So, I read some of the books on the IFFP 2015 longlist:*
F, Daniel Kehlmann, tr. Carol Brown Janeway, Quercus, 2014.
A clever and funny novel that plays with various things beginning with ‘F': fate; family; fortune; fortitude; failure; fraternity; fatherhood; falsehood; and a whole lot more. I liked the story’s twists and turns, and after my initial surprise at being asked to believe that fate could make people’s lives intersect in such startling ways, I hopped aboard and went along for the ride.
After an encounter with a stage hypnotist, a feckless father deserts his three sons and strikes out on his own, intending to be a writer. Jump-cut many years hence, and we find the sons leading troubled lives and struggling to make their way in the world. They have become, variously, a godless priest obsessed with his Rubik’s cube, a wealthy self-medicating money-man, and a renowned art dealer with a big secret. We are treated to quite a spectacle as their lives unravel and toxic things kept below the surface begin to seek the light.
I found F enjoyable and unpredictable. The comedy is not laid on too thick and there is an underlying sense of pathos as the four characters stumble their way through life. I think this aspect of the narrative serves to reinforce the adage that you reap what you sow: in F, cause and effect are closely and often disastrously linked, for good and ill.
Years later, long since fully grown and enmeshed in his own particular form of unhappiness, none of Arthur Freidland’s sons could recall whose idea it had actually been to go to the hypnotist that afternoon.
The Giraffe’s Neck, Judith Schalansky, tr. Shaun Whiteside, Bloomsbury, 2014.
Inge Lomark teaches biology at the Charles Darwin High School, which is situated in a small town in the former East Germany. An adherent of the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ theory, Frau Lomark applies the theory to her pupils and treats them as specimens to be observed. However, change is afoot at the school, and in society, and Frau Lomark is herself having difficulty adapting to the new pedagogical and social structures. Will she be able to give up her old habits and adapt to the new conditions?
The narrative is in turn hilarious, vicious, and poignant. Inge’s story is told with sparkling wit in language that is both coldly clinical and searingly honest, and Inge is revealed to be a nightmare conglomerate of all the worst teachers you ever had, but at the same time she is achingly human and oblivious to the effect she has on those around her.
I admire the scientific research that went into the writing of the book, and the way Inge is portrayed in all of her prickly contrariness. I think the novel works well as a commentary on the social experiment element of the GDR and how, after the wall fell, those who had best adapted to the conditions forced upon them were least equipped to adapt to life after reunification.
‘Sit down’, said Inge Lohmark, and the class sat down. She said, ‘Open the book at page one,’ and they opened the book at page one, and then they started on ecological balances, ecosystems, the interdependencies and interrelations between species, between living creatures and their environment, the effective organisation of community and space.
In the Beginning Was the Sea, Tomás González, tr. Frank Wynne, Pushkin Press, 2015.
This novel made a long-lasting impression on me. I had a strong sense of déjà vu as I was reading, because there is a definite Conrad vibe, with deep shadows of the Heart of Darkness variety permeating the text. Parts of the narrative also reminded me of The Wide Sargasso Sea: perhaps it was the setting of the novel, which is an island off the Caribbean coast of Colombia where there is tropical heat, jungle, and local inhabitants who may not exactly be friendly and welcoming, but there is also a sense of palpable danger in the air, a sense of foreboding, inevitability, the sense of a naive adventure about to go horribly wrong.
Anyway, J and Elena, a 30ish couple, decide to leave behind their hard-partying lifestyle and get back to nature and simplicity by buying a small estate on an island. Unfortunately, things do not go according to plan. Their new house is ramshackle, the hired help is surly, and once they are thrown together with only their own intellectual and emotional resources to sustain them, J and Elena begin to experience difficulties in their relationship. Their arrival on the island is akin to a stone being thrown into a pond, and as the ripples widen, the equilibrium of society is mightily upset. J and Elena are oblivious to the delicate balance that sustains local social harmony, and their blundering has far-reaching consequences.
This book was first published in 1983 and took thirty years to find a publisher in English. The translation is superb, I think, and the descriptions of the environment are exquisite. I did not know until after I had finished the book that it is actually based on events in the life of the author’s brother, Juan, who moved to a remote island with his girlfriend in search of a less complicated lifestyle. I am glad that I was unaware of this connection, otherwise, probably, I would have read the book more sympathetically and my reaction to it would have been less spontaneous.
The luggage was transported on the roof of the bus. Two leather suitcases containing their clothes, a trunk containing his books, and her sewing machine. Their belongings were surrounded by bunches of plantains, sacks of rice, blocks of unrefined sugar cane wrapped in dried banana leaves, and other suitcases.
Bloodlines, Marcello Fois, tr. Silvester Mazzarella, MacLehose Press, 2014.
Bloodlines contains some extremely beautiful and lyrical prose. The sentences really are gorgeous to read, even when the words convey ugly images. It took me a while to finish the book because I lingered over and savoured the words, rolling them around in my mouth and re-watching the word-pictures that flickered through my mind.
Set in Sardinia in 1889-1943, the narrative revolves around the Chironi family and tells the story of Michele Angelo and Mercede, two orphans who marry. Although their union is joyous at first, disaster strikes and their lives disintegrate as they experience a series of events that cause them intense pain and heartbreak. I found the novel hard going some of the time, not only because of the personal tragedies, but because the Chironis are caught up in the political foment of the early twentieth century, with its wars and destruction and horrific loss of life. There are actually two strands to the narrative: the second traces the Chironi family name far back in history, but I found this all a bit tedious and it reminded me a lot of Márquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book which, I am sorry to say, I have never been able to finish.
I think Bloodlines is a novel that needs to be read aloud – there is something in the structure of the paragraphs and in the beauty of the words that demands it – because it feels to me like an oral tale, a fable handed down through the generations. I liked it a lot, but mostly because of the quality of the writing and the lyricism of the language.
Luigi Ippolito is lying on his carefully made bed. He is in formal dress, the buttons on his soutane shining, his shoes like polished mirrors. As he always has, and as he always will, he refers to himself by surname first: ‘Chironi Luigi Ippolito’ and, without moving, he stands up to look back at himself, perfectly serene, dead, so ready he could weep.
While the Gods Were Sleeping, Erwin Mortier, tr. Paul Vincent, Pushkin Press, 2014.
What is it like to have lived for almost a century? To have experienced the loss of everyone you ever loved and cared about? To have lived through a profound experience such as the Great War? To be almost helpless and forced to rely on the kindness of strangers? To have a need to record your memories so that they will not be lost for all time when you die? Erwin Mortier poses these questions and does much to answer them in this wonderful novel. It felt to me that Helena, his protagonist, had taken up residence in his mind and that the novel he produced is a form of automatic writing. The narrative is just so detailed and so beautifully rendered, and so heartbreakingly truthful. I wallowed in it, dear reader, because writing as Art does not get much better than this.
Memory and identity are bound together, and as Helena feels herself slipping from this life, she immerses herself in her past, determined to capture her memories and record them. She writes her past into being – setting it down, making it concrete – and in so doing, shows us who she is and how she became herself. I just loved this book for its honesty, its complexity, and its profound humanity.
I have always shrunk from the act of beginning. From the first word, the first touch. The restlessness when the first sentence has to be formed, and after the first the second. The restlessness and the excitement, as if you are pulling away the cloth beneath which a body rests; asleep or dead.
The Ravens, Tomas Bannerhed, tr. Sarah Death, The Clerkenwell Press, 2014.
A coming-of-age story set in 1970s Sweden, The Ravens contains glorious nature writing and profoundly disturbing descriptions of mental illness. Is mental illness genetically inherited, or has the hardship involved in attempting to farm marginal land caused successive generations of the men in one family to go mad? This is the dilemma facing 12-year-old Klas as he watches his increasingly unstable father lose his sanity. Will the same thing happen to him if he is forced to take on the responsibility of trying to wrest a living from the land?
This is a bleak tale that made me shiver. Living in the country is often held up as being idyllic, but the reality can be another thing altogether. The land can be a cruel taskmaster, and as Bannerhed shows us, nature can be both a blessing and a curse. Nevertheless, I found the book wonderfully atmospheric as far as a sense of place goes, even if I did struggle with the all-too-accurate descriptions of anxiety and depression.
I particularly like this novel’s cover art, and I wish all publishers would pay as much attention to a book’s design, because it really can make a difference as to how the public perceive it. The beginning of The Ravens serves as a metaphor for what is to follow:
There’s Father, I thought. In his eternal cloud.
Bouncing along in Grandfather’s old Ferguson with his body belt drawn tighter and his hair growing greyer, and later he’ll come home smelling of earth – because he has no choice. Because this spot is ours, this plot of soil, these acres of farmland. The lake, drained and turned into fields and banks. The marsh, Raven Fen, smoking like ashes and tinder as soon as the dry season sets in, the peat bog that can suddenly catch fire, smouldering and gasping in its depths, burning without a flame, consuming everything from below until you dig trenches to cut it off.
Tiger Milk, Stefanie De Velasco, tr. Tim Mohr, Head of Zeus, 2014.
I read this in November 2014 and was not terribly impressed. Here is the opening paragraph of my post about it:
The sex, drugs, and teenagers gone wild coming-of-age story has pretty much been done to death, so I think that such a novel needs to be brilliantly written, or have a shattering twist, in order to make it stand out from the myriad others on the same theme. Sadly, Tiger Milk did not hit that spot for me. I think it is a solid debut novel, but the version I read in English translation seemed rather one-note and, deliberate attempts to startle the more mature reader notwithstanding, a tad bland. Link to Post
I tried Look Who’s Back and Boyhood Island, but I did not get along with them and gave up. I think that in order fully to appreciate the tale of Hitler’s reincarnation, a reader needs to be familiar with German cultural references, and I am not. Boyhood Island did not appeal to me because of the flat, dull writing. I have no clue why it is considered Proustian by some, because whereas Proust’s prose radiates light and sings, Knausgaard’s writing felt like a grey monotonous mumble.
I was impressed with all but one of the translations (*cough* Tiger Milk). Translators do not get enough recognition in the publishing world, if you ask me. Translators undertake a difficult task, because they effectively re-write a text in another language and in terms that a reader from another culture can understand, while still maintaining that sense of ‘foreign’ we expect in translated fiction. I think that translators definitely deserve more credit for their role in bringing books from all over the world to an English-speaking audience and it surprises me when people talk about translated novels without mentioning the translator.
I am not sure how many more IFFP 2015 books I will try. The Murakami is glaring at me from a shelf, but after being badly burned by the mess that was IQ84, I am very wary. The only other book on the longlist I feel compelled to read is By Night the Mountain Burns, which sounds intriguing.
*The included quotes are the opening lines of the books.