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Monday, 19 September 2016

Reading seven books and not a single blog post

Since Women In Translation month, August, I have read primarily English language books. Four Jean Rhys novels, “Quartet”, “After Leaving Mr Mackenzie”, “Voyage in the Dark” and “Good Morning, Midnight”, these with the full intention of participating in Reading Rhys Week, hosted by Jacqui of Jacqui Wine’s blog  and Eric at the Lonesome Reader

I’ve also read Tracy K. Smith’s debut poetry collection, “The Body’s Question”, J.D. Wright’s harrowing last poetry collection “Shallcross” published soon after her sudden death, and to finish off the USA connection I read “Omensetter’s Luck” by William H. Gass a work from 1966 but identified by David Foster Wallace in the late 90's as one of his “five direly underappreciated U.S Novels >1960”.

So why no reviews? No posts?

I could list numerous reasons, I have started a new job, that has kept me very busy, but I’ve always been busy. I don’t have a lot to add to the debate on these books not anything you can't find in other places. The personal nature of the poetry collections sometimes makes sharing thoughts a little trite. I may even get to writing about these collections some other time as I will revisit them. I’ve been watching discussions on other forums about the 2016 Man Booker longlist descend into name calling and personal attacks when others disagree with a point of view. In the past not one of these reasons would have stopped me putting forward my point of view, although a lot of the notes I have taken on these books look more like a lesson plan (for example the common themes) than an interesting contribution.

Add to these factors the niggling thought that for some time, I have wanted to tackle a number of larger books, have the freedom to not write a blog post as I immerse myself in a 900-page work like Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” or slowly working my way through the massive 2.2-million-word tome that is Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”. Doing that would mean a break from blog posting, or at least intermittent posts either about my progress or about the shorter works I read along the way (for example I’ve been reading a number of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories as they are referenced in Schmidt’s work), or dabbling in a few poetry collections on the train trip to work.

All up it is not simply procrastination.

However, as I finally put a halt to the English language reading of the last three weeks and opened Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” on the weekend, starting my journey to find Benno von Archimboldi, this is what I read on page 17, I think it perfectly sums up my dilemma, I’m sure it’s not the first time somebody has said this, “last word goes to Bolaño”:

In 1995 they met at a panel discussion on contemporary German literature held in Amsterdam, a discussion within the framework of a larger discussion that was taking place in the same building (although in separate lecture halls), encompassing French, English, and Italian literature.

It goes without saying that most of the attendees of these curious discussions gravitated towards the hall where contemporary English literature was being discussed, next door to the German literature hall and separated from it by a wall that was clearly not made of stone, as walls used to be, but of fragile bricks covered with a thin layer of plaster, so that the shouts, howls, and especially the applause sparked by English literature could be heard in the German literature room as if the two talks or dialogues were one, or as if the Germans were being mocked, when not drowned out, by the English, not to mention by the massive audience attending the English (or Anglo-Indian) discussion, notably larger than the sparse and earnest audience attending the German discussion. Which in the final analysis was a good thing, because it's common knowledge that a conversation involving only a few people, with everyone listening to everyone else and taking time to think and not shouting, tends to be more productive or at least more relaxed than a mass conversation, which runs the permanent risk of becoming a rally, or, because of the necessary brevity of the speeches, a series of slogans that fade as soon as they're put into words.





Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Say Bye To Reason and Hi To Everything - Various complied by Andrew Durbin

New York based magazine and art book publisher Capricious was initially founded as a fine art photography magazine in 2004 by Swedish photographer Sophie Mörner. Now renowned for their feminist and queer art books, with titles like Girls Like Us and Randy, the collection of photographs of Los Angeles sex workers from the 1990’s by Eve Fowler titled Hustler and Matt Keegan’s box of art objects , ==. Capricious approached author Andrew Durbin (Mature Themes in 2014 and next year Blonde Summer both published by Nightboat Books) and asked him to edit a book of his choice with the stipulation that it be “literary”. Andrew Durbin invited five female writers, Dodie Bellamy, Cecilia Corrigan, Amy De’Ath, Lynne Tillman and Jackie Want to each contribute a short book of new or previously uncollected material.

2012 Guggenheim fellowship recipient, artist Nayland Blake was approached to provide the cover and packaging artwork. When Andrew Durbin was perusing archived drawings by Nayland Blake he came across the furiously quacking ducks with the text Say bye to reason and hi to everything – this artwork became the box cover artwork and the overall project title.

Five short chapbooks, five different genres, poetry, memoir, criticism, dramatic monologue and personal journal are the resultant collection.

First up Jackie Wang’s “Tiny Spelunker of the Oneiro-Womb” a personal journal/poetry collection recalling her dreams The medium Wang used was Twitter, placing the restriction of the number of characters in play as well as the immediacy of her output and an unknown audience adds a layer of complexity to the poems. Her simply revealing to the world her inner demons, and the immediacy of her posting the poetic tweets as soon as she wakes up, starting the tweet “stanzas” (loose definition here) with the phrase “In the/my dream”. This demarking of her poems, where as a twitter follower you will know where one poem starts and ends, is also a demarcation of her dream life and reality.

On the box of cardboard letters there is a list of suggested phrases. None of them have to do with Halloween.
The letters have melted together, making my task infinitely more onerous.
The cardboard letters were also supposed to be perforated but weren’t.
It’s hard to assemble even a simple work, materially.
I have accidentally torn the letters of the word I wanted to make and feel defeated about language.

An extremely personal revelation covering a raft of subjects, sexual, artistic, desire, detachable slug like penises, female lesbian desire, lust, book creation, brothers who are under arrest, no subject is taboo here, and in a format that is very readable and enjoyable this is a great introduction to Jackie Wang’s work. Check out more via her twitter handle @LoneberryWang or her blog at http://loneberry.tumblr.com/  How can I not like a collection that includes the following quote?

I revolt: I no longer want to be a person. Clarice Lispector

Dodie Bellamy’s collection, “More Important Than The Object”, covers a raft of personal art viewing, and working history through eleven reflections presented as “memoir”. With titles such as “Permanent Collection”, which explores the nuances, feelings, emotions when entering an art space;

When I visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art I am both an outsider without status and an artist in my own right, with a peculiar variety of privilege. Being a writer, I’m not central to the Bay Area art scene, but I bisect with it in overlapping circles. If you know any curators, the first thing that you’ll realize is that in private they love to act out, to throw off the formal constraints of writing copy for catalogues and signage, or whatever they call those informative blocks of text that hand on the gallery walls, from which the first person is forbidden. In private they take enormous pleasure in disclosing, in writing the forbidden, getting all personal and critical and gossipy, throwing around the first person with abandon. Get them alone and they’re eager to extricate themselves from the official discourse of the museum, to show the human side of the process, all the insecurities and resentments and near catastrophes. They expose their feelings about their jobs, and how at times when rushing around the museum they’re stopped in their tracks by the wonder of a piece of art.

And Bellamy’s past as a 16-year-old art student and her copy of /Vision In Motion” is explored, along with photography, imagery, capitalist consumerism, in the memoir “Moholy-Nagy”;

In our culture of ahistorical surfaces and angles of gaze, we all know better than to go around searching for transcendence, yet I suspect that most of us still long for it, that being human, we’re hardwired for such longings.

“Cream” by Cecilia Corrigan is a stream of consciousness style teenage anecdote/monologue about the beauty industry;

Sometimes I have to look at the internet and see what kind of horrible thing has happened now.
Things don’t seem to be working out very well for most people in the world and there’s so much disaster and tragedy and so many products you’re supposed to put on your skin or not, depending, and lists, and no one knows the answers to any of it.

A monologue that flows from Stanley Kubrick to Shelly Winters to Jean Genet to Abdallah the tight rope walker, the common link their make up.
It’s sad how most men don’t get to use lotions, except for the mysterious “aftershave.”
It’s like they don’t have any secrets.

Eight short poems make up the chapbook “ON MY LOVE FOR Gender Abolition” by Amy De’Ath

Every feminist man thinks he is a good friend.
He wouldn’t hit a woman, nor rape her. Nor kill her,
but maybe he would writer something to pause the brain, a
Heraclitean litany or regular love song. Save her a song in the spirit
of universalism that she would comprehend –
All my abstract labour is on the mountain top. So fuck unto yourself.

Highly politically charged poetry, covering Maxism, feminism, sexuality, this is another personal revelation.

Lynne Tillman’s “In These Intemperate Times: 9 Frieze Columns” we have the critical essay. Seven short pieces that explore the ordinary, where the writer actually explains is a mischaracterisation, maybe the mediocre “Being mediocre requires an effort not to be ordinary, then failing.” She explains the bulk of “ordinary people”, getting sucked into watching reality television, where she generally reaches for the remote, this time the thoughts, whilst watching The Voice, she stays tuned, “If she can do it, I can”

On The Voice she sang for an audience of millions. How at ease, I thought, she looks onstage, which achievement – ease – is meant itself to be a modern-day miracle. The girl started to sing and imitated what hundreds of pop singers have modelled on tv since before her birth. There was no sense, to my eye, of her wanting to make something her own, just to do what everyone else did as well as she could. She had the moves down, handling the mic, doing the familiar gestures, and could add the usual trill and vibrato here and there. The voice was a sweet, unmemorable voice, a voice like so many voices. I didn’t watch to the end, the outcome seemed clear, and she won a day or so later.

Factual in feeling, at times disjointed, the flow or connection at times felt a little tenuous. Containing a large number of great themes that could be explored in more detail. The political, the entity known as a nation is explored in “Fighting Talk” or language in “Seriously?”;

I’m not a cynic. I prefer irony, which depends on the ability to hold contradictory ideas, which probably springs from ambivalence. People confuse and conflate irony with insincerity and dishonesty; they believe an ironist isn’t serious. But saying the opposite of what is meant allows for at least two meanings to fly. Irony couples and uncouples statements, while revealing the hidden agendas of language and its conventions. Still, defending irony is self-defeating and oxymoronic. To mount an attack on anti-ironists would deny me the pleasure of pointing without being pointed. Earnestness does have its place. (President Obama’s new press secretary is names Earnest.) But to be earnest treads the line of righteousness and, worse, self-righteousness. It is often said of an earnest speaker that he or she means well. ‘Meaning well’ implies the speaker has used platitudes. Irony refuses platitudes, and hopes to undo them.

Overall this is a very tight collection of varied works that all address the common theme of identity, a nicely presented collection that gives you a taste of all the writer’s works without having to invest in a full length work. An enjoyable visit into the minds of the margins in the USA.

For more details about the collection and the contributors visit the publisher Capricious’ website here http://www.becapricious.com/say-hi-t/




Friday, 2 September 2016

Minute-Operas - Frédéric Forte (Translated by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel)

First up from the American Literary Translators Association, 2016 National Translation Awards longlist for Poetry (geez that’s a mouthful), is Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte (Translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel).

Stepping into Frédéric Forte's work is like stepping into a vast sparse gallery space, open space around you, take time to ponder what your eye has been drawn towards. Broken into two sections, “Phase one – January – October 2001” and “Phase two – February – December 2002”. Each section containing 55 “poems” or creations.

Each poem is “Staged” on the page, where a “simple vertical line of 3 inches (I measured the line thinking it would more likely to be in centimetres, but inches it was, I wonder if this is part of the translation or a US audience too?) separates, what Forte calls the stage and the wings”. Typographically the word creations then perform on this stage created on each page. It is probably best to cite an example.

This example showing the passing of time, the polar opposites of marking off weeks but stating that during a “poem’s construction you never count your days”, ageing and creation (in the wings) whilst the seconds pass on the stage. Complexity all on a single page. To quote the ‘Preface” from “The End of Oulipo? An attempt to exhaust a movement” by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esosito;

The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated. The work which results may be “complete” in itself, but it will gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint.

The poem I have used as an example doesn’t actually fall into the Oulipian section of Frédéric Forte’s work, which in fact comes in phase two, but the concept of the paradox and liberation are stunningly obvious.

This is a collection that forces you to pause, as if in an art gallery, to observe, linger, absorb, reflect before moving on, each poem an artwork in its own right, a creation that can work on numerous levels, artistically, literary, poetically, theatrically or even structurally.

Phase two’s poems come with a “Detailed index of fixed forms” where the poem uses existing poetic forms, either traditional or invented by the Oulipo. Another example for you;



Here the detailed index explains that the poem is a “Quintina. Level-5 quenina. In (central pillar of a house [the title of the poem]) the permutation operates on punctuation marks.” Permutations boundless in this example, I‘ll leave it for you to ponder.

This book is not only a feat of typographical wonder, to even contemplate the translation that would have been required, is a feat in itself. For example, the oulipo ‘heterogram’ “invented by Georges Perec. The letters chosen by the poet (the ten most frequently used in the French alphabet, plus one) cannot be used again before the whole series is completed. In the poem ‘(whistle statue II)’ the letters “SILENTBAROU” go through various iterations as words (eg. Silent Bar: our tale is….) eleven times until they end with the words “burial stone”. How on earth did this originally appear in French and how did the translator make it coherent in English? I’m still astounded, initially upon reading the poem, again when taking my notes, and now when attempting to explain it.

The cover of the book tells us that the content of the poems “also constitute, in their cryptic way, a journal of the poet’s life during the period of composition (2001-2002): his love life, the loss of his father…” unfortunately this depth was something that was personally lost in the translation. Whilst the word games, and cryptic style was extremely impressive, the content, as a cohesive whole, seemed to fall by the wayside.

Phase two of the book containing fifty-five word games for you to explore slowly, wonder upon, stretch your limits, refer to the index and back to the poem, research, ponder. An absolute marvel of potential literature. The first fifty-five poems more structured within the space confines, created by the poet, or simply the limits of the page, but still wonderfully rich and detailed in their construction.


A collection that I think would not be out of place in an art gallery. Illuminating and one I will revisit often, if simply just to be stunned at the creation involved.

In a nut shell this is a book I can't adequately review, here’s what others have said….if that helps…
“A book as intriguing (by its staging of typographic variations) as it is invigorating (in its micro-narratives).” —Emmanuel Laugier, Le Matricule des Anges n°67 (octobre 2005)

“Extraordinary inventiveness…funny, original, brilliant” —Jean-Michel Espitallier, Caisse à Outils: Un panorama de la poésie française aujourd’hui (Pocket, 2006)

“positively acrobatic, even balletic” – ALTA Blog

How about you buy a copy and see for yourself? I can guarantee literary lovers, Oulipo readers and poetry aficionados will not be disappointed.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

American Literary Translators Association National Translation Awards 2016

In early August the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) announced the longlists for the 2016 National Translation Awards in Poetry and Prose. Winning translators will receive a $2,500 cash prize, with the winners being announced at the ALTA’s annual conference in October 2016. The five-title shortlists for each category will be “announced in September”. I do intend to read and review a number of the titles that have made the longlists, unfortunately some titles are no longer available or given they come from small independent presses the distribution is limited and the postage costs to Australia are prohibitive, whilst I love to read some of the titles, I really cannot justify spending $50+ on a single book!!!

Here are the Longlists (in alphabetical order by title)

2016 NTA Longlist in Poetry:

Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems
By Jürgen Becker (Germany)
Translated from the German by Okla Elliott
(Black Lawrence Press)

I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky
By Arseny Tarkovsky
Translated from the Russian by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev
(The Cleveland State University Poetry Center)

Minute-Operas
By Frédéric Forte (France)
Translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, Jean-Jacques Poucel
(Burning Deck)

Rilke Shake
By Angélica Freitas (Brazil)
Translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan
(Phoneme Media)

Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal
By Charles Baudelaire (France)
Translated from the French by Jan Owen
(Arc Publications)

The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems
By Natalia Toledo (Mexico)
Translated from the Isthmus Zapotec and Spanish by Clare Sullivan
(Phoneme Media)

The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa
By Chika Sagawa (Japan)
Translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu
(Canarium Books)

The Country of Planks
By Raúl Zurita (Chile)
Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Borzutzky
(Action Books)

This Blue Novel
By Valerie Mejer Caso (Mexico)
Translated from the Spanish by Michelle Gil-Montero
(Action Books)

White Blight
By Athena Farrokhzad (Sweden)
Translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida
(Argos Books)

2016 NTA Longlist in Prose:

Adventures in Immediate Irreality
By Max Blecher
Translated from the Romanian by Michael Henry Heim
(New Directions)

Leg over Leg
By Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (Lebanon)
Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies
(Library of Arabic Literature/NYU Press)

Lovers on All Saints’ Day
By Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Translated from the Spanish by Ann Maclean
(Riverhead Books)

Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours
By Erwin Mortier (Belgium)
Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
(Pushkin Press)

The Blizzard
By Vladimir Sorokin (Russia)
Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector
By Clarice Lispector (Brazil)
Translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson
(New Directions)

The Hotel Years
By Joseph Roth
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
(New Directions)

By Kamel Daoud (Algeria)
Translated from the French by John Cullen
(Other Press)

By Georgi Gospodinov (Bulgaria)
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
(Open Letter Books)

By Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)
Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
(Coffee House Press)

Tristano Dies: A Life
By Antonio Tabucchi (Italy)
Translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris
(Archipelago Books)


I will be back tomorrow with a review of “Minute-Operas” by Frédéric Forte – a member of the Oulipo!!!

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Rest Is Silence - Carla Guelfenbein (translated by Katherine Silver)

Truth rises up from the depths and alters the orderly surface of things.

Last year I planned a full six week holiday/visit to Central America, taking in places such as Mexico and Guatemala and once my work situation changed and the bill came in, the passports were put back on mothballs and a local holiday to Kangaroo Island replaced my ambitious plans. Somehow that planning must have left a seed in my subconscious as I have been reading books from the region all year, twenty-one of the seventy-five posts I have made this year have been  from Central or south America, 28% shows a distinct leaning!!! I still have fifteen or twenty unread books on my “to be read” piles from the region so more will be forthcoming before the end of the year I am sure, there’s even a chance I’ll manage to fit one or two more in before the end of “Women In Translation Month” too.

Back to Chile for my latest read, a work nowhere near as experimental or as challenging as Diamela Eltit’s “Custody of the Eyes”  (translated by Helen Lane & Ronald Christ), more your very readable, approachable style like the last couple of works I have read from Mexico. As with “Ten Women” by Marcela Serrano (translated by Beth Fowler) which was told in ten different voices, or “Umami” by Laia Jufresa (translated by Sophie Hughes) with five narrators, “The Rest Is Silence” is narrated in three difference voices.

The novel opens with the innocent child voice of Tommy, who has been excluded from the other children’s games and is hiding under a table at a Wedding, listening, and in fact recording, adult conversations. By doing so Tommy accidentally learns that his mother did not die from an aneurysm, but rather committed suicide:

If Mama killed herself, it’s because she didn’t love me. I hold my breath and count: Ten, nine, eight, seven…I’m sure I can go back, back to before I hid under this table…six, five…the elephant would say anything to impress her friends…four, three, two…My head is spinning and I feel a thousand stabs in my belly, as if a propeller were turning round and round inside my guts. I can’t stand it anymore. I make a dash for it. I slip and fall. I bang my knees and my hands.
I’ve come to the very end of the garden, where it plunges down into the sea. The light in the sky is white. My cousins are playing ball at the top of the hill, the highest point in the garden. I sit down on the grass. I hug my knees and bury my head in my lap. I stink. I don’t know exactly when my guts exploded. Now I’m really in trouble.
Sometimes I know what it feels like to be unhappy, to wait for night-time so I can hide under the sheets, close my eyes, and escape forever to Kájef’s barge. Is that how Mama felt?

We then immediately move to the female voice of Alma, Tommy’s step mother, slowly the history of this family comes into focus. Finally the voice of Juan, Tommy’s father and Alma’s husband, takes the stage, and the grief over his first wife’s, Solidad’s, death, his young child’s heart condition and his relationship with his current wife become the dominant themes.

This is a story of a fractured family, with one character obsessed by his child’s failing heart, another about “love” and her relationship with her mother, her husband and her own child and step child and the other character wondering why everybody is so uneasy and where is his mum?

The innocent, but honest, voice of the child Tommy not only acts as a nice counterbalance to the two adult voices, who do not communicate directly with each other, but it also raises the tension in the novel. With Tommy talking to his imaginary friend or the maid Yerfa, or reviewing his illicit tape recordings, you know that the crescendo is slowly building, an explosive conclusion is a foregone conclusion.

The day’s first light is blue. The gate is open, and the outside light is on. IT wasn’t a dream. Alma came home with another man. I want to edit out that whole scene, like she does with her movies. Erase it from my memory. But when something new and important gets into my head, there’s no way to get it out of there. No matter how hard I try to forget, there are little monsters who keep reminding me it’s still there. Not long ago, I explained it to Alma and she told me that the little monsters are called your conscience. I asked her if they ever go away and she said they don’t, but we learn to live and just pretend we don’t see them. I wanted to know why I can’t do that and Alma told me that maybe I was one of those very few people who, instead of closing their eyes, confront the monsters and fight against them until they defeat them. That’s why I’ve been thinking that if I can discover ten things about Mama, everything will become clear. Why ten? Because God gave us ten commandments to live by, because we have ten fingers, because ten billion kilometres are one light year, because Yerfa says I should count to ten before I say or do anything that I might later regret.

As each voice reveals a little more of their history, and their experiences, the layers are slowly peeled back and your pre-conceived ideas are put to the test, they are simply illusions, the truth of this family is more complex than you initially thought. As the unsaid, the “silences” referred to in the title, accumulate, you can see the rift that is slowly breaking this family apart.

There are a few events that happen, especially how Tommy discovers his roots, which, to me, are too coincidental, or contrived, however these don’t detract from the overall theme, tension, or plot of the work.

As the opening quote, I chose here, says…”truth rises up from the depths and alters the orderly surface of things”…here we have three truths conveyed by three different voices, their individual truths different to the truths of the others. Confusing? It is not so when you read the book.

A pleasant read, not a challenging work by any means, and one that addresses the themes of family bonds, love, generational influence, addressing the truth and grief. Another fine addition to Women In Translation Month, one for people who are yet to dabble in such books to possibly try as a starter.


By the way Kangaroo Island is stunning, if you want remote, pristine, forests, walks along beaches, then this is a place to visit. It wasn’t my dream Central American trip, that can wait, I’ve been there through my reading choices for months now. 


Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Ten Women - Marcela Serrano (translated by Beth Fowler)

Throughout my literary journey, which has lasted publicly for five years here on my blog, I have explored a number of literary styles. And my journey for the last two months has been solely based on literature originally published in Spanish and from Central or South America. I’m still in the region, this time returning to the written word from Chile, and Marcela Serrano’s “Ten Women”.

In a nutshell this book is made up of monologues of nine women who have been brought to a venue in a mini-bus specifically to address the audience of the other women present. They are all patients of Natasha, their therapist has arranged the meeting for them to talk about their lives in an open forum.

If you are after a well-crafted novel that follows a plot, then straight off the bat here, you are not going to like this one iota. And although it is probably a decent criticism of this work, that there is no plot, it does not mean that it is unreadable, poorly crafted, or even unworthy of your reading pleasure. In fact this book is highly addictive, has many layers, is moving in so many ways, and addresses numerous political, social and environmental issues specific to Chile as well as being a strong feminist mouthpiece.

From the opening, the introduction of sorts, as the women gather, aged between nineteen and seventy-five, we know that this is going to become a raw expose;

Beneath the black vest or pink blouse, wasn’t each woman endowing herself with resolve, gathering courage for the day ahead?? Their appearances today are certainly honest, there’s no interference from jobs, offices, or formalities that might pigeonhole them; the way they have come today is the way they truly are.

A few of the voices to give you a feel for what is in store here…opening is Francisca, fortysomething, successful in real estate, less so in her life in general and even less so in her relationship with her mother. Or the assured voice of Simona, well read, who comes from a privileged background, who meditates, and based on Buddhist teachings, lives in the present moment. Or Mané;

My name is Mané and I’m just as you see me. I was always the prettiest. I’m five foot eight and a half, which is tall for this country, and I weigh a hundred and thirty pounds. Even today, in spite of my age, I still keep an eye on my weight, although I’m the only one to see my body. I turned seventy-five a couple of months ago. There was barely a celebration.
I used to be gorgeous. It’s a shame I have to say it in the past tense. No one says “I am gorgeous” and even less “I will be gorgeous.” Well, that’s all I’ve got: the past. Sunset Boulevard, a movie from the fifties, reminds me of my life. That must be why I find it so moving. Starring, Gloria Swanson, it’s based on the life of Norma Desmond, a great Hollywood silent-movie actress who starred in dozens of movies, a true diva who had the world at her feet. By the time she’d aged, she wanted to return to acting and seduction but everyone had abandoned her. All the directors and producers who once sang her praises turned their backs on her. She was no use to them anymore, but this was something she refused to accept. They didn’t even answer her phone calls. She was rotting, alone and abandoned. Like me.

The personal shame of ageing, such a moving and honest voice, brilliantly captured by a writer who herself could only have been in her late fifties (at most) when she wrote this. Each of the characters have such assured voices, even if their tales are, in many cases, horrific, the characters are happy in their own skin. Throughout the pervading feeling is that Natasha, as a therapist, must be extremely successful in her work.

Natasha said that only by telling her could I take control of this story. That’s what I am doing today. In order to recover, every survivor needs to be able to take charge of her memories. We need others for that. Today I’m burdening you as witnesses. The load is heavy.
I’m worn out.

We have the brutal story of a Palestinian, Layla, exiled in Chile and her return to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, her subsequent memories, or Luisa from the country who only loved one man, a man who was taken away, at three-thirty in the morning, still in his pyjamas, a few months after the 11 September 1973 Military coup. Or the tale of a young teenage lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality, and a popular television presenter who cannot sleep without medication or face who she really is.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a gripping work, the honest, true voices of the women who are undergoing therapy, for numerous reasons, haunt you from the first page until the last. A realistic picture of life under the paternalistic rule of Pinochet, a view from so many angles. The presentation of nine monologues adds to the non-fiction meta-fiction style, even if the stories are in fact fiction, they appear almost interview like and therefore the realism of the situation rings true. The final “woman” character being Natasha, the therapist herself, her tale told by her lifelong assistant, and to me this section almost seems tacked on, a nice tidy way of rounding out the stories, how can we have the therapist calling all these women here without an explanation? Nine monologues, one third person story to round it out. A really flat way to end what would otherwise be a fine work.

There are also a few typos and the Americanisation of simple things (like Mané’s height and weight in the example above) is quite frustrating given Chile has been on the metric system since 1848 (in fact it is compulsory!). But these are just small idiosyncrasies that every 40 or fifty pages or so detract from the overall work.


All in all, this is another decent inclusion on the “Women In Translation Month” listings, another interesting work from Chile, and I still have a number of works from there on my “to be read” piles, don’t worry I will be back!!


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Saturday, 20 August 2016

Umami - Laia Jufresa (translated by Sophie Hughes)

Three in a row of Mexican women’s writing, with today’s review being the recently released “Umami” by Laia Jufresa (some places have this slated for release next month, however I purchased my copy a few months ago and it has been with me since June!!) I came across the work ‘umami’ a few years ago when my eldest child came home from primary school and explained that there are five basic flavours, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (discovered by the Japanese), the novel also gives a description;

“Umami is one of the five basic flavours our taste buds can identify. The others, the ones we all know, are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then there’s umami, more or less new to us in the West. We’re talking a century or so. It’s a Japanese word. It means delicious.”

But this is not a novel about food. The “umami” here is the name of one house in a collection of five, all named by the landlord Alfonso, an expert in flavour (or more precisely pre-Hispanic diets). These five homes are in an urban environment and from the opening page you know that you are in for a desolate tale:

The three of us looked out of the sliding door to the yard where the picnic table lives. Once upon a time it was folding and portable. The benches on either side slot underneath like the retracting feet of a turtle, and the whole thing transformed into a neat aluminium travel case. Not anymore. It’s probably still fold up, but no one seems keen on picnics these days. Around the table there’s just gray cement (dirty gray), and a row of flowerpots full of dry soil, the remains of some bushes, a broken bucket. It’s a colorless, urban yard, If you spot something green, it’s moss you’re looking at; something red and it’ll be rust.

The future holds no picnics, it is bare, it is urban. But one of our voices, the young Ana wants to start a garden, she is breaking out of the desolation that has befallen these people and she is planning a future.

The book is broken into three sections each containing five chapters, five different voices, the chapters move backwards through the years. 2004 is the voice of a young girl, the older sister of Luz who drowned a number of years ago, 2003 the story of Marina, an unstable adult girl who suffers an eating disorder, 2002 the voice of Alfonso, the anthropologist who studies pre-Hispanic diets, and husband of the recently deceased Noelia, 2001 the immature voice of Luz who drowns in that year and the year 2000 another young girl, Pina.

The five voices live in five different houses named after the five basic flavours,

Bitter House: Marina
Sour House: Pina and her dad, Beto.
Salty House: Linda Walker and Víctor Pérez.
Sweet House: The Pérez-Walker Academy of Music.
Umami House: Alfonso Semitiel…and The Girls.

With wonderfully rich characters and distinctive voices, the culture exploration is also prominent, for example the study of amaranth, the Aztec rituals and how the Spanish wiped out the main grain source, amaranth, creating the now held misbelief that corn was the primary source of grain in Mexico is raised.

Again, although it may appear so with eating disorders, professors of diets, houses names after flavours, this is not merely a novel about food. This is a book that works on many other levels, exploring loss, motherhood, maternal love, and innocence. As well as the allegory of tending a garden, the meticulous work and the slow involvement of others in the “community”, showing the voices who are coming to terms with loss and moving towards a brighter future.

Just like umami, reading this book became a craving, you need a satisfying fill of this group of ordinary humans all coming to terms with ordinariness, death, loneliness, admiration, self-awareness, innocence. With characters that are believable, and small revelations that are peppered throughout the five distinct voices all become similar in their needs. Whilst Marina with her eating disorder believes that she is isolated and alone, Ana looks up to her for her individuality, her determination and her unique fashion style. Whilst Alfonso is living in the past, and the memories of his life with the recently deceased Noelina, Marina lives in the now, the immediate, no past, no future.

Whilst personally I found the voice of Alfonso the most enjoyable to read, that may be because he is the only male voice in the novel, all five voices are distinct, uniquely different and address, from a range of angles, maternal love and loss.

A book that must have been challenging to translate, given the different tone, nuances, styles and ages of all the voices, and as per her wonderful work with Ivan Repila’s “The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse”, Sophie Hughes has brought to life a seamless work in English. I am looking forward to reading her recently translated “Affections” by Rodrigo Hasbun.

A sparkling work that I am sure would reveal even more secrets on a second reading, one that combines all the flavours of the palate, which rounds out nicely and leaves you with a feeling of loss, something “to remember, not to keep”.



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