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)

Ida Vitale, Byobu (#BookReview)

Uruguayan writer Ida Vitale’s Byobu was my reading group’s second book of the year. Originally published in Spanish in 2018, with the English translation released in 2021, Byobu is Vitale’s first book of prose to be translated into English. Few, if any of us, had heard of her – and yet, this now 98-year-old woman was, in 2019, named by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women of the year. The things we don’t know!

Anyhow, Byobu is a curious book. It has no clear narrative, and only one character, the eponymous Byobu. It’s just 85 pages, and comprises 34 “chapters”. It is replete with allusions to a diverse range of writers, thinkers, musicians. In other words, it’s one of those books you can struggle with, if you don’t come up with a way of reading it. For me, this was to jettison preconceptions about what a novel is and go with the flow to see what fell out. And what fell out was a mind-opening, and sometimes witty, series of thoughts and observations about life and living. I can’t say I understood all of it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience.

The best way I can encapsulate Byobu is to describe it as a sort of modern Everyman story, the story of an individual in a world that can be confusing, if not sometimes downright hostile. The overall theme seems to me to be: How do you live in this world?

Before I explore this more, some basics. Byobu is set in Uruguay, and although there’s no plot per se, there is some structure. (I’d probably find more structure had I time to read it a few times). The opening chapter introduces the idea of “story” – and clues us into the idea that we are going to be unsettled:

a story’s existence, even if not well defined or well assigned, even if only in its formative stage, just barely latent, emits vague but urgent emanations. (“A story”)

The next few chapters introduce us to Byobu, conveying a general sense of who he is. These are followed by chapters that consider bigger issues in contemporary life.

However, although we are introduced to Byobu, he remains somewhat shadowy. We don’t know how old he is, but one member of my reading group suggested he was old, like his author, and that he encompasses an old person’s thoughts about life. I can accept that. Regardless, besides not knowing how old he is, we don’t know whether he is (or has been) married, has a family, is working, and so on. A family home is mentioned, and there are references to daily activities including attending a conference. All this vagueness supports the idea of him as an Everyman (albeit, possibly, an old one!)

We do, though, learn some things about the sort of person Byobu is. He can be indecisive. He has “an intractable inclination to complicate things”, and hates change. He’s not a good storyteller, but he likes nature and enjoys minutiae. Unfortunately, though,

often distracted by some minutia captivating him at a particular moment, he misses fragments of conversations that later turn out to be important. (“On anodyne things”)

I found him very human and engaging, to the degree I could, given his shadowiness.

I fear though that I’m not selling the book, so I’ll try now to share some of its joys and intellect. I’ll start by talking a little about the style. Many of the “chapters”, and I put them in quotation marks because some are only a paragraph long, start with what you could call truisms, but they don’t read as cliches, like:

Everything important lies below the surface. (“Terrestrial labours”)

Byobu concludes that he must begin by ending. (“Knots”)

Byobu has heard it said that ‘every mile has its rough patch’. (“Epiphanies”)

Byobu is not always able to predict how the situations he gets involved in will end. (“Dangerous misunderstandings”)

How can you be sure that the avenue, boulevard, or ordinary road you’re facing is not actually a blind alley? (“Crossroads”)

Just look at that sentence, “Byobu concludes that he must begin by ending”. So terse, so clever. “Knots”, in fact, is one of those one-paragraph chapters. It concerns Byobu’s realisation that if he doesn’t end his “trepidations” and “tepid transactions”, if he doesn’t “lay limbos aside” and “ignore everything initiated by the iniquitous” – he will have to “accustom himself” to “the cage”. But, can he recreate himself?

“Crossroads” addresses another recurrent idea in the book, the importance of the imagination, of mystery, over the mundane. Opposing mystery and imagination are “straight lines” which also recur, starting in the second chapter, “Life is not a straight line”. In “Knots”, Byobu learns that straightness “lays snares” and in “Against the Argive Way”, he is aware that “The world loves conversations in straight lines and single-minded strides. Intersections divert. Labyrinths confound.”

A few chapters in, then, it dawned on me that Byobu was about more than a man muddling through life, that it’s a commentary on modern life. Byobu pleads for the imagination, for not going in straight lines. It critiques conformity, power and authority, commercialisation, urbanisation, inhumanity, and resistance to change. “Internal coherence” explores resisting social pressure. It is “immoral”, it suggests, to accept a world “governed by the boorish authorities who rule during these evil times we inhabit”. Yet, Vitale realises resistance is not easy, so her Byobu “resists on the inside, while staying quiet and feigning surrender”.

In the penultimate “chapter”, “Byobu and the traffic light”, traffic lights are a metaphor for “supervision and compliance”. Here “the defiant … recognise the bad example of a behaviour that is a silent hymn to obedience to all authority”. Vitale goes on to suggest that traffic lights should, in fact, “innervate the pedestrians” (who are “increasingly incongruent elements in the city”) to “assume their role as essential antagonists”. This chapter is a call to defy, to rebel.

Lest this all sound rather bleak, let me say there’s beauty here too. There are, for example, some lovely descriptions of nature:

In the garden, jasmines reign supreme. At night the star jasmine is a vertical Milky Way, delirious with aroma. (“Seasons”)

And, there is quite a bit of humour. Much is of the quiet, understated sort, but it made me laugh. “It’s true”, thinks Byobu, “there were three Wise Men; not quite a battalion” or “They’d better not count on him. He’s not an abacus”.

I hate leaving this book, but of course I must, so, I will leave you with two ideas. The first comes from one of the two epigraphs. Neither were translated, but the second is by Henri Michaux, and it roughly translates as “In case of danger, joke”! Joking is part of this book, but it is also deadly serious. Speaking of “story”, the opening chapter exhorts Byobu (our Everyman) not to “underestimate its flexible, disordered density”. And neither should we, because this novel has much to offer those willing to go with its flow.

Ida Vitale
Translated from the Spanish by Sean Manning
Edinburgh: Charco Press, 2021 (Orig. Pub. 2018)
ISBN: 9781913867023

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)

Bill curates: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Sometimes I think I am well read and sometimes I come upon a post like this and realize just how far I have to go. Pamuk, I discover, is a famous Turkish novelist and the winner of the 2006 Nobel prize.


My original post titled: “Orhan Pamuk, Snow”

Book coverOne of my rules of reading is that when I have finished a book I go back and read the first chapter (or so) and any epigraphs the author may have included. These can often provide a real clue to meaning. This rule certainly applies to my latest read, Snow, by Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk.


Snow, in fact, has no less than four epigraphs:

  • lines from Robert Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” describing the paradoxical nature of things: “the honest thief, the tender murderer,/the superstitious atheist”;
  • a quote from Stendhal’s The charterhouse of Parma which warns about the ugliness of “politics in a literary work”;
  • a quote from Dostoevsky’s Notebooks for the Brothers Karamazov which suggests ideals like the European Enlightenment are “more important than people”; and
  • Joseph Conrad’s statement in Under Western eyes that “The Westerner in me was discomposed”.

These four epigraphs pretty well sum up the concerns of the book. What about the title? The second chapter begins with:

Veiling as it did the dirt, the mud and the darkness, the snow would continue to speak to Ka of purity, but after his first day in Kars, it no long promised innocence.

Here then is the first paradox: snow is pure but not innocent, and it covers dirt, mud and darkness. Already, you can see that this book is going to be ironic. Just how ironic though is a matter for contention but my suspicion is that its very foundation is ironic, as it grapples with what it means to be an artist in a political society, with how one is to live in a conflicted nation. The plot centres on a coup – a coup which is variously called a military coup and a theatrical coup! In fact, it is a coup by a theatrical group that is supported by the military! Art and politics could hardly be more entwined.

Snow though is not an easy read. It is my third Pamuk, but only the second one I have completed. I loved his memoir-cum-history Istanbul but could not, hard as I tried, finish My name is red.

What then is it about? The main action covers three days in the life of Ka, a Turkish poet recently returned from 12 years exile in Germany, who comes to Kars (in far east Turkey) ostensibly to write about the suicide epidemic among young women, but whose secondary (or perhaps primary!) reason is to fall in love with an old school-friend, Ipek. Soon after he arrives, however, the coup occurs and Ka is, rather unwillingly, caught up in the intrigue between the competing interests: the secularists, the Islamic fundamentalists, and the Kurdish nationalists. This sets the stage for exploring the art-politics nexus. Ka says to Sunay, the leader of the coup AND of the theatrical troupe that comes into town:

I know that you staged the coup not just for the sake of politics but also as a thing of beauty and in the name of art … you know only too well that a play in which Kadife bares her head for all of Kars to see will be no mere artistic triumph; it will also have profound political consequences.

Here then is one evocation of the second epigraph. The third and fourth epigraph refer to the running conflict in the book between European/Western values and Turkish/Eastern values. There is very much a sense that the people of Kars feel condescended to by European culture, but as a teen-ager says at one point, “We are not stupid! We’re just poor”. The people of Kars do not understand Western notions of individualism, and they see Western ideas of secularism and atheism as equating with immorality. Ka, as a Westernised Turk, acts as an uncomfortable, to him, bridge between the two worlds.

The core of the book is Ka. He is a sad and highly conflicted individual who, in his youth, had used words to argue that people should act for “the common good” but now finds himself using them to further his own happiness. Once politically active, “he now knew that the greatest happiness in life was to embrace a beautiful, intelligent woman and sit in a corner writing poetry”. The irony is that, for all his attempts to achieve this, he ends up with neither and dies four years after the coup a sad and lonely man.

The novel is interesting, stylistically and structurally. It is essentially a third person story about Ka but is told by a first person narrator, Ka’s friend, the novelist Orhan(!). This metafictional narrative technique, by adding another layer to the “conversation”, rather deepens the “artist in society” and art/politics themes of the book. Much of the story is foreshadowed: we learn of Ka’s death in Chapter 29, though the book has 44 chapters. The tone of the book is imbued with huzun, that very particular Turkish sense of melancholy that Pamuk explores beautifully in his book Istanbul. And, while it is about a coup and has a body count of 29, there are some very funny scenes, one being the political meeting at which the competing rebels prepare a statement about their beliefs for the Western Press. Anyone who has attended a political meeting will feel at home here!

All this said, the book is a challenge to grasp: there are a lot of characters, comings-and-goings, and ideas to track. Just why Ka is the way he is, just what did happen to him in the end, and just what Orhan is saying about art and politics are hard to pin down. I love the way the book is underpinned by paradox and irony – and yet at times the meaning can be a little tricky to discern. What is clear though is that Ka has found living by his political beliefs deeply unsatisfying but, ironically, is unable to bring about a situation in which he can live “happily” any other way.

Kadife, the leader of the headscarf girls, says (fairly early in the book):

…do not assume from this that our religion leaves no room for discussion. I will say that I am not prepared to discuss my faith with an atheist, or even a secularist. I beg your pardon.

Oh dear! Some reviewers call it a brave book. With its fearless exploration of the tensions in modern Turkey, it certainly feels that way. I am very glad that I put in the effort to read it.

Orhan Pamuk
Translated by Maureen Freely
London: Faber & Faber, 2005 (orig. Turkish ed. 2002)
ISBN: 0571218318


I know what Bill means. I too keep stumbling across authors I should know but have never heard of. I would like to read more Pamuk, including The museum of innocence which is on my TBR. Meanwhile, though, my heart really belongs to his mesmerising memoir, Istanbul. I’d love to read it again.

Have any of you read Pamuk? If so we’d love to hear what you think about his writing.

Shokoofeh Azar, The enlightenment of the greengage tree (#BookReview)

Book coverI bought Shokoofeh Azar’s novel The enlightenment of the greengage tree when it was longlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, for which it was also shortlisted. However, it was its shortlisting this year for the International Booker Prize that prompted me to finally take it off the TBR pile.

Born in Iran, artist and writer Azar was still a child when the Islamic Revolution started in 1979. She grew up there, and, as an adult, obtained work as an independent journalist. However, after being imprisoned three times, she fled Iran by boat, ending up on Australia’s Christmas Island, and was eventually accepted as a political refugee by the Australian government. She has written a children’s book and two short story collections, but The enlightenment of the Greengage tree is her first novel. Like many first novels, it feels autobiographical, though given the narrator is a ghost and Azar is clearly still with us, it is not exactly autobiography!

The story chronicles the lives, experiences, and reactions of a family caught up in the chaos and brutality of post-revolutionary Iran. This family comprises father Hushang, mother Roza, son Sohrab, daughter Beeta, and another daughter, the above-mentioned ghost narrator, Bahar. Following the 1979 Revolution, they flee Tehran for the remote village of Razan, which was untouched for years by the revolution, until it came there too during the Executions of 1988.

While the story is roughly linear, it does slide around a bit, so you need to keep your wits about you. It starts in Razan with Roza’s attainment of enlightenment “at exactly 2:35pm. on August 1988, atop the grove’s tallest greengage plum tree”, the same moment at which her son Sohrab is executed amongst hundreds of other political prisoners in Tehran. This, of course, is told to us by thirteen-year-old Bahar who, we don’t discover until chapter 5, had died in a fire set in her father’s library in 1979 by Revolutionary Guards.

Now, the book is described on its back cover as magical realist, but this is term I have been uncomfortable about ever since hearing Alexis Wright question it. I fear that with our rationalist Western minds, the description “magical” can carry a hint of condescension. Alexis Wright said that “Some people call the book magic realism but really in a way it’s an Aboriginal realism which carries all sorts of things.” Toni Morrison has spoken similarly. Azar, on the other hand, embraces the term, describing it like this: “People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems”. That makes sense. I also rather like this description in Wikipedia by Mexican critic Luis Leal. He says “to me, magical realism is an attitude on the part of the characters in the novel toward the world” or, to be more specific, toward what happens to them. I guess it’s really a matter of a rose by any other name, and that the issue is less the term, than how we readers understand or approach what we read?

So, when I tell you that Roza finds enlightenment at the very top of a greengage tree, that the ghosts of 5000 executed people confront the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in his bedroom, that Beeta becomes a mermaid and joins the merpeople to escape the sorrows of the world, that forest jinns place curses, or, even, that the novel is narrated by a ghost, I am accepting that this is how the characters experience their world.

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is, then, the story of people in extremis. The background is the repressive regime, but the book’s ambit is much bigger. It’s about life and death, love and loss, and how those play out in brutal, politically-charged times. While “most people”, says Hushang, “wanted to get used to everything”, his family heads to the jungle town of Razan, where they think, foolishly as it turns out, they will be safe. When the revolution does reach them, the people are unprepared, and are left

wondering how they’d ended up in a game whose rules they hadn’t written. The game of aggressor and victim. A game in which it didn’t take long for the victims to become the aggressors; become victim aggressors… it wasn’t long before they forgot their myths and dreams, their history and balance …

With Sohrab soon arrested, our family soldiers on, each reacting to the brutality they confront in their very different, beautifully differentiated, ways.

Roza leaves home early in the novel because:

… she wanted to lose herself.  She didn’t want to sit in her newly rebuilt house and look at the freshly-painted walls, and the new furniture and carpet, and imagine how Sohrab was killed or how I suffered as I burned.  She didn’t want to think about the future and what other calamities might befall Beeta and Hushang.  She wanted to run away from herself, from her fate.  She didn’t want to be wherever she was.

Beeta, on the other hand, who had stayed and struggled, eventually transforms into an aquatic creature, “so as to experience and live life with a freedom that had been impossible as a human”. Meanwhile, Hushang, who also stayed, reads. He had “a thirst for reading”, a desire to be “connected with the world’s thinkers”, to distance himself “from the contemporary world of intellectual midgets that had overrun his country.” Eventually though, his reading brings him to “contemporary Iranian history; the place where all his questions turned to bottomless chasms”.

History is, in fact, a constant thread in the novel, one that is pored over from every angle – including an attempt by the people of Razan to discard it altogether. Azar shows, graphically, the damage done by those regimes which try to quash people’s past, their heritage.

Late in the novel, there’s a confrontation between Hushang and his brother Khosro who had taken a mystical path. Hushang is furious, arguing that “this mysticism game” had done nothing against the various atrocities and traumas, and criticising “smart people” like Khosro for hiding “in the safety of temples instead of doing something to fight the corruption and injustice.” Khosro, though, believes, probably realistically, that nothing can be done to avert the ongoing destruction of Iranian culture. He argues that “all I can do is not become tainted by something I don’t believe in.”

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is a wonderful read if you like books which pose these sorts of fundamental questions about how to live in difficult times. It could be a grim read, given the brutality contained within, but it’s not. It’s tragic, of course, but it has a sort of unsentimental, slightly melancholic tone that doesn’t weigh you down. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, Beeta tells Bahar that “imagination is at the heart of reality”. A perfect description of what Azar has done in this book.

In the front matter, Azar expresses gratitude to the Australian people for accepting her “into this safe and democratic country” where she can “have the freedom to write” such a book. We, however, should be grateful, in return, to have such a creator in our midst.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

Challenge logoShokoofeh Azar
The enlightenment of the greengage tree
Translated by Adrien Kijek*
Melbourne: Wild Dingo Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780987381309

* Translator’s name is a pseudonym; the European edition was published with translator as anonymous.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian novels in Japan

Here is my second Monday Musings inspired by my current Japanese travels. It is, loosely, a companion piece to one I wrote three years ago on Australian literature in China. That was inspired by an article I found in Trove. This one, however, was been inspired by a program I discovered via Google, called The Masterpieces of Australian Contemporary Literature.

The website describes the series as follows:

The Masterpieces of Australian Contemporary Literature Series was established by Gendai Kikakushitsu Publishing in 2012. With the support of the Australia-Japan Foundation, the program aims to increase the recognition of contemporary Australian literature by translating and publishing Australian novels in Japan. Not only showcasing the excellence of Australian literature, the series looks to reveal ‘Contemporary Australia’ and share with the Japanese audience the diversity of its culture and society.

ABC RN Books and Arts Daily discussed the project after the launch of the first book. The Australian ambassador to Japan at the time, Bruce Miller, comments that Japanese interest in Australian Aboriginal culture comes from their interest in ancient cultures, and because it’s unique. He also talks about the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is supporting the project, being comfortable with sharing the positive and negative aspects of our culture. Professor Kate Darian-Smith from the University of Melbourne says that part of the project is to support and foster the teaching and discussion of Australian literature in universities and by the public.

So far, apparently, six books have been so translated and published – and here they are in the order they were done (with the date they were launched, and links to my post on that book, if any!)

  • David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, trans. by Rumi Musha (2012)
  • Tim Winton’s Breath, trans. by Keiji Sawada (2013, my review): the launch included a discussion between Japanese writer Natsuki Ikezawa and Kate Darian-Smith.
  • Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap, trans. by Keiji Minato (2014, my review): Tsiolkas attended the launch and took part in a symposium.
  • Kate Grenville’s The secret river, trans. by Tomoko Ichitani (2015): Grenville attended the launch, along with “Ms Yukiko Konosu, a well-known translator of foreign literature”.
  • Kim Scott’s That deadman dance, trans. by Masaya Shimokusu (2017, my review): Scott attended the launch, along with two prominent Japanese writers, Ms Akiko Shimoju and Mr Masaaki Nishiki, to talk about “Australian culture and literature, and the role literature plays in multicultural societies”.
  • Helen Garner’s This house of grief: The story of a murder trial, trans. by Megumi Kato (2018, my review): Garner attended the launch, and took part in a panel discussion with Japanese author Kyoko Nakajima discussion Australian and Japanese perspectives on “the non-fiction novel”. You can read a report of the launch event here.

I’m thrilled that I have read, and liked (in different ways and for different reasons) every one of these six books, some, of course, before blogging. I wonder what the next book will be?

Kim Scott That Deadman DanceAll these books have won major awards and/or been bestsellers (by Australian terms, anyhow). None are simple or easy books, and none present Australia at its best. In this sense they represent “true” literature that grapples with real issues, and clearly meet the goal of revealing ‘Contemporary Australia’ (in all its messiness.) Clearly, they appreciate that historical novels also say something about “contemporary” Australia. It’s encouraging that the program is still going, and is supported, it seems, by quality launch events. So many visionary programs like this seem to flounder.

Oh, and by-the-by, I discovered that in July this year, Monash University held a Translation in transition: Australian literature in Japan. It was to focus in particular on this Masterpieces program, which they describe as a 10-year project. The seminar was being given by Tomoko Ichitani who translated Grenville’s book for the project. She is apparently working on a “collaborative translation of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria“. I wonder if that’s for this program?

Anyhow, what book would you choose next? (I have a few ideas.) And do you have any comments on those chosen to date?

Anton Chekhov, The lady with the little dog (#Review)

Penguin collection, translated by Wilks, book cover

“The lady and with the little dog” was an out-of-left-field recommendation for my reading group for two reasons. One is that it is a single short story – not even a whole collection which we have done before. And the other is that the member who recommended it did so on the basis of its being referred to a few times in Sebastian Smee’s recent Quarterly Essay (72), Net loss: The inner life in the digital age, which I’ll review next, hopefully.

So, what to read? We were as a group challenged, albeit was a good challenge. First, “the lady and the little dog” has appeared in many Chekhov collections over the years, accompanied by different selections of stories (though of course some individual ones do recur more than others.) Second, the story has been translated by many translators, including Constance Garnett, Ivy Low Litvinov, collaborators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and Ronald Wilks. So, do we read all or some of the other stories in the collections we variously acquired (or try, even, to suggest we all read the same collection? That wasn’t going to happen! Particularly given availability challenges.) Or, do we just read the story plus the work that inspired its recommendation? (But what about the fact that there was a mix-up not resolved until late in the month about what exactly was that work!) In the end, our being a disciplined but not controlling group, we all chose our own paths, which made for an interesting meeting.

Penguin collection, translated by Garnett, book cover

Now, I have to admit that at the end of my first reading of the story – this story that is the lead story in so many collections and so must be well-regarded – I was a little underwhelmed, though why is hard to explain. After all, much as I love Guy de Maupassant’s short stories with their dramatic twists, I also love quiet stories about character, which is more Chekhov’s style. I think the issue was that I read it too fast, too distractedly, because when I reread it, Chekhov’s skill started to shine through. Chekhov, by the way, is seen as marking the transition between the mid- to late-nineteenth century realism of de Maupassant and the modernism of early twentieth century Joyce.

The story concerns an adulterous affair between 40-year-old Gurov and the much younger Anna, who meet while holidaying in Yalta without their respective, unsatisfactory spouses. Gurov’s arranged marriage was to a woman whom he considered “not very bright, narrow-minded and unrefined” and who “makes love insincerely”, while Anna sees her husband as “no more than a lackey” or “flunky” (depending on your translation!) She wants “to live life to the full”. Gurov initially sees his seduction of and relationship with Anna as “just another adventure”, not expecting to care when she returns home to St Petersburg. But, after he returns to Moscow, he realises that he’s been touched by her. Life has become meaningless:

Those pointless business affairs and perpetual conversations – always on the same theme – were commandeering the best part of his time, his best strength, so that in the end there remained only a limited, humdrum life, just trivial nonsense.

Penguin collection, translated by Pevear and Voslonsky, book cover

Consequently, he seeks out Anna, and finds that she too was unhappy, and so their affair resumes.

As the affair progresses, Gurov makes a distinction between his inner and outer lives (which is what Smee references in his essay). Gurov thinks:

He was leading a double life: one was undisguised, plain for all to see and known to everyone who needed to know, full of conventional truths and conventional deception, identical to the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another which went on in secret. And by some strange, possibly fortuitous chain of circumstances, everything that was important, interesting and necessary for him, where he behaved sincerely and did not deceive himself and which was the very essence of his life – that was conducted in complete secrecy; whereas all that was false about him, the front behind which he hid in order to conceal the truth– for instance, his work at the bank, those quarrels at the club, his notions of an ‘inferior breed’, his attending anniversary celebrations with his wife – that was plain for all to see. …

What I noticed more on my second read through was Gurov’s personal growth. In the beginning, he is bored, misogynistic, and selfish. He found men boring, and preferred female company, and yet “he always spoke disparagingly of women and whenever they were discussed in his company he would call them an ‘inferior breed’”. Moreover,

Repeated – and in fact bitter – experience had long taught him that every affair, which at first adds spice and variety to life and seems such a charming, light-hearted adventure, inevitably develops into an enormous, extraordinarily complex problem with respectable people – especially Muscovites, who are so hesitant, so inhibited – until finally the whole situation becomes a real nightmare.

Penguin collection, translated by Slater, book cover

Then Anna appears, and this self-centred man is suddenly possessed by “those stories of easy conquests … and the alluring thought of a swift, fleeting affair, of a romance with a strange woman whose name he didn’t even know.”

By the end, though, not only has he realised that he had “genuinely, truly fallen in love – for the first time in his life”, but that he had come to a new understanding of himself:

Anna Sergeyevna and he loved one another as close intimates, as man and wife, as very dear friends. They thought that fate itself had intended them for each another, and it was a mystery why he should have a wife and she a husband. And in fact, they were like two birds of passage, male and female, caught and forced to live in separate cages. They forgave one another all they had been ashamed of in the past, forgave everything in the present, and they felt that this love of theirs had transformed them both.

There is, however, no easy conclusion – no clever twist, no clear ending, happy or tragic.

And so, of course, as I should have realised on the first read, “The lady with the dog” (or “with the little dog” or “the lap dog” or “the pet dog”, depending on your translation) is a tight, moving, ironic story about a man who, like many of Jane Austen’s best characters in fact, discovers the errors of his attitudes, and is transformed by the knowledge.

Anton Chekhov
“The lady with the little dog”
in The lady with the little dog and other stories
(trans. Ronald Wilks)
London: Penguin Books, 2002)
(“The lady with the little dog”, first pub. 1899)
ISBN (eBook): 9780141906850

Avalailable online at Adelaide University’s etext site.

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