Reading Women in Translation: Looking back over the past twelve months

For myself at least, as Women in Translation Month rolls around each August, there is, along with the intention to focus all or part of my reading to this project, a curiosity to look back and see just how many female authors in translation I’ve read since the previous year’s edition. I’ve just gone through my archives and am pleasantly surprised to find twenty titles, the majority read in 2022. Within this number are several authors I’ve read and loved before and a number of new favourites that have inspired me to seek out more of their work.

First among these is Lebanese-French writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata, whose The Last Days of Mandelstam (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan) so thrilled me with its precision and economy that I bought another of her novellas and a collection of poetry, Alphabet of Sand (translated by Marilyn Hacker). I’ve just learned that another of her Russian poet inspired novels, Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga, will be released by Seagull Books this fall. I can’t wait!

 

The advent of the war in Ukraine instantly drew my attention to a tiny book I had received from isolarii books. The name Yevgenia Belorusets became suddenly and tragically familiar as her daily diary entries from Kiev were published online. I read that small volume, Modern Animals (translated by Bela Shayevich), drawn from interviews with people she met in the Donbas region and as soon as it became available I bought and read her story collection Lucky Breaks (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky). Although both of these books reflect the impact of war in the east of the country, they could not be read without the context of the full scale invasion underway and still ongoing in her homeland.

Another author I encountered for the first time that inspired me to read more of her work was Czech writer Daniela Hodrová whose monumental City of Torment (translated by Elena Sokol and others) is likely the most profoundly challenging work I’ve read in along time. Upon finishing this trilogy I turned to her Prague, I See A City… (translated by David Short and reviewed with the above) which I happened to have buried on my kindle. A perfect, possibly even necessary, companion.

My personal Norwegian project introduced me to Hanne Örstavik, whom I had always meant to read. I loved her slow moving introspective novel, The Pastor (translated by Martin Aitken) and have since bought, but not read, her acclaimed novella, Love. However, lined up to read this month, I have her forthcoming release in translation, Ti Amo, a much more recent work based on her experience caring for her husband as he was dying of cancer. The only other female author I brought into this project was Ingvild H. Rishøi whose collection Winter Stories (translated by Diane Oatley) was a pure delight. I have been making note of other female Norwegian writers to fill in this imbalance in the future.

The past year also brought new work by two of my favourite poets: a book of prose pieces by Italian poet Franca Mancinelli, The Butterfly Cemetery (translated by John Taylor), and the conclusion to Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s epic experimental trilogy, My Jewel Box (translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen). In May I had the honour of speaking with Olsen and Jensen over Zoom for a special event—it was a fantastic opportunity I won’t soon forget. I also became acquainted with a new-to-me Austrian poet, Maja Haderlap, through her excellent collection distant transit (translated by Tess Lewis) and have since added her novel Angel of Oblivion to my shelves.

Among the many other wonderful women in translation I read over the past year, Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker winning Tomb of Sand (translated by Daisy Rockwell) needs no introduction—it is an exuberant, intelligent and wildly entertaining read. On an entirely different note, Rachel Careau’s brilliant new translation of Colette’s classic Cheri and the End of Cheri completely surprised me. I had no idea what a sharp and observant writer she was, in fact I didn’t know much about her at all and I discovered that she was quite the exceptional woman. Changing direction again, In the Eye of the Wild, French anthropologist Nastassja Martin’s account of her terrifying encounter with a bear in a remote region of Siberia (translated by Sophie R. Lewis) approaches the experience in an unexpected manner that I really appreciated.

Keeping with nonfiction for a moment, Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Sarah Booker), a collection of essays about contemporary Mexico, was a difficult, necessary read. Annmarie Schwarzenbach’s account of her overland journey to Afghanistan with Ella Maillart in 1939, All the Roads Are Open (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole) was another book I had long wanted to read that did not disappoint but which carries much more weight given the more recent history of that region. Finally, My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi (translated from Tamil dictation by Nandini Murali) offers vital insight into the lives of hijra and trans women and trans men in India from a widely respected activist. Tilted Axis in the UK will be releasing this book to an international audience later this year.

Rounding out the year, were three fine novels. First, I after owning it for years, I finally read Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell) and was very impressed. Last, but by no means least, I read two new releases from Istros Books who have an excellent selection of women writers in their catalogue. Special Needs by Lada Vukić (translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić) captures the slightly magical voice of child narrator with an undisclosed disability in a remarkably effective way, while Canzone di Guerra by the inimitable Daša Drndić (translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth) offers a fictionalized account of her years in Canada as a young single mother that was most enlightening for this Canadian reader.

I have, at this point, seven books selected for this year’s Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) and we’ll see how I manage—and now I also have a goal to exceed for the eleven months before August 2023! I would, by the way, recommend any of the titles listed above if you are looking for something to read this month.

Love is blind too: Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

The claustrophobic atmosphere of Lina Meruane’s compelling novel, Seeing Red, envelopes you from the first lines. The narrator, Lucina, is distraught. Sentences end mid-thought. Unfinished. A party is in full swing, only a room away, but she is suddenly alone, isolated.

I had to give myself an injection at twelve o’clock sharp but now I wouldn’t make it, because the pile of precariously balanced coats let my purse slide to the floor, because instead of stopping conscientiously, as I should have, I bent over and reached to pick it up . And a firecracker went off in my head. But it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying.

A diabetic diagnosed with a serious condition affecting her eyes, Lucina had been warned against leaning over and now one thoughtless movement has left her eyesight, her work and her normal connections to the external world threatened by a curtain of blood. What follows is a deeply internalized monologue that builds in neurotic intensity, narrated by a woman struggling against her worst fears with a rapidly diminishing reserve of dignity and grace.

Inspired by her own real-life episode of blindness, Seeing Red is not exactly an autobiographical novel. In an interview, the Chilean author and essayist explains that she began writing what she thought would be a memoir, but as the relationship with truth began to interest her less, it quickly became a piece of fiction. She was, however, keenly interested in capturing the experience of blindness as “seen” from the perspective of the unseeing person—something raw that would be in contrast to the tendency in Latin American literature to present blind characters from view of the outsider.

Set in the early 2000s, Lucina, the protagonist of Seeing Red is, like her creator, a writer (writing under the name “Lina” Meruane) who lives in New York City with her boyfriend Ignacio, an academic. Their relationship is only about six months old and they are just about to move to a new apartment when her sight starts to rapidly disappear. She faces an uncertain prognosis, and a delay before the doctor will be able to consider operating, but they are bound to one another by the intense emotion of a new romance. That’s a good thing, because Lucina will test it, especially when she flies home to Chile to visit her parents—both of whom are doctors—while Ignacio attends a conference in Argentina. He soon joins her as they to try to salvage a vacation they’d planned, one that is now restricted to Chile, primarily to her family’s Santiago home, because of her fragile condition. Relying on her memory, she guides her partner through a city he has never visited, trying at the same time to blindly negotiate an emotional minefield of complicated family dynamics and past relationships.

The narrative style cleverly enhances the increasingly unreliable nature of Lucina’s connection to the world around her. Through a series of unbroken single-paragraph sections, each two or three pages long, we are held hostage to her unseeing perspective. Thoughts unspoken race through her mind, as she imagines how those around her are reacting, picturing their expressions and adding to their words her own visualized commentary. She second guesses herself. She second guesses everyone and everything. One can only imagine how her patient partner or her aloof mother really feel as everything is channelled through Lucina’s  personal filter. Her reconstructions. Her cynical digressions. Her abruptly aborted sentences.  As readers we have to trust her descriptions which are themselves coloured by her anxieties and growing agitation.

Aren’t you dying of cold? Ignacio insisted, rubbing his hands together as if lighting a fire. I was trained to resist the damp air that was seeping into his bones. His teeth chattered. He got up from the chair and bent his legs to wake them up. He rummaged quickly in a packet of cigarettes, the match scratched my ears, and I heard him suck on the cigarette in spite of his imaginary flu. I could envision him forming fragile smoke rings that his forced cough then tore apart, his dry cough and the beaten voice of a bellyaching Galician. Winter in my Santiago made him remember winter in his own, in Compostela, and he told me again how as a boy he’d slept beside a wall that let water filter in from outside, how he’d spent his whole childhood sick, covered in rashes, his ears hardened by chilblains. He exaggerated his hardships, or invented them, all so as not to talk about our own.

The question of her relationship with Ignacio, and whether it will stand the strain, haunts Lucina. She wants to give him the freedom to decide if he would be willing to stay, even if the unthinkable happens and her sight never returns, and yet they are each terrified of being alone, lost and overwhelmed by the enormous implications that hang over them both. Conversations begin but are quickly aborted. Strange sexual urges obsess her. Once back in New York, with surgery ahead, the narrative only becomes more charged and visceral and surreal. In Megan McDowell’s excellent translation, none of the energy or intensity is lost. Lucina is a complex, difficult, thoroughly compelling character. Her story vividly demonstrates the fear of losing control, the limitations of relying on the mind’s eye and the extreme pressures a person in crisis can put on those close to them.

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane is translated by Megan McDowell and published by Deep Vellum.

Night / falls / slowly: Dream Pattering Soles by Miguelángel Meza

I was long asleep within me.
Emerge to keep vigil,
move.
Yes I was asleep within me.
I am truly alone.

(from “Appear”)

It may be small, but this trilingual chapbook contains an entire world in the span of ten poems. Here Guaraní poet Miguelángel Meza calls on the traditional mythology and cosmology of his Indigenous Paraguayan culture to speak to contemporary issues. This project, named in full Ita ha’eñoso / Ya no está sola la piedra Formerly and Again Known as Pyambu / Dream Pattering Soles has its origin in a dual language Spanish translation by Meza along with Carlos Villagra and Jacobo Rauskin first published in 1985. The original Guaraní was revisited and edited by the poet for this double bilingual edition which includes both the Spanish version and an English translation by Elisa Taber (each running alongside the original from the opposite end of the book). As a writer, translator and anthropologist born in Paraguay, Taber is especially well suited to take on this project. She was able to access the original poems directly and via the Spanish, check with the poet as needed, and edit the final version, allowing a uniquely interwoven translation to emerge.

The English title Dream Pattering Soles is a literal translation of the original title Pyambu, that, as the translator indicates in her Note, evokes an auditory image of “menacing presences, deities turned human.” The Spanish title that translates as The Stone is No Longer Alone calls to mind comforting presences, the “humanity of the nonhuman.” Together, the titles selected for the two translations embrace two essential elements of the grounding mythic narratives and the poet’s approach to rendering them. As Taber says:

Meza’s central figures of speech are metaphors and metonymies used in conjunction. Something substitutes another which is part of a whole. The attribute of a particular god is identifiable in a human and that of any human is identifiable in an animal or a thing.

As such, the journey of the poet, and by extension his community and the reader, is one of moving from being with to becoming in the other.

In the opening poem, Meza, takes on, as “I”, the voice of the fundamental essence—the first  ñe’ë, or world-soul, that arises with the beginning of the world. Nature is, as one would expect, an abiding presence in this sequence, and even without a detailed knowledge of Guaraní mythology, the mournful beauty speaks across a wide geographical and cultural expanse.

I suffer, moon.
Wrung firefly falls.
Earth will turn to dust, they say.
End. Then,
who will you, daughter, orbit?
I suffer:
The sky wrecks the rivers.
Sadness’ dust falls.
Ashes cover the fields and
the vast forest.
And you seem to spin back
into the sky’s depths.

(from “Moon”)

In this conception of the world, we see ancient wisdom meet modern concerns. The delicate, haunting images seem speak to our changing planet in the uncanny way traditional mythology so often does. In these uncertain times—the slogan of the 2020s it seems—this unique volume is a timely invitation to listen.

Dream Pattering Soles by Miguelángel Meza is translated by Elis Taber and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

We mourn us: Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza

I don’t quite know where to begin to attempt to write about this book. The historical roots and global and economic crosscurrents that course through the so-called War on Drugs that has openly threatened the fabric of Mexican society since 2006 go back much further. Yet, as I understand it, when President Felipe Calderón sent troops to his home state in a bid to end the longstanding drug violence there, the action initiated the ongoing conflict between the government and the drug cartels, that has effectively brought an unspeakable brutality out of the margins and into the daily lives of the country’s citizens. It has become a war against the Mexican people, and a war against women.

Cristina Rivera Garza’s hybrid essay collection Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country gathers twenty-eight pieces—some personal, some journalistic, some literary—as a tribute to the power of language in the face of unrelenting fear and violence, and at times her words leave you gasping for breath. It is not a comfortable read. She writes about the barrage of visceral attacks that reduce human beings to unrecognizable bodies, tortured and mutilated, and of the killings, targeted and incidental, that rob mothers of their children, communities of their respected members, families of loved ones. And she writes about femicide, the murder of women, that too often goes unpunished. Like that of her own sister.

But what to do? How to address this accumulating pain, the pain of an entire people? Grieving in this context is not a mere process of coming to terms, to peace with a loss. There is no peace, the losing is relentless, the grief exponential. In Rivera Garza’s passionate, gut wrenching Introduction she speaks of the importance of recognizing the shared experience, the shared voice:

When everything falls silent, when the gravity of the facts far surpasses our understanding and even our imagination, then there it is—ready, open, stammering, injured, babbling—the language of pain, the pain we share with others.

And this is the importance of suffering, for where suffering lies, so, too, does grieving: the deep sorrow that binds us within emotional communities willing and able to face life anew, even if it means, or especially when it means, radically revising and altering the world we share. There, where suffering lies, so, too, does the political imperative to say, You pain me, I suffer with you, I grieve myself with you. We mourn us.

The texts that follow include published and unpublished essays, poems and crónicas, Spanish pieces translated Sarah Booker along with some originally written in English. For admirers of her enigmatic, dark novels like The Iliac Crest and the Taiga Syndrome, Grieving offers an opportunity to hear the acclaimed Mexican author speak directly to the tragic state of her country with painful honesty, strength and hope.

The works that comprise this collection are varied and relatively short, but the intensity of the material may be best processed and appreciated by taking a few pieces at a time. As someone with little understanding of the political reality of present day Mexico—awareness of the gruesome violence and the dangers to citizens and, at times, visitors, yes, but limited comprehension of the dynamics at play—I was continually faced with my own instinctive reaction to the idea of living under the conditions in which so many Mexicans find themselves on a daily basis. Rivera Garza’s language is powerful, poetic, but so much of what she touches on is grim, raw and heartbreaking. A central unifying construct is her notion of The Visceraless State—one that lacks political acknowledgement of the human body and its individual subjectivity—arguing that by engaging in this mis-named Drug War, the Mexican government has placed maximum profits above its obligations and responsibilities to its own citizens.

Essay collections are sometimes weighed down by a degree of sameness, a feeling that the same or similar themes are being rehashed, rather than viewed anew as the work progresses. Although Grieving is an attempt to articulate the present situation in Mexico, it is not an explicitly historical or journalistic effort. It is, rather, a human response, from a woman who is not just a reader and a writer, but  “a mother and a daughter and a sister. A grieving sister.” Rivera Garza is writing from within her personal experiences, offering astute intellectual observances only as needed. The result is an eclectic, thematically focused exploration, yet one that picks up refrains, images and stories, calling on them again and again through the course of the book.

This is, then, a work that cannot be easily summarized. I was fascinated by several of the pieces that spoke about books not yet translated into English and their authors’ perspectives and contributions to an understanding of forces at play—not just in Mexico but in other analogous situations in social and political history. Cruelty and inhumanity is not the sole domain of any particular time or place. But there are a few key pieces that I found especially powerful. “I Won’t Let Anyone Say Those Are the Best Years of Your Life” examines the impact of drug based violence on youth through testimonies contained in a volume called Estos últimos años en Ciudad Juárez (2020) which looks at the recent period in Ciudad Juarez, a city on the Rio Grande, south of El Paso, Texas, and the price paid by the people there. Rivera Garza frames the lived reality:

No survives a war unscathed. Just as rivers feed nearby land by virtue of their mere existence, wounds run deep and pain seeps through every inch of the body. No action, no word, no gesture is unconnected to war. Similarly, actions and words and gestures remain linked to a growing alertness, a critical consciousness, about the sources of tragedy and loss. There are laments in the book, but they are never disassociated from the rage and indignation against a Visceraless State and the profit-making cartels. Wounded and on their toes at the same time, the people who remember their youth in a war-ravaged Ciudad Juárez, while still, in many cases, confronting the damage brought upon them by forces larger than their own, speak directly and to the point: We were robbed, many testify. They robbed us of our youth, indeed, but more importantly, they robbed us of our future.

Another especially powerful entry that again takes us back to Ciudad Juárez is “The Longest Sunday.” This essay recounts, in 13 brief numbered segments or chapters, a day Rivera Garza spent in the city. She is heading there to meet a woman whose testimony was included in the volume discussed in the piece mentioned above (which appears in any earlier part of Grieving). Luz Mariá Dávila had lost her only two sons in a violent massacre in 2010. Their meeting is sensitively portrayed. But this visit also brings to the surface the author’s own anxiety before arriving in a city that occupies “a sadly privileged place in our geographies of contemporary horror” to which increasing reports of femicides had also been added:

I remember the wide streets, empty of people, the string of abandoned houses that lined the road all the way from the airport to the hotel. A black hole in the very heart of the city. An immovable immobility. That way of repeatedly looking over your shoulder like you were expecting the worst, sure it would come at any second.

Her account unfolds under the quiet burden of grief, of pain, carried not simply in the story of one grieving mother’s sorrow and stubborn resolve, but in the complex emotions that Rivera Garza wrestles with under the “overwhelmingly blue sky” on that Sunday in Ciudad Juárez.

This is just a very brief sampling of this vital collection. For a taste of the intensity and insight, Rivera Garza brings to her essay writing, I can point you to a slightly different edit of the second last piece in this work which I had the great honour to publish in the spring of 2020 when I was an editor with 3:AM Magazine. Written in the early days of the pandemic when Trump was still President, “Touching is a Verb: The Hands of the Pandemic and Its Inescapable Questions” is not only an ever relevant meditation on the impact of COVID-19 on our relationships but a cautiously optimistic look ahead to the possibility of a Visceral State. It can be found here. Only time will tell what more questions and answers the pandemic will bring, but hope must be maintained, against all odds.

Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza is translated by Sarah Booker and published by Feminist Press.

And so it goes: Nancy by Bruno Lloret

Nancy, the debut novella by Chilean writer, Bruno Lloret, is a curious read. Somewhere in northern Chile, a woman is dying of cancer. She is looking back over her adolescence and early adulthood—a rather unusual existence marked by poverty, encounters with gypsies, Mormon missionaries, and itinerant filmmakers. Some readers have imagined her an old woman, but even though time references are not reliable, it seems likely that she is only in her late twenties or thirties. At least that is what the nature of her aggressive cancer and the compressed quality of her adult experience would suggest. But I could be wrong. Hers is a tale filled with holes.These holes are made manifest in a most ingenious manner. The landscape of Nancy Cortez’s mind is framed within a sea of X’s. A flood of the symbols open and close her story, and mark sentences and spaces—gaps or silences—along the way. Between these X’s the language is notably stilted, there is little effort to set a scene, descriptive details are offered only as required to provide a basic context for the experience Nancy wishes to share, lending the text a spare, often awkward, quality. This is intentional. The author has claimed that his goal was to allow readers to engage with the work in different ways and to that end the X’s, and I would suspect, the embedded images of x-rays and other objects, are intended to break up the reading.

If this sounds cluttered and disruptive, at times it is, but the actual story reads easily and  smoothly. Nancy is an eccentric narrator, with a voice that is sarcastic yet notably flattened in affect. Her account opens with her escape from life with her sad, troubled father at the age of seventeen. She arranges to be smuggled into Bolivia where she meets the gringo Tim, quickly gets married, and ultimately ends up back in Chile. The marriage is less than happy, and ends with Tim’s bizarrely tragic demise after Nancy’s cancer has already taken a toll on her body. She describes the ravages of the disease quite vividly, talking about the fear of dying, and the loneliness of waiting for nature to take its course.

And then she retreats into her past. The X’s retreat too, leaving more room for words to fill the page. Her mamá, she advises us, was erratic and abusive, her papá quiet and oppressed by life, her brother Pato a refuge. She reports on adolescent experiences with sex, social outings to the beach, and periods of isolation at home. Everything starts to shift when her brother disappears and her mother walks out, leaving her at home with her bereft father who, in his distress, soon falls prey to the advances of a pair of Mormon missionaries:

But the Brothers really had managed to get my papa interested X X The Word of God had done its work, and via those missionaries with their tanned necks and yellowing armpits it moved him, drawing him slowly into their embrace X Damn the Word and damn the sneaking Truth, taking advantage so cruelly, so mockingly of a man who up until a few minutes ago believed he had no soul X X

This conversion, the transformation of papá tonto into papá santo, will have a significant impact on Nancy’s teenage years—in strange and unexpected ways the missionaries and other local Latter Day Saints will feature in the adventures of our heroine and her hapless father moving forward. Until, of course, the story circles back on itself, completing its narrative loop in a thickening pool of Xs.

Throughout, this narrative has a certain unevenness. Details are sometimes mentioned out of place, and there is a conversational coarseness and odd tone that surfaces. Nancy is not well read or particularly engaged in school, so her account does not have a literary flourish. This is an appropriate quality, given the protagonist’s background and deteriorating health, but does it work? Clearly for many enthusiastic readers it does, but I confess that I found it difficult to care about Nancy or the characters who people her tale. No one, not even the narrator, feels real. The eccentricity of the overall story was not in itself a problem; the disconnect lies in the fact that very little emotion is registered. Nancy typically shows an odd detachment and lack of concern for anyone, even for herself. The veracity of her account cannot be taken for granted if her memory has gaps, but people who confabulate to compensate for memory loss tend to show engagement with their stories all the same. I respect the attempt to create a first person narrative that defies typical lyrical expectations that can feel artificial given the narrator’s life circumstances, but as X’s filled the final pages, I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

Nancy by Bruno Lloret is translated by Ellen Jones and published by Giramondo in Australia and Two Lines Press in the US.

Tragedy or farce: Natural History by Carlos Fonseca

“Hell is an incomprehensible sarcasm.”

There is, at the centre of the longest section of Carlos Fonseca’s ambitious and wildly inventive new novel, Natural History, an improbable tower inhabited by poor families, vagrants, addicts and an assortment of individuals who crave the seclusion afforded by a structure barely accessible by ordinary means. It is a strange and fantastic community bound by its own logic, something like the larger fictional work that supports its existence—a daring and intelligent spectacle peopled by a wide and vividly drawn cast, both historical and imagined.

Fonseca is a writer who loves to play with ideas, to set his eccentric characters up, rather like a set of dominoes, and allow them to follow leads, passages and pathways to the most unexpected and impossible conclusions. The tendencies that drive Natural History—a fascination with archival novels, science, and art—can be seen in his debut, Colonel Lágrimas, but here they are observed on a much grander scale. And yet there is a cramped, claustrophobic atmosphere that haunts the protagonists who get swept up in this multi-layered adventure.

The novel opens with the neurotic confession of the unnamed Puerto Rican American narrator who works as a curator at a natural history museum in New Jersey. He admits that he tries to avoid facing beginnings by imagining his life is a continual act of imitation, an ongoing repetition of what has already happened. So, when he receives a package containing several envelopes filled with photographs, essays and newspaper clippings, he is not surprised. They are from Giovanna Luxembourg, a recently deceased fashion designer. His inheritance, so to speak. Seven years earlier she had summoned him out of the blue and arranged for a meeting at her unusual New York City apartment. Her interest in him had been sparked by papers he had once published on tropical butterflies and the quincunx, a geometric pattern consisting of five points with the fifth in the centre like, for example, the five on a dice.

They begin to meet. Periodically she calls for him and they talk well into the night about patterns occurring in nature. Afterwards, the narrator typically makes his way through the Bowery and stops into a Lebanese restaurant where he has become oddly obsessed with an older woman who sits with a table full of newspapers. Strange? Yes, well everything is strange. The uncertain attraction between two troubled insomniacs, Giovanna’s strained elusiveness, the narrator’s peculiar behaviours, and his annoyance when the designer suddenly becomes obsessed with masks. However, when Giovanna’s package arrives after her death, the narrator finds clues that will allow him to begin to unravel the truth of her identity, and the unconventional family that she sought to hide from.

Natural History is not a mystery or a detective novel so much as an elaborate construction of facts and fictions that, if it seems loose and slippery around the edges, works as a whole. It depends on having a wide enough sweep to see patterns form, connect and repeat. As multiple, richly realized story lines unfold and individual characters labour after their own obsessions, Fonseca is slowly gathering threads and themes together. As his quest for answers begins, the narrator visits an abandoned mining town where underground fires burn, home to a reclusive Israeli photographer who had once enjoyed a glamourous existence in the New York City of the sixties and seventies. Bits and pieces of the story begin to take shape there. He tells meeting and marrying a dynamic young beauty, their shared fame and their unfortunate decision to head south with their young daughter, the child who would one day become known as Giovanna.

A year later, in 2008, our protagonist learns of the arrest, in Puerto Rico, of a former model and actress, missing for decades, found in the odd, rundown high rise where she’d been living in seclusion. Now in her seventies but still striking, she is charged with intentionally, yet anonymously, planting fake news items which have impacted the stock market. She argues that she was engaged in a time honoured act of performative art. A nervous young lawyer is hired, and a lengthy trial ensues, observed close at hand by the narrator’s colourful friend Tancredo who has been sent to report on the event. Before long, he gets swept up in the entire strange atmosphere, telling the narrator that he’s spent nights thinking of:

all those who… had fallen prey to Virginia McCallister’s madness. He spoke of a great conspiracy that originated not in a human mind, but in a cosmic figure that grew steadily. I recalled my first months with Giovanna, months of exhaustion and delirium, and understood why my friend was starting to rave. Too much rum, too much heat, too many theories.

In this part, the longest and most complex section of the book, a wealth of ideas are woven into the narrative, against a rich tapestry of unlikely and colourful characters. The fourth part carries us back to the mid-seventies to revisit, this time in third person, the journey of the small family—photographer father, actress-model mother and sickly child—into the Central American jungle following a man known as the apostle. A formative and destructive pilgrimage. The final section is another missive from a ghost.

The core story line is filled in slowly, but the overall tale is never slow. The human connections (and disconnections) are real and affecting. The settings, urban and natural alike, are vividly drawn. And there is so much going on. On so many levels. Primary themes—masks, camouflage, the desire to disappear, the nature of art, the quincunx, utopian colonies, ruins, burning—all cross over and multiply in the reader’s imagination long after the book is finished. As well, the  steady parade of historical personalities that pass in and out: Comandante Marcos of the Zapatistas; Argentinian artists Jacoby, Costa and Escari who planned and promoted a Happening that did not occur; B. Traven, the popular Mexican-based author whose actual identity remains a mystery; Antonin Artaud; Karl Wallenda; General William Sherman and many more offer a wealth of opportunities for extratextual reading. Of course, to be able to carry all these interwoven elements with ease, a novel must be strong, strange and smart enough. And this one is.

Natural History by Carlos Fonseca is translated by Megan McDowell and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Of insects and island men: Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan

Bees are disciplined and predictable, but the outcome of their labour is uncertain, the same as happens with the deeds of men…

The setting is Elba, the year, 1814. Napoleon having abdicated in Fontainbleu, has been exiled to the Italian island where Andrea Pasolini, a beekeeper with a secret passion for philosophy, awaits anxiously for an expected encounter with the Emperor. It seems that, along with an innate island sensibility, the two men share a fascination with and passion for bees. This is the simple premise of Napoleon’s Beekeeper, a fanciful novella by Spanish writer José Luis De Juan. Combining details from history with a contemporary understanding of apiculture, he constructs, through a series of short, crisscrossing chapters, a vivid portrait of two very different men whose lives seemed destined to intersect at what could be a critical moment in history.

Elba’s honey had, at the time, gained a far reaching reputation for its quality and curative powers. Passolini inherited his official vocation from his father, but his true love, nurtured under the tutelage of a free thinking priest, Father Anselmo, who had been, like Napoleon, exiled on the island for a number of years, lies elsewhere. Through him, the farmer’s son had been introduced to philosophical thinking far beyond the accepted scope of the Church. Reading became his greatest love, one he took great pains to keep hidden, first from the townsfolk and later from his own wife and family. But when he can find time he retreats to a room hidden in his cellar where he reads and fills notebooks with his thoughts and experiences. This most unusual beekeeper exercises a careful pattern of behaviour to reveal his private pursuits to no one, even more so now that Bonaparte is on Elba.

It so happens that Passolini has dedicated himself to studying the Corsican’s career for decades, inspired by an anonymous account of an odd behaviour observed during the Marengo battle which caused him to suspect that the Emperor’s adoption of the bee as a symbol and his apparent appreciation of varieties of honey signified a deeper obsession.

From that day forward, after he learned of the connection between Bonaparte and bees, Passolini’s routine as a beekeeper found a new release. He started foraging in the backrooms of booksellers located in Pisa, Luca and Florence, getting hold of the tiniest booklets with some special tidbit about the First Consul, the most intimate detail, the most secret.

Over time, the beekeeper begins to see, in the behaviour of the colony and the structure of the hive, a key to understanding, even predicting, the outcome of military actions. He comes to view Napoleon through the hexagonal lens of the honeycomb. However, this knowledge also has him caught as a pawn in a larger political scheme he no longer wants to be part of. Now that the object of his attention is close at hand and interested in meeting and touring the island’s hives with him, his anxiety and paranoia grows steadily.

Meanwhile, the Emperor spends his early months in exile keeping his leadership muscles as toned as they can be under the circumstances. Down but not defeated. However, the days begin to drag and soon Napoleon finds himself alternately frustrated by circumstances and troubled by doubts and insecurity. He passes his days with a measure of regimented boredom as he rules over his diminished domain. The glory he once tasted begins to feel more distant, less possible:

I confess I’m an impostor. I was never the youngest general of France. I never conquered the north of Italy or reached as far as Naples to cleanse the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies of its bandits. My great Alexander dream was just a boozy night in a tavern. I no longer make the foolish claim of having kept the Revolution from turning against itself, of having tackled the Terror, promoted civil justice, set the lazy clock of the centuries racing.

Of course, relieved, at least temporarily, from the full demands of his former existence, Mr. Bonaparte has time to indulge his interest in apiculture and from his arrival on his present island realm, that is one of his goals. He was already aware of Passolini, having received an unexpected missive from the modest beekeeper many years earlier and imagines the humble farmer to be a suitable guide to the island’s apiaries. Arrangements are made.

As the narrative inches toward their planned meeting, moving not chronologically but rather slipping in and out of the past to sketch out and fill in the characters of the Emperor and his would-be beekeeper, dropping into their dreams and nightmares along the way, a lyrical, slightly magical story unfolds. This is historical fiction at its most spare and whimsical, but grounded in possibility, that ultimately becomes a double stranded portrait of two sad figures longing to escape their circumstances.

Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan is translated by Elizabeth Bryer and published by Giramondo.

A second-hand melancholy: Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos

At the beginning of Argentinian writer Mariana Dimópulos’ unsettling novel Imminence, it is immediately evident that there is something oddly off-balance here—a softly-hued disconnect that instantly sets the tone for one of the most finely realized representations of what it feels like to be oddly out of step with the world around you. The narrator, alone for the first time with her infant son awkwardly reaches out to touch him. She strokes a foot and waits for something to stir inside her chest as she had been assured it would. Nothing. Her partner Ivan comes into the room and, for the moment, rescues her from any further responsibility. Relief.

She was, we soon learn, hospitalized for a month with a serious infection following the baby’s birth, so young Isaac has been attended to by Ivan, her sister, and the nurses up until this point when she is deemed well enough to venture home. She does not even know her child has been named until that first night in the apartment.  His Russian father has chosen his own grandfather’s name, an appellation sadly devoid of Spanish musicality. But that’s okay.

The story that unfolds—or to be more precise, unwinds—belongs to that first evening home from the hospital, and to another evening with strong and increasingly ominous echoes—the last with her pervious lover, Pedro. Woven in and out of her careful accounts of those two evenings, are a flow of memories tied to her past and a number of key people in her life. There is Celeste, the relative she comes to stay with when she moves into Buenos Aires from the smaller rural community of Los Flores in her teens, and her friends, Mara the actress, and Ludmilla who was tragically killed young. These are the women she tries to measure her own insecure sense of womanhood against. And then there are the men: Ivan and Pedro, of course, and the Cousin, a mysterious distant relative with whom she has an occasional sexual relationship—a manipulative, distasteful character with an uncanny sense of timing.

Her account is not chronological, she foreshadows and repeats herself as if slowly filling in a fluid, watery tapestry. There is a dreamlike quality to her stories that bounce off one another, gradually taking on greater shape and form. Her observations are strange, often almost mechanical as if existing in the world is not something that comes naturally. She tries to take her cues from others. Mara and Ludmilla are especially important as early role models:

They were masters of subtlety, and both possessed a scathing wit. And as the stars of the night I would feel a great admiration for the two of them, and I would swear alongside them the sacred oaths of their master plan: I would never get married; I would never cry a single tear over a man who didn’t deserve it; I would never have children, nor would I attend to any other such calls of nature, if indeed nature were ever to call.

As her story is gradually fleshed out, her differences become more explicit, and more intriguing. Socially she struggles. She is, it appears, truly unable to interact with reality, if there is such a thing, with the same ease others seem to demonstrate. Aware of this shortcoming, she has learned, as she puts it, to disappear “inside the parenthesis”. She cannot even recall when it first happened—as a child or as an adult in response to loss perhaps—but either way she has found a refuge, first in the comfort of numbers and if that fails, in a private ritual:

In order to pull off the trick, all I had to do was imagine a beautiful derivative. If that didn’t work, I would make a little ball out of a stocking or a scarf and place it where I imagined my stomach to be, then spin around on the floor or the bed and wait for a few seconds, and soon enough it would start working, and any feeling remotely like an emotion was swiftly eliminated.

This ability to push emotion aside, one that could well be deeply embedded in the narrator’s personality, is a double-edged sword. If it eased the trauma of Ludmilla’s death, or Celeste’s difficult final years; it impairs her resistance to the Cousin’s inappropriate attentions, and undoes her relationship with Pedro, an academic who had visions of a future she could not share. In close proximity to others, her capacity to “perform herself” tends to fall apart and she becomes the architect and the audience of her own misfortune, watching from the impassive default position she continues to fall back into.

But when Ivan unexpectedly comes into her life, the ground suddenly shits beneath her feet. She feels. Unprepared, she is secretly pleased at this thing stirring inside. However, he is a doctor, called back to Minsk at least temporarily, and she has to act fast on this rising tide:

I was triumphant: I made promises, I sent signals, I invested all my energy into calculating what Ivan was really trying to tell me, rummaging for the hidden meaning beneath every sentence, in a feverish kind of hermeneutics, trying to enthrall him, letting myself become enthralled.

Ivan does return, their relationship blossoms, and ultimately they are sitting over soup on this first night together as a family while their child sleeps in his cot. She and Pedro likewise had had soup for dinner on the night their relationship ended. Is the stage set for another repetition, like the many coincidental duplications our number-obsessed narrator has previously noted? As the trajectories of the two accounts at the core of this tale threaten to converge, the tone becomes increasingly measured, disturbed. Tensions rise.

Imminence is an exceptionally well crafted novel. The narrative winds forward and back in time, but never loses its focus. The compelling voice of the narrator is the key, the magic that pulls this work together. Translator Alice Whitmore allows the full beauty and the strangeness of her reminisces and reflections to come through. Lyrical, but odd, the narrative strikies a tone somewhere between that of  Fleur Jaeggy’s SS Prolterka and Max Frisch’s Homo Faber. Some may find her detachment difficult to forgive, but she herself is aware of a lack, a disconnect—a something that sets her apart from other people, especially women. She will frequently assert that she is not a woman, but this is not an indication of an inherent gender insecurity, so much as a failure to play by the normal rules of human engagement which, because she is female, she assumes are those of a woman. Yet, with less of a record to set straight than Jaeggy or Frisch’s protagonists, her story is one with many more undefined edges. This is not just a confession, but a sombre self-examination, a mess of complicated emotions muted, repressed and viewed through a haze of time and physical fatigue. And it is a narrative that holds you in its spell until the very end.

Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos is translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore, is published by Giramondo.

It is difficult to imagine what can’t be described: The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza

That, with time, I had become accustomed to the hollow moments of an investigation is true. There are hours, days even, sometimes months or years when nothing happens. Those are the gaps in an investigation. In other words, those moments are life. The detective who wins a case, who solves it, is usually the one weathers those lapses. Resources are needed, of course. But above all, you need patience, that rare gift; or you need something else to think about—a certain capacity for distraction. You need a place inside yourself, your own language where you can hide. You need a refuge, yes. Any refuge.

The work of Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza is, I would suggest, best entered with as scant a road map as possible. I cast no more than a passing glance at any reviews of The Taiga Syndrome, before venturing into the intoxicating and unsettling environment of this, her latest release in English translation. Not that her books can be given away in any straightforward terms, but to lose oneself in the oddly off-centre worlds she creates is the true pleasure of reading her fiction. So much so that, you might find yourself dragging your readerly feet to prolong your sojourn through the pages of this slender volume.

What, then, can one say by way of review? This is the same dilemma I faced when I sat down to write about her novel, The Iliac Crest, which came out last year.

The Taiga Syndrome, a subtle twist on the Latin American detective novel is, in a sense, less of a mystery and more of an dreamlike exercise in mysteriousness. The unnamed narrator is a detective who, with a string of unsuccessfully resolved cases behind her, has taken to writing noir novellas under a pseudonym. When she is approached by a man who wants her to find his second wife and bring her back to him, she almost dismisses the case as dull and hopeless. The man’s wife has disappeared, in the company of another man, into an area known as the Taiga, but the fact that she has been sending missives—telegrams from far off locations—like a trail of bread crumbs to mark a path, have led her husband to believe that she wants to be found. For our enigmatic protagonist there is something almost sensible emanating from the creased paper of the telegrams themselves that inspires her to accept the assignment. The same empathetic curiosity will guide her on her journey into the anomalous environment of the Taiga.

Exactly where this region is located is never made explicit, but clearly it is distant, vast and remote. The presence of tundra and boreal forest suggest it lies to the north. The “syndrome,” distinct to the area, is a condition that sometimes strikes certain inhabitants who “begin to suffer terrible anxiety attacks and make suicidal attempts to escape.” Has that been the fate of the missing woman and her companion? Of course, in a place subject to its own strange rules and customs, norms are difficult to assess. Thus, this is a book about translation—of ideas and culture—the narrator and the translator she has secured to guide her into the Taiga are forced to communicate in a common language, one which is native to neither one of them, a “third space.” Translation creates distance. The reports of local residents have to be interpreted. Bizarre events defy explanation. And the faraway coastal city where a client awaits news of his second wife becomes increasingly vague and unimaginable.

The real magic of The Taiga Syndrome is carried through the wonderful, uncommon narrative voice. As she attempts to understand the circumstances surrounding the couple who had, for a time stayed near a village on the border of the Taiga, the narrator’s engagement with the space and the people in it—the translator, their informants, a feral adolescent, the trees of the forest—is sensual, reflective but not judgemental. Open to experience. Noting her “morbid” fascination with the wild boy who has emerged from the woods, she asks:

Who can resist observing the original body? A body without a social context? And as the minutes passed, I was also excited, no doubt, by my own incomprehension. I could never understand something like this, I told myself several times. I said it exactly like that: “I could never understand something like this.” But I couldn’t stop looking at him, fascinated, perhaps even bewitched or hypnotized by his thin figure, his exhaustion. Did he see me then, not by looking but by chance, not by directing his gaze my way intentionally but by letting his eyes clumsily meet mine? Something like that, yes. An arrow plunged into the left shoulder. A hole. And suddenly that moment produced the window. And the window produced the spectator. And those three elements together made the romance real. The passion. Someone longed for a freedom that was really an infernal abyss. Someone placed hands, now motionless, on the window. Someone who wanted to escape but couldn’t escape and could only watch.

Acutely sensitive to others, to the small details of their appearances and gestures, she finds in their words and actions, or her impressions of their words and actions, an ambiguity. Her experiences, her observations, the increasingly abstracted report she is keeping for the man who hired her are seemingly indirect—distorted in transmission and reception—but she trusts in her truths, as she typically responds when those around her ask a question: “I told him the truth. I told him yes.”

But what is she really telling us?

The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza is translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, and published by the Dorothy Project.

 

 

Civil war up close: Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez

“Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment.”
.                                                                  MARX

 So begins Blood of the Dawn, the devastating debut novel by Peruvian author Claudia Salazar Jiménez. This slender volume that captures, at gut level, the horror of the “Time of Fear”, the years when the Shining Path insurgency was at its most intense is tightly bound to the intimate feminine experience. It is an exercise with little narrative distance—one that takes three women from very different backgrounds, closes in on their unique perspectives, backgrounds, and motivations, and weaves back and forth between their stories. When their disparate trajectories intersect, their individual fates, at least in that time and place, become shockingly similar.

In 1980, a  fringe group of Maoist terrorists stole ballot boxes and burned them in the public square of the town of Chuschi, setting off a time of fear and violence that would, over the next twenty years, leave 70,000 dead. Set primarily during the first decade of this “People’s War,” Salazar Jiménez’s novel is a bold attempt to give voice to those not often heard. On both sides of the conflict.

There is Marcela, a disillusioned, yet idealistic teacher who is seduced by the message of the Shining Path and its charismatic leaders. Abandoning her husband and young daughter, she joins the battle. Her first person account is reported from prison, where she looks back at her childhood, early adulthood and her time with the guerilla group. In the face of regular interrogation she is still defiant, still holding on to a loyalty that cannot quite be dissolved despite the atrocities she has observed, participated in and experienced. Hers is a complicated narrative that takes the reader right into the conflicted reasoning, force of conviction, and group dynamics that shape a terrorist.

The women advance, marching along the gray patio. The first of them holds a banner with the image of Comrade Leader. Honor and glory to the proletariat and the people of Peru. Hair trained under green caps. Red blouses. Aquamarine skirts to the knee. Marching in formation. Educated in the shining trenches of combat. Jail others call it; prison. All at the same pace. Give one’s life for the party and the revolution. Banners of red flags with a yellow star. Torches in hand. Rhythm. Rhythm. Rhythm. Drum one. Drum two. Drum three. The feminine ferment rising. We travel a shining path. We struggle without truce to the end.

The second character is Melanie, a young photojournalist in love with a female artist who has moved to Paris. She imagines that the conflict in the mountains holds the story she is meant to record. A city dweller, she is quite unprepared for the harsh realities she finds. Her story is told in a first person present that highlights both her passions and her naivete. She will discover that her camera is neither welcomed by the villagers she meets, nor does it provide a shield against the sights, sounds and smells that will come to permeate her very being.

The next hamlet is a cloud of smoke. It’s hard to make out anything clearly. My camera feels heavier than usual. That’s fine; its weight anchors me to reality in this spectral place. What’s left when everything is done? Nothing. Where should I go look now? What should my lens focus on?

Finally, the truly innocent victim in the situation is the Indigenous peasant woman Modesta, who will lose everything as insurgents and soldiers repeatedly cross through her village, leaving a trail of rape, torture and murder. Her account is reported in the second person—a startling powerful perspective—until, toward the end when she finds her own voice and picks up her own thread. By then we see her slowly finding a resilience and strength that is fragile and determined at once, caught in war that makes no sense to her.

Every day at exactly four in the afternoon, new words parade into your ears just like the terrorists parade every morning. That if the class, they say, that if the proletariat, they say; that if the revolution, they say, that if the people’s war, they say, are saying, say. You only nod in agreement, already tuning out. They speak of people you don’t know, a certain Marx, a certain Lenin, a certain Mao, and a certain President Leader who is boss of them all. We’re all going to be equal, they say.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic. Wound through the plaited threads of the women’s stories are episodes of unattributed stream of consciousness and short quotes from political and philosophical sources. Repetition is employed to reinforce the relentlessness of the savage violence, and the point at which the narratives of the three protagonists blur in identical experiences of excruciating violation. The anonymity of the moment is in sharp contrast to the differing paths that lead each woman to that point, and the diverging courses their lives follow afterward. In an interesting Translator’s Note, Elizabeth Bryer brings to light some of the challenges of reflecting, in English, the different voices through use of rhythm, ideological focus and cultural references as appropriate to each woman.

In the end, Blood of the Dawn comes very close to risking losing its impact with the bludgeoning effect of the brutal tableau that unfolds. Fortunately this a spare, tightly controlled work and, to its credit, one that raises more questions than it answers, even leaving its own characters uncertain. A brave debut, indeed.

Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez is translated by Elizabeth Bryer and published by Deep Vellum.