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.

At the threshold: City of Torment (and Prague, I See a City…) by Daniela Hodrová

Founded, according to legend, with the prophetic proclamation of the mythical Princess Libuše, Prague rose from a hilltop settlement to become the political and economic hub of Central Europe. Forged in stone, blood and bone over a thousand years it is a place dense with history, a city that cannot escape itself, often depicted as a labyrinthine maze of magic, madness and despair. City of Torment, a loose trilogy by Czech author and theorist Daniela Hodrová, falls into the literary tradition of writers like Karel Hynek Mácha, Gustav Meyrink and Franz Kafka in its portrayal of the city as a distorted space within which the individual can become lost or disoriented. Her Prague is a layered, cyclical place in which spatial and temporal dimensions shift, trapping its living and the ghostly inhabitants in a grand circle game, one that plays out again and again in a number of distinctive settings or “stages” throughout the city centre. As such, the narrative that runs through the course of the three novels that comprise City of TormentIn Both Kinds, Puppets and Theta—is fragmented, kaleidoscopic and cumulative, peopled by characters that defy boundaries between life and death, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate.

There is no succinct way to provide an outline of City of Torment as a cohesive work of fiction; it is akin to an organic, evolving entity that gradually takes on a life that even seems to confound its own author by the time we reach the third part. It was not conceived as a trilogy. Hodrová began the first novel, In Both Kinds, in December 1977 and finished it the following year, but, like the two novels that would follow, it could not be published until after the fall of the Communist government. This work, narrated by an omniscient third person narrator that occasionally takes on the direct voice of a character or an object, is centred around an apartment block across from the famed Olšany Cemetery, and those who reside in or pass through in the building and the graveyard. It opens near the end of the Second World War, as young Alice Davidovich throws herself from the window of the building’s fifth floor flat to avoid being taken away to the gas chambers, thus making a direct transit from the building to the cemetery. Alice, who will spend much of her after-life repeating a fruitless rush to meet her beloved Pavel, is the central female protagonist in this first book, and provides a critical yet curious continuity linking the women at the heart of each of the following texts.

A wide cast of eccentric characters populate the pages of In Both Kinds. The living, the dead (recently and long dead), and the few who have found themselves charmed (or cursed) with the ability to negotiate a space in between the two states, exist alongside one another. Souls trapped inside inanimate objects, or transformed into birds interact on both sides (with both kinds) and, naturally, many characters will make the passage from the world of the living to the community of the dead over the course of the novel. Their personalities and the events or activities marking their lived existences follow them to their graves. Clothing and objects—a sweater, a coat, a mother of pearl button, a Persian lamb muff—become talismans, symbols (but of what?). And woven into all of this are historical personages and events that appear or are referenced, exaggerated or confined by the mythology that has grown around them over time. It is a strange and wonderful ensemble piece, but hanging over it all is a disquieting sense of directionlessness.

This sensation becomes more pronounced in the second novel, Puppets (Living Pictures), composed between 1981 and 1983. Composed of one hundred and twenty-six “living pictures” or vignettes, this novel focuses closely on Sophie Souslik, a seamstress at the Realm of Puppets, and her parents and grandparents. Prague with its warren of streets and public squares forms a wider backdrop against which the action—much of it imagined, remembered and echoed—is staged. And staged is the appropriate word, Prague has become a city of marionettes. But something darker lurks here. Specific spaces and objects, like the courtyard with its rug beating rack or Sophie’s father’s office with its heavy black furniture and spinning chair, hold special powers and seem to become portals to painful personal and historical pasts, hidden or forgotten. There is a significant and welcome crossover of characters from In Both Kinds as well as new characters that sometimes act as alternate versions of previous actors. For example, Sophie is sometimes mistaken, at least briefly, for Alice Davidovich, and she also has a boyfriend named Pavel. Identities are frequently confused, experiences are repeated merging the familiar with the strange, and characters increasingly begin to change—humans metamorphize into insects and birds, while statues and household objects fall in love with people and long for release from their solid states. Still, an atmosphere of detachment colours the text.

With the third and final novel, Theta, composed between December 1987 and January 1990, the project that will become City of Torment begins to take form (the books will ultimately be published individually before being gathered together into a single volume). It opens with a variation on the first lines of Dante’s Inferno. Prague is now clearly depicted as its own special version of hell, a city of torment. The title, Theta, has a double meaning—it’s association with death, Thanatos, and its use, θ, as a proofreader’s symbol for “delete”—and as soon becomes apparent, “this novel” now exists an entity within itself. Here, the solitary, curious female protagonist, Alice and Sophie’s heir/doppelgänger, is Eliška Beránková (Lamb). But, not only is she less satisfied to stay within the confines of the text, Daniela Hodrová continually allows the boundary between herself and her creation to blur, even disappear. In a full metafictional turn, the author enters her own novel, and, at one point, Eliška steps out and tries to become a living being. Fiction and fact clash. Some new characters that initially appear to be entirely the product of the text grow more transparent. Others openly straddle the line between fact and fiction. For example, Hodorva introduces her real life husband, trying and failing to keep to the fictional name she assigns him. She grants Eliška imitations of her own life, consciously negotiating her two identities as the manuscript on her desk grows. Through her alter ego, Hodrová, the author, merges with the central figure who is descending into the city of torment in search of her own past.

If this all sounds like an overload—and these are densely packed works—Hodrová writes with a style that constantly refers back on itself, without being repetitive, so the reader does not lose track of who is who. Her narrative second guesses itself constantly (questioning meaning in parentheses) implying that nothing is certain, nothing is written in stone. There is, however, much more going on beneath the surface—historical, literary and place references that would likely be less of a mystery to those familiar with Prague—but for a visitor stumbling into her City of Torment with less background, the Appendix that closes out the work might not quite suffice. So I turned to Hodrová’s Prague, I See A City…, written after the completion of the trilogy, first as an alternative guidebook, but then released as a kind prologue/companion piece to her major work. A short, engaging, magical exploration of her hometown, this book is a perfect follow-up read, not only because it will fill in some of the biographic, geographic and historical details behind the novel, but because, written in 1990, in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution it looks forward, however cynically, to new possibility, with hope of shedding the weight that had oppressed the previous decades.

As noted earlier, the first two novels of City of Torment are characterized by a certain flattened affect and sense of detachment. Composed during the restrictive Normalization period under the Communist government of the 1970s and 1980s, Hodrová was writing without knowing if, or when, it might be possible to release her fiction. It must have felt akin to writing into a void in a world where the dead seemed more alive than the living. The final novel was composed at the end of this period, a time of turmoil, and, when the government fell she stopped writing it, not knowing how a dynamic text informed by a city (or a city formed by a text) might now be altered. In Prague, I See a City… she says of this time:

A revolution of words, an almost fairground battle of words really did take place last year, though its tumult now reaches us only dimly. The city is once more slipping back into its sleep, its unconsciousness, its oblivion.

In those November days, something fundamental happened to the life of this city, to my life. I finished writing Theta at the very moment the battle broke out, for at that moment the city ceased, at least briefly, to be a city of torment.

Far from a conventional travel guide, Prague, I See a City… serves as an immediate refocusing of Prague after the fall of Communist Czechoslovakia and as an introduction to Hodrová’s world-view. As she wanders her city, as if in a dream, the boundaries between the real and the imagined blur. The city she sees is perhaps on the cusp of a new beginning, but the weight of the past, historical and literary will not pass lightly. She reflects on her own childhood, comments on the novels of her trilogy, and visits museums, St Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle and other sites, evoking the lives of long dead kings and more recent political environments along the way. Published before the recent complete translation of the trilogy, this book could easily be read first, and for its own merits alone, but it is just as effective (if not more so) read as an extended (and exceptionally entertaining) epilogue that offers a fuller understanding of both Hodrová’s literary vision and her idiosyncratic relationship with Prague.

In Both Kinds is a revised translation by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol (an earlier English translation by Tatiana Firkusny and Véronique Firkusny was published in 2015 as Kingdom of Souls). Puppets is translated by Elena Sokol and Véronique Firkusny, and Theta is translated by Elena Sokol. Prague, I See a City… is translated by David Short.

Daniela Hodrová’s City of Torment, Prague, I See a City… and Kingdom of Souls are all published by Jantar Publishing.