Whilst it would be impossible for me to read thirty-one novels so I could post a review each day, during the month of August, part of my contribution to Women In Translation Month, I am going to look at various female writers who have had limited works translated into English. I am choosing short stories from various collections as an introduction to their work, as well as giving a little information about their works that English readers have yet to experience.
Today I am looking at Verena Stefan. Born in 1947 in Bern, Switzerland, she lived in Berlin from 1969 to 1975 before immigrating to Canada. Not only a writer of fiction, she has written nonfiction, poetry and worked as a translator.
Her first work, from 1975, ‘Shedding’, is recognised as a pioneering work of modern feminist literature and was translated into English with another work ‘Literally Dreaming’. ‘Shedding”, a novella that narrates the transformation of a young woman in the early 1970’s has sold over 300,000 copies in Germany. The addition of ‘Literally Dreaming’ in the English editions, is a collection of eight stories written in the 1980’s, drawing a portrait of life with women living together in natural rural settings independent of men.
In 1972 she co-founded the feminist group ‘Brot und Rosen’, other works include; Fremdschläfer (Unknown Sleeper 2007); Mädchengestalten in der Literatur (1997); Bericht vom Sterben meiner Mutter (1993); Ru, wild & frei (Rough Wild and Free 1997), a collection of comparative essays on the figure of the girl in literature. She has also co-translated both The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich and Lesbian Peoples: Materials for a Dictionary by Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig.
The work I am looking at today, ‘Doe a Deer’, comes from the “Best European Fiction 2011 and was translated from the German, by Lise Weil. Our story opens with the African Saying “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.”
Our story is a litany of news events in a raft of different languages and our narrator’s only escape is to simply go outside, even if it is twenty below zero here in Canada. But outside there are corpses there too, including a young doe, torn apart over the course of weeks by other animals. Our narrator would love to be able to decipher the woods, the tale of the doe, however “in the woods” she is “illiterate”:
The cold preserves a script of paws, hooves, claws, of bellyfur, of tailhair which has brushed the surface layer of snow – stories of encounters, trysts, of the hunt and the chase – which I could read word for word, if I only knew how to decipher the signs. For this I need a book about animal tracks, and a bookstore. Paragraphe, perhaps, or Renaud-Bray, and the good luck to find a parking place in the snowy wastes of Montreal. And then for the book Trace d’animaux I also need French-German and German-English dictionaries, so I can study the signs of red fox, raccoon, skunk, porcupine, and compare their names in the three languages.
Our story leads to the story of Ciudad Juarez, where women are kidnapped, tortured and killed. We have the Iraq War, mentions of Kosovo, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, Chechnya, Congo, we have a whole language of news events, the “vocabulary of war.”
A story which melds the inability to escape the day to day horrors of reportage, with the harsh world of winter outdoors and the overbearing knowledge of the decay in nature. With the rotting doe, a hollowed rotten tree, melting snow tracks, the language of animals.
Bad news should only be broadcast in snow and ice, when the earth is frozen.
There are poetry references and the meter is aligned to poetic style with the outdoor sections having a less brutal impact than the scenes where the horror of the news is relayed. And of course, the title gives it away, there is the musical reference of “do, a deer a female deer, re, a drop of golden sun, mi, a name I call myself, fa, a long long way to run.” An introduction to the multi-lingual mind and style of Verena Stefan, a writer whose biography alone seems to demand more available works in English.