Tag Archives: world translations

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.

 

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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.

 

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.

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.

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.