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Posts Tagged ‘fiction in translation’

Another reason to prefer Hoopla to the other library eBook options is that it includes books published by independent publishers, like Bellevue Literary Press. I was intrigued when I heard about one of their recent releases, Moss, by Klaus Modick. As I’ve written here before, I am a fan of reading books in translation; I like finding out what people are reading around the world. And I like being transported not only to the place and time of the book, but to an author’s view of the world that cannot help but be different than mine, by virtue of having grown up in and lived in a completely different culture.

Moss did transport me to another’s view — the main character, Lukas Ohlburg, is an elderly plant scientist, whose memories include his botany professor, Mandelbaum, being warned by other students to “stay on topic” when he referred to the rising fascism in Germany derisively as “pseudomutations of political brown algae.” Lukas is staying in the partially thatched cottage where his family spent summers as he was growing up. And he is reflecting on the ways the work he has done, describing plants in the structured ways of science, is lacking. He writes about this in a manuscript that readers are told his younger brother finds in the house.

To Lukas, the scientific language he has worked with for his entire adult life is lacking, ” . . . in the best case, it says only what grows here, albeit in a soulless and uncomprehending way. Never can it say how, and never with full certainty could it say why.” As he writes, swims, watches the seasons change, and faces his own mortality, he remembers certain key moments in his life that influenced his understanding of the world and devotes himself to really understanding the plants he loves, especially the mosses.

Despite the strangeness and the setting unlike my own place and time, the story seemed familiar, or maybe just resonated because of other things I’ve read that had similar sensibilities. For example, I thought of Tinkers, where the protagonist is traveling through his thoughts as he is dying, although he is in the active stage of dying whereas Lukas is just approaching it. And I thought of The Hidden Life of Trees, which so eloquently describes how our own capacity to understand the world expands if we try to learn how our fellow species understand it. Good books seem more apt to connect in this way with other things we’ve read, and I enjoyed the connections Moss triggered.

There were two points in this short novel that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, which detracted somewhat from the overall effect, but it’s possible I’m just misunderstanding. First, the timeline around the ownership of the house seems off to me. Lukas says his father built it around 1900, and transferred ownership to a neighbor before they emigrated because of the Nazis. He refers to the neighbor giving the deed back in 1947, but also says that the neighbor made sure they never lost possession in “fifty years of forced stays abroad” even though the events of the book, according to the first pages, happen in 1980-81. Probably the emigration occurred in the late twenties or early 30s, but I couldn’t reconcile all these details into a timeline.

Second, although he refers to his brother and he being boys together, and refers to his own old age (and if he was a recent graduate when the family emigrated, that would make sense), his brother has a five year old daughter, and a son who is presumably much older because he has joined the Green Party. I guess that’s entirely possible. But these details that stood out as anomalous distracted me a bit from the meditative parts of the story, because my brain was trying to work out the chronology. I also kept wondering why a man who lived when he did would not mention either world war in his recollections of his boyhood and youth — someone who is old in 1980 would presumably have been alive for both.

Anyway, these were minor distractions. And Moss doesn’t depend on a chronology — in fact, Lukas might say that my trying to classify the order of things is the problem. After all, he notes, “In the botanist’s piercing gaze, science only feeds on and exploits the fullness of the world. The gaze I search for must, instead of viewing nature as leading from an inseparable wholeness to a cataloged system, see it flow through that system back again into its original fullness.” Throughout his life, Lukas “. . . found such a gaze only once among my colleagues — namely in Marjorie’s eyes.” She was a young Scottish exchange student he loved, who left Germany because of fascism’s rise. Now, as he is completing his life’s work alone in the woods, learning from the mosses he has studied his whole life, the gaze he seeks comes to fruition and it is not only his own gaze, but the mosses’ and trees’ that help him see.

There are lots of mosses around our house, on the ground, trees, rocks, roof. When I see them now I’ll think of this book and the way that humans explain themselves into truths that are limited by our own minds and our relentless desire to categorize and classify — a desire I relate to. Perhaps paying closer attention to mosses, without giving into the desire to explain them, and as I said in my previous post, making eye contact with our fellow species, would benefit us more in the long run than relying so heavily on what we can prove.

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I was looking for a break from heavy fiction (War & Peace, which I’m still reading a bit at a time for #Tolstoytogether) and nonfiction (see my last blog post) so I browsed the library’s apps for eBooks. Olga Tokarczuk‘s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a darkly funny mystery, featuring a former bridge engineer, Janina Duszejko, whose Ailment (possibly diabetes?) caused her to give up her exotic international work. She now works very part time as a cartetaker for other people’s country homes and as a primary school English teacher in a Polish village near the Czech Republic border. She also works on translating Blake with a former student, calculates horoscopes (who knew there was so much match in astrology?) and defends animal rights to the aggravation of the area’s hunters. Because sometimes she destroys their hunting pulpits.

When three prominent local men die in the area, Mrs. Duszejko sets out to determine who the killer is, and becomes certain that astrology holds the answer. She sees several signs in the dead men’s horoscopes that indicate animals may be the killers, and she tries to alert the police to this, despite her friends’ warnings that this makes her appear even more eccentric than she already did. Even though the book was first published in 2009, it feels both older and newer; at first I thought perhaps it was taking place in the 80s, but then I realized that one of the characters used a mobile phone early in the book. And towards the end, Mrs. Duszejko notes, “Newspapers rely on keeping us in a constant state of anxiety, on diverting our emotions away from the things that really matter to us.” Which felt like something we just talked about this week at my house.

In some ways Mrs. Duszejko is a sympathetic character; she seems to be very loyal and kind to her friends, is somewhat sweetly quirky, and stands in opposition to cruelty and toxic masculinity. But in other ways she is hard to like; cranky, rude, irrational. The book was enjoyable, but as is usually the case, I found it hard to get through, because e-reading is not my favorite. The ending was not what I was expecting, which is good where murders are concerned.

I’d say, look for it in print, from your local bookstore. It would be a really interesting read for a book club.

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Antoine Laurain’s newest novel, Vintage 1954, is a sweet story of time travel, romance, and family. One evening in 2017 at 18 Rue Edgar-Charellier in Paris, Hubert Larnaudie, the last member of the family that built his apartment building in 1868, descends to the cellar to look around at the mess he is considering cleaning up. Among heaps of old magazines and the detritus of generations of Larnaudies, Hubert spots a bottle of 1954 Beaujolais. Then some burglars shut him in his cellar and an American named Bob, newly arrived and booked into an apartment in the building through Airbnb, notices he is trapped and helps him out, enlisting the help of two young tenants, Julien and Magalie.

To express his thanks, Hubert invites them all into his apartment to enjoy the wine. Julien recognizes the bottle which comes from his family’s vineyard – where his great great grandfather disappeared in 1978. The same man who became known in his village as “Mr. Flying Saucer” after he saw a strange craft over the vineyard in 1954. The wine, it turns out, was impacted by the spacecraft and anyone who drinks it is transported to 1954. Now the four new friends have to figure out how to get back to 2017.

Like Laurain’s earlier books, especially The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook, there is a bit of romance, some family drama, a little mystery, and some famous historical figures sprinkled through the story. It’s a sweet tale, entertaining and quick to read. Perfect for a plane ride or a day at the beach!

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I was a little skeptical of the praise Trick received (it’s on at least one list of best translated books of 2018) because I wondered if the star power of Jhumpa Lahiri as the translator turned reviewers’ heads. I was wrong: this is just a good book, deserving of praise. It’s the story of an artist in his seventies, recovering from poor health, a widower. He is called to his daughter’s house — the house he grew up in — in Naples, to care for his four year old grandson while she and her husband, both mathematicians and professors, go to a conference. He quickly ascertains that they are fighting, and that the boy, Mario, is both ” well behaved and out of control.”

I have to say Starnone does a terrific job of writing Mario — he is precocious in his family’s eyes, as all children are, and yet ordinary, well spoken as children of the well educated often are, and yet fully a four year old. He also writes Daniele Mallarico, the elderly artist, very well. He has recently been commissioned to illustrate a deluxe edition of Henry James’ story, “The Jolly Corner.” Which I plan to read.  He is struggling to send off a few plates to his editor before he goes to Naples when the book opens.

As he cares for the child, he reflects on his own childhood and especially, his adolescence in Naples, and on what he became, and whether he is who he wanted to be. He also reflects on his body of work and as is so often the case with creative people, doubts himself. It’s an incredibly poignant, but also incredibly realistic, examination of identity, creativity, and growing up — and old. Mario represents what childhood is but also what childhood means at the end of life; his actions and his contrary, slightly crazed little self bring out both love and doubt in Daniele, and create both a tension and a source of introspection and examination. Is Daniele a talented, important artist or did he simply believe those who saw talent in him, regardless of what he was actually capable of? It’s a good question and this novel really drills down on what is talent and what is human nature, and it desire for influence and importance?

There’s also an amazing appendix of “notes and sketches” for the illustration project. A good read.

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I read Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator In Piazza Vittorio in 2011, when I was first exploring Europa Editions in earnest. So when I saw Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet in Hoopla earlier in the week, I figured, why not? It’s also from Europa Editions. I had planned to possibly digress and try some other books but ended up sticking with my Europa streak. In between, I did try One Part Woman, which is the much discussed novel by a Tamil author, allegedly “charming” but I found the two main characters equally disagreeable and gave it up.

Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet is set in Turin, and the main character, Enzo Laganà, is a “southerner” – a man whose family comes from southern Italy. He is a reporter, but doesn’t seem to like it very much. He’s thirty-seven and showing no sign of settling down with a wife and having kids, so his mother hounds him, employing one of his neighbors and a housekeeper as spies, chiding him to eat what’s in his fridge (she has an inventory), and lamenting his careless life.

Enzo lives in the San Salvario neighborhood, a multiethnic place where he doesn’t feel as much like an outsider. His neighbor, a Nigerian named Joseph, has a little pig named Gino who wears a Juventus scarf. One day Gino ends up in the mosque, causing outrage. Enzo is also friends with the imam, and is well acquainted with an older man who runs an anti-immigrant neighborhood group. and has an old high school friend who is a committed animal rights activist, so he ends up conducting complex negotiations amongst the many parties who want to decide Gino’s future.

Meanwhile, bored at work and busy in Marseilles with a beautiful Finnish woman instead of on his beat in Turin, Enzo invents a story about Albanian and Romanian gangsters having a feud and files it with his paper, to cover the fact that he’s not there to investigate a string of murders. His editor eats up his “Deep Throat” story and Enzo is soon spinning the story further, attracting all kinds of attention, good and bad. As Enzo invents further, he begins to hear from another source, Very Deep Throat, who claims to have the real story of who is behind the murders.

Will Enzo’s mother leave him alone to fritter away his midlife? Will Gino’s happy ending be assured? Will peace be restored in San Salvario and the murders stop? Has Enxo stumbled on a real story while making one up? And what about the beautiful Italian woman who wants him to work on a TV series with her as a result of his newspaper stories?

An amusing novel with serious undertones. Very Deep Throat suggests Enzo interview a sociologist who explains how gentrification helps the mafia control real estate by “infecting” and “cleansing,” ratcheting up crime so people get scared and sell for low prices, and then moving their operations elsewhere and charging bonus prices when hip people want to move into the newly safe areas. His friends are from many cultures, national origins, and legal statuses. But despite the serious topics, Enzo’s story is absurd and that makes this a fun read.

 

 

 

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I had this theory I wrote more about in the early days of bookconscious which I dubbed the “Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading” (if you’re interested search for that in the blog and you’ll see where I’ve written about it before). On a basic level I think it’s what leads us from book to book, sometimes making subtle connections, sometimes just thinking as we put one book down that it reminds us of another we’ve been meaning to read. On a more complicated level, as I wrote here in 2009, it’s about “the ways that we interpret ourselves through what we read, and the work interprets us, as we interact with it. In the process, we make connections for ourselves and with other people not just in reading, but in thinking about, writing about, discussing, reading reviews, and otherwise processing what we’ve read and placing it in our own mind map of what we know, believe, and love.”

What does this have to do with Smoking Kills? Well on the simpler level, I chose it because I had just finished The Scapegoat and had drawn a parallel between Du Maurier’s writing about men who looked identical and Antoine Laurain‘s writing about the same idea. But on the deeper level, Fabrice, Laurain’s hero in Smoking Kills, made me stop and think about why it is that certain memories, especially those relating to our interests and pleasures, and to what may have reinforced those interests and pleasures in our lives, disappear to us on a conscious level and may need probing to find again later? And even if those memories are not consciously on our minds, how are they working invisibly to reinforce the pleasure we take in our interests now?

I’m not a smoker, but I’ve been called out for being addicted to reading. I probably am. Reading about Fabrice’s undergoing hypnosis to revisit the time just before he started smoking, the incidence of his first cigarette, and the reinforcing experiences that make smoking one of his greatest pleasures made me wonder what those memories and experiences are for me, with regards to reading? That said, reflection is all I want — watching Get Out and reading Smoking Kills, I’ll never undergo hypnosis!

So, the gist of this very intriguing and thought provoking novel, which is brilliant, by the way, is that Fabrice is a successful executive headhunter, married to Sidonie, the editor of a contemporary art magazine, and she wants him to stop smoking. They hear of a friend who used hypnosis to stop, Fabrice goes to the same hypnotist, and his pleasure in cigarettes is gone. But unfortunately for him, the hypnotist was not actually trained and the therapy he underwent had a very strange effect on him . . . he still likes to smoke, but only under one condition. He has to kill someone first.

As well as this page turning plot, there is so much more to ponder in Smoking Kills. Fabrice does not understand, appreciate, or even like much of the contemporary art Sidonie champions. So he spends time telling readers what he finds problematic and what he wonders about art. He also notes, “Having no opinions whatsoever in common with the person whose life you share is risky business. Even, I would say, impossible. . . .  After many years together, I would pay a heavy price for our aesthetic differences.”

How fascinating, even if no one in a relationship develops a murderous tendency! There are indications that Fabrice and Sidonie are still compatible, if not aesthetically. But what if you and your partner completely disagreed about something that one of you valued so much that you devoted your life’s work to it?

So, another wonderful book, less light-hearted and more introspective than some of Laurain’s other books but equally entertaining. And it has led me to pick up another book I recently bought at the new Manchester bookstore The Bookery. More on that soon!

*** I should point out that I read an arc; I thought the book was out next week but that’s the UK edition, and it comes out in August in the US. Worth the wait, however! ***

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