Survival, but at what cost? The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky

Okay, first a warning. After all you, the reader, deserve to be warned. Nature, in blind disregard, does not grant that privilege. Survival affords no foresight. But here it is: If you require a sympathetic, likeable protagonist this is not your novel. If you want a story with redemption, turn away. But if you want to read a book that is intelligent, darkly satirical, and beautifully illustrated, The Giraffe’s Neck (Bloomsbury), the second novel from the young German author Judith Schalansky, is an original, engaging and, ultimately, gut wrenching read.

giraffeInge Lohmark is a biology teacher at a school in the former East Germany, where reunification has shifted the economic environment so rapidly that the native inhabitants are struggling to adapt. The population is declining. Within four years the school where she has taught for the past three decades will close its doors for good. For all her passion for natural history, teaching is not a vocation for Inge so much as a call to arms, a battle in which she faces down the enemy year after year, employing the tools of the evolutionary biologist – define, classify, and label the specimen who pass through her classroom with the faint hope that she can force some knowledge into their adolescent heads.

Outside the classroom her life is similarly ordered and seemingly devoid of compassion. Her husband Wolfgang has become obsessed with ostriches, tending to his beloved flock, expanding his business, and frequently going days without crossing paths with his wife. Their daughter Claudia is in America, she left for study years earlier but has always found a reason to stay. Inge is clearly emotionally conflicted as she looks forward to looming retirement but her resolute, stubborn nature leaves little room for cracks to form in her tough facade. Until a curious attraction to a female student sets her off balance.

Much of The Giraffe’s Neck takes the form of a misanthropic monologue. The language is spare, direct. Human beings, individually or collectively, take much of the brunt of her bitter and darkly humourous rants (think Thomas Bernhard with short clipped sentences):

“Marie Schlicter was standing at the bus stop. Head thrown back. Stuck up. High horse. The brain a windfall, ideally packaged in the shell of a skull. Doctor’s daughter. Moved here to get some fresh air. But Marie Schlicter didn’t take the air. Did she breathe at all?”

Balanced against Inge’s internal tirades are truly lyrical passages describing the countryside and clear indications that her self control is hiding pain rather than pride, interspersed with delicately beautiful illustrations by the author. The overall effect is original and impressive. Evolutionary biology, in Schlansky’s hands, serves as a metaphor for the challenges facing the former GDR as it struggles to adjust to a rapidly shifting environment. Adaptation is critical for survival, but even successful strategies come with advantages and costs. Change the circumstances too fast and yesterday’s asset is today’s weakness.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: This is my fifth read from the longlist. Again it strikes an entirely fresh tone from the books I have read to date. The translator, Shaun Whiteside, has translated a wide range of German authors (as well as also working with French, Italian and Dutch). The distinctive and fresh character of this exciting young German author comes through nicely. Some readers are likely to find the narrator’s character difficult but with a strong affection for Beckett and Bernhard I found it to be a delight. There is, after all, a deeper and important thread beneath the surface, as in all good dark satire.

Forged by suffering: Bloodlines by Marcello Fois

“All they have is their love: Obstinate, unyielding, banal and blind.”

I am not one for family trees. My parents met and married in New York City and moved to settle in western Canada almost 3000 kms from the rest of our extended family. I have changed my own name twice, and through my unique life history I have redefined my relationship with the tree from which I have fallen. In our modern era I suspect that is not an entirely uncommon experience for many. But in Sardinia at the turn of the twentieth century, family history – a bloodline – was a critical measure of a man’s place in his community and his corner of the world.

untitledAt the heart of Bloodlines, an epic tale told with charm and affection by Italian novelist Marcello Fois, lies a love story between two orphaned souls who endure a familial version of the Divine Comedy set in the author’s native Sardinia spanning the years from 1889 to 1943. Theirs is a tale of hard times, success, joys and unbearable losses – uniting their family and tearing it apart – as modernization, world wars and fascism mould and shape the world in which they live.

Michele Angelo Chironi and Mercede Lai are both orphans. He was rescued from an orphanage by a widowed blacksmith who saw in the boy someone who might provide companionship and an apprentice to his trade, while she had been taken into domestic employment at an early age. Their first encounter, in the chapel, is love at first sight. Their union, with no history behind it, holds the promise of building a new family line, a fresh start at the dawn of a new century.

“The Chironi family was the fruit of outcasts, of two negatives combining to make a positive, in itself enough to condemn their union as a rash one.”

They bring neither money nor prestige to the union but they have a certain advantage:

“…when they looked at each other, they had no inheritance to protect and not even a story to tell; they were at the beginning of everything: he an apprentice blacksmith and she already made of iron.”

Over the years, the family enjoys apparent successes; their business thrives as the town expands and the demand for wrought iron railings increase, their family grows and they have to expand their house. No small amount of envy is felt by townsfolk who resent their lack of claim to heritage in the area, while Michele Angelo fears that God is also expressing His displeasure at their worldly success as they suffer a series of cruel loses. He feels his efforts to build a strong family history continually threatened. Is it fate? Or is it simply that life is harsh?

The fledgling Chironi bloodline is granted a chivalrous element of glory through the “discovery” of an elaborate and exciting tale of a knight and a an Inquisitor which explains the origin of the family name from De Quiròn via Kirone to Chironi. This transmutation is facilitated though a story created, told and retold by the youngest son, Luigi Ippolito, the only educated member of the family. As he regales his parents and siblings with these heroic accounts, his father sees no need to admit that his last name is accidental, acquired from the Inspector General at the orphanage where he was raised.

“Though illiterate, he knew one fact that can never be taught: that it doesn’t matter if a story is true or false; the only thing that is really important is that someone should tell it.”

At just over 200 pages, the scope of this novel is epic. The spare, crystalline language is translated with poignant beauty by Silvester Mazarella. The landscape, the art of working metal, and the many measures of love – romantic, parental, filial and forbidden – shape the storytelling. There is much sadness and heartache here, but also an acknowledgement that the pleasures of life are many and essential, even if they tend to slip to the sidelines in the favour of the pains and horrors that dominate our histories. As such Bloodlines is a testament to memory, or rather, the act of remembering: choosing to remember or refusing to accept what has happened. The characters engage closely with their dreams, their ghosts, and their imagined selves as they attempt to forge a bloodline against all odds.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: I knew nothing of this book until I saw the longlist. It is a seemingly simple tale that has worked its way into my affection the more I reflect on it. I am not certain whether it will make the short list but I am glad to have been introduced to this author and his novel.

A childhood of magic and darkness: By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

“Every man on our Atlantic Ocean island has his own canoe, and if he doesn’t have one, a new canoe is brought into the world so that he does, so that nobody on the island has to borrow one from anyone else.”

A detailed account of the traditional construction of a canoe on the tiny island of Annobón, an activity that gathers the resources of the entire community, opens By Night the Mountain Burns by Equatorial Guinean writer and political activist Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel. Immediately we are drawn into an engaging, personal, conversational tale. The narrator is a deeply sensitive, if not well educated, man. His voice is fresh, at times naive, frequently looping back to revisit details, questioning the reader or foreshadowing events but deciding to hold off so that he can best share his childhood experiences, as he remembers them, on this remote island where natural resources are limited, life is difficult.

2015-03-14 02.11.35As a young boy, our narrator, lives in a large home with his grandparents and a number of mothers and siblings. Any fathers have long since disappeared to a land across the ocean, so no necessary distinction is made between birth connections, he sees all of the mothers as belonging to all of the children. His grandmother rules the roost while his grandfather is a curiosity to his many grandchildren. For some reason he has built his house facing the away from the sea and he sits watching the mountain that rises above the town day after day. He does not fish or go down to the beach to visit with the other men. In fact he does not come downstairs at all and the children never see him eat.

For our storyteller, the secrets of his his grandfather and a sense of the danger and misery adults must learn to live with begins to become clearer as a series of devastating events sweep his island community, beginning with a fire that starts on the mountainside destroying plot after plot of precious crops and threatening the town itself. Officially a Catholic community, the roots of superstition, folklore and mythology run deep and are intertwined with Christian saints and celebrations. In the wake of the fire, an especially violent act of retribution is carried out against a local woman assumed to be a she-devil, and then, before the community can heal, a plague of cholera sweeps through exacting a devastating toll on the population. Curiously, in this tale in which most characters remain nameless, every adult who dies is named in in full, and a cluster of crosses are inserted into the text to represent the numbers of dead who now crowd the sole cemetery on the island.

Even without the tragedies that run through the core of this account, daily life on the island is filled with challenges. Shortages of kerosene, among many other provisions – salt, soap, matches, tobacco, spirits, fish hooks, nylon rope, clothing – necessitate a careful rationing of light and flame. As a result, this novel is infused with a haunting darkness that is literal, metaphorical and even lyrical. Night brings both security and vulnerability. But moonlit nights are seen as even more threatening:

“… on moonlight nights we felt exposed, for the moon lit up the whole village and advertised our helplessness. I always felt that moonlight nights revealed our skeletons, our defects.”

Magical and evocative in the telling, mixing childhood wonder with reflective adult wisdom, Ávila Laurel introduces a place few will likely have heard of – the island where he grew up. He has been compared to Achebe and Marquez among others, but his account has a much more contemporary edge. When his character speaks of evil on the island, it is difficult not to think of the very brutal reality of the extreme poverty and social inequity that exist in his country as a whole, despite great resource wealth. Rooted in traditional story telling, this is a story for our modern times. It is exactly the type of important story that literature in translation should be bringing to a wider audience and a clear example of the vital role that independent publishers like And Other Stories play in this regard.

Finally, Jethro Soutar’s translation from the original Spanish is fluid, maintaining difficulties that the narrator, who is sharing his tale in Spanish, has finding words to express what Spanish cannot capture of his native island language. The quirks and qualities of his oral account are intact, the humour and insight shine through. Quite an accomplishment given that Ávila Laurel’s involvement in a hunger strike against the government of Equatorial Guinea that led to his ultimate exile to Spain added challenges to the communication between translator and author during the translation process.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: By Night The Mountain Burns is the first long listed title for And Other Stories, and I confess my bias in that I have developed a great affection for this publisher so I am thrilled. I had in fact just purchased this title along with several others and it was sitting at the very top of my TBR list so it was a happy coincidence that it was selected.

Ah look at all the lonely people: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

“Kind of a major paradox, wouldn’t you say? As we go through life we gradually discover who we are, but the more we discover, the more we lose ourselves.”

After his last novel, 1Q84, which spread out across three volumes and over 900 pages, Japanese author Haruki Murakami has reigned himself in to about a third of that length with Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (translated by Philip Gabriel). Many of the hallmark features familiar to readers of his work – lonely protagonists, idiosyncratic obsessions, surreal dreams and fantasies, musical reference points – are all present here. But is it enough to satisfy fans who might have drifted away or, at least, have been overwhelmed by his previous offering?

colorlessThis time out our hero, or rather anti-hero, is Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man from an upper middle class family in Nagoya, Japan, who is part of an especially close group of five friends throughout his high school years. The only thing that sets him apart from his friends, two other boys and two girls, is that they each have a name that incorporates a colour while he does not. His “colourlessness” is a huge source of distress for him as he seems destined to continue to encounter people who also have colourful names. When his friends inexplicably cut him off one year after he moves Tokyo to pursue his dream of constructing train stations, Tsukuru falls into a deep depression and his long years of pilgrimage begin (cue the Franz Liszt). No matter what success he achieves in his career, his friends’ rejection not only haunts him, but continues to create a barrier to his ability to form long term friendships or relationships.

There was a time when I eagerly devoured Murakami’s work, delighting in its dreamlike quirkiness. I don’t know whether I have changed or he just isn’t trying as hard. I found it difficult to engage with the main character or any of his friends or acquaintances. The long straightforward descriptive passages of each character’s personality, appearance, clothing seem indicative of what I would expect from a much less accomplished writer. I wanted to shout “show, don’t tell”. I will admit that about halfway through, the story did become more engaging as Tsukuru began to actively seek explanations to the cause of his estrangement from his friends once he was well into his 30’s. And on a personal level I found moments of connection with the underlying themes of loneliness and alienation, but I still found myself less satisfied than I might have hoped.

It saddens me to reflect that, more than anything, this novel appears to make a great effort to live up to its title – Colorless. The charm of Murakami’s earlier work – birds, cats, surreal spaces are gone. There are dreams and odd connections but none sustain a significant element of magic for me. I was left with the sense that its spare, fable quality would have been far better suited to a work half the length.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Many predicted this would make the longlist and so it did. (Published in the UK by Harvill Secker.) My feelings may be ambivalent but I do know that many other readers thoroughly enjoyed this book so we will see how it fares going forward.

A song of the 20th century in five parts: The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

“Some are destined to stay behind, some are destined to depart, and yet others to arrive.
That’s how life works.”

The metaphysical truth that binds the five overlapping narratives that tell this story of one German woman’s life is simple: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from the end of days.

end1Like waves crashing upon the shore and retreating again, in each section of this mesmerizing novel by German author Jenny Erpenbeck, the unnamed female character at its centre dies. Born in Galicia, in 1902, to a Jewish mother and a Christian father, the first section imagines her dying before her first birthday. While her mother sits shiva, her father escapes to America in his grief and the young family never recovers.

But then, the narrator steps in and asks us to reconsider the possibility that the infant’s life might have been saved and that another fate unfolds. Now, a second daughter follows the first and the father relocates his family to Vienna in hopes of improving his ability to support his wife and daughters. But war breaks out and life is cold, unimaginably cold, and meagre provisions are meted out to the hungry residents who line up each night, through the night, clutching their ration cards. As her father obsessively copies out earthquake reports brought home from his work in the department of meteorology and her mother assumes she is leading a questionable life, our heroine is simply in her late teens, trying to understand all of the normal passions of adolescence in an atmosphere that seems to hold out little hope. This time she will lose hope and conspire to take her own life.

In her third incarnation we find her in Moscow, having aligned herself with the Communists and trying to write and re-write her own story in a desperate attempt to save herself and, if possible, her husband who has already been arrested. This central section, the longest and densest, forms the axis upon which 20th century European history and the life of the woman at the heart of The End of Days seems to turn. Her own allegiances are complicated, everything she had believed in is tested, and the ground shifts so quickly that holding fast to moral or political ideals is like, well, surviving an earthquake. Her fate, like so many of her relatives is seemingly inescapable.

Or is it?

New Directions edition
New Directions edition

As well as being a writer, Erpenbeck is also an opera director; and the hypnotic, haunting images and motifs that arise, disappear, and resurface throughout this exquisite novel are reminiscent of the phrases that are repeated and built upon in an extended piece of classic music. The mood is mournful, as themes of loss and the experience of death and grief are revisited, each time within vastly different contexts. Susan Bernofsky’s deft translation sustains the rhythm and music of the language. In the hands of a lesser writer this would seem contrived, but here, the bones are bare, the emotions raw and the result heartbreaking, horrifying and beautiful in its sheer humanity. The prose is spare, evocative. It gets under the skin, works its way right into the reader’s heart.

I could say so much more, but quite honestly, this book deserves to be experienced not described.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: I finished this book on the eve of the announcement of the IFFP long list and I am thrilled to see it included. (Published by Portebello in the UK, I have the New Directions edition.) I feel confident that it will be one of my personal top reads of the year and I will be looking to read more of Erpenbeck’s earlier work in the future.

The fiction of remembering, the realities of forgetting: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

The damaged hero of Italian author Diego Marani’s first novel New Finnish Grammar, which was originally published in 2000, but only released in English in 2011 (translated by Judith Landry), is a mystery to himself and to those who find him. World War II is raging, when a badly beaten man is found on a dock in Trieste with no clue to his identification beyond a Finnish name sown into the collar of the naval jacket he wears. When emerges from a coma with, what would presumably be a severe traumatic brain injury, he has no memory and no ability to use language. He does know who he is or where he comes from but, by coincidence, the doctor who attends to him is a Finnish-German who has never overcome his own longing for his homeland. He becomes convinced that the best medicine for his amnesiac patient is to send him to Finland so that he can connect with what is assumed to be his land and language, and in doing so, retrieve the past that has escaped him.

maraniAs much as I wanted to love this book, this is where I started to have problems. Firstly, the storytelling approach is awkward. It is the doctor who takes on the task of
curating a selection of notebooks, journal entries and letters belonging to “Sampo”, our erstwhile Finnish patient, to both honour him and make amends. He frames and fills in the tale with his own reflections, corrections and assumptions. Somehow, we are asked to believe that a man with a brain injury severe enough to trigger such a complete loss of memory and language could manage to develop sufficient facility in a notoriously complex language to be able to report his earliest memories post injury, or even find his way around a strange city. Yes, his mastery of the language is never comfortable, he relies on his notebook and endless practice, and he is emotionally lost and eventually unable to find a grounding or the past he seeks. Meanwhile, the language and mythology of Finland were clearly chosen by the Italian linguist author as a template for the exploration of memory and identity, but I could just not suspend disbelief long enough to fully surrender myself to the story.

This is not to imply that there are not breathtaking moments in this novel. There is a heartbreaking sadness and loneliness that haunts our dislocated hero. As war closes in around him, he is the walking wounded, an invisible casualty in a place to which he so desperately wants to belong. But my practical side, the side that spent the last decade working with real survivors of traumatic and acquired brain injury, could not let go of the idea that the main character’s overall functionality did not mesh with his complete loss of identity and language. The assumption is that his memory loss is psychological in nature and that the return of language will release it. In reality though, his injuries would indicate traumatic causes and with such severe long term memory loss some elements would still typically remain intact, while short term memory would be greatly impacted hindering his ability to learn new things easily. A complicated “new” language? I find that especially hard to accept.

I suppose I will have to admit that I am not the ideal reader for this book. I don’t regret reading it and I am sure that there are moments that will continue to linger. Memory is one of the most fertile landscapes for a writer to explore. Even without the added impact of illness or injury, memory is a fleeting, nebulous and fundamentally subjective phenomenon. However, I opened New Finnish Grammar with too much experience with brain injury to fully appreciate the work. And, for that matter, I could not help but wonder how a reader with too much native experience with Finnish language and mythology would respond. Perhaps with an equivalent amount of skepticism.

I don’t know.

Finding allegory in an ancient disease: Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic

“Eternal hope: it kills us as much as Hansen’s does.”

Hansen'sIn his introduction to the second English edition of Hansen’s Children, BBC Correspondent Nick Thorpe visits a real life leper colony, the last in Europe, in the small hamlet of Tichieletsi in south-eastern Romania where a dwindling number of disfigured patients live out their final years, tended by medical professionals while enjoying the companionship and domestic tranquility of their close knit community. He then goes on to examine the way that Montenegrin novelist Ognjen Spahic re-envisions this leprosarium against the dying months of the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989; creating a perfect, if horrifying, template against which to explore questions of power, corruption and violence throughout the history of Europe – looking to the past, the present and the future.

The “children” of the title refers to the unfortunate souls infected by the bacillus first identified by Gerhard Armaeur Hansen. It is a term by which our unnamed narrator, our leprous Homer, refers to himself and his fellow inmates as he recounts the tale of life within the fenced grounds and the cold damp confines of the aging three-story building that serves to house the remaining inmates of the leprosarium. At the time he arrives they number eleven men and one ancient woman. Outside the gates, a fertilizer factory, ubiquitous on the Romanian landscape, belches out smoke and receives a rotating contingent of increasingly disgruntled workers. From his window he gazes longingly at the Transylvanian Alps, dreaming of freedom from exile and confinement. In fact we learn at the outset of his account that his dear friend and roommate, an American man named Robert, has secured false passports and made arrangements for their escape. This hope will not only feed our hero’s ego, but give him a will to live no matter what the cost, as conditions inside and outside the leper colony decline. In desperate circumstances, brutality knows no boundaries.

Perversely the leprosarium becomes a microcosm of the very divisions that divide human beings in the broader world. For example, when the inmates become aware of a new scourge on the rise outside their gates, HIV/AIDS, two men who have fallen in love will suffer the consequences because “this new disease was misunderstood and homosexual acts per se were seen as spawning the new evil. Mstislaw and Cion were shunned… like lepers. It was kind of understandable.” Mirroring the deteriorating conditions unfolding across Romania, and presaging the fate that awaits Spahic’s own Balkan homeland; power struggles, violence and death escalate within the bounds of the small community. As the conflict to free Romania approaches its final days, helicopters and gunfire splitting the air, our narrator lies in bed and imagines what such a new world could bring. He realizes the sad truth: “I knew that even in a world like that I would be where I was now. I would dream the same dreams and speak the same words. I would remain a leper.”

The picture this novel paints is not a pretty one. It is however strangely engaging and, in the end, deeply moving. The graphic, disturbing details of the progressive ravages of the cursed disease on the bodies, organs and functions of Hansen’s children is painted with a healthy serving of satire. Black humour and tragedy are deeply entwined.

Apart from this novel, only a few of Ognjen Spahic’s short stories have been translated into English although he has published three story collections. Hansen’s Children, which was originally released in 2004 when he was still under 30, has received several important European awards.His most recent story collection won the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature for Montenegro and in an interview on the site he describes himself as more of a short story writer than a novelist and speculates that prizes can increase international attention and encourage translations. I, for one, would be keen to see more.

Note: In addition to his story “Raymond is No Longer With Us – Carver is Dead” which was included in the anthology Best European Fiction 2011 (Dalkey Archive Press), the story “All of That” can be found on the online journal B O D Y and the title story from his latest collection Head Full of Joy can be found at the European Union Prize link above (following the original Montenegrin version).

Hansen’s Children (2nd edition), 2012
translated by Will Firth, Istros Books