Book of the month: Sofi Oksanen

This book has been on my radar for a long time. I almost wrote that it has been on my TBR mountain since Lola Rogers’s English translation first came out in 2010, but of course that isn’t the case. Back then, when my reading was limited almost exclusively to the products of anglophone writers, this novel would have passed me by.

Still, it was one of the recommendations I got when I asked the world to give me its book suggestions back in 2012. Nearly seven years later, with the help of a nudge from simonlitton on Twitter, I finally got round to Purge by Sofi Oksanen.

The story starts in 1992 when elderly Estonian villager Aliide Truu finds a bedraggled young woman, Zara, in her yard. Against her better judgement, and in spite of her fear that she could be the victim of a trick, she takes the visitor in. The uneasy interaction that follows initiates a slow unfolding of painful personal and national histories, revealing the loyalties and betrayals that link the two characters and making possible a kind of redemption that they might never have been able to achieve individually.

At its best, Oksanen and Rogers’s writing is powerful and spare. Using details adroitly, the narrative sweeps readers back and forth over decades, delivering some profoundly evocative scenes along the way. There are moments of great poignancy, as when we read about Aliide catching sight of the man she falls in love with, in the instant before he sets eyes on her beautiful older sister.

There is also horror. The description of the way trafficked girls passing out of service become canvases for the aspiring tattoo artist who controls them inks itself onto the imagination. Similarly, Oksanen presents the process by which victims internalise abuse and can grow to hate others who have experienced such violations with memorable clarity.

Often the source of the book’s power lies in Oksanen’s awareness of when to stop writing. The most shocking scene in the novel works by galloping the reader towards its terrible conclusion and then stopping just short of the brutal act towards which it has been racing, like a horse refusing a jump, so that the reader is bucked into the hideous conclusion of the scene alone. Reticence also adds a great deal to the account of the following day, when the traumatised women and Aliide’s young niece return home to eat ‘their pancakes with rubber lips, glass eyes shiny and dry, waxed cloth skin dry and smooth’. By refusing to address what has happened directly, Oksanen conveys the ruination of their domestic peace much more effectively than a frank explanation could do.

This approach also works when it comes to the numerous historical events upon which the narrative touches. The Chernobyl disaster is a good example. Although it is  a relatively small component in the overall narrative arc, Oksanen makes it count by seizing on a few arresting details to bring home its monstrous impact:

‘Later Aliide heard the stories of fields covered in dolomite and trains filled with evacuees, children crying, soldiers driving families from their homes, and strange flakes, strangely glittering, that filled their yards, and children trying to catch them as they fell, and little girls wanting to wear them in their hair for decoration, but then the flakes disappeared, and so did the children’s hair.’

The writing is not always this good. There are some questionable adjectives and places where repetitions feel clumsy (impossible for me to know whether this was the case in the original). There are also a few too many similes that don’t work hard enough to earn their place. In addition, Oksanen (and I’m pretty certain this must be down to her unless Rogers did some substantial rewriting when she translated the novel) has a habit of finishing scenes with a single-sentence detail about an insect or bird on the fringes of the action. It can be very effective, but she uses this device a little too often and by the middle of the book it’s rather wearing.

The structural daring of the book also makes for the occasional wobble. Now and then, cutting back and forth across the decades necessitates the inclusion of some expository passages that jar with the narrative’s usual reticence. In particular, the extracts from the notebook of Aliide’s brother-in-law Hans feel bald to the point of functional a lot of the time.

Issues like this are almost inevitable, however, in books of such ambition. They certainly don’t spoil the ride. This novel is as engrossing as it is important, shedding light on a side of history too often neglected in the English-speaking world. Oksanen should be congratulated for the risks she takes – when they pay off, as they do most of the time, she is hard to beat.

Purge (Puh-distus) by Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (Atlantic, 2011)

Picture: ‘Room III Patarei Prison’ by Raimo Papper on flickr.com

Book of the month: Tarjei Vesaas

Another recommendation from blog visitors provided September’s book of the month. Back in 2017, CJ Fearnley left a comment alerting me to Norwegian poet and novelist Tarjei Vesaas’s 1963 classic The Ice Palace and sharing a link to an essay he had written about it. A year later, Ragnhild nudged me about it again in response to my review of the work of another Nynorsk writer, Carl Frode Tiller.

Impressed that two visitors should have been moved to recommend the work of a novelist writing half a century ago in a language form that is the official written system for only around twelve per cent of Norway’s population, I resolved to check out Vesaas’s most famous work.

Charting the effect of a young girl’s disappearance on a rural community, The Ice Palace is, on the surface, a very simple book. It is told largely from the perspective of eleven-year-old Siss, who begins to befriend the oddly self-sufficient Unn after she moves in with her aunt and begins to attend Siss’s school. But when Unn ventures off to visit the palace of the title – a fantastical natural construction that forms around a nearby waterfall each winter – and fails to return, questions about her whereabouts and the conversation she had with Siss the evening before she disappeared start to show up cracks in the smooth surface of village life.

At first, the book’s simplicity can make it seem a little underwhelming. Opening with Siss’s first visit to Unn’s aunt’s house, the novel consists for some pages of little more than awkward conversations and false starts as the two girls struggle to navigate the strange affinity that they feel – so much so that Siss is sometimes ‘forced to talk nonsense in her perplexity’. Although the dynamics are beautifully judged, there is an oddly aimless feel to the narrative, as though the story is drifting along in spite of itself.

However, just as the lake water gathers pace as it is sucked towards the waterfall, so the story gains momentum as the book advances. As soon as Unn wanders off and discovers the dazzling and treacherous ice palace, Vesaas has us firmly in his thrall. The writing here, as the little girl ventures further into the labyrinth and begins to succumb to hypothermia and its attendant hallucinations is extraordinary. Readers will find elements of nightmarish dream sequences, fables and their own fears refracted through the glittering walls – Bluebeard meets Alice in Wonderland amid the weird manoeuvres of the subconscious. Through it all, the terrible allure of self-destruction shimmers, making the impossible contradictions that lie at the heart of human existence plain.

Much like the story, the novel’s language is deceptively simple. Although the writing is often spare, it frequently stretches words in surprising ways in an effort to contain its subject matter. Credit must go here to translator Elizabeth Rokkan for the work she has done to produce a text that is compelling and urgent even as it veers between tenses and perspectives, and sometimes flouts rules for good writing.

Whereas many writers strive to avoid tautology, repetition and double negatives, Vesaas and Rokkan use them as tools, often to communicate characters’ mental tics or patterns of thinking. This sentence from the section where Unn wanders off is a good example:

‘Her words seemed like fences alongside the road to school; it was difficult to climb over them, and they led straight to school.’

Here, the repetition of ‘school’ deftly conveys the way that Unn’s thoughts are dragged back and back to place she is avoiding.

It is a neat, microcosmic example of currents that run throughout the book, drawing all the elements of the opening chapters to tumble and churn in the plunge pool of the trauma at the novel’s heart before passing into the relative tranquility of the river beyond. A masterpiece.

The Ice Palace (Is-slottet) by Tarjei Vesaas, translated from the Nynorsk by Elizabeth Rokkan (Penguin, 2018)

Picture: ‘DSCF5384‘ by subflux on flickr.com

Book of the month: Trifonia Melibea Obono

August is Women in Translation month. This is an excellent initiative started in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinski to highlight the fact that less than a third of the books translated into English each year are written by women. As I realised when I totted up my numbers a couple of years ago, my quest broadly reflected the gender imbalance in publishing in 2012 – only 27 per cent of the books I read that year were by female authors.

As a result, I welcome the continued efforts of bloggers like Radzinski to bring translated work by women to wider audiences and am pleased to see a new reading women writers worldwide project by journalist Sophie Baggott getting off to a flying start. For my own small contribution to the cause, I read only work by women in August.

This year has seen some great additions to the anglophone global bookshelf, including several fascinating reads from underrepresented countries and languages. Examples include Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis, and Celestial Bodies by Omani author Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth.

My pick for this month, however, comes not only from a little represented country, but from a minority perspective in that nation. La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, is not only the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into the world’s most published language, but it is also one of the few LGBTQ African novels to have come onto my radar.

The story follows the coming of age of Okomo, a motherless girl who sets out to try to find her father, and in the process discovers some challenging truths about herself and her traditional Fang culture. As she becomes aware of her desires and of the way that people like her and her Uncle Marcelo – a ‘fan e mina’ or ‘man-woman’ – stand outside society’s norms, the protagonist is pushed towards a deeper understanding of the impulses that drive her and the forces that have shaped the world in which she must find a place.

The novel provides fascinating insights into a way of life that feels far removed from Western urban culture. With its glimpses of Fang traditions – including the belief that women can prove their femininity by handling hot pots without cloths and the expectations surrounding polygamous marriages – it will offer rich material for readers hungry for details of places they might never visit in person. The presentation of the LGBTQ elements of the story is also striking. (‘There isn’t a word for it. It’s like you don’t exist,’ explains Uncle Marcelo to Okomo, although translator Schimel does opt to include the English term ‘lesbian’ later in the book.)*

Yet some of the narrative’s most memorable and often funny moments have a ring of universality to them too. Okomo’s grandfather’s misogynistic ramblings about the suitable behaviour of young girls, for example, and her grandmother’s attempts to manipulate her younger relatives feel instantly recognisable. Okomo also displays a deadpan humour that would be authentic in the mouth of a teenager anywhere.

At times, the book almost feels like a fable or fairy tale. Recalling some of the fantastic elements of By Night the Mountain Burns, as well as the Nigerian classic The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the narrative takes flight when Okomo ventures into the forest, a place where restrictive rules fall away and she is free to be herself. As Abosede George writes in her thoughtful Afterword, this use of the setting confronts common claims that LGBTQ issues are ‘unAfrican’ by rooting these characters and their relationships in the soil.

There is no hiding the fact that this book requires work from anglophone readers. Its perspective and cultural references will inevitably have a distancing effect for many. In addition, the differences in approaches to pacing, repetition and taboos may mean a lot of Western readers find the narrative leaping forward when they expect more build up and circling back when they are impatient to press ahead. Characters may also appear coy and blunt by turns as their mores clash with anglophone norms.

Most of these issues, however, have more to do with many English-language readers’ limitations – reinforced by the prevailing trends in publishing – than with La Bastarda itself. It is a significant book. The more such stories we read, the better we will learn to understand them.

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel (Feminist Press, 2018)

Picture: ‘Bioko_2010_1891‘ by NathanaelStanek on flickr.com

*After I wrote this review, translator Lawrence Schimel explained to me that the Spanish word ‘lesbiana’ is present in two places in the book, hence his inclusion of the English term. There is no word for lesbian in the Fang language. Apparently, the way to approach this was a source of considerable discussion during the editing process.

Book of the month: Esther Gerritsen

Some books stay with you. I wasn’t going to feature another Dutch novel for a while, having written about Herman Koch’s Dear Mr M relatively recently. But then I got sucked into reading Esther Gerritsen’s Craving (translated by Michele Hutchison) after World Editions sent it to me along with a couple of other titles to mark Boekenweek (an annual festival of literature in The Netherlands). Four months later, it’s still on my mind.

In fact, Craving is one of several memorable Dutch novels I’ve read in recent years, among them Sam Garrett’s long-anticipated translation of Gerard Reve’s classic The Evenings and Jaap Robben’s You Have Me to Love, brought into English by David Doherty. Powerful and atmospheric though these books are, however, they didn’t quite get their claws into me in the way that Craving managed to do.

On the face of it, this is a very simple novel. The erratic Coco returns home to live with her terminally ill mother after years of estrangement. Their renewed proximity forces a re-examination of their troubled relationship and something of a rapprochement that sheds fresh light on both their lives.

As with several other contemporary Dutch novels, including Robben’s and Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (translated by David Colmer), Craving focuses on filial relationships. It has the feel of a film shot exclusively in close-up, with small details representing dramatic shifts. This means that although Craving does not share the isolated settings of Robben’s and Bakker’s books, it possesses a similar quiet intensity, which comes from the narrative containing a minimal amount of background noise.

The words work hard here. Credit is due to Michele Hutchison for the way she has managed to present text that is as powerful as it is spare, where almost every phoneme seems to perform multiple functions – conveying the action, revealing specific emotional truths and acting as broader statements about the human experience. Even the comma splices that would usually have pedants bristling seem to work within the context of the narrative voice.

The efficiency of the dialogue is testament to the power of the language. Normally, I get frustrated by reams of unattributed statements and struggle to remember who is saying what without a reminder every three or four lines. In Craving, however, the character of each speaker comes across so clearly that I barely noticed the lack of signposts.

The economy of expression allows for some great comic moments too. Bathos and distraction are favourite devices for Gerritsen, who delights in reminding us how the monumental and banal coexist and colour one another, gilding significant moments with foolishness and elevating mundane happenings to precarious importance.

Through it all, Gerritsen never loses sight of the pattern she is weaving. She threads story deftly through the text, so that the whole picture comes into focus gradually. Instead of the neat reveal common in more commercial books, the central meaning emerges in such a way that it cannot be condensed or explained but can be comprehended only by reading the words set out in precisely the order the author has chosen. No more, no less.

Craving (Dorst) by Esther Gerritsen, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison (World Editions, 2015)

Book of the month: Leonardo Padura

This book was a recommendation from two visitors to this blog. Suroor said it was ‘about the events leading up to Trotsky’s assasination’ and ‘about “corrupted utopias”: the Soviet Union, Cuba and Spain during the civil war,’ while CarolS told me that her book group had enjoyed Padura’s work, finding him a ‘superb conveyer of atmosphere’.

When I looked up Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs, translated by  Anna Kushner, I found that it had garnered a sheaf of enthusiastic reviews and that the word ‘masterpiece’ had been liberally applied to it. This set alarm bells ringing for me. Could this novel really live up to such hype?

The fruit of many years of research, thinking, discussion and writing, The Man Who Loved Dogs makes no secret of its ambition. Centring around the assassination of  the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940, it sets out to explore how ideologies are built and betrayed, how wars are won and lost, and how history is manipulated to suit the interests of those in power. To do so, it moves between multiple perspectives – weaving together an account of Trotsky’s years in exile, the reflections of late-twentieth century Cuban writer Iván Cárdenas Maturell and the strange story of a frail man he meets walking two Russian wolfhounds on the beach.

The novel is as weighty as its subject matter. At 576 pages, it is on its way to rivalling the classics of Russian literature for girth. The similarities don’t end there: the book’s expansive scope recalls the sweeping arcs of the works of Tolstoy, and like Tolstoy, Leonardo Padura capitalises on the richness that such long-form storytelling affords, taking time to establish motivations, personality shifts and moments of crisis that are all the more devastating for their extended build-up.

The drawn-out description of the radicalisation and indoctrination of Ramón Mercader, for example, and the painstaking delineation of the days leading up to his assassination of Trotsky are exceptionally powerful. The same goes for the detailed depictions of Trotsky’s sufferings and the struggles of many secondary characters, chief among them Mercader’s flinty mother, Caridad, and Maturell’s brother, who pays a heavy price for openly acknowledging his homosexual relationship at a time when this is still illegal in Cuba.

Through these haunting, engrossing episodes, which immerse us in the feelings and thoughts of those living them, we see how ‘the decisions of history can come in through the window of some lives and destroy them from the inside’.

The history in question, however, is somewhat different to that with which many English speakers will probably be familiar. As I discovered repeatedly during my quest to read the world, one of the mind-expanding things about literature from elsewhere is its tendency to portray familiar stories from unfamiliar angles, revealing aspects of well-known events that we may not previously have appreciated.

Here, we see the coming and unfolding of the second world war not from the familiar vantage points of London or Washington, but from the Soviet Union and Spain. The devastating implications of the pact between Stalin and Hitler – which, among other things, led to the suicide of numerous Communists imprisoned under Franco – leap from the page far more vigorously than they do from many anglophone history books.

In addition, Padura lays bare a mindset that many readers in Western capitalist countries may never have penetrated before. Through the discussions between Mercader and his mentor, he reveals what drives those who sacrifice their lives and identities for an idea:

‘I’m just one person , so very small, in the fight for a dream. A person and a name are nothing […] : a man can be relegated, substituted. The individual is not an unrepeatable unit but rather a concept that is added to and makes up a mass that is real. But man as an individual isn’t sacred and, as such, is expendable. […] The dream is what matters, not the man, and even less the name.’

This is a truly fascinating novel. To get through it takes commitment: even speedy readers will have it in their lives for the best part of a week. Yet, when I finished it I found myself wishing it had been longer – I wanted more of the hardships of life in late-twentieth century Cuba, as glimpsed through the eyes of Maturell, and I wished Padura had turned his talents to conjuring the thoughts of Trotsky’s nemesis, Stalin, who is a sinister, shadowy absence at the heart of this excellent book.

The term masterpiece is often used and seldom merited. It is justified in this case.

The Man Who Loved Dogs (El hombre que amaba a los perros) by Leonardo Padura, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013)

Picture: ‘Trotsky’s Gravesite’ by verifex on flickr.com

Book of the month: Prajwal Parajuly

One of the joys of this project has been the number of people who have shared their book recommendations with me. Even now, six years on from my year of reading the world, I usually get several messages a day from readers telling me about literature from different parts of the planet.

I wish I had the time to follow up on them all. But even if I were still reading at my 2012 rate of four books a week, I would not manage to keep pace with the volume of suggestions I get. Still, I’m always delighted when someone posts a good recommendation on the blog: even if I can’t get to it, I hope it might catch the eye of some of the other adventurous readers who pass this way.

From time to time, however, a suggestion stands out. This is particularly common when the messages concern countries with little published literature in English. As I’m always keen to help increase the opportunity for underrepresented voices to be heard, I do my best to pursue these leads.

That’s how I came to read The Gurhka’s Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly. Suyasha from Nepal emailed me with several suggestions of books available in English from her country. Of these, Parajuly’s short-story collection most intrigued me because it promised to contain depictions of a diverse range of characters and experiences.

This proved to be the case. Ranging from the woes of a paanwalla in the north-east Indian hill station of Kalimpong, to the troubles of an ambitious young property owner in Manhattan, the collection, which was written in English, is impressive in its scope. Yet, there are two common threads, neatly encapsulated by the name of the title story: familial ties and cultural heritage.

For Parajuly, the distinction between ethnicity and nationality is a major theme. Several of his characters comment on what it means to be Nepali and how this should dictate life choices such as whether to stay married and the duties owed to relatives. Others, meanwhile, find themselves frustrated by outsiders (usually Westerners) who exist in ‘uninformed bubbles’ and cannot understand that it is possible to be Nepali even if you were born in a different nation. Nepal is not so much a country as a physical inheritance – and perhaps, also, a state of mind.

Alongside these cultural concerns, anxieties about status, class and caste are key sources of momentum that drive the narratives. Delighting in hurling his characters into scenarios that destabilise the social norms they have absorbed, Parajuly reveals the petty hypocrisies that can erode and divert the course of lives. We see a daughter so bent on marrying a fellow Brahmin that she sacrifices her happiness on the altar of tradition in ‘A Father’s Journey’ and a young man driven to cruelty by his fears about how his wealthy cousins will respond to his small home in ‘Missed Blessing’. There is also a beautiful rapprochement in the final piece in the collection, ‘The Immigrants’, in which a relatively wealthy man and a poor village woman are brought together by virtue of both being Nepali outsiders in New York.

Although many of the stories have tragic currents, they also carry a great deal of humour. Parajuly has a keen eye for inconsistencies and foibles, and makes use of these both to endear his characters to us and at times to ridicule them. Mock grief, insecurities about bad teeth and naked greed all parade through his pages. Often the only distinction between likeable and unlikeable characters is whether they acknowledge these imperfections in themselves. There are some wonderful examples of bathos too.

This is not a perfect collection. The stories are a little uneven and occasionally topple into a kind of journalism in the passages where Parajuly deems it necessary to include a great deal of contextual information  Sometimes they feel stagey and a little bald, particularly when characters step forward to deliver fluent speeches about what has led them to a particular point.

Overall, though, this is a rich and intriguing book. For those keen to discover something of the multiple layers of Nepali society, it is a good place to start. And you’ll get some chuckles, surprises and moving moments along the way too. Thanks Suyasha!

The Gurkha’s Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly (riverrun, 2012)

Picture: Kathmandu Nepal by Macro Eye on flickr.com

Book of the month: Basma Abdel Aziz

An editor once told me that she worked on the basis that a reader has to hear about a book five times before he or she will buy it. April’s Book of the month is a neat demonstration of her theory.

In the two years since Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation of Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue came out, the book has flashed repeatedly on my radar. It cropped up in several articles about underrated books by women. Marcia Lynx Qualey, tireless champion of Arabic literature, made much of it on her excellent blog. When it made the shortlist for the inaugural TA First Translation Prize, I finally cracked and bought a copy.

The novel centres around Yehya, a man wounded in a political uprising in an unnamed state. Forced to join the static queue at the Gate – the sinister, faceless institution that has assumed power in the wake of the Disgraceful Events – Yehya, his friend Nagy and lover Amani must pit themselves against the system in order to stand a chance of obtaining the operation that will save his life. As they do so, they encounter a host of other characters, including a school teacher barred from practising for allowing a subversive essay to be read in class and a man petitioning for compensation on behalf of a cousin killed in the service of the state, and witness the slow disintegration of society in the face of an increasingly intransigent regime.

Like its author, who is nicknamed ‘the rebel’ in her home country, the novel is unashamedly political. Its ideas lie close to the surface and, although the state in which it is set is unnamed, readers cannot fail to miss the references to the Arab Spring. Whether she is portraying the way that legislation can become weaponised to weaken and even kill citizens by making it impossible for them to obtain the things necessary for their survival, or showing how seemingly innocuous objects such as mobile phones can be used against their owners, Aziz writes with insight and wry humour. The best passages reveal the human toll that such inhuman policies exact. The following is a good example:

‘Everyone was on equal ground. But they all had the same look about them, the same lethargy. Now they were even all starting to think the same way. […] The queue was like a magnet. It drew people toward it, then held them captive as individuals and in their little groups, and it stripped them of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.’

For obvious reasons, the novel has been compared to works by George Orwell and Franz Kafka and like those books (and the political theatre of Bertolt Brecht), it has a distant, no-man’s-land quality, as though it has tapped into a universal nightmare. Many of the lesser characters remain nameless and are identified only by their clothing or physical characteristics, and the descriptions of the city are mostly stark and spare.

However, a humanity throbs at the heart of Aziz’s writing, indicating a possibility for redemption that other such works sometimes lack. In the face of the cruelty of the state, the friendship between the central characters and the connections between the secondary figures who support and encourage one another to endure the endless waiting persist and even strengthen. Although they may be powerless to ameliorate their material circumstances, individuals in the queue retain control over the expression of their humanity. If not exactly heartening, this observation adds subtlety and depth to the writing. The same is true of the sections that reveal how queue life is liberating in some ways for a number of the characters – particularly the women – because it enables them to break free of social mores and become more assertive.

The book is not always an easy read. Like the queue itself, the plot remains static for long periods before jerking forward suddenly. Occasionally the narrative gets bogged down in logistics and abstractions that are hard to follow – mimicking, perhaps, the legal documents and pronouncements that stymie so many of the characters’ lives. Its abrupt shifts in perspective are sometimes disconcerting and its prose is occasionally simple to the point of being bald.

On the whole, though, the novel is too important for any of this to matter. In capturing a specific moment and using it to express universal truths about freedom and identity, it joins the ranks of great stories that endure across the generations. In twenty years’ time, when the Arab Spring has faded from many memories, readers will still be hearing about this book frequently enough to keep picking it up.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Melville House, 2016)

Picture: ‘Once Bank Misr Reopened in February People Queued For Hours To Collect Their Money’ by Alisdare Hickson on Flickr.com.

Book of the month: Robert Seethaler

Book titles containing the word ‘life’ can often be deceptive. Hanya Yanagihara’s award-winning A Little Life, for example – which you might expect to be rather modest in length – tips the scales at 737 pages.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that bestselling Austrian author Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins, skews the other way. Played out in a mere 161 sides, this slip of a novel weighs little. However, as I discovered a few weeks back, it leaves a lasting impression.

The premise is simple: the narrative presents the life of Andreas Egger, a manual worker living in the Austrian Alps over the course of much of the twentieth century. Told largely chronologically, with occasional flashes forward and backwards to illuminate particular events, it reveals the joys and losses that shape an individual who is, on the surface at least, unremarkable.

In the absence of the grabby hook so often required to sell books to big English-language publishers these days, it falls to Seethaler’s writing (and Collins’s translation) to make the novel stand out. This they do in spades. Although it gets off to an uneven start, seeming to pitch us into the realm of the uncanny with its portrayal of Egger’s weird encounter with his reclusive goatherd neighbour, the narrative quickly assumes a serenity as majestic and awe-inspiring as the mountains among which it is set.

There is a lovely reticence to the work. For the most part, the story is conveyed in plain words with the occasional detail, such as the peening anvil used to dispatch a wounded dog, keeping the story grounded. Against this spare linguistic backdrop, occasional descriptive flourishes peep out like edelweiss blooms: the priest whose cassock flaps ‘around his body like the dishevelled plumage of a jackdaw’; the shell-fire blossoming ‘like blazing flowers over the mountain crests’.

There is also humour. In particular, a wry tone suffuses the portrayal of many of the hardships of Egger’s early life, almost as though it has been filtered through the gossip of relatives and neighbours. Take this description of the death of Egger’s mother: ‘she had led an irresponsible life, for which God had recently punished her with consumption and summoned her to his bosom.’ The distance and lightness at work here give the central character a complexity and dignity where another author might have been tempted to make him simply pitiable.

Seethaler’s confidence in allowing tiny observations to bear the weight of great events, gives the novel its power. There are moments of supreme beauty – Egger’s proposal to his sweetheart Marie is one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever read. Meanwhile the losses that besiege the protagonist are rendered almost unbearable by what is left unsaid, allowing the author to exploit dramatic irony to its fullest as we watch Egger stumble to confront tragedies for which he never quite finds the words.

In many ways, A Whole Life is a marketing department’s nightmare. A man lives and then he dies. On the face of it, there is nothing to set this story apart. But in the hands of a writer like Seethaler, that is precisely what makes it special.

A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins (Picador, 2015)

Book of the month: Tiphaine Rivière

In my previous post on book clubs, I mentioned that international literary prizes can often be a good source of reading suggestions. February’s Book of the month is a neat demonstration of that. Indeed, in this case a literary award encouraged me to discover not just an author I’d never read before, but a whole new genre.

Francesca Barrie’s translation of Tiphaine Rivière’s Carnets de thèse (Notes on a Thesis to you and me) is one of six books on the inaugural shortlist of the TA First Translation Prize. Set up and endowed by writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn, the annual award recognises outstanding debut translations published in the UK, with the first winner announced tomorrow (March 1).

The award is unusual in that, unlike most comparable honours, the original author of the book does not receive part of the prize money. Instead, the  credit goes entirely to the person who rewrote their words in English.

The presence of Notes on a Thesis on the shortlist marks the award out in another way too. It is rare to see a graphic novel in contention for a prize like this. Although the art form is taken very seriously in many parts of the globe, books that use pictures to tell stories tend not to get much attention from the English-speaking literary establishment. As a result, they don’t come onto the radars of many anglophone readers.

This was certainly true for me. Being a wordy person with relatively poor visual sense, I’ve never really ventured into the genre. Had it not been for the presence of Notes on a Thesis on the TAFTP shortlist, the work would almost certainly have passed me by.

However, when I looked it up, the premise struck me as irresistible. Told through the eyes of a young woman, Jeanne, who gets accepted to do a PhD in Paris, the book sets out to satirise the university system. Sparked off by a blog Rivière started after three years working on a thesis herself, it is, according to the blurb on the back, ‘a wickedly funny graphic novel about academic life, for anyone who’s ever missed a deadline.’

I snapped up a copy and took it with me to the University of Kent, where, in between seeing students (many of them working on PhDs) in my capacity as a Royal Literary Fund fellow, I quickly fell under the spell of Rivière’s craft.

‘Wickedly funny’ does not begin to cover it. This is a book that will have readers laughing out loud and rushing to share the jokes. The observations are precise and devastating. A range of killer characters comes to life in a handful of sentences – from the secretary with ‘a secret tactic: feigning gross incompetence to wear down her adversaries, until they eventually stop asking her to do anything at all’ to the PhD supervisor who prescribes reading the complete works of Schopenhauer as a way of getting rid of his charge.

One of the great joys of the book is the way Rivière’s illustrations not only portray but also advance the story. Take this series of ID card snapshots revealing the toll Jeanne’s thesis takes on her over the course of four years.

Or this spread capturing the experience of giving a paper and then waiting nervously for questions at the end.

The publisher’s decision to market Notes on a Thesis at the academic community is understandable, but people from all walks of life will find much to recognise and chuckle at here. Whether it’s the excruciating family Christmas where well-meaning relatives unwittingly rip apart your ambitions, or the irrational, middle-of-the-night heart-to-heart with the partner who has been forced to ride the roller-coaster of your dreams with you, the pages brim with telling and hilarious details.

Although books about writing are common, it is unusual to see the business of trying to put pen to paper captured in pictures. Notes on a Thesis is both a joy and a surprise, richly deserving of literary recognition even as it pokes fun at much of the paraphernalia associated with that world.

If this is an example of what graphic novels have to offer, I have got a lot to learn.

Notes on a Thesis (Carnets de thèse) by Tiphaine Rivière, translated from the French by Francesca Barrie (Jonathan Cape, 2016)

Book of the month: Ahmet Altan

Writing is hard. There’s the problem of finding ideas rich enough to spin stories out of, the battle with self-doubt, the struggle to maintain focus, the financial insecurity and the frequent tangle with rejection. For most of us who write in English, however, the challenges largely end there.

The same is not true for writers in many other languages. With the skewed international market favouring anglophone books, making a living is frequently even more difficult for authors in other tongues. In addition, those in regimes hostile to freedom of expression often have to contend with attempts to limit their work and their lives, an experience all too familiar to the author of my latest Book of the month.

I first heard about Turkish writer Ahmet Altan a few weeks ago when I read an article by him in The Author, the UK’s Society of Authors’ members’ magazine. The piece was a striking account of what it is like to write inside a prison cell. The celebrated novelist and former newspaper editor is something of an expert on the topic: he has spent much of the last 18 months in detention for charges including ‘giving subliminal messages in favour of a coup on television’, ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ and ‘attempting to overthrow the government’.

I was gripped by Altan’s writing. Deeply personal and yet so lyrical that it almost tipped over into poetry at times, the article was a defiant assertion of the power of the imagination in the face of tyranny. I lost no time in seeking out one of Altan’s novels to read in English.

Endgame, translated by Alexander Dawe, has been called a Turkish noir novel by several reviewers. The premise makes it clear why: a writer retires to a remote community only to find himself plunged into intrigue when the place reveals itself to be a hotbed of jealousy and murder. Having been turned into a killer himself, he sits alone in the centre of the town, awaiting the dawn and arrival of those who will surely come to seek revenge for what he has done. The novel spans this night, taking us back over the events that have led him to this point.

So far, so dark and thrillerish. Indeed, the early pages contain many passages that could cheerfully sit in any number of mystery novels written around the world. From the suspenseful evocation of the sinister and controlling Mayor Mustafa, to loaded hints about strangers being unwelcome and rumours of shady activity surrounding the ancient church on top of the hill, where treasure is thought to be hidden, the text is rife with mechanisms calculated to keep the pages turning. There are also a number of local details that are as intriguing as they are disturbing – the hitmen who are so nonchalant that they arrive in minibuses, for example.

Yet, as is so often the case when we English speakers try to shoehorn stories from elsewhere into our prefabricated boxes, the fiction label ‘noir’ (reportedly popularized by crime fiction editor Barry Gifford in the 1980s) risks squashing this novel out of shape in prospective readers’ minds. For one thing, the pace is by no means always commensurate with the and-then-and-then-and-then of much genre fiction. The narrative meanders at times, digressing to consider existential questions or stepping back from events to see them with a distance that creates room for fresh insights. Take, for example, the narrator’s response to witnessing a man being shot dead in the local coffee shop:

‘You’re sitting there reading the horse racing pages and some guy comes and blows your brains out.

A brain picturing galloping horses was suddenly splattered over the coffeehouse floor, sending imaginary horses racing through the grass. I could see the jockeys in colourful outfits riding on their backs. All of the hopes and schemes, frustrations and desires, jealousies and passions that had resided within the folds of that brain were then washed away with a bucket of water.

The sum of a man’s memory had been destroyed.’

There is beauty and wistfulness in much of the writing. The opening sequence, for instance, in which the protagonist claims to be able to see the town’s sleeping inhabitants’ dreams escaping out of windows and chimneys to frolic together is touching. The same is true of insights such as: ‘We can’t fit a whole person into one life. This life we live is too small for all desires.’ These are the kind of observations that resonate across cultures and genres, and stay with you long after plot and character detail are gone.

Some aspects of this book will be challenging for those used to mainstream anglophone fiction. The frequent references to God and sin are striking; although the protagonist claims not to be a believer, he frequently rails against the creator, often chiding Him for placing him in a badly plotted novel. In addition, the earthy and occasionally misogynistic presentation of women may be off-putting for some – the narrator has no hesitation in indulging in a little objectification now and again. There’s also the challenge of unfamiliar pacing, which sometimes sees Altan lingering over a scene or idea that an English-language writer might hurry through and visa versa.

Such wrinkles in alignment are almost inevitable, however, when it comes to encountering literature from elsewhere. Indeed they are often part of the joy. And if it’s joy you’re looking for, this book has plenty to offer. Funny, thoughtful, savage and audacious, this is a novel that will enthrall and surprise. Like its author, it cannot be constrained within boundaries set by others. It is entirely itself.

#AhmetAltan #FreeTurkeyMedia Find more information on the campaign to free Ahmet Altan here.

Endgame (Son Oyun) by Ahmet Altan, translated from the Turkish by Alexander Dawe (Canongate, 2015)

Picture: ‘prison‘ by Raffaella on flickr.com