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‘Apple and Knife’ by Intan Paramaditha ***

The stories in Apple and Knife, the first English collection of award-winning Indonesian author Intan Paramaditha’s work have been drawn from two of her books, and are translated by Stephen J. Epstein.  Paramaditha’s tales are inspired by fairytales, mythological stories, and horror, and this collection promises its readers an ‘unsettling ride that swerves into the supernatural to explore the dangers and power of occupying a female body in today’s world.’  Its blurb also claims that the collection ‘is subversive feminist horror at its best, where men and women alike are arbiters of fear, and where revenge is sometimes sweetest when delivered from the grave.’

9781787301160Apple and Knife is a slim collection of thirteen stories, many of which have quite beguiling titles; ‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’, ‘Scream in a Bottle’, and ‘A Single Firefly, a Thousand Rats’ particularly caught my eye.  Australian author Emily Bitto writes that the stories in Apple and Knife ‘are raw, fun, excessive, and told with a wink, but they are underlaid with an unsettling awareness of the human fate of “disobedient women”.’

As one would expect, given Bitto’s comments, the collection launches straight into the darker side of life.  The first story, ‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’, is a retelling of Cinderella (renamed Sindelerat), which is told from the perspective of one of her sisters.  In the story, the narrator recounts, rather graphically, how she became blind to a young child companion: ‘My eyes were pecked out by a bird.  They say it was a dove from heaven, but it was actually a black crow straight out of hell.  I screamed.  I begged it to stop.  But my shrieks were drowned out by its caws.  It got to the point that you could no longer tell what was flowing, tears or blood.  The crow only heeded its owner and she wasn’t satisfied until my eyes were hollow sockets.’

The settings of the stories in Apple and Knife, which range from corporate boardrooms to shanty towns, ‘reveal a soupy otherworld stewing just beneath the surface.’  The majority of the stories are set in Indonesia, but there are a couple which do not explicitly mention their placement, or which are set elsewhere.  Each of the characters, regardless of where they have been placed geographically, is undergoing a crisis or upheaval of some kind, and this becomes the common thread which acts as a backbone for the collection.  The characters in Apple and Knife are all markedly different.  We meet, variously, a woman who is being kept by her husband in a grand house; ‘the most famous courtesan in Esna’; a young woman who interviews a ‘Sumarni’, or witch; and a ‘devil woman’ who pays a man to act out her sexual fantasies.

Whilst some of the stories in this collection did not appeal to me on a personal level, or had rather unsatisfactory endings, I found that others had a real power to them.  They subvert expectation, and turn things on their heads.  Many of the tales take quite surprising turns, and Paramaditha seems to enjoy playing with the expectations which she assumes the reader has.  The stories are sensual, but not in a pleasant way; rather, they come across as an assault upon the senses. One of the elements which I found most interesting in Apple and Knife is the focus which Paramaditha places upon the physical body and its degradation.

I was impressed by Paramaditha’s writing, and the layering effect which she creates in many of her stories.  Her rich descriptions help to achieve this.  In ‘Scream in a Bottle’, for instance, she writes: ‘Rain falls in the yard, soaking the earth.  Not a downpour, but slow, drop by drop.  A long, soft tone, like a bow sliding against a violin string.’  The author is perceptive and descriptive, particularly when it comes to her depictions of characters.  In ‘Beauty and the Seventh Dwarf’, she writes: ‘I pieced together her story based on information that emerged at random, so the tale was incomplete, unsatisfactory.  It didn’t explain the enigma of her hideousness.  Waiting while she bathed one night, I hunted around for further clues.  Her room contained a mirror and a dresser…  Of course she didn’t need beauty products, nothing would redeem her looks. Even the mirror’s presence was odd.  Why would someone with such a grotesque face want to gaze at herself?’

Regardless of the things which I did not like in this collection, or which felt rather repetitive, it is undeniably wonderful that Indonesian literature is being championed at last.  Apple and Knife was fascinating to read, suffused as it is with so much darkness, and a lot of Indonesian folklore and cultural details, which I was unfamiliar with.  Whilst many of the stories are contemporary, I liked the use of historical fiction in ‘Kuchuk Hanem’, which has a representation of French author Gustave Flaubert within it.  The dark humour was also welcome, and worked well with Paramaditha’s storylines, which were, frankly, sometimes quite bizarre.

On the whole, Apple and Knife presents an interesting and multilayered picture of a very diverse nation; there is so much going on here, and a lot of themes have been addressed. The magical realism which is sometimes inserted does work well on the whole, although I found a couple of instances of this unnecessary or somewhat jarring.  Overall, though, the fantastical elements do add an extra layer of interest to the stories.  The majority are quite bewitching.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Fires of Autumn’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

First published in 2014.

The Fires of Autumn is essentially the prequel to Nemirovsky’s most famous work, Suite Francaise.  The novel sets the historical and political scene which Suite Francaise then builds upon. The Fires of Autumn was completed in 1942, and was published posthumously in 1957, after Nemirovsky’s death in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Fires of Autumn, the eleventh novel of Nemirovsky’s to be translated into English, is split into three separate parts, covering the period between 1912 and 1941, and following the Brun family, ‘Parisians of some small private means’.  The opening scene uses a meal eaten by the whole family as its backdrop – a simple technique, but a wonderful way in which to introduce multiple characters.

9780099520368As with her other fiction, Nemirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful.  Madame Pain, the elderly mother-in-law of patriarch Adolphe Brun, has ‘hair that looked like sea foam’, and a voice ‘as sonorous and sweet as a song’.  Each member of the family is constructed of different characteristics – for instance, twenty seven-year-old Martial is ‘overly modest’ and focuses almost solely upon his studies and marrying his young cousin Therese, two of the mothers touched upon are either anxious or ambitious, and young Bernard is a dreamer, forever envisioning his future.  When viewed as a familial unit, the Bruns feel realistic.  Generationally, The Fires of Autumn is interesting too; each character is at a slightly different point in his or her life.

The view of Paris and her suburbs is built up over time, and Nemirovsky uses all of the senses to ensure that it stands vividly in the mind of her readers.  Her use of light and darkness illuminate each scene: ‘Even this dark little recess was filled with a golden mist: the sun lit up the dust particles, the kind you get in Paris in the spring, that joyful season dust that seems to be made of face powder and pollen from flowers’.  Nemirovsky’s inclusion of social and political material ensures that The Fires of Autumn is historically grounded.  Spanning such a long period also works in the novel’s favour.

As with many of Nemirovsky’s novels, The Fires of Autumn has been translated by Sandra Smith, who has such control over the original material and renders it into a perfectly fluid and beautiful piece.  She is the author of the book’s introduction too, and believes that it offers ‘a panoramic exploration of French life’.  Indeed, The Fires of Autumn is a beautiful piece of writing, which encompasses many different themes and marvellously demonstrates the way in which Paris altered over several decades, and how this drastic change affected families just like the Bruns.

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‘The Summer House’ by Philip Teir ****

Philip Teir’s The Summer House, which was first published in 2018, has been translated from its original Swedish by Tiina Nunnally.  The Telegraph regards Finnish-Swedish author Teir as ‘Scandinavia’s answer to Jonathan Franzen’, and says that he has a ‘remarkable eye for human behaviour’.

In the novel, married couple Erik and Julia ‘marshal their children into the car and start 9781781259276the drive towards the house by the sea on the west coast of Finland where they will spend their summer.’  They are going to be staying at the summer house in Mjölkviken which belonged to Julia’s grandparents, the first time in which the family have stayed there all together.  Outwardly, Julia and Erik, along with their twelve-year-old daughter Alice and ten-year-old son Anton, appear to be a ‘happy young family looking forward to a long holiday together.’  However, each character is rather apprehensive about what the summer may hold.  When focusing on Anton’s perspective, Teir writes: ‘Two whole months.  That was an unimaginable length of time for Anton.  When he thought about how it would seem when they came to the end of their holiday, he couldn’t really picture it.  The summer months quickly flickered past before his eyes.’

Beneath the surface, unspoken things are simmering.  The threat of unemployment hovers over Erik, who oversees the IT of a department store, and he feels unable to tell his wife.  The arrival of novelist Julia’s childhood friend, Marika, at a summer house closeby, ‘deepens the hairline cracks that had so far remained invisible.’  There are also hints of Julia’s struggle to write a new novel.  Alice and Anton are beginning to have a growing awareness of how complicated the world around them is, and have to learn to deal with it in their own ways.  Alice is becoming increasingly self-conscious, and Anton has many anxieties about the world, and his relationship with his mother. Each concern which Teir gives about the family members feels realistic: Anton not knowing whether he enjoys being out in nature; Alice’s lack of connection to the Internet, and by extension her friends, in a place with so little mobile phone coverage; the parents’ awareness of themselves and how they behave when in the company of others.

I found the novel’s short prologue, in which a young and as yet unnamed boy is sitting in the car, the ‘safest place to be’ during a thunderstorm, with his mother, and the opening line of the first chapter intriguing.  The Summer House proper begins: ‘Julia would turn thirty-six in the autumn, yet she had never truly managed to escape her mother’s voice.’  Julia’s mother appears as a secondary character later on in the novel.  Other characters – for example, Erik’s brother who has been travelling in Vietnam – are added into the mix, and add heightened tension to both the novel as a whole, and the relationships which it depicts.

At first, Teir has left things unsaid, and unexplained.  There is a clever building of tension, and of a foreshadowing of things to come, however.  When focusing on Julia in an early chapter, Teir writes: ‘As she walked through the hall, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and was surprised to realise she looked good in a rather stern sort of way.  So this was how a single mother looked, this was how she would look from now on, when they became a family of three.’  She is continually surprised by her husband, and also dismayed by the way in which their relationship has shifted.  Of her husband, Teir observes: ‘She was always struck by how real Erik was when he was at home, as if there were two Eriks: one she would be cross with in her fantasies, and a real Erik, who talked to her and had opinions that required her attention.’

The sense of place in The Summer House has a vivacity and sensuality to it.  Such emphasis has been given to the plants and animals which now surround the family, who feel such a world away from their flat in Helsinki.  Teir writes, for instance, ‘Anton looked around.  Everywhere he saw blueberries and lingonberries growing.  The trunks of the slender pine trees shifted from grey to reddish-brown where animals had gnawed away at the bark.’  There is a real sense of atmosphere which develops in the novel, both with Mjölkviken and its nature, and within the family.  Teir focuses on the ways in which each family member interacts with the world around them.  When writing about Alice, he says: ‘The water was cold, but Alice didn’t care, because so much was going on inside her body.  She moved slowly, languidly, like in a film, as if surrounded by some sort of membrane that protected her from everything.’

The structure of The Summer House is simple, yet effective.  Teir follows each of the family members in turn, alternating between them.  Each chapter is quite revealing in its way.  The backstory of Julia and Erik has been well developed, and the way in which their marriage has changed over time appears believable.  Interesting and complex relationships are demonstrated between family members, as well as with Marika and her family.  The Summer House has been well situated socially, too; through the use of Marika and her husband Chris, who are ‘eco-warriors’, he manages to ask a series of searching questions about the environment, climate change, and other global concerns.  Again, he situates each character within a wider scope: ‘Erik liked to think of himself as a progressive optimist, but lately it felt like everyone around him had become pessimists.  The climate crisis, the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, the euro crisis, the newspaper crisis, the crisis in Ukraine, in the EU, the crisis within the Social Democratic party…  There was no area of society that wasn’t in crisis.  And in Finland people were especially good at crises, as if they didn’t feel truly comfortable unless everything was going to hell.’

I was wholly engrossed within The Summer House, a short novel which runs to less than 250 pages.  Teir really seems to understand each of his characters and their motivations, and the ways in which they interact with one another feel true to life.  Teir’s prose has been well translated, and the story is a highly accessible one.  The Summer House is a relatively quiet novel, in that not a great deal of action occurs.  It is, instead, focused upon a cast of three-dimensional, emotionally complex characters, and how they connect with one another.

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‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto ****

I have read several of Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all.  I was therefore very much looking forward to beginning her debut, Kitchen, which collects together two novellas – ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’.  First published in Japan in 1987, where it won two of the most prestigious literary prizes in the country and remained on the bestseller list for more than a year, Kitchen was seamlessly translated into English by Megan Backus in 1993. 9780571342723

Its blurb intrigued me immediately, stating as it does that this collection ‘juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan.’  The Los Angeles Times Book Review calls Yoshimoto’s debut ‘artless, spontaneous and wonderfully fresh’, and The New Yorker deems Yoshimoto ‘a sure and lyrical author who is unembarrassed by adolescent funk’.

Kitchen begins with a short preface written by the author.  She says at its outset, ‘For a very long time there was something I wanted to say in a novel, and I wanted, no matter what it took, to continue writing until I got the saying of it out of my system.  This book is what resulted from that history of persistence.’

The narrator of ‘Kitchen’ is a young woman named Mikage Sakurai, recently left alone after the recent death of her grandmother, who raised her.  She reflects: ‘My family had steadily decreased one by one as the years went by, but when it suddenly dawned on me that I was all alone, everything before my eyes seemed false.  The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me.  It was total science fiction.  The blackness of the cosmos.’ At first, the kitchen becomes the only place in which Mikage is able to find solace after she is set adrift: ‘Now only the kitchen and I are left.  It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.’

After some time, Mikage is taken in by the quite unusual Tanabe family, who care for her like a daughter.  This has a positive effect on her: ‘Little by little, light and air came into my heart.  I was thrilled.’  I admired the way in which Yoshimoto has shaped Mikage’s believable character arc, and very much liked her protagonist’s quiet determination.  ‘As I grow older,’ Mikage muses, ‘much older, I will experience many things, and I will hit rock bottom again and again.  Again and again I will suffer; again and again I will get back on my feet.  I will not be defeated.  I won’t let my spirit be destroyed.’  To me, Mikage felt wholly realistic; she is a little reserved, perhaps, but her emotions continue at the right pitch given her circumstances and the shifting situations in which she finds herself.  Her unfolding relationship with Yuichi Tanabe was both complex and fascinating.

I find Yoshimoto’s prose unusual and vivid, and my experience with these stories proved no different.  Much of her writing is searching and lovely.  In ‘Kitchen’, for example, she writes: ‘As I walked along in the moonlight, I wished that I might spend the rest of my life traveling from place to place.  If I had a family to go home to perhaps I might have felt adventurous, but as it was I would be horribly lonely.  Still, it just might be the life for me.  When you’re traveling, every night the air is clear and crisp, the mind serene.  In any case, if nobody was waiting for me anywhere, yes, this serene life would be the thing.’

As with the other Yoshimoto books which I have read thus far, ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ are told in short bursts.  Both of these stories are very character-focused, and Tokyo appears almost as a character in each one.  However, there are only a few cultural markers – most of which involve food – at play in both stories, and the setting feels almost anonymous in consequence.  Of course, Yoshimoto builds quite lovely descriptions of the physical setting, but in these stories much of the focus has been placed upon light and darkness, and the emptiness which one can feel when in the midst of a metropolis.

Yoshimoto considers the impact which everyday occurrences can have on us, and the comfort which comes from being in a familiar place, even if much of which was once familiar about it has now gone.   Her musings upon the concept of time are particularly interesting, and fitting, in both of these stories.  Some very important topics are discussed here, often in profound and memorable ways.  In both stories, where the young female protagonists have lost someone of great importance to them, the loneliness which Yoshimoto crafts is moving and heartfelt.  Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Kitchen’, and its sensuous descriptions about food and cookery, ‘Moonlight Shadow’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful tale, and one which I do not feel I will ever forget.  ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ both deal with bereavement and loss; both are quiet; both have an almost astounding amount of layers to them.  This collection, whilst short, provides so much to think about.

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‘The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter’ by Elisabeth Gille ****

Elisabeth Gille’s imagined memoir of her mother, Russian-Ukrainian novelist Irene Nemirovsky, has been translated from its original French by Marina Harss.  Of Gille’s curious mixture of fact and fiction, The Nation comments that she is ‘not interested in defending her mother’s reputation.  Instead, she sets out to live in her mother’s head.’

71pytdpctqlGille was only five years old when her mother was arrested by the Gestapo for being Jewish.  Nemirovsky had spent over half of her life in France after moving around Europe a lot with her parents, trying to escape the fallout from the Russian revolution.  Gille, understandably, ‘grew up remembering next to nothing’ about her mother, who was ‘a figure, a name, Irene Nemirovsky, a once popular novelist, a Russian emigre from an immensely rich family, a Jew who didn’t consider herself one and who even contributed to collaborationist periodicals, and a woman who died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew.  To her daughter she was a tragic enigma and a stranger.’  Both of Gille’s parents were killed in Auschwitz; she and her sister Denise only survived because they were taken into hiding.

In her acknowledgment at the start of the book, Gille writes that her work ‘was imagined on the basis of other books’ – namely those which her mother wrote.  She goes on to say that all of the letters and citations which have been included throughout The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter are authentic, and have been taken from unpublished notes. Gille has attempted, throughout, to capture her mother’s own writing style, and consequently the entire book is written from the imagined perspective of Nemirovsky.  The volume, published in English by NYRB, also includes an interview with Gille, and an afterword written by Rene de Ceccatty.

The Mirador has been split into two sections – November 1929 and June 1942.  The first part takes place in Kiev and St Petersburg.  Here, during Nemirovsky’s childhood, there were ‘pogroms and riots, parties and excursions, then revolution’.  At this point, Gille writes: ‘For me, if Finland is winter and St. Petersburg, with its yellow mists shrouding the shores of the Neva is autumn, then Kiev is summer.  We were not yet rich when we lived there, just well-to-do.’  The family eventually settled in Paris, the place where Nemirovsky felt most content.  In these imaginings, particularly of Nemirovsky’s early life, her own mother appears to be a floating figure, flitting around to give orders, and giving much of her attention to clothes and ‘the season’, rather than to Irene.

The imagined memories of Nemirovsky are interspersed with brief snapshots of the author’s life when she was small.  In May 1920, for example, she ‘pulls at her mother’s sleeve; her mother is standing in the middle of the courtyard, reading.  The young woman shifts the book, pushes back her glasses, and smiles.  Her tender, myopic gaze caresses the child distractedly.  The child wrinkles her brow, releases the sleeve, and moves away.’

Gille’s echoing of her mother’s prose style has been lovingly handled, and feels relatively authentic throughout.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was essentially reading a work of fiction.  Like her mother’s, Gille’s writing is poetic and layered, filled with gorgeous and striking imagery.  Every sentence is in some way evocative, and her sentences are beautifully crafted.  A real sense of place and time have been deftly assembled.  When on a cruise down the River Dnieper, undertaken when Nemirovsky was quite young, for instance, Gille composes the following: ‘In the immensity of the Russian sky, the moon looked green, touched by the dying rays of the setting sun and crisscrossed by spectral clouds that slid over its white surface, leaving behind a trail of dark shadows.  The silver domes of the church of Saint Andrew, which we had just passed, still glimmered faintly among the trees.  The immense branches of the forest, which descended to the very edge of the river, draped the shoreline in darkness, but the middle of the current was dappled with metallic-coloured spots as far as the eye could see.’  The historical and social contexts have been well set out too, and unfolds alongside Nemirovsky’s own life.

The Mirador was not quite what I was expecting, and it is certainly unlike the majority of memoirs and biographies which I have read to date.  It was unusual, and I enjoyed the way in which Gille has approached her work.  There are some problems with the narrative, however.  It tends to jump around in place and time with no warning, and can be a little jarring in consequence.  The Mirador does, however, really come together.  It is both mesmerising and memorable, and I very much admire what Gille set out to do here.  The Mirador is vivid and sometimes quite surprising, and highlights a highly tumultuous period of history, and its effects upon one rather remarkable woman.

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‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata **

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2016) is a novella which so many people have been talking about of late.  Translated from its original Japanese by Ginny Tabley Takamori, and published in English in 2018, it has fast become an international bestseller, and is receiving praise from every direction. I felt, therefore, that it would be a great choice for my online book club, and we discussed it during February.

The blurb of Convenience Store Woman claims that Murata ‘brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the familiar convenience store that is so much part of life in Japan…  she provides a sharp look at Japanese society and the pressure to conform, as well as penetrating insights into the female mind.’  The novella, and Murata’s prose style, have variously been compared to the work of Banana Yoshimoto and Han Kang, and the film Amelie, all of which I very much enjoy.

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Convenience Store Woman uses the first person perspective of Keiko Furukama, a woman in her mid-thirties, who has spent her entire adult life working in a convenience store outside Hiromachi Station in Tokyo.  Her parents were thrilled when she originally took the job whilst pursuing her studies, as they viewed her as odd, a misfit.  After several troubling incidents in her childhood, Keiko recognised how her natural behaviour was affecting her parents: ‘[They] were at a loss what to do about me, but they were as affectionate to me as ever.  I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologizing for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home.  I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.’  Therefore, to feel as though their daughter was fitting in within a regimented environment was comforting to them.  Little do they know that Keiko has actually based her entire manner whilst working upon the store manual, ‘which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say’, and by observing the habits of her colleagues.  By doing this, Keiko essentially enables herself to ‘play the part of a normal person’.

Whilst Keiko is content, and feels comfortable in her job, she is aware that she is not living up to societal expectations, and that her family is worrying about her.  There is such a focus in the wider society on the importance of marriage – even if it is not to the right person, it seems – and women are referred to as old maids, spinsters, and ‘grubby’ for not conforming.  This all seemed very Jane Austen-esque to me; it is a very old-fashioned attitude.  Keiko says: ‘I knew it was considered weird for someone of my age to not have either a proper job or be married because my sister had explained it to me.’  Although she has no understanding as to why societal constructs want every woman of her age to conform to marriage and motherhood, she is still aware that others perceive her to be somehow deviant, or abnormal, for trying to maintain her own independence in a way which makes sense to her.  I found this part of her character desperately sad; she recognises that unless she puts on an act, she would not fit in anywhere: ‘You eliminate the parts of your life that others find strange – maybe that’s what everyone means when they say they want to “cure” me.’  It is never explicitly stated what might be wrong with Keiko, and I would not like to speculate, particularly considering that this is such a short book.

The first half of the novella sets out Keiko’s job, and the way in which she tries to fit in with her colleagues, in the same manner as she tried to imitate her peers when she was young; for instance, shopping at the same boutique as a stylish coworker of around the same age as herself, and copying what others do, despite the way in which she largely does not understand the reasoning for this.  In her job, Keiko tells us, ‘speed is of the essence, and I barely use my head as the rules ingrained in me issue instructions directly to my body.’  She takes a great deal of pride in her efficiency and knowledge: ‘I automatically read the customer’s minutest moments and gaze, and my body acts reflexively in response.  My ears and eyes are important sensors to catch their every move and desire.’  She is proud, too, that she has found somewhere she belongs, and something to do which others rely on.  At the outset of Convenience Store Woman, Keiko reflects: ‘It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move.  I am one of those cogs, going round and round.  I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning.’  She sees herself as an important, and irreplaceable part of the store: ‘When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I’m so much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine.’

The second half of the novella is concentrated far more upon colleague Shiraha’s place within Keiko’s life, and the ways in which they interact with one another.  From their meeting onwards, I did begin to find Convenience Store Woman rather unsettling in places; for instance, when Keiko invites Shiraha to stay at her apartment, and a strange conversation ensues.  Some of the things which he says to her – especially considering that they had only recently met, and he knew little about Keiko – made me feel uncomfortable, and even outraged.  He tells her: ‘”Your womb is probably too old to be of any use, and you don’t even have the looks to serve as a means to satisfy carnal desire.”‘  If anyone spoke to me in this way, I would not hesitate to tell them in no uncertain terms to leave my house and never contact me again.  Keiko, however, just listens quite passively, and does not seem to see a problem with Shiraha addressing her in this manner.

I certainly found Keiko to be an interesting character, but I cannot say that I warmed to her at all.  I felt sympathetic towards her to an extent, but I do not believe that creating empathy for her protagonist was Murata’s driving intention.  It seems a real shame that the second half of the novella took focus away from herself, and projected it onto her moody, feckless, and unlikeable colleague, Shiraha.  He is a character whom, whilst disrespectful and rude to customers and colleagues, conforms to societal constructs by divulging that the only reason he applied for the job was to find a wife.

I found the translation of Convenience Store Woman rather awkward at times, particularly with regard to the uncomfortable phrasing which Tapley Takamori decided to include.  For instance, Keiko refers to people who do not fit in as ‘foreign objects’, and Shiraha rather bizarrely declares: ‘… they all seem to think nothing of raping me just because I’m in the minority.’  It may well be that this prose is deliberately awkward in order to mimic Keiko’s own ineptitude, but I did find it a little too much at times.  In the past, I have found quite a lot of Japanese fiction rather awkward in its translation, but Convenience Store Woman is the most consistently awkward which I can remember reading.

Whilst I did enjoy the first half of the novella, I found this book largely an uneven and problematic one.  None of the characters around Keiko felt quite realistic, and their bad traits – particularly in the case of Shiraha – were too much; he had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  Other characters felt like merely stereotypes and cliches, and seemed to feature in the story merely to provide a contrast to Keiko.  I also found the dynamics between them quite odd.  I suppose that I am firmly lodged within the minority, but I did not find Convenience Store Woman anywhere near as compelling as I expected to.

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‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck ****

Go, Went, Gone by German author Jenny Erpenbeck was my book club’s choice for January.  I have read all of her other books which have been translated into English thus far, and find them all wonderfully strange, and highly memorable.  I was therefore looking forward to dipping into this novel, which is the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the English PEN Award.  Go, Went, Gone was also longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.  Sally Rooney has called it ‘vital’, and The Guardian ‘profound’.  It has been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky.

81bkztrl1zlThe novel’s protagonist is a retired University professor of Classical Philology named Richard, a man who has lived alone in Berlin since the death of his wife.  Early on in the novel, he finds ‘a surprising new community on Oranienplatz – among the African asylum seekers who have set up a tent city there.’  As Richard slowly gets to know them, his life starts to change, and his own sense of belonging is thrown into question.

The story begins on the first day of Richard’s retirement, in which he finds himself cast rather adrift: ‘He doesn’t know how long it’ll take him to get used to having time.  In any case. his head still works just the same as before.  What’s he going to do with the thoughts still thinking away inside his head?’  His existence, rather than peopled with daily interactions with students and other members of staff, suddenly feels suffused with loneliness.  The inability which he now has to share his work with his peers, and with the wider community, saddens him: ‘As it is, everything his wife always referred to as his stuff now exists for his pleasure alone.  And will exist for no one’s pleasure when he’s gone.’

I admired the way in which Erpenbeck brought together quite disparate goings on in the world, using Richard as the more focused, privileged, Western character, and placing not-so-faraway terrors in his wake.  I found the following scene rather startling: ‘This isn’t the first time he’s felt ashamed to be eating dinner in front of a TV screen displaying the bodies of people felled by gunfire or killed by earthquakes or plane crashes, someone’s shoe left behind after a suicide bombing, or plastic-wrapped corpses lying side by side in a mass grave during an epidemic.’  In this manner, and later through the individuals whom he meets, the migrant crisis is firmly embedded throughout the narrative, entwining with Richard’s own life.  I also enjoyed the parallels which Erpenbeck drew between the Ancient world and the modern; for instance, the comparison made between the anonymous demonstration of migrants on Alexanderplatz, who refused to give their identities or nationalities, to the story in which Odysseus ‘called himself Nobody to escape from the Cyclops’s cave.’

Erpenbeck’s commentary about the Berlin Wall, which ran alongside the present-day crisis, was a forceful tool, establishing similarity between Richard and the migrants.  When Erpenbeck describes the way in which the demolition of the Wall made Berlin almost unknowable to Richard, likenesses form with the borders which the migrants he meets have to try and overcome: ‘Now that the Wall is gone, he no longer knows his way around.  Now that the Wall is gone, the city is twice as big and has changed so much that he often doesn’t recognize the intersections.’  With the Wall as her focus, Erpenbeck is able to mark the passing of time, as well as the changing face of both the city, and its political climate.  Instead of the ‘good bookstore around the corner, a repertory cinema, and a lovely cafe’ around Oranienplatz, the scene now looks more like a ‘construction site: a landscape of tents, wooden shacks, and tarps: white, blue, and green…  What does he see?  What does he hear?  He sees banners and propped-up signs with hand-painted slogans.  He sees black men and white sympathizers…  The sympathizers are young and pale, they dye their hair with henna, they refuse to believe that the world is an idyllic place and want everything to change, for which reason they put rings through their lips, ears, and noses. The refugees, on the other hand, are trying to gain admittance to this world that appears to them convincingly idyllic.  Here on the square, these two forms of wishing and hoping cross paths, there’s an overlap between them, but this silent observer doubts that the overlap is large.

At the novel’s opening, Erpenbeck lets us know that Richard has been shielded from the world around him – physically in terms of the marked space imposed upon him by the Berlin Wall, but figuratively too, moving as he does in the same circles and routines throughout his work, and with his wife.  In Go, Went, Gone, the refugees are given the ability to make Richard more malleable, to open his eyes to the wider world, and to shape elements of his persona.  Richard, despite his good education, job as a professor, and prior travels, was previously ignorant to such things as African geography, and could come across as ignorant.  When he meets a group of migrants for the first time, for instance, Erpenbeck writes: ‘The refugees weren’t all doing so badly, Richard thinks, otherwise how could this fellow be so burly?’ I found some of Richard’s gradual realisations quite moving; for example: ‘There’s something he’s never thought of since these men aren’t being permitted to arrive, what looks to him like peacetime here is for them basically still war.’

The novel’s blurb declares that in Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck makes ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality’.  I agree with this; she certainly explores many issues which revolve around the notions of statehood and selfhood, and the difficulties which so many people have to overcome in order just to live in safety.  Reading such novels as this in our current climate, which places such emphasis on borders and boundaries, is pivotal.  The use which Erpenbeck makes of the present tense throughout just makes the realistic story which she has built feel all the more urgent.  So much of the human experience can be found within this novel.

The only drawback of Go, Went, Gone for me is that it only features the male perspective, but perhaps this is what Erpenbeck was going for.  The few female characters here are either absent – Richard’s wife, and the wives and sisters of many of the migrants – or on the periphery.  In some ways, this absence makes the book seem limiting; in others, I suppose, it is rendered more realistic, as Richard perhaps would not have been allowed the same access to female migrants.  The other slight issue that I had is with the translation; whilst I found Bernofsky’s work fluid, there were some overly long, and occasionally quite muddled, sentences within the novel.

Overall, I found Go, Went, Gone poignant and highly thought-provoking; it made me give so much consideration to the world in which we live, the terrible things which humankind daily proves itself capable of, and notions of privilege.  There is a strong sense of place, and of selfhood, here, and I really did like the way in which the author has not presented Germany, or the wider Western world, as a utopia. Throughout, I found Erpenbeck’s tone, and the omniscient narrative perspective, effective.  I admire the amount of themes which the author has been able to pack in.  She considers, with empathy, what it must be feel like to be an essentially stateless migrant in the modern world, and the injustices which face them on a daily basis.  Go, Went, Gone is a timely novel which I would highly recommend.

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