WITmonth pick #1: Lena Andersson

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At the start of August, I made a promise. I wrote a post pledging to read lots of translated books by women in a bid to find a truly brilliant female-authored translated title to feature as my book of the month. This was going to be my small contribution to Women in Translation Month, a campaign now in its third year, aiming to tackle the disproportionately small number of books by women that get English-language translation deals.

The first part of the pledge was easy. Drawing on a range of personal recommendations, comments on here, things I’d been wanting to tackle for ages and some excellent lists put together by supporters of the campaign, I read my way through 17 works, tweeting the titles as I went.

In fact, I was reading at roughly the same rate as I did during my original quest to read the world back in 2012. And just like that journey, this challenge took me to some intriguing places. From a remote girls’ boarding school in the mountains of Rwanda to Park Slope in Brooklyn and from 1980s China to 16th-century Peru, I found myself transported beyond the bounds of my imagination by the writers’ skill.

So far, so good. But then I was faced with the second part of the challenge: choosing one title to tell you about.

Here I came unstuck. There were simply too many excellent and extraordinary books among the selection for me to settle for reviewing just one. And so, in recognition of the fact that my original quest featured far more books by men than by women, I have decided to take this opportunity to redress the balance a little. I have selected five titles to review and add to the List over the next couple of weeks (in addition, of course, to redoubling my commitment to seek out great books by writers of all genders to feature at other times).

And so, without further ado, here is the first of the bunch.

If you ever need proof that a story does not need to be original to be powerful, you need look no further than Swedish writer Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. On the face of it, this slender novel tells a story so familiar you could barely call it a plot: Ester, a poet and essayist in her early 30s, falls for Hugo, an older artist, and has to deal with the painful consequences when her passion is not returned.

It sounds mundane. And yet the quotidian nature of the storyline is the secret of this book’s success. With no narratological fireworks to wow readers and no twists to keep the pages turning, it is left to Andersson and her translator Sarah Death to make the novel compelling by use of language and description alone.

And my goodness, they certainly do.

Andersson sets out her stall in the opening pages by showing us what words mean to her poet protagonist. Language, we learn, is only ever ‘an approximation’. As a result, ‘the dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf, are what this story is about.’ Indeed, at times, the impossibility of capturing things with words almost seems too much for Ester and her creator alike:

‘How can one portray a human being from the inside in language or imagery without the transmission process introducing a false note? That’s the question. Metaphorizing feelings can only lead away from those feelings.’

And yet, as so often happens when a writer expresses her frustrations at the limitations of her art, great writing is frequently in evidence in this book. It takes the form of succinct evocations and spare, precise descriptions amid a welter of rich perceptions about what human beings think and do. Some of these, such as the way obsession unfolds and the means by which we sabotage ourselves in the eyes of those we most want to charm, are timeless, but there are observations that feel very much of the moment too. The reflections on the torments experienced by anyone waiting for a text message from a love interest are particularly telling.

There’s humour in there too. The restaurant scene where Ester finds herself unable to order the same dessert as Hugo because she is cross with him and can’t appear to agree with him about anything is wonderful.

Indeed, the universality of so much of the story can make its local distinctiveness jar when it appears. There are episodes where Ester is direct in a way quite foreign to a British reader, but probably entirely natural to a resident of Stockholm.

And while we’re on the text’s disconcerting aspects, it must be said that not all Andersson’s pared-back descriptions find their mark. A few of the metaphors are distractingly odd and there are occasional word choices and repetitions (whether reflected in the original or introduced at the translation stage) that jolt and tremble the smooth train of the narrative.

But really these quibbles are nothing when set against the pleasure that comes from being absorbed in this story. Some books turn their own pages for you and this is such a one. Please Picador, can we have some more Lena Andersson in English?

Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (Picador, 2015)

Picture: Youthful Romance: The east end of Kungsholmen in Stockholm, Sweden by Let Ideas Compete on Flickr.com

Sweden: fellow globetrotters

I’m not the only one trying to read the world. Since I launched this project to explore a novel, short story collection or memoir from every UN-recognised country in 2012, I’ve heard from people engaged in a whole range of international literary quests.

One of the latest ventures I’ve come across is by Swedish blogger Fredrika, who stopped by this blog ten days ago to tell me about a project she started in November to read a book from every country. Much more organised than me, she got a pretty comprehensive list together before she started and is working her way through it over the course of the next few years. Her criteria are different to mine, in that she is taking on some historical and anthropological books too, however there are also some fascinating fiction and biography choices on her list.

Fredrika has clearly done a massive amount of thinking about world literature, so when she recommended a Swedish title for me, I decided I’d be mad not to give it a try.

The book was Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, an award-winning novel exploring the experience of immigrants in Sweden. Told through a correspondence between one Jonas Khemiri and Kadir, who claims to be an old family friend, the book is a daring, powerful and often hilarious attempt to unfold the story of the struggle of Dads, Jonas’s estranged father, to make a life for himself in Scandinavia after he left Tunisia as a young man.

The novel is rich with comedy as the overbearing Kadir wrestles with the author in an attempt to guide and direct the narrative as he sees fit. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, from Kadir’s ‘glissades of truth’ to his patronising asides to the author about writing techniques and instructions for how he should handle particular events – ‘this scene must be filled with great dramatic gunpowder and symphonic basses’, he writes at one point.

Best of all are Kadir’s odd expressions and similes, which had me laughing on nearly every page of the first half of the book. Among the most sparkling examples are his descriptions of Jonas’s paternal grandmother as ‘a powerfully strong woman who grappled with her context like the wrestler and actor Hulk Hogan’, his confession of his suspicion ‘that [Jonas’s father] had become infected with homosex’ at one point and his later remark that ‘the tooth of time had munched a festive breakfast on his exterior’.

That translator Rachel Willson-Broyles is able to convey the linguistic quirks of Kadir’s Arabicised Swedish is testament to her great skill. This skill is essential to getting the subtleties of the book across as the narrative delves deeper into Dads’s battle to shrug off the label of ‘immigrant’ and establish himself in a society that becomes ever more hostile to outsiders or ‘blatte’ as Jonas grows up.

This battle, which sees Dads reject his origins in an effort not to ‘infect [his] son with being an outsider’, takes place as much on the linguistic as on the physical level and leaves deep scars. For much of the book, Jonas writes about himself in the second person, as though cut off from his identity, and his consciousness of the losing linguistic battle his father had to fight is acute:

‘One single wrong preposition is all it takes. A single en word that should be an ett. Then their second-long pause, the pause they love, the pause that shows that no matter how much you try, we will always, ALWAYS see through you. They enjoy taking the power and waiting waiting waiting until just when Dads think they are defeated. Then they point out the right way with vowels that are quadrupled as if they were talking with a deaf imbecile. STRAAAAAIGHT AHEEEEAD, then to the LEEEEEEEEEEEFT, okay, then RIIIIIIGHT. You’re welcome. And Dads say thanks politely and bow and you’re standing alongside and feeling how something is bubbling inside.’

Even with Willson-Broyles’s superlative translation, I can only imagine the effect of reading the book’s moving dissection of the politics of the Swedish language in the non-standard Swedish of the original. In English it is riveting, wise and sad. A towering achievement of a book. Thank you, Fredrika.

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Knopf, 2011)