Category Archives: Translations Reading Project – 2019

The Cracks in Our Armour by Anna Gavalda. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

The Cracks in Our Armour Title: The Cracks in Our Armour
Author: Anna Gavalda
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1787701632
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I love short stories. A good short story is as good as a novel. Sometimes even better. Of course, some may think otherwise, but this is just my opinion. And to see one of my favourite writers venture into the short-story territory was a joy and she didn’t disappoint at all. The Cracks in Our Armour is a collection of stories that is right up her alley and completely what is expected from a writer of her calibre.

I will start right away with the translation. Alison Anderson by far is one of my favourite French translators. From the Elegance of the Hedgehog to Pétronille by Amélie Nothomb, her translation prowess is on point and she brings her very best game to The Cracks in Our Armour as well.

This collection of short stories, seven of them, are all told in first person. These stories are about everyday people – who show their vulnerabilities and admit their weaknesses. There is nothing new about the characters that Gavalda introduces us to – not new to her regular readers. For instance, her trademark elements of loneliness and despair starts from the very first story and continues till the very last one. From a trucker who decides to put his dog to sleep to an alcoholic widow trying to make sense of the world, Gavalda infuses the day-to-day nature of living in her characters in big doses. They are just like you and I, and hence the connect.

Gavalda’s stories are extremely quaint in their appeal – in terms of perhaps how people behave, feel, and think, and yet set in urban places. This then places a sort of bigger burden so to say in terms of writing and connecting. I loved how people in her stories find unique solutions to modern problems of love, dating, friendship, and marriage. Her characters maybe a gloomy bunch and forever stuck in the zone of low self-esteem, but they are also full of life – even while mourning the loss of a loved one. This to me is the power of Gavalda’s writing that makes you connect so much to the characters and place.

All said and done, The Cracks in Our Armour is a collection of stories that speak to the heart in all its simplicity, complexity, and the understanding of love and empathy that makes you see the world from a larger perspective of kindness and a whole lot of heart.

 

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Adèle by Leïla Slimani. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

Adele Title: Adèle
Author: Leïla Slimani
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571349203
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

This is a book about sex addiction and it is brilliantly written. Slimani goes into places and territories where perhaps others may not and she brings out the dark side of her characters with no remorse at all. I am not the one to enjoy erotic literature but that’s just me. Having said that, I quite liked the pace and tone of Adèle. Slimani’s writing is to the point. There is no beating around the bush and maybe that’s why it is extremely satisfying to read her.

Adèle is addicted to sex, with anyone who isn’t her husband. She lives as it may seem to have sex and that’s that, caring little about her husband or son. Her single point of satisfaction is that of her sexual needs being met, sometimes kinky, and sometimes just the plain old way. Of course Slimani tries to sketch variety of possibilities for Adèle’s behaviour: a childhood trip to Paris with her mother, who abandoned her in a hotel room to meet a man who wasn’t her father; the man who she lost her virginity to, or even the idea of being brought up in a run-down crammed apartment, indicating that she wanted more and needed to be free.

Adèle reminded of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina but with more gumption. Here, Slimani doesn’t make her feel sorry for what she does. There is no moral compass. It is what it is. She is just driven by this inane restlessness, and there is nothing to be done to satiate it but have sex. The female lives and sexuality is at the fore of this book and Slimani very cleverly also uses other women characters and their sub-plots, reconnecting all of it to the larger picture and question: Whose body it is? To what extent we as a society accept desire, sex, and passion?

Adèle is full of physical and sexual detailing. There were times I had to bring myself not to read it, only because it was overwhelming in a great way. The writing is stark and says what it has to. The translation by Sam Taylor successfully manages to capture the dream-like compulsions of Adèle, and yet not missing out on the truth of the real world. As a read, Adèle demands a lot from the reader. It is extremely rewarding, satisfying, leaving you astounded and questioning your own beliefs, long after you are done with the book.

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson. Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel

Acts of Infidelity Title: Acts of Infidelity
Author: Lena Andersson
Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel
Publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590519035
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I love how some authors treat the subject of infidelity in their books and what is infidelity in this time and age of polyamorous relationships? Does it even exist? Hold any value? Sure it does and it is all about the people in the relationship/s after all.

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel is a book about Ester Nilsson, writer and poet, who very quickly gets involved in an affair with a married actor, Olof Sten. She hopes he will divorce his wife and marry her. Olof is very clear about him not ever leaving his wife. He also does not object to Ester’s advances and continues the affair. The affair lasts for several years and the book is the account of that affair.

As I read the book, I found both these characters to be utterly selfish and callous in their behaviour. One knows that she can never get him so to say and continues to pursue him, no matter what. Olof basks in the attention and glory, shrugging every ounce of responsibility of the affair.

Andersson makes us see the roles we assign to women and absolve men of all responsibility. Her writing focuses on the woman being the mistress and the man nothing, so much so as going far to not even acknowledge the relationship. The writing is nuanced, racy, sentimental, and at the same time raises so many issues that you can’t help but wonder why you empathised with Olof at some point in the book. This is to me the brilliance of Andersson’s writing then to make you empathise with a character initially and then make you see under the layers of hypocrisy and who he really is at the heart of things.

The translation by Saskia is on point. She captures the frustration, ethos, confusion, and even the cruel way society boxes women as either wife or mistress in a very nuanced manner. The double standards come alive and how the book smartly raises the issues of love, faithfulness, and ultimately looks at the cheating from a feminist point of view. Acts of Infidelity is a book that is not easy to shake off once you are done with it. It is the kind of book that will also make you question the way you think or feel when confronted by such situations, either through your experience or someone else’s. A definite read for our times.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi. Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Celestial Bodies by Jokha AlharthiTitle: Celestial Bodies
Author: Jokha Alharthi
Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth
Publisher: Sandstone Press
ISBN: 978-1912240166
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

One thing about being on any shadow panel of any literary award is that you by default get to read great diverse literature. Being on the shadow panel of Man Booker International Prize for two years now has made my literary life so to say not only enriching but also illuminating. It has made me see perspectives, change opinions, remain steadfast about some opinions, and over all made me interact with people across the world about literature and life.

This time around, Celestial Bodies from the long and the short list is that one book that enriched my reading life and to a very large extent made me see lives that weren’t otherwise known to me. Anyway, back to Celestial Bodies. This is one of the top three books I am rooting for, for the win that is. It is a story of womanhood – of it means to the women in the book and to the society that has built structures of patriarchy to be followed. At the same time, it is about the changing socio-economic structures and how those impact the family.

There is Maya, the eldest daughter of the family who prefers not to challenge what the family expects of her and agrees to marry the son of a rich merchant. The second one, Asma seeks an education. The youngest daughter, Khawla insists on waiting for her cousin who has told her that he will be his partner. All he does is immigrate to Canada and all her hopes are dashed. The younger generation then moves to Muscat and there also their lives are not easy. At the same time, the book is also about the men, whom we get to know of as we go along – Maya’s husband, his father, and not to forget the slave system at play which bothered me greatly as I was reading the book.

There is a lot going on in the book – from the emancipation of women to what men feel to the social structure of Oman, and also not to forget the younger generation. Alharthi packs all of it together tightly and not once do you feel that the strands of any story are left untended to. From the village of al-Awafi (fictional by the way) to Muscat, each phase and turn of events is seen through different eyes – sometimes unbelievable and others completely heartbreaking. The writing is empathetic for sure, and yet doesn’t shy from the grim reality of the world of patriarchy, in a land ruled by men.

Marilyn Booth’s translation is on point. It isn’t easy to translate a book of multiple narrations and sometimes also leaning toward stream of consciousness (mildly). Celestial Bodies has the dreamlike quality to it, without being superficial or flimsy and that’s what you take as a reader – the inherent story, the characters, and what you end up feeling.

The Years by Annie Ernaux. Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer

The Years by Annie Ernaux Title: The Years
Author: Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
ISBN: 978-1910695784
Genre: Biographies, Memoirs, Women Writers, French Literature, French History
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The Years by Annie Ernaux caught my eye when it was long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize 2019. I am on the shadow panel of the prize and have till now read 11/13 long-listed books. This one for sure is on my personal shortlist. Why you ask? Here’s why.

The Years is considered to be Ernaux’s finest work and rightly so. It is a narrative of the period 1941 to 2006 and all of this is told through events – historic and personal, impressions – past and present, and through culture, habits, books, art, music, movies, and above all people. It could be termed as meta-novel but it is so much more according to me. It is a woman’s experience growing up in tumultuous years. It is an experience of history, the world at large, and memory of a woman in a time that stays and mostly does not.

The Years captures so much. It is political and individual. It is Proust-like, only to find a voice of its own. It is full of lists (which I love) and long passages of what happened where and when, what food was cooked and what did it smell or taste like, what mode of transportation was taken, and whose heart was broken. Not to forget the lucid translation from the French by Alison L. Strayer. It isn’t easy to capture emotion and translate that to perfect sentences the way Strayer manages.

The Years is a book that deserves to be savoured and not rushed into. You need to take your time with it. You need to nurture it. Its fluidity, grace, and by that extension all heart is very rare to find in books. So when you do, you hang on to it and cherish the writing. Time, place, and memory beautifully merge in this gem of a book.