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Reading the World: ‘Feather’ by Cao Wenxuan ***

Cao Wenxuan’s Feather is the only children’s book which I have chosen to include upon my Reading the World list.  It has been translated from its original Chinese by Chloe Garcia-Roberts, and has been written by China’s answer to Hans Christian Andersen.  Feather felt like something a little different, both to read and to write about.

31817594Feather opens with Wenxuan’s inspiration for writing the tale: ‘One day a great wind blew through Beijing.  As I was walking into the gale I suddenly noticed a single white feather on the ground go fluttering and floating up into the sky…  The feather was riding the wind with grace and ease yet at the same time precariously and helplessly.’  He wonders about the fate of the feather, and in his book, has made it visit a whole host of different birds to find out where it comes from.  Whilst this circular structure has been designed for children, Wenxuan writes: ‘Underlying this simply story… are actually the core questions of human thought: where do I come from?  Where do I want to go?  Who do I belong to?’  Essentially, he has decided to emulate the human desire of finding a sense of belonging.

Roger Mello’s illustrations were my favourite part of Feather; they are both beautiful and quirky, and really augment the story.  The writing itself is rather simplistic, as one might expect, but some very nice ideas have been woven into it.  The use of the feather’s own perspective is rather sweet and imaginative: ‘How she longed for the sky!  How she longed to soar!’  Feather is sure to delight children with a love of art and nature.  It is difficult, however, to know which age group makes up the target audience; the text is not advanced enough for a lot of children, but includes too many words to make it accessible to younger readers.

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‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera ****

I was determined to read more translated fiction from South America after realising a year or so ago that I had missed out on an awful lot of classics, or hotly tipped novels.  I travelled to the beautiful Mexican island of Cozumel in September too, and wanted to read some Mexican literature before I set off.  Yuri Herrera, deemed ‘Mexico’s greatest novelist’, struck me as an author whose work I should be more familiar with, and I thus requested Signs Preceding the End of the World from the library.

9781908276421The blurb of the novella states that Herrera ‘does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it.  He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back.’  Signs Preceding the End of the World thus felt even more timely, dealing as it does with the migrant experience, which is, of course, at levels of crisis at present.

In Signs Preceding the End of the World, a young woman named Makina is tasked with crossing into the United States to find her brother.  Of his moving to a different country, Herrera writes: ‘…. but he insisted Someone’s got to fight for what’s ours and I got the balls if you don’t.  Cora [their mother] merely looked at him, fed up, and didn’t say a word, until she saw him at the door with his rucksack full of odds and ends and said Let him go, let him learn to fend for himself with his own big balls, and he hesitated a moment before he versed, and in the doubt flickering in his eyes you could see he’d spent his whole life there like that, holding back his tears, but before letting them out he turned and cursed and only ever came back in the form of two or three short notes he sent a long while later.’

Makina’s uncertainty about this task, and her place in the world, has been quite startlingly depicted: ‘She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only the neverending front, coming forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds.  If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.’  Despite this, she is a headstrong and assertive protagonist; she is in control of her own body, to the point of violence at times.

Signs Preceding the End of the World has been split into relatively short sections, with headings such as ‘The Earth’, ‘The Place Where the Hills Meet’, and ‘The Obsidian Mound’.  It is short, even for a novella, and can easily be read in one sitting, but its themes and core ideas are so important that it will be thought about for weeks afterwards.  Herrera’s writing is sometimes beautiful, and at times startling; for instance: ‘There was still some light in the sky but it was burning dark, like a giant pool of drying blood.’

Lisa Dillman’s translation of Herrera’s novella is both intelligent and fluid.  Of course, it is difficult as a non-Spanish speaker for me to ever compare it to the original, but I very much enjoyed the reading experience.  Herrera is so perceptive of the entire migrant experience, and the wealth of emotions which swell within one.  He has made Makina’s crossing at once personal and universal.  Signs Preceding the End of the World is perfectly paced and important, and should be read and chewed over by everyone.

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Reading the World: ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve ****

2017 seems a fitting year in which to read The Beauty and the Beast, as Disney released its live action blockbuster just a few months ago.  I did love the cartoon film as a child – my particular fondness, of course, was for the tiny chipped teacup and the glimpse of Belle’s library – but was very underwhelmed by the new interpretation.  Regardless, I had never read Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original story before, and made up my mind to do so, tying it in with this year’s Reading the World Challenge.9780062456212

I’m sure everyone already knows the story of The Beauty and the Beast, but if not, I will offer a short recap.  The tale of a merchant opens the story; once prosperous, he has lost his fortune due to one catastrophe after another.  He moves his sizeable family – six daughters and six sons – to a secluded house which he owns, one hundred miles away.  Of the effects which this has upon the merchant’s largely spoilt and self-obsessed daughters, de Villeneuve writes: ‘They thought that if they wished only for a husband they would obtain one; but they did not remain very long in such a delightful illusion.  They had lost their greatest attractions when, like a flash of lightning, their father’s splendid fortune had disappeared, and their time for choosing had departed with it.  Their crowd of admirers vanished at the moment of their downfall; their beauty was not sufficiently powerful to retain one of them’.  The girls have no choice but to ‘shut themselves up in their country house, situated in the middle of an almost impenetrable forest, and which might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.’

The family’s youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Beauty, is the anomaly.  She has so much compassion and empathy for her family, and is a refreshing addition to a brood of rather horrid, vain girls.  She in fact shows strength in the face of the family’s new-found adversity: ‘She bore her lot cheerfully, and with strength of mind much beyond her years’.  When her father has to undertake a long journey in the hope of reclaiming some of his former possessions, her sisters clamour for new dresses and finery.  Beauty simply asks him to bring her back a rose.  Her father is subsequently caught in a snowstorm which disorientates him, and seeks shelter in an enormous, grand castle.  He finds no inhabitant, but regardless, a meal is presented to him in a cosy room.  He – for no explicit reason – decides that, with no sign of an owner about, the castle must now belong to him.

The merchant becomes rather cocksure, and decides to kill two birds with one stone, taking a rose for his beloved younger daughter from the castle’s garden.  It is at this point that he is given his comeuppance, and reprimanded by the Beast, the castle’s owner: ‘He was terribly alarmed upon perceiving at his side a horrible beast, which, with an air of fury, laid upon his neck a kind of trunk, resembling an elephant’s…’.  The Beast pardons him only in exchange for one of his daughters.  When the merchant describes his plight, five of his six daughters are, unsurprisingly, selfish, and believe that he should sacrifice himself for their benefit.  Beauty, however, steps up to the mark, and is taken to the castle to live with the Beast.

The Beauty and the Beast has been so well plotted, and has many elements of the traditional fairytale in its favour.  Despite this, it goes further; its length allows de Villeneuve to really explore what could be termed magical realism.  The vivid dreams which Beauty has are beautifully depicted, and tension is built at times.  I found The Beauty and the Beast just as enjoyable as I would have as a child.  The magic which weaves its way through the novel cannot fail to draw one under its spell; there are talking animals, enchanted mirrors, and things which appear and disappear.  The talking crockery and candelabra are very much Disney additions; the novel reads as a far more fresh, and less gimmicky, version of the story.

I am pleased that I chose to read the unabridged version of de Villeneuve’s story, which was published in its original French in 1740.  This particular edition has been translated and adapted by Rachel Louise Lawrence, who has very much retained a lot of its antiquity.  The sentence structure is quite old-fashioned – charmingly so, in fact.  The writing and translation here are fluid and lovely.  I would urge you, if you’ve not seen the film, to pick up this delightful tome instead.  There is so much substance here, and it should definitely be placed alongside children’s classics such as The Railway Children and Mary Poppins.

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Reading the World: ‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang **** (From the Archive)

Human Acts was Katie’s choice for the May instalment of our Chai and Sheep book club.  I had a slight mishap with the library, in that both our May and June choices had rather large waiting lists, and then came in during April; I thus had to read them way ahead of time and try and hide my thoughts.

The novel, Han Kang’s second, has been described as ‘a riveting, poetic and unrelentingly powerful examination of humanity at its most appalling, and its most hopeful.  It is an act of extraordinary resistance and a refusal to forget’.  It is ‘a radically brave novel about an atrocious episode in Korean history’.

Human Acts has been translated from its original Korean, and Deborah Smith won the English PEN Award for doing so.  Kang was adamant that the ‘translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalising the sorrow and shame which her home town was made to bear’.  The novel itself has won awards in Kang’s native country.  I haven’t read much Asian fiction at all, but it does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment, and this book, to me, sounded both strange and intriguing.  9781846275968

The setting is Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, where Kang herself spent some of her childhood.  Following a ‘viciously suppressed student uprising’, many searches ensue – a boy’s for the corpse of his friend, and, perhaps above all, that of a ‘brutalized country’ for its voice.  The novel is told in a sequence of interconnecting, and sometimes overlapping, chapters.  It took until 1997 for this brutal uprising, in which many died, to be memorialised; in fact, ‘casualty figures remain a contentious issue even today’.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a chapter which uses the second person perspective.  This is a relatively simple but incredibly effective tool to set the scene: ‘When you let your eyelids part just the tiniest fraction, the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office are shaking in the wind.  So far, not a single drop of rain has fallen’.  It continues with our journey, as it were: ‘You step into the gym hall, fighting down the wave of nausea that hits you with the stench…  The coffins that have already been through the memorial service have been grouped neatly near the door, while at the foot of the large window, each covered with a white cloth, lie the bodies of thirty-two people for whom no relatives have yet arrived to put them in their coffins.  Next to each of their heads, a candle wedged into an empty drinks bottle flickers quietly’.  This well-evoked setting is a centre filled with volunteers, who are housing the massacred as they await identification.

The next chapter is narrated by the boy’s friend, Park Jeong-dae; he and his sister, Jeong-mi, have both been murdered.  It begins as it means to go on, with the following striking sentence: ‘Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross’.  Bodies are a central theme to the whole: ‘From that moment on, I was filled with hatred for my body.  Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat.  Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun’.

Translator Deborah Smith’s introduction gives valuable background information into the history of Korea, setting out the political and social backdrop which Kang writes against.  ‘Military strongman’ Park Chung-hee has been assassinated when this book begins, and his protege, Chun Doo-hwan, steps up to the plate, expanding martial law and curtailing the freedom of the press, amongst other dictatorial things.  Kang, Smith writes, ‘starts with bodies.  Piled up, reeking, unclaimed and thus unburied, they present both a logistical and an ontological dilemma’.

The contextual information about Korea – a country in which, I must admit, my historical knowledge is rather lacking – was fascinating, as are the facets of culture which are embedded within.  For example, ‘In the Korean context… violence done to the body is a violation to the spirit/soul which animates it’.  Gender politics and regionalism are touched upon in the novel too, and one cannot help but feel that they are learning about a completely different world when they are reading.

Kang’s descriptions are vivid; throughout, there is a very tight control over the vocabulary and the translation.  The characters, even those who are deceased, feel realistic; they all have different wants and longings.  The translation has been perfectly rendered, and there is such a marvellous flow to the whole that it is difficult to believe it has been translated in places.  Kang certainly has a deft hand for writing, and I have heard from so many people that they very much enjoyed The Vegetarian too.  Human Acts is a captivating, stark, and memorable novel, with much to discuss within its deceptively slim covers; the perfect choice for a book club.

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‘Mirror Shoulder Signal’ by Dorthe Nors **

Critical reviewers seem to adore her work on the whole, but the incredibly mixed reviews of Dorthe Nors’ Mirror Shoulder Signal which I have seen around the Internet intrigued me far more than the gushing positives.  Let us begin with some of the more favourable reviews.  Daniel Woodrell writes: ‘To read a Dorthe Nors story is to enter a dream and become subject to its logic’, and the Independent follows a similar thought pattern, stating: ‘Her words whip along, each idea cascading into the next: it’s like having a window into someone’s thoughts’.  The novel – or, rather, novella, as it runs to just under two hundred pages – which was first published in Denmark last year, has been translated from its original Danish by Misha Hoekstra. 9781782273127

Mirror Shoulder Signal follows protagonist Sonja, a translator living in Copenhagen.  She has finally decided to take driving lessons, now that she can afford to, and part of the novel takes place within the space of the car in which she is practising.  The novella opens when Sonja and her driving instructor, Jytte, are getting used to one another in the rather stressful setting: ‘It’s difficult to maintain boundaries in an automobile.  When you’re a driving student, you have to relinquish free will…’.

The novella flits back and forth from the present day to Sonja’s childhood memories.  Whilst I ordinarily find that this technique works well in building up a character in a novel, or a film, Sonja feels relatively one-dimensional.  At first, she comes across as a promising construct, but this is somehow lost.  Her experience with the city was certainly the more interesting part of her story for me: ‘…  the city was overpowering.  The sounds, the faces, the colors all seemed chaotic, and she remembered how she’d lain in bed with earplugs and a blindfold.  Molly lay in the next room and blossomed, but Sonja had to switch off.  She turned down that knob in her brain that let her take in the world at full blast, and once the knob had been turned almost all the way down, the heath, the tree plantation, and the sky overhead seemed empty of content.’  Sonja is the undoubted focus of the novella, but it does not feel as though we ever really get to the core of her; she does not have enough substance to sustain the whole.

The plot within Mirror Shoulder Signal is not the most interesting, and nor does it have much impact.  There are some surprising moments from time to time, and Nors occasionally presents glimpses of character which would not be out of place in a Katherine Mansfield story, but the matter-of-fact prose and way in which loose ends have not been very well pulled together let the whole down immeasurably.  Perhaps if more Danish history and culture had been included, the city would have come to life, and added a sense of immersive reality to the whole.  As it is, the small details of the political climate which have been invited feel a little too brief to satisfy.

Nors’ short stories have been highly praised, and, with hindsight, would have perhaps been a better introduction to her work than Mirror Shoulder Signal proved to be.  At first glance, it appears that it would fit wonderfully upon the Peirene Press list of short, sharp translated fiction, but there is not quite enough depth to it to match any of their other titles.  Mirror Shoulder Signal does not pack a punch in any way; in fact, it is almost profoundly disappointing in its execution.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout adds a detachment to the whole, and despite Hoekstra’s fluid translation, it does not live up to its potential.  The pacing is off too, and the whole feels a little plodding from its outset.

The real joy in Mirror Shoulder Signal is in some of the more poetic sentences, particularly those which deal with the art of translation, such as the following: ‘Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest attention can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.’  Every now and then, there was a sentence such as the above, or an idea, which really piqued my interest, but these threads were soon lost, unfortunately replaced by dullness and predictability.

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Reading the World: ‘The Immoralist’ by Andre Gide *****

I adored Strait is the Gate, the first work of Gide’s which I read, and was eager to carry on with his books.  When I spotted a neat copy of The Immoralist in Books for Amnesty whilst on a shopping trip in Cambridge then, I simply could not resist picking it up.  Seamlessly translated from its original French by David Watson in 2000, and introduced by Alan Sheridan, the novella was first published in France in 1902.

9780141182995The Immoralist takes as its focal point a newly married couple, Michel and Marceline, and is set during the 1890s.  They travel to Tunisia for their honeymoon, where Michel becomes gravely ill with tuberculosis, and learns something fundamental about himself:  ‘During his recovery, he meets a young Arab boy, whose radiant health and beauty captivate him.  This is an awakening for him both sexually and morally and, in seeking to live according to his own desires, Michel discovers a new freedom.  But, as he also finds, freedom can be a burden.’  In this ‘awakening’, The Immoralist feels rather ahead of its time; it is never entirely explicit, but the passion and adoration – almost hero-worship – which Michel feels for the young boy has been tenderly presented.  One can find indications throughout about Michel’s homosexual tendencies; for instance, whilst in Naples, he went ‘prowling’.  Of Marceline, Sheridan writes that Michel sees her ‘as no more than a companion’, although at times one comes to believe that he loves her in his own, albeit platonic, manner; he describes her at the end of the second chapter, for instance, as ‘my wife, my life…’.

The novella – for it runs to just 124 pages – begins with a letter written by an unnamed friend of Michel’s; he and two other friends, who have all been close since their schooldays, travel to Michel after receiving a cry for help: ‘we dropped everything and set off together’.  The story which follows is as it was told to the group of friends, using Michel’s own voice.  This monologue is a simple yet effective plot device, and an awful lot is learnt about our protagonist and his decisions in consequence.  His voice is both engaging and believable, and his character fully-formed.  He is touchingly, and occasionally brutally, honest: ‘I may not love my fiancee, I told myself, but at least I have never loved another woman.  In my view that was enough to ensure our happiness.’  As far as Marceline is concerned, she is rather an exemplary figure; kind and patient, her main priority throughout is Michel, even at those times in which he does not treat her very well, or consider her feelings.

Life and mortality, as well as the overriding issue of morality, are major themes within The Immoralist.  In the first period of his recovery, Michel realises quite how astonishing life is: ‘I am still very weak, my breathing is laboured, everything tires me out, even reading.  But what would I read?  Simply existing is enough for me.’

The Immoralist has been both beautifully written and translated.  Indeed, Watson’s translation has such a fluidity to it that it seems almost a surprise that English was not simply its original language.  I was utterly absorbed throughout my reading of The Immoralist; it is a sensual novel, and it certainly holds something which feels fresh, even to the modern eye.  Gide’s descriptions are decadent, both striking and vivid, and they often have a quiet power to them: ‘The regularly spaced palm trees, drained of their colour and life, looked as if they would never stir again…  But in sleep there is still the beat of life.  Here nothing seemed to be sleeping, everything seemed dead’.

There is rather an enlightening quote which we can take from Sheridan’s introduction: ‘If Michel is an “immoralist” it is not because he finally succumbs to “immorality”: his sexual activities are incidental to the novel’s main concerns.  Michel is an “immoralist” because he has adopted Nietzsche’s view that morality is a weapon of the weak, of a slave mentality’.  Indeed, there are many rather profound ideas which are woven into the text, or which spring up whilst reading and can be considered afterwards.  In his own preface, Gide writes: ‘If I had intended to set my hero up as an exemplary figure, I admit that I would have failed.  Those few people who bothered to take an interest in Michel’s story did so only to revile him with the force of their rectitude.  Giving Marceline so many virtues was not a waste of time: Michel was not forgiven for putting himself before her.’  To see Michel’s end, of course, one needs to read this fantastic and startling novella for themselves; this reviewer shall give nothing further away.  Suffice it to say that perceptive and startling, with a powerful denouement, and a fascinating portrayal of rather an unconventional relationship, I enjoyed The Immoralist just as much as Strait as the Gate.

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Reading the World: ‘The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down’ by Haemin Sunim ***

I haven’t made many forays into non-fiction during my Reading the World Project; whilst this has not been deliberate by any means, it is lovely to be able offer something a little different for this week’s post.  I was given a copy of Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by a dear friend after she undertook a stint of work experience at Penguin. Thoughtfully, Abbie wrote in her note that she thought this tome would be a good antidote to in-depth thesis reading, and it was.

9780241298190Nearly three million copies of the book have been sold worldwide since its publication in 2012, and it has been translated from its original Korean by Chi-Young Kim in collaboration with the author himself.  This year, in fact, marks the publication of its first English translation.  It is essentially a guide to mindfulness, of how to make the most of oneself despite outside factors sometimes wishing to throw us off course.  The subtitle of The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, ‘How to Be Calm in a Busy World’ will, I am sure, speak to many of us in the modern world.  I am personally a very calm person, and rarely get stressed out, but I find books like this lovely to dip in and out of; they are soothing, almost.

Sunim is a Buddhist monk, who lives between his native South Korea and the United States, where he lectures.  Building on a large Twitter and Facebook presence, where he tweets missives and guidance, he has aimed to offer ‘advice on everything from handling setbacks at work to dealing with love and relationships’.  His ‘simple, compassionate teachings transcend religion, borders and ages, and serve as a calming reminder of the strength and joy that come from slowing down’.  This inclusivity is admirable, certainly; one thing which we dearly need in this world is a demonstration of the things which unite us, rather than divide us.

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down has been split into several sections – ‘Rest’, ‘Mindfulness’, ‘Passion’, ‘Relationships’, ‘Love’, ‘Life’, ‘The Future’, and ‘Spirituality’.  Each chapter opens with an essay, which muses upon the subject in question and how best Sunim thinks we should approach it, and is then followed by a series of short pieces, ‘words of advice and wisdom’.

To me, a lot of the short sections felt a little cheesy and patronising, which I’m sure was unintentional on part of the author; we are told, for example: ‘Pat yourself on the back for the hard work you are doing.  Then go to bed one hour earlier as a gift to your body’.  I preferred the essays, which were largely thoughtful and well thought through.  There are some nice pieces of advice given about how best to take notice of the world around us, and spending time with loved ones.  Occasionally, though, this advice is just plain odd, and blunt in its delivery: ‘A good family trip can prevent divorce’.

Much of the book, as one might expect, spirals around spirituality and religion, two topics which do not particularly appeal to me as an atheist.  I did find that Sunim came across as rather preachy at times, which did not endear me to him.  However, he suggests meditation as a way to grasp one’s own consciousness of the world and their place within it, which, I felt, was quite a nice piece of advice which could be easily worked into even a hectic day.  Some of his ideas are nice, and he is clearly passionate about what he is writing about, however, so there is a nice balance to be found within.  It does seem at times as though Sunim was merely working through his own insecurities whilst writing, and several of the asides seem downright obvious.

On an aesthetic level, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down has been beautifully designed, and put me in mind of the recent craze of lovely hygge hardbacks.  Lovely illustrations have been included throughout, which add yet another dimension of calm to the tome.

I believe that The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down will be of most use to those who suffer with anxiety disorders and depression; it is a rather light but fitting book that can be read one small part at a time, and offers useful advice for seeing positives and focusing upon things of importance to the individual.  The author, in fact, recommends that it is not read all in one go, from cover to cover; rather, he says, sections should be digested and reflected upon by the reader before he or she moves on.  The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down would be a very thoughtful addition to a loved one’s bedside table or reading stack, to provide respite from hectic lives, stresses, and other problems.

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