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Translation Database: Day Five

Today marks the final instalment of my picks from the wonderful Translation Database (view it here).  I have chosen all of these books at random, but have tried to ensure that there is a real diversity between picks, both in terms of subject matter, and the original written languages the books were published in.  I hope you have found some books in this week’s showcase which have piqued your interest.

 

1. The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (translated from the Portuguese 1159038by Daniel Hahn; Simon & Schuster)
The narrator of this novel is a rather charming lizard. He lives on Felix Ventura’s living-room wall, Felix, the lizard’s friend and hero of the story, is a man who sells pasts – if you don’t like yours, he can come up with an new one for you, a new past – full of better memories, with a complete lineage, photos and all.”

 

176987392. The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal by Tytti Heikkenen (translated from the Finnish by Niina Pollari; Action Books)
Brainy, rambunctious, gross and sad, the poems of Tytti Heikkinen’s debut English collection make clear why this young poet has become a major force in contemporary Finnish poetry. By turns lyric, limpid, lightly encrusted and slightly mad, these poems knit together the language of “where we are now” until it reads like where we’ve never been and where we are always sentenced to be.

 

3. Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort (translated from the Belarusian by Elizabeth 11505557Oehlkers Wright; Copper Canyon)
Valzhyna Mort is a dynamic Belarusian poet, and Collected Body is her first collection composed in English. Whether writing about sex, relatives, violence, or fish markets as opera, Mort insists on vibrant, dark truths. “Death hands you every new day like a golden coin,” she writes, then warns that as the bribe grows “it gets harder to turn down.”

 

254892154. Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson (translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death; Other Press)
Ester Nilsson is a sensible person in a sensible relationship. She knows what she thinks and she acts according to her principles.  Until the day she is asked to give a lecture on renowned artist Hugo Rask. The man himself sits in the audience, spellbound, and when the two meet afterwards, he has the same effect on her. From then on Ester’s existence is intrinsically linked to that day, and the events that follow change her life forever.  Bitingly funny and darkly fascinating, Willful Disregard is a story about total and desperate devotion and about how willingly we betray ourselves in the pursuit of love.

 

5. Walker on Water by Kristiina Ehin (translated from the Estonian by Ilmar Lehtpere; 21918964Unnamed Press)
A woman cultivates a knack for walking on water, but is undermined by her husband’s brain, which he removes each night when he returns home from work; a couple overcomes the irksome mischief of the gods; a skeptical dragon wonders what sex is all about: this is the world of Kristiina Ehin. From the 2007 British Poetry Society Popescu prize winner for European poetry in translation: a series of comic, surreal adventures. Kristiina Ehin’s quirky voice takes each story directly from the dream state, at times stubborn and resistant, at other times masochistically compliant. Ehin offers up modern folktales in which the very nature of our human identity is at stake-rampant with images and archetypes both new and old, and mediated by the abrupt changes we can only experience in dreams.

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Reading the World: ‘Art in Nature and Other Stories’ by Tove Jansson (One From the Archive)

The entirety of Art in Nature and Other Stories has been translated from its original Finnish by Thomas Teal, who won the Rochester Best Translated Book Award in 2011. This prize sets him in wonderful stead to translate one of Finland’s finest authors and to introduce more of her stories to a wider readership.

9780956308696Art in Nature and Other Stories comprises eleven short stories, all of which are mesmerising from the outset. The title story, ‘Art in Nature’, tells of a ‘very old’ caretaker who has been put in charge of looking after a large art exhibition when it closes each night. He works alone through ‘the long, lonely evenings’, finding solace in the peace around him. One night he comes across a man and woman who have made their way into the exhibition past closing time. Rather than throw them out as protocol dictates, an impassioned and rather surprising discussion about art ensues.

The stories themselves are all rather varied, but there are many which feature protagonists who are artists or are involved with art in some way – a sculptor, a cartoonist, an actress and a writer of children’s books, amongst others. A story entitled ‘The Doll’s House’ follows an upholsterer with a love of classic novels ‘which enchanted him with their heavy patience’, who constructs an elaborate wooden house, assembling it bit by bit: it ‘would be allowed to grow however it wished, organically, room by room’. The characters in every story are beautifully portrayed. All are well-developed and feel like real, fully fleshed out people, and not a single one feels as though their construction has been rushed. Many touches of autobiography can be found throughout.

Jansson’s prose is absolutely and often startlingly beautiful. She describes everyday scenes with such deftness and skill that it feels as though we are viewing the scenes afresh. The reader is essentially given a new perspective through Jansson’s words, in which the wonders of the world are evident. In ‘Art in Nature’, she describes how the sculptures in the exhibition ‘grew up out of the grass, huge dark monuments in smooth incomprehensible formlessness or in tangled convulsions, challenging and disturbing’. The ideas woven throughout the majority of the stories are just lovely. A group of young people in ‘White Lady’ are described as being ‘like a flock of birds… that settle for a moment, for as long as it suits them’.

Ali Smith, one of my favourite all-time authors (as Jansson is too), states ‘that there can still be as-yet untranslated fiction by [Tove] Jansson is simultaneously an aberration and a delight, like finding buried treasure’ – a sentiment which could not be more true. To build up such rich, detailed stories within just a few pages as Jansson does here is masterful, and Teal’s translation of her work is faultless.  Art in Nature and Other Stories is a pure delight from beginning to end. It is an absolute joy to read and certainly reaffirms Jansson’s position as a wonderful storyteller and a master of her craft.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg **** (One From the Archive)

The Brothers is an early Peirene publication, and one I had not been able to find a copy of.  It really took my fancy, particularly since I will happily read anything set within the bounds of Scandinavia.  This particular novella takes the Finland of 1809 as its setting, and has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  The blurb hails it ‘a Shakespearean drama from icy Finland’, and it has been written by an author who is quite the celebrity in his native land. 9780956284068

The brothers of the book’s title are Henrik and Erik, who fought on opposing sides in the war between Sweden and Russia.  To borrow a portion of the blurb, ‘with peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm.  But who is the master?  Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga’.  Its attention-grabbing beginning immediately sets the scene, and demonstrates the chasm of difference between our protagonists: ‘I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming.  Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth.  The brothers are so different.  Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone’.  Later, of Henrik, Erik tells Anna: ‘… he said that we came into this world in the wrong order.  That he’s not comfortable here and doesn’t want to remain here, that he wants to see the world’.

Multiple narrators lead us through the whole.  We are treated to the distinctive voices of the farmhand, Anna, Henrik, Erik, and their mother, the Old Mistress.  This technique makes The Brothers feel like a multi-layered work from the very beginning.  Their voices are distinctive, and the farmhand especially – contrary perhaps to expectations – is sometimes rather profound: ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat and you know him by this coat, by the way it looks and smells.  Henrik’s coat is heavy and gloomy, exuding the dark stench of blood’.

As one might expect, the landscape plays a big part in this novella, as does darkness, both literally and metaphorically.  Characters are often compared to things like trees and woodpiles.  Sahlberg captures things magnificently; he is perceptive of the smallest of details.  Of the Old Mistress, he writes: ‘Her eyes change again.  A moment ago, they were shaded.  Now they darken, open out in the middle, become tiny black abysses which suck in the gaze’.  His prose is thoughtful too, and he continually views things through the lens of others, thinking to great effect how a particular scene will make an individual feel.  For instance, the Old Mistress says, ‘But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander.  And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my neverending list of losses’.  Sahlberg is that rare breed of writer who can get inside his characters’ heads, no matter how disparate they are, and regardless of their gender and age.  Each voice here feels authentic, peppered with concerns and thoughts which are utterly believable, and which are specifically tailored to the individual.

The politics of the period have been woven in to good effect, but Sahlberg makes it obvious that it is the characters which are his focus.  Their backstories are thorough and believable; they are never overdone.  The Brothers is an absorbing novella and, as with all of Peirene’s publications, a great addition and perfect fit to their growing list of important translated novellas.

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Reading the World: ‘The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy’, edited by Johanna Sinisalo ****

Although I have showcased rather a lot of Finnish literature during my 2017 Reading the World Project, I felt that The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, edited by Johanna Sinisalo, would add something a little different to proceedings.  It is an anthology which is comprised of the work of twenty distinct Finnish authors, who span the period 1870 to 2003.  They range from the well-known – Moomin creator Tove Jansson and Arto Paasilinna, for instance – to those which have not been published in English before.   The entirety, with its rather broad scope, has been translated by David Hackston, and is one of the books in the Dedalus series of Fantasy Literature in Translation.

I must begin by writing that I am not personally the biggest fan of fantasy literature; I picked this up because much of it is involved with magical realism, mythology, and Finnish folklore, three topics which I find markedly interesting.  The Independent writes in its review of the book: ‘These excellent stories share an edginess that’s quite distinct from the quirkiness many contemporary English writers prefer to celebrate.’

In her introduction to the anthology, Sinisalo writes: ‘Literature written in the Finnish language is surprisingly young.’  In fact, written literature has existed for only a few centuries, and secular literature only since the 1800s.  Most Finns did, and still do, write in Swedish, which has official language status throughout the country.  As with other Nordic countries, literature is incredibly important for the population; many people read, and Sinisalo points out that ‘literature is read, bought and borrowed from libraries more than almost anywhere else.  Statistically Finns are among the most literate people in the world.’9781903517291

In The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, a lot of the entries are short stories, but there are also some carefully chosen extracts from longer works.  Each entrant is among good company; six of the twenty authors included have received the most prestigious literary award to exist in Finland, and many have been translated in a whole host of different languages.  Sinisalo has intended to ‘build up a cross-section of Finnish fantasy, both thematically and chronologically.’  Whilst the stories included are largely very different, Sinisalo writes that when compiling the book, she ‘observed that certain distinctly Finnish elements and subjects recur throughout these stories, albeit in a myriad of different ways, but in such a way that we can almost assume that, exceptionally, they comprise a body of imagery central to Finnish fantasy literature.’

Throughout, the sense of place and nature is so strong, and the collection is not simply a conglomeration of run-of-the-mill fantasy; rather, it is incredibly literary.  Finland’s rich history inspires the stories, which include such fantastical elements as werewolves, and resurrections of stuffed creatures, as well as isolated storms which play havoc.  Different perspectives have been used, including a very striking story told from the voice of a ghost.  The prose, overall, is beautiful, and its translation has been handled marvellously.

Some stories, of course, appealed to me more than others; I half expected that this would be the case.  However, the collection read as a whole is incredibly rich, and presents a splendid thematic idea.  It has reminded me of stories which I adore, as well as bringing new writers to my attention – Sari Peltoniemi’s ‘The Golden Apple’ is a firm new favourite, for example – which can only be a positive.

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One From the Archive: ‘White Hunger’ by Aki Ollikainen ***

Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is the first book in Peirene Press’ Chance Encounter series, and the 16th publication on their list.  It has been hailed an ‘extraordinary Finnish novella that has taken the Nordic literary scene by storm’.  The novella is also the recipient of several prizes, including the Best Finnish Debut Novel of 2012.

As ever with a Peirene publication, one knows that the story which awaits will be intelligent, thought-provoking and difficult to put down.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, compares White Hunger to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: ‘this apocalyptic story deals with the human will to survive’.

Set in 1867, White Hunger deals with a devastating famine which swept across Finland, affecting everyone in its wake.  The novella’s main protagonist is Marja, a mother and farmer’s wife from the north of the country.  She and her family are slowly starving, and as she has heard that there is bread in St Petersburg, she decides to travel there with her children, Mataleena and Juho.  Her husband Juhani’s impending death is the crux which leads her to leave her home.  Ollikainen uses colour marvellously to describe his final moments: ‘The colour is being drained from Juhani’s face.  The first to go was red, the colour of blood.  Red changed into yellow, then yellow, too, vanished, leaving grey, which is now fading gradually into white’.

Alongside Marja’s story, we learn about others whom she comes across on her journey.  A subplot deals with that of assistant accountant to Finland’s senator, a man named Lars, who is trying desperately to hold everything together: ‘Lars was a mere messenger, but the senator directed his anger at him…  Finally, he [Lars] cursed the stupid farmers in the country’s interior – fat, lazy landowners who threw out their workers so they would have more for themselves, even though by rights they should have fed their poor’.  Ollikainen also speaks about Lars’ brother Teo, a local doctor, whose methods of practice add more historical perspective to the whole.

The descriptions throughout White Hunger show the desolation and starkness of the surroundings, and the power which nature has upon the people: ‘The wind tugs waves out of the water.  The sky reflected there is patchy, fragmentary, as if smashed’.  The rural and bleak situation of the unnamed Finnish town are well built too: ‘Your hometown’s a miserable village on a wretched little island’, Teo is told.  The author’s building of scenes in this manner adds an almost claustrophobic feel to the whole.  The presence of snow, which is described as a ‘suffocating blanket of white’, is sinister in itself: ‘The door is the worst.  Snow pushes in through the chinks and forms a frame, like a cadaver bent on settling in the cottage…  They need to get as far away as possible from their miserable patch of land.  All that is left here is death’.

Ollikainen’s occasional use of present tense adds an immediacy to the whole, and makes it feel almost contemporary at times, despite its historical setting.  The comparisons which he makes between humans and animals is so perceptive; images such as one character ‘grinning wolf-like’, and another ‘hunching his narrow shoulders in the manner of a dog caught by his master up to no good’ are prevalent.

White Hunger has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  Both translators are fabulously thoughtful at what they do, and the whole has a marvellous flow to it.  The novella is quite tender in places, and this contrasts well with the more frightening elements.  As one might expect with a plot such as this, darker aspects of life have been woven throughout – prostitution, murder, and the objectification of women, for example.  The bleak and powerful plot and almost compulsive readability make White Hunger a good fit upon the Peirene Press list.

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‘As Red As Blood’ by Salla Simukka ****

Salla Simukka’s As Red As Blood was first published in Finland last year, and has been translated into English by Owen F. Witesman.  The novel is, says its blurb, the first book in a ‘stunning thriller sequence from [an] acclaimed Finnish crime writer’.

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The protagonist of the piece is Lumikki Andersson, a young high school student living in Tampere, who has a rule ‘not to mind other people’s business’ – a rule which is about to be challenged by circumstance.  She is ‘drawn deep into the heart of Finland’s criminal underworld’ when she finds a stash of bloodstained money in her elite art school’s photography room.  She soon becomes a target, and has to ‘out-smart a ruthless killer’ in consequence.

As Red As Blood begins at the end of February, a time at which ‘Fifteen minutes earlier everything had still been possible…  Now each moment saw more red intermingling with the white, spreading, gaining ground, creeping forward through the crystals, staining them as it went’.  A Russian woman named Natalia Smirnova is introduced in this, the book’s first chapter, as she is making her escape from the scene to a dacha in the Russian countryside.  She is shot dead before she can flee, however, and it is her blood which stains the banknotes. The money is then found mysteriously in the garden of Elisa, a girl in Lumikki’s school year.

Lumikki is drawn into the mystery when she discovers the money in the refuge of the dark room.  When she returns to the room, having made a decision with what to do regarding her discovery, she finds that the money is gone.  Elisa and two of her friends, including Tuukka, the son of the school’s principal, have smuggled it out of the school and are intending to keep it.  It is when Lumiiki tails them and is caught in the act that she becomes involved in their plan, much to her dismay.

The third person narrative perspective and sentence structures used throughout works well.  Simukka is great at creating tension and describing scenes, using as few words as possible.  The novel draws you in almost immediately, and as a character study within such circumstances, it is fascinating.  As Red As Blood is certainly a great addition to the Scandinavian crime fiction which has recently been translated into English, and I imagine that there will be many who will eagerly await the second volume in the series.

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