breach – stories from the Calais refugee camp by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

Two writers, Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, were commissioned by Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press to go to the Calais refugee IMG_0631 (2)camp to listen to refugees’s stories and rework them into fictions of their own. The result is this gem of a book, ‘breach’, a collection of eight pieces or short stories about the lives and experiences not just of the refugees but of others who connect with them- volunteers, a Calais landlady, smugglers, an elderly teacher of English in Bolton. Through these stories we learn about the tough conditions in the camp- the mud, the cold, the anxiety, the desperation- but also hear the backstories of the individuals and the dire circumstances which set them on the route to Calais in the first place. Having read some reportage about the refugees’ journey in Wolfgang Bauer’s book ‘Crossing the Sea’ and seen the outstanding BBC2 documentary ‘Exodus’, I was curious to see whether fiction could bring an extra dimension to the story of Calais and as a fan of short stories was keen to see how the form could express the refugees’ experience.

The book starts with Counting Down, a story focusing on the friendships between a group of men in the camp- the title refers to them joking around about the record time to cross the border. They joke too about names, calling themselves nicknames- Obama, MG, GPS, Calculate- and while depicting the good humoured banter, the narrator describes each face in striking images- of MG ‘he can make his face become a curtain that opens fast’ whereas GPS’ ‘face closes. He needs to lock it so nothing can come in and nothing can leave’. We readers are invited to share the intimacy of the narrator’s gaze, to become part of the group and are all the more shocked then when Calculate is shown to have other motives in his concern to protect the young MG. The complex motives of friendship and questions of trust are raised in this first story and MG demonstrates his rude awakening to the duplicitous side of  adult behaviour by spitting at his erstwhile friend. Echoing the reference to that man on the beach who spat at the refugees pitching up there, saying that ‘tourism does not want to see any dead bodies floating onto the sand’.

Narrative voice is used to great effect in the next story, ‘Terrier’, told from the point of view of a middle aged French woman who has taken a brother and sister refugee pair into her home, paid for by the local Calais council. Being practical, she could do with the money, especially out of season with no holiday makers to take her rooms, but being aware of local opinion, she keeps this little money spinner quietly to herself. Yet she is curious about the young people and her feelings for them ricochet between a business like distance and an emotional intensity seen in her narrator’s response to the girl Nalin,  ‘ her eyes are eerily blue, blue- green but transparent in the way that clear water flowing over sand is transparent, full of light’ and when Nalin kisses her suddenly in thanks, the ‘three breathy kisses’ are ‘like butterfly wings beating’.  As if the young people are offering some kind of emotional connection missing in her own life.

‘Extending a hand’ is another story with female protagonists-24 year old Habena and her friend Mariam are desperate for money to send home to Mariam’s mother who has an ulcer- worries about family, phone calls and texts back home are a constant backdrop to the stories. The problem becomes acute when the ulcer bursts and Habena agrees to help her friend find the money by offering her sexual services to the truck drivers who wait nightly outside the camp. A sideshow in this story is that of the annoying volunteers- the ones who offered Habena all those dowdy comfortable old clothes when she wants tight leggings- the smiling volunteer who won’t leave them in peace when they’re on a desperate phone call with Mariam’ s mother. Volunteers move into centre stage in the next story ‘Paradise’ . Here we meet Julie, an idealistic young British student, come to volunteer at the camp with her seasoned leftie campaigning aunt Marjorie to the chagrin of her right wing Dad whose views nevertheless loom large in Julie’s consciousness as her ‘inner Dad’. At the same time we meet the handsome and charismatic refugee Muhib, closely bonded with his friend Isaac. Julie and Muhib have a romantic encounter and yet afterwards Muhib is dreaming of the well in his village, his mother, the loss of his friend Isaac, who leaves the camp. The gulf between his world and Julie’s is great indeed.

‘Ghosts’ shows us another side of the refugee experience in a kind of slow reveal. The narrator is tailing another man he refers to as ‘Ghostman’  around a city, to a casino, to women, to bars. He is angry with ‘Ghostman’ for his weakness, which is the weakness of talking. We don’t know the relationship between them at first but it becomes chillingly clear that it is one of power connected with people smuggling. And in this, one of the hardest stories, the brief referral to their past and the reasons for their flight-from local warlords and the Taliban- give us a glimpse of the effects of cycles of violence and abuse of power.

An easier read is ‘Lineage’ which starts in the line for the barbers’ where Farrukh seeks to befriend the melancholy Ramzi who bizarrely wants to be smuggled back to Iran to visit his sick mother. He has already applied for leave to remain in the UK but can’t apply for a visa with a pending application. While the two have tea in the Afghan cafe a plump guy asks Farrukh to recite a poem by his namesake- a poet I take to be Iranian as Farrukh is in the Iranian camp. He is unable to do so and sneaks off to do some other shady business. In the meantime the plump guy himself steps forward to recite and his performance is described with heartstopping prosody. The effect on the teadrinkers is transformative : ‘the whole shop starts clapping’ and Ramzi’s melancholy mood is lifted.

Themes of friendship and the ruthlessness of the smugglers are explored in ‘Oranges in the River’ where childhood friends Jan and Dlo seek to cross the channel in refrigerated containers, known to be one of the most dangerous ways of crossing. This story makes palpable the fear and anxiety endured by the refugees attempting this kind of crossing; whatever instructions the smugglers give them, they run the risk that the lorry drivers will park up for too long and they will freeze to death. The friends take different routes and become separated. Gaining one objective by crossing the channel can mean losses too.

Finally ‘Expect Me’ deals with the relationship between Sudanese Alghali and his English conversation teacher Mr. Dishman in Bolton. There is an interesting account here of their mutual need and similarity- the English lessons provide a structure and motivation for them both- while Alghali is prey to racism which erupts on the night of the Paris bombings. We gradually realise that this is in fact the Alghali from the first story and discover what has become of the group of friends.

So the book comes back to those first characters and this, together with the repetition of themes of friendship, trust, vulnerability, separation, through all the stories make them seem less separate stories but more like chapters in the same book to me. I also felt the cumulative effect of the ambiguity expressed in repeated gestures like Jan gripping Dlo’s shoulders ‘through to the bones’- is this gripping in support, crushing or coercive? By the time  I got to Mr. Dishman who ‘walks Alghali to the door, a hand on his shoulder’, for me this had undertones of frogmarching as well as kindness. So the careful use of repetition of images and ideas through the different stories allows the emergence of a rich and complex picture of the Calais camp, its residents and our responses. And herein lies the power of fiction. Which is not to take away from the real, often devastating experiences on which the stories are based. This book will deepen and enrich your understanding of the lives of all those people living in the Calais camp just 30 miles from the UK. I cannot recommend it enough.

 

 

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Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe- Wolfgang Bauer translated by Sarah Pybus.

This book, published in Germany in 2014 and in the UK this spring, 2016 ,P1000938 is an account of the experience of Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean to reach safety and asylum in Europe. The author, Wolfgang Bauer, is a German journalist working for ‘Die Zeit’. He and photographer Stanislav Krupar posed as teachers of English fleeing a republic in the Caucasus in order to accompany a group of Syrian refugees from Alexandria and to see what they have to endure in order to find a better life in Europe. Their true identities were known to only one of the group, Amar, and he is one of the central characters in the narrative. In fact Bauer and Krupar only accompany the group on their first attempt at crossing the sea; they are picked up by coastguards, thrown into prison in Alexandria and then deported via Turkey back to Germany. The narrative then continues with the further attempts of Amar, Alaa and his brother Hussan to cross the sea- Amar finally gives up on this route and reaches Europe via Africa.

P1000937So this is a gruelling account of the crossing, some of which will be familiar to readers from the television news- the ramshackle boats used, the overcrowding on the boats, the lack of food, drinking water and life jackets, the dangerous conditions in which the boats set sail, the deaths by drowning. Less familiar will be the days and weeks of waiting for the crossing, the tension and anxiety caused by never knowing when you will be leaving, the huge amounts of money demanded by everyone involved- the agents, the smugglers, the people in whose apartments you are hanging around in, waiting, the kidnappers who unexpectedly take you to an apartment, lock you in and demand a ransom for your liberation. The lies you are told, thinking you must be nearing Italy when all the time you are cruising the coast of North Africa. The utter helplessness.

And the effect of this is made more real by focusing on the personal stories of the group Bauer is travelling with: Amar is a middle class Syrian who left in 2011 to continue his import business in Egypt. Life became more difficult for Amar and family after the overthrow of Morsi and increasing hostility towards Syrians. Amar realised he could no longer continue to support his family in Egypt and would have to leave. He would go first and they would follow on- if he made it. We follow the story of two brothers Alaa and Hussan, the latter a vulnerable young man, reliant on family members to make decisions for him, now literally tossed onto the seas of fortune. Poignant details from family life , of love and loss make the accounts all the more heart rending- Elias tapes his sister’s medical records to his stomach for safety. She has Down’s syndrome and asthma and he hopes she will receive better medical treatment in Europe.

The refugees’ suffering does not of course stop once they have reached Europe- or Elysium as the chapter headings call it. Alaa and Hussan are also exploited by a taxi driver who charges them 400 Euros to cross the border from Germany to Denmark and a train conductor takes advantage of Alaa’s confusion to pocket 120 Euros from him-I was really shocked at this account. And though decently housed in Sweden, they feel ill at ease in their small town in the middle of forests and lakes-and in the face of  a swelling anti- foreigner feeling looming  in response to the sudden influx of literally thousands of refugees. I was also shocked at the ease with which passport officials could be bribed in Africa, allowing refugees from the Middle East to enter Europe via Africa on false papers. In this account it seems that money is the only thing which speaks.

Now, as we know, refugees are continuing  to make these crossings, exposing themselves to danger, exploitation and death, to arrive in a Europe which is often less than welcoming. In his epilogue to the English Edition, written in December 2015, Bauer lays the blame for the collapse of Syria and the rise of IS at the hands of EU ministers who would not introduce no- fly zones as part of a strategy to combat Assad’s forces. It seems as if Europe is still dragging its heels on finding a solution to the crisis in Syria- the UK is shamefully ungenerous and slow at offering practical help to refugees- as Amelia Gentleman points out in her Guardian article  of 03/08/ 2016 on how little Britain has done to get the unaccompanied children out of Calais three months after the Dubs amendment. This personal account of human suffering, endurance, courage and loss, translated with sensitivity into a very readable account by Sarah Pybus, gives us just a glimpse of what the Syrian refugees are going through. Read this and add your voice to Wolfgang Bauer when he ends the epilogue by pleading for us to have mercy. To do something to stop forcing the men, women and children onto the boats.

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The Proletarian Poet- Junges Licht by Ralf Rothmann.

If this novel is anything to go by, the sobriquet ‘proletarian poet’  ( referred to by Alexandra Roesch in New Books in German ) fits Ralf Rothmann like a glove: ‘Junges Licht’ is set in a working class milieu in the Ruhrgebiet in the early 1960s and describes the constraints, pressures and economic hardships of those times. Narrated by a  12 year old boy, Julian, the environment and characters are described in minute and arresting detail, conjuring up vivid images of people and situations. At the same time, the adult world with its complex relationships, demands and sexual desires is looming on the edges of the young lad’s consciousness and Rothmann’s ability to show us the world through his still innocent eyes is just one aspect of his literary skills.

The novel starts on the first day of the summer holidays. As Julian opens the curtains and slowly surveys the garden below with its few scattered toys, fruit bushes and the Gornys’ house next door, we share that moment of heightened excitement at the prospect of days of freedom and potential ahead. At the same time we are introduced to the physical layout of the houses in this miner’s ‘Siedlung’ or estate : living cheek by jowl as they do, the Gornys can see up into Julian’s house and vice versa, which enables each family to check on the movements of the other as well as creating a more generalised and diffuse feeling of threat.

The narrative proceeds episodically through Julian’s world: we see him caring for his beloved menagerie at the Tierclub- animal club- housed in an abandoned builder’s lorry in a nearby wasteland, cutting out figures from magazines while looking after his younger sister, Sophie, negotiating the intricacies of gang behaviour and ever alert to the behaviour and reactions of the adults around him- though sometimes misinterpreting them. The sexualised adult world begins to encroach through Julian’s contact with the 15 year old lodger Marusha and the unwelcome attentions of the creepy Herr Gorny, but there is much innuendo and evasiveness leaving Julian only half grasping the adults’ motivations and desires. Other aspects of the adult world encroach too- Julian’s mother is ill- ‘sie hat etwas mit der Galle- something wrong with her gall bladder’, they are very hard up, and the whole family is aware of the hard toil endured by their father in the mine.

The plot develops further when Julian’s mother leaves with Sophie for a holiday in the country on her parents’ farm. Julian is left in charge of running the household and Marusha takes the opportunity of his father working nights to invite her boyfriend Jonny round. The close proximity of Marusha’s bedroom to the balcony means that Julian hears every noise coming from the bedroom while not being quite aware of what it all adds up to. However in the account of Julian crouched listening on the balcony to what is going on behind the curtains Rothmann shows his genius for slowly building up tension in an atmosphere of claustrophobia- and this is repeated in the scene where Julian and his father, accompanied by Marusha, visit his father’s old friend Lippek. The men get drunk and though they feebly protest at first they allow Marusha to get drunk too. Lippek engages Marusha in a sort of lewd banter riven with smutty insinuation, interrupted only by knocking back another Schnaps. The scene goes on, the tension winding up ever tighter and it is as if the characters are immobilised in the tiny attic flat of the ageing bachelor. I felt like running out of the room screaming myself and this flight response is that taken of course by Julian on occasions, starting with him running away from school. Here, as in other  interior domestic scenes in the book, Rothmann evokes feelings of constraint and claustrophobia,sometimes in response to a threat lurking beneath the surface, but also in response to the dreary everyday routine: Julian’s mother is desperate for a holiday not only for her physical ills but also to get her out of poverty and the daily grind for a while.

The working class milieu is evoked in detail, both physically but also in terms of its social norms. We see the uniformity of the housing estate with the ever present mine in the distance, as well as the interior of the houses- and the fridge with no food in it. But there are hierarchies within this milieu. The Gornys think they are a cut above Julian’s family because they own Julian’s house as well as their own and Julian is aware that their son is going to the grammar school in September. The shop keeper treats Julian with real contempt when he buys his mother’s cigarettes on tick, deriding her for not having the bottle to ask for credit herself. Yet some of the behaviours may be attributed to the era as much as to the social milieu: the sadistic metal edged ruler used in punishment in school is thankfully a thing of the past, as is, in general, children being physically chastised by their parents. I was horrified by the savage beating Julian receives from his mother- and all the more shocked when she coolly opens the door to her friend straight afterwards as if nothing had happened.

Now to say the novel opens with Julian is not strictly true: there are two narrative threads here and it is the second one which briefly opens the book. This second narrative is a third person narrative describing the work of ‘der Mann’ in the mine and interleaved into the main narrative. This character is both Julian’s father and more generally representative of any miner. Each section describes in detail the work he is carrying out, with detailed descriptions of the rock face with all its contours and characteristics as well as the machinery used. We are left in no doubt as to the hard physical toil of this work, as well as to the dangerous and unpredictable conditions within which the miners at that time were working. And that the miners were forever marked by this work is shown on the body: the scars on Julian’s father’s arms are impregnated with coal dust which cannot be removed. So these sections remind us at regular intervals as we read of the other underground reality. But they are also a reminder of a possible future for Julian, showing that this is what men in his community do and where he may end up working. And so they feed into the exploration of masculinity which is also present in the book with its protagonist on the cusp of adulthood. Will he go down the pit, or will he- gifted at sketching, loving to his younger sister, caring for his animals and acutely aware of every change of expression on his mother’s face- get away and forge a different kind of identity as an adult male?

‘Junges Licht’ is a beautifully written and poignant account of the last summer of childhood; as Julian closes the door of his bedroom on the last page he is closing the door on this chapter of his life. I was delighted to be introduced to the book by the critic Wolfgang Schneider at a talk he gave for the Goethe Institut, but at that time- 2012- the shop assistant at Dussmann had to get up a ladder to find the copies stored high up and out of sight. Hopefully now, with a feature film released in May of this year, 2016, the books will be stacked up ready for reading on the front table where they rightfully belong.

 

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A plague on both your houses: The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera translated by Lisa Dillman published by And Other Stories.

This slim novel, described as a ‘noirish tragedy’ on the back cover, takes place in an unspecified city in Mexico. A plague has descended on the town, rendering the streets deserted. At the same time, two rival gangs, the Castros and the Fonsecas, have in their possession the bodies of the daughter/son of the rival gang, Baby Girl and Romeo. The novel’s main protagonist, The Redeemer, a local fixer, is asked to arrange an exchange of bodies between the two families to avoid further violence and bloodshed. This is the premise of the plot which then charts The Redeemer’s path through the twists and turns towards this goal, accompanied by the tough nurse Vicky and two hoods, The Neeyanderthal and The Mennonite.

Now, as pointed out in every commentary of the book I have read ( and I do recommend James Lasdun’s Guardian review), the novel is aware of genre and antecedents and as I read it I had scenes from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet going through my head continually as if on ticker tape.  The Redeemer himself, a melancholic, cynical loner, escaping life’s miseries in mezcal could have been a cousin of Rebus, never mind Raymond Chandler. And the plague itself- references to Camus’ La Peste/ Old Testament retribution on a society mired in immorality and violence? All these resonances were there, drifting through my head while reading the book in the soaring temperatures of last Sunday afternoon.

Both James Lasdun and the translator, Lisa Dillman,  in an article in Literary Hub, write interestingly on Herrera’s skill in evoking these references. Lisa Dillman looks particularly at the challenge of translating the polysemous names in the Spanish original into English equivalents which evoke the same range of meaning. So the Spanish original el Alfaqueque, deriving from the Arabic fakka al – aseer, meaning to emancipate, ransom and redeem becomes The Redeemer. However the painstaking work involved in translating names is just one part of the translator’s job: I admired Lisa Dillman’s skill both in finding a convincing vernacular for dialogue and the Redeemer’s interior thoughts as well as for the translation of striking images. We have both writer and translator to thank for ‘ a dense block of mosquitos tethering themselves to a puddle of water as tho attempting to lift it’ and a ‘rictus of icy panic spread across the passengers’ faces’. And with ‘rictus’ we have a clever interleaving of a plague lexis into the text, a lexis scattered beyond context to remind us of the all pervasiveness of that threat:  as the Redeemer and Three Times Blonde are caught in a power cut he says ‘that was what it felt like to incubate, to settle in with yourself and hope the light stays off ‘ and ‘on previous days he’d spotted several puddles covered in whitish membranes’.

I also take my hat off to Lisa Dillman for her rendering of the sex scenes: the Redeemer strikes lucky early on in the narrative with his neighbour Three Times Blonde and rendering the voice of the protagonist’s male gaze here must have been challenging. This may just be of course my jaundiced view, as I found this the least appealing part of the narrative for me. Just a bit tired of reading about sex ever present in the male mind. Felt the same about the skilled writer Junot Diaz.

But I did enjoy the language and economy of both the writing and the translation in this novel and I’ve just discovered that Yuri Herrera and Lisa Dillman received the Best Translated Book award for his previous novel ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’-with a female protagonist. It’s on the list.

 

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The Girl who Fell from the Sky- Simon Mawer

This novel is dedicated to Colette, one of the brave women parachuted into occupied France for the Special Operations Executive during WW11 . As I’m interested in books with strong female protagonists-see my post on William Boyd’s Sweet Caress– and the novel was recommended by friends with whom I used to teach French, I decided to give it a go.

The central character is one Marian Sutro, brought up in Geneva with a French mother and English father and therefore bilingual. She is plucked from the ranks of the WAAF to train for the SOE without quite knowing what she is letting herself in for. She is told the training will be rigorous, she will not necessarily succeed and be sent to work in the field and she must tell no one what work she is actually engaged in. She turns out to be quite tough enough, an excellent shot and is eventually parachuted on a mission into the south of France. Just before leaving she has also been asked to help with getting someone out of Paris and so her work in France involves both negotiating the complex networks of the resistance in rural France, but also the far more dangerous streets of Paris, with the Gestapo at every corner and fear a palpable presence in the air.

A second theme threading through the narrative is that of nuclear physics, specifically the international race to develop the first nuclear bomb. Marian discovers that her brother, Ned, is involved in this work as is their old family friend, Clément, and this second theme is also important in the development of the plot.

Now that’s all I’m going to say about the plot-this is a sort of literary thriller and I don’t want to spoil. But also for me the plot was only one of the elements which made this a very readable and compelling novel. I admired the careful knitting together of historical context and background events which enhanced characterisation and motivation as well as advancing the narrative: Clément’s Jewish wife leaves Paris because of the round up at the Vél d’Hiv, the resistance fighters are jumpy and agitated, distrustful of the British and each other because of ideological differences, Marian is horrified at the potential of an atomic bomb, being aware of the loss of human life after the carpet bombing of Hamburg.  Simon Mawer shows real knowledge of France under occupation and pulls different strands together with consummate skill.

I also enjoyed his depiction of place- the wild Scottish highlands, rural France, the streets and squares of central Paris and the working class suburb of Belleville are again described with such accuracy and attention to detail that you feel you are right there, experiencing fear in a dark field just before a night time drop or a moment of relaxation in the autumn sunlight by the Garonne in Toulouse. And this evocation of place is deepened by Mawer’s simple but effective imagery: at the Palais de Justice in Paris, ‘the swastika banners hang down the front of the building, the colour of sealing wax and boot polish’.

Now, I felt that the characterisation of Marian was a little more uneven. I felt her development from capable but naive young woman to competent operator was well and plausibly handled as was the transition in her sexual and romantic experience.However I couldn’t quite believe that she would blurt out to her brother what she was really training for, however close they were, and one or two conversations with her superiors had her as a bit more sassy than I could believe in 1940s Britain with its stricter codes of authority and hierarchy. Still, there were gentle brushstrokes I adored- Marian putting on the shoes she’d bought with Mama and Papa in a little shop off the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in 1940 shortly before they left Paris for London. A little vanity setting off that memory of closeness and nostalgia for a Paris now disappeared.

So I’m giving Simon Mawer 8 out of 10 for a male writer’s depiction of a strong female character but for his account of occupied France- chapeau!! And the sequel to this one, Tightrope, is now available too.

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

This enigmatic novel, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016, deals with familiar themes- abuse, coercion, gender relations, sickness- in the, to me at least, relatively unfamiliar setting of South Korea. The ideas are explored partly through dreams and surreal elements of the plot which contribute to the feeling of strangeness pervading the book, but are nevertheless firmly rooted in the present day Seoul with its high rise flats, long hours culture and its traditional rural past still looming just over its shoulder.

The eponymous vegetarian is a young married woman called Yeong-hye, who gives up eating meat after a visceral dream in which she is trapped in a barn where meat and blood are dripping down from a bamboo stick and soaking into her clothes. The first part of the story is told by her husband, whose feelings for his wife range from indifference to contempt, and we see the incredulity and disapproval produced by Yeong-hye’s stance, from his colleagues but also from her family. Things reach a climax at a family meal, where Yeong-hye’s father attempts to force meat through her lips. She rebels and in a frenzy, grabs a knife and slashes her wrist.

The story is taken up two years later by Yeong- hye’s brother in law who works as a video artist. He becomes fascinated by the Mongolian Mark, a kind of birthmark on the bodies of both his wife and sister-in-law, Yeong-hye. We learn that Yeong-hye has in the meantime got divorced, is living alone, and gradually regaining confidence after being hospitalized following the wrist slashing. Her brother- in- law becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye and dreams of painting her body with flowers. This section is erotically charged, and raising questions of objectification and consent, as it does, verges on the pornographic. However this narrator is not the cold, callous egotist of the first section-he is sensitive to Yeong-hye’s needs , sorry for her dreadful marriage, self aware and at times ashamed of his desire. Yet we know he has neglected his own wife and child, cannot be relied on for such mundane tasks as childcare and seems wrapped up in his own artistic cocoon.

The third section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. Yeong-hye is now in a psychiatric hospital in the countryside outside Seoul and In-hye is visiting her. Yeong-hye is now refusing to eat at all and the physical symptoms of her anorexia are carefully described, as is the lush green forest surrounding the hospital, its leaves dripping constantly in the incessant rain of the monsoon. And this landscape assumes more importance in this section as Yeong-hye identifies more and more with the plants and trees  from outside: the hospital staff tell In-hye of the time Yeong-hye refused to come down from a handstand, feeling that her arms were her roots, keeping her legs splayed open for flowers to grow at her crotch and refusing all food, insisting that plants and trees just needed water. This section is as much about In-hye, now struggling as a single parent, desperately worried for her sister for whom she is the sole advocate with the hospital authorities and wracked with guilt about her lack of support for Yeong-hye in the past when she was beaten by their father.

So Yeong-hye’s stand can be seen as a rebellion against the traditional and prescribed ideal of femininity in South Korea. She refuses to eat or prepare meat, but just as heinous, refuses to obey her husband and father when they object. This is a society where coercion is the next step-it is seen as the father’s right to force meat through her lips, or at least no one dares to stop him. Just as shocking for me was the scene of force feeding at the hospital- a practice I associate with the suffragettes of a hundred years ago and did not imagine still happened. And coupled with this is sexual coercion, normalised in the indifferent narrative voice of her husband and explored more deeply in the relationship with the video artist.

However these instances of violence occur in a society which Han Kang depicts as one of rapid change: while the younger generation live western lives in high rise blocks and stressful workplaces,  Yeong-hye’s mother brings a remedy of black goat to the hospital for her daughter and in her world, a dog bite is cured by eating the dog who bit you. The modern world with its pressures and long hours has surely contributed to the misery, isolation and alienation of the characters, to the lack of communication and loving relationships. And Yeong-hye’s passage from vegetarianism to aspirant plant in the steamy forest setting seems a rejection of the values of modern capitalism as well as those of compliant femininity.

Han Kang’s explores these ideas in a language which is at once economic and powerful. The image of blood is everywhere, staining white shirts, spreading over the body of a tiny crushed bird, gushing from Yeong-hye’s mouth during force feeding. The detailed description of flowers, tendrils and leaves painted onto her body disturbs and disorientates us. And the power of the language is also of course down to the superb rendering into English by translator Deborah Smith. She smoothly renders the very different voices of the three narrators as well as conveying the surreal aspects of the story with a beautiful lyricism- just listen to this: ‘Yeong-hye’s voice, the forest with the black rain falling, and her own face with the blood trickling from her eye, shiver the long night into fragments like potsherds.’

I’ve no doubt that the originality of the story and the challenges of the translation made The Vegetarian a deserved winner of this year’s prize. I’m still a little perplexed about how to respond to the fantasies of the video artist and his enactment of those fantasies-which is why I’m going to suggest this book for discussion by our women’s book group. And don’ t dismiss the fantasy of breaking down the borders of our physical selves, of merging with nature to become a tree or plant. Only yesterday on Inside Science they were discussing whether plants can think, so humans and plant life may have more in common than we imagined! And this while the dark green trees surrounding my house were ceaselessly dripping rain in this Derbyshire summer.

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Two great Europeans- Lunatics, Lovers and Poets- Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare.

Now you may be aghast, in shock, in tears or denial about the outcome of the referendum on our membership of the European Union. And I’m not sure whether the brilliance of this book will delight and soothe you or feed the flames of anger at the absurdity of the UK       distancing itself from Europe, when Shakespeare in England and Cervantes in Spain were writing at the same time in their different corners of Europe.  For ‘Lunatics, Lovers and Poets’  is a celebration of the work of Shakespeare and Cervantes, in twelves stories based on their work. The stories are either modern interpretations of their plays and prose, tales of people intimately bound up with the writers, or simply stories using an idea or theme as a starting point. The writers, 6 from the Spanish speaking world and 6 from the English, were asked to base their story on the work of the writer from the other language, so Juan Gabriel Vásquez for example writes on Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and Nell Leyshon on Cervantes’ ‘The Glass Graduate’- and I was intrigued and delighted to find some favourite stories emerging in new and unexpected contexts.

Simply scanning the contents page to choose where to begin reminded me of Christmas, holding up your stocking to see the small gifts tumbling out, not knowing which to unwrap first. So I went for the familiar much admired Juan Gabriel Vásquez, whose  novel ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ I’ve reviewed here. His story ‘The Dogs of War’, translated by Anne McLean, centres on an academic in his native Colombia teaching courses on Shakespearean rhetoric to law students. He focuses on Julius Caesar and Mark Antony’s powerful speeches after the assassination of Caesar predicting the years of chaos ahead. A contemporary story runs parallel: the story of the killing of Colombia’s Justice Minister by Pablo Escobar and the years of fighting between Escobar’s men and the state which followed. I loved here the picking apart of Shakespeare’s rhetoric, the account of those long years of struggle for the Colombian people and the masterly storytelling, just giving us that sad little twist at the end.

Another favourite was Vicente Molina Fox’s ‘Egyptian Puppet’ a story set in Shakespearean London where Margaret, a seamstress, is searching for her husband who has disappeared. Her search leads the reader through a cast of characters and situations from Elizabethan/ Jacobean London: apothecaries and actors, a beauty parlour and a public hanging. She falls for one Nick who is playing several female characters in Cleopatra at The Globe; after the performance he gives her the asp made of rags and tatters. I was completely caught up here by the depiction of London, its voyeurism, its menace- we have to thank the translator Frank Wynne for his rendering of this and for the smooth consistency of the narrative voice, evoking so convincingly a period now past.

My favourite story from Cervantes was ‘Mir Aslam of Kolachi’ by Kamila Shamsie, whose novel ‘A God in every stone’ is reviewed here. Mir Aslam is the last of the Qissa-Khwans or Storytellers in Kolachi and his character is an amalgam of Cervantes’ character Don Quixote and the narrator Cide Hamete Benengeli. He dreams of a golden age of Islam where ‘faith and art and a generosity of spirit could entwine so beautifully’ which he sees embodied in the ancient city of Qurtaba  in the far off state of al- Andalus, the capital of Muslim Spain. But when Mir Aslam tries to get a passport to visit, his idealism is brought down to earth amidst the realities of bureaucracy and sectarian strife in Kolachi. The charm of this story for me lay in the gap between the naivety and innocence of Mir Aslam’s voice and the reality of today’s world- yet the ending left me clinging on to the richness and beauty of his imagination and ideals.

And there is plenty more to treasure: Ben Okri gives us a rewrite of Don Quixote’s visit to the printing workshop, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s story sets the themes of adultery and jealousy in a contemporary context, Rhidian Brook makes his narrator the writer of ‘Rocinante’, casting a satirical eye on the London literary scene while Soledad Puértolas tells of the enduring bonds created by a love of Shakespeare in ‘The Secret Life of Shakespeareans’. The collection is a fantastic homage to Shakespeare and Cervantes  attesting to their lasting appeal as storytellers. But  more than that- the rich range of characters, stories and ideas, reflected and refracted through time and the imaginations of other writers represent the infinite wealth of cross cultural exchange. And it is this opening out to each other, communicating across cultures and time which we must hold on to now. Read this book, immerse yourself in its stories and pass it on to your friends.

 

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