Book review – White by Marie Darrieussecq

White by Marie Darrieussecq

Marie Darrieussecq’s novel White received its first print run in France in 2003, and is set in what was then the future, 2015. As a result there’s a curious sense of being in a recognisable but slightly adrift parallel world, where a manned rocket is on its way to Mars, and phone calls take the form of holograms. It’s not far out, but just enough to add to the sense of being elsewhere – on Earth but not quite as we know it. Very appropriate given the novel’s frozen landscape.

The story opens with our two protagonists, Peter Tomson and Edmée Blanco travelling to one of the most inhospitable and hazardous places on Earth – Antarctica. Each has a role to play in keeping their colleagues safe; telecommunications engineer Edmée by providing the sanity of a link to home, and heating engineer Peter by ensuring the generator that keeps them from freezing to death doesn’t quite give up the ghost.

Talking of ghosts, Darrieussecq has taken the concept of an omniscient voice and given it new life by having the story told by the ghosts who populated the whitest of white places, from Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his ill-fated team, to the ancient echoes of our planets earliest elements. As a result, it’s as though we’re eavesdropping on our romantic leads’ thoughts, dropping from one tangent to another, and always with the backdrop of whiteness, blankness, where the separation between ice, sea and sky is barely discernable.

Dreams slew into consciousness, seeming as significant as waking ponderings, and at times it isn’t entirely clear when an impulse is being acted on, or merely mulled over. It is as though Darrieussecq is drawing a line beneath contemplation and deed, stating that each of these has equal value, and equal insignificance, in the grand scale of things.

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Book review – Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki

Next World NovellaOpening with an unsettling, misidentified smell, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki immerses you deep in the moment, making use of every sense to evoke a tale that is at times sublime, at others disturbing.

It begins as a story of love and loss, and unfolds into something far more complex, where the life lived by Hinrich Schepp, a scholar of ancient Chinese languages, seems revealed to be almost utterly at odds with the one he remembers. A study in perception and the fallibility of memory, the novel examines of the way we rewrite our experiences as we go along, so that our past may be completely different to the past known even by our closest companions. Continue reading

Book review – The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono

TheManWhoPlantedTrees coverThis beautiful little book turned up in my Christmas stocking this year. As slim as it is, with wood engravings by Harry Brockway and an illuminating afterword by the author’s daughter, it really is a book to be savoured.

The story tells of a chance encounter the narrator has in a desolate, mostly treeless, landscape with a solitary shepherd. He watches the gentle man sort a pile of acorns. “As he did so he discarded those that were too small or had a tiny split; he examined them minutely.”

He then took his chosen acorns, dipped them in water and set out into the wilderness.

And so begins a slow, unfurling tale of a man who plants trees in their hundreds over the span of a lifetime. As the narrator gazes on in wonder, the man covers acres of arid land with seedlings that become saplings that gradually become a forest, altering the landscape, the climate and the temperament of the people who reside there.

Yes, a fable, and one to warm the heart, but, as the author’s daughter Aline reveals in her afterword, one that also gained life of its own. Apparently, readers of this story all over the world have believed it to the extent that wooded areas in countries from Finland to New Zealand have been attributed to a lone shepherd with a quiet, but steadfast, ambition. Continue reading

Book review – The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

The Dead Lake coverI confess to being a huge fan of Peirene Press, the little publishing house hellbent on introducing English readers to the classics of distant parts of the globe. Hence the fact you’ll see so many reviews of their titles on By translating works of other countries into English for the first time, they’re opening up a whole world of literary wonder to me, and other voracious readers.

I was excited to see The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov among this year’s offerings. Translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield, this small book contains a grand tale with a tone reminiscent of Anton Chekov or Mikhail Bulgakov, but with a far more modern message. It unfolds over a single train journey, yet encapsulates a life. As with many such works, it takes the form of a story being told by one character to another, drawing us up to the surface occasionally to remind us of the shifting landscape beyond the train windows, and the tale’s teller, a 27-year-old man with an extraordinary musical talent and the uncanny appearance of a ten-year-old boy.
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Book review – Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall

Chasing the King of Hearts coverRelaying the experiences of Izolda, a young Jewish woman living in Poland as the Nazi regime comes into force, Chasing the King of Hearts is that rare thing – a story of an extraordinary series of experiences made utterly relatable.

Few of us (thank goodness) will ever face the persecution endured by Izolda and her friends and acquaintances, but so vividly is her character portrayed by Hanna Krall as translated by Philip Boehm that empathy is unavoidable. This is a girl who has loved, had a change of heart, and loved again – a girl who takes pride in her height and ‘sturdy legs’. She lives in a world where there are people with ‘bad’ looks and ‘good’ looks – the latter being those than can pass convincingly as Germanic.

Izolda’s ‘good’ looks and her pragmatism keep her alive, as she learns to trade whatever it takes to survive, from tobacco to cyanide to her own body. Continue reading

Book review – Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

Mr Darwin's GardenerWriting the first paragraph of a novel is an artform in itself. At the very least it must intrigue the reader sufficiently to make them hunger for the remainder of the story, while setting the tone for the pages that follow.

Mr Darwin’s Gardener achieves this with unwavering audacity, opening with the sentence: ‘Edwin lopes along the road, picking his nose’, before spilling into the degenerate mockery of the jackdaws surveying the scene.

It’s an unconventional start that makes what follows – a drifting narrative that alights in the minds and thoughts of the residents of the Kent village of Downe – easier than you might expect to absorb and devour. Continue reading

Book review – Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal

Stone In A Landslide book coverAlmost an entire lifetime is captured between the creamy covers of this slim, thoughtful book. Beginning with 13-year-old Conxa leaving her family to live with her uncle and aunt in Pallares, she leads us through the important moments in her life, from becoming accepted in the village she now lives in, to falling in love, to suffering the worst affects of the Spanish Civil War.

I’ve never read a book by a Catalonian before, and while most of the world regard Catalonia as part of Spain, it’s interesting to realise that from their own point of view, then and now, Catalonia is its own country, with its own language, customs and beliefs. Continue reading

The art of literary translation

Renowned literary translator Anthea Bell shares her secrets for making a successful of a career as a translator.

Manukan beach, Borneo

Let’s start at the beginning. Translation is not a single genre, but comprises as many as there are genres of translated books. In fact there’s a notorious disproportion between the number of foreign-language books published in English and the number of English books translated into other languages.

We tend to be monoglots in the English-speaking world, and with some exceptions publishers have to rely on readers’ reports when they are deciding whether to accept a foreign book. Many translators also read foreign books for publishers, and it is of course crucial for us to be completely honest in giving our opinion on a book. Publishers have to know when they can trust their readers. Continue reading