Vincenzo Cerami, A very normal man (Review)

Vincenzo Cerami, A very normal manAnd now for something very different from my recent fare here, a modern Italian classic. Originally published in 1976, A very normal man was, the back cover blurb says, Vincenzo Cerami’s first novel – and it brought him instant acclaim. I can see why. At least, this is the sort of writing that gets me in, but more on that anon.

Now, you may have heard of Cerami (1940-2013). I know I should have, because he was the co-screenwriter on that wonderful 1998 film La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful). He was also a poet, commentator and a writer on writing. In other, words a very interesting man! (Couldn’t resist that.)

But now, the book. It is, as you might have realised, a translation, which is always a challenge from my point of view, because I know I’m reading a mediated work. And, as I started this book, I felt it must have represented a very particular challenge because this is a satirical, darkly humorous and deeply ironic work. That must be hard to translate across languages and cultures – and it apparently was, starting with the title. Wakefield Press says on its website that “the complex word play of the Italian title is untranslatable in English; it means literally a very little, very middle-class man”. Does this remind you of Camus’ L’Etranger, and its publication in English as both The stranger and The outsider?

So, who is this very little, very middle-class – or very normal – man? He is Giovanni Vivaldi, living in Rome during the Years of Lead. He’s married, happily enough it seems, with a  20-year-old account-trained son, Mario, of whom he is very proud. He’s been a public servant in the Ministry, the Office for Retirement Pensions, for 40 years, and at the start of the novel he is about to retire. First, however, he wants to get Mario a job in the Ministry. It’s the least he deserves, he believes. Italian novelist Italo Calvino, who apparently negotiated the novel’s publication, also wrote the preface to the original Italian edition. My Wakefield edition’s preface quotes from it:

You would expect a story about office workers to be drab, short on events — the inevitable caricature. Not this one. Extraordinary events abound: a ludicrous initiation ceremony into Freemasonry; an incursion into the savage world of the daily crime columns; revenge that is the stuff of nightmares […] What we see is reminiscent of the precision effects of a magnifying glass angled over the unredeemed ugliness at the heart of civilised society — and over the tenacious lust for living which clings on in a world emptied of meaning.

Hmmm, what more can I say? These excerpts convey a little of the story and the main theme, without giving away too much of the plot. I wouldn’t want to give away any more, but I can talk a little about the character, the style and tone.

“the common sense of an ordinary decent man”

About a quarter of the way through the novel, during his application to become a Freemason, Giovanni is described as having “the common sense of an ordinary decent man”. Sounds lovely doesn’t it? Except that we have already seen quite a bit of not-so-decent behaviour from him, including the very reason he is applying to become a Freemason, which is to obtain favour to help his son beat the civil service exam for the Ministry job. On the first page of the novel, he tells his son that “the sign of a really smart young man is a total focus on career and nothing else. Let the rest of the world go and hang themselves”. On page 2, Giovanni, out fishing with his son, kills a fish in a cruel, violent way. At the beginning of chapter 2, his normal drive to work is described: he’d “deal out vicious abuse to anyone he thought was trying to get in his way, rant and rave against everything and everyone”.  Pretty quickly then, we are clued in to the fact that he is not a very humane man – and yet, he is also presented as a “normal”, responsible family man. He’s (arguably) a good father, a decent husband and a diligent employee.

What happens in the novel is, in fact, shocking, and the way Giovanni responds is even more so, but it is all told in matter-of-fact prose, and this is what I like. I love writing that is integral to the meaning of a work, that is, that isn’t just there to carry the story and ideas. In this case, the calm tone of writing that conveys a grotesque story reinforces the themes of hypocrisy and corruption, of mismatch between the surface and the subterranean (if that makes sense).

The tone might be matter of fact, unemotional, but the imagery leaves us in no doubt as to Cerami’s view of life in 1970s Rome:

The city had all the signs of a Sunday: greasy roller blinds down on the shops; apartments with their entrances yawning open mockingly; parked cars lining the footpaths like the embalmed corpses of family pets; the slow, tentative caterpiller-weaving of empty trams. Against an unbroken infinity of apartment blocks that crossed the city from end to end, branching off in every direction, rows of bristles on a hairbrush for a scabby head.

Cerami mixes up descriptions of mundane detail (“he got his raincoat, grabbed his car keys … found himself a clean handkerchief from his sock drawer”) with descriptions that stop you in your tracks:

In person: young maybe Mario’s age, except that this one reminded you of rusted-out tools and coffee dregs.

At times there is a sense of the mock-heroic: Giovanni “sprang into the saddle of his charger”, that is, his Fiat 850. And there is plenty of humour (dark and otherwise), such as when Giovanni, in a police station, tries various Freemason secret signals, to no avail. Giovanni thinks he’s “mastered the art of living” but his view of living is not an appealing one.

For all this, there are moments when he seems human – he is a loving father and responsible husband – and can tug, albeit briefly, at our sympathy. Overall though, the novel is a devastating indictment of middle-class life that is superficial, self-centred and morally corrupt in a society which seems to be not much better. A fascinating read.

Vincenzo Cerami
A very normal man
Translated by Isobel Grave
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781743053713

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Ognjen Spahić, All of that (Review)

Regulars here know that I enjoy short stories, and that I review them regularly. Most of these reviews, though, are of Australian writers. I was therefore pleased when blogger roughghosts, in his review of a novel by Ognjen Spahić, provided a link to a Spahić short story titled “All of that”. As I haven’t reviewed many Balkan writers here, and definitely no Montenegrin writers, I grabbed the opportunity to read this story.

According to the biography provided by the online journal BODY, Spahić “is the best-known member of the young generation of Montenegrin writers to have emerged since the collapse of former Yugoslavia”. He’s published two collections of short stories and his novel Hansen’s Children (the one reviewed by roughghosts) won the 2005 Meša Selimović Prize for the best new novel from Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Elsewhere I read that he’s been a resident writer at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and won, in 2011, Romania’s Ovid Festival Prize for a prominent young talent. Have you heard of him? I hadn’t. Another win for litbloggers, methinks.

“All of that”, which I suspect comes from his first short story collection, All that, published in 2001, is a first person story by a father concerned about his son Danilo’s ability to cope with the death of a schoolfriend and with attending her funeral. Most of the story takes place on a father-son fishing trip in which the father plans to take his son’s mind off the death, but the son has other plans:

‘Dad, have you ever been to the cemetery?’ he asked as we were driving.

And so starts a conversation … I loved the writing (albeit I read a translation). The dialogue, which constitutes much of the story, is simple, direct, and true, but it is in the father’s reflections that the truth of the matter comes out. It’s the father who has problems with death. He’d lost his father (car-crash) when he was 6 years old and his mother (illness) when he was thirteen. “It’s difficult to talk about death”, he says

And even more difficult to explain to a child the ceremony and rituals which go with it in this rotten country.

“This rotten country” is alludes to something wider than the story at hand, and suggests to me there may be another level on which the story might be read. Interestingly too, as the father and son are rowing, the son says he doesn’t like fog though it doesn’t bother him. This surprises the father, but he suggests:

‘OK Danilo, Strange Prince of Darkness. Let’s row a little bit faster to that deserted island.’

Strange Prince of Darkness? Why does he call his son that? It seems affectionate. Other religious references, on the other hand, are more direct, such as “Deformed quotes from the Bible”.

Anyhow, the fog returns a few times in the story. At one time the father says it “creeps like a python after the slow process of digesting its prey”. It lifts towards the end, suggesting some resolution for the father/narrator’s anxieties.

What I enjoyed was the way Spahić slowly teases out the father’s feelings – through the dialogue, his reflections, the style (particularly the use of repetition), and the language and imagery – because in the end the story is more about the father’s feelings. Just after the “strange Prince of Darkness” comment, the father talks of making “a pretence at adventure, a small harmless attempt to escape from reality”. And yet, the son gives no sense of needing to escape from reality. It’s the father.

I’m not going to write more about this story. It would certainly bear multiple readings, but is powerful enough on the first reading to give a sense of yet another writer I’d like to get to know more. I might read Hansen’s children yet.

Ongjen Spahić
“All of that” in BODY, June 30, 2013
(Trans. by SD Curtis)
Available online at BODY

Linda Jaivin, Found in translation: In praise of a plural world (Review)

Linda Jaivin, Found in translation Book cover

Courtesy: Black Inc

Reading synchronicity strikes again! In the last couple of months, the issue of language, translation and culture has been crossing my path – in Diego Marani‘s The last of the Vostyachs, in Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, and on Lisa’s blog post about the AALITRA Symposium on Translation. I was consequently more than happy to accept a review copy of the latest Quarterly Essay, Linda Jaivin’s Found in translation.

Now, as some of you know, I have mixed feelings about reading books in translation. I want to read them because I want to read not just about but from other cultures. Not being fluent in all the languages of the world, the only way I can do this is to read works in translation, but when I read a translated work I am very conscious that there is a mediator between me and the work. This bothers me. Linda Jaivin, herself a translator, knows exactly what I mean:

… it is absurd to speak of issues of literary style, rhythm – or any aspect of a translated work aside from its structure, characters and plot – without acknowledging that the language of the text is at once a creation of the translator and an interpretation of the author …

And she gives good examples to support her statement. I was pleased to see her acknowledge this, because she knows of what she speaks! But, this little point is only a very small part of Jaivin’s wide-ranging, entertaining but also passionate essay. Jaivin, if you haven’t heard of her, is a multi-skilled woman: she subtitles Chinese film and television and translates Chinese text; she has worked as an interpreter; and she has written novels, stories, plays and essays.

As a reader and lover of words, I enjoyed Jaivin’s discussion of the technical and philosophical challenges faced by translators. She peppers her discussion with an eclectic but fascinating array of examples. And she quotes other translators, such as Edith Grossman who wrote that

a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation … no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly.

Take swearing for example. How we swear is highly cultural. Swear words, Jaivin writes, “expose what is forbidden, what is permitted and what is held sacred” in a culture, and consequently “can  throw differences in worldviews into sharp relief”. However, you’ll have to read the essay, if you want to see her examples!

I was intrigued by her argument that translations of classics go out of date! So, this means that the Spanish will always read the same Don Quixote but English speakers are very likely to read a different translation depending on which one is currently in vogue.

“… a culture doesn’t grow just by talking to itself …”

But, the critical point of her essay is not the act of translation. As the title of her essay implies, Jaivin is passionate about pluralism, and more, about cosmopolitanism. By this, she means not just living side by side, not just accepting each other, but “sharing a common vision”.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeFor Jaivin, “translation” is not a narrow concept. Its implications extend far beyond the “simple” translation of words from one language to another, because attached to language are meanings and ideas. When ideas are translated – via words – from one culture to another those ideas change. Jaivin describes how concepts such as Confucianism and yes, even democracy, change when they cross cultures. This can lead, she says, to misunderstanding but it can also provide “room for the kind of creative interpretation that allows cultures and the conversations between them to grow and evolve”.

She argues that, because of Australia’s particular history and geography, and because Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language in Australia after English, “Australia is … in a unique position to translate the shift from the ‘American century’ to the ‘Asian one’ …”.

Building successful international relationships, she believes, requires genuine communication, which includes knowing, recognising and respecting other languages. It

does not require the weak to adopt the language of the strong – as reliance on English threatens to do, given its global and frequently imperial reach.

Jaivin argues that learning a foreign language should be a compulsory part of year 12 and university education, because “we need to have every possible line of communication open to us” if we are to successfully traverse the changes coming.  Not everyone agrees. What do you think?

Linda Jaivin
“Found in translation: In praise of a plural world”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 52
Collingwood: Black Inc, November 2013
ISBN: 9781863956307

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

Diego Marani, The last of the Vostyachs (Review)

Italian writer Diego Marani‘s The last of the Vostyachs was originally published in 2002, but the English translation was not published until 10 years later in 2012. How lucky we are that it was, because this book is unlikely to have been written by an English-language writer. Its focus on the relationship between language, culture and place and on darker issues like ethnic nationalism comes from a different – and particularly European – sensibility. We speakers of the world’s dominant language can, I think, be a bit oblivious to the linguistic issues faced by speakers of other languages, particularly in Europe where multiple languages live cheek by jowl. The challenge of communication is an important issue for Marani who works in Brussels for the European Union. His roles have included interpreter, translator, and policy adviser on multilingualism. Marani knows as well as anyone that language is both a cultural and political issue – and this is what he explores in this, his second novel.

However, The last of the Vostyachs is no dry tome explicating the role and value of language. Instead it is a surprising and often funny novel that weaves myth and saga, melodrama and irony through the warp of a crime thriller. It incorporates a number of literary traditions and archetypes: the wild (innocent) man set loose in the city, the spurned wife, the spirit guide, the corrupt obsessive, and the remote cottage in the woods where dastardly things happen. On the night the crimes (murders, in fact) take place, nature runs amok. Zoo animals roam the city and the temperature drops to its coldest in fifty years.

The plot centres on Ivan, who is the last of the Vostyachs, an ancient Siberian shamanic tribe. He is the only one who can speak the language, though at the novel’s opening he had not spoken it (or anything else) for twenty years, not since, as a young boy in the gulag, he’d seen his father killed. When the gulag is suddenly freed, he returns to the Byrranga Mountains but all he finds are wolves. He believes them to be his people who, to flee the soldiers, had hidden deep in caves and turned into wolves. He cannot bring them back to human form but they shadow and protect him.

Every single language is necessary to keep the universe alive

Into this mix appears the plain, ethical, Russian linguist Olga who is excited to find a speaker of a language thought to have been extinct and who sees in this language an exciting connection between Europeans and the native Americans. Her old colleague, the womanising, unethical, Finnish linguist Jarmo Aurtova is not so pleased with this threat to his theory of Finnish as the “Latin of the Baltic”, as, in effect, the master language of Europe. Jarmo sounds scarily like Hitler in his desire to prove the supremacy of a pure Finnish language:

In ancient times we were the civilised ones and they were the barbarians. We were the masters, they were the slaves. Not for nothing is the word aryan so similar to the Finnic orja, which means slave.


But now ‘someone’ was trying to throw Finland into the dustbin of history, together with the other conquered peoples who have no future. Aurtova was not having that …

Jarmo cares not if a language or two disappears and dies in the service of his theory. He believes that the fewer the languages the more “we’re moving towards the truth, towards the pure language”, while for Olga “with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it”. Marani, the creator of the flexible inclusive language Europanto, is on Olga’s side, on the side of plurality. She says

The true meaning of things is hidden from us; it lies beyond the bounds of any one language, and everyone tries to arrive at it with their own imperfect words. But no language can do this on its own. Every single language is necessary to keep the universe alive.

Cherish ignorance

The last of the Vostyachs is a ripping yarn that takes us from the tundra to Helsinki, through city streets, down country roads, across ice and onto the sea, as the various characters pursue their passions. But it’s the irony that conveys its main messages – and much of this irony revolves around our arch-villain and misogynst, Jarmo. His guilt as a murderer is revealed through a clue that is gorgeously ironic. In his final speech to the linguistic congress he, an academic for heaven’s sake, exhorts people to “cherish ignorance”, to not learn other people’s languages but “force” them to learn yours. And, most ironic of all, not only is the Vostyach language not destroyed, but by the end of the book, without giving too much away, “it could truly be said to be alive and flourishing” – albeit in a rather odd place.

Partway through the novel, Olga says to Jarmo of Finns that “to communicate with the rest of the world you have to learn another one, you have to venture out among words which are not your own, which you have borrowed from others”. In The last of the Vostyachs, Marani has ventured out and written something wild and rather risky. In doing so, he has produced a novel that’s not only fun to read but also gives the mind much to think about.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers read and enjoyed this book earlier this year.

Diego Marani
The last of the Vostyachs
(Trans. by Judith Landry)
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978192196885 (Kindle ed.)

Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the crowd (Review)

Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the crowd was, as regular readers here might remember, one of my two Bah Humbook virtual gifts from Stu of Winston’s Dad. I ordered it on Christmas Day for my Kindle – after all, it was a Christmas present – and have now read it. Wow, what a read, but how to write about it?

Perhaps I’ll start by quoting something near the end of the novel:

There are people who are capable of recounting their lives as a sequence of events that lead to a destiny. If you give them a pen they write you a horribly boring novel in which each line is there for an ultimate reason: everything links up, there are no loose ends.

This is not such a novel. Things don’t link up, there are loose ends, and it’s both chronological and not. It is in fact a metafictional work. It has the old story-within-a story-within-a-story structure, the self-consciousness about fiction versus reality, all of which could be a bit old hat, except it isn’t. The first person narrator is a somewhat frustrated novelist in Mexico City. She has two children – the boy and the baby – and a husband. To make her novel, an autobiographical one, interesting, she has her husband leave her. (Wish fulfilment? we wonder.) Reading over her shoulder, he says:

Why have you banished me from the novel? What? You wrote that I’d gone to Philadelphia. Why? So something happens.

This fictional husband sometimes takes up the story, telling of his life in Philadelphia and of missing his children. Our narrator reminds us that “it’s only a novel, none of it exists” and says she is writing “A horizontal novel, told vertically”, and then “A vertical novel told horizontally”, and still later “Or a horizontal novel, told vertically. A horizontal vertigo”. Word play, you see! I can imagine the fun the translator had with this – and from what I can tell, she seems to have made a good fist of it because there’s a lot of humour here, humour that is linguistic, verbal, and that requires you to keep your wits about you.

Meanwhile, interspersed with telling the story of her current life in Mexico City and the “fictional” life of her husband in Philadelphia, she tells of her past when she worked in New York City “as a reader and translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rescuing ‘foreign gems'”. There are a few “digs” at Americans in the book and one follows this statement, when she continues, “Noone bought them, though, because in such an insular culture translation is viewed with suspicion!” I can see why Stu, with his love of translated literature, related to this work! This story, the one about her time in NYC, is full of unusual but colourful characters flitting into and out of each other’s lives, houses and beds, all told through little, sometimes interconnecting, vignettes which mostly serve to illustrate the contrariness of existence.

There’s Moby, for example, who “forged and sold rare books that he himself produced on a homemade printing press”. “My husband reads some of this”, our narrator writes, “and asks who Moby is. Nobody I say. Moby is a character.” Is he? Your guess is as good as mine. Suffice it to say that Luiselli plays these games with us from beginning to end, all the while challenging us to consider what is fiction, what is real. Is any of it real, she seems to be asking? She writes, “Writing this is coarse. But reality is even more so.” There are ghosts, blindness, and shadows; people and objects suddenly slip from being substantial to being insubstantial. And gradually our narrator, herself, seems to merge with the obscure Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen, about whom she is writing, while running into (or does she?) other poetic luminaries like Federico Garcia Lorca, William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound.

There’s a fantastical element to the story, but it’s not the same as Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s magical realism. It’s more slippery, if that makes any sense at all. While Gabriel Garcia Marquez expects us to comprehend “the magical” as part of it all, Luiselli seems to be saying the opposite, suggesting that perhaps “nothing is”.

This all might sound rather depressing, but it’s not. It is in fact a fun read. And while the novel is, I think, about the challenge of living an artistic life in which the things of the real world threaten to overwhelm the imagination, the final word is positive – albeit ironically so. You’ll have to read it yourself though to find out what that is.

Valeria Luiselli
Faces in the crowd
Translated by Christina MacSweeney
London: Granta Books, 2012
ISBN: 9781847085580 (Kindle ed.)

Yan Lianke, Dream of Ding village (Review for Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize, 2011)

Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village

Bookcover courtesy Grove / Atlantic Inc.

As I started reading Yan Lianke‘s Dream of Ding Village, I was reminded of a favourite novel of mine, Albert CamusThe plague. However, as I read on, the similarity started to fade – or, perhaps it’s just that the particularity of Lianke’s conception took over. Both books explore a community living with a highly contagious, deadly disease, and both can be “read” through the lens of a wider political interpretation, but the two stories are told differently. For a start, Camus does not make his political “reading” literal while Lianke closely intertwines the political with the personal in his novel. No wonder this novel was published in Hong Kong and banned in China!

The story was inspired by the fallout that occurred from Henan Province‘s plasma economy, 1991-1995, in which Chinese were encouraged to sell their blood plasma. According to the Wikipedia article, it is estimated that over 40% of the blood donors (sellers) contracted AIDS, due to the low health and safety standards applied to the campaign. It’s a tragic story and Lianke uses it to tell a cautionary tale about a rush to progress that seems to cast humanity to the winds.

So, how does he tell it? The story is narrated by the dead son of “blood kingpin” Ding Hui. Qiang was poisoned in an act of revenge for his father’s role in bringing “the fever” (HIV/AIDS) to Ding Village. In the clear, non-judgemental voice of a child, Qiang proceeds to chronicle events in the village as the disease takes hold, using occasional flashbacks to fill in the gaps. His is not a schmaltzy or sentimental voice. It’s simply the voice of an omnipotent narrator who happens to have also been part of the story, before the novel starts, and whose “existence” initiates its dramatic denouement. It’s an interesting device that nicely balances involvement with distance. We get close, but not too close, to the people and events.

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

The novel is told in 8 Volumes, and progresses chronologically from the appearance of the fever to when its impact on Ding Village is complete. Qiang tells his story primarily through the actions and behaviour of his grandfather, a man who hangs onto his ethics throughout the crisis while trying, mostly against his better judgement, to remain loyal to his two self-centred sons. A difficult task for the hard-working man entrusted with caring for the school and being its teacher when qualified teachers couldn’t be found. While Grandpa does his best to support the villagers in their darkest time, his oldest son Ding Hui engages in scam after scam (such as selling the government’s “free” coffins and organising “marriages” between dead people) to feather his own nest and further climb the greasy pole of bureaucracy.

Along the way, the stories of other villages are told, such as that of the adulterous couple Ding Liang and Lingling who, having uninfected spouses, decide to find affection in each other’s arms. It’s hard to feel they deserved the disapprobation they received (from most, though not all, in the village), but, speaking novelistically, they usefully represent the breakdown in normal codes of behaviour. Early in the novel, there is a respite from the horror when Grandpa invites all infected villagers to live at the school – and for a while a real community develops among the sick and dying. It doesn’t last of course and, as in The plague, bad things start to happen as the villagers respond to their disastrous situation. Graves are robbed, buildings ransacked, and, in a terrible scenario, the village is denuded of all its trees by villagers needing to make coffins. Black humour is never too far from the tone, and this tree-felling scene provides a perfect example.

It’s all powerful stuff and is conveyed through strong writing that uses physical description to underscore the devastation occurring in the village. I particularly liked the paradoxical use of the sun, gold and yellow throughout the novel to convey on one hand, warmth, prosperity and harmony, and on the other drought, desiccation and oppression, with the latter becoming precedent as “the fever” and associated corruption take hold:

Translucent, pale yellow and green leaves shimmered in the sunlight like golden offerings.


… leaving Grandpa standing in the middle of the road, beneath the blazing sunshine, like a small clay figure of a man that someone had left to dry in the sun. Like an old wooden hitching post bleached by the rotting wood that no one wanted any more.

Other colours also pervade the book such as blood-red suns and green leaves and grass, continuing the disconnect between life and death that characterises Ding Village in the throes of “the fever”.

There’s something about the form though that puzzled me and that’s the use of italics. Sometimes they are used for Grandpa’s dreams – dreams that are often prescient, occasionally surreal – and sometimes they are used for flashbacks. But sometimes I couldn’t quite work out the reason, other than that they were possibly for ideas or events slightly out of kilter with the narrative point at which they occur. I’m not sure that the differentiation, except perhaps to delineate Grandpa’s dreams, serves the novel well.

This is a minor quibble though in a book that explores how greed leads to skewed values (“I spent my whole life doing philanthropy” says the serial scammer Ding Hui) and provides an opening for political corruption. Fast economic progress, Lianke seems to be saying, cannot be simply or easily pasted over cultural traditions that have taken centuries to build … but his vision is not, I think, completely hopeless. “A cool breeze”, he writes near the end, “carried the mingled scents of rotting plants and newly sprouted grass across the plain”. Let’s hope that “newly sprouted grass” gets the upper hand.

For reviews by other members of the Shadow Man Asian Prize jury, please click on my Man Asian page.

Yan Lianke
Dream of Ding Village
(trans. by Cindy Carter)
New York: Grove Press, 2009 (2005, orig. Chinese ed.)
ISBN: 9780802145727

Kyung-Sook Shin, Please look after mom (Review for the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Am I right in thinking that mothers are more often the subject of novels and memoirs than fathers? Or, is it just that I’m a woman and am subconsciously (or even consciously, if I’m honest) drawn to the topic? Of course, with the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize reviewing project I didn’t really have a choice. Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mom (or, mother in the British edition) has now been shortlisted for the prize. So, here I am again, reading about a mother!

And I liked it – for a number of reasons. But, before I explain that, a quick overview of the plot. The book commences with the line “It’s been one week since Mom went missing”. We learn pretty quickly that the mother and father had been in Seoul to visit some of their children and had become separated when trying to board the subway together, with the mother being left behind. The rest of the book chronicles the family’s search for the mother and, as they search, their reflections on her life and their relationship with her.

So, what did I find fascinating? Firstly, of course, is the fact that it is set in South Korea. I haven’t been there, and I don’t think I’ve read any Korean literature before, so I was predisposed to be interested before I started it. I wasn’t disappointed. The novel is contemporary but spans a few decades, decades in which many of the current parental generation were still living fairly traditional rural lives while their children were being educated and moving to the city to chase “bigger” dreams. Through flashback reflections of the various characters we learn about this time of transition, and the challenges both generations faced in coping with the change. We learn of the mother’s determination that her children be educated, the lengths she went to to obtain the money to pay for this education, and her disappointment when one daughter trained to be a pharmacist but then married and had three children in pretty quick succession. It’s a story that’s been repeated around the world over the last century or two, and the usual universals are there – the economic challenges and all those big and little conflicts that attend social change – but each situation has its particularity. In this book it’s in how this specific family functions – the mother’s determination springing from her own lack of education, the self-centred father’s unreliability resulting in increased poverty for the family, the sibling relationships characterised by a mix of mutual responsibility, love and exasperation.

The next thing of interest is the form. Readers here know I like books which play around with form and voice, and this is one of those books. The story is told in five parts, using four points of view and three different voices. Got that? To make it easy, I’ll list how it goes:

  • “Nobody knows”, told by the elder daughter (but second eldest child), Chi-hon, in second person
  • “I’m sorry, Hyong-chol”, told by the eldest child, son Hyong-chol, in third person
  • “I’m home”, told by the father/husband, in second person
  • “Another woman”, told by the mother, Park So-nyo, in first person
  • “Epilogue: Rosewood rosary”, told by Chi-hon (again), in second person.

As is common in multiple point-of-view novels, the main narrative, the story of the search, progresses more or less chronologically through these parts, with each part also incorporating some back-and-forth flashbacks in which we learn about that person’s relationship with “mom”. This multiple point-of-view technique provides a lovely immediacy to the different perspectives. The choice of different voices – first, second and third – though, is an intriguing one. Here is how I see it. First person for “mom” makes sense since she is the subject. Second person feels like a half-way house between the intimate first person and the more distant third person. Using it for Chi-hon and her father, to speak about themselves, subtly conveys a tension between their responsibility for “mom” (which would be expected of their roles as elder daughter and husband) and their regret and guilt for their failings. Third person, on the other hand, seems appropriate for Hyong-chol who, as the oldest in the family, carries the major weight of familial responsibility into the future. It’s the most distant voice and gives, I think, a layer of gravitas to his role.

And last is the theme – or, should I say, themes? The lesser, if I can call them that, themes include the country-vs-city one, particularly in relation to values; literacy and education; and our mutual responsibility for others (something, the family discovers,”mom” took seriously for friends and strangers as well as her family throughout her life). The overriding theme, though, is that of guilt and regret, of having taken “mom” for granted. They all assumed she liked cooking and being in the kitchen, day in day out. The children forgot to call her regularly and didn’t always come home for special occasions. Her husband remembers all the times he failed to help her, while she would put herself out repeatedly for him. It’s a pretty common story but the way Kyung-sook Shin tells it – the form, the reflective tone, the characterisation, the setting – makes this universal story about, really, respect a very personal one. I admit to being a little choked up at the end!

I have one little query though, and that relates to the invocation of Catholicism in the end. “Mom” does, early in the novel, ask about a rosewood rosary, thus providing a link to the the Epilogue, but where did this interest in the rosary come from, given the frequent references to the more traditional ancestral rites during the book? Mom doesn’t explain it – “I just want prayer rosary beads from that country”, “the smallest country in the world”, she says. I assume it has something to do with the recent growth of Catholicism in South Korea. It didn’t spoil the book for me, but it provided a somewhat odd note. All I can say is read the book for yourself, and see what you think.

Please click on my Man Asian Literary Prize page link for reviews by other members of the team.

Kyung-Sook Shin
Please look after mom
(trans. by Chi-Young Kim)
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
ISBN: 9780307593917

Mario Vargas Llosa, The feast of the Goat

Mario Vargas Llosa, signing books

Mario Vargas Llosa signing books in 2010 (Courtesty: Daniele Devoti, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-2.0)

If Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa‘s The feast of the goat had been a traditional historical novel, chances are it would have started with the assassins concocting their plan and then worked chronologically to its logical conclusion. But, it is not a traditional historical novel, as is reflected in the structure Vargas Llosa has chosen to tell his story.

Before we get to that though, the plot. The central story revolves around the dying (literally) days of the 30-year Trujillo (“the Goat”, “the Benefactor”, “the devil”) regime in the Dominican Republic. This means the main action takes place in 1961. However, overlaying this is the perspective of Urania, the daughter of one of Trujillo’s head honchos. She’d left the country days before the regime ended and cut herself completely off from her father – for thirty-five years, until her sudden return at the novel’s start. The novel is told from these two time perspectives – 1960/61 and 1996 – and from multiple points-of-view*, the main ones being:

  • Urania
  • Trujillo
  • The conspirators/assassins

But this isn’t all there is to this novel’s structure and narrative style. I’m not quite sure how Vargas Llosa gets away with it, but he has written a book that is very accessible (once you get across the intricacies of Latin American names) and yet also rather complex. This complexity is found, primarily, in the structure. The book can, essentially, be divided into two parts. Chapters 1-16 proceed pretty systematically, cycling through, in turn, the stories of Urania, Trujillo (usually with one of his offsiders), and the Conspirators (usually focusing on one of them in particular). By Chapter 16 the two major crises of the book have occurred or been introduced. The last 8 chapters continue to cycle through different points-of-view but not in the same systematic order. In other words, the narrative structure becomes erratic and the rhythm more urgent, as chaos and uncertainty take over.

And yet, there’s more. For example, the novel is told primarily in third person, with the point-of-view changing chapter to chapter. But, every now and then, for just a sentence or two, or maybe a paragraph, the voice lapses into second person. This happens most often with Urania and conveys the sense that there has been some trauma that she hasn’t been able to fully integrate/recover from. We discover the origins of this trauma in Chapter 16, but it is not fully revealed until the last chapter.

… You were still a girl, when being a girl meant being totally innocent about certain things that had to do with desire, instincts, power, and the infinite excesses and bestialities that a combination of those things could mean in a country shaped by Trujillo. She was a bright girl … (Chapter 16)

This little slip into second person in Urania’s story is telling.

Okay, so this is the architecture, the behind-the-scenes technical stuff, but why write it this way? Well, the reasons are intellectual and emotional. Intellectual in that the multiple alternating points-of-view enable us to get a number of “stories” first hand. Through the eyes of the perpetrators and the disaffected, we explore the regime, and how, as happens so often with dictatorships, the early benefits are gradually (but surely) overshadowed by the corruption and violence perpetrated to maintain power, and how this leads to the assassination conspiracy. And emotional in that the constant shifting in perspective, particularly from people we can trust to those we can’t (to the best of our knowledge), and back again, unsettles and discomforts us … just as those who lived through the regime were kept on edge.

It’s impossible, without writing a thesis, to cover all the angles in this book, so I’m just going to look at one more – the characterisation of Trujillo himself. A historical novelist (rather like a biographer) has to choose what to include and what to exclude when describing a person. Vargas Llosa was lucky, really, that Trujillo had some traits that made this choice rather easy, traits that work on both the literal level and the ironic and metaphoric. Fairly early in the novel is this description of Trujillo

…that master manipulator of innocents, fools, and imbeciles, that astute exploiter of men’s vanity, greed and stupidity.

Fairly typical, wouldn’t you say, of a dictator? But, Trujillo was also fastidious about cleanliness and appearance, believing that

Appearance is the mirror of the soul.

If that’s so, then Trujillo’s “soul” is a very superficial thing because his disdain for the rights and feelings of others is palpable. Throughout the novel, Vargas Llosa sets Trujillo’s obsession with personal care (“the man who did not sweat, did not sleep, never had a wrinkle on his uniform, his tuxedo, or his street clothes”) against the coldness of his mind. That his mind is cold is made perfectly clear through his attitude to his offsiders (whom he liked to scare – “it cheered him to imagine the sizzling questions, suppositions, fears, suspicions he put into the head of that asshole who was the Minister of the Armed Forces”) and to women. This regime values machismo above all: it’s brutal to those those less powerful, and has careless disregard for the innocent. Women, of course, bear the brunt:

Again the memory of the girl at Mahogany House crossed his mind. An unpleasant episode. Would it have been better to shoot her on the spot, while she was looking at him with those eyes? Nonsense. He had never fired a gun gratuitously, least of all for things in bed. Only when there was no alternative, when it was absolutely necessary to move this country forward, or to wash away an insult.

Trujillo was nothing if not a master of self-justification.

How it all falls out, what happens after Chapter 16, is both expected and unexpected as those involved do or don’t do what they’d committed to. The end result is a devastating portrayal of how the political becomes the personal! Not a new message, perhaps, but The feast of the Goat is a compelling read that engaged my heart and mind. I recommend it.

Mario Vargas Llosa
(Trans. by Edith Grossman)
The feast of the goat
London: Faber and Faber, 2002
ISBN: 9780571207763

* As in most historical fiction, the novel is peopled with historical characters and fictional ones. Most, in fact, are historical but Urania and her father, though based, I understand, on real people, are fictional.

Sawako Ariyoshi, The doctor’s wife

The doctor’s wife is the third Ariyoshi novel that I’ve read. The other two – The River Ki and The twilight years – I read well over a decade ago. According to Wikipedia The doctor’s wife is considered her best novel. All, though, are fascinating reads providing an insight into a culture which is so different from my own but in which, at the same time, people experience similar desires, pressures and emotions.

The twilight years is set in 1970s Japan and beautifully captures the cultural changes that were occurring around the time as Japan was (and still probably is) moving from  feudal/traditional parent child relationships to our more modern independent ways, with women caught in the middle. The River Ki chronicles three generations of women from the late 19th to mid 20th century, exploring changing attitudes and expectations of women. You are probably getting a picture here and you’d be right: Ariyoshi’s overriding theme concerns the role of women in Japanese society, both historically and in modern times. (Ariyoshi died in 1984.)

Hanaoka Seishu

Hanaoka Seishu (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

The doctor’s wife is an historical novel, spanning 70 years from around 1760 to 1830 and based on the life of famous Japanese doctor Hanaoka Seishu. A quick plot summary. The doctor’s wife is Kae, a young woman from a wealthy family, who is lured to become Seishu’s bride by his ambitious mother Otsugi, herself a woman married from a wealthy into a poorer family. The novel then chronicles Kae’s life in this extended family household as Seishu develops his medical skill and training until, near the end, he performs the world’s first surgery under anaesthetic (1804, breast cancer)*. While Seishu’s development as a doctor frames the novel, the real plot concerns the relationship between Kae and Otsugi.

The novel is told in third person, mostly the more objective omniscient voice, but occasionally we feel we are specifically in the heads of Kae or Otsugi. According to my edition’s introduction, Ariyoshi had access to Seishu’s personal records, diaries and books. However, being a man of his time and a doctor focused on his research, he did not, I assume, document much of his family life. The story, then, of the women is largely fictional. Mostly through dialogue, with description as needed, Ariyoshi describes how the loving supportive role Otsugi initially presented towards her daughter-in-law changes when her son (who had been married to Kae in absentia some three years before) returns home from his medical studies in Kyoto. Overnight, the relationship, to Kae’s shock and distress, changes into a competitive one – a competition that has serious consequences as they vie to be guinea pigs for his experiments in anaesthesia. Both women are presented as flawed, but as it is Kae who opens the novel and is the more powerless, it is with her that we are most keen to identify and empathise.

Why has Ariyoshi chosen to tell this story of conflict and competition within an historically based story of a great man? Does the historical “truth” add credibility to her exploration of familial power discrepancies? I’m not sure it’s necessary, but perhaps it helps … It is a very human tale – the grand gestures made by the women to support his research are small in the scheme of things though the impact on them, particularly on Kae, is immense. Ariyoshi realistically explores the nuances of their relationship through the normal day-to-day patterns of life (weaving, cooking, house management, childbirth) suggesting that this sort of conflict doesn’t have to be but that it often (traditionally, even) is. In fact, we readers are lulled into seeing it as the norm – the lot of women – until we are shocked out of that frame of mind near the end by Seishu’s unmarried sister who says (in broken speech because she is ill):

I think this sort of tension among females . . . is . . . to the advantage . . . of . . . every male.

She continues to explain her particular perspective on women’s secondary lot, and pronounces that:

as long as there are men and women side by side on this earth, I wouldn’t want to be reborn a woman into such a world.

Clearly, given the story Ariyoshi has told, she rather agrees  – or, at least, agrees for such societies as she depicts here in which women’s lot is not only an inferior one but which work to discourage them from cooperating and supporting each other. The novel may be set in Japan, but the fundamental truths, unfortunately, are not so confined.

What I have described here is the main story, but there’s more here that can be discussed, including the development (or history) of medicine in the east and west, the experimentation on animals and humans, and Japanese social life and customs in the Tokugawa period.

It’s a short but engrossing read. It falters a little I think right at the end when the historical facts are presented so prosaically that they threaten to overwhelm its novelistic achievements, but the last line fuses the two so beautifully that you forgive this.  The doctor’s wife is a fascinating and keenly observed novel that deserves to be read.

*Ironically, in 1811, novelist Fanny Burney underwent a horrific mastectomy without anaesthesia because it was unknown in the west!

Sawako Ariyoshi
The doctor’s wife
(trans. by Wakako Hironaka and Ann Silla Kostant)
Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1966 (orig ed), 1978 (trans)
ISBN: 0870114654

Imre Kertèsz, Fateless (or Fatelessness)


Let’s get the first thing clear. I like holocaust literature – not because I enjoy the subject matter but because in it I find the most elemental, universal truths about humanity. Depending on the book, this literature contains various combinations of bravery and cowardice, cruelty and kindness, love and hate, self-sacrifice, self-preservation and betrayal, resilience and resignation, and  well, all those qualities that make up humanity and its converse, inhumanity. I have by no means read all that is out there but here are some that have moved me: Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl (of course) and Anne Holm’s I am David, from my youth, and then books like Martin Amis’ Time’s arrow, Bernhard Schlink’s The reader, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river. There are gaps, though, in my reading, such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s ark (I did see the film), the works of Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. I have, however, just added Imre Kertèsz’s Fateless to my list of books read.

Kertèsz, 2007 (Photo by Csaba Segesvari, from Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)
Kertèsz, 2007 (Photo by Csaba Segesvari, from Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)

Kertèsz adds a new spin to the universal truths explored by these books – it’s what he describes (in my 1992 translation anyhow) as “stubbornness” which seems to me to mean “resilience” or a determination to survive, and even to have, if possible, little wins against the system.

Anyhow, first the plot. The novel takes place over the last year of the war and concerns Gyorgy Koves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew, who, one day, is suddenly called off a bus, along with all other Jews on the bus and transported to Auschwitz, and then Buchenwald, Zeitz and back to Buchenwald, before returning home at war’s end. It chronicles his experiences, his thinking, and the impact on him of his experience. He begins as the archetypal naive narrator…but by the end, though his tone has changed little, he is no longer naive. This is rather beautifully achieved as we see his youthful application of logic being changed into something more cynical and survival focused.

Gyorgy speaks with a strange sense of detachment borne, to start with, of an apparent unawareness of what exactly was happening to him and a disbelief that anything untoward would happen. And so, in the beginning, as events unfold he describes them as “natural” because of course, when they got to Auschwitz, it was sensible to inspect each person to see who was physically fit and capable of working. He didn’t know then what would happen to those not found physically fit. The horror gradually builds as reality sets in and he goes about making it through each day – through his share of beatings, the reduced food rations, and all the other deprivations that make up concentration camp life. In the first part of the book he uses the term “naturally” to mean some sort of normal logic but by the end it comes to mean, as he explains to a journalist who asks him why he keeps using the word for things that aren’t natural, that these things were natural in a concentration camp.

Early on in his captivity he says that they approached their life (and work) “with the best of intentions” but they soon discover that these “best of intentions” do not bring about any kindness from their overseers, and so his attitude to getting on, to surviving starts to change. As he starts to physically weaken, become emaciated and develop infections, he observes that “my body was still there. I was thoroughly familiar with it, only somehow I myself no longer lived inside it”. Always dispassionate, always matter-of-fact, while describing the most heart-rending things.

Towards the end, he is placed in a hospital ward and there he is treated better and, even, with a certain amount of kindness. This in its way is as shocking to him as the cruel beatings he experienced at Zeitz. He can see no logic, “no reason for its being, nothing rational or familiar”. He can only understand kindness in terms of the giver receiving “some pleasure” from it or having some “personal need” satisfied. Never is there any sense that altruism might come into play. His view of “justice” is based very much on survival. He says, when he is spared, “everything happened according to the rules of justice … I was able to accept a situation more easily when it concerned someone else’s bad luck rather than my own … This was the lesson I learned”.

And so, in the end he returns home, and finds it hard to explain to people just what happened and how he now views life. He describes getting through his time as “taking one step after another”, focusing just on the moment. He implies that if he had known his fate he would have focused on time passing – a far more soul-destroying activity than concentrating on getting through each day “step by step”. This brings us to the fate/fateless bit. He says at the end that:

if there is a fate, there is no freedom … if, on the other hand, there is freedom, then there is no fate. That is … that is, we ourselves are fate.

I find this a little hard to grasp but he seems to be saying that we are free to make our own choices, even in a concentration camp – we are not fated but make our own fate. He was and is not prepared to accept any other approach to life. But life will not be easy:

I am here, and I know full well that I have to accept the prize of being allowed to live … I have to continue my uncontinuable life … There is no impossibility that cannot be overcome (survived?).

And yet, at the very end of the book, he says “and even back there [in the concentration camp], in the shadow of the chimneys, there was something resembling happiness”. Wow! This is an astonishing book – it charts horrors with a calmness that is quite shocking, and it is particularly shocking not because Gyorgy is unfeeling but because he can’t quite grasp what is happening to him. This is the fundamental irony of the book, and the fundamental truth of a naive narrator: we the reader know exactly how it is even as Gyorgy tries to make sense of it using logic and reason. I must read this book again – and preferably the newer more highly regarded 2004 translation by Tom Wilkinson.

(Translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson)