveals powerful truths about the common traits that link its subjects and the rest of the world.

The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins (Peepal Tree Press, 2011)

The question of what counts as ‘national literature’ is a tricky one. As I’ve found during the first four months of this project, lots of people have very different ideas about what it means.

Some people say it’s all about books by people from particular countries. Others think it has to be set in a certain place. The real hardliners claim it’s both, while another contingent argues that it’s more about what stories countries consider to be part of their national literature.

As the months have gone on, I’ve found myself leaning towards a definition involving books written by people with strong connections to particular nations. Usually these will be people with citizenship, but at the very least they’ll be writers who have lived in a country long enough for it to be woven into the story of who they are.

However, the protagonist of Dany Laferrière’s novel I am a Japanese Writer, which is on the shortlist for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award, would probably disagree. Having bagged an advance for his next novel on the strength of the title alone – it’s also called I am a Japanese Writer – the Haitian-Canadian struggles to get started on the manuscript. Claiming to be ‘tired of cultural nationalism’ and wanting to ‘show that borders have disappeared’, he attempts to immerse himself in whatever Japanese culture he can find in his home town of Montreal in the hope that a story will emerge from it. But when news of the book sparks a cultural movement in Japan and the Japanese embassy wants to involve him in all sorts of literary ventures and events, the writer finds he may have bitten off more than he can chew.

As the subject matter suggests, the book unpicks what makes up works of art. For my purposes, the meditations on cultural identity – from comments highlighting the oddness of concepts such as the ‘French kiss’, which ‘exists everywhere but France’, to full-blown discussions of nationality – were particularly fascinating. I couldn’t help but be challenged by one particular passage early in the narrative:

‘I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. [...] Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them: Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Césaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot – they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, “Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer?” I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.’

Where did this leave A Year of Reading the World then? Was I being foolish to even contemplate something so reductionist as trying to read a book from every country? Was I one of the ‘space police’ the protagonist describes, grimly shoehorning writers into boxes they would never choose? What if, as Laferrière’s protagonist would have it, I was simply assembling piles of British books on the shelf in my living room because, being British, I was unable to read books on any other terms?

These weighty discussions are offset by the narrator’s self-deprecating humour as he repeatedly dismantles his soap boxes and shifts ground. The witty portrayal of writer’s block and the protagonist’s ham-fisted attempts to immerse himself in Japanese culture – at one stage he bombards a bewildered Korean with questions on the assumption that the two countries are ‘the same thing’ – are great fun.

In addition, the arguments are undercut by the way Laferrière circles his readers, Sumo-wrestler-style, daring us to make the false move of conflating his protagonist with him. The writer may be a Haitian-Canadian living in Montreal and working on a novel with the same title as his creator’s, but he is of course not Laferrière. Or is he? And would it add any more authenticity and credibility to his arguments if the two were one and the same?

Ultimately, of course, the protagonist’s self-deterministic approach to his own work is blown apart by the wild reaction of the Japanese. Whether he likes it or not, the work he produces (or, in this case, has yet to produce) can not be controlled. As this fiendishly clever and enjoyable book demonstrates, the act of publishing is about setting a work free for others to criticise, categorise and cannibalise as they chose. Cultural nationalism may be a construct, but it is a construct to which the vast majority of the world subscribes.

Does that make it true? I don’t know. But hey, if all I’m doing here is assembling a library of British books, novels like this mean it’s definitely my most interesting and diverse collection to date.

I am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière, translated from the French by David Homel (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011)

The Bahamas were looking difficult. As recommendations poured in for many other Anglophone countries, the list entry for this small but wealthy collection of more than 3,000 islands and islets remained blank.

Even when I started making inquiries, Bahamian books proved difficult to unearth. In fact, the first title recommended to me by one cultural organisation was a guidebook to the country. Close, but no cigar (although I was very tempted to take the hint and get on a plane…).

Then I stumbled across a blog post by Valentine Logar. A longstanding fan of all things Bahamian, she was on one of her regular family holidays in the country and wrote enthusiastically about the climate, culture, food and fun she was having there. I thought I could do worse than ask for her advice, so I left a comment and was delighted when she came back with several recommendations. Garth Buckner’s Thine is the Kingdom, published by small indie house Ravenna Press, was one of them.

Contrary to what the title might lead you to expect, this novel has nothing to do with religion. Rather, it chronicles the attempts of white Bahamian Gavin Blake to carve out a life for himself in the country of his birth after years of travelling round the world. Hampered by a legal technicality which dictates that Bahamian-born children take their fathers’ nationalities, penniless Blake, whose father was American, goes to work for rich yacht-owner Thesinger while he tries to apply for citizenship. But as he witnesses the rise of violent crime and social unrest on the island firsthand, he comes to realise that he is not the only one struggling to hold on to his stake in this millionaire’s playground.

Buckner writes passionately about the desire to belong and the things that put people in or out of the gang. Exploring class markers, educational background, race and linguistic habits, he reveals Gavin’s frustration and wistfulness as he tries to find acceptance from both the wealthy landowners and the feisty street traders in the country he calls home:

‘I was delivered right here in Nassau and this is the only home I knew as a boy coming up. My umbilical cord is buried in this sand. There should be something inalienable in that. But they never call me Bahamian and mean it; the word is always couched in inverted commas.’

Buckner sets this yearning against the rich backdrop of the island life he is so adept at evoking. In tough, muscular language, which breaks at times to admit moments of beauty, he conjures tropical harbour life and the perpetual influence of the weather and tides on those who live surrounded by the ocean.

The writer couples this with a talent for getting inside the minds of his characters and revealing the gusts of emotion that blow them off the course of logic into troubled waters. Whether it’s Blake’s insecurity as he struggles to remember how to clean an engine filter under the gaze of his boss’s wealthy friends or Thesinger’s anger at failing to catch any crayfish on his much-vaunted fishing trip, he excels at showing the limitations that force people to do unwise and dangerous things rather than own up to their own weaknesses.

His skill for scene-painting and empathy mean that Buckner is able to evoke a huge amount of menace as Blake struggles to defend Thesinger’s property from the tide of hostility swelling outside his gates. The scenes with various intruders and the stand-offs with the sinister Caleb and his cronies at the illegal fish market are gripping and thrilling.

If Buckner labours his message about double standards and the wealthy landowners being every bit as corrupt as the criminals they confront towards the end of the book, it feels like a small price to pay for this compelling insight into a privileged and turbulent corner of the world. I was hooked. Thanks for the tip, Valentine.

Thine is the Kingdom by Garth Buckner (Ravenna Press 2008)

When you’re trying to get through 196 books in a year, size matters. If a book’s more than 300 pages, it’s a challenge. If it’s more than 400, it’s pushing it. And anything over 500 pages is just having a laugh.

Weighing in at 672 pages, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods nearly disqualified itself on girth alone — particularly when I discovered that the 10th anniversary edition featured an extra 12,000 words not published before. To my page-swamped mind, this was bordering on rude.

There was another objection too: despite having lived in the United States for 20 years, having children there and being married to an American, British-born Gaiman is not a US citizen and has said that he has no intention of taking citizenship. Would this book by a perpetual outsider really count as US literature?

But Carol, who recommended the novel, was very insistent and so, kissing my weekend goodbye —  and dodging the glares from Roth, Steinbeck, Oates, Hemingway, Chabon and the host of other American greats up on my bookshelf —  I holed myself up and began to read.

Bold, baggy and mind-boggling, the novel traces the fate of the gods brought to the land of the free by immigrants, right from the arrival of the earliest prehistoric visitors to the refugees and fortune-hunters of the present day. The story is told through the eyes of Shadow, who gets out of prison to find that his wife and employer have been killed in a car crash, taking with them his hopes of a normal life. With nothing to lose except his new-found freedom, Shadow goes to work for the mysterious Mr Wednesday, who seems to know an uncanny amount about his life.

Wednesday’s omniscience is no accident. As head of the collective of traditional gods who are finding themselves sidelined for the ‘gods of credit card and freeway, of internet and telephone’, he is rallying his troops for a battle between deities old and new. But as the storm approaches and breaks, it seems that the gods themselves may be labouring under false beliefs.

Gaiman’s writing is refreshingly approachable. At times echoing the stripped-back voices of Hemingway and Steinbeck, the narrative manages to carry humour and philosophical reflections equally lightly, blending fantasy, mythology and a quirky, humane perspective that is all Gaiman’s own. This is helped by some surprising imagery — the description of driving into Chicago, for example, so that the city ‘happened slowly like a migraine’, and the presentation of the hinterworld ‘behind the scenes’ are particularly memorable.

Gaiman also has the knack of making us care quickly. The narrative veers off repeatedly into stories of some of the many travellers who came to America to make a life and, for the most part, these are compelling in their own rights, as well as giving the philosophical and mythological arguments in the book a human face.

This gives rise to some great reflections on what it means to be a nation of immigrants. ‘Nobody’s American. Not originally. That’s my point,’ says Wednesday at one stage, articulating sentiments that resonated particularly strongly for me as a Londoner proud of having grown up in a city that is home to people from nearly every nation of the world. Given the definition of US nationhood Gaiman posits in his novel, he, as an ex-pat Brit, fits right in.

By rights, I should be angry with this book. It kept me up at night, it made me late for trains and towards the end it made my eyes go a bit fuzzy. If this book were someone I knew, I’d definitely be thinking about unfriending it on Facebook. But as a book, it’s an impressive achievement that leaves readers very little room for doubt of its power or the pleasure of spending time in its company. Several novels further into my quest to read the world, Gaiman’s characters still people my daydreams. Thanks Carol for introducing us.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Publisher (Kindle edition): Review (2011)

Migration has cropped up many times in the books I’ve read so far this year. From tension built on the disparity between regions in a single country, in works such as Ismail Kardare’s Broken April and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes, to countries where emigration almost seems part of the national psyche, as in Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad and the Lithuanian anthology, the challenge of moving from one place to another seems to be a favourite topic for storytellers the world over.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that books that bridge several cultures are more likely to find an international audience. But it’s also true that there are few scenarios calculated to show up the fault lines in individuals and societies more clearly than the arrival of an outsider.

For all the books on the subject though you’d have to go a long way to find a pithier migration tale than Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy. Following the fortunes of a 19-year-old girl who leaves her home in the Caribbean to work as an au pair in the USA, the 1990 novel looks at the rupture that relocation can cause in a life, ‘like a flow of water dividing formerly dry and solid ground’, and provides a fresh, feisty and at times alarming perspective on the land of the free and on British colonialism.

From the first, Lucy’s blunt yet humane account of life with her wealthy white employers Mariah and Lewis provides some powerful insights into the contradictions of modern life. Through Lucy, we see the blind hypocrisy of Mariah’s well-meant involvement with a nature preservation campaign — ‘I couldn’t bring myself to ask her to examine Lewis’s daily conversation with his stockbroker, to see if they bore any relation to the things she saw passing away forever before her eyes’ — and the hollowness of the idyllic nuclear family she has constructed around her, a fiction to which she clings in the face of mounting evidence of her husband’s affair with one of her friends.

More interesting still is the depiction of the gulf between Mariah and Lucy, which their contrasting experiences of freedom and colonialism have engendered and which no amount of good will on both sides can conquer completely. This is powerfully summed up in Lucy’s violent reaction to a bunch of daffodils Mariah brings home. Seeing the flowers for the first time in her life, she is reminded of being made to learn and recite a poem about them at the Queen Victoria Girls’ School when she was 10. After the anger evoked by the memory subsides, she realises that ‘nothing could change the fact that where [Mariah] saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness’.

Lucy is no passive victim, though. Irreverent, strong-willed and uninhibited, she refuses to conform to the expectations of others and is determined to seize and taste all the experience she can. This makes her both likeable and compelling as she bucks against the ties that link her to the homeland she loves and despises.

 As she comes to ‘see the sameness in things that appear to be different’, it’s impossible not to share her sadness at the compromised nature of the world. Independence it seems, whether personal or national, is infinitely more than a question of geography.

Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Publisher (this edition): Plume (1991)

Mexico: food for thought

January 10, 2012

 

If the test of great literature is whether it gets people to think about doing things differently, then Laura Esquivel‘s 1989 novel Like Water for Chocolate is up there with the best. Packed with mouthwatering recipes for all sorts of Mexican delicacies, it tempts readers to leap up and run to the local delicatessen in search of chorizo, chilis and jalapenos on every other page.

There’s a good reason for the intensity of flavours spicing the narrative: centring on the heartbroken Tita, the last child in a family where tradition states that the youngest daughter must remain single and care for her mother until one of them dies, it charts the heroine’s mounting frustrations as she works day after day preparing food in the family kitchen unable to marry her sweetheart Pedro. But no-one has reckoned on the effect that all that pent up passion may have on a person’s cooking, and when Pedro becomes engaged to her sister Tita is unable to help her feelings infusing the delicious wedding feast, with surprising results.

There are many familiar ingredients peppering the pages: a dash of Cinderella here, a dollop of Salman Rushdie’s emotion-infused chutneys in Midnight’s Children there, and a whole handful of Lorca’s Bernarda Alba in the tyrannical figure of Mama Elena. Nevertheless, like the best cooks, Esquivel manages to bring her own twist to these tried and tested staples, creating something deliciously new.

We may think we recognise magical realism in some of the more outlandish features — the tears that flood a staircase, the quilt so large that it drags behind a carriage like a wedding train, the sex so incendiary that it sets fire to buildings (unless I’ve really missed out) — but a closer look suggests that something subtly different is at work.

Rather than magical elements blending with the real world, these events seem to be emotional projections from the characters themselves, which may or may not be happening. ‘The simple truth is that the truth does not exist; it all depends on a person’s point of view’, explains Tita’s gutsy older sister Gertrudis, in an uncharacteristically obvious aside.

Esquivel, however, leaves you to help yourself to the wider philosophical implications as you choose. Her central achievement has been to serve up an immensely satisfying read garnished with wit and originality, and so sensual that it is guaranteed to have you craving Mexican food. Bagsy the Christmas rolls!

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel (translated from the Spanish by Carol and Thomas Christensen). Publisher (Kindle edition): Anchor (2002)

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