Category Archives: World Literature

Read 230 of 2021. Everything Like Before: Stories by Kjell Askildsen. Translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella

Everything Like Before - Stories by Kjell Askildsen

Title: Everything Like Before: Stories Author: Kjell Askildsen
Translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella
Publisher: Archipelago Books
ISBN: 978-1939810946
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 318
Source: The Boxwalla
Rating: 5/5

This was my introduction to Askildsen. To the subtlety of language, situations, and to how people react. Askildsen’s short stories are seemingly calm but there’s so much going on under the safe. The characters are forever in a limbo, left to their own device, with nothing or no one in sight.

Whether it is tales of marital unhappiness, conflicts between parent and child, or the struggles of the elderly, Askildsen’s stories are all about everyday despair and life as it goes on. His spaces are ordinary – the kitchen, the park, the drawing room, a movie theatre, restaurants, and bars – where relationships begin, end, or are simply compromised on.

Nothing of significance is happening, even to the characters it doesn’t seem that way. There is however an understated longing for what is not known, love for what is not around, and solitude that is not needed.

Askildsen’s writing is simple and plain. These stories are more vignettes. They don’t run into pages and yet say so much. They also range from morose and bleak to the comic. For instance, the funny side of a son visiting his father to understand their relationship better or the title story that is of a marriage – real, tragic, and funny. The stories are a treat, to be savoured slowly. The translation by Seán Kinsella leaves so much to the imagination, I guess just how the author intends it to be. Everything Like Before is a fantastic collection of thirty dozen stories that range across the spectrum of emotions and make you want more of them.

Read 224 of 2021. Trust by Domenico Starnone . Translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Trust by Domenico Starnone

Title: Trust
Author: Domenico Starnone Translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 9781609457037
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 144
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Two people meet. They fall in love. Their affair is passionate and almost magical. They push each other’s buttons and finally make a pact about telling their darkest secrets to each other – with the promise of trust, thinking that they will forever be with each other. Till the young teacher Pietro and his young student Teresa aren’t together. Till they both find other people to love and the secrets shared continues to haunt them, and both stop trusting each other.

Starnone’s writing is simple. The emotions aren’t. They are messy and all over the place. The first part is told by Pietro and somehow you can see where the power lies in this relationship. But of course, it is quite obvious. The power shift only because Teresa knows what she does and the fact that he fears what might happen if the world knows of it.

Starnone’s writing is balanced and mostly to the point. He is aware of what his characters do, the way they feel, the dilemmas they are caught in, and with the understanding of the kind of control they have, they navigate their lives in the world. The second part is told by Pietro’s daughter Emma, and with this change of narrative, the reader doubts what was known before. How characters betray each other, and do they even know themselves is then the crux.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s translation is perfect. What is interesting is how she perceives the writing – given that the perspective is largely male and how she brings Teresa to the fore with her immaculate translation.

Yes there are moral blind spots in the book and yes you cannot take sides as you read it, or keep shifting sides if that happens, but this is what makes Trust such an interesting read.

Read 217 of 2021. The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei. Translated from the Chinese by Canaan Morse

The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei

Title: The Invisibility Cloak
Author: Ge Fei
Translated from the Chinese by Canaan Morse
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681370200
Genre: Novella, Literary Fiction
Pages: 144
Source: The Boxwalla
Rating: 5/5

Alright, just going to say this at the onset: Read this book. Read this book if you want to read something funny but also speaking of the capitalistic world, the brutality, what consumer goods do to us as individuals and as a society, and how in all of this we are trying very hard to make sense of ourselves.

This is the first Fei I have read, and I cannot wait to get to Peach Blossom Paradise (shortlisted for the National Book Award 2021 in the translations category). The Invisibility Cloak is a novella about modern China, full of urban malaise and surrounded by this listlessness, bringing with it deep undercurrents in the self and society at large.

Cui puts together hi-fi sound systems that audiophiles want to buy, and who ironically know nothing about music. His sister’s family wants him out of her unused apartment. He has no friends to speak of. His life is basically stuck and going nowhere. In all of this, he agrees to take on a job for a “mysterious person” without knowing what the future will look like for him.

The book is not necessarily dark, since it does have moments of humour and mystery to some extent. At the same time, Fei explores themes with great heft in such a short book – from friendship to the idea of hope to the role of the individual in the state to the different worlds that are being inhabited by people – the two Beijings, the grimy, ruined one and the one that is shiny and modern, both home to its people, to their aspirations, dreams, and shattered hopes.

Fei’s writing and Morse’s translation are both stunning. There are no disconnected or disjointed sentences. It all flows beautifully – one chapter to another. The Invisibility Cloak is one of those books that you read and wish it were longer.

77 by Guillermo Saccomanno. Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger

77 by Guillermo Saccomanno Title: 77
Author: Guillermo Saccomanno
Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
Publisher: Open Letter
ISBN: 978-1940953892
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 220
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Books written to defy, to present various points of view, and above all to show us that we can and should raise voices against powers are books that I love to read. It makes me feel stronger, it makes me want to protest, and more than anything else it makes me feel that I have companions and not alone in the world when it comes to issues close to my heart. 77 is one such book that held me by my throat and being and I just had to finish it in almost three sittings or so. The book still lingers in my memory, and I know that it will for a long time to come.

 So, what is the book about?

 The book is set in Buenos Aires, 1977. A time that is considered to be a part of the darkest days of the Videla dictatorship, from the time he seized power in 1976. At the heart of the book is Gómez, a gay high-school literature teacher, trying very hard to keep a low profile as his friends and students begin to disappear. This is the time when questioning is forbidden, and people aren’t allowed to live the way they wish to.

 Things also start spiralling when he gives shelter to two dissidents in his house, and to make things worst he is having an affair with a homophobic cop who is loyal to the government and no one else. The book is told in flashbacks – from 2007 to 1977 – jumping back and forth.

 I was stunned reading this novel. I didn’t know what to feel for some time and then I realized that I was scared. Scared of such a regime being thrust upon us (though it seems that day isn’t very far) and how we would react or live in that case. Living under a dictatorship isn’t easy. At the same time, it isn’t very hard for people to get used to it, which is most fearful.

Saccomanno’s writing is fluid and clear. In most parts, I thought of it to be autobiographical and I don’t think I was far from the truth. The moral, social, and intellectual dilemmas that present themselves make the book so haunting and real. Is literature dead? Is sexual preference dead? Is raising your voice dead? What is alive anymore?

 77 is a book not just about a year – about people, their opinions, the regime that wants a mental shutdown of its people, a state that will have nothing but totalitarianism at the helm of things. 77, to me was more than just a book. It is about a literary soul that is trapped and is the story of one man trying to make sense in a world of madness and inhumanity, lurking in almost every corner. It is a book that shows you what shouldn’t be repeated. We can only hope and pray.

 

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.