Short stories, short review.
Born in Greenland, Danish language writer Naja Marie Aidt won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2008 for this short story collection (originally published as ‘Bavian’), and the translation, her first work to appear in English, was the recipient of the 2015 PEN Translation Prize. Add to the list of honours, a longlist appearance for the US based Best Translated Book Award, it meant my purposely delayed reading of these fifteen short stories to co-incide with Women In Translation Month was only heightening my sense of anticipation.
A collection which includes the surreal, the all too real, twists, simple incidents, it is not a work which can be easily classified. However the theme of fractured relationships kept bubbling to the surface.
We have stories with divorced couple, a couple with an adopted child revealing their extra marital affairs to each other, an abusive mother who beats her two-year-old child, a minor shoplifting incident which spirals out of control...
The story “The Honeymoon” explores a couple on their way to the matriarchal city of Olympus when they are attacked by a William Blake quoting savage.
Clearly the women had all the power here. He and Eva had read about it. The whole island functioned as a matriarchy; the order of succession went from mother to daughter. The women owned everything, whatever was worth owning. And here he saw it in practice; in any case, that’s what he thought. The women ran the businesses with an iron fist. The gathered outside the shops and bars, standing in small groups with their hands on their hips, and, with agitate hand movements and loud shouts, the bossed around the older boys and men who had snuck in to take a break from working. Old men with little children on their hips, boys in the middle of sweeping or carrying in goods, men dragging heavy bags home from the shops, men sweeping the stone steps, men washing dishes in the kitchens of the restaurants, whose eyes he met through the open windows. The women frightened him. There was a self-confidence in their eyes when they looked at him that he’d never seen in women before. A clear strong energy, a power, and the deep satisfaction that that power gives. Without undertones of either anger or vindictiveness. No disdain or cloying sweetness. No hint of a wish to be accepted, acknowledged, or liked.
In “The Green Darkness Of The Big Trees” we have a narrator who can only find peace and happiness whilst wandering alone in a garden:
That night I woke up crying, bathed in sweat. I had dreamed that in one single night a hurricane had stripped the leaves off all the trees in the world. I was in despair. Bare black trunks and a trembling stillness. I cried over my loneliness, which I only now understood. And I scolded myself. How could I think that you desired my company? In the mirror I saw a pathetic figure, unshaven, half bald, gray, dull red eyes with an empty expression. I couldn’t stop crying. I stayed in bed all the next day. It was Friday, I was weak and warm. I staggered down to buy a few groceries. It wasn’t until Tuesday that I returned to the garden. But I was unable to enter my silver maple. It rejected me. Or was it the opposite? The tree was silent. I felt unworthy. That’s how I was standing there, limp arms hanging at my sides, staring at the tree, at the yellow and light green leaves at its base, my legs shaking under me, wearing a coat that was far too big, when you walked up behind me, stood there quietly for a little while. I felt your gaze, and then saw you turn around. I saw your back. I saw you hurry away. In no way can I blame you for avoiding me. I would’ve done the same.
This is a collection that explores the breadth of human emotions and interactions, with “The Car Trip” giving us the all too familiar tale of what your life would be reduced to when you take four kids in a car to a summer holiday house. From a sulking teenager, seeking their own independence, through to a screaming baby, forget the romance you thought may happen whilst you are away, here is the reality.
Poetic in style, it is no shock to know Naja Marie Aidt has numerous published poetic works and linking her up with the translator Denise Newman is a coup de grace with Newman a published poet (three collections). At no stage did I find any of this varied collection cumbersome or slow, although there is a wide range of styles, from short sharp bursts, the melancholic wanderings. There is a hint of the surreal in the final story “Mosquito Bite” where our protagonist has a one night stand, where he can’t recall the full outcome, notices a mosquito bite the following day and his healthy life slowly deteriorates along with his relationship with his brothers and sisters. Is the one night stand linked to his health failing, is this some kind of metamorphosis, is it simply a mosquito bite?
This is a very enjoyable collection and a worthy inclusion on the Best Translated Book Award longlist, personally I am looking forward to Open Letter adding to Two Lines Press’ release of Naja Marie Aidt’s work with their upcoming publication “Rock, Paper, Scissors”.