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Reading the World: ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali ***

Originally published in Turkey in 1943, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat is still a national bestseller.  Ali was ‘one of the most influential Turkish authors of the twentieth century’, and his most famous novel, Madonna in a Fur Coat, which is a ‘classic of love and longing in a changing world’, is now available for the first time in English. 9780241293850

Madonna in a Fur Coat takes as its focus a young Turkish man, who moves to Berlin in the 1920s in order to learn a trade.  A chance meeting with a woman in the city ‘will haunt him for the rest of his life’.  Its blurb calls it ’emotionally powerful, intensely atmospheric and touchingly profound’.  Madonna in a Fur Coat opens in a manner which both coolly beguiles and intrigues: ‘Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression.  Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts.  As I sit here alone, I can see his honest face, gazing off into the distance, but ready, nonetheless, to greet all who cross his path with a smile.  Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man’.  The narrator then recounts Raif’s story, which is given to him in the form of a rather sensual diary beginning in 1933, when Raif lays upon his deathbed.

Raif is the German translator who is employed by the same company as the narrator in Ankara; the pair share an office.  He soon becomes fascinated by Raif and his disinterest; he keeps himself to himself, and evades questions about his personal life.  This very mystery acts as something akin to a magnet.  The narrator goes to visit him when he is absent from work due to illness, and finds that his home life, spent in an overcrowded and cramped house, is far from pleasant and desirable: ‘Though it was Raif Efendi who bore the cost of all this, it made no difference to him if he was present or absent.  Everyone in the family, from the oldest to the youngest, regarded him as irrelevant.  They spoke to him about their daily needs and money problems, and nothing else.’  The familial relationship, as well as the tentative friendship which unfolds between both men, are both built well, and are thus rendered believable in consequence.

The translation, which has been carried out in tandem by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, is effective.   Ali’s prose is more often than not beautifully wrought, and is sometimes quite profound: ‘It is, perhaps, easier to dismiss a man whose face gives no indication of an inner life.  And what a pity that is: a dash of curiosity is all it takes to stumble upon treasures we never expected.’  The narrative voice has such a clarity, and certainly a lot of realism, to it.

One of the most important elements of this novella is the way in which Ali displays both Turkish and German history, politics, and culture, particularly with regard to the ways in which both countries altered following the First World War.  The mystery at the heart of the novel certainly kept me interested.  Madonna in a Fur Coat is really rather touching, and reminded me a little of Stefan Zweig.  There is something about it, however, which makes it entirely its own.

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Reading the World: ‘Mend the Living’ by Maylis de Kerangal ***

9780857053855Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, which won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017, was first published in France in 2014, and has been translated from its original French by Jessica Moore.  Its critical reception has been incredibly good; M. John Harrison in The Guardian writes that the novel is: ‘Filmically powerful, beautifully translated… [and] glorious’, and Astrid de Larminat in Figaro states: ‘This breathless novel has all the beauty of a Greek tragedy.’  Mend the Living was also longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Mend the Living takes place over the space of a single day, and essentially tells the story of a heart transplant.  At the beginning of the novel, the heart resides in young Simon Limbeau; he is rendered braindead after a severe car accident following a beautifully evoked surfing trip.  The novel’s opening sentence, which is three hundred words long, begins in the following way, and gives one a great taster of de Kerangal’s prose style: ‘What it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, this human heart, from the moment of birth when its cadence accelerated while other hearts outside were accelerating too, hailing the event, no one really knows…’.

Following Simon’s death, de Kerangal writes: ‘… and on this night – a night without stars – while it was bone-crackingly cold on the estuary and in the Caux region, while a reflectionless swell rolled along the base of the cliffs, while the continental plateau drew back, unveiling its geological stripes, this heart was sounding the regular rhythm of an organ at rest, a muscle slowly recharging…’.  De Kerangal’s prose is similarly poetic throughout, but does tend to verge upon the pretentious – with its ‘grandiloquent choreographies’, and ‘alveolar intensity’ – from time to time.  It is so vivid and sensual, however, that it gives the reader the opportunity to be present in every single moment depicted.  Moore’s translation is flawless; it must have taken an awful lot of work to render such long, complex sentences, and the style of prose.  Of a lot of interest is Moore’s translation note; she describes the way in which she ‘grappled with Maylis’s labyrinthine phrases’.

De Kerangal captures the uncontrollable grief of Simon’s mother incredibly well: ‘… the past has grown massive all at once, a life-guzzling ogre, and the present is nothing but an ultra-thin threshold, a line beyond which there is nothing recognisable.  The ringing of the phone has cloaked the continuity of time, and before the mirror where her reflection freezes, hands clutching the edges of the sink, Marianne turns to stone beneath the shock.’  The author also makes good use of building tension and creating uncertainty.

Mend the Living is certainly an intelligent and thoughtful novel.  It is not an easy read, per se; one really has to concentrate upon each, almost invariably long sentence.  I am one of the few not to adore it, but Mend the Living is certainly an admirable novel, with so many qualities to it.  The medical elements have clearly been meticulously researched, and the use of each chapter following a different character creates further depth.  Regardless, de Kerangal did not quite capture as much as I would have imagined.

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Reading the World: ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov **** (One From the Archive)

Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake is the newest addition to the Peirene list, and is the first in the Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series.  It was first published in Russia in 2011, and as with all of the Peirene titles, this is its first translation into English.  Andrew Bromfield has done a marvellous job in this respect, and it goes without saying that the book itself is beautiful.

The author’s own life is worth mentioning in this review.  Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan, and moved to Uzbekistan when he was a young man.  In 1994, he was forced to move to the United Kingdom due to his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’.  Whilst his work has been translated into many European languages – Spanish, French and German among them – it is still banned in Uzbekistan to this day.

The Dead Lake, says its blurb, is ‘a haunting tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War’.  The novella has received high praise indeed; the Literary Review says that the author ‘has the capacity of Salman Rushdie at his best to show the grotesque realization of history on the ground’.  Meike Ziervogel, the owner of Peirene Press, likens the novella to a Grimm’s fairytale due to the way in which the story ‘transforms an innermost fear into an outward reality’.

‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov (Peirene Press)

Its premise is absolutely stunning, and is at once both clever and creative: “Yerzhan grows up in a remote part of Soviet Kazakhstan where atomic weapons are tested.  As a young boy he falls in love with the neighbour’s daughter and one evening, to impress her, he dives into a forbidden lake.  The radioactive water changes Yerzhan.  He will never grow into a man.”

The Dead Lake begins with a note from the narrator, which denotes the moment at which he met our protagonist, Yerzhan, upon a train.  He tells his tale to the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout, and who punctuates it with his own feedback, recollections and imagined ending: ‘The way Yerzhan told me about his life was like this road of ours, without any discernible bends or backtracking’.

The story then centres upon Yerzhan himself, beginning with his uncertain birth: ‘Yerzhan was born at the Kara-Shagan way station of the East Kazakhstan Railway…  The column for “Father” in his birth certificate had remained blank, except for a thick stroke of the pen’.  His mother attests that his conception came as a surprise after she, ‘more dead than alive’, made her way into the deserted steppe to follow her silk scarf after it had blown away.  Here, she states that she came face to face with ‘a creature who looked like an alien from another planet, wearing a spacesuit’.  Since a cruel beating from her own father which was sustained after her pregnancy began to show, she has not spoken a single word.

Only two families live in the small way station named Kara-Shagan, and the sense of place and the desolation which Ismailov creates from the outset is strong.  The use of local words, folktales and songs adds to this too, and all of the aforementioned elements help to shape both the culture of the characters and their situation in an underpopulated part of their country.  The setting is presented as a character in itself at times, and this is a wonderful tool with which to demonstrate its vital importance to those who live within it.

As with all of Peirene’s titles, The Dead Lake is filled to the brim with intrigue from the very beginning.  Yerzhan has been well crafted, and his childish delight in particular has been well translated to the page.  When hearing his violin being played by a Bulgarian maestro of sorts, Ismailov describes the way in which: ‘the sound was so pure… even a blind man would have seen the blue sky, the dance of the pure air, the clear sunlight, the snow white clouds, the joyful birds’.

On a far darker note, the overriding fear of atomic bombs and the looming of a third world war gives the story an almost apocalyptic feel: ‘We are travellers, and the sky above us is full of enemy planes’.  The Dead Lake is quite unlike anything which I have read to date.  Ismailov presents a most interesting glimpse into a culture which is entirely different to ours.  The novella is absorbing, and the entirety is so powerful, particularly with regard to its ending.

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Reading the World: ‘Therese Desqueyroux’ by Francois Mauriac ****

Therese Desqueyroux is my first Francois Mauriac title.  I read, not the edition pictured, but an older Penguin Classics compilation of the titular story, Therese Desqueyroux (1927) as well as three other tales which follow Therese’s life – ‘Therese and the Doctor’ (1928), ‘Therese at the Hotel’ (1928), and ‘The End of the Night’ (1935).  The dates mentioned relate to their original French publication; the years in which they were first translated into English are 1928 for the original, and 1947 for the three others.  Gerald Hopkins is the translator for both Penguin editions.

9780141394053The two novellas, and two short stories, which follow Mauriac’s most famous literary creation, are set in Bordeaux and Paris.  They chart her ‘passionate, tortured life…  Her story, brilliantly and unforgettably told, affirms the beauty and vitality of the human spirit in “the eternal radiance of death”‘.  Of Mauriac’s writing, Justin O’Brien tells the following in the New York Times: ‘Both his subject and his style frequently recall Racine and Baudelaire; and indeed we often feel that we are dealing here with a poem, so rich is the symbolism and so fleet is the arrangement of themes.’  Martin Seymour-Smith says that: ‘His books are bewitchingly readable.’

The author’s foreword, directed as it is toward Therese, ends: ‘I take my leave of you upon a city’s pavements, hoping, at least, that you will not for ever be utterly alone.’  The title story begins with Therese walking from court, ‘having been charged with attempting to poison her husband’.  We then follow Therese as she is banished from her home, escapes to Paris, and spends her final years of solitude waiting.  Mauriac’s depiction of the Paris cityscape is nothing short of stunning: ‘It is not the bricks and mortar that I love, nor even the lectures and museums, but the living human forest that fills the streets, the creatures torn by passions more violent than any storm.’

There are so many small yet unusual details which render Therese a believable, and markedly human, character: ‘She took off her left-hand glove and began picking at the moss which grew between the old stones of the walls they passed’, and ‘Once more she breathed in the damp night air like someone threatened with suffocation.’  Mauriac clearly believes that he has built her up to such a realistic position; he writes: ‘But compared with her own terrible existence all inventions of the novelist would have seemed thin and colourless.’  His depiction of Therese’s motherhood is often startlingly beautiful: ‘There, in the darkness, the young mother would hear the even breathing of her slumbering child, would lean above the bed and drink down, like a draught of cool, refreshing water, the small sleeping life.’

In Therese Desqueyroux, Therese tries desperately to remember why she married her husband; she loves him, both for himself, and what he stands for – property, family, security – but the passion which she would have imagined she had felt is unavailable to her.  Soon after their marriage, Mauriac shows that things began to go sour, particularly for her husband, Bernard: ‘… their being together no longer gave him any happiness.  He was bored to death away from his guns, his dogs, and the inn…  His wife was so cold, so mocking.  She never showed pleasure even if she felt any, would never talk about what interested him.’  As for Therese: ‘She was like a transported criminal, sick to her soul of transit prisons, and anxious only to see the Convict Island where she would have to spend the rest of her life.’

Therese Desqueyroux has been both beautifully written and translated.  Therese’s story is incredibly sad, and demonstrates how one can be overruled and shunned in terms of their character and choices. One cannot help but feel for Therese; she is a fascinating character to study.  I did not quite love the collection, but the title story particularly was so interesting to read.

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Reading the World: ‘But You Did Not Come Back’ by Marceline Loridan-Ivens ****

In 1944, when she was just fifteen, Marceline Loridan-Ivens and her father were arrested in occupied France, and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  At the concentration camp, the pair were forcibly separated, and she was only able to speak to her father once more.  But You Did Not Come Back is a letter to the father whom ‘she would never know as an adult, to the man whose death has enveloped her life.  With poignant honesty, she tells him of the events that have continued to haunt her, of the collapse of their family, and of her efforts to find a place in a changing world’.  Le Parisien calls Loridan-Ivens’ memoir ‘one of the most beautiful books of the year’, and promise that ‘you will read it in one sitting’.  But You Did Not Come Back has been translated from its original French by Sandra Smith, who handles all of the Irene Nemirovsky translations.  It was first published in 2015, and in English last year.

9780571328024But You Did Not Come Back begins in the following way: ‘I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us. …  But I’m changing.  It isn’t bitterness, I’m not bitter.  It’s just as if I were already gone. …  I don’t belong here anymore.  Perhaps it’s an acceptance of death, or a lack of will.  I’m slowing down.’  She goes on to harrowingly describe the situation which she and her father were thrust into, and how their separation affected her: ‘Between us stood fields, prison blocks, watchtowers, barbed wire, crematoriums, and above all else, the unbearable certainty of what was happening to us all.  It was as if we were separated by thousands of kilometers.’

Loridan-Ivens meets her father once more, quite by chance when returning from a work detail.  When the pair embrace, she describes the following: ‘Our senses came alive again, the sense of touch, the feel of a body we loved.  That moment would cost us dearly, but for a few precious seconds, it interrupted the merciless script written for us all.’  The next day, she passes him again: ‘You were there, so close to me, very thin, wearing a baggy striped uniform, but still a magician, a man who could astonish me.’  She is just as honest about what being imprisoned in such a notorious concentration camp does to her, and those around her: ‘The first things we lost were the feelings of love and sensitivity.  You freeze inside so you don’t die.  There, you know very well how the spirit shrivels, the future lasts for five minutes, you lose who you are.’  Whilst detailing her experiences within the camp, Loridan-Ivens often writes using ‘we’ rather than ‘I’; through this narrative choice, she demonstrates just how many were in the same situation as her, and the collective feelings which were shared.  Her voice continually speaks to her father; she addresses questions to him, and aches to know his opinions.

Loridan-Ivens was eighty-six when she chose to write But You Did Not Come Back, and it is clear that doing so was a very painful experience.  She describes her isolation when the war ends and Bergen-Belsen, where she is transported to, is liberated; returning home, she finds that nobody but her father understood what she went through in the camps, and the majority of people around her forbid her to talk of her experiences.  She writes: ‘I wasn’t running away from ghosts, quite the contrary, I was chasing after them, after you.  Who else could I share anything with?’

But You Did Not Come Back is incredibly moving and poignant; it is as heartfelt as it is heartbreaking.  Just one hundred pages long, it can be read in a relatively short time, but its messages are unlikely to be forgotten.  Loridan-Ivens demonstrates in her beautiful and brave memoir, which has been seamlessly translated, that the bond between father and daughter can never truly be broken.

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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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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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