Some reflections on my first experience with (shadow) jury duty

The official shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced within the last 24 hours or so. A few hours before that, the shadow jury that I am part of revealed its selection of its six book shortlist. How do they match up? Only on two points. With The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky) and Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgimage (translated by Philip Gabriel). Personally I am pleased with the first title but would not have chosen the latter for either list. But that is the way it goes. The experience of reading alongside 10 other bloggers has been challenging, exciting and a terrific insight into the joys and frustrations of shadow jury dury. That includes: finding terrific new books, dragging oneself through books that – without obligation – would have been abandoned at page 30, and watching some books you want to champion proceed while others fall by the wayside.

iffpAnd we are not done yet. A winner, the shadow version and the real one, will be announced on May 27. We will see if we agree. The longlists are as follows:

The Shadow IFFP Longlist (with links to my reviews):
Boodlines
Marcello Fois (tr. Silvester Mazarella)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami (tr. Philip Gabriel)

The Dead Lake
Hamid Ismailov (tr. Andrew Bromfield)

The End of Days
Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

The Ravens
Tomas Bannerhed (tr. Sarah Death)

Zone
Mathias Énard (tr. Charlotte Mandell)
Added by jury members who feel it was an oversight
(I have yet to complete and review)

The official list, in addition to the Murakami and the Erpenbeck titles, includes the following:

By Night the Mountain Burns
Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (tr. Jethro Soutar)

F: A Novel
Daniel Kehlmann (tr. Carol Brown Janeway)

In the Beginning was the Sea
Tomas Gonzalez (tr. Frank Wynne)

While the Gods Were Sleeping
Erwin Mortier (tr. Paul Vincent)

I believe that our shadow jury has presented a solid shortlist, but I must confess that my favourite overall title, While the Gods Were Sleeping, did not fare well on the shadow poll so I am secretly happy to see it receive the attention of the official shortlisting. Likewise I am delighted to see And Other Stories, one of my favourite independent publishers, make the cut with their first ever longlisted title.

So what have I learned so far?

– There is a great community of online book bloggers and I have “met” so many avid  readers of translated fiction (and other literature too)
– The jury process is one of compromise and strongly divergent opinions between readers based on taste and inclination
– I have never read so many books in such a short time – I can do it – but it is a relief to have the pressure off a bit (I do not envy the Booker judges their task!)
– Twitter can suck up hours of your life, but again, is a great way to engage with readers around the world (and with authors and publishers too which is very cool)
– My TBR pile continues to grow astronomically the more that I blog about books and encounter fellow readers and amazing indie publishers

There are no roads here: The Last Lover by Can Xue

To enter into the pages of The Last Lover by Chinese author Can Xue, is to surrender yourself to a shimmering, surreal dream world – a space where human souls cross paths with animal spirits, experience love and loss, and embark on journeys that intersect with some measure of a real world then cross back into magical landscapes. There are no clear parameters to follow, once you feel you are beginning to make sense of things, the floor falls away beneath you or you find yourself trapped in a labyrinth, or both at once. Nothing is what it seems, and the main characters are equally confused, conflicted, uncertain about whom to trust or what is happening to them.

Does it all come together at the end? Brilliantly yes. Perhaps. And I’m not entirely certain.

lastTo attempt to outline the plot of The Last Lover would be fruitless. Essentially the novel revolves around several key couples living in an unnamed ostensibly western country. The central figure, if it is possible to see him as such, is Joe. He is an avid reader, capable of losing himself in books, forever weaving a story of his own from the threads of the stories he reads. His wife Maria is a housewife who weaves images into tapestries and seems to have a capacity to channel mystical energies. Daniel is their teenaged son who drops out of school to take up his passion for gardening full-time. The dynamic between the three family members shifts – close on some levels but following separate trajectories on others.

Vincent is Joe’s employer, the owner of a successful clothing company. He seems distracted and at odds from the onset, while his intense wife Lisa is convinced he is having an affair. Apparently he also appears to be able to be in two places at once, a remarkably common occurrence in the world of The Last Lover. Vincent and Lisa are deeply in love but wrestling with the demons of their own peculiar mid-life crises.

Reagan, a client of Vincent’s Rose Clothing Company, is the 50 year-old bachelor and owner of a rubber plantation south of the city where the others live. He is drawn to Ida, a young woman of obscure Asian origin, who is working on his farm. Theirs is probably the most overtly surreal of all the relationships, but that is not imply that any couple has anything approaching a routine domestic existence. The overlapping and entwined connections between the six key characters forms a strong thread that pulls the reader into and through this anfractuous tale.

Winding in and out of the lives of the key figures is an ambiguous cast of other entities – mysterious Asian and/or Middle Eastern women, odd servants and drivers, eccentric loners, beautiful street cleaners with curious doppelgängers and a host of cats, snakes, birds, mice, insects and other creatures. Earthquakes rumble throughout the novel, shaking some characters to the core while passing unnoticed by others. Fires rage, floods wash mountainsides away, roses exert magnetic energies, and dream worlds collide – not just with assumed reality, but between dreamers. Sexual desire arises frequently – at times characters are surprised by the intensity of the arousal, the unexpected gender of their object of attraction and the insubstantiality of most ensuing encounters.

As the story unfolds, moving through of layers of unreality, the tendency is to try look for clues, to assign meaning and value. My thought is that meaning is a slippery concept here, amorphous and shifting. Can Xue herself has advised that modernist literature requires the reader to turn inward to seek the structure of time and space within one’s soul, to be able to grasp the structure of the work. But structure is one thing, meaning is something else entirely. I would argue that this a work that will open itself up to the receptive reader, and be met by each reader on his or her own terms with what they bring to the experience.

I took pages and pages of notes, delighting in tracing connections, amazed by the depth of reading possible. In the end I was most keenly aware of themes of migration, the sense of a lost connection with a home left behind, the loneliness of love, the ambiguity of remembering and forgetting, and the increasingly virtual quality of our connections with others in our modern world. But those are my perceptions at this moment. Can Xue, (her real name is Deng Xiaohua, her pseudonym meaning “dirty snow that refuses to melt”) is a self taught writer. The Cultural Revolution abruptly ended her education after elementary school, so she took to educating herself, reading poetry and fiction and steeping herself in the classical Western canon and Russian literature. She has cited Kafka, Borges, Cervantes and Dante as influences. Echoes of Calvino are strong and I could not help but think of contemporary writers like Ben Okri and Sjón among others.

This is actually my first encounter with contemporary Chinese literature. This morning it was announced as a contender for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), making it the one title to appear on both major annual translated fiction award longlists. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s translation is clear, spare and lyrical. She maintains a steady pace and brings to life the sounds that reverberate throughout the text – the su su rustling of pages, si si hissing of snakes, the cha cha whisper of snow – preserving what one imagines might approach the sensory experience of reading The Last Lover in the original Chinese.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015 / Best Translated Book Award 2015: A demanding read that defeated a few members of our IFFP shadow jury, this was a highly rewarding reading experience for me. I will definitely seek out more of Can Xue’s work. A taste of her short stories, some of which can be found on line and this insightful feature from Music & Literature were helpful, though I avoided reading other interpretations closely before finishing the book. I would encourage a reader interested in a challenge to persevere, open to the riches that this type of literature can offer.

Update: The Last Lover has been awarded the 2015 BTBA Award. Of the six of the ten shortlisted BTBA titles I read it was my favourite all along. Congratulations to Can Xue and Annelise Finegan Wasmoen!

Imagining a life lost: In the Beginning was the Sea by Tomás González

For aspiring novelists, the greatest inspiration sometimes lies very close to home – at the heart of their own families. And most often, it is not a happy circumstance they are seeking to reconcile when setting pen to paper.

seaIn the late 1970s Colombian author Tomás González was struggling to build a career for himself as a writer. The murder of his brother Juan, on a farm where he had retreated to find a refuge, would provide the central focus of his debut novel In the Beginning was the Sea, first published in 1983, but not released in English until 2014.

There is a distinctly sober, calculated tone to this tale of J. and his girlfriend Elena, two faded hippies who seek to escape a life of drugs, alcohol, and partying in Medellín by purchasing and moving to a remote tropical farm. J. dreams of a simpler life, a new beginning. It soon becomes clear that he has absolutely no business sense at all. He repeatedly allows himself to be swindled and makes a series of reckless investments. As his debts mount, he demonstrates an uncanny ability to dig himself in deeper, disregarding the warnings of those around him. To add insult to injury, Elena and J. have a volatile relationship at best – one that the isolation of their new home does nothing to mediate. She tends to be caustic and unpleasant, especially to the native blacks who work for her or live in the area. The dislike is instantly reciprocated. J. is much more affable with the locals, a nature lubricated by increasingly copious quantities of cheap alcohol. But as time goes on, his world continues to spiral downward. In the end, as we are repeatedly warned, it will cost him his life.

As the story unfolds, González maintains an emotional distance from his subjects, but he excels at bringing the tropical farm to life. His language is highly evocative.

“Smells. The murky smell of the mangrove swamps carried sometimes on the breeze. The musky, resinous smell of crabs, dead and still raw. The smell of paddocks pounded by the immovable hammer of the noonday sun. The smell of mingled smoke and coffee from the kitchen. The lunchtime smell of fried fish, fried plantains, the heavy scent of
coconut rice. The smell of the suntan lotions and the moisturizers that made Elena’s skin more perfect.”

If there is a weakness here, it is the lack of a solid reference for the hostile and unpleasant behaviour Elena demonstrates throughout this novel. From the opening scenes where her precious sewing machine is damaged, we see a woman who refuses to tolerate any perceived incompetence in others. One is left to wonder what is behind this and what she ever saw in J. A history of divorce and depression is hinted at. His weaknesses are examined a little more closely and we know that he is torn between attraction and frustration with Elena, and that he harbours a deep personal sense of despair and failure. But again, the why’s are never fully explored.

Though some factors or circumstances may, in truth, defy full explanation; In the Beginning was the Sea does draw to a close with an imaginative and heartbreaking elegy, perhaps the one of the finest moments in the entire book.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Pushkin Press deserves to be praised for bringing long ignored works and authors to an English speaking audience. Frank Wynne’s translation is clear and vivid. I hope we will see some of González’s more mature work available in the future.

Let’s do the timewarp… Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

The year is 2011. A disoriented Adolph Hitler awakes in an abandoned lot in Berlin. Yes, that Hitler. He doesn’t know how he got there, but in 66 years he has not aged a day. Taken in by a newsagent who marvels at his uncanny resemblance to you-know-who, right down to the authentic uniform, he has to accommodate himself to a world which is alien. But accommodation is not his strong suit. What follows is a biting commentary on our modern world and, as such, it is fitting that he finds an audience for his rehashed rhetoric through TV and You-Tube. An audience that does not always interpret his “performance” as satire. After all, in his mind he is dead serious.

2015-03-25 11.23.17As you might imagine, this premise affords Timur Vermes, the German author of Look Who’s Back, an opportunity for much humour. The newly revived Hitler faces a host of curiosities  and surprising sights. He marvels at plastic bags, satellite dishes, the computer with its “internetwork” and all the residents of “dubious Aryan heritage.”

His first encounter with a modern television set is quite funny.

“To begin with I assumed that the flat, dark plate in my room must be some bizarre work of art. Then, taking into consideration its shape, I speculated that it might serve as a means of storing my shirts overnight without them creasing.”

Once a hotel maid introduces him to the secrets of the TV and its remote, he is very dismayed to find one cooking show after another. Naturally it is a waste to have such an effective tool for propaganda dedicated to such bland mediocrity. No worries though. Before long Hitler will be making his way on to the televised airwaves.

Even after more than six decades, he has not mellowed. His naivety is amusing, but his single-minded commitment to the visions, ambitions, and speeches of his past is chilling. It creates an abiding discomfort in the reader. That is, of course, the purpose, but the satire does wear a little thin over the course of the novel.

Author Timur Vermes does manage to maintain a consistent and steady voice throughout this accomplished debut. He keeps his Hitler grounded in reality, at least as he perceives it. Translator Jamie Bulloch does an excellent job of incorporating words that are most effectively kept in the original German, and in creating a realistic English slang for the younger characters. Together this all works to produce a quick, entertaining, if somewhat disturbing, read.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Look Who’s Back is well crafted and provides ample food for thought. It has a strong commercial appeal which may act in its favour for a spot on the short list.

Portents of death: The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed

“The brook here in the forest – where did it begin —
Don’t think like that!
Not about beginnings and endings, but just about what is.
Throw in a stone and make time stop.”

The passage of time, the flow of seasons, the repetitive routine of life on the farm – these are the currents that course through The Ravens, the English-language debut from Swedish author Tomas Bannerhed. The landscape is rugged and raw. The land, reclaimed from peat bogs, is stingy and unforgiving. The weather is harsh and unpredictable. It can break a man’s back and, if he is not careful, it can drive him mad.

ravensThe events of this dark rural novel unfold over the span of one year from spring to spring. Our narrator, Klas, is a sensitive and intelligent 12 year-old boy with a passion for birds. His ear is finally tuned to the songs and calls of the species that nest in the trees and marshlands near his home, he knows their habits and is on the lookout for the chance visitors who may happen to appear outside their normal range. Birds are not only an obsession but a refuge and distraction from the pressures at home.

Klas has a troubled relationship with his father who, as the year progresses, is clearly losing his grip on reality. Ange is haunted by the cries of ravens that only he can hear. He constantly worries away at a huge pile of scrap metal and bemoans the endless work that weighs down on him on the farm. The more he complains and beseeches the Lord for the trials he suffers, the more he drives his older son to the marshes. Klas’ mother exercises a weary stoicism, continually working to pull her family together, while his younger brother spends much of his time retreating to increasingly juvenile behaviour. Hanging over the family is the legacy of mental illness. Klas’ grandfather committed suicide, his father is becoming more unpredictable and eccentric, and, in his heart, Klas is terrified that he too will inherit both the farm and the madness.

The summer sees a hint of respite for young Klas as the attentions of Veronika, an attractive girl from the city, set his hormones reeling. True to form he takes her on a late night birdwatching outing, but she disappears to the city soon after. Before long Ange overdoses on pills and is committed to a psychiatric hospital. As his father fades, Klas will be forced to question whether he will be able to carry the weight that will be placed on his shoulders. And as Klas appears to be pursued by voices and superstitions of his own, the reader has to wonder if he is not already haunted by demons. An eye he imagines above his bed disturbs his sleep, the voices keep driving him to the marsh’s edge.

“Stare down into a mirror.
No sign of life. Just my own blurred face and the tiniest ripples if you looked really carefully, like vibrations in the air from the silently whirring wings of the circling gnats. A pond skater came shooting across the water on its sewing-thread legs. Here and there, gas bubbles percolated gently to the surface and popped with a wet sigh.
Is that all?
No toothless Marsh Wife leering down there, no long arms and yellow nails like claws to draw you down into the black hole?”

There is much to love in this novel. The landscape comes alive. The language is achingly beautiful and spare, smoothly translated by Sarah Death. As someone who grew up in a rural environment in the 1970s, I found that the cassette tapes, aging hippies, and city fashions that Klas encounters when he visits Veronika brought back memories. The darkness that seeps through and builds as the story progresses is well managed. My only criticism would be that I felt it might benefit from being edited a little more tightly in the first half.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: This is certainly one of the more ambitious of the long listed novels and I would be pleased to see it make the short list.

Border crossing ahead: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

“You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.”

signsA sinkhole opens up in the road in the opening passage of Yuri Herrera’s brilliantly inventive Signs Preceding the End of the World. Makina, a streetwise young Mexican woman charged by her mother with a mission to deliver a message to her brother who has disappeared across the border in the US, just narrowly misses being swept into its depth. Or does she? She is a wary customer, old beyond her years, capable of communicating in native, latin and anglo tongue – a skill that has secured the task of manning the central switchboard in her hometown and has equipped her, as well anyone might be, for the daunting task her mother has set out.

The rules outlined above are those that Makina holds close. Securing her safe passage will require making deals with a series of shady characters and her hardened discretion will be vital if she is to reach her destination. The language matches her pace. The short chapters, clipped sentences, and unique vocabulary hurry along, sweeping the reader with it as if time is of the essence and dare not be wasted. There is no time for for frivolities, Makina – and with her the reader – must be on the alert. This is a dangerous journey. It is one that many desperate people make every day. On the far side, the world to be navigated is both familiar and strange.

“The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing.”

But for the illegal migrant, temporary or permanent, the risks are real. The rewards often elusive, the costs high.

This slim novel is filled with passages of vivid intensity. Dark, epic in scope if not in scale, a few hours with Herrera is akin to a journey with Dante or Lewis Carroll. Right through to the final breath taking passages, I would challenge a reader to not emerge gasping for air.

Another wonderful offering from And Other Stories, Signs Preceding the End of the World is a deeply rewarding way to spend a few hours. In the Translator’s Note at the end of the novel, Lisa Hillman describes the joys and challenges she faced in capturing the right tone and shaping the language to preserve the magic and power of the original text. The result is an absolutely compulsive read. Highly, highly recommended.

Now, after this brief respite, back to reading the International Foreign Fiction Prize long list with my fellow bloggers on this year’s shadow jury.

A nuclear folktale: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

lakeAt the beginning of The Dead Lake, by Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov, an unnamed traveller encounters Yerzhan, a 27 year-old man seemingly confined to the body of a young boy, playing violin on the platform of a railway station. Fascinated by this odd character, he invites him to join him on his  train journey where Yerzhan proceeds to share his account of growing up in a two-family railway “stop” on the steppes of Kazakhstan during the years of the Cold War. The landscape of his homeland, vast and underpopulated, is seen to be the ideal testing ground for the Soviet side of the nuclear arms race. The tremors and explosions that rock the “Zone” become a terrifying feature of daily life for the nearby residents.The resulting radiation will take a much more devastating toll.

Early on Yerzhan finds respite in music. At the age of three, he shows exceptional musical aptitude for playing his granddad’s dombra, graduating quickly to the violin. For years music consumes him. A Hungarian worker at the Mobile Construction Unit is found to tutor the young musical prodigy. He absorbs the music, quickly learning to read and play many classical masterpieces.

“He dreamt these phrases, together with the sounds of the violin in the different-coloured, rounded notes. His dreams had never been so jolly before. The notes walked about like little men. This one was fat and pompous, with a huge pot belly, while these minced along on skinny legs.”

reedHe also finds a personal hero in the handsome Dean Reed, the American born pop and rock singer who became a celebrity behind the Iron Curtain, and imagines himself growing in the image of his mentor and securing the heart of his beloved Aisulu. But when he suddenly stops growing at the age of 12, his intended continues to grow, eventually reaching an unusual height for a woman. His heartache, which he seeks to answer in the songs, magic, and legends of his people becomes an allegory for the very real and tragic legacy that atomic fallout has left on the land and people of this remote part of the world.

This moving novella is part of Peirene Press’ Coming of Age series. Ismailov breathes life into the steppes, from the snow dusted barren slopes, to the ubiquitous worms, lice, and flies. The silence of the landscapes is contrasted with the violence of the test flights and explosions. The musical tones of violin meet traditional folksongs. Andrew Bromfield’s sensitive translation form the Russian is especially effective in maintaining the lyrical quality of the songs that are woven into the tale. The result is a simple, but thought-provoking read.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: It is good to see small, subscription supported presses like Peirene receiving the attention that these nominations bring to the wonderful stories that deserve to reach a wider audience.