4

‘The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin’ by Éric Faye (20 Books of Summer #1)

Written by Éric Faye and translated from the French by Sam Taylor, The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin is the third book in the ‘Walter Presents’ series published by Pushkin Press. Every book in the series is a standalone (so far), so there is no need to have read the others before delving into this one, although I would highly recommend you do if you’re a fan of mysteries from various corners of the world.

The novel is set in Prague in 1995, where Věra Foltýnova, a middle-aged woman claims to be able to see the ghost of Frédéric Chopin, the famed composer, who dictates some new music to her that he didn’t have time to compose himself before his untimely death. What makes Věra’s story even more intriguing is the fact that she has doesn’t have any particular musical education, apart from some piano lessons she used to take as a very young girl, and yet experts claim the music she produces (upon Chopin’s ghost’s dictation) perfectly fits with the rest of the composer’s oeuvre.

This story grabs the attention of everyone in Prague, and so the journalist Ludvík Slaný is commissioned to create a documentary about Věra and her story, although he doesn’t believe her at all. Set to uncover Věra’s purported fraud, the journalist enlists the help of Pavel Černý, a former secret police agent, who secretly follows the middle-aged woman and investigates her and her past. Is this all a very well thought out plot to deceive everyone, or is Věra truly capable of seeing Chopin’s ghost?

The novel is narrated through the point of view of both Ludvík Slaný, the journalist, and Pavel Černý, the police agent, each one of whom recounts their encounters and experience with Věra. Although it sounds completely fantastical, the plot is actually inspired by the true story of Rosemary Brown (1916-2001), an English composer who claimed that the spirits of several composers dictated their new music to her. It is a very atmospheric story, with the author transporting us to picturesque Prague, with its scenic views and mysterious stories, as we learn more about Věra and are led towards the solution of the mystery that surrounds her.

Delving deeper into Věra’s past, the author very eloquently blends her personal story with the history of Czech Republic itself, as the dissolution of the former nation of Czechoslovakia happened only a couple of years prior to the current events of the novel.

“We were all still in shock, I think, caught between euphoria and bafflement, astounded to wake up one fine morning in two countries when we had gone to sleep the night before in one.

Location 905 (Kindle version)

Faye’s prose is beautifully woven and I especially loved his descriptions, as I truly felt like I was strolling down the cobblestoned streets of Prague along with Černý, all while Chopin’s new musical scores resounded in my ears.

Overall, I really enjoyed this atmospheric mystery which transported me to autumnal Prague in a period where I can’t travel there myself. It’s definitely not a fast-paced mystery, but rather a mellower one, in which the journey of investigating takes the reigns and guides the reader through the characters’ lives and secrets.

This book combines a lovely writing style, an intriguing mystery and an encompassing atmosphere, so if you are a fan of any of those in your books, then you should definitely grab a copy as soon as possible.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

6

‘Lonely Castle in the Mirror’ by Mizuki Tsujimura

Lonely Castle in the Mirror (かがみの孤城), written by the Japanese author Mizuki Tsujimura and translated to English by Philip Gabriel, is a magical and moving coming-of-age story that was published by Doubleday only a couple of weeks ago. The novel won the Japan Booksellers’ Award in 2018 and has been lauded and praised by many since. I was planning on reading it as soon as I heard about it, so when the English translation was announced I was over the moon with joy.

English version published by Doubleday on April 22nd, 2021.

Before we get on with the story and my thoughts on it, it’s worth mentioning that this is a YA novel and its protagonists are junior high schoolers and not adults. It has already been likened with the quirky tales of Sayaka Murata (author of Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings), while the Guardian has called it “the offspring of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and The Virgin Suicides” (cannot find a link, but this quote is all over the internet), but I feel both those comparisons don’t do the book any justice and only serve to mislead and possibly disappoint the reader who comes expecting something along the lines of the aforementioned books. As long as you know what sort of story this is, you will be able to truly enjoy it for what it is.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror borrows many western fairy tale elements and creates a whimsical and enchanting story that will certainly tag the heartstrings of many readers. If I had to compare it to another novel, that would definitely be The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, although Lonely Castle goes in an entirely different direction.

Set in modern day Tokyo, the novel recounts the story of Kokoro (meaning ‘heart’ in Japanese) Anzai, a 13 year-old girl who, after a rather traumatic event that has left her unwilling to go to school, one day discovers that the mirror in her room is shining in a peculiar way. Upon examining the mirror, she gets transported through it to a castle, where she meets six more children around her age, as well as the Wolf Queen, who seems to be the person in charge. The Wolf Queen gives them about a year to find a key which will grant only one of them a wish. However, after the wish is granted, all of them will forget about the castle, the moments they have spent there and one another. The children can enter the castle through their mirrors at any moment they want, but they are forbidden to spend the night there, although they each have their own rooms in the castle. If they overstay, then the wolf will come out and devour them.

As the story progresses, we learn more about each teenager, all of whom refuse to go to school for their own reasons, and we follow them as they get to know one another and discover that they are not alone in whatever they are going through. The narration is in third person, but we follow Kokoro’s point of view as she reveals more and more about the incidents that made her unable to go to school, and as she unravels the mystery of the castle along with her new friends.

I really loved the fairy tale elements and the magical atmosphere that Tsujimura creates, as well as the way she uses those fantastic elements to talk about real-life problems that many of us will have also experienced as teenagers. Through the themes of friendship, bullying, losing people close to you, social insecurity etc., Tsujimura explores what it is like to be an outsider, to not be able to fit it and to find friendship and meaningful connections even when you least expect it.

Japanese cover of the novel, originally published in May 2017.

There is also the underlying mystery of the castle and its goings-on, which I also found quite interesting (can never resist a good mystery!), although I was able to figure out most of its solution pretty early on. It definitely gave the novel a unique flair, though, engaging the reader and keeping them eager to uncover the mystery. I also really liked the seven teenagers, I thought they were all unique and I was eager to know more about their specific circumstances and what led them to be invited to the castle.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror is almost a 400-page novel, and I have to admit that it does drag on at times, especially during the middle. The writing is simple, as is the case with many Japanese novels, so if you’re looking for flowery and poetic language, this book is not for you. The translation is very well done (as is to be expected by a renowned translator like Gabriel), but there are still some nuances and cultural differences that readers may need to be aware of when reading. For example, in many scenes we see Kokoro or the other children staying silent and not talking back when scolded or reprimanded, even if they are not in the wrong. Although this attitude isn’t very common in the western world, it is quite common in Japan.

According to the Publisher’s Note at the end of the book, Japanese children’s mental health is second to last among 38 developed and emerging countries, a fact that is shocking and alarming, yet one that makes this book even more important for all the teenagers and young adults that are going through difficult times for one reason or another. No wonder, then, that Tsujimura’s novel resonated with so many young Japanese people, and I’m certain it’s going to equally resonate with many young people outside Japan as well.

Literature has the power to pull you out of the darkness, even momentarily, offer you consolation and company, and show you that most problems have solutions. The castle in the mirror was a much-needed escape for Kokoro and the other six teenagers, a way out of their gloomy daily lives and unbearable circumstances, much like what literature and even more so fantasy literature is to all of us. However, while providing this escapist quality, the castle (and fantasy) equips the children with the necessary means to pluck up their courage, face their fears and dispel what makes their reality unbearable. In the end, this is exactly what this book does, too – it works as an anchor, as a speck of light, as a warm hug that gives its readers the necessary courage to fight their own battles and face their own unpleasant realities, creating their own path in life.

Overall, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a wonderful and magical tale, deeply rooted in reality despite its fairy tale and fantasy elements. It’s a heart-warming and touching novel that will resonate with many, regardless of their age, as we can all see a part of ourselves in Kokoro, Aki, Rion, Masamune, Ureshino, Subaru or Fuka, the seven students.

This also serves as my first post for this year’s Wyrd & Wonder, the month-long event that runs through May, celebrating fantasy and the fantastic. If you’d like to learn more about it and sign up, head over to this post.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

1

‘Things We Lost in the Fire’ by Mariana Enriquez ****

Argentinian author Mariana Enriquez’ debut English language collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, had been on my radar for a while before I found a copy in my local library.  It sounded wonderfully creepy and unsettling; the Financial Times writes that it is ‘full of claustrophobic terror’, and Dave Eggers says that it ‘hits with the force of a freight train’.  The Irish Times goes further, proclaiming that this is the only book which has caused their reviewer to be ‘afraid to turn out the lights’.  I cautiously began it in broad daylight, but was surprisingly brave enough to read a couple of these stories just before bedtime.

9781846276361-ukThe twelve stories collected in Things We Lost in the Fire are of ‘ghosts, demons and wild women; of sharp-toothed children and stolen skulls’.  They are almost entirely set in the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires, described in the book’s blurb as a series of ‘crime-ridden streets of [a] post-dictatorship’.  Here, ‘exhausted fathers conjure up child-killers, and young women, tired of suffering in silence, decide there’s nothing left to do but set themselves on fire.’

Each of the stories here is highly evocative; they feel like sharp scratches, or aching punches to the stomach in the power which they wield.  The historical context which fills each one is thoroughly and sensually explained and explored.  In ‘The Intoxicated Years’, for example, the section of the story which is set in 1989, begins: ‘All that summer the electricity went off for six hours at a time; government orders, because the country had no more energy, they said, though we didn’t really understand what that meant…  What would a widespread blackout be like?  Would we be left in the dark forever?  The possibility was incredible.  Stupid.  Ridiculous.  Useless adults, we thought, how useless.’  In 1992, the three young protagonists in this story make a new acquaintance.  The narrator explains: ‘Roxana never had food in the house; her empty cupboards were crisscrossed by bugs dying of hunger as they searched for nonexistent crumbs, and her fridge kept one Coca-Cola and some eggs cold.  The lack of food was good; we had promised each other to eat as little as possible.  We wanted to be light and pale like dead girls.’

In Things We Lost in the Fire, Enriquez explores the darker sides of life in Buenos Aires: drug abuse, hallucinations, homelessness, murder, illegal abortion, disability, suicide, and disappearance, to name but a few.  Each story is unsettling, but the collection is incredibly readable.  I found myself drawn to Enriquez’ descriptions.  She writes, amongst many others, the following striking phrases: ‘beside the pool where the water under the siesta sun looked silvered, as if made of wrapping paper’; a house, thought to be haunted, ‘buzzed; it buzzed like a hoarse mosquito’.

There are many chilling moments throughout.  In ‘Adela’s House’, the narrator relates: ‘I’ll never forget those afternoons.  When Adela talked, when she concentrated and her dark eyes burned, the house’s garden began to fill with shadows, and they ran, they waved to us mockingly.  When Adela sat with her back to the picture window, in the living room, I saw them dancing behind her.  I didn’t talk to her.  But Adela knew.’  In ‘An Invention of the Big-Eared Runt’, protagonist Pablo is working as a guide on a popular murder tour of Buenos Aires, when the ghost of a notorious child murderer appears to him.  Enriquez writes: ‘He studied the tour’s ten crimes in detail so he could narrate them well, with humor and suspense, and he’d never felt scared – they didn’t affect him at all.  That’s why, when he saw the apparition, he felt more surprise than terror.  It was definitely him, no doubt about it.  He was unmistakable: the large, damp eyes that looked full of tenderness but were really dark wells of idiocy.  The drab sweater on his short body, his puny shoulders, and in his hands the thin rope he’d used to demonstrate to the police, emotionless all the while, how he had tied up and strangled his victims.’

Enriquez’ style feels very Gothic, both in terms of its style and the plots of some of the stories.  Her tales build wonderfully, and there is a real claustrophobia which descends in a lot of them.  ‘Spiderweb’, for instance, begins: ‘It’s hard to breathe in the humid north, up there so close to Brazil and Paraguay, the rushing river guarded by mosquito sentinels and a sky that can turn from limpid blue to stormy black in minutes.  You start to struggle right away when you arrive, as if a brutal arm were wound around your waist and squeezing.’

Megan McDowell’s translation from the original Spanish of the stories is faultless.  It does not feel as though anything of the original has been lost in translation; the stories have an urgency, an immediacy to them.   In her translator’s note at the end of the volume, McDowell writes that in these stories, ‘Argentina’s particular history combines with an aesthetic many have tied to the gothic horror tradition of the English-speaking world.’  She goes on to say: ‘But Enriquez’s literature conforms to no genre’.  She writes of the focus upon female characters, and the way in which, throughout this collection, ‘… we get a sense of the contingency and danger of occupying a female body, though these women are not victims.’

Things We Lost in the Fire is startling and entirely memorable.  The collection as a whole provides many creepy moments, a lot of which startled me as a reader, but I could not tear myself away from it.  The stories are at once desperate and disturbing.  I, like many other readers of English, I expect, eagerly await Enriquez’ next collection.

7

One From the Archive: ‘The Poetic Edda’, translated by Carolyne Larrington ****

First published in 2014.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, which has inspired so much of the literature and media which we in the modern world know and love.  Many of the poems in this collection – which has been both translated and edited by Carolyne Larrington – were penned by an unknown writer around the year 1270, and can be found in a medieval Icelandic document, the Codex Regius.  It has not been possible to prove whether these poems came from Iceland or Norway, as experts on the poems have noted that elements of importance are often included from both countries.  It is worth noting that many of the poems within The Poetic Edda were written before the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity.

9780199675340In her introduction, Larrington sets out the importance of the poems within The Poetic Edda.  She believes that the collection is ‘comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty and profound’, and that it contains scenes which have been ‘vividly staged’.  Larrington goes on to write that the Edda, incorporating as it does ‘comedy, satire, didactic verse, tragedy, high drama and profoundly moving lament’, is one of the greatest masterpieces in world literature.  Larrington’s introduction is well written and informative, and is split up into useful sections which deal with such different elements as the Old Norse cosmos and mythological history.

The Poetic Edda ‘contains the great narratives of the creation of the world and the coming of Ragnarok, the doom of the Gods’.  It traces the exploits of many characters from Icelandic and Norse mythology, from Thor to Sigurd and Brynhild, and their doomed love affair.  In their style, the poems are relatively simple, but they are often profound and always striking in the scenes and imagery which they present.

Larrington’s version of The Poetic Edda has been beautifully translated, and the flow of each poem is perfect.  The narrative voices and structure used in each is coherent and well wrought, and the collection as a whole is absolutely fascinating.  Each poem is different from the next, and every single one is filled with many memorable characters and scenes.  Violence abounds in The Poetic Edda, as do history, passion and emotions.

Oxford World’s Classics’ revised edition of the poems includes a select bibliography and a section on the genealogies of giants, gods and heroes.  Larrington has also chosen to place two new poems within the collection – ‘The Lay of Svipdag’ and ‘The Waking of Angatyr’.  There is also an invaluable section with notes on the meter and style of the poems, which is essential for any student of the work.  Each poem is prefaced by a useful contextual introduction, making The Poetic Edda accessible to all.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

Two Novellas by Yūko Tsushima

I recently read two novellas from a new-to-me author, both of which I picked up on a whim from my local library.  Both books, Territory of Light and Child of Fortune, were written originally in Japanese by Yūko Tsushima, and translated into English by Geraldine Harcourt.  Both translations are exquisitely rendered; the prose has a wonderful flow to it in both cases.

 

Territory of Light ****

9780241312629Territory of Light, which was first published in a serialised form in a magazine between 1978 and 1979, has been variously described as ‘spiky, atmospheric and intimate’ (Spectator), and ‘disturbing and dream-like’ (Financial Times).  The novella, which begins in springtime, takes as its focus a young woman, who has been abandoned by her husband, and who has to start a new life in a Tokyo apartment with her young daughter.  Territory of Light charts the protagonist’s life over the course of a calendar year, as she struggles to bring up her two-year-old alone.

From the first, I very much admired what Tsushima had set out to express.  The new apartment of her unnamed narrator is ‘filled with light, streaming through the windows, so bright you have to squint’, but regardless, she ‘finds herself plummeting deeper into darkness; becoming unstable, untethered.’  This instability of self threads through the novella, and we learn quite quickly just how much the narrator has to deal with.

She is scared by her newfound independence, but is also set on carving a life away from her husband.  She comments: ‘I didn’t want him ever to set foot in my new life.  I was afraid of any renewed contact, so afraid it left me surprised at myself.  The frightening thing was how accustomed I had become to his being there.’  The narrator is also scared of the effects single parenthood has on her as time goes on.  She says: ‘I wish I could forget I even had a child.  I’d been coping on my own now for less than six months, though maybe that was just long enough to have grown used to the new life, which could be why the insidious tiredness was starting to knock the wind out of me.’  She turns to sleep to try and cope alone, leaving her small daughter to fend for herself.

At just 122 pages, so much human feeling fills the pages of Territory of Light.  Its protagonist is at a point of crisis in her life, and her situation and responses are wholly believable.  The structure of the novella, which is essentially made up of twelve loosely connected stories, works wonderfully.  Whilst there is not a great deal of plot to drive the book along, in consequence it perhaps becomes more realistic.  The narrator is concerned with the minutiae of her everyday, as well as the bigger picture.  She muddles through the most ordinary things, all of which are beset with problems, and speaks openly to the reader about her many anxieties.  I so enjoyed the writing style and narrative voice of Territory of Light, and it feels like a great place to start reading Tsushima’s work from.

 

Child of Fortune ****

Child of Fortune was first published in Japan in 1978, and appeared in a revised version of Geraldine 9780241335031Harcourt’s English translation in 2018.  As with Territory of Light, this novella focuses upon a female protagonist named Kōko, a young woman who has been ‘defying her family’s wishes’ for some time.  She has, against what was viewed as acceptable in Tokyo society at the time, brought up her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako, alone in her apartment.  After embarking on a ‘casual affair’, she finds herself pregnant once more, and is forced to juggle her present and future selves.

The book’s blurb says that Child of Fortune combines ‘the beauty and unease of a dream’, and presents ‘an unflinching portrayal of a woman’s innermost fears and desires’.  Angela Carter described it as ‘a terrific novel’, and the Japan Times declares that it is ‘as relevant today as when it was published… at once powerfully uplifting and achingly sad.’

At the outset of the story, Kayako has moved in with Kōko’s sister and her family.  The young girl ‘now returned to her mother’s apartment only on Saturday nights.  She kept strictly to this schedule, arriving on Saturday evening and leaving early Sunday morning.’  This concerns Kōko to an extent, and she clearly misses seeing her daughter every day, but her attention is soon filled with the idea of a new child in her life, one who will be fully dependent upon her.  On Kōko’s behalf, the narrator reflects: ‘Maybe, she was reaching an age when it was senseless to want a fatherless child; but, precisely because of her age she didn’t want to make a choice that she would regret till the day she died.  Lately she was more convinced than ever that there was no point in worrying about what people thought.  She would soon be thirty-seven.  The only person watching Kōko at thirty-seven was Kōko.’

Kōko’s present is interspersed throughout with her childhood memories, and her vivid, strange dreams.  I must admit that in comparison to Tsushima’s first person narrated novella Territory of Light, I did not find the third person perspective overly effective.  The story too, whilst readable, was nowhere near as absorbing.  However, I still had so much interest in its protagonist, and felt invested in her and her story.  Child of Fortune is more detached, but upon reflection, this makes the two novellas – which I read within days of each other – feel different, despite similarities in protagonist and plot.

Although well written and translated, the conversational patterns in Child of Fortune did not always flow naturally.  The novella, however, deals with some interesting and important themes around womanhood, motherhood, and societal perceptions, and held my interest from start to finish.  I will be seeking out Tsushima’s back catalogue of work as soon as I possibly can.

4

‘The Sheltering Rain’ by Hanmura Ryo

The recipient of the Naoki Prize in Japan in 1975, Hanmura Ryo’s The Sheltering Rain (Amayadori, 雨やどり) is a novel that is set in Shinjuku, the entertainment district of Tokyo in the 1960s/70s. Translated by Jim Hubbert, the novel was published by Kurodahan Press in 2019 and consists of eight chapters, each one of which narrates a different event in the lives of its characters. The chapters can also be considered and read as independent short stories (in fact, they were published separately in magazines between 1973 and 1974 before coming together to form this volume).

51324300._SY475_Through its interconnected stories, the novel transports us to the night world of Shinjuku in the late ’60s, where we are introduced to the bartenders, bar owners and hostesses that make up the nightlife of the area. Initially, we become acquainted with the “main character”, Senda, who at the beginning is a bartender at The Pot Still and in later stories he manages to open his own bar, Lui. Alongside Senda we encounter an array of characters, from Yoshie and Kyoko, the two female co-owners of another bar, to hostesses, gangsters and past loves and acquaintances that form part of Shinjuku’s history through their stories. Although their world is often engulfed in deceit and quite unhappy endings, the characters of this novel have managed to form a kind of community between them, where instead of rivalry they show unexpected kindness and help each other out when needed. This has got to be the most surprising and pleasant part of the book for me, as I never expected to feel a sense of ‘family’ and ‘homeliness’ in a story about people who live after dark.

One of the main themes Hanmura brings up in this novel is definitely that of nostalgia and of dealing with a world that is eminently changing. The 1960s and 1970s, also called “postwar boom years” according to the book’s introduction, due to the rapidly growing economy of the country, were certainly a liminal period for many Japanese, who had to grow accustomed to a new normal as their country was developing more and more. Yet, as is evident in the words and reactions of some characters in The Sheltering Rain, these changes were not always easy to swallow, and a nostalgia for the past and the way things were before still seems to linger.

Another issue that this novel tackles and which can be related to all the changes the Japanese society and its people were undergoing at the time is that of age, or, more appropriately, ageing. Many of the characters that populate Hanmura’s story are around or nearing their middle age, and although they are all active and striving to do their best with what they have, they (and the reader) are often reminded that “with each new dawn, everyone was getting older. To forget, they gathered after sunset to drink alcohol. And what was wrong with that?” (p.29) I found this particularly interesting, since I think this kind of brings us to a full circle, as the reason most of the bars and clubs that the characters of the story are working at were created was in order to help the hard working salarymen of Japan to relax and have some fun after work. Senda, Takako and the rest of the characters may not be salarymen and women themselves, but they do manage to find solace and momentary peace from their troubles when gathering to enjoy a drink together, thus fulfilling the purpose of their jobs in more than one way.

The Sheltering Rain may at times deal with difficult issues and present a way of life that is far from ideal, but it reads very pleasantly and is also a great form of escapism (which I’m sure many of us are in dire need of at the moment). Hanmura has crafted a world filled with society’s drop-outs and people who have fallen in between the cracks, yet people who are more ordinary than most and in which we can all find fragments of our selves. Despite everything life throws at them, they have all found a home in this underground business, they have developed strong bonds and connections with one another, they have found, to somehow echo the title of this collection, their shelter in the rain.

I’d tried to live the “smart” way. I was scornful of of screwups and hated to cut people slack, that had been a basic principle of mine. But now I saw my whole life for what it was – a chain of accidents and mistimed decisions.

– p. 176-7

A copy of this book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.

 

2

One From the Archive: ‘Kamchatka’ by Marcelo Figueras ****

First published in 2018.

Marcelo Figueras’ Kamchatka, which is set in Argentina, was the final South American book of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Kamchatka, which has been translated from its original Spanish by Frank Wynne, is a coming of age story which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Kamchatka was a novel which I have never seen reviewed on blogs or Goodreads, and was so intrigued by the storyline that I did not consider any other books set in Argentina for my challenge.  It seems to have slipped beneath the radar somewhat.  Regardless, there are many positive reviews which adorn the paperback copy of the novel.  In her review in The Times, for instance, Kate Saunders says that ‘Figueras writes with power and insight about the ways in which a child uses imagination to make sense of a terrifying and baffling reality.’  The Financial Times call it ‘brilliantly observed’ and ‘heartbreaking’.

9780802170873Kamchatka follows ten-year-old Harry, whose name is a false one he has to adopt after his family are forced to flee, calling himself after Harry Houdini, an obsession of his.  Harry, whose world is made up of make-believe and superheroes, lives in Buenos Aires during the 1976 coup d’etat.  His father leaves the family – Harry, his mother, and his younger brother, who calls himself Simon – at a petrol station on the outskirts of the city: ‘He kissed me, his stubble scratching my cheek, then climbed into the Citroen.  The car moved off along the undulating ribbon of road, a green bubble bobbing into view with every hill, getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see it any more.  I stood there for a long while, my game of Risk tucked under my arm.  Until my abuelo, my grandpa, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let’s go home.”‘

Figueras uses short chapters to tell Harry’s story, and this structure works well.  We are given a myriad of memories, which are not ordered chronologically, but which help to build a full picture, both of our protagonist and the conditions in which he is living under.

Kamchatka is often profound, particularly in those instances where Figueras discusses our growth as people in the most beautiful and thoughtful ways: ‘Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other.  That my past and my present together determine my future sounds like a fundamental truth, but I suspect that my future joins forces with the present to do the same thing to my past.’  Figueras also talks at length about childhood, and the way in which young people view what is around them, and what they are familiar with, as the entire world: ‘When you’re a kid, the world can be bounded in a nutshell.  In geographical terms, a child’s universe is a space that comprises home, school and – possibly – the neighbourhood where your cousins or your grandparents live.  In my case, the universe sat comfortably within a small area of Flores that ran from the junction of Bayoca and Arellaneda (my house), to the Plaza Flores (my school).’

Figueras has a wonderful way of being able to interpret different occurrences, particularly with regard to the political unrest in Argentina, through a child’s eyes: ‘When the coup d’etat came, in 1976, a few days before school started, I knew straight away that things were going to get ugly.  The new president had a peaked cap and a huge moustache; you could tel from his face that he was a bad guy.’  Kamchatka is a rich and thought-provoking novel, which offers an interesting and fully-developed perspective on one of the most defining periods of recent history in Argentina.

Purchase from The Book Depository

4

‘The Five Wonders of the Danube’ by Zoran Živković

To all those of you who are well versed in translated fiction, Zoran Živković might be a familiar name, as he is one of the most translated and acclaimed contemporary Serbian authors. If you have never heard his name or read any of his works before (let’s not really talk about all the underrepresented non-English speaking authors now…), let me talk to you about one of his books that was my personal introduction to his oeuvre, and which also made it to the list of my Most Memorable Books of 2019.

43706056._SY475_Translated into English by Alice Copple-Tošić and published by Cadmus Press, The Five Wonders of Danube consists of five chapters, each one taking place in or around a different bridge of the Danube river.

Although each story has a different set of characters and appears separate from all the others, they all very cleverly come together at the end. All five stories have surreal and often absurd elements that make Živković’s prose so interesting and unique. Apart from an academic, the author is also an art enthusiast, something which is apparent in all of the stories.

For example, in the first story, titled ‘First Wonder: Black Bridge, Regensburg’, an enormous painting mysteriously and unexplainably appears on the Black Bridge, causing a big uproar since the passersby and the police alike are trying to solve the mystery of how it got hung up there without anyone noticing a thing. In ‘Second Wonder: Yellow Bridge, Vienna’, the longest story of the bunch, five unconnected people are going their own ways on the bridge, when they happen to stop short on their tracks at exactly the same time. Two artistic homeless people are the stars of the ‘Third Wonder: Red Bridge, Bratislava’, my personal favourite of the stories. One of them is an avid Dostoyevski reader and an aspiring writer himself, while the other one adeptly carves figures out of wood, when the fire of their inspiration turns into an actual fire that engulfs their minimal belongings.

In ‘Fourth Wonder: White Bridge, Budapest’, a famous composer looks back on the incidents that have led him to write his most acclaimed masterpieces, and very shockingly realises that death eerily plays a big part in his creative process (not in the way that you might think, though). Lastly, the ‘Fifth Wonder: Blue Bridge, Novi Sad’, is perhaps the strangest and most surreal out of all the stories, but it ties some loose ends together and sort of makes a full circle back to the first story.

While Živković might deal with some rather heavy themes such as suicide, homelessness and death, his writing style is infused with such wit and clever humour that it becomes a fun and whimsical reading experience that truly makes the reader ponder.

The surreal elements might sometimes get a bit overwhelming for those who are not very familiar with reading such stories steeped in the absurd, as many things do not make much sense until later on in the book. What I personally loved was how the bridges turned into a (sometimes metaphorical) portal of some sort, where things (the painting in the first story) and even people (the characters in the second story) are transported almost magically. Unexplained and absurd things take place on those bridges, turning Danube and its banks into a liminal space of wonder where everything is possible although eerily unexplainable.

My first contact with Živković’s work was definitely a very pleasant one and I’m very much looking forward to experiencing more of his works. In my opinion, The Five Wonders of Danube is a great introduction to his whimsical writing, and I do hope more people get to discover the magic quality of his pen.

Have you read any books by Zoran Živković before? If yes, what did you think of them and which one is your favourite? Feel free to share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below 🙂

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Cadmus Press.

1

‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco ****

I purchased The Name of the Rose, my first taste of Umberto Eco’s work, quite some time before I read it.  Whilst the plot appealed to me, and I had heard nothing but good things about the novel, I kept putting it off in favour of shorter books which would be easier to finish.  However, I picked it up over a relatively free weekend, where I was able to dedicate some time to it.

First published in Italian in 1980, The Name of the Rose is set in the Middle Ages – in 1327, to be precise.  The Vintage edition which I read was translated by William Weaver.  Of the novel, the Financial Times comments: ‘The late medieval world, teetering on the edge of discoveries and ideas that will hurl it into one more recognisably like ours… evoked with a force and wit that are breathtaking.’
9780099466031

At the beginning of the novel, Franciscan monk Brother William of Baskerville ‘arrives at a wealthy Italian abbey on theological business.’  His ‘delicate mission’, which we are not at first party to, becomes ‘overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths’.  Brother William chooses to turn detective, exploring the ‘eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of the night.’  Lucky for Brother William, he has Sherlockian powers of deduction, and is able to make sense of the most obscure occurrences.  The whole is narrated by his scribe and ‘disciple’, Adso of Melk.  The novel, says its blurb, is ‘not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.’

The novel is introduced by an omniscient narrator in 1968.  They have just been handed a book which claims to reproduce a fourteenth-century manuscript in its entirety.  This narrator goes on to say: ‘In a state of intellectual excitement, I read with fascination the terrible story of Adso of Melk, and I allowed myself to be so absorbed by it that, almost in a single burst of energy, I completed a translation, using some of those large notebooks from the Papeterie Joseph Gilbert in which it is so pleasant to write if you use a felt-tip pen.’

Even Adso is not told of Brother William’s mission: ‘… [It] remained unknown to me while we were on our journey, or, rather, he never spoke to me about it.  It was only by overhearing bits of his conversations with the abbots of the monasteries where we stopped along the way that I formed some idea of the nature of this assignment.  But I did not understand it fully until we reached our destination.’  He finds Brother William rather an imposing figure: ‘… [He] was larger in stature than a normal man and so thin that he seemed still taller.  His eyes were sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose gave his countenance the expression of a man on the lookout…’.

The context and social conditions in The Name of the Rose are rich and wonderfully executed.  I found the novel transporting from its beginning.  Eco has included much about libraries, scribes, and manuscripts, elements of the Middle Ages which fascinate me.  Several reviews which I have seen have commented upon the complicated language and long, meandering sentences used by the author.  I personally did not find this a problem, and got into the style very quickly; I felt as though it added another layer of texture to the novel, making it feel more old-fashioned, and therefore perhaps more authentic.  Eco’s prose, and the way it has been rendered in this translation, is engaging.

Eco’s descriptions, of which there are many, also capture a lot: ‘It was noon and the light came in bursts through the choir windows, and even more through those of the façade, creating white cascades that, like mystic streams of divine substance, intersected at various points of the church, engulfing the altar itself.’  The use of colour and touch woven throughout help to build a believable, and atmospheric, sense of place.  Eco’s dialogue also has such strength to it, and never did it feel predictable.  I particularly liked the way in which William spoke.  He tells Adso, for instance: ‘The story is becoming more complicated, dear Adso…  We pursue a manuscript, we become interested in the diatribes of some overcurious monks and in the actions of other, over-lustful ones, and now, more and more insistently, an entirely different trail emerges.’

The Name of the Rose definitely feels like a good, and popular, choice to begin with with regard to Eco’s works.  I really enjoyed the structure of the novel; it is told over the course of seven days.  So many layers have been built on top of one another; its foundations are strong, and the separate strands of plot all interesting in their own way.  The novel takes many twists and turns, and is such a compelling read.  Eco takes one down so many avenues of intrigue, meeting strange and complex characters along the way.  My only criticism of the novel is that some of the chapters, particularly toward the middle of the novel, felt superfluous, and added very little to the story aside from religious context.  Some events are a little dramatic in places, but it was all drawn together well, and on the whole, I really enjoyed it.

I have read comparatively little set during the Middle Ages, despite the fact that the period fascinates me.  Reading The Name of the Rose has certainly made me want to seek out more novels set between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, and to try another of Eco’s books too.

Purchase from The Book Depository

5

‘Abigail’ by Magda Szabó ***

Like many readers, I quite enjoyed Hungarian author Magda Szabó’s novella, The Door, when I read it some years ago.  For one reason or another, however, I have failed to pick up either of her other novels which have since been translated into English, Iza’s Ballad and Katalin Street.  When MacLehose press approached me to ask if I wanted a copy of her most famous novel, Abigail, which was first published in 1970, I jumped at the chance.

hbg-title-9780857058515-14Abigail, translated for the first time into English by Len Rix, is the most widely read novel among secondary school pupils in Hungary.  There is even a rock opera based upon it, which performs in Budapest.  Abigail forms a loose trilogy, alongside The Door and Katalin Street ‘about the impact of war on those who have to live with the consequences.’

Very much a coming-of-age novel, Abigail takes place during three months in 1943, a period in which Hitler was preparing to occupy Hungary.  Foreseeing this, and concerned for the safety of his daughter, Gina Vitay’s father, a general, sends her away to an isolated and strict Puritanical school in the ‘provincial’ city of Árkod, which appears ‘more like a fortress’.  ‘Lively, sophisticated, somewhat spoiled’ Gina feels immediately as though she does not fit in, used as she is to the bright lights and parties of Budapest.  Over time, Gina is ‘forced to find out the true realities of life for those less privileged than herself’; she ultimately ‘learns lessons about the nature of loyalty, courage, sacrifice and love.’

Fourteen-year-old Gina has a very close relationship with her father, a General in the Army.  When she is sent away to school, the omniscient narrator observes: ‘… although neither of them had experienced it in such elementary terms, they loved each other with a passion and both felt the world complete only when they were together.’

Abigail is not a human character; rather, she is a named statue on the school’s grounds.  The pupils turn to her in times of strife, writing messages addressed to her, and hoping that she will be able to lend a hand.  They put so much faith into her, believing her to be real, and to hold power.

At times, Szabó is finely attuned to the moods of her characters, and to what drives them.  When Gina’s father first leaves her at school, for instance, the awkwardness of their parting is meticulously imagined: ‘Once again there was no exchange of glances between the two of them; both kept their eyes fixed on the carpet.  The silence was like that when a bee wanders in through an open window and drones on and on, without ceasing.’  At this point in time, Gina’s sole discomfort is also focused upon: ‘Never in her life had she felt so hapless, so perplexed, so utterly out of her depth…  Here, she was totally disoriented, she could make sense of nothing.’  We are privy to her tumultuous moods, to her every thought and feeling.

From the outset, Gina is headstrong and determined, and I found her quite a thoroughly examined character.  Like many teenagers, it could be said, she is at first self-interested and self-motivated, and is unable to grasp the bigger picture – until a rather strained conversation with her father ensues some way into the book.  She clashes, quite violently, with her peers, and the relationship between them sours immediately.  Towards the middle of the book, however, when she is finally accepted by the girls in her form, she becomes almost interchangeable with them.  She loses any of the spark which she carried so well, and becomes cliched, almost a caricature of a teenage girl.

Abigail is described in its blurb as ‘a tale of suspense and revelation in a shifting world where things are often not quite as they first seem.’  This is true to an extent, but I personally located only one or two moments of suspense throughout the entirety of the 440-page novel, and these appeared right towards the end.  Whilst elements of the story were interesting enough, I found the narrative rather detached.  I expected Abigail to be far more immersive, and to provide a more thorough and consistent character study than it did.  Yes, characters change, but Gina seemed to lose every quality which at first made her unique, and set her apart from others.

Rix’s translation reads well, but the prose is often quite clunky, and the sentences rather old-fashioned in their structure, phrasing, and conversational intonations.  I imagine that this is a true reflection of the original text, but I did find it a little difficult to get into at times.

Not a lot happens in Abigail, until one reaches the last eighty or so pages.  Much of the narrative is involved with the minutiae of life in the school, and the small, overexaggerated dramas which ensue between pupils and staff alike.   I admired the idea of the novel – namely, to suggest how a young girl’s life can be so completely changed in the face of war, and how difficult this can be to become accustomed to – but many parts of the story felt rather too drawn out.  I personally love novels where not a great deal happens, but in this instance, the plot points which did occur felt altogether too obvious.

Abigail began well, and I did have a real interest in our lively and quite unusual protagonist, but this was lost when she became almost insipid.  Had she been more of a consistent character, and retained some of her individuality, I imagine that I would have enjoyed reading her story far more.  As time progressed, I found myself caring about Gina less and less.  Although some elements of the novel were undoubtedly well conceived, others fell flat for me, and there was very little consistency to be found.