I have spent the last couple of months getting through the United Kingdom based Man Booker International prize longlist, but at the same time I had one eye looking sideways at the emerging titles on the United States based Best Translated Book Award. The Man Booker International Prize announced a longlist of thirteen titles on 10 March, and trimmed the list to six on 14 April, giving avid readers five weeks to get through their list. Meanwhile the Best Translated Book Award announces a fiction longlist of twenty-five titles, they did so this year on 29 March and their shortlist consists of ten books which they announced 21 days after the longlist!!! Three weeks to get through twenty-five books, methinks not. I think a longer period between the two announcements would elicit more discussion, more reading, more sales (for example there are eight works on the longlist that I haven’t read and which did not make the shortlist, with a longer timeframe there is a very good chance I would have read those books, with piles of unread books stacking up around me there is a very much reduced chance that I will go out of my way and hunt these eight books down).
A couple of the books shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award were already on my “to be read” pile, “The Physics of Sorrow” by Georgi Gospodinov (translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel) and “War, So Much War” by Mercè Rodoreda (translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent), as a result of my subscription to Open Letter books. Congratulations to them for publishing two titles that are deemed representative enough to make such a prestigious shortlist.
Mercè Rodoreda’s “War, So Much War” is set during the Spanish Civil War, however if you are after a traditional “war” story, or revelations from a Catalan point of view about the events of the Spanish Civil War, then I suggest you look elsewhere.
This book has forty-three chapters, each a small poignant, matter of fact vignette, written in the first person, with our narrator/protagonist being Adrià Guinart, a young boy “born at midnight, in the autumn of the year, with a birthmark on” his “forehead no bigger than a lentil.”
The house was ancient, the sink had a terrible stench, the faucet leaked. On windy days the cold crept in through the cracks, but in good weather the smell of flowers permeated every corner. On the Sundays when my father wasn’t of a mind to visit his cousins, he would take me for a walk. We spent hours sitting by the side of the road, and sometimes the air winnowed threads from the hearts of stunted flowers, and some would catch in my clothes. It seemed to me that people were all the same: with legs, with thighs, with eyes, mouths, teeth. I walked along, straight as a ninepin, holding the hand of my father who was tall and very good. I don’t know why I resented girls; if I ever got my hands on one, I would wring her neck like you would a bird’s. They exhaust motherly love.
As the announcement of the breakout of war reaches Adrià, he decides to run away from his family home, a carnation growing farm on the outskirts of Barcelona, half committing to joining the war, half simply joining other boys, his “coming of age” search from individuality, freedom. He spends the rest of our novel escaping, or running from, the war, and wandering from one fantastical adventure to the next.
With elements of dark fairy tales and a feeling that there is a parallel to Homer’s “Odyssey” (more on that later) each vignette reveals a little more of Adrià’s fears, hopes, dreams.
The novel is a blend of numerous influences. We have Biblical references, “They know not what they do”, and stigmata makes an appearance. Mystical references, for example Chapter IV is titled “The Hanged Man, is this a reference to the Tarot Card? Martyrdom? Suspension in time? A sacrifice for the greater good? Or is our narrator, by running away from home, breaking old patterns of behaviour and restrictive bad habits? Or is it simply a tale about a man who is hanging from a tree branch?
There are also messages of hope, a bright future;
Soon, even more shell-hued than the previous night’s moon, the new day awoke to eyes that have never tired of seeing the tenderness it brings.
There is a never ending cast of characters who enter Adrià’s circle and then simply disappear as he moves on to another adventure. We have Narcisa, the female form of Narcissus, derived from ναρκη (narke) meaning "sleep, numbness", appearing as the wife of a man who cannot help but fall asleep all the time, he is a “cyclops” of sorts, a one eyed man:
A man came and stretched out beside me. He was portly and his skin glistened as if it had been smeared with lard. He folded his hands over his bellow. I could only see one of this eyes, beneath an eyebrow with hairs thicker than esparto. The eye studied me, then quickly closed, only to open again slowly.
Wonderfully rich characters who all have influences on Adrià’s development. The novel is broken into three parts and at the end of Part One Adrià is living/hiding with Pere Ardèvol, a man who contemplates the sea and spends many hours looking into a mirrow, “each person is the mirror of the entire universe.” When Pere dies he leaves his full estate to Adrià on the condition that he shred and burn all of his documents. Adrià reads them and this leads us to Part Two of the novel.
Part Two includes dream sequences, a repetition of events that Adrià himself has recently experienced when he came to Pere’s farm but events that Pere himself experienced when he was younger. “Under what conditions can one become another?” As is my usual want here I won’t reveal any more of the plot…
This is a novel packed with riddles, parables, dark tales and a cast of characters too numerous to mention. We have a wanderer who walks with his back to the moon and sun so he can keep his shadow company, a moon-shaped man, and naked nymphs in the reeds with pitchforks, young girls on the beach tossing an orange, girls who are afraid of the waves. All presented in a rich, descriptive language:
The henhouse was at the back of the vegetable garden. I crept toward it, life a wolf stealing through the artichokes. A hen was clucking like made, I would eat her egg. The frightened fowl stood over her nest, legs deep in the straw, staring at me. The egg tasted like hazelnuts. Three more hens, still as death, craned their necks forward as they perched on their nests. Their wattles dropped, their combs drooped, they were old hens, has laid many eggs, marched little chicks around. I heard the sound of a slamming door coming from the direction of the house, followed by the squeak of a pulley. The egg had made me hungry. I left the vegetable garden. There wasn’t a village in sight. I was surrounded by fields. I was suddenly struck by a flash of sadness, and I shook it off in a hurry. Somehow, I would find what I needed. I continued on my way, slit-eyed, blinded by a sun that had a deeper yolk color than the egg I had just swallowed. I was walking in the bright sunlight, my mind on other things, when I tripped and fell, bloodying my knee. The blood was red, redder than a red carnation, redder than the drooping combs of those golden hens.
Multi layered and with a depth that demands re-reading and exploring in detail, this is a complex, but at the same time thoroughly readable, work. Drawing on myth, Christian icons, medieval, and classical characters, Mercè Rodoreda’s final novel was so enjoyable, I will be hunting down further translated works from her bibliography. In fact I have already committed to reading two via my "Classics Club" list of fifty classic translated books.
Another wonderful Catalan work that was published last year was “Life Embitters” by Josep Pla (translated by Peter Roland Bush) published by Archipelago Books, a very large collection of short stories, over 600 pages worth, which is written in a more “straight forward” narrative style if you would like to explore Catalan Literature outside of this dark and frolicking work.
A worthy entrant on the Best Translated Book Award shortlist, one I thoroughly enjoyed, a tale of a wandering young boy, observing the war around him, meeting so many characters he simply has to become a man:
I enjoyed nothing more than wandering throughout the world lost. Doing as I please no matter how things turned out, with no one giving me any advice. Seeing the sky, the forests, experiencing fear, contemplating the night and it having a roof.