Vernon Subutex, 2 by Virginie Despentes

“We are the defeated – and we are thousands. We are searching for a way.”

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Edition: MacLehose Press, 2018, 336 pages.

I picked up the first book in the Vernon Subutex series by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, because I was drawn in by the synopsis that promised sharp social commentary of contemporary French society and references to 90s music. Moreover, Vernon Subutex, 1 made it onto the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist, and while it wasn’t among my favourites from the shortlist, I was still curious to find out what happens next.

The second volume in the series seamlessly picks up where the first volume left off and follows the adventures of Vernon and the colourful group of characters from the previous book, while also providing some more insight into their backstories and introducing some new characters.

While it seems that the main purpose of the first volume was to provoke strong emotions in the reader, the narrative of the second book feels much more focused and controlled. Despentes has a great ear for dialogue and, although the book features quite a lot of characters (there’s even a helpful index at the beginning of the book to remind the reader who everyone is, in case you get lost), each of their voices is sufficiently distinct so that I never got confused by the consistently shifting narrative that switches from chapter to chapter between the different points of view. This book also provided that long-awaited sharp social commentary on present-day French society that I was expecting and didn’t quite get from the first book. By giving a voice to this assortment of characters from diverse backgrounds, the author unflinchingly tackles various complex issues such as race, class, poverty, privilege, corporate greed, violence against women, marriage, loneliness, political ideology, generational conflict, ageing, and mental illness. The most notable theme in this series that persistently comes up in the first two books is class struggle, and how oppression affects the mental state of the population. As one character observes:

The working class has been so brainwashed over the last decade that the only thing they care about is spewing hatred about bougnoules. They’ve been stripped of the self-respect it took centuries to win, there’s not a moment of the day when they don’t feel like they’re being fleeced, and they’ve been taught that the only thing they’ve got to make them feel a little less shit is to bang on about how they’re white so they have a right to put down darkies. In the same way that kids in the banlieue torch the cars outside their own tower blocks and never invade the sixteenth arrondissement, the Frenchman in dire straits takes it out on the person sitting next to him on the bus.

Vernon is still homeless and living rough, however, he seems to have become a sort of mad poet and spiritual leader for the group of his unhappy/frustrated friends and acquaintances. They flock to the Rosa Bonheur bar located in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in northeastern Paris just to see Vernon spin a set as the DJ, and suddenly you get a scene with some neo-fascist nutjobs, ex-porn stars, and a lesbian biker dancing to James Brown’s The Payback or singing along to David Bowie’s Heroes, while “off in a corner, lit by a pale green light, Vernon looks out at them, his eyes half closed, an enigmatic smile playing on his lips. He has become a sphinx.” This series is such a wild ride! 🙂

This book also finally reveals what exactly is on the much-coveted tapes featuring the final interview with the deceased rock star Alex Bleach which starts out quite poetically and acts as a catalyst for some of the events in the second half of the book.

WE ENTERED INTO ROCK MUSIC THE WAY YOU ENTER A CATHEDRAL, remember, Vernon, and our story was a spaceship. There were so many saints everywhere we didn’t know who to worship. We knew that as soon as they pulled out the jack plugs, musicians were human beings just like everyone else, people who went for a shit and blew their noses when they caught a cold. We didn’t give a fuck about heroes, all we cared about was that sound. It transfixed us, floored us, blew our minds. It existed, we all felt the same way in the beginning, Jesus fuck this thing exists? It was too big to be contained within our bodies.

Overall, I’m glad I gave the second book in this series a try. I found it much more enjoyable than the first volume, which I was very conflicted about. However, if you absolutely loathed the first one for the controversial or offensive opinions and coarse language, I wouldn’t really recommend continuing on with this series. For those of you who haven’t read the first volume, I would honestly suggest waiting until all three of the books have been published because this series is basically one long, continuous story that has been divided into three volumes, and, given the large cast of characters, I think it’s a good series to binge-read all the way through. I’m certainly looking forward to reading the final volume and finding out how all this is going to end!

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The Last Children of Tokyo by Yōko Tawada

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Edition: Portobello Books, 2018, 144 pages.

Winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

The Last Children of Tokyo by Yōko Tawada (published in the US as The Emissary), translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, is a dystopian novel set in a near-future Japan that has isolated itself from the rest of the world, and gone even further by deliberately erasing foreign-origin, particularly English, words from the Japanese language and replacing them with alternatives. The ability to understand English is actually considered as evidence of old age.

Long ago, this sort of purposeless running had been referred to as jogging, but with foreign words falling out of use, it was now called loping down, an expression that had started out as a joke meaning “if you lope your blood pressure goes down,” but everybody called it that these days.

Moreover, for a reader who is passionate about translated fiction, the most terrifying thing about this near-future world is the fact that books, even picture books, are no longer being translated…

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As a result of an unexplained disaster, the elderly in this futuristic Japan seem to be immortal, while the younger generations are weak and disabled, and have very short lifespans which basically means that the aged have to do most of the physical labour and are forced to watch their grandchildren and great-grandchildren die. The first part of the novel mostly focuses on Yoshiro, a centenarian who is taking care of his very fragile great-grandson Mumei. For Mumei, performing even the smallest day-to-day tasks, such as putting on clothes and chewing his food, is very tiring for his weak body, so he heavily relies on his great-grandfather’s help. In the second half of the novel, the author introduces more characters, but their individual storylines were fairly underdeveloped. Also, very late in the novel, the author introduces a potentially interesting plot point, which kind of explains why the US title of this book is The Emissary, however, soon afterwards, the story just ended…

As you can probably tell by now, unfortunately, this book didn’t really work for me. The narrative felt disjointed at times but, more importantly, I thought that this book fell into the same trap that many speculative literary novels have fallen into before, whereby the various science fiction elements are used only as metaphors to make some kind of point and make little sense otherwise. I didn’t expect this to be hard science fiction, but I think that these types of speculative novels, as opposed to those that are labelled as genre fiction, are lacking in coherent world-building. I have a similar problem with the majority of literary fairytale retellings that have come out in recent years, in which the authors can often get away with lazy world-building by relying on the justification that the book is meant to be read from a literary standpoint, even though it includes science fiction or fantasy elements. I won’t really go into that here because that might be an interesting topic for a whole separate post.

Despite my issues with the book, Tawada is a skilful writer, and it’s a beautifully written novel that had a lot of potential. I’m willing to accept that I didn’t really get it, but it seems to me that the interesting futuristic setting only served the purpose of conveying, in a rather blunt manner, a message about the dangers of isolationism, environmental pollution, and exaggerated attempts to please everyone by, for example, renaming public holidays.

‘Labour Day’ became ‘Being Alive is Enough Day’

Clearly, the judging panel of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature saw something more in this novel so you may want to give this one a try for yourself.

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Love by Hanne Ørstavik

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Edition: Archipelago Books, 2018, 180 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

Set over one cold winter’s night in Norway, Love by Hanne Ørstavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken, is a short and eerie story about a single mother, Vibeka, and her eight-year-old son, Jon, who, for reasons that never become entirely clear, have recently moved to a remote village in northern Norway.

The relationship between Vibeka and Jon is rather strange. They seem to be almost unaware of each other’s comings and goings, and their day-to-day interactions are very limited. The next day is Jon’s ninth birthday, and it soon becomes clear that Vibeka, who is preoccupied with her own concerns such as making herself look good and finding a man, has forgotten all about it. While throughout the book Jon often returns in his thoughts to his mother, daydreaming about the surprises that she might have planned for his birthday, Vibeka appears to be completely self-absorbed and shows almost no interest in the whereabouts of her son. It feels as if they’re both living it their own separate worlds and there is a palpable emotional distance between them.

She reaches out and smoothes her hand over his head.
   “Have you made any friends yet?”
   His hair is fine and soft.
   “Jon,” she says. “Dearest Jon.”
   She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink. She likes to be discreet at work. She remembers the new set that must still be in her bag, plum, or was it wine; a dark, sensual lipstick and nail polish the same shade. To go with a dark, brown-eyed man, she thinks with a little smile.

Beneath the seemingly mundane adventures of the central characters over the course of a single day there’s a layer of danger that keeps you, the reader, constantly on the edge of your seat. Both Vibeka and Jon are lonely souls longing for affection who, instead of communicating with each other, seek a connection with complete strangers. We see them interact with other people in the village, some of whom evoke a strong sense of unease that is heightened by the bleak and cold atmosphere of the setting. In all of their encounters with strangers, both of them come off as somewhat naive and overly trusting and that made this seemingly simple story into a very suspenseful read, in which something tragic might happen at any moment.

Ørstavik manages to successfully manipulate the reader and maintain a constant sense of tension by revealing the story in brief, alternating paragraphs that shift back-and-forth between Vibeka and Jon at the most dramatic points in their narrative, which leave the reader anxious to find out what happens next.

This short, haunting novella, written in spare and beautiful prose, will stay with me for quite some time, and now I’m also intrigued to check out her novel The Blue Room (translated by Deborah Dawkin) that was published by Peirene Press about a complicated mother-daughter relationship.

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August by Romina Paula

[…] the same thing happens every time I take a trip, that then I don’t want to return, that I always get entranced with some other life, that I fall in love with all those other women I am when I’m away, in other places, that what’s hard form me is commitment, that the alternative is easy, that starting from nothing is always easy […].

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Edition: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2017, 224 pages.

August by Romina Paula, translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft, is a raw and poignant examination of grief, desire, and nostalgia.

The first person narrative, written in the form of a confession addressed to her deceased best friend Andrea, who committed suicide, gives us a glimpse into the conflicting thoughts of Emilia as she grieves the loss of her friend and also struggles to let go of her past.

Emilia lives in Buenos Aires and the return to her hometown in rural Patagonia to scatter the ashes of her friend evokes strong emotions in Emilia and forces her to confront the ghosts of her past that is very hard for her to do since she’s the type of person who typically chooses to deal with unpleasant situations by running away from them and maintaining past relationships in a permanent state of decay. She is discontent with her life but, at the same time, struggles to define what is it exactly that she wants, and because of that she, often unintentionally, manages to hurt the people in her life.

The book is very atmospheric and brilliantly portrays the raw, confusing, and conflicting emotions associated with trauma and the grieving process. While in Buenos Aires, the loss of her friend made Emilia feel that even the mundanities of life suddenly assumed a kind of dreamlike quality, but her trip to Patagonia, where everything reminds her of her friend and their shared experiences, has the effect of turning all these raw emotions up to 11.

I realize, I think I realize that I want to leave, but I also know I want to take you with me, and it’s impossible because you’re here, very here, I just now fully understood that. From there, from Buenos Aires, I can miss you very contemplatively, look at you, at us, as though through a glass in a shopwindow, our common/shared past, behind glass, get into a funk about it but at a safe remove, removed by that window pane. There, on the shelf, there’s a weak light that calms things down even further, and it gives it a halo of unreality, of something that happened far away and a long time ago, something one can step back from to observe, observe from afar, something one attends, as though it were something else, far away, removed from the body. But here it isn’t like that, I get here and you’re everywhere.

Another major theme of the book is desire. During her stay in Patagonia, Emilia tries to rekindle her relationship with her ex-boyfriend, who has a family now but still harbours some feelings for her, and Emilia honestly admits that, given the opportunity, she would probably give in to the temptation. However, the book makes us question, whether these feelings are real or is it just another way how Emilia is attempting to escape her feelings of sadness and abandonment?

August is a very honest and deeply moving novel, beautifully translated into English by Jennifer Croft, that succeeds at articulating the confusing emotions associated with the grieving process which are often very difficult to put into words. It’s a book about trying to put yourself back together after a traumatic event.

I’ve always found August, particularly the end of August, to be one of the most melancholy times of the year since it marks the end of summer, and announces the arrival of Autumn and the dark, cold days that are yet to come, so, to me, this was the perfect book to end the month of August.

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Trick by Domenico Starnone

This morning I don’t know if I’m scared for the child or scared of the child.

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 Edition: Europa Editions, 2018, 176 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

On the surface, Trick by Domenico Starnone, translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a relatively simple story about a successful yet grumpy illustrator, Daniele Mallarico, who reluctantly agrees to look after his precocious four-year-old grandson Mario for a few days, while his parents, who are going through some rather stupid relationship drama, are attending an academic conference. What ensues is a kind of “battle of wills” between the boy and the old man, as the grandfather tries to work on his latest project – a commission from his publisher to illustrate the short story The Jolly Corner by Henry James – while the grandson is testing his patience by incessantly demanding attention. However, as you read on, the book offers more than just a comedic “slice of life” story as it focuses on the theme of coming to terms with the process of ageing. Daniele struggles to accept the fact that he’s not the wild young man who used to roam the streets of Naples anymore since he feels that he hasn’t changed that much mentally, and it could even be said that he is haunted by memories of the past versions of himself.

The book plays out kind of like a “bottle episode” on television, where the whole story is set within the confines of a limited space (in this case – the few rooms of the apartment) and mostly consists of interactions between the two main characters and Daniele’s inner thoughts. Daniele spends most of the time ruminating on the struggles of his artistic life and the nature of success which, in the long-term, may sometimes lull people into a sense of false security, and lead to artistic stagnation. He feels that his imagination is worn-out and worries that the new generation may not understand or appreciate his work anymore. Moreover, his sense of decline is intensified by his grandson’s youth and vitality.

The artistic life had had its quiet mean, without visible peaks and therefore without sudden valleys. Success, when it had come, had seemed natural to me. I’d never done anything to obtain it or hang onto it: My work was simply deserving. Maybe this was the reason I still thought success was a long-lasting substance that would never deteriorate. 

Daniele has spent most of his life in Milan, and the return to his childhood home in Naples forces him to confront his lifelong self-doubt. His work is the essence of his life and a fundamental part of his identity, but, at the same time, he seems to suffer from a bad case of impostor syndrome.

[…] I’d gotten old with the conviction that, sooner or later, some incredible event would banish my doubts forever, thereby defining me with extreme precision. The event I’d always awaited was that some work of mine, undeniably huge, bursting into the world, would prove that I wasn’t presumptuous.

Trick is a deceptively simple and effective story that tackles the themes of ageing, generational conflict, creativity, success, and identity. I’m now curious to read the Henry James story that is referenced in this book to find out what are some of the links between these two stories.

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The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

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Edition: Virago, 2018, 224 pages.

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon tackles the subject of religious fanaticism and the emotional comfort provided by the certainties of faith.

The story is told in alternating chapters that focus on the three main characters – Will, Phoebe and John Leal – however, the author made an interesting decision to write all three sections in first-person from the point of view of Will.

Will Kendall and Phoebe Lin meet at the prestigious Edwards University.  Will, who has lost his faith, feels like an outsider and is somewhat embarrassed about where he comes from and his very religious upbringing. In some ways, he immediately reminded me of Richard from The Secret History by Donna Tartt, who felt the need to invent a different past to be accepted among the other, more privileged, university students.

Phoebe, on the other hand, is looking for some form of spiritual fulfilment that would help her make peace with her past and alleviate her sense of guilt over what happened to her mother. She gets drawn into a small, initially harmless, religious Christian cult called Jejeh that is run by the enigmatic leader John Leal. As Phoebe gets more involved in the cult, the actions of the Jejah become increasingly extreme, and, meanwhile, Will struggles with his conflicting thoughts on religion and tries to steer Phoebe away from this fundamentalist cult that she is increasingly obsessed with. Not much is known about John Leal’s past, except for what he chooses to tell his followers, and, as the story progresses, it is strongly implied that at least some of his stories might be fabricated. This was one of the aspects of the book that I felt could have been explored in more depth. While Will and Phoebe felt like complex, fully realized characters, John Leal remains as a rather stereotypical – charismatic but very sketchy – cult leader, and I wished that the book delved more into his past and personality.

What stood out to me the most in this book was the way that it discusses faith and the important role it plays in many people’s lives. It shows how hard it is for some people to leave the faith, and to find something else in life that could fill that emotional space, previously occupied by religion. It also examines the mindset of people who decide to devote themselves to religion as a way of coping with some past trauma.

People with no exeprience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation, a flight from guilt, rules, but what I couldn’t forget was the joy I’d known, loving Him.

Unsurprisingly, listening to some podcast interviews with the author confirmed my suspicion that these nuanced ruminations on the loss of faith come from a very personal place. The sections where Will is reflecting on his loss of faith were definitely the highlights of this novel, however, maybe due to the hype surrounding this debut, I was a bit underwhelmed by the book as a whole. It was a compelling story, but, upon finishing the book, I was left thinking that all the interesting story threads and themes that were introduced could have been more developed. It was one of those rare instances, where I felt that the book should have been longer in order to explore in more depth the different facets of this story.

Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Katalin Street by Magda Szabó

“It’s so sad. You never could grasp the simplest facts,” he said. “Life. Death. Clean water. Life isn’t a schoolroom, Irén. There aren’t any rules.”

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Edition: New York Review of Books, 2017, 216 pages.

Katalin Street by Magda Szabó, translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix, is a poignant story of life in Budapest during wartime that explores how people, often unintentionally or for no clear reason, inflict suffering on those that they love.

This book was my introduction to the work of Hungarian author Magda Szabó, who is probably best known for her novel The Door, that was also translated into English by Len Rix. Now that I’ve read Katalin Street, I’m convinced that I must pick that one up as well.

The book centers on the lives of three neighbouring families that live on Katalin Street in pre-war Budapest, and, by shifting between points of view and jumping back and forth in time, the book traces the relationship dynamics between these families on the backdrop of significant periods in 20th century Hungarian history – the interwar period, the German occupation and the Communist rule.

It’s a beautiful, melancholy story that explores the different ways that different people can remember the same event or experience, given that they have constructed a different meaning or interpretation from the particular event or experience. All the central characters of Katalin Street are complex and believable people who display the inherent, and often involuntary, self-centeredness of people in interpreting past events or experiences. Behind the strong bond that exists between these characters, and the compassion that they feel for each other’s plight, there seems to always be an underlying layer of selfishness and jealousy, that poisons or, in some cases, destroys the lives of these characters. It also shows how people put up a facade that they present to the world, and choose to love the version of the specific person that they have constructed in their minds and how that idealized version often doesn’t correspond to reality.

While I had Blanka at my side I had felt complete, whole, perfect. I believed, as she did, that I had been born to be that way. Then one day I realized that I had never been either what people thought me or what I had imagined myself to be: I had believed in it only because there was someone who loved me so much that she took all my sins upon herself, even before I – had I not been a slave to convention and essentially a coward – might have been able to understand what they would be.

At its core, the novel focuses on the youngest generation of the three families – Irén and Blanka Elekes, Bálint Biró, and Henriette Held – who meet as children in the garden of the Elekes family, and shows how their relationships transform over the course of their lives and as a result of the hardships that are brought upon them by the turmoil and major political changes in the country.

I was once again standing at the window looking out into the garden. Now of course I understand the significance of that instant, though I had no sense of it at the time. We always realize too late the importance of drawing out the moment while you can, while it is still possible. I didn’t. I didn’t savor it or hold on to it. I was in too much of a hurry. 

This was such an emotional roller coaster, as I found myself sympathizing with one of the characters and then, not long after, starting to passionately dislike him or her. Katalin Street is one of those books that the more I think back on it, the more I’m impressed by how many themes Magda Szabó managed to pack into this relatively short and deceptively simple novel. It’s a very moving, in-depth character study and a haunting examination of the long-lasting effects of trauma that I would encourage everyone to read.

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