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Reading the World: ‘Water for Chocolate’ and ‘The Door’ (From the Archive)

9780552995870Like 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 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 *** 9780099470281
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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Reading the World: ‘Eva Luna’ by Isabel Allende **

The only book of Isabel Allende’s which I had read prior to Eva Luna was The House of the Spirits.  I liked it well enough, but I must admit that I did find it a little disappointing, particularly considering the wealth of great reviews which I made sure to read before making my selection.  Regardless, several years have elapsed, and I felt that it was time to pick up another of her books.  I plumped for Eva Luna as the storyline appealed to me the most, and I felt that it would be an interesting inclusion for my Reading the World project, too.

Allende is rather a prolific author, who was born in Peru and now resides in California; many of her books have been widely translated into ‘more than twenty-seven languages’, and have consequently become bestsellers over four continents.  This particular translation of Eva Luna, which was published originally in 1987, has been worked on by Margaret Sayers Peden. 9780241951651

In the novel, Allende ‘tells the sweet and sinister story of an orphan who beguiles the world with her astonishing visions, triumphing over the worst of adversity and bringing light to a dark place’.  The novel’s opening sentences certainly captured my attention: ‘My name is Eva, which means “life,” according to a book of names my mother consulted.  I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of these things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory’.

Allende then moves to the story of Eva’s mother, Consuelo, who is raised in a convent after being abandoned by her parents.  Consuelo fashions stories about herself in order to craft the solid history which has been taken from her.  The political detail and customs which have been included is rich and interesting, and whilst the country in which the action as such takes place is unnamed, many similarities can be drawn between different dictatorships around the world, not just in South America.  I was reminded in this of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It should be mentioned too that the retrospective positioning of Eva is effective in telling her story.

After her mother’s death, when she is just six years old, Eva is moved to a convent and is expected to work: ‘I never hurried to obey, because I soon discovered that if I was careful I could dawdle and get through the day without doing much of anything’.  Despite the plot enticing me, I do not feel as though it was detailed enough to fill a novel of this length; it also tended to become rather convoluted and predictable.  My interest was not held as much as I had expected it to be; indeed, I have come away from the novel feeling a touch disappointed.

Allende’s writing is certainly intelligent, and her descriptions detailed.  At times, however, the novel did feel a little pretentious in its prose. This is strongest at the beginning of the book, as we are getting to know about Eva and her background.  Afterwards, some of the prose is quite lovely: ‘She manufactured the substance of her own dreams, and from those materials she constructed a world for me.  Words are free, she used to say, and she appropriated them; they were all hers.  She saved in my mind the idea that reality is not only what we see on the surface; it has a magical dimension as well and, if we so desire, it is legitimate to enhance it and color it to make our journey through life less trying’.  Despite any qualms which I had about the writing, Eva Luna has been well translated, and there is a definite fluidity to it.  It has made me a little reluctant to pick up more of Allende’s work in future, however.

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Reading the World: ‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin ****

Samanta Schweblin has been heralded as one of the freshest new voices to emerge from the Spanish-speaking world.  An Argentinian author, her debut novel, Fever Dream, is one which I hadn’t heard of before it piqued my interest on Netgalley.  Translated by Megan McDowell, Fever Dream is a tense and well-paced novel, with an intriguing mystery at its heart.

9780399184598The general plot deals with a young mother named Amanda, who is lying in bed in a rural hospital clinic.  She is dying.  Beside her is David, a young boy who isn’t her son, but who sees her as holding the pivotal key to the mystery which he needs to unlock.  ‘Together,’ reads the blurb, ‘they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family’.  Fever Dream is ‘a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale’.

David is poisoned when he drinks from an infected stream.  His mother Carla, not trusting that the village doctor will reach him in time to save him, entrusts his care to a local woman. She tells her that a migration of his soul is the only way to save her son: ‘The woman said that she couldn’t choose the family he went to…  She wouldn’t know where he’d gone.  She also said the migration would have its consequences.  There isn’t room in a body for two spirits, and there’s no body without a spirit.  The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit to the sick body.  Something of each of them would be left in the other’.

The narrative style, told solely through the format of a contemporary conversation (think italicised text and no speech marks) is very intriguing, and catapults the reader straight into the story.  Very early on, Amanda tells David – and the reader, by design – ‘… but I’m going to die in a few hours.  That’s going to happen, isn’t it?  It’s strange how calm I am.  Because even though you haven’t told me, I know.  And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself’.  She goes on to ask him the following: ‘How different are you now from the David of six years ago?  What did you do that was so terrible your own mother no longer accepts you as hers?  These are the things I can’t stop wondering about’.

Crossing genre boundaries, Fever Dream is a short but memorable novel.  It strikes the same unsettling chord as a horror film, just before something jumps out and terrifies you.  One is palpably aware of a danger, which has been translated so well that it reads as though English is its original language.

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Reading the World: An Ending

The eagle eyed amongst you will realise that I have not journeyed to South America or Australasia yet, but there is a reason for this; I have read very little set within either region, vast as they are.  Should you have any recommendations for me set on either continent, I would be very grateful.

book-stack

Books

All that is left for me to say is thank you so much for armchair travelling with me; it’s been a wonderful journey!  I shall leave you with a few questions, should you wish to answer them.

  1. Has this project inspired you to read any more widely?
  2. Which are your favourite countries (and continents) to read about?
  3. Do you like to read translated fiction?  If so, what was the last book you read which you very much enjoyed?
  4. If you could take a reader around the world using just ten books, which would you choose, and why?
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‘Keepers of the House’ by Lisa St Aubin de Teran ****

‘Keepers of the House’ by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (Virago)

I purchased this beautiful striped Virago when I placed rather a large Book Depository order for two reasons: the first, that it was only about £3.50, and the second that Lisa St Aubin de Teran is an author whom I have wanted to read for ages.  Keepers of the House is her debut novel and the winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and was first published in 1982.

Keepers of the House tells of the ‘eccentric and flamboyant Beltran family [who] have ruled their desolate Andean valley’ since the eighteenth century.  We are first introduced to our protagonist, Lydia Sinclair, when she is a young woman.  She has fallen in love with Don Diego Beltran, and leaves her native England to be with him in South America.  Lydia is seventeen when the novel begins, and is struggling to adjust to the vast differences between her leafy British life and the searing heat of Hacienda La Bebella.  Diego is considerably older than his new wife (thirty six to her seventeen), with ‘debauched good looks and his pride’.

St Aubin de Teran’s description of Lydia in comparison to those in the nearby village is marvellously striking:

“The children laughed a little at her strangeness and the sheer height of her, but the older ones recognized in her a vision of the past, and they were full of hope for what she might do.”

Indeed, all of the descriptions throughout are lovely; the sprawling house is ‘like a tumbledown palace’, for example.  Consequently, the scenes which St Aubin de Teran crafts are vivid, particularly as much emphasis is placed upon the importance of the natural world.  The sense of place is wonderfully strong, and the author makes use of such historical events as forest fires, the shifting climate, and plagues of locusts leaving devastation and starvation in their wake to further geographically ground her work.  St Aubin de Teran also uses the history of the Beltran family, focusing on several past generations and showing how their choices affected those who came after them.  The characters, without exception, are crafted so deftly.

I do not read enough books which are set within South America (despite my fascination with the continent and my desire to travel its breadth), but Keepers of the House has certainly made me want to explore the fiction of the geographical area.

St Aubin de Teran’s novel is a highly autobiographical work.  Most of the details within its pages, even down to Lydia’s pet vulture Napoleon, are based upon events which occurred in her own life, and are all the more fascinating for it.  She has created a great and sweeping novel, and I cannot wait to read more of her work.

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