Category Archives: Novella

Border Districts by Gerald Murnane

Border Districts by Gerald Murnane Title: Border Districts
Author: Gerald Murnane
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374115753
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 144
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Very cleverly, Border Districts calls itself a fiction. After reading the synopsis, and knowing that this book is about a man and the books he has read and the relationship he shares with them, I couldn’t help but smile and kind of relate to it. I hadn’t heard of Murnane before reading this book and now I am so in awe that I want to lay my hands on everything he has written.

“Border Districts” is a story of a man who moves to a remote town in the border country, where all he wants to do is spend the last years of his life. While he is doing that, he wants to look back at a lifetime of seeing and of reading. Of what he saw and what he read. The images, people and places he witnessed as he grew along the years and the fictional characters he came across, the words he soaked in and the books he cherished. And where memory enters any novel/novella, secrets are bound to make an appearance and that’s exactly what happens, which also play with your head.

Murnane’s writing is soothing and yet I could sense the urgency and the head-rush that came with it. Like I said, I had not heard of him until this read and now I can’t wait to read everything he has written. His prose jumps at you and takes you captive. It is that kind of power. The shifting of narrative between seeing and reading is seamless and maybe that’s why I was hooked the way I was.

“Border Districts” is mostly autobiographical in nature, based on Murnane’s move from Melbourne to a remote town. Australia for me has never come this alive in any book. Sometimes unexpected books and authors jump at you and before you know it, you are in love.

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Ms. Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

Ms Ice SandwichTitle: Ms Ice Sandwich
Author: Mieko Kawakami
Publisher: Pushkin Press, Japanese Novella Series
ISBN: 978-1782273301
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 96
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Now, we think we have read enough stories about first love but it is never enough. First love has its own charm of innocence, heartbreak, and above all the coming-of-age if it happens and when it does, sooner or later. “Ms Ice Sandwich” is one such book of first love, of young love, awkward love that is very happy being just an observer sometimes with want for nothing. You know the kind of love I am talking about, don’t you? We’ve all been there, in one way or another, haven’t we? This book is about those tender moments and I wish weren’t so short though.

A boy is obsessed (well, I wouldn’t call it obsessed, but more like enchanted) with a woman who sells premade sandwiches. He visits the supermarket every day just so he can look at her face, even if it means buying sandwiches he particularly doesn’t enjoy. He just needs to see her and feel the closeness. And in all of this, there are his relationships with his mother and grandmother (rather flimsy but nonetheless important to the narrative). And one fine day, his world crumbles and that’s for the reader to find out how.

The narrative is restrained in so many places and that  is what I guess works for the book. There is drama, some amount of humour, introspection and above all so many moments of kindness in the book that you cannot steer away from it. The two main characters are nameless and that doesn’t bother you at all. I didn’t even think about it till I reached the end of the book. Kawakami’s writing and the translation by Louise Heal Kawai doesn’t  make you want  for more. The writing and the tone of the book is just perfect.  If you’ve never read Japanese literature before, this is a great place to start. If you have, this is a great place to explore it more.

 

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg. Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak

51oe4dOcMOL Title: Swallowing Mercury
Author: Wioletta Greg
Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Publisher: Portobello Books
ISBN: 9781846276071
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 146
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

How does one describe a book that gave you so much joy as you read it? It has been a while since I read anything like “Swallowing Mercury”. I think this book just made me realize that there is still a lot of hope and faith in the world, though it does have its own set of problems, having hope and faith I mean. Greg’s characters are unique, literally that with their eccentricities, and yet the naivety about them is endearing to make you smile and wish them happiness. “Swallowing Mercury” is that kind of book – it leaves you with a tingling feeling – I don’t have any better way to put it.

This book was read by me as a part of the Women in Translation Month – August 2017. I am so glad that I got to know of this book through this initiative. At the core of the book is Wiola, who lives in a close-knit agricultural community (this by itself is charming. There is a sense of old-world feeling to it which cannot be ignored and that’s the major portion of the book which I love the most. So Wiola also has a black cat named Blackie (you can’t help but love the tongue-in-cheek reference). Her father who deserted the family is back and is now a taxidermist. Her mother is a strange one (but then who isn’t when you come to think of it), who frequently warns her about not entering certain rooms and that one must not kill spiders or there will be storms. Might I also add that all this takes place in Poland.

“Swallowing Mercury” has this fable like quality attached to it. There are also a lot of fables in the book per se as Wiola is a Catholic girl, growing up on them and not to mention, superstitions. Greg’s writing has this feeling of wanting to finish the book (given it is so short anyway) and yet to pick it up immediately after.

The translation from Polish by Eliza Marciniak is beautiful – the book is written in fragments and yet the subtle transition of Wiola from a child to an adolescence is so lucid and more so the background of politics, morality, violence and faith makes it even more intriguing. Trust me when I say that you will not be able to put this book down – there are so many layers to it and more than anything else you get so engaged in the Polish life as a reader that you are almost melancholic as it ends.

So Much for That Winter by Dorthe Nors

so-much-for-that-winter-by-dorthe-nors Title: So Much for That Winter
Author: Dorthe Nors
Translator: Misha Hoekstra
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555977429
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I love it when authors break boundaries of traditional storytelling and present ideas in a new way. Dorthe Nors, a Danish writer does just that. She breaks the norms of telling a tale and how. Her new book (second one) titled “So Much for That Winter” consists of two novellas, of two women sifting through the fallout of respective breakups.

In the first novella, “Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space” – Nors writes the novella in the form of sparse headlines. Minna gets dumped on a text and the novella is about her being consoled by everyone around her – Minna’s mission though is to escape them all, especially her sister. I loved the way it was written. It is raw, brutal and funny – all at the same time. Nors could have very well written her own story. She could be Minna you know.

The second novella “Days” is about another breakup in the form of lists – of how a writer fills her time post break-up. Through both these novellas, I got a very uncanny sense of how nothing might be relevant in our endless age of tweets, updates and Instagram posts. Even heartbreak for that matter. I finished both these novellas in one go and honestly, I have not felt this disoriented in a long time after reading a book. Nors’ writing speaks to you and you can sense it crawling up your back and somehow you enjoy it. You are perhaps also taken in with all the reality but also somehow make peace with it.

Also, let me not forget that this experience would not have been possible without Misha Hoekstra’s wondrous translation of these novellas. “So Much for That Winter” deals in being human above everything else. These two novellas complement each other superbly and one cannot be read without the other. Nors has created a strewn about, lush, hurtful, real and beautiful love-letter of our times.

33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara

33-revolutions-by-canek-sanchez-guevara Title: 33 Revolutions
Author: Canek Sánchez Guevara
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609453480
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 128
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

A short book that has so much to say. I am enamored by books that say so little and end up showing you an entire world of things, ideas and more importantly make you think and a lot more once you are done reading them. “33 Revolutions” by Canek Sánchez Guevara is one such book.

The book might seem vague to begin with but it is anything but that. It is the story of a nameless protagonist living in contemporary Cuba, whose parents were the supporters of the Castro revolution. At the same time, he is black. The reason I mention this is because it plays a role in the story and one which cannot be ignored. The hero’s father died on being accused of embezzlement. His mother flees after her husband’s death and settles in Madrid.

He is separated from his wife and all he does besides his rote work is read. Books open him to a different world and make him see the reality he is surrounded by: the mundane, the ineffectual and the broken records of life – which the book captures beautifully. I think that has also to do with the fact that the author was the grandson of Che Guevara. The ideas of revolution that spring later can be seen lucidly as being inspired by him.

Our hero also has Kafkaesque dreams – nightmares and tethers on the edge mostly. In fact, at most times you as a reader cannot distinguish between reality and fiction of the novel and question the plot. This to me is fantastic as it challenges you – the reader, which doesn’t happen too often in books. The sense of disillusionment is real and how you actually see the protagonist being an informer and then refusing to do what he is told are the hallmarks of this novella.

This novella has actually made me want to read more about Cuba and its revolution of Castro – of how it all began and how it disappointed its supporters. “33 Revolutions” though is a fantastic stand-alone novella. Guevara puts his heart and soul in the writing – while reading it you might also feel exhausted and tired and that is the cornerstone of a good book – to make you feel what you read. Might I also add that the translation by Howard Curtis who also translated Santiago Gamboa’s book “Night Prayers” (published earlier this year and which I loved) is superb. If politics, life, and the disappointment of it all interests you, then this book sure is for you. If not, then too pick it up for the beauty of language.