Category Archives: International Booker 2020 Longlist

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cámara Cabezón. Translated from the Spanish by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre.

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Title: The Adventures of China Iron
Author: Gabriela Cámara Cabezón
Translated from the Spanish by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre
Publisher: Charco Press
ISBN: 9781916465664
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations
Pages: 200
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I hadn’t read Argentina’s epic national poem Martín Fierro (1872-79) to which The Adventures of China Iron is a queer response. I just dived straight into this one and enjoyed it thoroughly. It is so much and much more. The layers of this novel are plenty and to uncover and peel each one took quite some time in my head.

The narrator China (Latin for female) is soon renamed Josephine Star Iron, is the teenage wife of Martín Fierro, left behind to fend for herself as her husband is press-ganged into the army. She soon takes refuge with Liz, who has just arrived from Scotland, and the two of them travel together. Liz is here to claim land she and her husband are about to manage for a wealthy British man. On their travels, China develops a crush on Liz. She has her hair cut and wears men’s clothes to travel safely and in turn, becomes Jo. Thus, their adventures begin.

I do not think I will ever read Martín Fierro, and not because it isn’t good or anything, but because The Adventures of China Iron is a book I will never forget. Fierro may not even live up to it at all, and of that I am sure. The complexities of China Iron are plenty. There is so much to take away from it, and not just about being queer, or a woman, but historically as well.

Gabriela Cámara Cabezón’s writing is so powerful that I literally had to reread so many portions, just to understand it at a deeper level. The translation by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre doesn’t disappoint – every nuance – traditional and otherwise is presented to the reader as is. The interactions of these women with men they encounter, the power dynamics, the inequality, and the punch of 1872 Argentina comes across vividly in so many ways.

The Adventures of China Iron is a treat for any reader – a romp of a read, but more than anything else, makes you understand what it means to not only be a woman but find your own at the end of it all.

Red Dog by Willem Anker. Translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns

Red Dog by Willem AnkerTitle: Red Dog
Author: Willem Anker
Translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 9781782274223
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 2/5

I waited, and waited, and waited some more for this book to get better. I tried. I wanted to give it another chance, which I did. I did not not finish it. I persisted. I read. I read more. I braved through it. I finished the book and out come a big sigh of relief.

Again, Red Dog was hugely atmospheric, but the book somehow went nowhere. I do not say this because Anker was criticised for this novel, as some reviewers think it has similarities to McCarthy’s writing. I say this because I honestly thought that the bloody fictional biography of Buys, a real figure from 18th century South Africa, was just not something that I would read otherwise.

The book is told from the perspective of Buys, that gets plain exhausting after a while. Yes, the South African landscape helps to distract, and those descriptions are near-perfect, so that helps. There was something missing as I was plodding through this book. I love historical fiction. I love books that say it as it is – the violence, the colonial rule, the brutality, and vividly imagined daily life. Somehow though the book turned out to be hyper-masculine for my taste.

Red Dog is not everyone’s cup of tea, maybe just like Cormac McCarthy’s books aren’t. The translation also this time didn’t do it for me. It seemed patchy in most places, and did not seem to provide context in others. What could’ve been a masterpiece in so many ways (and probably is for most readers), fell flat on its face for me, the average reader.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann. Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann Title: Tyll
Author: Daniel Kehlmann
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 978-1524747466
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 2/5

This is another International Booker 2020 Long-listed title which I finished this month. Mostly it worked for me, and mostly it did not. There is magic realism (which happens to be one of my favourite genres), history, and adventure. And yet there were times I just wanted to put the book down and not read it.

The book is about Tyll Ulenspiegel, a seventeenth-century vagabond performer and trickster. The book spans decades and traverses the Thirty Years’ War, and characters that Tyll encounters on his journey as a performer. It sounds all good on paper, even great, but somehow the book couldn’t hold my attention for the most part.

I just wasn’t involved in Tyll’s life or story and maybe that’s why the book didn’t work for me. At some points in the book, Tyll isn’t even at the center of it. There are other characters which take over, and that’s alright but the plot doesn’t move ahead or didn’t seem to for me. Tyll is atmospheric but that’s where the charm of this book ended for me.

The translation from the German by Ross Benjamin is perfect – when talking about the myth of Tyll, and what war does to humanity, and how art saves us all. Those portions had me wanting more, but not enough. When I started reading Tyll, I was really into the book for at least fifty pages or so, until it just became a chore, but spots of brilliance making an appearance now and then. I wish the moments of brilliance were more than a few.

 

Mac’s Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes.

Mac's Problem by Enrique Vila-MatasTitle: Mac’s Problem
Author: Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes
Publisher: New Directions Publishing
ISBN: 978-0811227322
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translation
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

This book was a treat. At almost every level – the plot, writing, characters, pacing of the novel, and the fact that a master such as Vila-Matas has written it, only adds to its wonder. The idea of life imitating art and vice-versa has always been a personal favourite, and then to find one of the few novels whose premise is seeped in it is a thing of joy to read and contemplate about.

At the heart of this novel is Mac, who is unemployed and dependent on his wife’s earnings. Being an avid reader and beyond, he decides to maintain a diary at the age of sixty. His wife who is dyslexic thinks he is wasting his time. A chance encounter with a neighbour – a successful author of a collection of stories, Mac decides that he will improvise his neighbour’s stories, which are in turn narrated by a ventriloquist who has lost the knack of speaking in different voices. The book then takes a strange turn and only gets stranger as you go along, with art imitating life or vice-versa.

Mac’s Problem is a book that had me in from the first page. Again, it is not an easy read, but there is something to it – the concept of a diary, and then someone’s short stories, and how they become personal after a while, and the paranoia that takes over. Vila-Matas’ writing is full of literary references, and stellar prose if anything. It is also quite funny in a lot of places – I am sure that was intentional.

The book does drag and something about it being two-dimensional worked so much for me. It takes time to get to the actual plot perhaps but if you persist, you will be massively rewarded in the end. A must-read if you ask me.

The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse. Translated from the Norwegian by Damion Searls.

The Other Name - Septology I-II by Jon Fosse

Title: The Other Name: Septology I-II
Author: Jon Fosse
Translated from the Norwegian by Damion Searls
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
ISBN: 978-1910695913
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations
Pages: 340
Rating: 5/5

This time the International Booker 2020 longlist has outdone itself. With almost every book I have read so far from the list (barring two), I have enjoyed the rest. Some more. Some less. Enjoyed nonetheless. One such book is this one. The Other Name: Septology I-II is a strange read (like most that I have read this month). It is so much more than what it appears to be. It is not easy to comprehend but please do not let that deter you from reading this lovely novel about an artist, Asle, struggling with his faith. On the other hand, it is also about another artist named Asle, living not very far, almost sharing the same life.

I love experimental literature. I love literature that pushes the boundaries of my limited intelligence and makes me speculate, think, and challenge what I read. The Other Name managed to do that and more. There are no breaks in sentences. You do not know if one character is speaking or someone else is. And despite all of this, The Other Name makes for great reading.

The concept of a doppelgänger has always fascinated me. This book with its many layers, and the intellectual puzzle it presents to readers is complex no doubt, but there is a layer of simplicity to that as well. The Other Name speaks of so many things – faith, love, loneliness, identity, memory, and above all what art is all about. I think these are the major themes in a sense of this year’s International Booker long-list. I am not complaining at all. Such themes work the best for me as a reader.

Fosse doesn’t try too hard to connect with the reader. The prose is there. It is almost a take it or leave it kind of situation. There is a lack of plot in a sense that the semblance of a plot meanders and continues to right till the end of the book, but even then the book leaves you in a trance every time you read portions from it.