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Fiction in Translation

Without meaning to, I read rather a lot of translated fiction in one go in November.  Both books which I will be writing about here interested me rather a lot for many reasons.  One, Like Water for Chocolate, I was very impressed by, and the other, The Door, left me feeling a little flat.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel ****

‘Like Water for Chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel

Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s bestselling debut novel was translated from the Spanish, and I found my copy for just £1 outside Books for Amnesty on a recent trip to Brighton.  I don’t usually read romance novels of any kind, but I remembered that I had written this book in my very first ‘to-read’ notebook when I first began it at the age of sixteen, and added it to my pile immediately.  I also feel that I need to read more South American fiction, as I have sadly not really got past my dislike of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and feel that it has put me off from exploring the continent’s literature further.  Starting with something which was relatively mainstream in that case felt like a good way in which to ease myself in.

Like Water for Chocolate begins in rather an interesting way, with the unusual birth of one of the main protagonists, Tita.  This is triggered by her hatred of onions: ‘Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves and coriander, steamed milk, garlic and, of course, onion.’  Her story continues from this point onwards, and she grows along with the novel.  I very much enjoyed the inclusion of recipes throughout the novel, and the way in which it has been split into chapters which correspond to different months.  Like Water for Chocolate is incredibly engrossing, and Esquivel weaves her tale wonderfully.  The elements of magical realism were both quirky and bizarre, and worked marvellously with the plot which she fashioned.

The Door by Magda Szabo ***
I believe that this is the first novel translated from Hungarian which I have read.  On the whole, I found The Door intriguing and a little unsettling, but my comments about it are rather mixed.  In this novel, Szabo tells the story of a couple – the wife an author and the husband too unwell almost all the way through the book to work – and how Emerence, a cleaner in the small district in which they live, comes into their lives.

My favourite element of the story was the way in which Emerence had been constructed.  She was an incredibly enigmatic character, particularly at first.  In some ways, however, she seems to be the only three-dimensional inclusion in the entire book.  It feels as though far more thought has gone into her construction than into anything else.  The unnamed narrator felt rather flat, and I was constantly irritated by her self-pity.  I found her ‘I know best’ and ‘woe is me’ attitudes rather grating.  Her husband, also unnamed, was a mere shadow.

The Door is extremely narrative driven.  It often reads like a monologue of sorts, and whilst this technique was rather absorbing during the novel’s beginning, the plot did become rather saturated in consequence.  I found the animal cruelty throughout rather difficult to read.  The translation sadly feels rather disjointed, particularly during the longer sentences.  I feel that The Door would have been far more powerful and enjoyable had it been a novella.

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‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes ***

The Sense of an Ending is Julian Barnes’ eleventh novel, and the first of his books which I’ve read.  It was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2011.  I did not choose to read it during all of the Man Booker hype – and believe me, there was a lot of it that year – as I did not want popular opinion to impact upon my thoughts of this novel.  Opinion during this period was incredibly divided, and The Sense of an Ending seemed to be a book which critics loved and general readers hated.  I left it two years before purchasing my own copy, and read it soon afterwards.

‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

Overall, I found the novel rather intelligently written.  My main qualm, however, was the way in which the speech of the characters did not always seem realistic.  I had trouble, for example, imagining that many – if any – teenage boys, despite the period of time or circumstances in which the book is set, would speak in the same way as one of the book’s protagonists, Adrian.  Veronica was the most interesting character construct for me, and I liked not knowing what her next actions would be.  Despite this, I found myself quite unable to warm to any of the characters, and found them all rather pretentious.  They did, however, interest me enough to want to read on.

I seem to fall within the centre of the two very divided camps which existed upon this novel’s publication and subsequent prize win.  The Sense of an Ending is a relatively good novel, interesting enough and rather well plotted.  I must admit though that I did not really ‘get’ the hype which surrounded it for so long.  It is not a book which I couldn’t bear to put down whilst reading; nor is it a book which I contemplated giving up at any point.  It did feel rather stagnant and depressing at times, but the ending pulled it together for me, and I felt that Barnes’ choice of plot was rather clever.  Whilst I am not yet a Barnes convert, I would like to read another of his books in future to see how it compares.