Whilst reading as many novellas as I could get my hands on for this Novella November celebration, I came across a few titles which were fine, but which I didn’t want to write a full review of. Rather than leave my thoughts solely in my notebook, I wanted to group together three books in translation. These might end up being just what you’re looking for in your reading life, and I do hope that you find something of interest here.
The Tiger and the Acrobat by Susanna Tamaro; translated from the Italian by Nicoleugenia Prezzavento and Vicki Satlow
The Tiger and the Acrobat is one of those animal-focused fables, which have enjoyed popularity in recent years, and have been translated into many languages. In the vein of the Korean The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, and the Japanese The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, I liked this well enough, but found parts of it rather repetitive and overdone.
The focus of this story is named Little Tiger. As a cub, in the region between the taiga and the Arctic tundra, she lives with her protective mother and playful brother. From the first, Little Tiger is highly philosophical, and wants nothing more than to ‘discover her own place’ within the world. This comes when her mother decides the cubs are old enough to fend for themselves, and sets off alone. Little Tiger tries to follow her, but cannot find her trail; instead, she starts to head east. She befriends a couple of humans along the way, who allow her to live with them, or help her to escape.
The Tiger and the Acrobat was rather mawkish in places, and I must say that I really disliked the way in which Little Tiger could communicate with humans. I didn’t think this was necessary, and it really added an element to the story which I was unable to suspend my disbelief for. The story is undoubtedly easy to read, with its very short chapters and rather simplistic prose, but I’m not sure that I got much from it overall. The plot is sometimes contradictory, and a little inconsistent, and it does feel a little too obvious most of the time.
The Little French Recipe Book by Jacky Durand; translated from the French by Sarah Robertson
I love France, and have really missed being able to travel there regularly over the last couple of years. Whenever I visit my local library, or – more rarely – find myself in a bookshop, I always find myself drawn to titles either set in France, or originally written in French. This led to me picking up Liberation journalist Jacky Durand’s debut, The Little French Recipe Book. And, for me, something which is just as good as French books? French food.
Our protagonist here is Julien. For thirty years, he was wondered why his mother abruptly walked out on him, leaving him with his standoffish chef father. In the present day, in the east of France, his father is dying from advanced cancer, and has been in hospital for six months. He passes away early in the narrative, which then shifts to Julien’s childhood and teenage years.
I liked the way in which so much of Durand’s writing was focused upon food, and I found his descriptions quite evocative, and hunger-inducing. The characters, though, were rather flat on the whole, and I found Julien wholly unlikeable. The book was not overly compelling in my opinion, and the mystery element – the notebook which his father filled with recipes, and which Julien so coveted – was rather disappointing in its denouement. This isn’t a bad novella by any means, and I would recommend it if you too are interested in culinary delights, but I’m not sure I’d seek out any of Durand’s books in future.
The Doll by Ismail Kadare; translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson
Ismail Kadare’s The Doll feels, in part, like a work of autobiography rather than fiction. The main character in the book has the same name as the author, and the story itself is rooted in Kadare’s Albanian homeland, in the Gjirokastër region, and later in the capital, Tirana. Subtitled ‘A Portrait of My Mother’, The Doll focuses mainly upon the narrator’s rather fascinating, and tiny, mother.
I enjoyed some of the writing here, particularly those sentences which tried to describe the enigma of the mother. Kadare writes, for instance, ‘Lightness. The wooden stairs of the house, usually so sensitive, never creaked under her feet. Like her steps, everything about her was light – her clothes, her speech, her sighs.’ He later describes her ‘fragility’ as something akin to ‘paper or plaster of Paris’. Another area of interest for me here was the inclusion of so many Albanian customs, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading about.
The Kadare of the story is open about his relationship with his mother, and the effects which they have upon one another. Whilst I found The Doll relatively interesting on the whole, I did feel as though the storyline began to wane somewhat at around the halfway mark. I did not know in which direction the story would go, but it did not really keep me guessing, and I can’t say that I was blown away by it. I would like to read more of Kadare’s books in future, but I must say that I didn’t like this anywhere near as much as Broken April, which I read back in 2018. I would, however, recommend this short volume if you’re looking for something a little different to read, which is steeped in another culture.