The Lover by Marguerite Duras

The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.

Edition: Pantheon Books, 2007, 128 pages.

The Lover is one of those books that has been enthusiastically recommended to me by many readers, whenever the topic of women in translation comes up.

Set in Saigon, in late 1920s French Colonial Vietnam, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Barbara Bray, is a sensual, autobiographical story about an adolescent French girl’s passionate affair with an older, wealthy Chinese man, and a deeply moving exploration of desire, poverty, class, and colonialism.

This short novella is written in sparse, yet lyrical prose, from the point of view of an older woman reflecting on her youth. This literary device, together with the non-linear narrative that jumps in time from past to present, gives the book a disorienting, dreamlike quality, and, even though the story focuses on a doomed love affair, Duras manages to vividly evoke the setting of Saigon that feels like an integral part of the story.

Whiffs of burnt sugar drift into the room, smell of roasted peanuts, Chinese soups, roast meat, herbs, jasmine, dust, incense, charcoal fires, they carry fire about in baskets here, it’s sold in the street, the smell of the city is the smell of the villages upcountry, of the forest.

At the age of fifteen, Marguerite meets a Chinese businessman in his late twenties, and embarks on a passionate relationship with him. Her family is very poor. Her widowed, mentally ill mother spends all the money she can get on her older brother, a selfish and abusive young man who constantly gets into trouble. We see that the mother silently condones the relationship between her daughter and the Chinese businessman because he is very generous, and they are in desperate need of money. However, despite their penniless state, the family members still cling to their sense of superiority over the Chinese and Vietnamese just because of their skin colour.

At the same time, despite his obsession with the “little white girl”, the Chinese lover is perfectly aware that his father will never let him stay with her because he wants him to marry the daughter of another wealthy Chinese family. He is torn between his infatuation with this young girl and his family obligation. It seems that what connects these two lovers is a yearning for freedom and true fulfilment. They both essentially want to loose themselves in passion in order to escape, for even just a brief moment, from the reality of their lives.

Overall, this novella totally lived up to my expectations, and I can see why so many people name this as one of their favourite books. It’s a beautifully written and deeply affecting story that I’m definitely going to revisit sometime in the future.

[…] she thought of the man from Cholon and suddenly she wasn’t sure she hadn’t loved him with a love she hadn’t seen because it had lost itself in the affair like water in sand and she rediscovered it only now, through this moment of music flung across the sea.



The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza

Fear always starts from zero because it has the virtue – or defect, depending on how you look at it – of erasing precedents, assumptions, and histories. You always experience it for the first time.

Edition: And Other Stories, 2018, 132 pages.

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker, is a surreal story that explores the nature of identity, the boundary between reality and fiction, and the masculine and feminine. One stormy night, the narrator is visited by two women: one of them presents herself as the Mexican author Amparo Dávila, and the second woman is his former lover, who is simply referred to as “the Betrayed”. Both women take up residence in the narrator’s house, and gradually begin to challenge his fixed perception of the world. Moreover, the women soon develop a very close bond, and even a private language, excluding the narrator from their conversations, and making him increasingly uneasy and frustrated about the situation.

The novel seems to navigate an atmospheric dreamscape and, as the story develops, the narrative becomes increasingly confusing, thus, similarly to the narrator, who is scrambling to regain control over his sense of reality, you, as the reader, struggle to piece together all the vague elements to make sense of this story.

What stuck out to me the most in this book was how it handled the theme of erasure and marginalisation of people. By playing with the concept of false versions of people, and blurring the line between truth and fiction, male and female, madness and sanity, the book examines some of the elements that form a person’s unique identity. The narrator is forced to experience the terror of being questioned about some of the fundamental elements of his identity. At the same time, you get the sense that, deep down, the narrator is yearning to escape from the rigid and artificial borders that are constructed and imposed by society, and that don’t always correspond to the truth. The book repeatedly emphasizes the narrator’s love for the ocean, and some of the most beautiful and contemplative passages in the book come from the sections where he is thinking about the ocean, which seems to be a way for him to temporarily escape from reality.

You need the ocean for this: to stop believing in reality. To ask yourself impossible questions. To not know. To cease knowing. To become intoxicated by the smell. To close your eyes. To stop believing in reality. 

I think it’s best to go into this book without knowing too much about it, and just let the book take you wherever it is trying to take you, however, that being said, some prior knowledge of Mexican literature might enhance the reading experience. The book also includes a Translator’s Note at the end, which provides some much needed context. As the translator points out, a key element of the novel is the way language is used to explore the division between male and female, and, while I felt that the story was artfully rendered into English, I could’t help but think that some of the more subtle nuances of language might have been lost in translation, so this is one of those books that makes me sad by reminding me that I can’t read in Spanish. Maybe someday. 🙂


Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera

Some kingdom cons just want to run
While some conspire against you
Cause you gave them more than cash
You gave them your ambition too.

Edition: And Other Stories, 2017, 112 pages.

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, reads like a fable that vividly transports you to the “Court” of a Mexican drug lord, and explores the themes of loyalty, love, betrayal, and the relationship between art and power.

Our guide of the Kingdom is a young musician named Lobo, referred to as the Artist, who is tasked with using his talent to praise and immortalise the deeds the courtiers, and, first and foremost, the King. With his narrative ballads (corridos), the Artist is essentially contributing to the mythology of the Kingdom. Interestingly, all the characters in the Court are known not by their names, but only by their titles: the Witch, the Commoner, the Traitor, the Doctor, etc.

To no courtier did he deny his talents, but the Artist recounted the feats of each man without forgetting who made it all possible. Sure, you’re down, because the King allows it. Sure, you’re brave, because the King inspires you.

The Artist is very much aware that everyone and everything in the Court, including his artistic freedom, is dependent on the whims of the King. While the Artist’s corridos have the power of boosting (as well as diminishing) the reputation of the King, he quickly realises that he and his fellow courtiers are in a very precarious situation, and the day-to-day life in the Court is full of casual violence. Lobo is very grateful to the King for saving him from poverty and giving him the role of the Court bard, but, as the story progresses and he becomes a witness to the various machinations within the Court, he gradually starts to understand the reality of the situation.

It’s as if there is no right to beauty, he thought, and thought that the city ought to be set alight from its foundations, because in each and every place where life sprouted up through the cracks, it was immediately abused.

Ultimately, Kingdom Cons is a concise and poetic examination of how people get become indirectly complicit in violence, and deliberately avert their eyes from some of aspects of the kingdom that they have chosen to be part of. I look forward to reading more by this author, especially his most well-known novel Signs Preceding the End of the World.


The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen

“the endless summer” where time does not exist and space spreads and fills everything.

Edition: Open Letter, 2018, 120 pages.

The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen, translated from the Danish by Gaye Kynoch, is a very atmospheric, lyrical, and, at some points, disorienting reflection on childhood, love, gender, friendship, family, and grief. The titular “endless summer” seems to refer to a profound emotional experience, a kind of turning point, that the narrator wants to preserve in detail.

I chose this book as one of my reads for Women in Translation Month because I was intrigued by the title. It instantly made me reminisce about some of my childhood summers when days truly felt almost endless until I was usually caught off guard by the bitter realisation that it’s the last week of August. Maybe it’s because I live in a country where we experience all four seasons very distinctly, but there is something about summer in particular that provokes in me these profound feelings of nostalgia.

[…] life is a dream, a dream from which you never wake up, but which one day is nonetheless suddenly long since over, but you’re still here and can either use “the rest of your days” to forget and “get on with it” or on the other hand, like me, abandon what is and try to retrieve what was, even the tiniest little thing that has been lost, even what perhaps didn’t really exist but nonetheless belongs in the story, call it forth and tell it so it doesn’t vanish but on the contrary now at last becomes real and in a way more real than anything else.

The Endless Summer reads like a Proustian attempt to retrieve certain intense past memories, to bring them to the forefront, and recapture the feelings connected to these memories. To recreate a pivotal moment from the past after which your life had irrevocably changed. If you are a reader, who mostly enjoys reading books that have a distinct plot and/or character development, I recommend skipping this one. This novel mainly focuses on evoking an atmosphere and vividly capturing certain emotions, some of which are hard to describe. It’s also about how we tend to romanticise and intentionally misremember some events or experiences from our past so that we can seek comfort in these memories in the future. In case of this novel, the narrator continues to daydream about the lazy summer days that he spent at a white farmhouse with the family of a girl that he had met. These memories of “the endless summer” are like a butterfly preserved in a piece of amber that the narrator carries like a prized possession throughout life. The novel has a very ethereal quality that is hard to explain; it’s like the narrative follows a kind of Lynchian dream logic, and the beautiful, stream-of-consciousness writing only adds to the feeling that the story is not anchored to any particular place in time.

Another interesting aspect of the book is how the novel plays with the concept of gender. I found it impressive how seamlessly the narrative shifts between the pronouns he or she, and his or her, and continuously returns, in various, subtle forms, to the theme of gender identity that is introduced in the very first line of the novel:

The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it.

If you are in the mood to read something a bit more unconventional, I recommend giving The Endless Summer a try. To me, it felt like an evocative and bittersweet goodbye to summer.


Comemadre by Roque Larraquy

“At night we come up with daring plans that would change us completely, were they to become a reality. But these plans dissolve in the morning light, and we go back to being the same mediocrities as before, doggedly ruining our own lives.”

Edition: Coffee House Press, 2018, 152 pages.

Longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

Comemadre by Roque Larraquy, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary, is one of the most bizarre, darkly comic and fascinating books that I’ve read this year. This very short book, that you could probably read in one sitting, actually contains two storylines: the first part is set in 1907 in a sanatorium in Argentina, close to Buenos Aires, and follows a group of doctors that are conducting gruesome experiments in order to investigate the threshold between life and death, and the second part is set in 2007 and follows an avant-garde artist, and former child prodigy, that is ready to go to extreme lengths to push the boundaries of art, and to leave his mark on the World.

I hadn’t heard much about this book and picked it up on a whim because I was drawn to the striking pink cover and the intriguing title, and this book did not disappoint. Although, in retrospect, I don’t think I was prepared to find out what the title was referring to…*shudders*

From the very first pages, it became clear that this was going to be a wild ride. The author was very successful at creating a sense of dread and keeping me on the edge of my seat as I was reading the story. The book essentially explores the lengths that people will go in pursuit of their goals, and to peek behind the curtain at something mysterious and metaphysical.

While both of the sections were very interesting, I must admit that I was more engrossed in the first storyline following the group of doctors at the sanatorium. It was quite disturbing, yet morbidly fascinating, to read about their “scientific” methods, and the manipulative ways that some of the doctors tried to establish some kind of dominance over their colleagues either to advance their career or to impress a woman. This book contains some excellent examples of “toxic masculinity”.

What stuck out to me most in the book was its tone; the narrative is a rare mix between the macabre and the darkly funny, and often makes you, as the reader, nervously chuckle at some of the scenes that you probably wouldn’t normally consider as funny.

“This fellow killed his wife because she wouldn’t tell him what she was doing on the bidet?”
“It’s a metaphor, Quintana.”

This is definitely not a book for people who are easily offended, or sensitive to scenes of violence. For fans of weird fiction, like Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, this is a must-read!


The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas

Edition: Noir Press, 2018, 175 pages.

The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas, translated by Marija Marcinkute, is a short story collection published by Noir Press, a small UK publisher that focuses on bringing contemporary Lithuanian literature in translation to the English reading audience. I first came across their books when I was putting together my list of Baltic fiction in translation, and I was very excited to check out their latest release: a short story collection by Lithuanian-Ukrainian author Jaroslavas Melnikas.

I’m happy to report that this book did not disappoint. Based on my reading experience, most short story collections turn out to be a mixed bag, with some high and low points, but, in the case of this collection, I was pleasantly surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed all 8 of these stories that generally follow protagonists, who are preoccupied with some existential or philosophical dilemma. For example, the title story, The Last Day, presents a version of the world in which everyone can find out the exact date of their death, and the story explores how this knowledge might affect people’s lives and relationships.

My favourite story in the collection was definitely The Grand Piano Room. I don’t want to give too much away, but it read like a Soviet man’s daydream/nightmare, a surreal and clever allegory of communal living during the Soviet era. I don’t know if that was the author’s intention, but that was my interpretation of this bizarre story. It felt like I was witnessing the gradual disintegration of the protagonist’s dream life, and, consequently, his mental state, when confronted with reality. It’s a very effective and darkly humorous story that also serves as a great example of one of the aspects that I enjoyed the most in this collection; Melnikas does not spell things out for the reader but leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Many of these stories examine the theme of identity, and the layers of self-deception that people construct to deal with, or escape, the realities of everyday life.

Another major theme in this collection is the concept of fate. Some of the narrators in these stories are searching for some higher purpose in life, however, they seem to be more inclined to put their lives in the hands of someone else (be it God, or some other entity, or just another person) instead of taking responsibility for the course of their lives. The most notable example of this is the narrator in On The Road, who is willing to follow mysterious instructions that tell him to go to various places, without providing a clear reason why, because he feels that these “missions” give him an important purpose in life.

The last and longest story in the collection, It Never Ends, is a haunting story about a man, who starts to frequent an old cinema that is showing an avant-garde film about the life of a girl named Liz that, supposedly, never ends. Here again, we meet a narrator who is searching for some purpose in life in all the wrong places. At the cinema, he develops an unsettling relationship with another regular audience member, a very strange young woman, who is just called “the scarecrow”. I’m still not sure that I understood everything that happened in this story, but it will stay with me for quite some time.

Overall, The Last Day is a compelling, unsettling and insightful short story collection that definitely deserves much more attention. If you enjoy stories that inspire you to think about life from a philosophical perspective, I highly recommend you give this collection a try!