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Reading the World: ‘The Accusation’ by Bandi ****

When I began my Reading the World Project, I didn’t suppose for a second that I would be able to include anything from North Korea.  Lo and behold, The Accusation was then published, presenting seven stories set during the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and smuggled out of the country by a very brave individual.  The stories, which were written from 1989 onwards, have been wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith, and published under the pseudonym of ‘Bandi’.  This edition has been published with a rather fascinating afterword, which details how the manuscript left North Korea.

9781781258712The stories within Bandi’s collection ‘give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships’.  From the outset, I found it utterly fascinating.  I have learnt as much about North Korea as I can in the past, but anyone who is the slightest bit familiar with the country will know how difficult this is.  Evidently, too, one must take into account that the portrait presented of North Korea to the West – in an official capacity, at least – is incredibly skewed.  These tales, all of which are based upon real occurrences within North Korea, and encompass people from all walks of life, are therefore all the more important.

The Accusation is filled with curious little details about many aspects of life for ordinary citizens within North Korea.  In ‘Record of a Defection’, for instance, the male narrator utters the following when he finds out that his wife does not want children: ‘The whole incident had forced me to remember the one thing I didn’t want to think about, the one thing I could never get away from – my “standing”.  And the reason mine was so low?  Because my father was a murderer – albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings’.  Through details such as this, Bandi effectively, and often shockingly, demonstrates how quick, and not particularly important decisions on the face of it, can haunt a family for generations.

The Accusation provides a powerful insight into modern history.  The themes within are varied, ranging as they do from war, forced migration, hopelessness, and familial tragedies linked to the regime, to the terror of the Party, spying, and clandestine writing.  Many similarities can be drawn between the regime portrayed here and that within Russia, such as the aspects of collectivisation and rationing.  So many elements feel as though they have been taken straight out of Orwell’s 1984, most intensely so with regard to the constant surveillance which every government-owned flat and factory is under.

Here, Bandi has presented an incredibly important book, which speaks out against a hidden and terrifying society.  There is such depth to every single one of these stories; such cruelty, such violence, and such pain.  The use of different viewpoints serves to show just how far-reaching the regime is.  Tense and terrifying, The Accusation should be a must read for everyone.

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Reading the World: ‘The Life of Rebecca Jones’ by Angharad Price ****

I spotted Angharad Price’s The Life of Rebecca Jones when browsing the library.  It is an entry upon my 2017 reading list, and when easing it out from the shelves where it was sandwiched between two rather enormous tomes, I was surprised to see how slim it was.  Its ‘powerful meditation on one family’s passage through the 20th century’, and the modern world which serves to threaten their traditional rural life in Wales, sounded absolutely lovely.  I adore quiet novels which take me to a different time and place, and The Life of Rebecca Jones certainly ticks all of those boxes.

The Life of Rebecca Jones has been translated from its original Welsh by Lloyd Jones.  In its native Wales, the book was heralded a ‘modern classic’ upon its publication, and it has been highly regarded in literary avenues since it was transcribed into English.  Jan Morris describes it as ‘the most fascinating and wonderful book’, and Kate Saunders in The Times writes: ‘The ending will make you want to turn right back to the beginning.’ 9780857387127

From the outset, there is a definite brooding power to the narrative, and an ever-present thoughtfulness embedded into every single sentence: ‘This was a reversal of creation.  The perfection of an absence. / Tranquility can belong to one place, yet it ranges the world.  It is tied to every passing hour, yet everlasting.  It encompasses the exceptional and the commonplace.  It connects interior with exterior.’

An ageing Rebecca narrates the whole; her voice is measured and incredibly human: ‘I too have sought peace throughout my life.  I’ve encountered it, many times on a more lasting silence; and I will find it before I die.  My eyesight dwindles and my hearing fails.  What else should I expect, at my age?  But neither blindness nor deafness can perfect the quietness which is about to fall on this valley.’  There is a ruminative quality to her voice, and the use of retrospective positioning only adds to this effect.

Rebecca has lived within Cwm Maesglasau for all of her life; she adores it, but the sadness which she feels at the changes within her community and landscape are prevalent.  Of her home, she writes: ‘Cwm Maesglasau is my world.  Its boundaries are my boundaries.  To leave it will be unbearably painful.’  The landscape is as important a character within the novel as Rebecca herself; this is obvious from the very beginning.  Price shows just how deeply person and place are connected, and the affects and effects of the two.  She describes the scenes which Rebecca and her ancestors saw so vividly, bringing them to life for the reader: ‘There is a crimson tunnel of foxgloves and a sparkling dome of elderflower: the same intricate design, Evan notes, of the lace on his wife’s bodice.  Sunshine streaming through the canopy spangles her hair with stars’.

Despite The Life of Rebecca Jones identifying as a work of fiction, photographs have been used throughout, giving it the quality of autofiction.  Its words and their accompanying images are filled with traditions.  It adds to the reading experience that some of the original Welsh vocabulary has been included, sometimes alongside their English translations, and otherwise understandable within their context.

Rebecca Jones is the name of the narrator, as well as of her mother and grandmother.  In this manner, Price effectively tells three stories, which are similar but have discernible differences in their way.  The novel is an incredibly contemplative one; it almost makes one yearn for times gone by.  The structure which Price makes use of is one of fragmented memories; the only links between them are often that they have been lived by the narrator, or by members of her immediate family.  The reading experience which has been created is a sensual one; in interruptions to Rebecca’s voice, a stream has been personified, and its journey shown with beautiful, lyrical prose.  The Life of Rebecca Jones is quietly beautiful; it demonstrates a life filled with sadnesses, but one which is still cherished nonetheless.

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Reading the World: ‘Fire in the Blood’ by Irene Nemirovsky *****

Fire in the Blood by the inimitable Irene Nemirovsky is my first reread of my Reading the World project.  I adore what I have read of her work to date; it is both measured and incredibly beautiful.  Translated by Sandra Smith, as much of her work seems to be, Fire in the Blood is set in a rural village in the historical region of Burgundy, France – also the setting of the work which she is best known for, Suite Francaise.

Published posthumously in France in 2007, and in Britain a year later, Fire in the Blood was the second Nemirovsky which I read, whilst fittingly on holiday in the Dordogne.  The volume opens with a foreword by Olivier Philipponat and Patrick Lienhardt, who both wrote an insightful biography of the author, as well as discovering the full-length manuscript of Fire in the Blood amongst her effects.

9780099516095The novella – for a novella it is, really, running to just 158 pages in the pictured edition – tells of Sylvestre, known throughout as Silvio, ‘his cousin Helene, her second husband, Francoise [sic], and of the truths, deaths, marriages, children, houses and mills that bind them with love and hatred, deception and betrayal’.  As far as themes go within literature, this certainly covers a lot of bases!

From the outset, everything within the novella is so well evoked.  Nemirovsky opens up a vivid world gone by in the first few exquisitely measured sentences: ‘We were drinking a light punch, the kind we had when I was young, and all sitting around the fire, my Erard cousins, their children and I.  It was an autumn evening, the whole sky red above the sodden fields of turned earth.  The fiery sunset promised a strong wind the next day; the crows were cawing.  This large, icy house is full of draughts’.  Silvio then gives us crumbs of detail about himself; on the first page, he writes: ‘I am old, poor and unmarried, holed up in a farmer’s hovel in the middle of the woods’.

Unsurprisingly to anyone at all familiar with Nemirovsky’s work, the character descriptions within Fire In the Blood are excellently wrought.  Colette tells her Uncle Silvio: ‘But you look like a faun… with your wide forehead, turned-up nose, pointed ears and laughing eyes.  Sylvestre, creature of the woods.  That suits you very well…’.  Silvio’s further descriptions of his own person, too, are memorable and unflinchingly candid: ‘For I sometimes feel I’ve been rejected by life, as if washed ashore by the tide.  I’ve ended up on a lovely beach, an old boat, still solid and seaworthy, but whose paint has faded in the water, eaten away by salt’.

Nemirovsky’s use of the male perspective is realistic, and often quite profound.    Through Silvio, the reader is brought into the heart of a small and rural community as though a member him or herself: ‘… the people around here have a kind of genius for living in the most difficult way possible.  No matter how rich they are, they refuse pleasure, even happiness, with implacable determination, wary perhaps of its deceptive promise’.

Smith’s translation is faultless; there is a wonderful poetic fluidity to the piece from beginning to end.  Fire in the Blood is an incredibly human work, which has been exquisitely written.  Her descriptions are reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield’s in their vivid snapshots of beauty and clarity.  Like Mansfield’s, her work is almost entirely sensually appealing.  There is so much depth within this short, and perfectly crafted, novel.  For those unfamiliar with Nemirovsky’s work, Fire in the Blood is a great taster of her wonderful stylistic choices, and engrossing storylines.

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Reading the World: ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was a book club pick for February.  Ogawa is an author whom I have only sampled through her interconnected short story collection, Revenge, which is vivid even two and a half years later.  I plumped for The Housekeeper and the Professor as my book club choice because it sounded utterly charming, and looked like it would present a wonderful – and slightly unusual – slice of Japanese life.  First published in Japan in 2003, and translated into English by Stephen Snyder, the novel both met and exceeded my expectations.

9780099521341The Professor of the novel, a former maths teacher whose name we never learn, only has eighty minutes of short-term memory function, following a traumatic head injury seventeen years before the narrative begins.  His memory effectively stops in 1975.  Each morning, his housekeeper has to meet him anew: ‘… as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them.  The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past’.  It is she who narrates the story.  The third character in the novel is the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son.  He is at first rather reluctant to spend so much time with the elderly Professor, but the two soon form an unshakeable bond.

The novel’s opening sentence really sets the tone for the whole: ‘We called him the Professor.  And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign’.  Ogawa’s writing is lovely, and she sets scenes simply yet beautifully: ‘It was a rainy evening in early April.  My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug.  The light in the Professor’s study was dim.  Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain’.

Maths is the force which serves to really unite the trio; as the Housekeeper describes to us, ‘… I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do.  Numbers were his way of reaching out to the world.  They were safe, a source of comfort’.  There are many mathematical problems, diagrams, and equations which have been included, but they seem a natural addition to the whole.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is rather a peaceful novel about understanding, trust, and family; protection, selflessness, and kindness.  Ogawa’s prose is unfailingly lovely, and the whole has been sensitively wrought.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is an understanding and deep tome, which transports the reader entirely.  All in all, it is a satisfying novel, which restores one’s faith in humankind, particularly within these turbulent times in which we live.

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‘Lost in Translation’ by Ella Frances Sanders *****

I was lucky enough to be able to borrow Ella Frances Sanders’ Lost in Translation, from my local library.  I received a copy of Speaking in Tongues for Christmas, and loved it, so my hopes were high for her debut.  (Yes, I clearly like reading books by this particular author out of their original publication order).  Lost in Translation is a wonderful compendium of untranslateable words and phrases which have no equivalent in English.

9780224100809Sanders’ introduction to Lost in Translation is lovely; in thoughtful and well-written prose, the author highlights just how important different concepts are in cultures other than the British.  She clearly has a passion for collecting rather obscure linguistic references, and is eager to share those important finds with her readers.

I would highly recommend Lost in Translation, as well as Speaking in Tongues.  Whilst neither book is particularly literary, or very taxing, each entry, along with the wonderful illustrations which accompany it, is a real joy for the word nerds amongst us.

Below are a few of my favourite entries from Lost in Translation, which is undoubtedly a tome which I shall pick up many times in future.

  • Gezellig (Dutch): essentially the Dutch version of hygge, a Danish trend which is everywhere at present.
  • Pisan Zapra (Malay): the time needed to eat a banana.
  • Hiraeth (Welsh): a homesickness for something or somewhere you cannot return to; the nostalgia for your past, or for something imagined.
  • Boketto (Japanese): gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking of anything specific.
  • Vacilando (Spanish): when the experience of travelling is more important than the destination.
  • Tsundoku (Japanese): the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, and piling it up with other unread books.
  • Naz (Urdu): the pride and assurance that comes from knowing that you are loved unconditionally.
  • Cafone (Brazilian Portuguese): the act of running your fingers through the hair of somebody you love.

There have been glowing reviews about this gift book already, and I hardly need to add to them.  Regardless, if you are looking for a thoughtful gift, or merely want to treat yourself, I would look no further.

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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: ‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux ****

Annie Ernaux was one of the authors I wanted to get to during 2017, and what better than to tie her together with my Reading the World project?  I chose A Woman’s Story as my first Ernaux as I had previously heard of it, and because it sounded so powerful.  Kirkus Reviews writes that A Woman’s Story is ‘as much about Everywoman as one particular woman… [which] laconically describes the cruel realities of old age for a woman once vibrant and independent.’

The slim memoir chronicles the dementia and death of Ernaux’s mother, as well as weaving in aspects of her life and character.  Translated from its original French by Tanya Leslie, the prose throughout is measured and careful.  This renders some of the more harrowing and touching scenes which Ernaux depicts far more stark and raw than they perhaps would have been had the writing been frilly or overdone in any way.  This is particularly so when coming to terms with the death of her mother: ‘I would be sitting behind the wheel and suddenly it would hit me.  “She will never be alive anywhere in the world again.”  I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that other people behaved normally.’

9781583225752A Woman’s Story is a self-confessed writing exercise which Ernaux embarked upon in order to discover; to ‘capture the real woman, the one who existed independently from me’.  In her own words, she describes the different genres which can be found within her biographical work: ‘The more objective aspect of my writing will probably involve a cross between family history and sociology, reality and fiction’.

In depicting her mother, who lived in relative poverty in Normandy and was the fourth child in a family of six, Ernaux builds a fascinating portrait of a bygone age.  She writes: ‘My mother’s youth involved trying to escape the dull certainties of her fate: inevitable poverty, the threat of alcoholism and everything else that happened to a factory girl who had slipped into bad habits’.  The structure, made up as it is of fragmented memories, works incredibly well here.  Ernaux also renders her work achingly honest, and so personal: ‘As I write, I see her sometimes as a “good,” sometimes as a “bad” mother.  To get away from these contrasting views, which come from my earliest childhood, I try to describe and explain her life as if I were writing about someone else’s mother and a daughter who wasn’t me’.

Ernaux somehow manages to be both frank and heartfelt throughout, making A Woman’s Story both an important exercise in biography for its author, and a fascinating tome for the everyday reader.

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