Tag Archives: Women In Translation

The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale: Edited and with an Introduction by Jerry Pinto

SGTitle: The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale: Edited and with an Introduction by Jerry Pinto
Author: Shanta Gokhale
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited
ISBN: 978-9388070492
Genre: Nonfiction, Anthology, Essays
Pages: 312
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

You do not just read Shanta Gokhale. You literally take in everything she has to say, and mull over it for days, weeks, and sometimes even months. That to me is the power of prose, of words on paper, and most of all it is about the emotions she can evoke in you. You read Shanta Gokhale to take count of the world around you – to see its decline, the society we live in, its hypocrisy (laid out by her with immense logic and facts), and how at the end of it all, there might also be some hope and redemption.

I remember reading Crowfall way back when it released (in English though) and was moved deeply by it. There was nothing specific I could put a finger on, but what she wrote was enough. All of it. Every single word. What Jerry Pinto does through this anthology of her selective works is give you a fair enough glimpse into her mind and writing, so you can read more of her and I bet you will, once you are done with this one.

This book is varied – that because Shanta Gokhale is so prolific – having written so much – from theatre of Bombay to the theatre of Mumbai, the political scenario, on India, on Literature, the Marathi culture (that is trying very hard to revive itself), and everything else in between. I don’t think there is any topic that Shanta Gokhale hasn’t written on. But it isn’t just this, it is the way she writes – almost makes you feel that you are the only one reading her at that time.

The Engaged Observer (what an apt title) is about so many things and yet doesn’t feel overdone or trying too much to fit into one book. In fact, if anything, I wanted more. Shanta Gokhale writes with clarity. Every sentence is in place. My favourite section has to be the one on women – the patriarchy, feminism, and women defying the misogynistic constructs of society.

Shanta Gokhale’s writings are lucid, rich in facts, detailed, and doesn’t veer at any point into becoming something else. Points are made and then it is up to the reader to make their judgement or not. The writings are not biased. As the title aptly suggests, Gokhale observes intently, engages with the observation by making notes, writing about it, and leaving it to the readers to consume. Also, kudos to Jerry Pinto for carefully selecting the pieces he did to introduce us/enhance our understanding of the writer – and the neat sections that help the reader navigate.

There are a lot of reasons I would recommend this work. Some of them being: clarity and simplicity of language, the varied pieces – there is literally something for everyone, and to top it all her writing – the kind that cuts through without seeming that way, the kind that makes such a strong impact that you cannot help but want more, the kind of writing that shakes you up and makes you see the world differently. It is the kind of writing that only comes from an engaged observer – the one who constantly sees, relates or does not, but definitely engages – no matter where she is.

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Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Strike Your Heart by Amélie NothombTitle: Strike Your Heart
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609454852
Genre: Mothers and Children, Literary Fiction, Women’s Fiction,
Pages: 135
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I am still reeling under the influence of Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb. It is a short novel (could have been a novella if fifteen pages shorter) but the impact it has is tremendous. What a book! What a treat! And yet, it will drain you emotionally – of almost everything you possess – of course temporarily but it will.

Do not be fooled by its size. 135 pages pack a lot more what 350 pages cannot in most novels. This one is a firecracker and how! While I was reading it initially, I thought it was modelled after Madame Bovary and some of it sure was, but it was only in the first couple of twenty pages or so and then the similarity ended.

The book is about Diane but first let’s talk about Diane’s mother Marie, the one with whom it all begins. Marie who had to marry early on and give birth to Diane when she was just twenty. There is no bond between mother and daughter. Marie can’t bear to see her daughter. Diane does what she can to gain approval of her mother. Diane’s father Olivier is merely a spectator. With two more siblings, Diane’s love for her mother doesn’t diminish, till she sees her smothering her sister Célia and decides to step back and live with her maternal grandparents (there is a lot more that happens which I cannot say for now, because spoilers).

Years pass. Diane wants to pursue her dream of becoming a cardiologist (the heart connect) and at university, she befriends an assistant professor, Olivia. Olivia is strangely similar and yet so different to Marie (which Diane realizes much later). Olivia loves power and wants to feel superior to everyone around her, including her own eight-year-old daughter, Mariel. Diane’s life is thrown into a whirlwind and how it all ends up makes for the rest of the story.

“Strike Your Heart” – the very title comes from the quote by novelist Alfred de Musset, “Strike Your Heart, that is where genius lies”. This is what inspires Diane to take up medicine, this is the core of the book – the intensity of emotions and relationships – comes all from the poor old heart.

Nothomb writes with a force of a tsunami, really. Every word and sentence is not wasted. Nothing is out of place. Nothomb is cruel and yet so gentle all at the same time. She moves at a quick pace and doesn’t manage to lose out on all the essential incidents, lives, moments and the on-goings of almost all characters. Even the ones that are hidden – Diane’s brother Nicolas, her best friend Élisabeth, her father, her grandparents, and even Olivia’s husband and daughter. Nothomb has a role to be played by everyone.

“Strike Your Heart” in so many places feels so autobiographical – like it must have happened to someone the author knew or to her. The translation by Alison Anderson is spot on. She is one of my favourite translators of French to English. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is one such example of her genius translated work. Every line seems that it was meant to be there. No syntax changes and the emotion is perfect.

Here is one of my favourite lines from the book:

“She stayed for hours at the side of an old lady who was allergic to solitude”

“Strike Your Heart” will stay with you for a long time. I know it will stay with me for sure. The bitter-sweetness, the longing, the desperation, all of the validation and not to forget jealousy which is so much at the core of this wondrous read.

Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Karate Chop by Dorthe NorsTitle: Karate Chop
Author: Dorthe Nors
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 978-1782274322
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Collections
Pages: 96
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Dorthe Nors’s stories or books are not easy to read. Well, they are superficially easy so to say, till you think about them, mull over them a little and before you know it, you want to go back to the worlds created by Nors. The stories in this collection like I said may seem ordinary, almost run-of-the-mill really, but there are glimpses of the extraordinary lurking beneath the ordinary, which appear as you go along. These stories are also more like vignettes than anything else – fifteen compact stories – all about life and its ongoings, layered with multiple emotions, splattered all over its pages.

Nors’s characters are also quite twisted and strange. They aren’t the sort of people you might bump into the street or maybe they are but concealing their quirks as they go along life. A relationship between a father and son is tested and beyond emotions at that. A woman in an abusive relationship reflects on how she got there and takes responsibility without passing blame or trying to. A daughter and a mother’s tender and almost brutal relationship as the daughter is witness to the mother probably going insane. A man on the other hand is obsessed with female killers. A woman who suddenly finds herself in the possession of a giant tornado. You get the drift of these stories, don’t you?

I cannot categorize them under magical or magic realism as they say (though it might seem like that for most part). The only reason I am not categorizing them that way is there is more to them – the underlined human emotion and its complexity. All of Nors’s characters are lonely – wanting some companionship to get through life. At the same time, these stories do not end the way you would want them to. Most of them are open-ended and it is to the reader to decide the fate of these characters.

The translation by Martin Aitken is superb in the sense that you do realize of course you are reading a translated collection of stories and yet you do not. All nuances are there. All vignettes seem intact and the prose flows like it should. Also, since August is the Women in Translation month, I was so happy that this was the first book read as a part of that theme/project.

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi. Translated from the French by Tina Kover

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi Title: Disoriental
Author: Négar Djavadi
Translated from the French by Tina Kover
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609454517
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

At the very onset, let me tell you that “Disoriental” is not an easy book to read. I think most literary fiction isn’t. You have to give the genre some time to grow on you and once it does, there is no looking back. Having said that, the reading experience differs with every book.

The thing with “Disoriental” is that (and to me, this was important while reading it) it is written in French (the adopted country of the author) and not in the author’s native language Farsi. This in itself says so much about the book and its progression.

The readers are in for a treat when it comes to this book. From a modern-day fertility clinic, we are transported to modern Iranian culture and in the bargain the history of a country. Might I add that there are magic realism elements as well that take your breath away, even if you have read Márquez or Rushdie. Kimiâ Sadr fled Iran with her mother and sisters to join her father in France, at the tender age of ten. She is now twenty-five, in a fertility clinic waiting for her turn and memories come rushing by.

I love how Djavadi has integrated the personal and the political. It is as if they are intertwined and to a very large extent maybe they are. The past, present, and future of the country of birth will somehow in so many ways, will always be linked to ours, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. The Sadrs are a flamboyant lot – from Kimiâ’s formidable great-grandfather to her father and uncles. Not to forget her mother from whom she was greatly inspired.

“Disoriental” besides being a book on identity, exile, and homelessness, is also a book on a family in the midst of political upheaval and regime change. Iran is described on point (not that I have been there but can figure, only going by movies I have watched and other books I have read) and there is mention of “THE EVENT” of March 13, 1994, which is spoken about throughout the book and revealed with a feeling of horror toward the end.

The thing also about “Disoriental” is that it feels as though it has come from a very personal space, almost autobiographical and maybe it is. Family looms large in the narrative and plays along beautifully alongside, combining the personal and the political. Also, not to forget the sexual. Kimiâ’s sexual identity is also explored which I thought was much needed.

“Disoriental” is about distances and perhaps also about the ones we do not sometimes want to traverse. It is about alienation and somehow feeling grounded wherever you are, in a very strange manner. The tone and voice of the narration keep changing in the book, which to me made it jumpy and out of the flow. Having said that, it was needed to give background about characters and the place they came from. There are multiple journeys in one book – they run parallelly to each other and the author uses deep, lyrical sentences that give it the much-needed elegance. At the same time, to understand that all of this is translated into English makes one be in awe of Tina Kover, given how dense the book is.

There is a lot of thread of memory – through objects, people, place and time (you will keep reading about THE EVENT a lot by the way), lending it the Proustian quality (I wasn’t surprised at all). All I can say is that “Disoriental” is a book that has so much to offer, and does it in a lot of ways and stupendously at that.

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.