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Sunday 31 August 2014

Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrøm (translator Anne Bruce)

There is something quite arresting in the style of Days in the History of Silence. It has a particularly soft voice, a reflective tone, a sense of much unspoken, a kind of selfless absence. Yet it is a story all about the self, the loss of self, what makes the self, the point at which the self can become undone, from which it can never be rebuilt. It is a beautiful, sad novel which makes you think. 

The story is narrated by Eva, an older women whose husband, Simon, has stopped speaking. The source of his ‘silence’ is a question around which the story revolves. It is not clear, not ever made clear, if this is simply a matter of age, a deterioration of the brain, Altzheimers, perhaps, or a stroke, or a choice Simon has made to withdraw into silence. This is the question that occupies Eva throughout the novel.

In the course of exploring Simon’s silence we discover a history of silences, both Simon’s and Eva’s. These are silences which have dictated the course of their combined history. Simon’s silence centres around his childhood, as a Jewish child growing up during the war Simon (Shimon) was forced into hiding and silence in order to survive. Yet his silence about his past continued, shared only with Eva. His history, the fact of his Jewishness, is something about which neither of them speak even to their children. Having had silence imposed on him through hatred, Simon continues this silence to the point of extremity. Perhaps, then, it is the self-imposed silence which leads to his silence now?

Then there is Eva, her own silence generates from giving up her child, a son, that she had before she and Simon met, with whom she could not generate any kind of bond and who she gave up with apparent relief. When she told Simon about her son, Simon who had lost his own family in death camps and war, he is ashamed of her and encourages her to seek him out. Yet she does not. Even so, she tends the grave of a stranger in the local church and, at times, appears to desire to speak about the boy that she lost to the local pastor. Yet she does not. Silence is ingrained in both Eva and Simon to the point that not speaking becomes the norm.

The final core silence centres around their cleaner, Marija, an immigrant from Latvia who becomes central to their lives and yet they dismiss suddenly and with apparent ease. The reason for her dismissal is another secret, a source of silence. It is a silence heaped on other silences, the source of a gulf between Eva and Simon and their children.

What emerges from these silences is the consequence of keeping secrets, a history of silent shame centring around events that neither party could control or about which they should feel any shame. Yet once the secret, the silence, begins it becomes almost impossible to undo it. Both Eva and Simon make attempts, like here where Eva discovers a letter in a book that Simon gave to their daughter Helena:

“I think about this letter to his colleague now that I am reading what he has attempted to write to his daughters. For the letter is to them. I can see that he has tried, he has really tried to formulate something, and if they had opened it they would have seen his handwriting and these attempts to describe, to impart, to pass something on, to them. To Helena and her sisters. But he cannot. He has to give up, it is a long time since he was clever at that. It is only a rough draft, a sheet of paper he has left their all the same. Dear Helena, Greta and Kirsten, he writes, I have something I – He gives up. A fresh attempt, He is sorry that it has taken so long, he is sorry about it all. He writes that he first bought paper for a letter, that the storekeeper misunderstood, he got the wrong kind. Today the first signs of summer are here, he writes, the summer is going to be fine, I do think so. And I hope that you all manage to have a vacation. Mother and I both consider that you work too hard. But I have always worked too hard myself, so it is obviously hereditary, that kind of thing. Now I have decided to tell you something I have neglected to say for far too-

I can’t manage to interpret the continuation of the sentence, it is nearly rubbed out because of a faulty pen. But I believe the final word is long. Far too long. My girls, he continues, you have become so big. So grown up. He starts over again, trying to find an introduction.

I become angry. I become angry because he has decided to tell them on his own, without having talked to me about it first.”

There is a sense, here, that Eva is angry with Simon and yet also that she suspects Simon’s withdrawal is a sign of his anger towards her. That she has forced him to keep his secret, that their combined silence has prevented him from being honest about who he is. Yet at the same time, perhaps she is angry because Simon has withdrawn into his silence, accepted it, whereas Eva still desires to confess.

It is a complex, softly spoken and well crafted book. It leaves a lot unsaid, as the best fiction often does. Consequently, it is a book that stays with you, that leaves you to ruminate on it, secretly and in silence, for days afterwards.

Days in the History of Silence receives a secretive 9 out of 10 Bii’s. 

Monday 25 August 2014

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa (translator Stephen Snyder)

I may have mentioned before that I love Japanese fiction, and Yoko Ogawa is a writer I really admire. My first encounter with Ogawa was The Diving Pool, a collection of three short and disturbing novellas dealing with the darker side of human nature; the title novella being an unnervingly close and frank examination of obsession. Later I happened across The Housekeeper and the Professor, which I think I’ve mentioned here before, and on the surface the two books couldn’t be further apart; the latter being an upbeat, heart-warming novel about an unusual relationship between a man with a long-term memory problem and his single-mother housekeeper. Yet Ogawa’s keen insight on human behaviour, her sense of the inner psychology of her characters, forms a bridge which links both works. It is a link which flows through to Hotel Iris, where Ogawa returns to shiveringly dark form. 

Hotel Iris is the story of oppression. Mari is a young woman who works at the Hotel Iris, a small, family run hotel in an unnamed town on the Japanese coast. Her mother runs the hotel, and we learn that Mari was forced to leave school at an early age to help out at the hotel, following her Grandfather’s death from cancer. It is apparent from the beginning that Mari leads an oppressed existence; her mother dictates her every movement and even the maid steals from her room, leaving Mari with no secrets and no privacy.

Against this backdrop, Mari finds herself intrigued by a male guest from the hotel. The story opens on the incident which attracts her attention:

‘”Shut up, whore.” The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel. It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger. Instead it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn.

I turned to find the man standing on the landing. He was past middle age, on the verge of being old. He wore a pressed white shirt and dark brown pants, and he held a jacket of the same material in his hand. Though the woman was completely dishevelled, he was not even breathing heavily. Nor did he seem particularly embarrassed. Only the few tangled hairs on his forehead suggested that anything was out of the ordinary.

It occurred to me that I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order. It was calm and imposing, with no hint of indecision. Even the word “whore” was somehow appealing.’

Mari sees the man in the town the next day and follows him. When he confronts her, she is embarrassed, but later they enter into correspondence and a relationship begins to develop. The man, referred to only as the ‘translator’ clearly has violent and controlling tendencies, but this does not deter Mari. In fact this is what seems to appeal to her the most. They enter into a sado-masochistic sexual relationship in which Mari is beaten and punished, bound, sexually assaulted by a man she believes to have killed his first wife. Though Mari is young and sexually inexperienced, she craves the release that the violence gives her; she thrills in her degradation at the translator’s hands.

“The blades touched my abdomen. A cold shock ran through me, and my head began to spin. If he had pressed just a bit harder, the scissors might have pierced my soft belly. The skin would have peeled back, the fat beneath laid bare. Blood would have dripped on the bedspread.

My head filled with premonitions of fear and pain. I wondered whether his wife had died like this. But as these premonitions became realities, pleasure also erupted violently in me. I knew now how I reacted at such a moment: my body grew moist and liquid.”

Hotel Iris is, not surprisingly, a disturbing novel, not least because of how such a young and naïve girl can take such pleasure in the violence enacted upon her, returning over and over for more. Mari is oppressed by everyone around her, her mother particularly though even the maid seeks to control and humiliate her. In the arms of the translator, she appears to seek release, perhaps for her inner rebellion against the constraints in her life, by submitting to his sexual perversity with a combination of fear and thrill. As she describes their relationship unfolding, she reflects on her childhood, particularly her memories of her alcoholic father and how together they would break the rules and boundaries that her mother set for them. Her father’s violent death seems to be a pivotal moment in Mari’s existence, and her submission to her mother a catalyst for the violence of her first sexual relationship.

What Ogawa does really well is create a sense of oppression, a close but non-judgemental examination of Mari’s mind and motivations. I don’t think there is a moment in the novel when she releases the pressure: instead she retains a continuous tension which heightens as the relationship builds to a terrible climax. Consequently this is not a novel to be approached faint-heartedly. It has a nightmarish quality yet with a clinical precision as every action, every step Mari takes is examined in such close detail you feel as though you can see each abrasion from the ropes the translator binds her with, the little drops of blood leaching through the skin. It is dark and vaguely terrifying, yet an absorbing and compelling read, and one that leaves you thinking for a long time afterwards.

Hotel Iris receives a chilling 9 out of 10 Bii’s. Women in Translation month is shaping up to be flipping amazing! 

Saturday 23 August 2014

70% Acrylic 30% Wool by Viola di Grado (translator Michael Reynolds)

Continuing my exploration of female writers in translation, I had an interesting encounter with this, frankly, crazy book by Italian writer Viola di Grado. It is a very strange piece of fiction, strange yet compelling. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool follows the story of Camelia, an Italian girl living in Leeds (Yorkshire, UK) whose life takes a downward turn after the death of her father in an accident which also killed the woman with which he was having an affair. Both she and her mother suffer a kind of breakdown, retreating into silence and darkness.

Camelia had been due to study Chinese at the local university, but instead she found herself caring for her silent, unresponsive mother, a woman who was once a beautiful flautist who was now obsessed with photographing holes (which may have had something to do with her husband dying in a hole). Camelia herself is obsessed with the graveyard (where her dead father lies), destroying flowers and vomiting words. It is apparent that she is emotionally disturbed. One day she discovers some disfigured clothing in a ‘dumpster’ (I will get onto explaining the quotation marks momentarily) which she took to wearing, which led her to Wen, a young Chinese man who offers her Chinese lessons and who she falls in love with. When his brother Jimmy enters the story, however, coupled with Wen’s rejection of a sexual relationship, Camelia’s mental stability takes a turn for the worse, she descends onto a dark path on which her self destructive tendancies overtake her.

I won’t go into too much detail about the story, because that’s not the best part of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool. The best part is the fizz-pop-dazzle of the language. I can’t tell you how wonderfully this book is written, with such a fresh and unique voice. Viola di Grado immediately thrusts you into the crazy centre of Camelia’s world with language that is violent and expressive, exceptional and distinctive. Like here, where Camelia sends away the journalists hoping to interview her mother:

“I accompanied the journalists to the door. When I opened it, I discovered an enormous vulgar sun that had been mysteriously regurgitated from some wintery hole and now sat in front of my house like a flea-bitten dog that wants to come in a lick the food on your table.”

or this:

“Our table. Our lurid, rotten table, honoured guest at meals that were more like vomit-soaked survival tests; our naked table stripped to its raw cheap wood, stained with sauces of every colour and assorted bodily fluids.
Our table full of holes.
Our table that fires off Gatling gun bursts of nuclear memories: Livia Mega sitting in her lingerie with her eyes half closed, a Polaroid camera on her chest in place of her heart.
Our table was now masquerading as a normal table belonging to a normal family. It was dressed in a tablecloth. Blue with obsess cherries and a border of obese strawberries. And on the table two china plates, not plastic ones, arching upwards like real soup plates, like angels in a crèche.”

Through this clever use of language, di Grado presents a world in decay, permanently stuck in December, wintery, grey and unpleasant. But is it? Camelia, seemingly so honest, is something of an unreliable narrator. As she tells her story, some of the truth of the past, the true state of her parents’ relationship, slips through and you wonder how much she wants to change this, or how much she engineers the path towards hers and her mother’s destruction.

It is an absorbing book, which carries you along with its clever use of language, its immediacy and the crazy rollercoaster ride of Camelia’s story. I can’t speak for how the story reads in Italian, but it English it’s fabulous and fantastic, an intentional car-crash of a novel. Which leads me to the one niggle on the translation: switching between American-English and English-English. I picked up on the American-English first, largely because it seemed very out of place in a character raised in Leeds and initially it jarred me quite annoyingly out of the story. On page 12 I almost put the book down, having encountered ‘bangs’ (fringe), ‘dumpster’ (bin), ‘black sweater with rhinestones’ (black jumper with…what? I don’t know what rhinestones are. At a guess diamante? At this point I got that song ‘I’m a Rhinestone Cowboy’ stuck in my head which significantly magnified my annoyance), ‘white turtleneck sweater’ (white somethingorother jumper. Turtleneck means nothing to me. I’ve been to Leeds, I live in the north of England. This is not someone brought up in the north of England speaking). Anyway, having acknowledged that my copy of the book is an American edition I forgave the ‘color’ and inappropriate references, on account of the fact that it was intended for an American audience. I read on. Page 16 I encounter ‘flat’ (apartment) and ‘mobile’ (cell phone) then almost immediately ‘thumbtack’ (drawing pin). Gah! Now I’m noticing where terms are American-English and English-English. Please please Europa Editions, pick one or the other and stick to it. The constant shifting is incredibly jarring.

Fortunately the story is hugely absorbing and after about 50 pages or so I no longer noticed the flipping between Englishes. So despite my grumbling, despite the slightly jarring moments, I very much enjoyed this crazy novel. It is fresh and vibrant, funny in many places and terrifying in others. The story is clever and dark, the use of language is intelligent and interesting and the whole, together, is something well worth reading.  

70% Acrylic 30% Wool receives an awe-brilliant 9 out of 10 Bii’s.

Sunday 17 August 2014

The Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir by Tove Jansson (translated by Kingsley Hart)

Over the course of the past year or so, I’ve found my reading choices have changed. I used to be largely a reader of novels, with a little poetry on the side. Short fiction I have always struggled with, and non-fiction books occupy only a tiny space in my library. In fact non-fiction was something I read when I had a problem I needed to solve, and then only in parts and extracts. Then something happened, I’m not sure what. Suddenly I discovered an interest in nature writing, diaries and memoirs. Those of you who have followed my blog even a little will already know my obsession with Jansson, one of the great but under-rated writers of the last century. So you can imagine my joy when I discovered her memoir, which wraps up nature, Jansson and memoirs all in one. 

The Sculptor’s Daughter follows a very Jansson-esque style. The book comprises a series of short stories, each one self contained yet linked in some manner or other to the others so that the whole feels like a…well…a whole! In it Jansson takes her childhood self and casts her as the protagonist of each episode, using biographical elements to draw out some aspect of her childhood upbringing or some observation of childhood or human nature. Her parents figure heavily in the stories, as does nature and her island and her early relationship with ‘Art’ which had a heavy influence on everything that followed. Yet each story is magical in its own way, honest, wise and unflinching in its gaze. Jansson does not try, in any way, to cast herself as the perfect child. Instead she is wilful, jealous, sometimes nasty, opinionated and suspicious. In other words, like most children though blessed, perhaps, with a somewhat less orthodox upbringing.  She covers a range of interesting stories on subjects from the dark to dressing up, Christmas, females and pets, flotsam and jetsam, the discovery of a shiny stone that almost makes the family fortune (but ruins the stairs instead).

What is special about Jansson’s writing is how she can create so much from seemingly so little, and is able to present her memoirs in a fresh and authentically child-like voice whilst maintaining a piercing vision. Despite, or perhaps because of, this childlikeness, the stories contain Jansson’s customary wisdom and insight into human nature. And they are charming, so so charming. Like here in her chapter about Albert, a childhood friend. The two have just finished building a raft and are sailing out to sea:

“It was slow work paddling but we got going. We reached deep water, but that we all right because we had both nearly learned to swim. After a while we entered the sound near Red Rock.”   

Jansson, as always shows herself to be a master of the short form. She displays a disturbing ability to set tone in a few short sentences. Like here, from the chapter ‘Snow’ that describes a short period in which she and her mother spend some time in a strange house which Jansson clearly didn’t like.

“When we got to the strange house it began to snow in quite a different way. A mass of tired old clouds opened and flung snow at us, all of a sudden, and just anyhow. They weren’t ordinary snowflakes, they fell straight down in large sticky lumps, they clung to each other and sank quickly and they weren’t white, but grey. The whole world was as heavy as lead.”

or here, in the chapter ‘The Dark’

“At the waxworks you can see how easy it is to smash people to pieces. They can be crushed, torn in half or sawn into little bit. Nobody is safe and therefore it is terribly important to find a hiding-place in time.”

Everything that is great about Jansson’s writing, her world view, can be found in The Sculptor’s Daughter. There are elements which show, perhaps, the early origin of her womderful Moomins stories, as well as her keen observation skills and unflinching honesty. It is more special because it gives a small insight into the life of this wonderful writer, how it all began and offers a roadmap to where her artistic talents took her, and us her privileged readers. There are times when it’s not clear whether this is a work of fact or fiction, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. They are wonderful stories, instructive, funny, disturbing and very, very true. Just go read it, okay? Then you’ll see what I mean.

The Sculptor’s Daughter receives a wide-eyed with awe 10 out of 10 Biis. 

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon (translated by Ivan Morris)

The Pillow Book has been sitting by my pillow for an awful long time. I tried to read it last year, but wasn’t in the right frame of mind so it is somewhat curious that this year when I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for reading, this was the right book. Having read it, however, it is perhaps a little less curious, and I’m pleased that Women in Translation month encouraged me to give this book another go. 

Sei Shōnagon lived over a thousand years ago (the year 965 is estimated to be her year of birth) and served in the Imperial Empress’s retinue. Her ‘pillow book’ is a collection of her notes and impressions of her life and experiences, apparently intended for her own consumption only, but as she describes in one of the later passages found its way into the public domain. Though Shōnagon describes her own regret about this “Whatever people may think of my book, I still regret that it ever came to light” for my own part I am glad that it did. The Pillow Book is a delightful read which gives an interesting insight into Heian period during which she lived. It also tells us much about life in the Japanese court, and of course about Shōnagon herself.

The book is organised in short texts collected under a header. Some of these give journal-like descriptions about events and occurrences, and others are Shōnagon’s own thoughts and impressions. She covers a wide range of subjects including the Imperial court, relations between men and women, nature, poetry, art, religion. My favourite parts of the book are her impressions, like these:

I love white, purple and black clouds, and rain clouds when they are driven by the wind. It is charming at dawn to see dark clouds gradually turning white. I believe this has been described in a Chinese poem that says something about the ‘tints that leave at dawn.
It is moving to see a thin wisp of cloud across a very bright moon.

Squalid things
The back of a piece of embroidery.
The inside of a cat’s ear.
A swarm of mice, who still have no fur, when they come wriggling out of their nest…”

I enjoy the artlessness of Shōnagon’s writing, the way she is completely honest about her impressions even though there is some suggestion that her ideas are somewhat at odds with the popular society of the age. There is a kind of innocence in the scenes she describes, the simple things which bring her joy and delight, the things she finds ‘splendid’ or ‘hateful’. There are elements to her observations which may seem frivolous, yet they remain fresh and honest. She does not try to be (or appear to try to be) anyone other than she is.

It is interesting to contrast Shōnagon’s impressions against those in the contemporary world. Scenes like this one:

It was a Clear, Moonlit Night
It was a clear moonlit night a little after the tenth of the Eighth Month. Her Majesty, who was residing in the Empress’s Office, sat by the edge of the veranda while Ukon no Naishi played the flute for her. The other ladies in attendance sat together, talking and laughing; but I stayed by myself, leaning against one of the pillars between the main hall and the veranda.
‘Why so silent?’ said Her Majesty. ‘Say something. It is sad when you do not speak.’
‘I am gazing into the autumn moon,’ I replied.
‘Ah yes,’ she remarked. ‘That is just what you should have said.’

Shōnagon’s book displays the elegance of the Imperial court, and a certain adoration for the Imperial family which is, perhaps, hard to understand in this era. She may be accused of disregard for the poor and her attitude shows perhaps a misplaced reverence for rank and title. Yet though these accusations may be true (I would not disagree myself) it perhaps also honestly reflects many attitudes of the era and gives an insight into Japanese society that a more cautious text might have granted.

For myself I found the book delightful, a soothing and interesting read, and though it is a work of biographical nature, it occupies a similar space and feel as nature and travel books. For me it was a perfect antidote to our technology obsessed society, in which information is instant and there is always something shiny to distract us. Shōnagon shows how we can gain pleasure from much simpler things, like waking in a room with the moonlight shining in, something perhaps few people in our contemporary society ever experience, and it left me wondering how Shōnagon would deal with streetlights and concrete, television and the internet; what would make her list of ‘splendid things’ and ‘enviable people’, what impression would she make of trees and flowers and plants that can be found everywhere, whatever country you are in? I am sure she would still make it interesting and precious, and I would like, in my small way, to put together a pillow book of my own just to see how my impressions compare.

The Penguin Classic edition of The Pillow Book includes lots of useful references in the back, giving more context to the poetic references and the social structures and events that Shōnagon refers to in the book. There’s also several appendices covering modes of dress and the names of the months and times, geographical information, historical chronology and a useful explanation of the structure of the Imperial Court. All this additional information helps to place the book into context and, The Pillow Book aside, make for a fascinating read in their own right.

I leave you with one of Shōnagon’s impressions, her opening passage: In Spring, It is the Dawn:

“In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.
In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!
In autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sinks close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes or fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild geese, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of insects.
In winter the early mornings. It is beautiful indeed when snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season’s mood! But as noon approaches and the cold weather wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ash.”  

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon receives a splendid 9 out of 10 Biis.