Thursday, 24 April 2014

'Rücken an Rücken' ('Back to Back') by Julia Franck (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 12a)

Today's stop on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize trail takes us back in time, and behind the Iron Curtain.  It's a novel which looks at growing up in a country whose doors to the outside world are about to be closed, a decision which will leave its mark on the coming generations...

*****
Back to Back by Julia Franck - Harvill Secker
(translated by Anthea Bell)
What's it all about?
(East) Berlin, 1954 - an eleven-year-old girl and her ten-year-old brother are cleaning their house in preparation for the return of their mother from a journey.  Ella and Thomas spend two days scrubbing the house from top to bottom, and when their mother finally arrives, the two hope that she will recognise their efforts.

Käthe, however, a sculptress obsessed with her art and politics, is not your average mother.  She ignores her children's efforts, just the first in a long line of actions which will affect their lives as they grow up in a country which won't leave them alone.  As they finally reach adulthood, the ideological line between East and West is reinforced by a more tangible division.  Under the shadow of the wall, Tom and Ella will need to find ways to cope with life in a prison state...

Back to Back is not a pleasant book to read.  Right from the tense homecoming described in the first section, Käthe overshadows her children, trying to form them with her will into offspring worthy of the new state she believes in.  Tom and Ella actually have other siblings, twins who spend most of their time farmed out to foster families and homes, but Käthe has no time for the softer side of family life, caught up as she is in her art and her politics:
"Ihre Liebe war unbarmherzig, aber es war Liebe, daran mochte er nicht Zweifeln.  Grimmig verzog sie ihr schönes Gesicht: Was weißt du schon von der Welt?"
p.144 (Fischer Verlag, 2013)

"Her love was merciless, but it was still love, of that he had no doubt.  She fiercely screwed up her beautiful face: what do you know about the world?" (my translation)
Käthe's actions are underpinned by her belief that she is right, but this belief is a heavy weight which her two eldest children are forced to carry.

Of the two children, it's Ella who attracts most of the attention early in the book.  As she grows up, she begins to rebel against her mother, stealing money from her purse and only attending school when she feels like it.  Her strong exterior hides the fact that she's actually powerless, though, and her growing sexuality is tempered by experiences in her own home which she really shouldn't be subjected to.

As the novel progresses, the focus switches to Thomas.  A gentle, intelligent boy, Thomas would seem set for a bright future, were it not for the fact that he's trapped in prison-ship GDR.  Suspicion of intelligence, coupled with disdain for Käthe's privileged upbringing, means that a boy who should have been sent straight to university is forced to endure hard labour and outright bullying.  While Käthe believes that it's all for the best, she doesn't realise just how damaging her plans are for her beloved son:
"In einem abgeschlossenen System ist Zukunft undenkbar.  Michael holte kräftig aus, er streckte sich, um der länge nach mit dem Pinsel über die Tapete zu streichen.  Die Mauer macht uns endgültig zu Tieren im Zoo." (p.193)

"In a closed-off system, the future is unthinkable.  Michael reached right out, stretching himself to paint over the wallpaper with his brush.  The wall is turning us into animals in the zoo." (my translation)
With no future in sight, at least none that he wants, Thomas' fate is destined to be a gloomy one.  If only someone can come and lift him out of his depression...

Back to Back is not a happy book for anyone, least of all the reader.  It's a depressing, claustrophobic story, with the parallel prisons of Käthe's tough love and the newly-formed Communist state taking their toll on both reader and protagonists alike.  Of course, it's written in hindsight, and that colours the way the book has been structured.  However, if this really is how life was 'over there', it's little wonder that the fall of the wall (initially, at least) was met with such joy...

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, not quite.  I eventually had this as a top-ten book, which was a lot higher than most of my fellow Shadow Panelists viewed it!  My background in German studies probably helped endear this book to me as I'm very interested in East Germany (and surprised that another book on the country, Eugen Ruge's In Times of Fading Light, was overlooked this year).

It's far from perfect though, and the book falls into the trap of being too black and white (the good are angelic, and the bad are demonic).  Käthe is slightly too much of a caricature at times, although Franck does manage to give her some human moments.  All in all, it's a book I'm glad I read, but I can see why others might not have liked it.

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
Quite simply, because there was too much competition this year, particularly from some natural competitors.  In particular, Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast did a lot more in a much shorter time.  Like the GDR itself, Back to Back can be a little too stiff and restrictive, meaning that it doesn't have that spark of life which makes a book shine...

*****
If this one was a slow, ponderous read, next week's book is anything but.  We're off to Italy to spend some time pounding the streets of Naples.  Thou shalt not miss this one, really - it's an offer that's too good to refuse ;)

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

'Lonesome You' by Park Wan-suh (Review)

With 2014 seemingly becoming the year of Korean literature here at Tony's Reading List, I'm continuing my look at Dalkey Archive's Library of Korean Literature.  Today's choice is from a very well-known and popular writer, and after a few novels, this time we're looking at a collection of short stories.  What's it all about?  Well, many things, but mostly it looks at growing old in a changing society - and the problems this entails...

*****
Park Wan-suh's Lonesome You (translated by Elizabeth Haejin Yoon, review copy courtesy of the publisher) contains nine longish stories focusing primarily on issues the elderly face in modern-day Korea.  From love in life's twilight years to dealing with the in-laws, Park examines the way changing traditions have left the older generations adrift, at the mercy of relatives who no longer feel quite as much veneration for the elderly as was previously the case.

Several of the stories look at the realities of striking up new relationships at an advanced age.  The opening story, 'Withered Flower', sees a widow meet a handsome widower on a coach journey back to Seoul, gradually developing a close friendship with him.  However, there are a couple of obstacles in the way.  One is the determination of overbearing family members to push the two into marriage; the other is slightly more personal:
"I strutted out of the bathroom into the adjoining bedroom naked - moments like this undoubtedly being one of the perks of living alone .  I threw a small towel under my feet to catch the water dripping from my body and reached for the phone.  Then I froze in mid-action.  Who was that hideous old woman?  I almost screamed out loud at the reflection in the mirror."
'Withered Flower', p.26 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
It's an unwelcome reality check for a woman who prides herself on her appearance...

The title story, 'Lonesome You', takes a slightly different look at the topic as it explores the life of a couple who have virtually separated.  Meeting at their son's graduation, the two escape from the son's girlfriend's interfering parents, ending up alone together for the first time in a while.  Initially the wife is repelled by the man she is tied to by law, but she gradually starts to realise why he has turned out as he has and the extent of his sacrifices for the family.  While his actions may have angered her at times, she comes to realise that he was always thinking of what was best for his wife and their children.

Unlike the protagonists of these stories though, some of the elderly characters are dependent on their families, and the responsibility of caring for parents is a common theme running through the collection.  In 'Psychedelic Butterfly', an old woman frequently shuttled between her children's houses runs away, and the children feel guilty about their inability to decide what to do:
"This world was too, too small, and allowed all kinds of associations.  One could always find a link, however remote, among relatives, school friends, and hometown acquaintances.  Even a bottom feeder and a top dog were connected in some way, if one searched hard enough."
'An Unbearable Secret' (p.97)
It's this societal pressure which makes things so difficult.  Everyone expects the eldest son to take on the responsibility of caring for a widowed mother, and when this doesn't happen, people start to talk...

This guilt is also prominent in 'Long Boring Movie', a story in which a woman recalls her mother's last days while planning her father's move to an apartment close to hers.  In this story, her brother is constantly making biting remarks, tacitly accusing his sister of having an eye on his inheritance - despite the fact that he has no intention of looking after his father himself.  This eldest son's pressure is actually mirrored in the father's behaviour as the daughter starts to think that his wandering eye may have stemmed from the pressure he felt as the head of the family.

A slightly different theme which appears in Lonesome You is the connection between Korea and the United States, with several of the stories featuring tales of emigrants in, or coming back from, America.  'Thorn inside Petals', a story of two elderly sisters, first looks at the bizarre behaviour of an elderly ex-pat before showing us how she made her way in the US.  This sombre tale is nicely balanced by 'J-1 Visa', the light-hearted story of a Korean writer desperately trying to get a visa to attend a seminar in the US, one which turns into an amusing rant about colonialism...

There's a lot to interest the reader here, particularly in its view of a male-dominated, patriarchal society, but Lonesome You is certainly not my favourite of the series so far.  For one thing, the stories tend to be overly long, unfocused and rambling.  The nine stories are spread over 250 pages, and to be honest, you get the feeling that they would have been much better if they'd only run to 150.  There were a couple of times when I was simply skim-reading to get back into the flow of the story, not something I usually do.

I'd also say that I wasn't overly convinced by the writing, whether that's the fault of the original or the translation.  There were too many odd vocabulary choices, and at times it all felt rather stilted.  As a whole, it didn't really flow, and there were a couple of stories (including 'A Ball-playing Woman') which I just didn't rate at all...

An interesting comparison to make here is with the undisputed Korean hit-in-translation of recent years, Shin Kyung-sook's Please Look After MotherLonesome You explores many of the same themes, and if you liked Shin's book, you may well enjoy this.  Of course, as my regular readers will know, I hated it with a passion, so it's unsurprising that I didn't enjoy Lonesome You as much as some others might;)

Park may be a big name back in Korea, but I'm afraid her work isn't really to my taste.  There's a lot more K-Lit coming this way over the next few months, but I think I'll continue my K-Lit odyssey with someone else's books...

Sunday, 20 April 2014

'Oh, Tama!' by Mieko Kanai (Review)

Kurodahan Press were kind enough to support my January in Japan event earlier this year by offering a few prizes, and while I'd read one of the three offerings, the other two looked quite interesting too...  Luckily enough, I was able to get review copies for myself, and - just as importantly - I was also able to snatch a few hours recently to try one :)

*****
Mieko Kanai's Oh, Tama! (translated by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy) is just another in the long line of Japanese books featuring a cat (I'm sure you all know of at least one writer who likes to do this...).  The Tama of the novel is a pregnant black-and-white kitty who is unceremoniously brought to the apartment of Natsuyuki, an unemployed photographer, by Alexandre, the brother of his ex-girlfriend Tsuneko.

The cat belonged to Tsuneko, but she has gone into hiding after using her own pregnancy to fleece several potential fathers of a fair amount of money, so it's up to mild-mannered Natsuyuki to take care of Tama until the kittens come into the world.  However, the arrival of the cat in Natsuyuki's life is to cause several other changes, and from being a loner living a peaceful life in a small, quiet apartment, Natsuyuki suddenly finds himself at the centre of a noisy, chaotic social circle...

It would be an understatement to say that Oh, Tama! isn't really plot driven - in fact, there isn't really a plot to speak of.  Once the initial set up introduces us to the basic concept, and to the characters of Natsuyuki, Alexandre and Tama, it's simply a series of conversations, meals and friends dropping by for a drink.  In that sense, it has a lot in common with more traditional Japanese fare (such as, dare I say it, Natsume Soseki's I am a Cat), but in its tone it's a lot more modern - prostitutes instead of geishas, beer in place of sake.

Typical of this modern taste to the book is the character of Alexandre, an outsider due to his foreign blood (his father was possibly a foreign sailor, but his mother was very vague about this...).  He can't help but stand out in a very homogenous society:
"Alexandre, talking in a rather feminine way, opined that, judging from the color of his hair (reddish-brown) and eyes (light gray), his father would seem to have been a Caucasian; but he might have been a light-skinned Negro, or a Jew.  He was an unspecified person whose very ethnicty was unclear."
p.16 (Kurodahan Press, 2014)
A restless soul, who pops in and out of Natsuyuki's life randomly, Alexandre makes his living with a series of temporary jobs, the most intriguing of which is porn star...

As the novel progresses, though, we find that Alexandre is actually the norm, rather than an exception.  Tsuneko is only his half-sister, and it turns out that Natsuyuki and another of the possible fathers of her unborn (and possibly non-existent) child are related in the same way (this new half-brother becomes one of the occasional visitors to Natsuyuki's tiny flat...).  And, of course, if we're talking about absent fathers, it would be remiss of us not to mention the fact that Tama is also bringing up her kittens without a tomcat to help out ;)

Oh, Tama! is a difficult book to analyse in hindsight.  To use familiar J-Lit markers, it has a Haruki Murakami protagonist forced to socialise with a few of the nicer characters from a Ryu Murakami novel, and they all sit around and talk rubbish in the vein of Banana Yoshimoto's creations.  And nothing much gets done:
"What with thoughts like that swirling through my mind, somehow everything became too much of a bother.  The feeling that there was nothing I really wanted to do crept up from the tips of my toes." (p.85)
At times, you begin to wonder if the writer has fallen asleep on the job too...

By the end of the book though, a couple of themes have emerged from the alcohol-fuelled haze.  The unemployed photographer, the foreign-blooded porn actor and the confused psychiatrist are all connected in that they are existing outside the notoriously regimented constraints of mainstream Japanese society.  They all scrape by on a day-to-day basis and occasionally show that they're not quite as cheerful on the inside as it appears on the outside.

However, what they also have in common is a bond which allows them to seek comfort, and what Kanai does cleverly in Oh, Tama! is construct a cohesive social group from very different parts.  While Tama doesn't play a large active role in the story, her arrival in Natsuyuki's life is the catalyst for a change in his relationships with other people.  I said earlier that very little happens, and that's true - however, at the end of the novel, this very little is done by many more people.  Which is a progression of sorts ;)

I don't think this will be for everyone, but it's a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours, and there is a little more to it than may first meet the eye.  And, of course, if you're a cat lover, this may just be a book you'll enjoy spending some time with - whether there's a furry companion on your lap or not!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

'Revenge' by Yoko Ogawa (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 12)

Well, we've left the Middle-East behind, and today's leg of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize journey takes us to Japan, where we'll be enjoying some carrots, tomatoes and strawberry shortcake.  Don't get too comfortable though - in the hands of today's writer, any meal is likely to leave a bitter aftertaste...

*****
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa - Harvill Secker
(translated by Stephen Snyder)
What's it all about?
Revenge is a collection of eleven stories, beautifully written in Ogawa's (and Snyder's) usual simple, clipped language.  Everything is set out precisely, and yet the reader always has the sense that the serene surface is hiding something:
"You could gaze at this perfect picture all day - an afternoon bathed in light and comfort and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing."
'Afternoon at the Bakery', pp.1/2 (Harvill Secker, 2013)
And right from the start, the writer is mocking us, telling us that something is not quite right.  But let's face it, we should expect that - Ogawa is the queen of the slightly askant...

What follows are a collection of tales where ordinary people going about their daily lives are shown to be somewhat other than normal.  From the woman waiting to buy some strawberry shortcake for her dead son ('Afternoon at the Bakery'), to the bag maker with an obsession for perfection ('Sewing for the Heart'), the writer casually introduces her cast onto the stage, gently setting them off walking, knowing all the while that just around the corner... well, you know.  She must be a *very* cruel woman...

There's a lot more to Revenge than isolated stories of oddballs and psychopaths though - as soon as the reader moves on to the second story ('Fruit Juice'), they realise that Ogawa has a slightly more complex idea in hand.  You see, each of the stories takes something from the previous one and runs with it, with minor characters suddenly appearing in the spotlight, their actions now centre stage.  Even better, the deeper we get into Ogawa's world, the more tangled the web of connections becomes, with people and objects harking back to several earlier stories.  By the time we get to the last of the eleven tales, 'Poison Plants', it's no surprise that the central character leads us back to the start of the book, completing a circle.

With this in mind, the reader is always on the look out for recurring themes, spotting reappearances by former characters and speculating on the significance of such innocent items as carrots, bags, clocks and strawberry shortcake.  Every action has to be analysed for similarities with previous (or future) events:
"When I'm curled up in his arms like this, I can never tell how my body looks to him.  I worry that I seem completely ridiculous, but I have the ability to squeeze into any little space he leaves for me.  I fold my legs until they take up almost no room at all, and curl in my shoulders until they're practically dislocated.  Like a mummy in a tomb.  And when I get like this, I don't care if I never get out; or maybe that's exactly what I hope will happen."
'Welcome to the Museum of Torture', p.82
A sweet description of a lover's embrace?  Hmm.  There are echoes there of a similar, less romantic scene from the very first story...

As with other Ogawa works, the central idea here is that people are strange and that it is impossible to see what lurks beneath a smiling face or within a beautiful body.  The idea of being 'normal' is held up to the light and examined, distorted, until it becomes hideous and unbearable.  Revenge goes one better, though, in the way that it also explores the interconnectedness of our society (one thought that popped into my mind is that it's like a dark, twisted version of The Beatles song 'Penny Lane'!), and one reading is nowhere near enough to uncover all the links between the stories.  This is a book that demands to be reread - possibly backwards ;)

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Oh, yes.  This is easily the most impressive of the books I've read since the longlist announcement, one I devoured in a matter of hours (having started it about half an hour after it dropped through my letter box!).  It's a superb book, well written, with an excellent translation (I'm a big fan of Snyder), and another piece of what should become an impressive Ogawa legacy in English - with over twenty books published in Japan, we have a lot of treats yet to come.

Just one thing puzzles me, though - how on earth did The Housekeeper and the Professor get translated before this?!

Why did it make the shortlist
Because it's an excellent book, a clever collection of stories which is more akin to a novel really, and with the IFFP crying out for female writers on the shortlist, it's little wonder that Revenge made it.  And do you know what?  It stands a very good chance of taking out the whole thing too ;)

*****
Next up on the itinerary is Germany, as we head back in time to Berlin in the fifties.  A woman with two children living in the country, a joyful, idyllic tale...

...sorry - I lied.  More doom and gloom coming up next week :(

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

'Nagasaki' by Éric Faye (Review)

As you might know, I'm a big fan of J-Lit, but there must be many more over in France, where the number of works of Japanese literature in translation far outstrip those available in the Anglosphere (I've been very tempted on occasion to dip into this pool of books to see what I'm missing...).  Apparently, though, the fascination with Japan doesn't stop there - it seems that for some, the country also provides inspiration for novels written in the French language too...

*****
Éric Faye's Nagasaki (translated by Emily Boyce, review copy courtesy of Gallic Books) is a short work based on a real-life story, an event which happened in Japan in 2008.  It starts with a man in his fifties, Kobo Shimura, a worker at the bureau of meteorology who lives alone, never having found a lasting relationship.  Recently, though, he has begun to feel a little uneasy in his small house, and with good reason - a check on the level of juice in the bottle in his fridge shows that someone has been visiting while he's at work.

Shimura decides that he needs to investigate matters further, so he installs a camera in his house through which he can monitor his home from work.  Sure enough, he soon sees an intruder in his kitchen, drinking his juice and relaxing in the sun.  However, in pursuing the truth about these unusual intrusions, Shimura finds out that matters are much worse than he could ever imagine...

Nagasaki is a great little book, one which can be read in an hour or so, but which resonates for far longer.  Part of the charm is the voice of the main character, a man who... well, I'll let him tell you himself:
"Imagine a man in his fifties disappointed to have reached middle age so quickly and utterly, residing in his modest house in a suburb of Nagasaki with very steep streets.  Picture these snakes of soft asphalt slithering up the hillsides until they reach the point where all the urban scum of corrugated iron, tarpaulins, tiles and God knows what else peters out beside a wall of straggly, crooked bamboo.  That is where I live.  Who am I?  Without wishing to overstate matters, I don't amount to much.  As a single man, I cultivate certain habits which keep me out of trouble and allow me to tell myself I have at least some redeeming features."
p.11 (Gallic Books, 2014)
It's a wonderful start to the book, and typical of the first part, in which Faye introduces a man whom time has passed by, a bit of an oddity at work for not wanting to join everyone for drinks at the end of the day.

Shimura struggles through everyday life, forcing his way to work amid the noise of trams and cicadas, and life is gradually wearing him down.  He's becoming a fussy old man, dull and a little deluded, and the writer (and translator!) manages to show this perfectly, gently mocking his disdain of a centenarian on the television who has never drunk alcohol.  It doesn't occur to Shimura that he isn't exactly the life and soul of the party himself.

It's when we get to the discovery of the intruder that all this becomes relevant, as the discovery of the woman in his kitchen forces Shimura to take a good, hard look at his life; it's fair to say he doesn't exactly like what he sees.  In fact, Nagasaki is less about the crime itself than its causes and effects, with the woman's capture leading to a crisis of kinds for the innocent Shimura:
"And that wasn't all.  The woman's presence had somehow opened a tiny window on my consciousness, and through it I was able to see a little more clearly.  I understood that the year she and I had shared, even if she had avoided me and I had known nothing of her, was going to change me, and that already I was no longer the same.  How exactly, I couldn't have said.  But I knew I wouldn't escape unscathed." (pp.56/7)
In fact, the event is to affect him markedly.  Already obsessed with news of the increasing number of old people, and the robots being developed to look after them, Shimura realises that this is his fate - to die alone, in the care of a machine...

It's not all about Shimura, though.  Faye actually switches the point of view about two-thirds of the way through, and we get to hear the woman's side of the story and her reasons for the home invasions.  The writer is attempting to add another angle to the story, showing how easy it is to slip through the cracks without realising and end up with nowhere to go (it's no coincidence that this all happens around the time of the GFC).  However, for me, this final third is a little unnecessary, and I would have preferred the story to stick with Shimamura, leaving the woman's motives in the dark.  As the Japanese know full well, there's a lot to be said for leaving the reader to figure some things out for themselves...

Overall, this a lovely little book though, deftly written with sly humour everywhere in the first half.  I particularly enjoyed the focus on the grey Sanyo fridge, with its rather apt slogan of 'Always with You'...  There were also some nice Japanese touches, such as when Shimura starts to suspect that he might have to look beyond the purely natural to find answers:
"What deity would demand offerings of yogurt, a single pickled plum or some seaweed rice?  Never mind that I was raised a Catholic, I often go to feed our 'kami' at the local shrine, but it never occurred to me for one moment they would come into people's houses and help themselves." (p.31)
If only it had been the household gods stealing his food ;)

Despite my reservations about the final section, Nagasaki is an excellent read, a thought-provoking look at the loneliness of modern life.  It's a book which makes the reader think about their own social ties, wondering if they too might be looking forward to empty twilight years.  And, of course, the book has one other effect on the reader - you won't be forgetting to check your doors and windows in a hurry...

Sunday, 13 April 2014

'Where Tigers are at Home' by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (Review)

As you may have noticed, I've been rather occupied with translated fiction prizes recently, what with shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and casting occasional glances in the direction of the American Best Translated Book Award.  However, it's important to remember that (as I've mentioned on several occasions) the judges for these things are far from infallible - and today's book is one which, somehow or other seems to have fallen between the cracks on both sides of the Atlantic.

Which is quite a feat, seeing as it's a very big book ;)

*****
Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès' Where Tigers are at Home (translated by Mike Mitchell, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is a big book in every sense of the word.  Running to 817 pages in my beautiful hardback edition, the novel is a wonderful look at history, geography and many other sciences besides, all wrapped up in several related stories involving characters who manage to reach across time and space to have an effect on other people.

We start off with expatriate French correspondent, Eléazard von Wogau, a man living in the provinces of Brazil sending occasional reports back home about Brazilian news, most of which are simply ignored.  With his geologist wife, Elaine, having left him, and his daughter, Moéma, off having fun at university, von Wogau uses his time translating a document he has been sent, a biography of the life of famed seventeenth-century Jesuit and polymath Athanasius Kircher.  It's a fascinating story, and one which intrigues both von Wogau and the reader, but there's a lot more to Where the Tigers are at Home than that.

Eventually, the writer introduces several other strands to the tale: we follow Elaine von Wogau as she sets off on a perilous journey into the Brazilian interior in search of fossils; Moéma's story is played out on the beaches and in the shanty towns; Nelson, a young crippled beggar, gradually enters the story, destined to cross paths with several of the other characters; and Governor José Moreira, a corrupt politician with plans to transform the region, will eventually cast his shadow across all of the stories...

If one thing has come across from the few paragraphs I've written so far, it's that Where Tigers are at Home is a rather expansive and ambitious work.  It's one where the reader is compelled to take the writer's intentions on trust, as it takes a long time for the underlying framework of the novel to become clear.  With Caspar Schott's biography of his mentor Athanasius Kircher taking up a good third of the novel (these sections begin every chapter), an impatient reader may well give up before the story gets into second gear.  However, the book is well worth persisting with, and each of the strands is interesting in its own right.

As mentioned, the biography takes up the bulk of the novel, and on its own it's interesting to read.  It follows the (real-life) Kircher throughout his travels, as he wanders Europe in a quest for knowledge, hoping to unlock the secrets of the universe and link them all back to an all-powerful deity.  While he is undoubtedly a genius, the trouble is that he is working from a false premise - and almost everything he comes up with is completely lacking in facts...

Much of the humour from this part comes from the hapless Schott, the Doctor Watson to Kircher's Sherlock, and while his master braves evil to further the church's aims, it always seems to be the assistant who has to take one for the team.  A particularly memorable episode is when Caspar encounters a beautiful lady of high standing, who turns out to be more interested in worldly pleasures than in heavenly delights.  Poor Caspar, trapped by events, is forced to submit to her wishes:
"Lingua mea in nobilissimae os adacta, spiculum usque ad cor illi penetravit."
p.269 (Other Press, 2013)
It's a little too racy for me to put into English here, but if you are interested in Latin porn, there's always Google Translate ;)

The whole point of Kircher's story, though, is the way it reflects on events taking place in contemporary Brazil, as the actions described in Schott's biography mirror those elsewhere in the chapters.  The debauchery at the prince's house is contrasted both with an evening party at Governor Moreira's mansion and with a frenzied native ritual in the jungle.  When Kircher foils a charlatan who claims to have the secrets of alchemy at his fingertips, Nelson then tells us of a girl who was tempted with sweets, only to wake up with no eyes...

The title of the book comes from Goethe's Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), from a passage that says:
"No one can walk beneath palm trees with impunity,
           and ideas are sure to change in a land where
                           elephants and tigers are at home."
However, as Eléazard argues with a friend, what this passage actually means is up for debate.  Are we obliged to travel the world and broaden our horizons, or does becoming aware of the wider world blind us to what is going on around us?  To paraphrase, is increasing globalisation a good thing?  As Eléazard remarks:
"What can one say of a population that is incapable of visualizing the world in which it lives except that it's on the road to ruin for lack of landmarks, of reference points?  For lack of reality... Is not the way the world has of henceforth resisting our efforts to represent it, the mischievous pleasure it takes in escaping us, a symptom of the fact that we have already lost it?  To lose sight of the world, is that not to begin to be happy with its disappearance?" (p.782)
A rather telling thought in the land of the rapidly disappearing rainforests.

It's here that the Brazilian side of the story comes into its own, as several of the protagonists have their own encounters with indigenous culture, all falling victim to the lure of the exotic.  Moéma's desire to atone for her privileged upbringing takes her to some rather dark places, while her lecturer, Roetgen, finds his own connection with the past on a fishing trip with some locals.  It's Elaine, though, who has the most confronting encounter - in pursuing knowledge from hundreds of millions of years ago, she is brought face to face with a slightly more recent past...

At which point, I have to simply give up on analysis and recommend you to the work instead.  There's far too much here to be covered in a single post, and in the end I'm reduced to offering tempting comparisons, hoping to entice you into giving Where Tigers are at Home a read.  One of those would undoubtedly be David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, for while the set-up is slightly different, both books share an overarching ambition and a desire to let people know that what we think we know is not always right - and that progress isn't always a good thing.  If you're the sort of person who was able to stay with Cloud Atlas, trusting that the writer was steering you in the right direction, then this might be a book for you :)

Sadly, as I said in my introduction, Where Tigers are at Home has been strangely overlooked.  The Dedalus Books UK edition pretty much sank without trace, and while Other Press' US version has received more praise, it was still, inexplicably overlooked for the BTBA longlist this year.  Why?  Well, it's a rather off-putting beast, and I suspect that many people simply couldn't bring themselves to give it a go.  A book centred on a Jesuit priest, a novel which you might struggle to lift if you haven't been eating your greens - I can see how that could be a bit of a hard sell.

However, while taking a leap of faith isn't always a good idea (and there are several examples of that in the book...), this is one time when it's definitely worth the risk.  Yes, there might be tigers out there, but if you don't venture out into the literary jungle from time to time, you're never going to stumble across the gold that's buried in its midst.  Deep breath, turn the page - and off you go ;)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

'Exposure' by Sayed Kashua (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 11)

After a little time in Iraq, today's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize stopover takes us to Israel, where we'll hang around in Jerusalem and meet a couple of the country's Arab inhabitants.  They're very different people, but their lives are inextricably bound - by a small scrap of paper...

*****
Exposure by Sayed Kashua - Chatto & Windus
(translated by Mitch Ginsberg)
What's it all about?
We first meet a lawyer in Jerusalem, a young Arab living in comfort with his wife and two children.  While he's happy with his lot, he knows deep down that he has missed out on certain facets of a more cultural upbringing, so he likes to buy books from time to time (even if he doesn't always read them...) in an attempt to build up some cultural street cred.

One day though, after buying a copy of Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, he finds that he's getting more than he bargained for.  Inside the book, there's a love letter - one which the lawyer is convinced is in his wife's handwriting.  It's at this point that we jump back a few years to a second strand of the story, one in which a young social worker is about to meet an attractive young woman.  Perhaps the lawyer's suspicions aren't that far off the truth...

Exposure is an interesting, highly plot-driven book, a novel which, in addition to constructing a race against time over two different periods, takes a look at the lives of the (successful) Arabs of the Israeli state:
"Lawyers, accountants, tax advisors, and doctors - brokers between the noncitizen Arabs and the Israeli authorities, a few thousand people, living within Jerusalem but divorced from the locals among whom they reside.  They will always be seen as strangers, somewhat suspicious, but wholly indispensable."
p.10 (Chatto & Windus, 2013)
Our lawyer is a prime representative of these people, and he has become fairly successful in his dealings with the poorer Arabs living in Jerusalem.

The social worker is a different story.  He has just started out on his professional path, wasting his time in a clinic where there's very little to do.  An outsider from a young age, he's in no hurry to return to his village, detesting the overgrown children who strut about there:
"I couldn't figure out how it was that these overgrown kids could still intimidate me.  You idiots, you assholes, if only you knew what I know.  If only you knew what you look like to people who don't live in these little hole-in-the-wall towns.  If only you could see how lame your lives are.  If you had even the slightest awareness of your social status, you'd lock yourself up in your house and never come out." (p.273)
However, he's also struggling to find a place for himself in a confusing, alien society, a second-class citizen living amongst the elite.  It's then that he begins a part-time job looking after a young Jewish man in a coma, a man who he actually resembles physically.  This resemblance leads to an idea which will both change his life and threaten the lawyer's attempts to track him down years later.

This book was published in the US under the title Second Person Singular, and both the title and the cover (with an Arab man hiding his face behind a book with a Jewish man's face on the cover) hint at a subtle, literary text.  This UK version, by contrast, is going for more of a thriller vibe, with its short title, familiar thriller-style design and an intriguing blurb:
"Maybe it was just a game, I don't know.  But suddenly, I was someone else, someone unfamiliar, foreign..."
Having read the book, I tend to think that the British publisher had the right idea - this is a book to pitch to thriller readers, not fans of literary fiction...

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, sorry, not in my opinion.  It's not a bad book - although it starts very slowly, the pace slowly increases, and it's definitely a page-turner.  The two-strand idea works well, culminating in a meeting which closes the story off nicely (I'm still not completely sure whether the ending is clever or cheesy though...).  It's not really a book that I'd expect to see in this kind of prize, however, with some fairly pedestrian prose in places.

While it's actually not the worst of the books I've read from the longlist so far, I'd have been very disappointed if this had made it into the final six.  Which is not to say that I wouldn't recommend it.  If you like the sound of this plot, please go ahead and read it - just don't expect anything too profound...

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
I'm not really sure why it made the longlist, to be honest...

*****
Well, moving on from Israel, it's time to pack up and head off to Japan, where we'll be meeting a whole array of characters in a fairly short book.  Once again, however, things beneath the surface are a lot darker than they first appear - if you were looking forward to a happy read, you might be waiting a while...

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

IFFP 2014 - Two Shortlists

Well, the judges began about a month back by announcing fifteen candidates for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the field has now been cut to just six.  While nine books will retreat, licking their wounds, the remaining half-dozen will live to fight another day, all hoping to be crowned top dog in May :) 

Just who are those top six?  Well, it's actually a top ten - you see, the Shadow Panel, as always, sees things a little differently ;)

This year, there are only two books overlapping (The Mussel Feast and A Man in Love), and while there's nothing on the official list which offends me (unlike the previous two years), I'd still have to say that the Shadow list is far stronger.  Lovers of beautiful prose will be dismayed at the exclusion of The Sorrow of Angels, The Infatuations and Brief Loves that Live Forever from the official list, and several people had The Corpse Washer down as a dark horse for the entire thing.  Still, Stu, David, Jacqui, Bellezza, Tony and myself all have the chance to give them their moment in the sun, as they're still in with a shout of the Shadow Prize :)

As for the real thing, a few points to note.  Firstly,three of the shortlisted works are by women, and while I can't help but feel that this is a deliberate choice, given the discussions about the lack of submissions by female writers in recent years, they're all great books and worthy of the attention.

Secondly, two of them are short-story collections, and that's a big surprise (I know a certain blogger who will be very happy to hear of their inclusion!).  Short stories don't always fare well in these competitions, so well done to both Ogawa and Blasim.

Finally, I'm very happy for two of my favourite small presses, Comma Press and Peirene Press, for managing to get a book onto the shortlist.  Peirene have had four successive longlistings, but this is their first shortlisting - well done!  Oh, and can I just say I told you so... ;)

That's all for the shortlists then - now we look ahead to the unveiling of this year's grand champion, the Yokozuna of the translated fiction world.  The official prize will be announced on the 22nd of May, and I'm sure the slightly more prestigious Shadow Prize will be awarded a day or two before.  Stick around, though - there's a lot more to read and discuss before all that happens :)

Sunday, 6 April 2014

'At Least We Can Apologize' by Lee Ki-ho (Review)

It's time for another selection from Dalkey Archive's Library of Korean Literature, and today's choice is a fairly recent one, a novel which looks at modern society and all the bad things that exist within it.  You haven't read it?  Please, no need for apologies...

*****
Lee Ki-Ho's At Least We Can Apologize (translated by Christopher J. Dykas, review copy courtesy of the publisher) starts off in a mental institute, where two men, Si-bong and our narrator Ji-man, are whiling away their days, taking their pills and packing socks for sale to the outside world.  Suddenly, though, they are co-opted by a new inmate into appealing to that outside world for help, and shortly afterwards they find themselves released, free to return to their former lives.

As Ji-man has no memory of his home, the two stay with Si-bong's sister, Si-yeon, but with few skills their lack of money soon starts to bite.  One thing they're very good at, however (a skill picked up in the institute), is their ability to apologise, and with the help of Si-yeon's partner, they begin a business offering their apologising skills to the public.  Soon though, they discover that a case they've been offered, one involving a man who abandoned his family, might just be a little more than they can cope with...

The book revolves around a very clever idea.  For two men with limited intelligence trying to reintegrate into society, the only thing they really have to offer is a keen sense of the idea of 'wrongs' and apologies.  It may sound bizarre at first, but it's a service that is more in demand than you may think, particularly when you consider that everyone has something to hide if they look hard enough.

These 'skills' were first developed at the institute, and much of the important action happens there, mostly in the form of flashbacks.  It's here that the casual tone is interrupted by the brutal truth of time inside:
"After we confessed a wrong, we always made sure to commit it.  That was on account of feeling unsettled after having the confession in our heads all day long.  So, on days we said we didn't take our medicine, we really threw it away instead of taking it.  On days we said we'd cursed the superintendent in the bathroom, we really cursed him,  We made sure to commit exactly the wrongs we confessed, and only those wrongs.  Only that way could we ease our minds and sleep soundly."
p.26 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
In fact, the inmates are persecuted by the 'caretakers', and these confessions  are accompanied by savage beatings.  The abuse doesn't stop there though - the two friends are also used to cover up some inconvenient occurrences...

Lee uses a deliberately understated, neutral style, one excellently conveyed in English by Dykas, and we can only infer that this is meant to be representative of the limited intelligence of the narrator.  Despite this, there's often a surprisingly dark humour running though the novel too - as when Jin-man thinks back to the institute's superintendent:
"Sometimes he would suggest we put on a play.  He said that it would help our treatment.  We were always the mother, and the superintendent was always the child being spanked.  The dialogue was always the same: We would spank the superintendent on the behind with a pointer while shouting, "That's it?! Is that the best you can do?!"  Then the superintendent would yell out loudly, "Mother! Mother, please, more! Hit me more!"  With his behind facing us, raised high into the air, sometimes he would even start to bawl.  Then, when the play was over, he would give us chocolate milk or a yogurt drink." (p.45)
Even in telling us this story, Jin-man doesn't blink an eyelid...

Having developed a tough mental shell, the two friends are able to carry out their apologies and are surprisingly effective at manipulating people into using their services.  It's not an easy job though.  You see, apologising involves taking whatever action is deemed necessary to right the wrong, and the bigger the wrong, the more drastic the action required to right it.  The case which they take on involves a pretty big wrong, and the price of the apology seems far too high.  However, this is where a bit of lateral thinking comes in handy - sometimes thinking differently can be a distinct advantage.

At Least We Can Apologize is a clever, cutting look at society seen through the eyes of an outsider.  While Jin-man and Si-bong are treated like little children, when you see all the sex, violence and abuse happening around them, you begin to wonder.  At times, it's difficult to decide who the crazy ones really are in this novel.

It's an interesting story, one which ends ambiguously in many ways.  As mentioned, Lee has done an excellent job in constructing Jin-man's voice, allowing him to manipulate the reader's opinions of the main characters.  Despite the signposting and clues, the way matters come to a head is still a rude shock.  It seems that no matter how much you apologise, in the modern world, you just can't trust anyone.

I'm sorry about that - I really am...

Saturday, 5 April 2014

March 2014 Wrap-Up

March is, of course, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize month, and once the longlist was announced, I leapt straight into it (luckily, I'd already finished seven of them...).  Still, with enforced waits owing to library lists and delivery times from overseas, it was a good job I had a few other books to tide me over ;)

The stats?  This way...

*****
Total Books Read: 17

Year-to-Date: 34

New: 12

Rereads: 5

From the Shelves: 6
Review Copies: 7
From the Library: 3
On the Kindle: 3 (2 review copies)

Novels: 11
Novellas: 3
Short Stories: 2
Non-Fiction: 1

Non-English Language: 14 (5 Japanese, 2 Korean, Russian, Swedish, Icelandic, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, French, Spanish)
In Original Language: 0
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (0/3)

*****
Books reviewed in March were:
1) Ekaterini by Marija Knežević
2) The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov
3) No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin
4) Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Olafsdóttir
5) Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov
6) The Dark Road by Ma Jian
7) Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

Tony's Turkey for March is:
Auður Ava Olafsdóttir's Butterflies in November

While Butterflies in November wasn't an awful book, it simply wasn't what I would have expected from one on the IFFP longlist - slightly disappointing.


Tony's Recommendation for March is:

Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes

Not many reviews to choose from in March, and to be honest there weren't really many strong candidates.  Honorable mentions go to Vladimir Lorchenkov and (especially) Jang Eun-jin, but Le Grand Meaulnes was really in a class of its own this month...

*****

Looking ahead to April, there'll be the rest of my IFFP reviews (although the reading should all be done by now); in fact, there'll be a lot of posts going up as I read a heap of books in March.  Something to look forward to, then ;)