Category Archives: Translations – World – 2019

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.

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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.

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Józef Czapski. Translated from the French by Eric Karpeles

Lost Time by Józef Czapski Title: Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp
Author: Józef Czapski
Translated from the French by Eric Karpeles
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681372587
Genre: Literary Speeches, Historical Narrative
Pages: 128
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Off-late, I have been reading a lot about memory and the passage of time and that has happened quite organically. There is no planned reading list around it. It just happened by the by and one of those books happened to be Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Camp by Józef Czapski.

The concept of suffering isn’t new to humans. We have been suffering one way or the other – in one situation or the other for decades and centuries. Of course, a certain group of people suffer more at any given point, but again that’s not the point here. The point is resilience in the face of suffering, in the face of the unknown, to not have any idea of what will happen to you. What do you do then?

Lost Time is a book of lectures given by Czapski when he was a prisoner of war during the Second World War in a Soviet camp, as the title suggests. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, said Joan Didion in The White Album and it couldn’t be truer. Don’t we all at some level tell stories in order to survive? Whether it is merely surviving the mundane day after day or when we are caught in an extraordinary situation like Scheherazade’s?

These lectures brought Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to life for prison inmates. This slim volume is a collection of some of those lectures that Czapski gave, depending solely on memory (so befitting to Proust) – sketching characters, places, and time, thereby evoking so many emotions on the spectrum within the inmates. Also, it is so strange to be talking of Proust in a prison camp – the volumes of aristocracy, elegance, and grace – only to prove that Proust can be felt by all.

At the same time, what I love about this book is that it is an easy read. Czapski made Proust accessible – and perhaps may even encourage you to read Proust once you are done reading Lost Time. You don’t need to read it first. Also, Proust in Gulag – does it seem to say a lot about the human condition and how we are as a species? Czapski’s love for the master is evident – through every speech – he merges Proust’s life with the six volumes and that to me is magnificent. I just wish this book were longer. I wish there were more speeches. A definite must-read. For Proust lovers and the non-lovers as well.

Women by Mihail Sebastian. Translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

Women by Mihail SebastianTitle: Women
Author: Mihail Sebastian
Translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
Publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590519547
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I am so glad I read this rediscovered classic. This book is a short, simple story of love. It is a book about a young Romanian man who has just finished his medical studies in Paris and quickly decides to vacation in the Alps. This is where the action begins. This is where he falls in love with three women. The book is about each of them, in context with him, and of course what happens next.

There are four interlinked stories in the book, of course all relating to Stefan Valeriu. I love books that have stories that are again interrelated. Something extremely satisfying reading such books. I think the landscape of the book helped a lot as well – the Alps and Paris – glorious as ever.

The sections in the book are titled after the women they describe: Émilie, Maria, Arabela, and so on. The book actually takes place over two world wars but I am glad that none of them are spoken about in great detail. The idea I think was just to focus on personal relationships and not political, as often is the case in his books. The character of Stefan Valeriu is so complex and yet so simple, that sometimes I wondered what was the author trying to tell us through him. The unrequited loves and passions are highlighted wonderfully through some really short sentences throughout the book, which seem to work very well.

Women is a very strong and powerful novella/novel. It makes so many points that sometimes I would wonder while reading it, how could Sebastian manage to do all that in such a short book and yet he did. Also, might I add that regret is one of the recurring themes in the book – which is handled so delicately. I haven’t read too many books where this has been brought out this well. The long diary sections are a treat to read and extremely memorable.

Women is elegant and lyrical. It is the kind of book that is languid in its pace and deserves to be read that way. Also, Philip Ó Ceallaigh has managed to keep the elements of ennui and alienation extremely intact through the prose. I think very few translators manage to do that, and just for this I will look at his other works. Women is a book which is most certainly not to be missed.

 

 

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Mouthful of Birds Title: Mouthful of Birds
Author: Samanta Schweblin
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1786074560
Genre:
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The world of Samanta Schweblin’s stories is intriguing. There is aplenty and then there is nothing. You begin to wonder as a reader, in-between being stumped by the prose and the sheer magnitude of the story being read, whether or not you are worthy of it. The stories are nightmarish for sure, but then Schweblin also prepares you for them right at the beginning. The context and the tone are set immaculately, the translation by Megan McDowell precise to the last word and emotion, and more than anything else the diversity of the collection, only makes you want to turn the pages sooner, even if the collection seems too long at twenty stories.

Mouthful of Birds is strange. But that’s what makes it so delicious a read. The title story is that of a teenaged girl, who to the fascination (at some point) and repulsion of her divorced parents resorts to only eating live birds. It just happens, one fine day without any reason. So what does one feel after reading such a story? Pity? Empathy (can you, really)? Disgust? Schweblin gives you enough and more room to feel, get in touch with your emotions at the end of the every story, only to be met with another story, with another set of emotions all over again.

The devastating realities of fairy tales creep up in The Merman. You cannot help but go back to your childhood and be alarmed at what you read. This is just Schweblin’s perspective when she has a story to tell and it shines. Or you have a story such as “Butterflies” whose end will leave your stomach churning and wanting more. The imagery of no two stories is remotely similar. Schweblin draws every story and every framework from different places and varied emotions, which makes it even more interesting.

That’s the thing about Samanta’s stories. They make you wonder, you are awed, fascinated even, repulsed, revolted, and yet you cannot help but turn the page to the next one. It is the feeling of a roller-coaster ride, knowing you are going to fall, plunge headlong and yet there is this excitement – the butterflies-in-your-stomach kind of a feeling. If anything and more, this collection is ferocious.

You can also tell that the stories have matured and come to the author over a period of time. These have not been written all at once, and it shows. The translation by Megan McDowell is on-point. She also translated Fever Dream by Schweblin, which was written after this collection but translated and published in English before. But that’s just a technicality in the sense of publishing timeline.

What is truly astounding is how McDowell makes the original voice hers, thereby giving us a culminated effort. The multiple stories breathe and live multiple lives. It is as though you can see the author mature and an underlined theme runs throughout – that of intense dysfunctional of family and the self. Headlights, the opening story is strange – Schweblin has got the emotion pat-down and you can see the misogyny of men. In another story titled Preserves, an unborn baby is spat out (perhaps unwanted as well). Each story shines and has its own unique element. Some leave the reader satisfied, while others don’t.

Mouthful of Birds breaks ground in storytelling and so many times also sticks to the traditional format of showing more and telling less. It challenges readers every step of the way, and never lets you imagine what will happen next. Samanta Schweblin’s reality is the one we inhabit and also the one we are way far-off from. That to me is the beauty and core of this fantastic short-story collection, that deserves to be read by almost everyone.