Category Archives: Women in Translation Reading 2017

A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry by Grace Paley. Edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley.

A Grace Paley Reader Title: A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry
Author: Grace Paley
Edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley
Publisher:Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN:978-0374165826
Genre: Anthology
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Grace Paley is one of those writers for which you to devote a lot of time and mind space. The reason I say this: the narrators and characters of her stories will not leave you. Her essays will haunt you long after you have finished reading them. Her verse will stay, whether you like it or not. To me, she is one of the finest I have read this year (I have of course read her works earlier as well – but scattered). I think this book also is the definite collection if you need an introduction to her work, before you move on to other books by her.

“A Grace Paley Reader” has a lot of omissions from her earlier works, but I guess as an editor they have to choose what to put and what to remove. Nonetheless, to me the span of her work mattered and this anthology touched on almost every genre in which she wrote. My favourite essays though are “A Midrash on Happiness” and also “Other People’s Children” which are very unsettling and yet so comforting – the paradox is hard to explain.

But then the sort of writer Grace Paley was, it is just very difficult to ignore her as a reader. “A Conversation with my Father” will tear you up in no time and you would wonder if a short story can do that, as it already has. Her economy of words, and at the same time the effortlessness of her prose keeps you stunned. Paley was also a feminist and that is reflective in her poems such as “Anti-Love Poem” or “Is There a Difference Between Men and Women” and my personal favourite “Letter to my Daughter”. She can do anything if you ask me and does in most of her work.

The introduction by George Saunders sums up her work beautifully in this one sentence: “Grace Paley will live in the minds of the readers she has moved, and in the minds of those she will yet move”. Need I say more after this?

 

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Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Go Went Gone Title: Go Went Gone
Author: Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
Publisher: Portobello Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846276200
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“Go Went Gone” is an unusual book. Also, it isn’t an easy read. At least, it wasn’t for me. It took me a while to get into the book and understand its nuances. However, once I was say three chapters in, I started enjoying this read a lot, actually to a point that I felt sad when the book ended. Erpenbeck has always taken on issues so huge in her books and actually delivered. I remember reading “The End of Days” and “Visitation” and being awestruck by the writing. And just like those books, “Go Went Gone” is a book that talks of the impact of the political on personal and what place does the past and present have in history after all.

Richard has spent his life as a university professor, immersed in books and ideas and has now retired with nothing to do. He steps into the streets of Berlin and discovers a new community on Alexanderplatz – a tent city of sorts, established by African asylum seekers. He is confused. On one hand, he wants to get to know these new people and on the other he hesitates.

I loved the simplicity with which the plot is unravelled and yet there is so much going on – the complex layers of race, class, community and prejudice. What struck me the most was Richard’s ageing and his reluctance to change and at the same time his curiosity toward it as well. The writing is subtle enough to give readers signs and cues as the story moves along, which makes Jenny Erpenbeck truly one of the best European writers there is. She slices the book scene by scene – so much so that isolated situations and scenes come together so beautifully – even if at a later stage. She also at the same time, takes no sides. She doesn’t want Richard to be a caricature and also understands his point of view.

The political angles in the book are real – the Western ideologies and stance toward the European refugee crisis and how it can be solved for. More than anything else though, it is the story of one man who has more in common with people he doesn’t know than he realizes.“Go Went Gone” is the kind of read that cannot be gulped in one go. It must be savoured. And yes please pay attention to the silences in scenes as well – that say so much and yet can be missed if you look the other way.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo. Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

Iza's Ballad Title: Iza’s Ballad
Author: Magda Szabo
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681370347
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I haven’t read too many books about mothers and daughters. I am sure there a lot of them out there but I haven’t been able to cover that territory the way I have been wanting to. Every relationship when it comes to a parent gets a little complex. There are always disagreements for sure, but we don’t realize when it leads to becoming a dysfunctional relationship from an accommodating one. It happens too fast, too soon. Families are like that I suppose and a lot of writers have written and continue to write about it. I was floored by Szabo’s earlier work “The Door” – again the relationship between two women, so I knew what I was getting into and boy was I not disappointed by it!

“Iza’s Ballad” is about Ettie – the old mother from an older world. Her daughter Iza as expected is from the modern world, with thoughts that are not aligned to those of her mother’s. Ettie is recently widowed and goes to live with Iza (who is now a doctor) in Budapest. Ettie was born and brought up without a formal education and came from a poor background. However, she ensured her daughter was well-educated and did not want for anything. Her husband Vince was a magistrate and Iza has taken after him. Ettie cannot get used to Iza’s way of living. Iza on the other hand has stopped being answerable to anyone. The traditional and the modern clash just as they did in “The Door”.

Szabo’s writing is not easy. It takes some time to get into but the translation by George Szirtes is spot on to the last detail. The reason I say this without knowing a word of Hungarian is the nuances, metaphors and folk references aren’t lost at all on the English reader. To me that is some good enough criteria of a great translation. Also, being a man he gets the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship beautifully and only too accurately.

The concept is universal and hence almost every reader can relate to it. Szabo doesn’t waste her words and that is quite evident. In fact, in so many places, she doesn’t try too hard telling the reader, but just shows and leaves and that’s how a good book should be. “Iza’s Ballad” is an emotional ride and yet restrained – balancing the old and the new, the relationship dynamics and above all love and its transformation.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin. Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie

Notes of a Crocodile Title: Notes of a Crocodile
Author: Qiu Miaojin
Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681370767
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“Notes of a Crocodile” according to me is a lovely title for a book. I say this to establish it right at the beginning and get it out of the way. This was the third book I read in the women in translation month project and I think by far this has been one of the best (I’ve read six in all so far). There is something very reassuring and yet heartbreaking about this book that makes you fall in love with the prose. You realize it is a translation but it doesn’t matter. The effect is as much. It moved me in just the right places.

“Notes of a Crocodile” is about teenagers who are queer misfits and only discovering love, friendship and artistic affiliations in post-martial-law era of Taiwan. They study at one of Taiwan’s prestigious university and come to realize what happens when you love too hard and too strong. The narrator is an anonymous lesbian, nicknamed Lazi who falls in love way too strong with an older woman named Shui Ling and how she turns to her friends for support as she doesn’t see this happening. Her friends are another kettle of fish: a rich kid who has turned criminal, his self-destructive gay lover (is there any other way to be or to love?), an overachiever who is just bored and her girlfriend who is an artist. See what I mean, when I say the book covers the entire spectrum of LGBTQ?

I was fascinated by this read. “Notes of a Crocodile” at one point in the book (major breakthrough by the way) moves from sexual identity to self-realization about love, loss and how the heart breaks. The translation is just right. I think all the nuances of Chinese expressions and words are in place. Bonnie Huie does a wonderful job on this cult classic. What I loved the most while reading this book is the pop culture references thrown in by Qiu. I wish she were around to write some more books. I also remember reading Last Words from Montmartre with such fervor as well. I couldn’t stop reading it and the same happened with “Notes of a Crocodile”. Also, should you want to know more about title, then I am not giving that away. Read the book for that.

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.