Beginner’s Guide To Baltic Literature

Baltic_states_flag_map.svgIn 2018, all three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – mark the 100th anniversary of their declaration of independence, so, in celebration of the centenary, I decided to put together this beginner’s guide to Baltic literature to highlight some fiction (as well as some non-fiction) from all three Baltic States that is currently available in English translation. I hope the following list of titles will give you some ideas on where to start your journey of discovering Baltic literature.

I’m also planning on updating this list from time to time to make sure that it includes the newest releases.

Links to the full list of books by country (with descriptions):


Estonia

ESTONIA

The Czar’s Madman by Jaan Kross
Translated by Anselm Hollo
Published by The Harvill Press, 2001

Diary of a Blood Donor by Mati Unt
Translated by Ants Eert
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2008

Brecht at Night by Mati Unt
Translated by Eric Dickens
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2009

Purge by Sofi Oksanen
Translated by Lola Rogers
Published by Grove Press, 2010

The Same River by Jaan Kaplinski
Translated by Susan Wilson
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2011

Radio by Tõnu Õnnepalu
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2014

The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk
Translated by Christopher Moseley
Published by Grove Press, 2015

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen
Translated by Lola Rogers
Published by Knopf, 2015

The Cavemen Chronicle by Mihkel Mutt 
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2015

The Saviour of Lasnamäe by Mari Saat
Translated by Susan Wilson
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2015

The Brother by Rein Raud
Translated by Adam Cullen

Published by Open Letter Books, 2016

The Ropewalker: Between Three Plagues Volume I by Jaan Kross
Translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher
Published by MacLehose Press, 2016

Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church by Indrek Hargla 
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2016

The Beauty of History by Viivi Luik
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
Published by Norvik Press, 2016

The Sweepstakes of Love by Toomas Vint
Translated by Matthew Hyde
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2016

The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal
Translated by Matthew Hyde

Published by Pushkin Press, 2017

The Inner Immigrant by Mihkel Mutt
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2017

Reconstruction by Rein Raud
Translated by Adam Cullen

Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2017

The Death Of The Perfect Sentence by Rein Raud
Translated by Matthew Hyde

Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2018

I Loved A German by A. H. Tammsaare
Translated by Christopher Moseley
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

The Misadventures of the New Satan by A. H. Tammsaare
Translated by Olga Shartze
Published by Norvik Press, 2018

Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory by Ilmar Taska
Translated by Christopher Moseley
Published by Norvik Press, 2018

Hanuman’s Travels by Andrei Ivanov
Translated by Matthew Hyde
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

Days of Grace: Selected Poems by Doris Kareva
Translated by Miriam McIlfatrick-Ksenofontov
Published by Bloodaxe Books, 2018

On the Edge of a Sword by Kristiina Ehin
Translated by Ilmar Lehtpere
Published by Arc Publications, 2018

Toomas Nipernaadi by August Gailit
Translated by Eva Finch, Jason Finch
Published by Dedalus Books, 2018

Everyone’s the Smartest by Contra, illustrated by Ulla Saar
Translated by Kätlin Kaldmaa & Charlotte Geater
Published by The Emma Press, 2018

The Rules of Bird Hunting by Eeva Park
Translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Baltic Belles: The Dedalus Book of Estonian Women’s Literature, edited by Elle-Mari Talivee
Translated by Adam Cullen, Jason & Eva Finch
Published by Dedalus Books, 2019


Latvia

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The Cage by Alberts Bels
Translated by Ojars Kratins
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 1990

High Tide by Inga Ābele
Translated by Kaija Straumanis
Published by Open Letter Books, 2013

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Translated by Kaija Straumanis
Published by Arcadia Books, 2014

Come to Me by Kārlis Vērdiņš
Translated by Ieva Lešinska
Published by Arc Publications, 2014

Five Fingers by Māra Zālīte
Translated by Margita Gailitis
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2017

One House For All by Inese Zandere, illustrated by Juris Petraskevics
Translated by Sabīne Ozola and adapted by Lawrence Schimel
Published by Book Island, 2017

The Noisy Classroom
by Ieva Flamingo, illustrated by Vivianna Maria Staņislavska

Translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by The Emma Press, 2017

The Secret Box by Daina Tabūna
Translated by Jayde Will
Published by The Emma Press, 2017

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena
Translated by Margita Gailitis
Published by Peirene Press, 2018

18 by Pauls Bankovskis
Translated by Ieva Lešinska
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

The Green Crow by Kristīne Ulberga
Translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2018

Doom 94 by Jānis Joņevs
Translated by Kaija Straumanis
Published by Wrecking Ball Press, 2018

The Book of Riga, edited by Becca Parkinson & Eva EglajaKristsone
Translated by Kaija Straumanis, Suzanne McQuade, Uldis Balodis, Ieva Lešinska, Mārta Ziemelis and Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by Comma Press, 2018

30 Questions People Don’t Ask: Selected Poems by Inga Gaile
Translated by Ieva Lešinska
Published by Pleiades Press, 2018

In the Shadow of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis
Translated by Uldis Balodis
Published by Momentum Books, 2018

Dog Town by Luīze Pastore, illustrated by Reinis Pētersons
Translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by Firefly Press, 2018

The Book of Clouds
by Juris Kronbergs, illustrated by Anete Melece

Translated by Māra Rozīte & Richard O’Brien
Published by The Emma Press, 2018

Queen of Seagulls
by Rūta Briede

Translated by Elīna Brasliņa
Published by The Emma Press, 2018

All I Have Is Words by Knuts Skujenieks
Translated by Margita Gailitis
Published by Guernica Editions, 2018

Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks
Published by Pushkin Press, 2018

Narcoses by Madara Gruntmane
Translated by Marta Ziemelis
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Beasts by Krišjānis Zeļģis

Translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Phenomena
by Eduards Aivars

Translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Insomnia
by Alberts Bels

Translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Nakedness by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Translated by Uldis Balodis
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2019


Lithuania

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Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis 
Translated by Elizabeth Novickas
Published by Open Letter Books, 2009

Tūla by Jurgis Kunčinas
Translated by Elizabeth Novickas
Published by Pica Pica Press, 2016

Breathing Into Marble by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė
Translated by Marija Marcinkute
Published by Noir Press, 2016

The Easiest by Rasa Aškinytė
Translated by Jura Avizienis
Published by Noir Press, 2017

Shtetl Love Song by Grigory Kanovich
Translated by Elliot Cohen
Published by Noir Press, 2017

Memoirs of a Life Cut Short by Ričardas Gavelis
Translated by Jayde Will
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

The Music Teacher by Renata Šerelytė
Translated by Marija Marcinkute
Published by Noir Press, 2018

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė
Translated by Delija Valiukenas
Published by Peirene Press, 2018

White Shroud by Antanas Škėma
Translated by Karla Gruodis
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas
Translated by Marija Marcinkute
Published by Noir Press, 2018

Darkness and Company by Sigitas Parulskis
Translated by Karla Gruodis
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2018

The Fox on the Swing by Evelina Daciutè, illustrated by Aušra Kiudulaite
Published by Thames & Hudson, 2018

The Moon is a Pill by Aušra Kaziliūnaitė
Translated by Rimas Uzgiris
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Now I Understand by Marius Burokas
Translated by Rimas Uzgiris
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

In The Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Šlepikas
Translated by Romas Kinka
Published by Oneworld Publications, 2019

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Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz

Why don’t you leave me the hell alone and die. Just die, my love.

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Edition: Charco Press, 2017, 147 pages.

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwitz, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff, is a raw and powerful account of a woman, who has recently given birth to her second child, and is struggling with destructive urges and a yearning to break free from society’s expectations and the anxiety of motherhood.

Mummy was happy before the baby came. Now Mummy gets up each day wanting to run away from the baby while he just cries harder and harder.

The intensity of the narrative immediately brought to mind Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, another short and suspenseful Argentinian novel that was nominated for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. Die, My Love is a very atmospheric, at some points disorienting, and even uncomfortable read. I got the sense that this is probably a semi-autobiographical story, and if so, I applaud the author’s honesty.

The narrative voice is incredibly strong and effective in portraying the protagonist’s emotional turmoil of being stuck in this life that has become almost alien to her. She feels as if she’s losing her identity to the roles that she is supposed to perform, and it makes her deeply sad and angry at the same time. I found her to be a very fascinating, fully developed character. The author does not shy away from revealing the sharp edges of her personality that may make her seem somewhat abrasive and unlikeable.

Her desire to escape also manifests in a strong connection to nature and animals. She is attracted to the wildness of the woods and the river near her house, where she seems to find some solace from the incessant stream of her thoughts and the feeling of isolation.

I dodge the nettles and walk down to the woods. At one point a stag appears and shoots me a hard, animal stare. No one’s ever looked at me like that before. I’d put my arms around him if I could.

These passages create an image of a woman, who feels like a confined animal that is yearning to break free from the mundanity of everyday family life and her role as a mother. At the same time, we see that she cares deeply for her son and hopes to raise him as a free and worldly individual that could escape society’s expectations and the clutches of mediocrity.

Me, a woman who didn’t want to register her son. Who wanted a son with no record, no identity. A stateless son, with no date of birth or last name or social status. A wandering son. A son born not in a delivery room but in the darkest corner of the woods. A son who’s not silenced with dummies but rocked to sleep by animal cries. What saves me tonight, and every other night, has nothing to do with my husband’s love or my son’s. What saves me is the stag’s golden eye, still staring at me.

This relatively short novel is a powerful and nuanced examination of motherhood, womanhood, freedom, identity and desire. I’m definitely hoping that Die, My Love will make it onto the 2018 MBIP shortlist, it’s the kind of book that stays with you for a long time and that deserves to be read more than once. Also, I look forward to reading more from the catalogue of Charco Press, who aims to bring more attention to contemporary Latin American literature.

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The Anguish Zone: The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt

His anguish was that of a man who carries a fearful cage inside him, where prowling, blood-stained tigers yawn among a heap of fish bones, their remorseless eyes poised for their next leap.

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Edition: Serpent’s Tail Classics, 2015, 323 pages.

The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt is a modern Argentinian classic from 1929, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, that tells the story of a disturbed, petty thief called Remo Erdosain, who is fired from his job at the Sugar Company for embezzlement, and, seduced by the ideas of a charismatic political ideologue called The Astrologer, gets involved in a plan to murder his wife’s cousin, Barsut, for money in order to set up a secret society and overthrow the Government. At the same time, Erdosain is also preoccupied with the struggle to determine the dimensions of his soul and find meaning in his life that leads him to roam the streets of Buenos Aires in a constant state of anguish.

“What am I doing with my life?” he would ask himself, trying with that question to shed light on the origins of this anxiety which led him to long for an existence where the next day would not be merely time measured out in a repetition of today, but something different and totally unexpected, like in the plots of North American films, where yesterday’s tramp suddenly becomes today’s secret society boss, and the gold-digging secretary turns out to be a multimillionairess in disguise.

In essence, the book examines the feelings of the dispossessed working-class inhabitants of Buenos Aires against the background of a rapidly changing Argentina. However, it also soon becomes apparent that The Astrologer and his co-conspirators are all disturbed individuals that dream of seizing control of the country in order to exact some kind of revenge for the neglect, humiliation and cruelty that they have been forced to endure all their lives.

Arlt’s vision of Buenos Aires in The Seven Madmen is depressing, and yet also surprisingly hopeful. His characters are thieves, gamblers, pimps, prostitutes and, as the title would suggest, madmen, who struggle with poverty, violence, desperation, anxiety, isolation and various delusions. The main character, Remo Erdosain, is a lonely and repressed man, who has been constantly brought down and humiliated by society, and, as a result, he has an overwhelming desire to escape reality and to bring down this society that has pushed him to the margins.

It some ways The Seven Madmen reminded me of some of the Russian classics that I’ve read, so I wasn’t surprised to find out that Arlt was inspired by Dostoevsky’s work. Erdosain’s desire to get back at society and his inner turmoil over the planned murder of Barsut immediately brought to mind Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment.

“[…] it is only thanks to crime that I can affirm my existence, just as it is only evil which affirms man’s presence on earth. I would be the Erdosain who was predicted and feared, defined by the penal code; among the thousands of anonymous Erdosains who infect this world, I would be the other, authentic Erdosain, the one who is and always will be.”

One of the most fascinating characters of the novel is The Astrologer, a cult-like leader, who gives long political and philosophical speeches condemning society and trying to incite a revolution, however, as you read on, it becomes increasingly clear that his speeches resemble the ravings of a madman, and he doesn’t even care which ideology they will use as the basis for their new society.

“I don’t know if our society would be bolshevik or fascist. Sometimes I think the best thing would be to concoct such an unholy mixture that not even God could untangle it. I’m being completely frank with you now. For the moment, what I’m aiming for is a huge undefined mass which could accommodate every possible human aspiration. My plan is to target young bolsheviks, students and intelligent proletarians. We will also welcome all those who have some grandiose scheme for reshaping the universe, all those clerks who dream of becoming millionaires, all the failed inventors – don’t take that personally, Erdosain – all those who have lost their job, whatever it might have been, those who are being taken to court and have no idea where to turn …”

What’s even more interesting is that his co-conspirators seem to be fully aware that their leader is a delusional madman, but they go along with his plan anyway out of sheer boredom and a lack of meaning in their lives.

“(…) d’you think the Astrologer’s scheme will work?” “No.” “Does he know that?” “Yes.” “So why do you go along with him?” “I only go along with him up to a certain point, and then simply because I’m so bored with everything. Life has no meaning, so why not follow whichever way the wind blows?” “So life has no meaning for you?” “Absolutely none. We’re born, we live, we die, but that doesn’t stop the stars spinning round or ants getting on with their work.”

Overall, I think the enjoyment of this book somewhat depends on the reader’s interpretation. Some of the dialogue and certain plot points could be equally described as melodramatic and cliché or ironic and clever, but I think that this ambiguity actually fits well with the mad vision of Buenos Aires portrayed in this novel. The book could also be criticised for its general lack of focus and messy narrative, however, for me, the unusual assortment of characters and their interesting voices made up for the novel’s stylistic imperfections.

The Seven Madmen definitely deserves more recognition and it makes me sad that the sequel (The Flamethrowers), which is often referenced in this book and follows the same characters, is not yet available in English.

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The White Book by Han Kang

Is it because of some billowing whiteness within us, unsullied, inviolate, that our encounters with objects so pristine never fail to leave us moved?

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Edition: Portobello Books, 2017, 161 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

The White Book by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, is a deeply emotional meditation on death and grief, written during the author’s residency in Warsaw. The novel starts with a list of white things, each bearing a symbolic value to the narrator, who then proceeds to examine them in detail. The book contains some very poetic and beautiful descriptions, intended to tug at the reader’s heartstrings, however, I’m sad to report that the experimental and fragmented narrative ultimately left me somewhat unmoved. Once I would get into the rhythm of one of these vignettes, it would end and move on to the next thing. This might have been a deliberate creative choice, but it made the book feel more like a series of short, loosely connected thoughts and images.

The anchor point of these reflections on the colour white is the death of the narrator’s older sister, who died only two hours after her premature birth. The narrator, haunted by her baby sister’s death, is struggling to deal with survivor’s guilt, the feeling of being born and experiencing life in the place of her sister, while also being aware of the fact that if her sister hadn’t died, her mother probably wouldn’t have decided to have more children, so she would never have been born.

This life needed only one of us to live it. If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now. My life means yours is impossible.

A lot of the white imagery comes from the narrator’s observations during her walks around Warsaw in the winter months. She describes how the city seems to be still grieving the loss of thousands of people who were killed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, and how the city has been meticulously rebuilt after the massive destruction, while also conspicuously exposing its old scars.

Were spirits to exist, she thought, their motion would be the invisible correlate of just such a butterfly’s trembling flight. If that were so, would the souls of this city sometimes drift to the wall where they were once gunned down, and flutter there for a time with such a soundless motion? But she knew that the people of this city did not light candles and lay flowers in front of that wall only for the sake of such souls. They believe that there is no shame in having been butchered. They want to draw out their grief for as long as possible.

The narrative is divided into three sections – ‘I’, ‘She’, and ‘All Whiteness’. In the first section, the narrator looks at the circumstances of her sister’s death and reflects on different white things that have a symbolic link to her death. In the second section, she tries to imagine what her sister’s life might have been if she had survived. The difference between the perspectives “I” and “She” is so slight that it sometimes becomes confusing to distinguish the two, deliberately blurring the lines between the narrator and this imagined version of her sister. In the final section, the narrator tries to see the world through her sister’s eyes and show her only clean things that are unaffected by sadness, brutality or pain. But she soon realises that her image of her sister is inseparably linked to the event of her death, so the sister that she attempts to recreate is like the city that has been painstakingly rebuilt on a foundation of fire-scoured ruins.”

Overall, The White Book is a collection of beautifully written vignettes that include some striking imagery and certain moments of raw and profound insight into grief and isolation, however, the hype surrounding this book lead me to expect something truly extraordinary, and, unfortunately, I finished the book feeling somewhat underwhelmed.  I think the author touched upon some very interesting themes, but I wish she had explored them in greater depth.

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The Man Booker International Prize 2018 Longlist

One of my most anticipated literary events of the year is finally here – the announcement of the longlist for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize!

A week before the longlist was announced I shared my longlist predictions and, while it was disappointing to find out today that I don’t have any psychic abilities, since I only managed to guess 5 of the 13 contenders, I’m very excited to get to all of the books on this year’s list! I’m not sure if I will be able to read all of them before April 12, when the shortlist will be announced, but I will make an effort to get to as many as I can. Just like last year, I’m hoping to at least read and review the ones that make it onto the shortlist.

The full MBIP 2018 longlist is as follows:

  1. The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet (France) (translated by Sam Taylor) (Harvill Secker);
  2. The Impostor by Javier Cercas (Spain) (translated by Frank Wynne) (MacLehose Press);
  3. Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes (France) (translated by Frank Wynne) (MacLehose Press);
  4. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany) (translated by Susan Bernofsky) (Portobello Books);
  5. The White Book by Han Kang (South Korea) (translated by Deborah Smith) (Portobello Books);
  6. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (Argentina) (translated by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff) (Charco Press);
  7. The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai (Hungary) (translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes) (Tuskar Rock Press);
  8. Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain) (translated by Camilo A. Ramirez) (Tuskar Rock Press);
  9. The Flying Mountain by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria) (translated by Simon Pare) (Seagull Books);
  10. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq) (translated by Jonathan Wright) (Oneworld);
  11. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) (translated by Jennifer Croft) (Fitzcarraldo Editions);
  12. The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi (Taiwan) (translated by Darryl Sterk) (Text Publishing);
  13. The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra (Spain) (translated by Natasha Wimmer) (Harvill Secker).
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Of the 13 books, I’ve only read two so far (Frankenstein in Baghdad and The 7th Function of Language, reviews coming soon), both of which I really enjoyed, so I look forward to reading all the rest. Some of these were already on my to-be-read list (Vernon Subutex 1, The Impostor, Flights, The White Book), so I’m happy for the extra incentive to get to them sooner. The list also includes some titles that I’ve never even heard about (The Flying Mountain, The Stolen Bicycle, The Dinner Guest) and that is great, because it gives me the opportunity to discover some new books and authors. That being said, I’m still a bit sad that Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis) didn’t make it onto the list. It would have been awesome to see a book from my country recognised by a major literary prize. Oh well…*sigh*

I am particularly keen to read The World Goes On, based on the positive reviews that I have read. It will be my first book by Krasznahorkai and I’m glad that it’s a short story collection, because I’m hoping it will give me a glimpse into the themes that he likes to explore.

What are your thoughts on the longlist? Which of these books are you most interested in?

Happy reading! 🙂

The Only Story by Julian Barnes

I think there is a different authenticity to memory, and not an inferior one. Memory sorts and sifts according to the demands made on it by the rememberer. Do you have access to the algorithm of its priorities? Probably not. But I would guess that memory prioritises whatever is most useful to keep the bearer of those memories going.

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Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2018, 213 pages.

The Only Story by Julian Barnes is a story about love and the unreliable nature of memory, in which the nineteen-year-old narrator Paul recounts the story of his relationship with Susan, a married, forty-eight-year-old woman, who he meets at a local suburban tennis club. From the outset, it seems like another classic story about a love affair between a young man and an older woman with all the clichés that come with such a story, but, what’s clever about this novel is that Barnes seems to rely on our pre-conceived notions about how this kind of love story usually plays out and our tendency to categorise in order to subvert our expectations.

We tend to slot any new relationship we come across into a pre-existing category. We see what is general or common about it; whereas the participants see – feel – only what is individual and particular to them. […] But perhaps this is an illusion all lovers have about themselves: that they escape both category and description.

The Only Story explores how we all tell and retell stories about our lives, even if only to ourselves. It looks at how our memories can become muddled and how we tend to interpret them according to our emotional needs and, usually, in favour of our feelings instead of facts. We may sometimes remember ourselves as the hero or victim of the story instead of as the villain, depending on what makes us look better. We all do it. We reconstruct and retell our experiences in our minds, or sometimes even on paper, to make sense of our feelings, justify our choices and find meaning in our past experiences that motivates us to keep going in the face of our everyday struggles. Our lives are made up of these stories and memory is at the very core of them. The Only Story is a nuanced examination of the ways in which we remember and try to make sense of past events. However, because of the unreliable nature of memory, remembering might not necessarily lead us to the truth.

The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away?

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As many other reviewers have noted, The Only Story is a great companion piece to the author’s 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning novel A Sense Of An Ending, since both stories follow unreliable narrators, who are looking back at their youth, and ruminating on the process of ageing, the subjective nature of memory and the complexities of romantic relationships. We see how the relationship between Paul and Susan develops as they grow older and how the initial infatuation turns into resentment when various outside factors, as well as their personal issues and decisions, start affecting their relationship. The novel illustrates the corrosive nature of lies. Paul soon realises that the lies they told everyone, in the beginning, to keep their affair a secret, and that made them feel rebellious, have lead them to lie to themselves and each other and slowly poisoned their relationship. The novel also looks at the collateral damage caused by their affair and how it affects the lives of other people involved.

Years ago, when you started off lying to your parents, you did so with a kind of relish, reckless of consequence; it almost felt character-building. Later, you began to tell lies in all directions: to protect her, and to protect your love. Later still, she starts lying to you, to keep you from knowing her secret; and now she lies with a kind of relish, reckless of consequence. Then, finally, you begin lying to her. Why? Something to do with the need to create some internal space which you could keep intact– and where you could yourself remain intact. And this is how it is for you now. Love and truth– where have they gone?

Ultimately, The Only Story is a masterfully written, contemplative novel that provides profound and moving insights on love, memory and the ageing.

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So Beautiful, But Horribly Sad, Too: A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

“I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.”

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) is the final entry in the unconventional, loosely connected trilogy of films by Swedish director Roy Andersson that explore what it means to be a human being and the absurdities of life. The film was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Film in the 71st Venice International Film Festival.

As one of my Christmas presents last year, I received a collection of Roy Andersson’s films, which includes, probably his most famous film, A Swedish Love Story (1970), as well as all three films in his Living trilogy – Songs From The Second Floor (2000), You The Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014).

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All three films in the Living trilogy are shot in a particular style, using only wide angles and the camera remains static throughout each sequence. There are also no intercuts between the scenes. In an interview, when asked about this stylistic choice to only use wide shots, Roy Andersson explained that:

“I think that the wide shot tells a lot about the human being that a close-up can’t. About their place in the world. The wide shot defines the human being more than the close-up because, for example, the room where the person is tells about his tastes, his life. Even if it’s not home, you can read the history of a person better in a wide shot. When you read this wide shot, there are so many elements that make the picture more tragic.”

Next 10 - A Pigeon

The films are composed of short, thematically linked vignettes. Each scene features a pasty, unhealthy looking character or group of characters battling with isolation and loneliness. For the most part, these are ordinary people, who are weighed down by mundane everyday existence, stuck in the perpetual grind to make ends meet and struggling to connect with their fellow human beings. All these vignettes have a certain absurd comical quality, because, despite the rather unusual situations, they tap into emotions that are very difficult to describe but say something deeply honest about the human condition. Also, the choice not to intercut between the scenes and leave the camera immobile gives the viewer the time to discover the various details that are deliberately placed in the background of each scene. The use of a washed-out, desaturated colour palette in the colour grade only adds to the bleak and sterile atmosphere. Sometimes it almost seems like the characters are blending into their surroundings.

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In several vignettes we see an assortment of different characters talking to someone on the phone and repeating the phrase: “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.”, while clearly feeling lonely, defeated or miserable. The film showcases people that appear to be trapped in their own private hell, worn down by the mundanities of life and unable to precisely describe their feelings or connect to the people around them. Even their partners, families or friends can’t seem to alleviate their sense of alienation.

In all three films of the Living trilogy, Andersson explores a variety of human emotions and conditions, but mainly focuses on themes such as people’s universal fear of loneliness, the cost of materialism, the lives of woman in a male-dominated society, the impact of the past on the present, the delusions and dream castles that people build and hold on to deal with the mundanity and absurdities of life and the masks that human beings create and present to the world in the place of their true selves in fear of being misunderstood and rejected.

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is an honest and dark existential comedy that will appeal to those, who enjoy ruminating on philosophical topics. I also highly recommend the two previous films, Songs From The Second Floor (2000) in particular, which remains my favourite of the trilogy.