Elisa Shua Dusapin, Winter in Sokcho (#BookReview)

French Korean writer Elisa Shua Dusapin’s award-winning debut novella, Winter in Sokcho, was published when she was just 22 years old. As the title conveys, it is set in Sokcho, a tourist town in the Republic of Korea near the border between the two Koreas. In fact, when the Korean peninsula was divided into two countries following World War II, Sokcho was on the Northern side, but became part of the South after the 1953 Korean War armistice 1953. I suspect Sokcho was chosen as the setting partly for its “divided” history, this being in-between, neither one thing or the other,

But, more on that later. The novel’s unnamed first person narrator is a 24-year-old French Korean woman who works in a struggling guesthouse. She seems to do everything – reception, cooking, cleaning – but with little enthusiasm. The novel opens with the arrival of an unexpected guest, the 40-something French graphic novelist, Yan Kerrand. The two are drawn to each other in some way, but, at least from Kerrand’s point-of-view, it doesn’t seem to be romantically driven. For our protagonist, the situation is a little more complex. She has a boyfriend – Jun-Oh – but it’s not a satisfactory relationship from her perspective. However, her fish-market worker mother is expecting an engagement any day. The situation is ripe for something different to happen in her life, but will it – and what, anyhow, does she want? She seems betwixt and between.

Winter in Sokcho has many of the features I like in a novella, starting with spare expressive prose, a tightly contained storyline, and a confined setting. There’s also a small cast of characters, with little or no digression into backstories. All we have is what’s happening now.

And, what is happening now is that the stranger’s appearance has affected our narrator. In the second paragraph, while registering him as a guest, she says

I felt compelled for the first time since I’d started at the guest house, to make excuses for myself. I wasn’t responsible for the run-down state of the place. I’d only been working there a month.

We then move to her visiting her mother, and another thread begins to appear, that of body image. We’ve already been told that one of the guesthouse guests is “seeking refuge from the city while she recovered from plastic surgery to her face”, and now we are introduced to our narrator’s mother’s concern about her appearance. She’s too thin, her mother says. Our narrator rejects this, but soon after, in a photograph her boyfriend has taken of her, she sees “a wasteland of ribs and shoulder blades receding into the distance … her bones sticking out” and is “surprised at how much”. When she’s with her mother, she binges on the food her mother makes, only to feel “sick” and later repelled by her “misshapen body”. There is a tension between this single mother and her daughter that pervades the novel. We sense that our narrator would like to leave Sokcho. Indeed, there’s a reference early on to the “literary world” suggesting she has aspirations in that area, but she feels she cannot leave her mother. Betwixt and between.

Throughout the novella, there’s an atmosphere of things being out of kilter or not quite right. Early on, the narrator describes Sokcho’s beach:

I loved this coastline, scarred as it was by the line of electrified barbed wire fencing along the shore.

This is not your typically loveable beach view, but she herself bears a physical scar on her thigh to which she often refers. It’s unexplained but there are hints later of self-harming. Meanwhile, later in the book, Kerrand tells her that he prefers the beaches of Normandy to those in southern France, because they are

Colder, emptier. With their own scars from the war.

And so the novella progresses, in this clipped spare prose, with a sort of wary dance going on between the narrator and Kerrand. He’s there for inspiration for the last book in his series about “a globe-trotting archaeologist … A lone figure. With a striking resemblance to the author.” She is intrigued by him. She offers to show him some local sights – the border region, with its checkpoint “No Laughing” rule, and the nearby national park, with its snowy mountains and waterfalls. She watches him, surreptitiously, as he draws by night, but always the drawings are destroyed by morning, because they are imperfect.

What does Kerrand see in her, what is he looking for? This being a first person narrative, we see it all through her eyes. She is as reliable a narrator as she can be, but like any first person narrator her viewpoint is limited by her perspective.

Winter in Sokcho does not have a simple resolution, but I’ll return to that idea of Sokcho being chosen as the setting. Its divided history mirrors our narrator who is also divided – in her French Korean heritage and her torn sense of self. Further, Sokcho is described as “always waiting”, as it seems also is our narrator, though for what, even she doesn’t really know.

How much is this a personal story and how much political? Two-thirds through, as she and Kerrand discuss their scarred beaches, she tells him (and just look at this writing):

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of the war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In winter that never ends.

There can be no neat ending to such a story, but without spoiling anything, I’ll share something she sees in Kerrand’s final drawing:

A place, but not a place. A place taking shape in a moment of conception and then dissolving. A threshold, a passage …

Does this suggest hope, albeit tenuous – for both the narrator and her Korea? I’m reading it that way. As for the closing lines … they are glorious.

Read for Novellas in November, Week 2: Novellas in Translation.

Elisa Shua Dusapin
Winter in Sokcho
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas-Higgins
Melbourne: Scribe, 2021 (Orig. pub. 2016)
ISBN: 9781922585011

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Claudine Jacques, The Blue Cross/La Croix bleue (#Review, #WITmonth)

I haven’t taken part in Women in Translation month (#WITmonth) before but decided to dip my toes in this year with a translated short story. I hoped to find one online and I did, “The Blue Cross” (or, in its original French, “La Croix bleue”) by New Caledonian writer Claudine Jacques. Coincidentally, I found it was translated by Patricia Worth who now, apparently, lives in Canberra. She translated it as part of her Master of Translation Studies. It was published in The AALITRA* Review, with the English presented alongside the French.

I didn’t know Claudine Jacques, but Worth provides some information on her website. Jacques was born in Belfort, France, moving to New Caledonia as a sixteen-year-old with her parents. She’s lived there ever since. She ran a vocational training centre, before establishing a publishing company, but she now, says Worth,”devotes herself almost exclusively to writing”. She and other authors founded the Association des Écrivains de la Nouvelle-Calédonie (New Caledonian Society of Authors) in 1997.

Literary Bureau Trames adds that Jacques lives “in the bush”, and has run the local village library for 20 years. She also runs the Boulouparis comic strip festival, is involved in writing workshops for schoolchildren and in an initiative of the Association Écrire en Océanie (Writing in Oceania) which has identified talent in young Caledonians.

Worth says she finds Jacques’ writing “compelling” and is particularly interested in “the social problems laid out in her stories”. She “was surprised to find numerous similarities between the histories of Australia and New Caledonia”. Her favourite Jacques novel is Cœurs barbelés, which is about the “painful experiences of white Caledonians and the indigenous Kanak people trying to live harmoniously on an island”.

Worth has translated several of Jacques’ short stories, with three available online. “The Blue Cross” is the first I found. It comes from a collection, Le cri de l’acacia. Google translate summarised the description I found: “The cry of the acacia or all those cries that you can’t hear! Because they would be too strong, too present, too throbbing … hear the life that endures in banal tragedies or squeaky comedies, universal deep down in the intimate and the tiny, the grandiose and the derisory. All these crumpled fates are those of everyday heroes” who are the “valiant men and intrepid women with extraordinary courage … in the face of violence, alcohol, pornography and the addiction of their own lives”.

“The Blue Cross”** certainly fits this description. Its story is one of those universal, banal, domestic tragedies, one with alcohol at its centre, and a courageous woman who does the right thing. Jéhovana, the woman and wife at the centre of the story, is married to an alcoholic who is no longer fully employed due to his drinking. She has tried to maintain appearances:

She wasn’t used to making certain judgements and, out of decency, put them off. What would the neighbours and the family say, seeing her speaking and acting for him? Yet at the last family meeting it was to her that they spoke; she had given her opinion while stating plainly that it was for both of them and that she was doing it under her husband’s control, but it seemed to her that no one had been fooled.

She’s behaving as a widow would and wonders if she’d be better off if it were true

freed from all these constraints, this waiting, this shouting, these beatings, this fetid washing stinking of vomit and alcohol, and especially from the shame that she and her children bore! 

For his part, he is conflicted. She is no longer interested in him, “had banished him” from her bed.

Now and then he forced himself on her, he had the right, she was his wife, but he had less and less strength and his desire for her had softened with time. And then he didn’t like to see her sad preoccupied look; she was so happy at the beginning of their marriage but now would often cry. How could he continue to desire a woman who cries?

It all comes to a head at their son’s Communion celebration. She begged him to not drink, but, well, of course he’s an alcoholic and is unable to keep his promise. What happens next is not particularly surprising, but the resolution is, perhaps, though, then again, perhaps not. The story certainly conveys, without telling, the complexity of situations like this – particularly for women.

It’s hard to comment on the writing, given I’m reading a translation, but I enjoyed reading the story. It is told well, giving us just enough information for us to get a sense of the two main protagonists, and just enough description to set the scene for us. The most interesting thing about the choices the author has made is to name the woman, Jéhovana, but not the man. Does this suggest that he stands for all such men, while Jéhovana’s situation and decisions are individual? And Jéhovana’s name? I don’t know it, but it does bring to mind the God, Jehovah. Does this give us a hint regarding her character?

In all, an interesting story. I can see why Worth likes Jacques’ work.

Notes on the translation

Worth prefaces her transaction with some comments. She says that she left in the text “culture-specific expressions – from New Caledonian-French, Wallisian and Polynesian languages – whose meanings were clear, feeling this added “richness to the story in the way Jacques allowed them to enrich her French”. That makes sense. She includes a glossary, as Jacques did. In some cases, however, she expanded where a French expression has a specific cultural meaning in New Caledonia.

I can’t really comment on the quality of the translation, as my French isn’t up to that, but I did notice that Worth changed some of Jacques’ punctuation. For example, there’s one long sentence in French, with just commas separating the different parts, that Worth breaks into two sentences, and uses a semi-colon. It looks sensible to me, but I wonder if it says something about French style versus English style. Does anyone have any ideas on that?

* AALITRA: The Australian Association for Literary Translation.

** The Blue Cross: an international organisation “engaged in the prevention, treatment and after care of problems related to alcohol and other drugs”.

Claudine Jacques
“The Blue Cross” (“La Croix blue”) from Le cri de l’acacia (2007)
(trans. Patricia Worth)
in The AALITRA Review Vol. 0 No. 2 (2010)

Avalailable online at LaTrobe University’s Open Journal Systems site.

Jayant Kaikini, No presents please: Mumbai stories (#BookReview)

Book cover

Jayant Kaikini is an Indian (Kannada) poet, short story writer, playwright, a public intellectual and a lyricist in Kannada Cinema. Kannada is new to me, but it’s the language widely spoken in the Indian state of Karnataka, where Kaikini was born (in 1955). He is regarded, according to Wikipedia, as one of the most significant contemporary writers in Kannada and is “credited with revolutionising the image of Kannada film songs”. I make this point because references to film and film songs abound in No presents please.

No presents please is a collection of short stories that are both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, but before I talk about them I’d like to share some insights from the translator, Tejaswini Niranjana, who was also involved in selecting the stories. She shares the issues she faced in translating Kaikini’s work, particularly “the flavour of the speech, the hybrid Hindu-Urdu-Dakhani speech, that is the cultural vernacular of Bombay” and is prominent in the stories. It’s clear that there were vigorous discussions about translating this speech. Kaikini apparently complained about her “frugality”, but she was worried about how the book would challenge readers not proficient in Hindustani. She solved it “by doing parallel translations–leaving in the Hindustani but giving the meaning in English either close by or elsewhere in the sentence so that the attentive reader eventually understands the meaning”. I read this discussion after reading the book. I must say that there were times when I was a little challenged, but my reading philosophy is to go with the flow and, overall, Niranjana’s approach combined with my strategy worked!

The other point I want to share is Niranjana’s insight into the content of these stories which, as the subtitle clearly states, are about Mumbai. But, here’s the thing: Kaikini has, Niranjana writes, “mastered the ruse of the ordinary”. By this she means that every story “begins with an extremely ordinary person or situation–sometimes both” but that “the ordinary often reveals itself as surreal”. Her challenge was

to maintain the ordinariness of the narrative until it could be maintained no longer, and to let the translation lead the reader along without drawing attention to itself. At the same time, when the surreal began to seep into the story, and the ruse of the ordinary opened out onto a different terrain of engagement for the characters, the translation had to find the right words to signal this “turn”.

She’s right about the stories moving, almost imperceptibly at times, from the ordinary to the surreal. I suspect that Kaikini’s (sometimes subtle, sometimes less so) references to cinema help us readers have the right mindset for shifting between reality and illusion, which is more how I would describe most of the funny little moments, than actual surrealism.

So, the collection. Titled by last story in the book, it contains sixteen stories, dated between 1986 and 2006. All are written third person, and explore Mumbai as it is experienced by its “ordinary” inhabitants. The first story, “Interval”, is about a young couple who meet at a cinema where he works and she’s an audience member:

That these two were planning to run away together early tomorrow was a fact nestling snugly in the dark, like the secret of a bud that had not yet blossomed.

You can tell here that Kaikini was first a poet. What happens is not at all what you would expect – which is one of the delights of this collection. The stories are not predictable, but neither do they have dramatic twists. Things just work out differently, quite often. In a neat rounding off, the last, titular, story, is about a young engaged couple with no family, and what happens as they draft their wedding invitation.

“the friendships among strangers” (City without mirrors)

In between are stories about, for example, a father looking for a husband for his daughter (“City without mirrors”), the despairing father of a very naughty but irrepressible 6-year-old-boy (“A spare pair of legs”), a bus-driver wanting to return to his village for an annual festival (“Crescent moon”), a stunt man (“Toofan Mail”), roommates who suddenly become estranged (“Partners”), a loyal maid who becomes ill (“A truck full of Chrysanthemums”), and a child quiz contestant (“Tick tick friend”). These stories pull no punches about the lives of people living on the margins or struggling in some way. Kaikini is not afraid to expose some of Mumbai’s (and India’s) underbelly. In “City without mirrors”, a bachelor is “aghast at the cruelty of a situation in which an old man had to speak to a complete stranger about the proof of virginity of his nearly forty-year-old daughter”.

Many of the stories, like “City of mirrors”, involve chance meetings between strangers, strangers who tend to offer something positive, rather than danger. “Tick tick friend” is about a young quiz contestant coming to the big city to compete in a television studio that happens to be in the basement of a hospital. Schoolgirl Madhu and her father meet a young man in the hospital canteen. His cheeky, positive attitude to life buoys them. Mogri (“Mogri’s world”) grows up in a chawl with her mother and frequently absent father. Early on, she realises that sex can be women’s downfall, but learns through meeting an older waiter at work that there are different ways of being between men and women.

In “Water”, two men, one ill with cancer, meet on a plane and spend a night with the third, their taxi-driver, when a huge storm creates havoc in the city. It’s a moving story, full of philosophical observations about life. Taxi-driver Kunjbhai, answering whether life seems “like hell or like heaven”, says:

Well, everything depends on how we think about it. If I think I’m happy, it’s happy I am. If I think I’m sad, then I’m sad.

That may sound a bit pat, I suppose, but in the context, it’s beautiful. I liked this story for the warmth generated between three strangers.

And that’s the thing about this book. For all the challenges most of its characters face, there is also warmth and humour in the telling, the end result being stories that don’t drag you down but that also don’t lull you into thinking all is well. There’s acceptance and resilience, but also little glimmers of hope in the stories.

No presents please won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2018. It’s the first translated work to win the award, and the jury particularly noted “the outstanding contribution” of the translator. That tells you, I think, how special this book is.

Jayant Kaikini
No presents please: Mumbai stories
Translated from the Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana
Melbourne: Scribe, 2020 (Orig. pub. in India, 2017)
ISBN: 9781922310187

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Emuna Elon, House on endless waters (#BookReview)

Book coverI’ve said before that I’m surprised by how many takes there can be on World War II, and on the Holocaust, in particular – and once again I’m here with another such story, Emuna Elon’s House on endless waters. I hadn’t heard of Elon before but, according to Wikipedia, she’s an Israeli author, journalist, and women’s rights activist. Her first novel translated into English, If you awaken love, is about life on the West Bank, where she lived for many years.

House on endless waters, however, is historical fiction – or, at least, one of those novels which flips between the present and the past. It tells the story of successful Israeli author Yoel Blum who had been told by his late mother to never go to Amsterdam, from which they’d emigrated. However, the time comes when the middle-aged and internationally successful Blum is urged to Amsterdam by his literary agent to promote his latest Dutch-translated novel. While there, he and his wife visit the Jewish Historical Museum, and here, in a little looping video, he catches an image of his mother Sonia in Amsterdam during the war. Next to her is a man holding a little girl, his sister Nettie, but the baby she is carrying is not he! Who is this baby, and where was he?

Yoel returns to Israel, but, after obtaining the incomplete information his sister is able to provide (which is not divulged to the reader), he goes back to Amsterdam, alone, to research his past and write a novel about it. The result is one of those novels within a novel, as we follow Yoel’s journey alongside reading the story he is writing as he uncovers his family’s – and his – past. How much is “true” and how much Yoel imagines is not the point. We are carried along in the horrors of war-time Amsterdam, in stories of decent hardworking people’s disbelief that life could change so horribly so quickly, of Jewish collaborators, of the hidden children, of the most difficult choices people have to make. Elon conveys viscerally the shock felt by Jewish citizenry as one by one their rights are removed and as the foundations of their lives – something they thought immutable in such a place as Holland – crumble.

Much of this story has been told before. Anne Frank comes to mind of course, and many novels have dealt with the ways in which Jewish people were gradually ostracised and betrayed by their own society (the yellow stars, the loss of jobs, the resumption of homes, the rounding up, the transporting to concentration camps, and so on). What makes this one a little different – at least in my reading to date – is its exploration of the hidden child phenomenon, within a larger story of collaboration, betrayal, resistance and difficult choices.

The important thing, however, is less this difference than that it is a deeply absorbing read. Elon’s ability to manage her two story threads, and maintain our interest in both, speaks to a practised, skilled writer. There is no rigid chapter by chapter alternating of stories. Rather, as Yoel becomes increasingly invested in the life of his mother, Elon starts to blend the two stories, with Yoel sometimes feeling himself in both stories at once. As his sense of self becomes increasingly discombobulated, the line between past and present starts to blur:

Yoel would have liked to write about the architectural significance of Amsterdam, about the implication behind the labor invested in the rows of tiny reddish bricks, about the stylized cornices above the windows and the artistic embellishments that adorn every single building. But early the next morning, Sonia is walking along the street, and across the road the police are evicting a Jewish family from their beautiful art-nouveau-design house. The members of the banished family are trying to walk proudly to the truck that has come to take them away …

For Yoel, unlike the tourists he sees blithely enjoying the sun and culture of Amsterdam, “the past is still here” and it begins to overwhelm him.

Why a story-within-a-story?

This bring me to the question of why would Elon use the story-within-a-story-device? I can think of three reasons, the most obvious being that it draws the reader into the story, engaging us in its unravelling along with the protagonist. Secondly, in this case, it also mirrors how many children of the Holocaust generation didn’t know their parents’ stories – weren’t told them – and therefore had to work out those stories piece by piece. Finally, also in this case, it enables Elon to expose the personal development of her narrator, Yoel, who is initially revealed to be decent but emotionally remote. Very early in the novel, we learn this about him:

Perhaps the day will come when he’ll even train himself to live, a day when he will walk the earth like everyone else without being overcome by the thought that in fact it’s odd , even ridiculous to be a human being …

He is, says his wife, “scared of living”. This novel, then, is partly about identity. Yoel didn’t know his past but it’s clear that the traumas of that past had unconsciously impacted him, as we now know they do. Slowly, as he comes to understand who he is, he also starts to live, to be an engaged human being.

Jan Toorop, The Sea at Katwijk, 1887 (Public Domain)

There is much to this book, with Elon and her novelist Yoel drawing on art and music to reflect both Holland’s cultural achievements and its darker side. A motif running through the book is a stolen work of art – Jan Toorop’s The Sea at Katwijk – that had belonged to Sonia’s friends, Anouk and Martin, who are implicated in what happens. Martin suggests to Sonia that the painting is more about Toorop – “every painter evidently knows only how to depict himself” – than place. However, Sonia also sees herself in it: “there she is in black, there in red, there she is borne from wave to wave, moving in the infinite.” For Yoel, this sea “is a huge finite vessel containing infinite waters”. All this contributes to the novel’s message, one which Yoel finally realises Sonia was telling him:

Whatever was, was. Those waters have already flowed onward.

The trick is to know when to fight those waters, and when to let your “heart encounter the heart of the sea” and be at peace.

House on endless waters came to me out of the blue, but what a find. A Holocaust novel, it contains the horrors of that time but is also imbued with a generous, philosophical spirit that, without excusing atrocity, recognises the humanity of those who made selfish decisions and those who had to live with them. We need perspectives like this.

Emuna Elon
House on endless waters
Translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yechiel
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020 (Orig. ed. 2016)
ISBN: 9781760877255

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Sayaka Murata, Convenience store woman (#BookReview)

Book coverConvenience store woman, which won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize, is Sayaka Murata’s 10th novel, but her first translated into English. Hopefully, it won’t be the last. A rather unusual book, it elicited a stimulating discussion at my reading group last week.

The convenience store woman of the title is 36-year-old Keiko Furukawa. She isn’t “normal”, and her family worries she will never fit in to society. However, when 18 years old, she obtains work at a newly opened Smile Mart convenience store, and quickly feels comfortable, undertaking routine daily tasks, and following the store’s rules. Eighteen years later, she’s still there. This is not seen as a valid situation for a woman of Keiko’s now mature age. Why isn’t she married? And why doesn’t she have a better job? Then she meets another convenience store worker, the also, but differently, nonconformist Shiraha, and she thinks she can solve both their problems by having him move in with her.

It’s a short book, at just 176-pages in the print edition, and is told first person. Now, for those of you who remember my recent discussion of first person voices, Convenience store woman is a perfect example of an effective use of first person. The main theme is the push for conformity, the push to follow the expected narrative of a life, but our narrator, Keiko, is not, for whatever reason, able (or willing) to conform. This theme is particularly relevant to Japan, which has a reputation for conformity and group behaviour, but it’s also universally relevant, because many societies, my own included, are not good at coping with people who stray from the “norm”.

So, Keiko is different. She’s been different all her life. She knows it, and she’s mystified. She’s particularly mystified by the way people often behave which seems counter to logic, and also by the way people cheer up when they think she’s behaving “normally”. An example of the former happens in her childhood, which she tells us via flashback. There’s a schoolyard fight. The kids call for the fight to stop, so she goes to the toolshed, gets a spade and bashes one of the kids with it. Everyone is horrified,

“But everyone was saying to stop Yamazaki-kun and Aoki-kun fighting! I just thought that would be the quickest way to do it,” I explained patiently. Why on earth were they so angry? I just didn’t get it.

An example of the latter occurs after she invites Shiraha to live at her place. Everyone assumes they are in a relationship. “They were all so ecstatic”, she wondered, she says, “whether they’d lost their minds”. Listening to her friends “go on”, she says,

was like hearing them talk about a couple of total strangers. They seemed to have the story wrapped up between them. It was about characters who had the same names as we did, but who had absolutely nothing to do with me or Shiraha.

There it is – the expected story or narrative of life!

Of her convenience store colleagues, she says:

I was shocked by their reaction. As a convenience store worker, I couldn’t believe they were putting gossip about store workers before a promotion in which chicken skewers that usually sold at 130 yen were to be put on sale at the special price of 110 yen. What on earth had happened to the pair of them?

As you can see there’s a good deal of humour in this book. You can also see why this story could only be told first person. Any other voice would risk undermining Keiko’s authenticity, her reality.

So, for Keiko, it’s “convenient” having Shiraha at her place. Everyone is happy for her, and she likes that “they’ve stopped poking their nose into my business”.

However, while Keiko, for all her strangeness, is a likeable character, Shiraha is not. He has no desire to work, and takes advantage of her wish to appear “normal”, even though it satisfies his need for the same. He excuses his laziness by criticising society and its unfair gender expectations on men:

“Naturally, your job in a convenience store isn’t enough to support me. With you working there and me jobless, I’m the one they’ll criticize. Society hasn’t dragged itself out of the Stone Age yet, and they’ll always blame the man. But if you could just get a proper job, Furukura, they won’t victimize me anymore and it’ll be good for you, too, so we’d be killing two birds with one stone.”

Worse, he’s arrogant and cruel:

“I did it! I got away! Everything’s okay for the time being. There’s no way you’ll be getting pregnant, no chance of me ever penetrating a woman like you, after all.”

Actually, he only “got away” because Keiko had the idea of his moving in. Fortunately, she has no interest in sex, so his comment falls on flat ears – but we notice it.

The novel, then, hinges on the idea of normality, with the word “normal” recurring throughout the novel. Early on, Keiko realises that “the normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects”. This is why, it dawns on her, her family wishes to “cure” her. She is therefore grateful for the convenience store, where she can operate as “a normal cog in society” – until her age makes it no longer “normal”. The charming Shiraha has his own take:

“People who are considered normal enjoy putting those who aren’t on trial, you know. But if you kick me out now, they’ll judge you even more harshly, so you have no choice but to keep me around.” Shiraha gave a thin laugh. “I always did want revenge, on women who are allowed to become parasites just because they’re women. I always thought to myself that I’d be a parasite one day. That’d show them. And I’m going to be a parasite on you, Furukura, whatever it takes.”

Shiraha shows us that Murata’s understanding of deviations from the norm is nuanced, not simplistic.

Anyhow, later in the novel, after her sister asks “How can we make you normal?”, Keiko comes to recognise that her sister is happier seeing her as “normal”, albeit with “a lot of problems”,

than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality—however messy—is far more comprehensible.

In the end, Keiko does resolve her conundrum regarding how to live in a way that is true to herself. It is inspired, in fact, by the convenience store, which I think we can read as a microcosm of society. She suggests that “a convenience store is not merely a place where customers come to buy practical necessities, it has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like”. She can play a role in that.

Convenience store woman is a wonderful read. Perfect in tone and voice, and fearless in its exploration of the confining nature of “normality”, it forces us to look beyond, and imagine other lives and ways of being.

Sayaka Murata
Convenience store woman
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
London: Portobello Books, 2016 (trans. ed. 2018)
eISBN: 9781846276859

José Jorge Letria, If I were a book (#BookReview)

Book coverIf I were a book is one of those “gift” books you give to readers – and it was in that spirit that it was given to me for my birthday a couple of years ago. It’s a delight of a book, and is somewhat quirkier than these sorts of book-lovers’ gift books often are, which is why I’ve decided, finally, to share it with you. Or, have you seen or read it already?

My edition is a little hardback of 60 plus pages produced in San Francisco in 2014. The original, however, was published in Portugal in 2011, the author being Portuguese. The illustrator, André Letria, happens to be his son. Now I hadn’t heard of José Jorge Letria before, but he was born in the Lisbon District of Cascais, in 1951, and is apparently, says Google’s translation from a Portuguese biography, “a journalist, poet, playwright, fiction writer and author of a vast work for children and young people.” This biography also tells us that he has won many many national and international literary awards, including the Unesco International Prize (France), the Barcelona Classical Poetry Prize, the Plural Prize (Mexico), the Prize of the Paulista Association of Art Critics (São Paulo), and the Gulbenkian Prize. He has won prizes for “the environment in children’s literature” and the Manuel de Arriaga Prize for his contribution to the defense and dissemination of animal rights. He has been on many Portuguese, European and international literary boards, and his books have been translated into “over a dozen” languages. Yet, I hadn’t heard of him, until, that is, I was given this delightful ….

… love-letter to the book and reading. I fell in love with its passion and idealism. The book comprises two-page spreads, each one containing an image and the phrase “If I were a book” followed by a response. So, the first image shows a person looking at a book on a park bench, with the phrase “If I were a book, I’d ask someone in the street to take me home.” (What a nice sign that would make for a street library!) The next shows this same person opening a larger-than-life book, inside which there are stairs descending into unknown depths, with the phrase “If I were a book, I’d share my deepest thoughts with my readers”. And so it continues…

What makes this book so delightful is the personalising of the book (as in “if I were a book”), the ideas expressed in these personalised phrases, and the illustrations. I’m not sure what is allowed by copyright, but I’ve chosen three images to share with you, so you can see what I mean:


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I’ve chosen these three because the one suggests the way I like to read – slowly, savouring the words and ideas – and because the other two contain aspirations that I’d love books to achieve. You can see how in some images the book is supersized, while in others its size is more “normal”. The images are simple but beautifully whimsical, the colour palette is minimalistic, and the text’s font feels a little worn and loved.

And here, I think I’ll leave it, because what more, really, can I say?

José Jorge Letria
If I were a book
Illustrated by André Letria
Translated by Isabel Terry
San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014 (orig. pub. 2011)
ISBN: 9781452121444

Raphaël Jerusalmy, Evacuation (#BookReview)

Raphael Jerusalmy, EvacuationRaphaël Jerusalmy, for those who, like me, hadn’t heard of him, is a French-born and educated writer living in Tel Aviv. He had a career in the Israeli military intelligence services, worked in humanitarian and educational fields, and is now an antiquarian book dealer in Tel Aviv, where his novella, Evacuation, is set. In some ways, the book is a love letter to Tel Aviv – but it is more than that, too …

Evacuation is a short, quick, but powerful read. The narrative is structured around a road trip, in which twenty-something Naor is driving his mother from her kibbutz home to Tel Aviv. As they drive he tells her what happened in Tel Aviv, after he, his girlfriend Yaël, and his grandfather Saba, had jumped off the bus that was taking them out of the city, as part of a mandatory evacuation process.

The thing about this book is that although we realise the war is part of the ongoing Middle-eastern conflict, no specifics are given. No dates, no enemy, just, later on in the story, that peace negotiations were taking place in Geneva. By the time the novel starts, that peace had been achieved (for the moment anyhow) and Naor is dealing with the aftermath. The lack of specificity universalises the story, focusing us on the characters’ experience more than on the whys and wherefores, rights and wrongs, of the war.

So, their experience. Firstly, I should explain that it was Saba and Yaël who had decided not to evacuate, with Naor feeling obliged to stay with them. They are all artists – Naor a filmmaker, Yaël a visual artist, and Saba a writer – so there is also an underlying thread about art and resistance. They go to friend Yoni’s house in the already evacuated part of the city, and from there they learn how to survive – how to find food, water, clothes – and how to occupy their time. They roam further and further, taking risks to enjoy a dip in the sea; they enjoy strolling down Tel Aviv’s beautiful Rothschild Boulevard; and, they decide to make a film, titled Evacuation, to Naor’s script and with Saba and Yaël acting.

It’s while filming a critical scene in a synagogue that a long-range missile attack occurs, forcing them to take cover. After this attack, Yaël decrees that they are not going to let air-raid sirens disturb their peace again – “From now on, we were going to behave as if there was no war” – setting us up for the tragedy that we have been sensing through Naor’s narration.

Now, I said that the novel focuses more on the characters and their experience, than the war. However, there are occasional references to Zionism and the ongoing political situation, including this on Saba’s opinion:

Deep down Saba wasn’t unhappy about what was happening to Tel Aviv … He said it did no one any harm to get a kick up the arse from time to time. And that we Israelis badly needed it. Because we had got stuck in a stalemate. Not only with the Palestinians, which was of course unfortunate. But also and especially with ourselves, which was much worse.

So the evacuation was timely. It gave us an undreamt-of chance to wipe the slate clean. To start again. In his mind, Zionism as an idea was not a failure. But it was stagnant. It had come unstuck in its application. Because of this and that. Those were his exact words. This and that. He spoke about restarting our attempts at Jewish socialism. About the importance of education. ‘Everything stems from that.’ And about being kinder in general. To poor people, and to Arabs.

There’s also Yaël’s stronger statement that Tel Aviv was the only place she “felt safe. From those at war with us. From those who have morality and justice on their side.” [my stress]

All this is narrated by Naor to his mother as they continue their trip – and as he does, certain things become clear. One is that there’s been some falling out between his mother and Saba, her father, and that this trip is partly a peace-making one (subtly paralleling the political war-and-peace background to the story.)

Now, I daren’t say any more for fear of giving the whole lot away. While it’s written nicely (albeit I read it in translation), its main appeal, besides the story, is its engaging narrative structure and gentle tone. I loved the way Naor’s story is interrupted regularly by comments from his mother (not to mention road signposts). These interactions, while hinting at some of the tensions needing to be resolved, also imbue the book with a lovely normal intimacy, unexpected perhaps in a book with such subject matter.

Evacuation is an open-ended book, one the reader can consider from various perspectives, including the choices we make, love and family, art and resistance, war and peace. I found it a surprisingly enchanting read, which I hope doesn’t make me sound insensitive to its seriousness, because I felt that too.

Raphaël Jerusalmy
(Trans. by Penny Hueston)
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018 (Eng. ed.)
ISBN: 9781925603378

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

WG Sebald, Austerlitz (#BookReview)

WG Sebald, AusterlitzFor the first time in my reading group’s 30-year history, we read a book recommended by a fictional character. It happened like this: after reading and discussing Rabih Alameddine’s An unnecessary woman (my review) in January, we thought it would be interesting if we all nominated which book mentioned by the “unnecessary woman”, Aaliya Saleh, that we’d most like to read. The book that got the most votes was Austerlitz. I was thrilled, because I bought my copy back in 2010 to read with one of my online reading groups, but never did, and because I had already read and been bowled over by his The emigrants.

But now where to start? A bit left field I think – which is probably not inappropriate given Sebald’s approach to literature. The “left field” happens to be one of my (few) never-forgotten book quotes. It’s from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and is Sethe talking about “the day’s serious work of beating back the past.” Sethe is, as most of you probably know, an American ex-slave who is living with the trauma of her past life. Austerlitz, in Sebald’s book, is a man who, as a four-year-old, had been sent from Prague to England on a Kindertransporte in 1939, never to see his parents again. Indeed, he suppresses all memory of his past life – realising later

how little practice I had in using my memory, and conversely how hard I must always have tried to recollect as little as possible, avoiding everything which related to my unknown past.

This realisation comes some 50 years later, in the early 1990s, when, one day, having become “increasingly morbid and intractable” after the death of his only true friend, he is in the Ladies Waiting Room of the Liverpool Street Station – and a memory comes back of his arrival in England. At this point, his “self-censorship”, his “constant suppression of … memories” brings about a nervous breakdown. Upon his recovery, he begins researching his past life, resulting in trips to Prague to look for his mother, and to Paris to do the same for his father. Much of this is couched in discussions of architecture – because Austerlitz is an architectural historian – forcing us to consider the role architecture plays in human history and psychology. It’s compelling, but more than that, mesmerising …

However, this book has been written about with great insight and sensitivity by reviewers at, for example, the New York Times and The Guardian, so I’m going to do something a little different, and respond to that fictional woman, Aaliya, who recommended the book to my group!

“His style, drawn-out and elongated sentences that wrap around the page and their reader …”

And I will start with the seemingly mundane, the style, because it is this that confronts us most strongly with we start the book. If you’ve never read Sebald before it could be a shock. There are almost no paragraphs – well you could say there are 5 including the beginning of the book – which means there are no real chapters. The story just continues on and on, often through very long sentences containing multiple clauses and lists. We do have a narrator, the person to whom Austerlitz is telling his story and who relates it on to us.

Strangely though, I found the writing page-turning. There is something mesmerising about the almost flat, rather melancholic, tone suffusing the narration, that you want to keep reading. At least I did – and so did most of my reading group once they’d “got into it”. The style, in other words, wraps around you.

There are motifs and images which recur through the novel, making the whole cohere, creating the tone and developing the themes. There are shadows, there’s darkness more than light, and colours are muted, mostly grey. There are star-shapes, railway stations and other monumental buildings. There are references to ghosts. Places are more often empty or deserted, than heavily populated. And there’s the mysterious operation of time and memory. All these support the narrative’s mesmerising quality.

The book also includes black-and-white photographs, encouraging us to see it as non-fiction but no, this is fiction. Austerlitz is a made-up character – but, says The New Yorker, Sebald sometimes called his work “documentary fiction”. In other words, this is a very different sort of read.

“All I am is lonely. Before I go to bed, I must put away Sebald …

… both The Emigrants and Austerlitz. I can’t read him now, not in this state. He’s much too honest. I will read something else.” 

Our “unnecessary woman”, Aaliya, who lives in Beirut, has experienced war herself, been affected by its ravages. I won’t say more here, because I think what I have said about the story and it’s tone already makes clear why she feels this. Sebald is not a writer to be read at times of distress or melancholy, but his insights into what we call “the human condition” are … well, let me put it this way: this is not a book you explain, really, but one you feel. What you feel is something that affects the way you think about human history, about where we’ve been and where, unfortunately, it looks like we’re going.

“I am proud that I finished the Austerlitz project. I consider it one of the best Holocaust novels.”

Aaliya goes on to say that “I find that when a subject has been heavily tilled, particularly something as horrifying as the Holocaust, anything new should force me to look with fresh eyes, to experience previously unexperienced feelings, to explore the hitherto unexplored.” And this is why Austerlitz is powerful. Austerlitz was a young boy in a little Welsh town while the war was on so he did not experience the Holocaust directly. But, his experience of being displaced comes back to haunt him later. So this is not about a person who directly experienced the Holocaust, nor is it, though, about the second generation. It is about someone who lived at the time, but had not experienced it first-hand because his parents, who did, had removed him. He is in a sort of limbo generation – and “limbo” is probably a good description for how he feels through much of the novel.

He writes, describing his experience of another mental/physical collapse:

It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the source of my distress and, looking back over all the past years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed and was now breaking through the walls of its confinement.

This statement struck me powerfully, because not only does it reflect another experience of the Holocaust – another way of looking at its impact – but it articulates the experience of our stolen generations, and, beyond that, of any children removed, for good or bad reasons, from their homes. “Reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation”. What more is there to say?

There is so much to talk about this book, so much I haven’t touched upon, but I’m going to finish with a brief reference to his discussion of time, the past and memory which underpins the novel. Here is Austerlitz late in the novel:

It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not also be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?

I love this organic way of looking at time, this suggestion of how we might experience, approach or understand the events, particularly traumas, that happen to us.

Our unnecessary woman, Aaliyah, calls Austerlitz a great Holocaust novel, but I’d go one step further and simply say it is a great novel. Full stop.

WG Sebald
(Trans. by Anthea Bell)
London: Penguin, 2002
ISBN: 9780140297997

Sydney Writers Festival 2018, Live streaming (Session 3)

My final live-streamed session of the Festival was even more interesting than I expected. My friend and I chose it partly because it fit our respective busy time-tables, but partly also because, as people interested in language and literature, we are interested in translation.

Emily Wilson: Translating the Odyssey, Sunday May 6, 4.30pm

Sydney Writers Festival Emily Wilson bannerThis event was an interview format, with the interviewer being journalist Jennifer Byrne who, for over ten years, hosted the First Tuesday Book Club (aka The Book Club).

Byrne is a cheery, engaging interviewer. However, on this occasion it felt, at times, that her interview agenda was at cross-purposes with what was important to Wilson. This made for a fascinating discussion, with ideas about translation, feminism, and The odyssey itself, jostling between them.

Now, clearly I’m behind in my literary gossip, because apparently Emily Wilson’s translation of The odyssey has made quite a splash, particularly because, of the over 60 translations into English done to date, it’s the first by a woman. It was this point – particularly because of the Festival’s “power” theme – that Byrne wanted to concentrate on, but Wilson, Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania, had other ideas.

Byrne briefly introduced Wilson, noting that the book has had excellent reviews for being a “cultural landmark” and for being lean, clean and fast. To prove this point, she asked Wilson to read the opening lines.

Why another translation?

Given the plethora of English translations of The odyssey, Byrne asked why she did it?

Firstly, Wilson replied, the publisher Norton had asked her. However, her real, and more academic, reasons were:

  • the original has music and rhythm to it. This does not come across in most translations, which are tend to be free verse, so she chose a regular metre for hers.
  • most translations are too long and slow, so she made hers tighter, pacier (and thus, also, more teachable, which is already appealing to academics)
  • most translations simplify the story to only Odysseus’ perspective but there are more in the original, which she worked to bring out.

At this point, Byrne tried to focus Wilson on the gender issue and what she brought to the text in terms of female perspective, but Wilson didn’t really want to be pinned down. She was surprised, she said, by the focus on her being the first woman translator, and said she was more interested in the poetics and narrative perspectives than in a feminist agenda.

She also said that a women’s voice doesn’t necessarily mean a feminist perspective. She argued, logically, that given she’s the only woman English-language translator to date, it’s impossible to assess what a “female” perspective is. Conversely, it is possible to ascertain a male perspective because there have been so many male translators and similarities in their approach can be identified. For example, male translators have, in general, translated a certain non-gendered Greek word into a gendered English word, “man”, while she used non-gendered words, like “human” or “person”.

However, she admitted her gender may have influenced her bringing out other perspectives, such as those of slaves (and other under-class people) versus the more common focus on gods and goddesses. Moreover, she said, most translations downplay abuse of power in the work because Odysseus is a “good guy.” Wilson said she wanted to offer a less heroic image of him, which led to some discussion of double standards. Odysseus had affairs, but Penelope would bring down the house of Odysseus, if she did. His power, in fact, rests on her fidelity.

Wilson then explained that the Greek word “hero” simply means “warrior”, and that in the original, the words frequently used for Odysseus stem from “poly” (“many”) suggesting many layers to his character. Wilson wants readers to question whether there’s something wrong with Odysseus. He sacks a holy city for example. We were given an example of two translations:

He could not save his men from disaster (Robert Hiller, I think)

He failed to keep his men safe (Wilson)

Wilson’s translation more actively suggests failure on Odysseus’ part.

Why this story?

Wilson described her early introduction to it via a play when she was 8, and her later realisation that she’d loved the story because it’s about being lost, about confusion re where home is, and about the meaning of belonging, all of which were issues for her then.

She also said that she loved Greek and Latin languages.

Towards the end of the hour – but I’m time-shifting it to here – Byrne asked about the story’s relevance to now. Wilson believes it’s highly relevant: it’s about strangers, about dealing with people not like you, about whether foreigners are dangerous. She used the word “migrant” at least once in her work.

The challenges of translation and more on the feminist perspective …

Byrne noted that Wilson’s translation had come in at exactly the same number of lines as the original, and Wilson agreed that she’d tightened it up, had made it pacy. The challenge was to identify the essential thing being said.

Regarding translation being the same as the original, which seemed to be what Byrne expected, Wilson said that “if you want the real Homer you need to learn Greek.” Fair point. And how I wish I could avoid the mediation of a translator and read foreign texts myself, but it’s not a feasible things I realise. Anyhow, Wilson said, logically, that it’s not worth doing a translation if it’s the same as the others.

The conversation then turned again to female perspectives, particularly regarding the power theme. Wilson discussed how male translators describe the women, characterising, for example, Helen of Troy as “bitch” and “shameless whore”, Calypso as a “nymphomaniac”, how they avoid using the word “slave” for people who clearly were enslaved. She gave examples of Greek words and her translation of them.

Continuing this theme, she discussed the women who were killed by Odysseus at the end. They were clearly raped by the suitors, but male translators have tended to describe them as “sluts” and “whores”. Wilson commented that the hanging of these women has been seen as “justice”. Given that The odyssey is seen as the starting point of western civilisation, this viewpoint makes this act the foundational moment of misogyny. Male translators do not present these women, she said, as having no choice.

Nonetheless, Wilson said, she couldn’t root out the misogyny in the text, but she could be clear about it.

By this point, Byrne seemed to be cottoning on. She had thought translation should be a close analogy, but “you’re bringing in a viewpoint”, she said. Wilson responded that male translators bring a viewpoint with their “sluts” translation – and then reiterated that …

Translators need to be aware that they are going to have to interpret, have a viewpoint, but they need to be conscious and try to have a better interpretation than previous ones. Theoretically, translation is impossible. It’s a case of how can I describe this word that has no direct meaning? Translators need to be aware she said of three questions: Who am I writing for; what century am I in; and who am I? 

There was some discussion about the institutional barriers to women translators, and then it was the closing Q&A, which was wide-ranging and, nicely, drew from live-streaming sites as well as the venue itself. I’m going to share just two questions. The first asked her about what Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (my review) offered. Wilson responded that Atwood does not make Penelope a hero, but a more complex character.

The other was a Year 11 teacher asking, on behalf of her students, whether the killing of suitors at the end is justified. Wilson said this is actually three questions.  Does Odysseus think it is justified: Yes. Does she, Wilson, think it is justified: No. But the harder question is, does the narrative think it is justified: she “thinks not”!

And so ended my 2018 SWF experience. I so appreciated being able to experience a tiny bit of it.

Yuri Herrera, Signs preceding the end of the world (#BookReview)

Yuri Herrera, Signs preceding the end of the worldWhile I was travelling in the USA last month, I wanted to read at least one book relating to the regions we were visiting. I started by looking for a novel set in/about the northwest, but then Yuri Herrera’s Signs preceding the end of the world, set in the southwest, popped out at me, and I knew I had my book.

When you live in the southwest, as we did in the 1990s, you can’t help but be aware of the issue of migration, “illegal” or otherwise, across the border from Mexico. I’d seen the film El Norte (about two Guatemalan youths fleeing to the US via Mexico) and read T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The tortilla curtain, but I hadn’t read a Mexican author on the subject – until now.

Signs preceding the end of the world tells the story of Makina, who is sent to “the other side” by her mother to carry a message to her brother who’d gone and not returned. To obtain the help she needs to make the crossing, she also agrees to take a message from Mexican gangster, Mr Aitch. This synopsis would suggest to most readers an adventure story – a thriller perhaps – or at least some sort of plot-driven drama, but that’s not what this is at all. Yes, it follows a traditional linear journey narrative, but the tone is more mythical, which means that it works on two levels, the literal Mexican-American border story and something more universal about crossings and transitions.

Herrera achieves this by keeping details to a minimum. Places aren’t named, but just described. Chapter titles like “The place where the hills meet” and “The place where people’s hearts are eaten” exemplify this beautifully. Most people aren’t named, either, and, where they are, the names are minimal (such as Chucho who helps her cross the border) or enigmatic (such as the alphabetical three, Mr Double-U, Mr Aitch and Mr Q!) It is in this shadowy context that Makina makes her journey.

He also achieves it by starting the novel with a surprising scene that isn’t critical to the literal plot, but which provides a thematic or symbolic link to the ending. We meet Makina walking in the street, when, suddenly, a sinkhole opens up and a man is swallowed up. Makina manages to pull herself back and survive, but we learn in the opening paragraph the tenuousness of life and, perhaps, that Makina is either lucky or has good survival instincts. Meanwhile, the sinkhole itself, while a literal geographic phenomenon, also conjures up the underworld, the murky sub-legal world that Makina must traverse to make it to, and survive in, “the other side”.

Herrera evokes the dangers of the journey vividly, but having already set up Makina as a resourceful young woman, he convinces us of her ability to survive the crossing – and she does, despite being accosted by a young thug, nearly drowning in the river, being shot at near a mountain pass. She locates her brother too, even though the information she has regarding his whereabouts is minimal.

What really makes this book, though, besides the strength and heart of Makina, is Herrera’s language (albeit in translation). It’s written in the sort of spare language I like. Here’s Makina’s experience of the city:

The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing. They flourished in supermarkets, cornucopias where you could have more than everyone or something different or a new brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s. Makina just dented cans and sniffed bottles and thought it best to verse …

Yes, “verse”. Dillman in her translator’s note discusses the challenges of translating the book, which she says is about “bridging cultures and languages”. One way Herrera conveys this theme is to use neologisms, signifying the idea of a new language for the potentially new people forged out of migration. One of his neologisms is “jachar” which he uses to mean “to leave”. Dillman needed to create/choose an English word that would play the same role, and came up with “to verse”, because it refers to poetry and is also part of “several verbs involving motion and communication (traverse, reverse, converse) as well as the ‘end’ of uni-verse”.

As I implied earlier, this is a road novel, a journey to another place as well as to the self. Here’s Makina looking for her brother:

It had taken everything she had just to pronounce the eight tundras. To cleave her way through the cold on her own, sustained by nothing but an ember inside; to go from one street to another without seeing a difference; to encounter barricades that held people back for the benefit of cars. Or to encounter people who spoke none of the tongues she knew: whole barrios of clans from other frontiers, who questioned her with words that seemed traced in the air. The weariness she felt at the monuments of another history. The disdain. The suspicious looks. And again, the cold, getting colder, burrowing into her with insolence.

And when she arrived and saw what she’d come to find it was sheer emptiness.

Here and elsewhere, Mexican-born Herrera, who now lives in the USA, is clear about the materialistic, insular reality of “the other side”.

As I read this book, I was reminded of other journeys and crossings, specifically crossing the Styx (it’s no accident I’m sure that the first chapter is titled, simply, “The earth”), Dante’s journey to hell, and even Alice’s fall down the rabbit-hole. Herrera, though, while invoking these journeys in Signs preceding the end of the world, has created his own, one that addresses the politics of borders and boundaries (and dare I say “walls) between countries, while exposing the personal, psychological and spiritual implications of traversing these borders. Its ending is unsettling – but perfect for all that.

Yuri Herrera
Signs preceding the end of the world
(Trans. by Lisa Dillman)
London: And Other Stories, 2015 (Orig. lang. ed. 2009)
ISBN: 9781908276421