The mind remains restless: While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier

“As you get older you no longer see people around you, only moving ruins. Again and again the dead find back doors or kitchen windows through which to slip inside and haunt younger flesh with their convulsions. People are draughty creatures. We have memories to tame the dead until they hang still in our neurons as foetuses strangled by the umbilical cord. I fold their fingers and close their eyes, and if they sometimes sit up under their sheets I know it’s enzymes or acids strumming their tendons. Their true resurrection lies elsewhere.”

Helena Demont, the aged narrator of While the Gods Were Sleeping by Dutch-language Belgian author Erwin Mortier, is a frail bodied but sharp-witted woman intent on employing the only weapon she has ever trusted, language, to rally her ghosts. Tended daily by her Moroccan carer, she fills notebook after notebook with her thoughts and reflections about the power and limitations of words, and the distortions and intensity of the memories that haunt us. She is, even at her advanced age, struggling to reconcile the fraught relationship with her mother whose voice still admonishes her in her quiet moments, come to terms with her envy of the freedom and detachment that her gay older brother Edgard seemed to enjoy, and sculpt into living memory the body and spirit of her long deceased beloved husband.

GodsAt the centre of this intensely powerful novel is Helena’s vivid account of her experiences in Flanders during the First World War. The breakout of war happens to coincide with the beginning of her bourgeois family’s annual summer pilgrimage from their home in Belgium across the border to her uncle’s farm in France. As a result, she and her mother end up confined to the farm for the years of the war, separated from her father who is unable to join them and her brother who volunteers and is sent off to the front. She sees much of the war from a distance, with a mixture of awe, adolescent romance, and horror but it will stand as the pivotal experience in her long, long life.

While the Gods Were Sleeping is a not a plot driven novel, highly descriptive language is employed to evoke a mood, to harness an experience, to pull the reader in to a vortex which, in the end, is as powerful as quicksand. Lengthy sentences unwind across the page:

“When I was allowed by my uncle, my mother’s older brother, to use the telescope, which stood up in the attic under a tarpaulin, I could see in those clouds of dust, in places where the roads came up to the same height as the fields, lances reflecting the sunlight, rifle barrels as fine as needles gleaming above a mass of figures marching over the cobbles, or the bustling horses’ hooves of the cavalry, and that dust they dragged behind them like a threadbare veil.”

Some may find the long, reflective (dare I say Sebaldian) transgressions about writing, and the rejection of clear chronological storytelling disconcerting at the beginning, but Mortier employs language, as his narrator wishes she could, like a painter, building up layers, blending colours and textures to create a deeply human experience that pulls together clearly and beautifully in the closing chapters. Paul Vincent’s translation captures the poetic beauty of the language and manages to navigate the contrast between the wartime dialogue as remembered and the narrator’s very contemporary tone when she is reflecting on the nature of writing or complaining about the regrets and annoyances of her life in the present day.

In the end, this novel is a meditation on the way that we remember; how memories are evoked, stored, treasured, and released. In a particularly powerful passage, Helena is following her British photojournalist husband across a bleak ice covered Flemish landscape and decides to take a photograph of him, from behind, simply for her own keeping. When the film is later developed in their makeshift darkroom, corpses are revealed trapped just below the surface of the ice. An horrific image of the aftermath of war for certain, but also a striking metaphor for the way that memories resurface as we look back over time, how ghosts we thought long put to rest can continue to rise up and haunt us.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Several of the novels in this year’s long list visit the First World War. This is another equally impressive yet unique approach. I would be happy to see this novel on the short list and I know that I will be seeking out Mortier’s earlier work.

The law of being average F: A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann

“How can anyone live with the fact that they’re not Rubens? How does anyone come to terms with it? To begin with, everyone thinks they’re the exception to everything. But hardly anyone is an exception.”

This rhetorical question, posed by Martin to his half brother Ivan, is indicative of the truth that lies at the heart of F, the latest novel by German/Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. Learning to live with mediocrity is something all of the Friedland boys struggle with. Martin has found everything he requires in the priesthood – everything, that is, but faith. The Rubik’s Cube, that multi-coloured plastic puzzle that was all the rage in the 1980s, retains the soul of his devotion while God has remained absent. Ivan is a would be artist who doubts his own ability but will ultimately find artistic expression forging “masterpieces” in collaboration with an elderly lover who agrees to take the credit. His twin brother Eric channels his personal insecurity into a career in asset management, complete with trophy wife, daughter and mistresses, until his increased involvement in fraudulent financial transactions drive him to a state of paranoid psychosis.f_dhb

Faith, forgery, fraud. See a pattern? Don’t forget family. And, of course, father. As the book opens we see Arthur, a remarkably unambitious writer stagnating in his second marriage, as he takes his three young sons to see a performance by a hypnotist. Ivan and Arthur, both skeptics about the entire process, are invited to take turns on the stage. Their experiences that day could be said to set in motion the events that unwind and unspool as the boys grow up and try to find their footing as adults in the world. Or is there another, “F” word at play? Either way, Arthur disappears from the lives of his sons and their mothers on that very same day and none of them will hear from him for many years.

Confused yet? This is not a straight forward narrative by any means. It is told in parallel intersecting threads, a sweeping backward genealogy and a glimpse into the possible prospects of the next generation of the Friedland clan – prospects which rest rather heavily on the shoulders of Eric’s daughter Marie. At times insightful, sometimes funny and at other times drawing in elements of the gothic ghost story, F: A Novel endeavours to wind a tale too slippery to be tied down.

Ah but does it work? I was looking forward to this novel and, for pure entertainment I think it works quite well. The translation by Carol Brown Janeway is clean and precise. However, I am not convinced that it holds up to the critical reading expected of a potential prize winner. I found the characters too one dimensional and the coincidences just a little too neat and convenient for my tastes.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: There are four German authors on the IFFP longlist this year. Compared to the two I have read so far, I am less inclined to feel this one is shortlist quality, but of course, we shall see what the jury decides.

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.