Bogota 39- New Voices from Latin America-a feast of writing and the feat of translation-edited by Juliet Mabey-Hay Festival/ One World

In 2007 the Bogotá39 project identified and promoted 39 promising young writers from Latin America, bringing the works of writers like Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Junot Díaz to a wider readership. This 2018 collection follows on from the original with, ten years later, 39 exciting new voices from the vast and varied Latin American world. At a recent launch event at London’s Free Word Centre, where some of the writers were in a discussion expertly chaired by translator Sophie Hughes, it was said that Latin American writing is still shrugging off stereotypical expectations that it’s all about drug trafficking and armed conflict. Refreshingly, those topics hardly feature here:  this collection features rather the contemporary experiences of the urban and the rural world, managing and responding to the digital age, relationships of all kinds in these settings, with some pieces of futuristic, surreal and apocalyptic writing to echo the increasingly unstable times in which we live.

Now, as any fan of short stories will know, a collection of short stories is often more than the sum of its parts, and nowhere is this truer than with a collection of short stories in translation: as I was reading this collection, I became more and more aware of the consummate skill with which these stories have been translated. The short form requires that the translator very quickly renders the voice,  the tone, the style, the rhythm of the original, to draw us in, to unsettle and surprise us. This collection, with its broad and varied range of writing, displays a huge range of translation skills and for me is as much a showcase for the feat of translation as a feast of new Latin American writing.

A number of the stories take place in urban settings which add to the tension and sometimes bleakness of the tale: in Naked Animals the narrator catches sight of a woman in a car, her face shaped by tears, whom he then stalks by car through the city. In An Unlucky Man, the family are caught up in urban traffic while rushing their daughter Abi to the hospital after swallowing bleach. An ironic distance is taken in Work in Progress where a couple liken their never ending building project in a Buenos Aires condominium to the creation of a novel. And in The Art of Vanishing the city bars and brothels permit exhibitions of violence and lust at odds with the protagonist’s feeling for family.

The urban stories often feature solitary, lonely, sometimes displaced protagonists. In Perhaps an Animal Elvira is a young woman down on her luck in São Paulo. The story starts, disturbingly, with Elvira surreptitiously rooting round in a bin for thrown away food. Her landlord has offered to forget her rent arrears if she gives him a hand-job. In Teresa and Children the protagonists are emotionally disconnected young men, whose actions seem random and motivation unexplained: in Teresa the protagonist is more interested in planning his TV viewing than in other people, in Children the protagonist seeks out random meetings and events to relieve his solitude and lies guilelessly when finding himself at a séance.

I enjoyed, in contrast to the tension and sometimes claustrophobia of the city, the stories with a feeling for landscape. The Days Gone By describes a journey by bus and boat to visit a childhood friend- through a chilly landscape of lakes and volcanoes. The political dimension of land in South America moves to centre stage in Chaco: the narrator’s grandfather was said to have participated in moving the indigenous Mataco people from their land to make way for an oil refinery. The narrator finds the body of a Mataco lying by the roadside and then finds himself haunted, disturbingly, by the Mataco. In Forests Where There Was Nothing, Father Félix and his young seminarian disagree about the value of turning the great, bare expanses under the celestial vault into forest. The seminarian believes forestation provides more work for local people and is therefore a good thing-Father Félix denies there was nothing before forestation, remembering the empty pampas and the furious waves. Every grain of the dunes.

All kinds of relationships are explored in this collection. Papi’s False Teeth is told from Daughter’s point of view after he’s died: she ended up shouldering the burden of his care, and through the technique of slow reveal we learn the disturbing nature of Papi’s needs and the significance of the title. In Fictio Legis the narrator, returning from Spain to Mexico with her husband, is listening in to the conversation of another couple and a third man, Hans, on the plane. Her condescending narrative- the tone so superbly rendered- is interleaved by comments from Roman legislators on the payment of a dowry when the marriage is to a eunuch. A delicious twist is in store for the reader when the narrator and her husband prepare for landing. Friendship and kindness are displayed in Snow. The narrator and his friend arrive in Chicago from the Dominican Republic to study. Absolutely floored by the cold, they encounter help in finding and furnishing their apartment from a range of people of different nationalities.

The importance of tone in conveying the complexity of relationships is seen again in Titans on the Beach, so skilfully conveyed by the translator. The story is set on a beach in Germany, where the narrator is with his German girlfriend, Sue K, watching German children playing. He is aware of his  physical difference, both from the baby Teutons and his girlfriend- he with his body-hair and construction worker’s stomach, she with her washboard stomach. He resents her calling him Chewie rather than his  real name, Jesús, but puts up with it-he’s more fed up when her friends ‘tease’ him by calling him Chewbacca. Unpleasant patronising attitudes leaning into racism start to emerge and when the narrator’s pet name for his girlfriend morphs from my queen of hearts into my Prussian monarch we feel even more uncomfortable.

There are superb examples in the collection of the translator’s skill in creating mood. Lid/1981 is about a family memory and strikes a nostalgic note from the beginning, saying the family has now fallen apart, but what we once were is still present, the way the sun is present for blind men who can’t see the light, just feel its warmth on their faces. And of a family memory: my own memory doesn’t count; it’s not mine. It’s like a borrowed suit, one that fits in some places, pulls and sags in others.

There’s a wonderful recreation of incantatory rhythm in Chaco, where the narrative voice changes as the Matanco man takes over the narrator’s head and voice: the river was poison, the fish were dead. The hunger was great, the food all gone. Three men were sent hunting, none returned. Sucking on pig bones, they were found. Ayayay. And I am in awe of the translator’s success in rendering word play in How do Stones Think? The story begins with a riff on rhymes: with rhymes the words finish the same way just like two stories with happy endings. For example: slow and grow, grass and vast, never and forever.

Now this really is a collection of 39 stories and extracts and it’s been impossible to mention all of them in this post. Rest assured that there are many other intriguing stories in the collection, which also contains information about each writer and translator, a map of Latin America, and a helpful introduction from Gaby Wood, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation. This is not just a collection but a cornucopia in that it serves as an introduction to the work of a new generation of Latin American writers. And at the modest price of £ 12.99 from Oneworld it should be on the bookshelf of every lover of Latin American Literature.

Stories mentioned here in order of appearance:

Naked Animals by Jesús Michael Soto, translated by Emily Davis.

An Unlucky Man by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell.

Work in Progress by Mauro Libertella, translated by Nick Caistor.

The Art of Vanishing by Felipe Restrepo Pombo translated by Daniel Hahn.

Perhaps an Animal by Natalia Borges Polesso, translated by Sophie Lewis.

Teresa by Eduardo Plaza, translated by Rahul Berg.

Children by Juan Pablo Roncone, translated by Ellen Jones.

The Days Gone By by Gonzalo Eltesch, translated by Katherine Rucker.

Chaco by Liliana Colanzi, translated by Julia Sanchos

Forests where there was Nothing by Valentín Trujillo, translated by Simon Bruni.

Papi’s False Teeth by Mónica Ojeda, translated by Anna Milsom

Fictio Legis by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney.

Snow by Frank Báez, translated by Anwen Roys.

Titans on the Beach by Alan Mills, translated by Delaina Haslam

Lid/1981 by Damían González Bertolino, translated by Lily Meyer.

How do Stones Think? by Brenda Lozano, translated by Lucy Greaves.


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Sie kam aus Mariupol- Natascha Wodin

After years of trying to find out more about her Ukrainian mother, who died when she was only 10 years old, Natascha Wodin idly types her name one late summer night into a Russian search engine. To her amazement, for the first time ever, something comes up: the name Jewgenia Jakowlewna Iwaschtschenko, born 1920 in Mariupol. She is led to the site Azov’s Greeks which has a wealth of information about the Greek community that had lived in Mariupol since the 18th century, but also offers a platform for those seeking information about lost family members. Through this platform she makes contact with Konstantin, a Russian with a Greek code name, who makes it his business to help people tracking down their family and becomes Natascha Wodin’s virtual companion, friend and support over the next few months as she unravels her mother’s story. This book is a memoir of her mother and her mother’s family and an account of the broader sweep of history which determined their lives: the Russian revolution and the Soviet domination of the Ukraine, the German occupation during World War Two, and the exploitation of many Eastern Europeans, including Ukrainians, in the factories of Nazi Germany. But it is also a fascinating account of the process of discovery, the crucial role played by new technology in the process and the emotional responses of the writer as she slowly inches closer to understanding more about her mother.

One of the first surprises comes in the very first longer email she receives from Konstantin who has found out that her mother’s grandparents were wealthy landowners and that their six children were well educated members of the Mariupol intellectual elite. The writer is stunned by this news, as her memories of her mother are of a worn down, emaciated, mentally fragile person.Her parents came to Germany at the end of the war as Zwangsarbeiter– forced labourers-working for the Flick business in Leipzig, enduring the punishing and inhumane conditions of those factories. They stayed on in Germany after the war and lived for years in precarious situations- a warehouse, a Displaced Persons Camp, finally their own small house in a housing development for problem families. Though she could speak German, her mother became more and more isolated and depressed due to their pariah status as Russians and DPs and Natascha herself internalized the prevailing prejudices against the family, thinking that they were merely Kehricht– rubbish, scum. And so the idea that her mother came from a privileged and educated background was an utter revelation to her.

Konstantin’s  first email contains information not only about her mother but also about her mother’s older sister, Lidia, and her brother, Sergej. Natascha finds out that Lidia fell foul of the Soviet regime after the revolution and was banished to Medwesha Gora in the far reaches of the Soviet Union for many years. It is when Konstantin uses the Russian social media site Odnoklassik that they find out more information about Lidia and her family: it is Lidia’s grandson, Kiri, who responds, saying that this sounds like his grandmother. Using the address which Lidia gives when she applies to be rehabilitated, Natascha does a search on Google Maps and finds the very house where Lidia lived in the last years of her life. She delights in thinking that this is the front door that her aunt, a woman she never knew, but her mother’s sister, went in and out of every day.

The most fantastic discovery which comes from the contact with Lidia’s family, however, is a set of Lidia’s notebooks which are found quite by chance on top of a wardrobe, when the flat she lived in is being cleared out. The content of these notebooks form the second part of the book and give a fascinating account of life in Mariupol for the wealthy and privileged immediately prior to the Russian revolution. The tumultuous and irrevocable changes in their lives and fortunes then brought about by the revolution are described in detail as well as the economic collapse of the Ukraine as a result of Stalin’s policies and the ensuing desperation and starvation of the population. As readers we begin to understand how the writer’s mother, born in 1920 into chaos and turmoil, knew little else growing up- and that hunger was a constant feature of her life.

The third and fourth parts of the book trace the journey made by the writer’s mother, recently married, from Mariupol to Leipzig in the last years of the war. The story is told against a general historical background of events at that time as the writer speculates on the effect of these on her mother- for example the fact that the Ukrainians taken from Mariupol by ship to Roumania were forced to lie on the deck as a human shield while the ships were under attack from Soviet air strikes. It is not hard to imagine her mother’s nerves in shreds after this experience.

The gruelling working conditions her parents endured has been referred to earlier, but their suffering post war is related in more detail here as these are now the childhood memories of the writer herself, born in 1945. Her mother’s misery and isolation, slipping into depression and helplessness, unable to perform basic household tasks or care for her children, are heart rending to read. Still, there are one or two uplifting moments: the warm care and attention given to her mother by a local doctor who has taken a shine to her and the times that the family sing together on summer evenings, so beautifully, that even the most standoffish neighbours creep beneath their window to hear the sonorous outpourings of the Russian soul.

Finally we are told of the tragic evening when her mother leaves the house and does not return- she jumps into the river Regnitz and her death.

This sad story is of course emblematic of the lives of millions of people caught up in the wars and ideological strife of the 20th century. Yet the writer makes the story so personal and hence so moving by telling us about the process of searching and the questions as well as answers which are raised- and of the blinde Flecken– the blind spots-which she comes up against and will never get beyond. And the last achingly sad section was for me made bearable by the narrator’s presence-a tough, energetic and resilient little girl, who defied her parents by speaking German, found comfort and occasionally a little fun where she could, in spite of everything.

If you enjoy memoir and family history and would like to learn more about the experiences of the Zwangsarbeiter, a history less well known perhaps than that of other persecuted groups during the Nazi period, you should read this book, which surely will be translated into English some time very soon.

Sie kam aus Mariupol- Natascha Wodin- €19,95

(available in paperback in German August 2018-€12,00.


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Looking forward, looking back- a Janus moment in German Literature?

When I recently attended a meeting at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin I had the good fortune to hear the well known German critic Meike Feβmann discuss new trends in contemporary German literature. She thought new writing in German was moving away from its preoccupation with  the past, with the history of the Nazi period, the divided Germany and reunification. She identified a broadening out to embrace more global concerns and an interest in technology and the digital world. I’ve been musing on this ever since, as a reader interested in historical fiction and memoir, and thought I’d just look at some of the titles she mentioned as well as some others I’ve been aware of, to see how marked this trend is.

The first book in this new trend (and the biggest at 480 pages )  is Dunkle Zahlen, by Matthias Senkel, shortlisted this year for the Leipzig Book Prize. The story begins in Moscow 1985 at a world competition for computer programmers. Shortly before the contest opens, the entire Cuban team goes missing. A hectic search for them then ensues, which involves leaps back and forth into different time frames and different worlds, referencing world literature, and involving key historical figures, all playing out in a world connected in nonlinear ways via the Internet.

Similarly concerned with the Internet, Josefina Rieks’ debut novel Serverland is set in a world where the Internet is a thing of the past. A group of computer nerds are collecting old computers and hard drives, now discarded, and one of them finds he is able to get an old server restarted to connect to the Internet and see how we all lived back in the day. A slim volume, written in informal everyday German, there is a laddish quality to the writing which may not appeal to all, but the idea is intriguing.

Hagard by Lukas Bärfuss is a similarly slim novel, its story taking place over 36 hours when the protagonist catches sight of a woman after work in Zürich whom he then follows. His smart phone plays an important role and the backdrop of Zürich is widened out to a global range when world events are referred to. Now, I was rather put off this book by the male gaze at the beginning but I might pick it up again to see how he achieves the tempo and the global feel.

More immediately appealing to me- and still in the new trend group-is Anja Kampmann’s Wie hoch die Wasser Steigen, which was also shortlisted for the Leipzig Book Prize 2018 and reviewed here. This is less about the digital and technological world, but very much about globalisation- the main character Waclaw is of Polish origin, brought up in the Ruhrgebiet, and now working on oil platforms in different parts of the world. His male friend Mátyás disappears from the platform one night and the rest of the novel recounts the road trip through Europe made by Waclaw in grief. The beautiful lyrical language evokes the sea, landscapes in Europe and communities such as the mining towns of the Ruhrgebiet, no longer productive, their coal exhausted.

Now, it seems to me that despite the success of these novels taking us forward into the new digital and globalised world, there are still plenty of novels being written and published which look back to the past. Isobel Fargo Cole’s die Grüne Grenze takes place in 1973 in the Harz area in the DDR, where an artist couple retreat to write and sculpt. Thomas is writing about the Harz itself and its significance as a border land through history, while their daughter is growing up learning what she’s allowed to say and what not to say. I haven’t read this book yet, but with this subject matter it’s very much at the top of my list.

Natascha Wodin’s Sie kam aus Mariupol, which won the Leipzig Book Prize in 2017, also looks back to the past: this is both a memoir of her mother and an account of the writer’s search for her mother and family. Natascha Wodin was born in Germany in a camp for Displaced Persons. Her parents were forced labourers, transported from the Ukraine during the war to work in Leipzig in the notorious Flick business. Through this personal memoir, the writer tells the story of the terrible working conditions and exploitation of the workers from the  East during the war and how they continued to suffer discrimination for many years afterwards.

At the Leipzig Book Fair this year, two well known writers in German were reading from their latest books, both historical. Arno Geiger was discussing and reading from Unter der Drachenwand, which takes place in 1944 when a young soldier, returning from the front in Russia, spends time under the mountain known as the Drachenwand and falls in love. The Hanser website says this is a novel about individuals and the power of history, about personal stories and about war. After very much enjoying Arno Geiger’s The Old King in his Exile I shall definitely be looking out for this one.

The second writer I heard- just fleetingly as all the seats were taken-was Bernhard Schlink talking about his latest book,Olga, a love story set at the end of the 19th century. It’s a long time since I’ve read any Bernhard Schlink and I won’t rush to read this one – I still think his best book was his first der Vorleser, which I think everyone in my entire family and friendship circle read in the 90s thanks to the wonderful translation by Carol Brown Janeway- but the room was full to bursting with readers  keen to hear about this latest book, so the historical novel clearly still has a pull.

Finally I can’t end this round up of recent historical novels in German without mentioning Ralf Rothmann’s latest novel der Gott jenes Sommers published in May this year. The novel is set in early 1945, in and around Kiel, and deals with the story of 12 year old Luisa and her family during this period and I believe the character Walter Urban from Im Frühling sterben makes a cameo appearance. I’m a real fan of Ralf Rothmann- see also my review of Junges Licht-so look forward very much to reading this latest novel.

So, looking over recent trends in German literature I do think we’re in a bit of a Janus situation. While it’s certainly true that there are some exciting books being written out there, looking forward into a globalised and digital future, there are still many fantastic books looking back to the past, both to the Second World War and to the divided Germany. To enjoy the best of contemporary literature in German we need to be open to literature which looks both forward and back, to literature which looks at Germany, Austria and Switzerland- but also to the globalised world beyond their borders.

Details of Books mentioned:

Dunkle Zahlen– Matthew Senkel-Matthes& Seitz- 24,00 €

Serverland– Josefine Rieks- Hanser-18,00 €

Hagard– Lukas Bärfuss-Wallstein- 19,90 €

Wie hoch die Wasser steigen-Anja Kampmann-Hanser-23,00 €

Die Grüne Grenze– Isobel Fargo Cole- Nautilus-26,00€

Sie kam aus Mariupol– Natascha Wodin-Rowohlt-19, 95 €, ( Taschenbuch out soon 12,00 € )

Unter der Drachenwand-Hanser- 26,00 €

Olga– Bernhard Schlink- Diogenes-24,00 €

Der Gott jenes Sommers– Suhrkamp- 22,00 €


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Stille Zeile 6 by Monika Maron- a DDR chamber piece.

This apparently simple unassuming story is set almost entirely in  East Berlin’s Pankow Stille Zeile Sechsdistrict and told from the point of view of a middle aged woman : it tells the tale of a woman who takes on a part time job as a secretary/scribe to Beerenbaum, a former East German professor. First published in 1991, it was quite a different read in its scope and range from more recent DDR books, like Tellkamp’s der Turm or Eugen Ruge’s In Zeiten des abnehemenden Lichts, their plots sprawling over decades and generations. Yet on this small canvas it deals with the big issues of hierarchy, power and patriarchy and how they played out in the authoritarian state of the DDR.

Rosa or Rosalind Polkowski first meets Beerenbaum by chance in a cafe. She is in her forties and has just given up a good job at the Barabassche Research Institute because she is fed up with putting her brain to work for others in projects she doesn’t care about. She feels an immediate antipathy towards Beerenbaum, seeing him as one of a class of self important old men who patronise waitresses and belittle their wives in public and whom she can’t abide. Their encounter is described immediately within a framework of power relations: he reminds her of her father and she thinks she’ll get one up on him by ‘guessing’ his life story-a working class boy and a dedicated young Communist who rose to power and influence through the party ranks. Despite finding him repellent, she is intrigued when he tells her he is writing his memoirs and looking for a secretary/scribe two afternoons a week to write them down- he lost the use of his right hand after a stroke. She agrees to do the job, but on the condition that she will use just her hand and not engage her brain in the slightest in the content of what she is writing down: she knows after all that he was a brilliant speaker and an inflexible Stalinist- who knows what she’s letting herself in for?

A second narrative strand is interleaved with the main story- a fast forward to  Beerenbaum’s funeral where the outsized wreath and pompous ceremony leave us in no doubt as to Beerenbaum’s elevated status in the East German hierarchy: right at the beginning we are told he’ll be buried in that part of the Pankow cemetery reserved for important servants of the regime and we know he lives in the Pankow Villa Viertel-the posh part of Pankow whose large houses reward the government apparatchiks. Scene by scene the funeral and mourners are described while the narrator keeps her physical distance from the other mourners, expressing her ideological distance in a gloriously mocking riff on the ponderous double chin of the chief mourner.

Back at Stille Zeile 6, Beerenbaum’s house, where she goes on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, the narrator is finding it harder than she thought to suppress any commentary on the content of what she is writing down. Beerenbaum teases her a little to begin with, asking her if this or that would be the best means of expression and she manages to remain non committal. It is when he starts spouting the cliched and to her meaningless expressions like Klasseninstinkt that she finds it hard to maintain her cool. On the one hand they bring up for her the way in which such tropes were used to justify the ideological standpoint of the communist East German state and to repress discussion or debate. On the other hand such hackneyed phrases remind her of her father, an active communist and a repressive and unloving father. As the meetings progress and the plot develops, the two patriarchal figures, Beerenbaum and her father, become conflated and we see her locked in a power struggle with both these figures.

The third locus of activity and one offering both a counterpoint and a welcome break from the reader after the intensity of the sessions with Beerenbaum, is the Kneipe, or pub. So this is the narrator’s local where she meets up with her former lover, Bruno, and their colourful and eccentric friend,known as der Graf– the count. This locus extends to the narrator’s apartment block where she befriends the piano teacher Thekla Fleischer whom she asks to give her piano lessons-because what the narrator actually wanted to do on leaving the institute was to learn the piano and Italian so that she could translate the recitative from Don Giovanni into German, a feat that had eluded the best musicians and Italian speakers. Now the narrator cannot speak Italian or play the piano and has no knowledge of opera so this is clearly a crazy and impossible scheme. I saw it as an example of a dream, an ambition, a yearning for the impossible, a mad impulse which stood as a challenge, a counterpoint to the stifling rigidity of communist thinking. This eccentricity and impulsiveness is explored further in the florid character of the count and culminates in Thekla’s wonderfully anarchic home made wedding, a contrast to Beerenbaum’s overblown yet empty funeral.

Now we know from the beginning that Beerenbaum dies and that the narrator’s anger and outrage increases to breaking point during the sessions. It would spoil to say more. Yet I have to say that I found the build up between these two characters utterly compelling and absorbing. On the one hand their relationship exemplifies the power struggle in any relationship, but more specifically the struggle between communist/non communist, employer/employee,man/woman. Yet the most important struggle in this particular context is perhaps that between the generations. The narrator comments at one point that only when the old generation, the old communists of which Beerenbaum is one, die out, will the younger generation be free to move into positions of power and shape the world in a new and different way. His death should bring freedom and offer hope. Though one last gesture at the very end of the book leaves this open.

Do read this book. It’s a chamber piece in the tight focus of its plot but its themes still echo nearly 30 years later.

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The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury

This book had been plucking at my sleeve for a while, since reading Richard Kerridge’s FishLadderreview in the Guardian in February 15. But it was visiting Spurn Point in November last year, that atmospheric low lying finger of land curving around  the Humber Estuary, that made me buy and read The Fish Ladder. I knew that the book narrates several journeys upstream to a river’s source, one being the Humber, and contains some beautiful nature writing. But the book interweaves these journeys with personal memoir, accounts of illness and loss, Welsh myth and the inspirational work by Neil M. Gunn The Well at the World’s End.  The journey is also a return to the source of self, a search for identity and this aspect of the book is so powerful that it’ll get right under the skin of any reader who has questions about their heritage.

The theme for the summer is following watercourses from the sea to the source. This is Katharine Norbury’s project and a response to the miscarriage of a much desired second child. She sets off first to the Humber and then to the Mersey with her daughter Evie and her mother, taking in the magnificent array of Antony Gormley’s standing men on Crosby Beach. There she visits the Catholic run orphanage where she was born and lived before being adopted. Little is known about her biological parents: she has the name and a sketchy story for her mother but no information about her father. Despite her happy upbringing in a loving adoptive family, her feelings of loss, of being cosmically..dizzyingly adrift are present throughout the book.

From the Mersey, Katharine returns to the LLyn Peninsula in North Wales where the family have a cottage and where her familiarity with the landscape gives rise to some fine observational writing. Here the moment when she comes across  Ffynnon Fawr, St. Mary’s Well: a round pool, a bowl of clear water, as wide as her arm’s length, as deep as her knees. At first it appeared still and we saw fine sandy gravel at the bottom, the occasional green weed. Tightly coiled water snails, small as seeds, bright as jewels, encrusted the straight walls and heaped against the stems of weeds.

From Wales, the writer heads off to Scotland, now fully embracing her mentor Neil M. Gunn and the search for the source of Dunbeath Water. Her solitary drive northwards is  accompanied by memories of her family and her own struggles, firstly her attempts to become pregnant and her experiences of IVF before conceiving Evie. Then later, her father’s painful illness and death from cancer and her own  breakdown. Her depiction of both parents, and their sad decline through illness, I found very moving, the respectful, quiet prose somehow reflecting the lives of these two ordinary, loving people. We see here  Katharine’s courage and stalwart adventurousness. She walks alone over moors in a remote part of Scotland to find the source of the river, sleeping out, surviving on snacks, using clues in the vegetation to follow the path of the underground stream to a bank of peat, beyond which is the loch. Loch Braighe na h’Aibhne, its surface, soft as pewter, mirrored the clouds. Salt white boulders lined a powdery shore of crystal sand, unmarked and clean, its whiteness stained to the colour of cork by the peat.

Katharine returns to the theme of adoption in the last part of the book. Just after her mother survives a thrombosis she is diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and is asked for details of her family medical history, not least so that her daughter, Evie, can be aware of the implications for her. By chance, she is given a lead about her biological mother’s identity which she pursues as far as she can. In the course of this, she discovers she has half brothers and it was a letter she wrote to her brother which saw me weeping on my local train to Manchester one morning. It’s that kind of book. Be prepared to cry and it might come from offside, from a place you weren’t expecting.

I loved the combination of nature writing and personal memoir. It was a pleasure and a delight to read about places in the North of England I know well- the Humber Estuary and North Yorkshire- and to read about places in Wales and Scotland I’ve yet to discover. I enjoyed both the lyrical writing about nature and the writer’s careful eye for detail and knowledge of the history and topography of landscape. I found her energy for journeying and exploring as a lone woman inspirational and her courage for this and for her personal journey remarkable. This book stands with H is for Hawk, The Outrun and Hain as an example of women writers interweaving nature writing with accounts of personal struggle and loss to brilliant effect. Many thanks.



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Wie hoch die Wasser steigen- Anja Kampmann

Anja Kampmann’s novel, shortlisted for the Leipzig Book Prize this year, 2018, Wie hoch die Wasser steigentells an unusual story in a fresh and lyrical voice. The novel starts with a tragic accident on an oil rig off the coast of North Africa. The main protagonist, Waclaw, goes to wake up his friend, Mátyás, for his early morning shift, but finds that his bed is empty. There is no trace of him on board and it is presumed that he has been swept off the rig by the wind and sea on that particularly stormy night. They search for his body over several days, to no avail, and devastated by his loss, Waclaw returns to shore.

Overwhelmed by the raw shock of this event, Waclaw stays in Tangier for some days, in the room they used to rent during shore leave and in the bars they frequented. The quiet recognition of his loss from friends and acquaintances and his own recollection of tender and intimate moments with Mátyás suggest to me a love relationship rather than a platonic friendship, though this is never made explicit: I was reminded of the beautifully rendered relationship between the two male protagonists in Sebastian Barry’s End of Days.

Waclaw then sets off on a road trip across Europe, and, though his plan, if he has one, is not made explicit, he goes first to Hungary, where Mátyás comes from. He stays in a grand fin-de-siècle hotel in Budapest and then goes to Mátyás’ village, to tell his sister, Patricia, about the accident. From there he drives to Italy and visits an old family friend, Alois, who used to work with his father in the mines of the Ruhrgebiet. In the course of these wanderings, there is a lot of drinking and the occasional sexual encounter, and more importantly the opportunity to mull over his past as fragments of memory rise to the surface. We learn about his father’s life as a Polish miner in the Ruhrgebiet, his relationship with Milena and their return to her Polish village, his restlessness and desire to see the world coupled with the decision to work on the rigs to make some money. And then the meeting with Mátyás six years previously. Now, none of this is necessarily told in chronological order- we piece together his past from fragments- and much is left vague, ambiguous or unsaid. But at other times, images from the past are so striking, such as Shane whirling the heron round his head like a lasso, that they stay with us. And the stories of work mates battling against storms and tough working conditions run through the narrative like a seam of danger and precariousness.

The narrative picks up again when Waclaw agrees to take a homing pigeon back to the Ruhr for Alois, who wants to see if a bird of his can cross the Alps on his journey back home. This gives Waclaw a reason to visit the place he grew up in and this section was one I enjoyed the most. The writer describes the housing estate, some houses renovated, others still in post war style:

Die Spitzengardinen, wie früher. Einige Häuser waren neu gestrichen worden, mintgrün mit weißen Rollos, während die andere Haushälfte im alten Braungrau mit glattem Putz wie nackt dastand. (Lace curtains, like in the old days. Some houses had been freshly painted, mint green with white roller blinds, while the semi next door stood as if half naked with its smooth render in the old brown grey colours.) 

Waclaw’s observations about his community and its decline seem to expand the novel at this point beyond the personal: we see his story, and indeed that of the other characters, in the context of broader global and economic changes. It is as if the mine and the oil platforms are the two industrial worlds around which the story is woven and the characters’ lives are completely subject to them. Just as Waclaw’s father suffers chronic lung disease from working in the pit, so the decline of the industry a generation later sees Waclaw and Milena return to the Polish village from where Waclaw  leaves to work on the rigs. And towards the end of the novel, Waclaw makes for Poland to visit his former lover, Milena. The book ends with him on the Baltic coast, looking out to sea.

Now, this novel may not be to everyone’s taste. The narrative is at times vague and unspecific, which can lead to dips in the narrative drive, as well as occasional ambiguity as to actual events. The power of the text lies in the lyrical language which I found transporting. For example, the depiction of light: in the early morning sky in Budapest, in the flames from Gibraltar’s oil refineries, in the cascade of magnesium light from the bombs falling on Westphalia, in the squashes almost luminous against the dark soil in Poland. But beyond that, Anja Kampmann’s novel shines a light on our contemporary, globalised world: a world where our earth’s resources are exhausted, so we drill under the sea, where workers leave their countries of origin to follow the work, yet still yearn for home. Where workmates are international, though the business still run by Texans. In its global reach and the beauty of its language, I found this book at times visionary- which I never thought I would say about a book which begins with men on an oil rig. It is this global reach which makes the novel unique and just waiting to be translated into English.

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Hain- Grove- by Esther Kinsky

Esther Kinsky’s most recent book, Hain, is part memoir, part nature and travel writing, Hainbut it is also a meditation on death. The three sections of the book each describe journeys made in different parts of Italy when the writer is suffering bereavement and engaged in different ways with loss. The first section is an account of two months spent in the small town of Olevano after the death of her partner, M. In the second section the writer loses her father and recalls her experiences of travelling to Italy on family holidays with him. The third section is an account of a visit to the Po Delta a little time later when awareness of both these losses weave through the narrative and the wonderful nature writing, so powerful here.

The book is prefaced with a short account of the candles lit in Romanian churches, candles for the living on the left and for the dead on the right. This sets the tone for the writer’s stay in Olevano: she has rented a house standing on a sort of bluff with the cemetery to one side and the village on the other and this relationship in space and how it changes when seen from different places in the landscape is a recurrent theme. Every day very early the writer walks over to the cemetery, passing the grove of birch trees of the title on her way. She describes in detail the Kolumbarien style tombs, a system of square compartments stacked on top of one another where funerary urns are kept. The writer is weighed down with grief- her heart is heavy – and is ever conscious of absence. But she has vivid dreams about M. and it is as if she is at times inhabiting that liminal state where life and death are separated by the thinnest of membranes.

From her house she has a fantastic view over the plains below and the changing colours and shapes in the landscape determined by the play of cloud and dull winter sunlight are beautifully described and add to the sombre mood. Her attentive photographer’s eye observes nature in close-up too- she describes many bird varieties in the area and has an ear for their song. Her observation of place extends to urban as well as rural landscapes and I enjoyed her awareness of change in the small town of Olevano as well as the larger scale changes in land use in the Po Delta. She is as good at describing the anonymous non-lieux in the sprawling outskirts of Rome as she is at depicting the wintry holm oaks and pastures on the hillsides near her house.

The second section starts with the death of the writer’s father. Sorting through his affairs, she finds old photos and slides which trigger memories of him as a young man and of their holidays in Italy and it is these memories which largely figure in this section. Inevitably, the accounts are anecdotal and much is unexplained or speculative. Though the personality of this passionate lover of Italy does come through, he remains rather mysterious and elusive: I wanted to know where he went at night and what his wife thought of his wanderings! Where the writer excels is in conveying her feelings during these travels: the worry whether her father would come home, her discomfort at the older men touching her at the disco party, the tense atmosphere in Rome with its demonstrations and barricaded streets and the sleazy shameless men on the bus rubbing themselves up against women.

Awareness of her father and his Italian passions informs the travels described in the third section. The writer takes off for the Po Delta, again in winter but possibly a year or so later. Her father was fascinated by the Etruscans and their tombs and as they had settled at Spina, many treasures, in particular burial treasures, had been excavated and were now in museums. She thinks of going to visit them as well as the mosaics in Ravenna, another of her father’s favourites, but only sort of nebenbei– she’s interested in many other things in this area.  In the Valli di Commacchio she stays in a chalet on an out of season holiday camp and evokes vividly its air of  shabby abandonment, the tacky sleigh with reindeer Christmas lights still illuminating the patio at dusk. From here she explores the flat marshy landscape, run through with a network of small canals and ditches, a branching system providing drainage for the reclaimed agricultural land. She observes many types of reeds and grass and we hear das Rascheln der Palme, das Wispern der trockenen Schilfstengel. She describes the flamingos as eine schwimmende Ansammlung aus schmutzig rosa Kissen,  setting off the dirty pink of the flamingos against the muted greens and browns of the landscape.

The final chapter Lamentatio returns us to the theme of death. Here Esther Kinsky describes a painting by Fra Angelico of the mass said for St. Francis of Assisi on his death. It is a triptych, reminding us of the positions of the candles in the Romanian church and of the three places in Olevano- the village, the cemetery and the house between. And here the central panel shows us the body of St. Francis, lying in his coffin, his mourners around him, weeping, disconsolate. This is death in the centre of life and the bereaved cannot be comforted.

Though this book ends with a lament and is at times deeply moving in its evocation of loss, I felt a sort of quiet joy at the description of place, at the thoughtful account of cities and people as well as the beauty of the natural world. There is an awareness of change through time, both in her return to childhood in the narrative but also in the changing landscape which she reveals to us. This awareness of time and change in nature helps us perhaps to come to terms with loss, to see death as part of the natural order, while at the same time grieving for those who have gone. This is the feeling that I was left with at the end of this beautiful book, which I can’t recommend strongly enough. It is now , so deservedly, on the shortlist for the Leipzig Book Prize 2018.


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