China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

In 2015 Sunjeev Sahota’s terrific book The Year of the Runaways was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. That novel told the interweaving stories of a group of young Indians who came to the UK to seek a better life, only to find themselves ruthlessly exploited by employers and living in miserable and precarious conditions. Sunjeev Sahota has followed that success up with China Room, long listed for the Man Booker 21, and though this novel takes place on a narrower canvas—it interweaves just two stories—it shows again this writer’s skilful control of plot, his deft and succinct portrayal of character, which combine to create a gripping and moving tale.

The two stories here take place in two different time periods. The novel opens in 1929 with Mehar’s story. She’s 15 and has just been married to one of three brothers in rural Punjab. The other two brothers were married at the same time and all three brides are getting used to the ceaseless and exhausting tasks expected of them on the farm, orchestrated by their fearsome mother-in-law, Mai. They live in the china room, named for the set of six willow-pattern plates which stand high up on a shelf and formed part of Mai’s dowry years ago. The brides have no social interaction with their husbands, though they rush round to bring them tea and to serve meals when required. At night, one of them receives a tap on the shoulder from Mai, indicating that tonight it’s their turn to go to the rear chamber to receive their husband.

This is told from the point of view of 15 year old Mehar and the writer really gets beneath the skin of this young woman on the cusp of adulthood, brought up in a world where women are veiled, where their modesty is paramount and their choice of husband a matter for their elders. Yet there’s a certain excitement too for Mehar in this early stage of her marriage. She enjoys the company of her sisters-in-law, laughing and joshing about Mai’s strictures and demands. She’s also of course curious about the identity of her husband, which isn’t clear from his night time fumblings performed in silence, which only serve to pique her curiosity as well as her desire.

The second thread is a first person narrative, set in the present, and tells the story of a young 18 year old man from the UK with addiction problems. We’re told some of his back story and events that led him to drugs and alcohol. Brought up in a predominantly white community, he suffered racism and isolation as a child and teenager. He saw his father physically broken by working on a building site to supplement the poor income earned in the family shop during the recession. In an attempt to help him overcome his addiction before he goes to university, the family send him to his uncle in India. His uncle, Jai, is keen to help, but is unhappily married to Kuku, who deeply resents this nephew, even more so when he’s suffering from withdrawal symptoms while coming off drugs in her house.

The young narrator then visits the family farm-which is the farm that Mehar married into- and decides to stay there alone for the duration. Uncle Jai arranges for food to be brought out to him daily and he’s visited by Radhika, a young woman doctor and local teacher Tanbir, who befriend him and help him, until gradually recovery seems possible. There’s an almost palimpsest quality to this section, when the narrator is discovering and describing the layout of the farm, so meticulously described in the earlier sections when Mehar lived there, now with its bolts rusted, its smells of rotting fruit, stale smoke and dung, but the same iron bars on the room where he’s told his great-grandmother was locked up.

So this is a novel about love, marriage and family at two different points in time. It depicts the traditions and expectations of family life in rural Punjab, while really giving us a picture of what this must have felt like for women and men constrained by the norms at that time. And it’s not just about arranged marriages—it’s also about the hierarchy within the family and the merciless authoritarianism of parents. It’s not just Mehar and her sisters who suffer, but the brothers are also crushed. In the contemporary story, the young narrator has a different relationship with his parents, and indeed his uncle: there’s a kindness, a concern for his wellbeing, a light touch in dealing with his addiction. And there’s a wider range of relationships between men and women shown: the tenderness he glimpses between his parents when his mother tends to the bleeding sores on his father’s back, the constraints still present in the Punjab.

In terms of the endings, the young narrator has the better deal for sure. But Mehar’s presence is pivotal: it’s while living in the family farm, sharing the same space, breathing in the same smells and air as Mehar that the young narrator is able to grow and leave his addictions behind. It’s almost as if she’s saying well I can’t leave so I’m handing the baton on to you now to do it for me. It’s as if she’s giving him the strength to return home, to learn to live with his demons. The interweaving of these two stories gives us a fresh and novel approach not only to questions of family, but, for the young narrator, to questions of identity and heritage too. It’s a wonderful and thought-provoking read.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam

This novel, short listed for the Booker Prize 2021, is set in post conflict Sri Lanka. It starts with a phone call from the north. It’s Rani’s daughter, phoning to tell the family that there’s been a bad accident: Rani, the carer for Krishan’s grandmother, had returned to her village for a few days and has sadly slipped, fallen into their well, and died. Krishan receives the news with sadness, wondering how his grandmother, Appamma, will take it, and thinking through whether he should make the journey north for the funeral, to pay his respects on behalf of the family.

Around the same time, Krishan receives an email from his former lover, Anjum, whom he met while a student in Delhi. It’s made him think back to their relationship and his decision to abandon his studies and return to Sri Lanka to work for an NGO in the northern city of Jaffna. The north, where the Tamil Tigers’ fight for independence largely took place, was new to him then. Growing up, he had mental images from brief childhood trips and relatives’ accounts of wide landscapes of salt flats and palmyra trees….the sound of people speaking their untainted Tamil loudly and musically without restraint.  It wasn’t until late on in the war, as a student in Delhi, that he became aware of the enormous number of civilian casualties killed by government forces in the civil war, of government falsification and censorship of what was really happening. It was individuals, who’d lost family members, uploading information and images of brutality onto the Internet by that gave him a truer picture. And when he was working in Jaffna, the scenes of prior violence he’d recreated in his mind were superimposed over everything he saw.

These are some of the thoughts and recollections running through Krishan’s mind at the start of the book when he’s coming to terms with the news about Rani, and it should be said that we spend a lot of time in this book inside Krishan’s head. Some of this is useful background: as well as learning about Krishan’s past, some other characters are vividly brought to life through his recollections, for example his grandmother, Appamma, whose pleasures and decline are beautifully observed. At other times it’s Krishan’s emotional state that’s described: his first meeting with the charismatic Anjum, a political activist at a queer event in Delhi, and the intensity of his feelings for her as their affair develops. Sometimes his musings become more abstract, for example his reflections on time, yearning, and desire, and I often found myself so mesmerised by his long, looping, lyrical sentences that I had to go back to reread some passages to grasp what he was saying.

In this first part of the novel, Krishan’s recollections are interleaved with an account of the present, external world beyond his mind, which give us some idea of the conflict and post-conflict environment he’s living in. So Krishan’s walks in the regenerating Colombo with its new signs and façades, markers of a new trajectory of development, take us to the Visa Pillayar temple on Marine Drive, so-called because Tamils from the north came there in the mid-90s, prior to fleeing the country. Almost subconsciously, or perhaps out of ingrained habit, he observes a family with children at the station, looking to see if their clothing and backpacks identify them as diasporic Tamils-we’ve already heard of the diasporic Tamils watching the conflict from all parts of the world. The conflict and its aftermath moves to the foreground when Krishan decides to attend the funeral and starts the journey north. His arrival in Vavuniya triggers a memory of the inhuman treatment of the Tamil fighter Kuttimani, and then of the mass graves of the Tamil Tigers, so cruelly bulldozed over, and erased from memory at the end of the war.

But it’s here, later on in the novel, that we learn more of Rani’s story. Krishan met her in a psychiatric ward in the north when working in Jaffna. She was suffering from depression and trauma as a result of losing two sons in the war. At that time Krishan’s family was looking for a carer for his grandmother and he wondered if Rani might be the person for this role, and if this work might help her. She and her psychiatrist agreed, and Rani travelled down to Colombo for this work. Despite the challenges of this new city, Rani settled with the family and was gradually accepted by Appamma. There are some beautiful vignettes of the growing intimacy between these two women, of Appamma rediscovering her interest in the world through hearing Rani’s experiences of the war in the north-east, of Appamma’s way of chatting and joking with Rani, rather than wrapping her up in kid gloves on account of her trauma. But then Rani has a relapse, triggered by further bereavement, her mental health deteriorates yet more, resulting in her taking a trip back home, where the fatal accident takes place. Though Krishan asks himself whether Rani’s death was an accident at all—maybe she just couldn’t bear to go on living.

There is some wonderful writing in this novel. The love affair between Krishan and Anjum is the most compelling account of intense passion I’ve read in a long time. I especially enjoyed the meditations on the nature of time in relation to the state of being in love. Hear this: somehow it is possible to live and breathe and move in a single moment, that a single moment could be not a bead on an abacus of finite length but an ocean that can be entered into, whose distant shores can never be reached.  I enjoyed the depiction of the student world in Delhi, the concerns with sexual identity and women’s rights. The question of ethnic minority rights is of course implicit in a novel about the aftermath of a civil war in which Tamils in the north were fighting for an independent state. But a profound sense of affinity, of belonging to a culture, comes through too in the literary references Krishan has in his head, when he finds himself moved to tears by an old recording of the Sivapuranam, a funeral song, entranced by the singer’s rich, unornamented voice, by the slowly building, incantatory rhythm of the song, written in a Tamil from several hundred years before.

Now this is an unashamedly literary novel, both in its intensely personal narrative—and the questions this choice of narrator raises—and in the extensive literary references contained in the text. At times I felt I wanted a little more, well, reportage almost, about the post conflict situation in Sri Lanka. But we have instead, and most powerfully, an account of not just the personal cost of the conflict in the stories of Rani and Krishan, but also, more subtly, the cost to the Tamil culture and people. This is a profound and important novel, well deserving of its place on the Booker shortlist.

Posted in Books in English | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Boris Dralyuk

It was on a visit to Kiev in July 2018 that I first became aware of the war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Right behind our hotel, on the walls of St. Michael’s monastery, was a display of photos and names of soldiers who’d been killed in that conflict, month by month. The transformation of statistics into faces and lives made a great impression on me, especially as we passed it each time we left and returned to the hotel. When I got back from that trip, I read Anna Reid’s hugely informative book about Ukraine, Borderland, and learned more about Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the origins of that conflict. I was then intrigued when I heard about Andrey Kurkov’s new novel, Grey Bees, set in the conflict zone and translated by Boris Dralyuk, known to me for his brilliant translation of Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel.

The novel centres on Sergey Sergeyich, a retired mines inspector now turned beekeeper, living in the tiny village of Little Starhorodivka in the no-man’s-land between the breakaway forces in Donetsk, supported by the Russians, on the one hand, and the Ukrainian army on the other. There’s only one other person still living in the village, Sergeyich’s frenemy, Pashka, with whom he has a pragmatic relationship of comradeship in adversity. The other residents have all left, driven out by the constant noise of shelling from the front line, and the very real threat to life. Much of the village has been destroyed, including the church, and the proximity of noise and danger is constantly in the background in this section of the book. But still, the two men have to eat and keep themselves warm, and I loved the detail of Sergeyich’s everyday struggle to feed his potbelly stove, to find food, described in the rather naively matter-of-fact voice of this character.

This first section is quite slow—those readers who love plot may feel a little impatient—but the monotony of Sergeyich’s everyday routines is broken up a number of incidents: his sighting of a frozen body out on the hillside in the snow, his meeting with Ukrainian soldier Petro who’s been tasked with watching the village for snipers, his hike to the village of Svitle to visit old Nastasya. Parallel to this slow pace is a wonderful awareness of the gradual shift in the seasons from winter to the first signs of spring, beautifully rendered in translation. After snow creakingthe rustling of snowthe jostling of snowflakes we have this: On the third day of March, the sun began to flex its rays like muscles, and black patches began to spread across the fields beyond the garden, emerging from under the melting snow, straightening their earthy shoulders. I love the imagery here, the translator’s word choice, the syntactic elegance.

Now, in this first section of the book those eponymous bees remain in the background, overwintering in the safety and relative warmth of a shed. But we do learn of their power and significance through Sergeyich’s recollection of a visit paid to him by the regional governor. The governor had heard of the therapeutic properties of Sergeyich’s bees when part of a bee bed: the six hives were put together, a plank of wood topped by a thin mattress laid on top and a person who then lay down on this bed would be calmed and renewed throughout their body by the gentle buzzing and moving of the bees beneath. But the bees really come into their own in the second part of the novel, when Sergeyich decides he has to get out of his village to keep his bees safe. He remembers a fellow beekeeper, Akhtem, he met many years ago at a beekeepers’ conference, who lives in Crimea. He packs up his six hives into his ancient car and sets off to pay him a visit.

The novel then becomes something of a road movie as Sergeyich travels towards Crimea, stopping off for some weeks in Vesele where he lingers to enjoy the ministrations, culinary and otherwise of local woman Galya. As he heads off again for Crimea, the Russian presence, with all its bureaucracy and stony faced border guards, looms larger in the narrative and the reality of the Russian takeover and domination in Crimea becomes clear through the story of Akhtem and his family. They are Tatars, a Muslim community living in Crimea, who suffered racial discrimination, if not genocide, in the 1940s under Stalin when they were deported to Uzbekistan. The fact that Akhtem has disappeared, and later, that his son, Bekir, is arrested on the flimsiest of grounds, tells us that their subjugation at the hands of the Russians is ongoing. Despite finding his friend has been missing for two years, Sergeyich decides to stay in town, camps on a hillside above town where Akhtem keeps his beehives, and takes on the care of Akhtem’s beehives as well as his own. The result of him befriending the family is that he’s asked to intercede with the Russian authorities by Akhtem’s wife, Aisylu, to mitigate her son’s situation. Sergeyich feels increasingly out of his depth and never more so when the Russians turn up at his camp and remove one of his hives to carry out tests on the bees. The hive is duly returned, but the bees have changed- they’ve turned grey. And the focus then turns to Sergeyich’s return to Ukraine: whether he’ll manage to leave, not only with those bees, but also with Akhtem’s daughter, Aisha, on board.

So there are parallels at different points in the book between the lives, social organisation and behaviour of the bees and that of humankind, always to the detriment of the latter, though what I found more intriguing in relation to the bees was that wonderfully therapeutic bed. I found Sergeyich an incredibly sympathetic and plausible character—a loner, reticent with women, a simple soul, only half getting the power relations playing out around him, yet responsive to the small incremental changes in the seasons and the natural world. I loved the carefully observed details of the characters’ everyday lives, both in the grey zone of no-man’s-land but also the customs of the Tatar community in Crimea. Yet this is a writer who can stand back from the detail and give us the larger picture of power relations between the different communities in Crimea since the recent invasion by Russian forces in 2014. I really recommend this novel for anyone interested in this part of the world, and who, like me, finds fiction an illuminating way to approach and understand political events and their effects on individual lives. And in this specific case, to maintain awareness of the conflict and tension in Eastern Ukraine, which may have disappeared from the front page, but which has most definitely not gone away: the wall I saw in Kiev in 2018 has been unveiled this August 2021 as The Wall of Remembrance, and commemorates the many soldiers who have lost their lives in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war.

Posted in Books in Translation, Books on Ukraine, History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Havana Year Zero by Karla Suarez, translated by Christina Macsweeney

This fast-paced and witty novel is set in Havana, Cuba in 1993. This was the year known as Year Zero—the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of their support for the Cuban economy, meant that by 1993 there was nothing of anything. Zero transport. Zero meat. Zero hope. In the midst of this scarcity the narrator, Julia, a maths lecturer in downtown  El Vedado, hears about one Antonio Meucci, an Italian who came to Havana in 1835, and who, according to the newspaper Granma, invented the telephone while working as an engineer at the Teatro Tacón. (Of course official history has the telephone invented by the Scot Alexander Graham Bell in 1876.) Enthused by this idea, Julia, together with her former colleague and erstwhile lover, Euclid, sets out to find a document which will prove conclusively that Meucci did indeed discover the telephone first. Julia’s quest takes her to the writer, Leonardo, engaged in writing a work of historical fiction, and also involves her new lover, Angel, whom she meets and falls for early on in the novel.

As the quest gains momentum, as the plot twists and turns, we are inevitably exposed to what life was like in Cuba in that Year Zero. Food shortages. Rice and split peas every day. And soya. Soya hash. Soya milk. In Europe that might have been some kind of fancy dietary choice, but here it was our daily bread: and we were only allowed one stick a day. There are hours without electricity and the frequent power cuts are damaging everyone’s electrical equipment: when Julia turns up at Euclid’s he’s frequently helping his mum sort out her water pump, or nipping out to get a spare part for her broken fridge. Functioning telephones are few and far between: Julia inveigles her way into Leonardo’s confidence by asking to use the phone at his office. The housing shortage is such that middle-aged Euclid is back living at his mum’s when his marriage breaks down and Leonardo has converted his parents’ garage into living space—it’s there he holds his regular tertulias, where writers read and discuss their work, by the light of candles and a lantern. And it’s a question as to how these privations play out in the plot. Julia is indeed smitten with Angel, but admits she’d also love to live in his stylish flat in trendy El Vedado. When Italian Barbara moves into focus later on in the novel, Julia reminds us that to Cuban men she’s a UFO –an Unidentified Foreign Object—desirable for her foreign currency and a passport to an easier life.

Julia’s quirky and ironic narrative voice is one of the many delights of this novel. She pulls us along, addressing us directly at times, sharing the creative fun of naming her characters with her readers. She’s also a mathematician and constructs the plot in terms of mathematical concepts like variables and chaos theory (and chapeau to translator Christina MacSweeny for her impressive rendering of chaos theory into English.) Now many of the maths references went over my head but it didn’t really matter or impair my enjoyment. Similarly, as the plot develops in terms of who has the seminal document, the four main characters dance around one another in an ever more complex way which I found hard to keep track of, but again found this didn’t really matter—it was made up for by the unexpected entrée of Barbara into the plot, an almost comedic development which brought elements of farce and Shakespearean misunderstandings into the mix.

It’s not just mathematical ideas which thread through the story. Karla Suárez also explores ideas of fiction and fact, pushing at the boundaries between fiction and history, between fiction and mathematics at many points in the novel. Leonardo’s new writing project takes the idea of a work of fiction where every tiny detail in the novel was justified by demonstrable historical detail. Yet he himself is a masterful story teller and able to weave richly descriptive stories of Antonio Meucci in el teatro Tacón while Julia rides pillion on his bicycle around old Havana, her imagination soaring at the telling. Euclid remains unimpressed. All he wants to know is whether Meucci wrote the document they are seeking at a particular time at a particular place-all that history, all those fancy words…were nothing more than stage props, the froth on the coffee. Yet other characters, Julia included, inhabit happily both the worlds of fiction and of fact. There’s Euclid’s son Chichí and his friends, all science graduates, yet also writers of creative fiction, and indeed the novel’s denouément brings the worlds of the imagination and historical fact together in an unexpected way.

 I really enjoyed this novel. I liked Julia’s voice, her pacy, engaging, informal tone, her character a combination of cool mathematician, with a romantic heart and a love of stories. But what left the most lasting impression on me was the account of Cuba in 1993, the daily grind of nothing of anything and the Cubans’ resignation and pragmatism in the face of these privations. If translated fiction offers a window onto a world different to your own, reading Havana Year Zero certainly did it for me.

Posted in Books in Translation, Books set in Central America, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Elena knows by Claudia Pineiro, translated by Frances Riddle.

This is an intriguing novel—it’s at one and the same time a take on the crime/detective novel which Argentinian writer Claudia Piñeiro is so well known for, yet also explores ideas around motherhood and women’s control and ownership of their bodies. I’d like to flag up from the outset that this latter theme is a constant, as the protagonist and quasi detective, Elena, has Parkinson’s. Her symptoms and physical limitations are described in minute detail and indeed the novel, which takes place on one day, is structured around the timing of her medication, Levadopa, which absolutely determines when and how much she can move. This amount of detail may be distressing to read for those suffering from Parkinson’s and their carers.

The novel starts with Elena preparing for a long trip across town to see someone who may be able to help her track down the killer of her daughter, Rita. We learn that Rita has been found dead, hanging in the belfry of her local church. The authorities—the police, the local priest, Father Juan, the coroner—have found the death to be suicide, but Elena knows that’s impossible: the day of her daughter’s death it was raining hard, and from a small girl Rita would never go near a church tower in the rain due to the risk of electrocution from lightning. Yet the authorities will not listen to this, the mother’s greater knowledge of her daughter. They’ve closed their investigation, leaving Elena no alternative but to carry on the investigation herself by journeying across town to seek help. And this is some journey for Elena: there’s the timing of the medication, the slow walk down the street to the train station, recognising how far she’s got by the density of shoes clustered together on the stone paving—her neck is rigid, she can’t raise her head—the effort of sliding into a seat on a crowded train, as other passengers push past in the narrow gangway, her sideways lurch onto the taxi back seat, staying in that position as it’s too hard to right herself.

Details of this laborious journey are punctuated with flashbacks, as Elena thinks about Rita, their lives together, and the circumstances around Rita’s death. It becomes clear that though they were close, their relationship was conflictual. Every other year they’d holiday in Mar del Plata and every afternoon they’d argue-fiercely, as if each word thrown out were the crack of a whip, leather in motion, one of them lashed out, then the other. Blistering the rival’s body with words. Elena was catty about Rita’s boyfriend Roberto, scoffing at the very idea of calling him a boyfriend at their age, subjecting Rita cruelly to an intrusive gynae examination to check her fertility. Yet after Rita’s death she treasures the little glass sea lion Rita bought as a holiday souvenir, gathers her daughter’s clothes  to her to breathe in Rita’s smell before folding them up and passing them on. Rita can give as good as she gets in the arguments and does not shy away from telling her mum straight she needs to clean herself up, to get a hairdo as the disease takes possession of her body and others have to watch her age, fade and lose control. Yet Rita hangs on in there: she’s the one who regularly cuts her mother’s horny yellowing toe-nails, who time after time confronts the insurance office employees till her mum gets the benefits she’s entitled to.

Despite Elena’s cattiness, I liked her for her no nonsense straight talking—her voice has been consistently rendered into a brisk and pacy idiomatic narrative thanks to the skilful translation of Frances Riddle. From the start she calls the Parkinson’s that fucking whore illness, referring to Herself having ousted her brain, like dethroning a king, rendering him powerless. She recalls the words of Father Juan at Rita’s funeral with scepticism, so that we may help her on her departure with resignation and joy, with the same joy she expressed here on this earth… thinking joy? What joy? She didn’t feel any joy and nor did she recognise any in her daughter lying there cold, stiff, like an empty bag. As far as Elena’s concerned, Father Juan’s response is useless, even more so when he reiterates the Christian doctrine that our bodies do not belong to us, but to God, hence the church’s condemnation of suicide, abortion and euthanasia. Yet he gives no answer when Elena asks and Parkinson’s?

The abortion theme is just touched on at the beginning when Elena is making her way down the street that morning and, passing the paving stones in front of the midwife’s house, recalls that Rita said she was an abortionist too, and pulls her mother over to the other side of the street, to avoid walking there. The narrative comes back to this in the last part of the book when we discover that the person Elena has been struggling across town to see is Isabel, a woman Rita came across 20 years before in front of the abortionist’s house, and dissuaded from going inside. Elena reckons that Isabel went on to have her baby and is now indebted to Rita for having saved her from the abortion and guaranteed her the sweet experience of motherhood. She owes her and will surely be prepared to help Elena track down Rita’s murderer. And then comes the twist, a clever twist which undermines Elena’s assumptions and which had me as a reader re-evaluating the assumptions I’d also made right through the narrative.

So this novel explores themes of the body and raises questions of control: who has control over women’s bodies, who has the right to determine whether a woman should become a mother? At the same time illustrating this idea, almost as a counterpoint, with a protagonist/ heroine whose body is being inexorably taken over by the devastating illness of Parkinson’s. For me, this latter theme was the dominant one, as well as the exploration of a dependent and difficult mother-daughter relationship leavened with moments of tenderness and love. I’m grateful to Fiona Mackintosh for her illuminating Afterword in this great Charco Press edition and for her contextualisation of this novel in the work and writing life of Claudia Pineiro.

Posted in Books in Translation, Books set in South America, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Los Abismos- Abysses- by Pilar Quintana

Colombian writer Pilar Quintana came recently to an English speaking readership when her novel, The Bitch, was published in 2020 by World Editions in translation by Lisa Dillman. That novel is set on the Pacific coast of Colombia and its violent storms and impenetrable hinterland play an important part in the novel. This, her next novel, Los Abismos, (Abysses), is set largely in the city of Cali in the same region, the Valle de Cauca, but also ventures out into the wild, rocky and vertiginous mountain regions between Cali and the coast. It’s a story of mother-daughter relationships, powerfully narrated from the point of view of 8 year old Claudia, but it also paints a broader picture of a social milieu in which middle-class women are confined to the home, stifled and tamed.

This theme forms the backdrop from the beginning: the novel opens with a detailed account of the family’s Cali apartment, which is so full of plants—in pots on the floor and on every surface, hanging from the walls and the ceiling, brushing your face as you pass—that they call it the jungle. These plants are the pride and joy of the narrator’s mother, a stay-at-home mother, who’s there for young Claudia when she returns from school and is trying to do better than her own mother, who would be off playing Lulo with her friends when her daughter came back from school, and sleeping  in when she left in the morning.

Through conversations and perusal of family photos we learn that pressure was put on Claudia’s mother to marry a man 20 years her senior. Her father is a decent man, orphaned young himself, now the proprietor of a supermarket which occupies most of his waking hours. But he’s not much fun: he returns home every day for lunch and says little. Their lives are routinised, not to say dull—the mother doesn’t even have domestic tasks to occupy her with their maid, Lucila, doing cooking and cleaning—so when Aunt Amelia aged 51, gets married to handsome Gonzalo, not yet 30, life gets more interesting for Claudia’s young mother too. Her awakening, the subterfuge necessary to carry out their affair, is beautifully observed and narrated by the innocent 8 year old, a sort of riff on the classic child narrator in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. And I call it an awakening for the use of just one word after the mother returns one time from seeing Gonzalo: she is radiante.

Sadly for her, the affair is discovered and nipped in the bud. The parents row, scarily for little Claudia, and the mother falls into a depression. She’s more confined to the home—not even allowed out for aerobics—and wallows in the lives of celebrities which she soaks up from Hello magazine. She becomes convinced that the deaths of Natalie Wood, Princess Grace of Monaco and Karen Carpenter are attributable to suicide rather than accident or illness and shares her thoughts unhelpfully and unhealthily with her little daughter. We, the readers, share the child’s growing unease and worry about her mother, reaching a climax with the tragic death by suicide of the mother’s cousin, Gloria Inés. The real shock of this death seems to bring the parents closer again. Claudia herself finds solace in the warm physical presence of her Aunt Amelia with whom she shares a bed on the night of the funeral—in contrast to the cold comfort of the Catholic priest whose only response to her worries in confession is to recommend prayer.

The fluctuations in little Claudia’s worries about her mother is brilliantly achieved, as is the way she puts her toe into the adult world at one moment, only to retreat to her childlike imaginative games with her beloved doll Pauline the next. One other aspect of the burden she carries is the fact she is an only child and alone with her worries: I became more and more aware of this when reading, and it comes to a head in the third section when the family go to a finca in the mountains outside Cali to spend the summer holidays. Claudia spends her days alone, going off exploring the surrounding area, only half aware of the dangers of the exotic flora and fauna in this rocky landscape, a little bit Famous Five, but sadly without the other four. At the same time, the mist swirling around the classy modern finca, clinging to the mountain side, with its floor to ceiling windows, becomes ever more present and threatening as her mother’s drinking increases, and Claudia worries about her tumbling down the abyss of that vertiginous mountain side, just as Gloria Inés fell to her death from their 18th floor apartment. And when her mother tells Claudia the story of the beautiful Irish woman Rebeca Ceballos O’Brien who disappeared in this area some years ago we feel we’re in full du Maurier territory.

The final section sees the family’s return to Cali and Rebeca’s funeral, which is an opportunity to showcase the middle class milieu which Claudia’s mother so admires. She admires Rebeca’s family and children for their glamorous, blonde beauty, as if they’re local versions of the international stars she reads about in her celeb magazines. Their looks are contrasted with little Claudia’s apparent plainness and the undercurrent of her mother’s disappointment in her, present throughout the novel, really comes to the fore in this section.

This clever narrative from the child’s viewpoint is brilliantly sustained and makes for a very intense engagement with the text and story. I felt at times desperately sorry for little Claudia, left so much to her own devices with no playmates, on account of her mother’s depression, parental carelessness, cultural norms and the times—the 80s I think. Both parents had experienced loveless childhoods themselves, and though keen not to repeat the same mistakes, their parenting at times falls short, the mother with her over sharing of tragedy, the father with his silences at their daily meals, his inability to pick up on his daughter’s distress. And they are all so firmly trapped within the gender stereotypes of the times: the mother not allowed a university education, relegated to the apparently leisurely life of the middle class wife, yet actually terminally bored. This is a world where Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique has not yet arrived and the mother’s only recourse is to sublimate her passions into the cultivation of her green and luscious apartment jungle.

In its focus on the lives of middle-class women, and the effect of their restricted lives and options on mother-daughter relationships, I found Los Abismos a fascinating and compelling read, all the more so for the narrative perspective of the innocent child narrator. But it also gave me fresh food for thought on Colombian society, that country I’ve learned so much about through the works of Julianne Pachico, Laura Restrepo and Juan Gabriel Vasquez. This is a really valuable addition to the body of fiction on Colombia, recognised as such by the award of the prestigious Premio Alfaguara 2021. I hope to see this novel in English translation soon.

Posted in Books in Spanish, Books set in South America, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Holiday Heart by Margarita Garcia Robayo translated by Charlotte Coombe

With this title you might well think we’re talking holiday romance in San Andrés or Santa Marta. Not so. This is a book about the last throes of a 19 year marriage, and though I’m not drawn to novels forefronting crises in personal relationships, this plausible story held my attention: the characters, Lucía and Pablo, are Colombians who’ve lived in the US since student days and I was interested in the extent to which the deterioration of their relationship is shaped by that immigrant experience.

The novel starts off with Lucía flying into Sunny Isles, Miami, with their two 6 year old twins, Tomás and Rosa, to holiday in her parents’ apartment. Her husband, Pablo, has stayed behind at home in New Haven, and shortly after they arrive in Miami, he has a heart attack and is taken to hospital, where he’s diagnosed with holiday heart—a disease that affects the cardiovascular system and is caused by excessive consumption of alcohol, red meat, salt, saturated fat… certain drugs and, in Pablo’s case excessive and risky sexual activity. Lucía flies back home and is told of the diagnosis by their family doctor. She’s confused and taken aback, takes a little time in the hospital cafeteria to gather herself before eventually going in to see him. Their meeting doesn’t feature.

The narrative continues with Lucía back in Miami with the children, relieved to hand a large part of the childcare to maid Cindy. There’s little mention of Pablo’s health, or indeed of Lucía’s reaction to the news of his indiscretions. The narrative point of view shifts between Lucía and Pablo, as well as darting around in time, gradually giving us a picture of these two people as individuals and a married couple. We learn that Lucía came to the US to study at Yale. Since then she’s been writing for women’s magazines, specifically Elle, often in derogatory voice about husbands, to Pablo’s dismay. Intensely conscious of her position in the intellectual pecking order as a Latino woman, she turns her sharp criticism on every other group she comes across—Latinos watching football in a bar, old people, Pablo’s sisters, her own parents. She’s devastatingly condescending towards Pablo, disparaging about the novel he’s been writing and his limited mentality and seems to get nastier as the novel progresses.

Pablo is also not a great guy. He’s fed up with his teaching job and at the beginning of the novel has received a letter of complaint signed by students about his slovenliness and general lack of professionalism. In flashbacks we learn more about him feeling undermined by Lucía, especially since the birth of the children, and his attachment to his family back in Colombia. There’s partying, alcohol, drugs and affairs, notably with his next door neighbour Elisa, which is tawdry indeed, as he neither likes her nor finds her attractive. Then there’s that underage girl, a student of his, who was with him when his holiday heart struck and who took him to hospital. The extent of their relationship is left ambiguous but he’s definitely stepped over the line.

So with these two unsympathetic main characters what kept me reading? Firstly, there were some minor characters who were vividly drawn and whose stories I enjoyed. There’s Cindy, the boisterous and in-your-face maid of Cuban origin, adored by 6 year old Rosa with her repertoire of board games and dance routines, appreciated by Lucía, if also a source of irritation. There’s Pablo’s Aunt Lety, the pride of her family when she emigrated to the States, now reduced to the humdrum but exhausting business of running her own launderette. There’s Pablo’s sister Sara-K, a frustrated teacher back in Colombia, desperate for some intellectual recognition, derided by Lucía when she talks language theory as a typical lower-middle-class girl desperate to appear educated. The novel is also carefully structured so we’re just fed the deterioration of the relationship in dribs and drabs: Lucía’s icy condescension is only released gradually, drop by drop, the extent of Pablo’s empty and exploitative sexual activities only becomes apparent later on. And yes, there is an awareness that these characters as a minority community in the States have to work harder to get somewhere. I’ve mentioned Lucía’s anxiety to fit in with the prevailing ideas of her female Yale contemporaries. There’s also a poignant moment when Pablo recalls first arriving in New Haven, feeling strange and different, the people around him are pink-coloured.  I don’t feel the novel is shouting overly that their position as Latinos in the US led to the breakdown of their marriage, but it’s certainly one of the stresses in their lives.

Posted in Books in Spanish, Books in Translation | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean

Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez writes often on the history of Colombia and the porous boundaries between truth and fiction. (Songs for the Flames, The Shape of the Ruins). This novel, published in 2010, is no exception. It deals with the first, French attempt to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama—which in the 19th century was still part of the United States of Colombia. It also traces the life of Polish/ English writer Joseph Conrad who lived through that time, and specifically the writing of his novel Nostromo, which is set in the fictional South American country of Costaguana, thought to be Colombia. These two threads are linked by the narrator, José Altamirano, who left Colombia for Panama as a young man in search of his father, and who rubbed shoulders, or just missed rubbing shoulders, with Joseph Conrad at various stages of his life.

The voice of José Altamirano is a big presence in this novel: he’s an out and proud unreliable narrator and an obtrusive one to boot. We first meet him and his arch, ironical tone at Joseph Conrad’s funeral in 1924 when he tells us he had one significant meeting with Conrad in November 1903 and that as a writer he’s prone to revisionism and myth-making. His voice is constantly reminding us he’s wondering which way to steer the story, and the fictionality of his tale is kept in our minds as he peppers the narrative with literary references: his father is a Latin American Byron, his beard a curtain of smoke from that grey Burnam Wood. And right from the start he turns his ironic tone and acerbic wit on his home country of Colombia, whose wearisome changes of government and bloody civil wars he sees as a second-rate performance, as tragicomic….created by mediocre dramatists, fabricated by sloppy set designers, produced by unscrupulous impresarios.

This tragicomedy of political disruption and chaos is the reason the narrator’s own father, Miguel Altamirano, an idealist revolutionary and incurable romantic, flees Bogotá and ends up in Panama. This is a melting pot of every nationality, workers from all over the world who’ve come to work on the railway for the Panama Railroad Company- nearly 10,000 of whom have died in the process, in the swampy, unbearably humid, disease- ridden climate. When De Lesseps and the French engineers arrive to build the canal, we see the tragic results of the French curse up close as the Madiniers’ little son Julien and his father Gustave, both succumb to the killer fever of the Isthmus, as the rains are falling not…in drops but solid and dense, like a heavy wool poncho coming down through the air.

I found the sections on Joseph Conrad at first less appealing: his appearances in the first part of the book felt like an intrusion at times when I was absorbed in the story of Miguel and José Altamirano, not to mention the several digressions on armed conflict in Colombia and even the life story of one particular Chassepot rifle. (This may be because the only Conrad I’ve read is Heart of Darkness). However, towards the end of the novel we see more of him and it’s down to the skilful characterisation of Juan Gabriel Vasquez that in a few deft strokes we have sympathy with him as a man plagued by illness, worried sick by debt and the need to feed his wife and child. He’s writing Nostromo to a deadline and suffering from writer’s block. Cue the appearance of our narrator in London and a rather clever and unexpected denouément.

Now, the theme of fictionality is explored here not only through our obtrusive narrator but also forms part of the story in its depiction of fake news shaping history. Miguel Altamirano is working as a journalist in Panama when his son finds him and notices that he’s prey to a strange illness, that of refraction or a distortion of reality, whereby he exaggerates the achievements and progress of the Railroad Company and is silent on the conditions in the isthmus and the many casualties. As we know from history, and events later in the novel, this misrepresentation led to the collapse of the French project and opened the way both for the US takeover of the canal and the secession of Panama from Colombia. The consequences of Miguel’s refractions are arguably epic and mind-boggling in their reach.

I really enjoyed the sections on Panama in this novel, the depiction of the intolerable climate, the stories of individuals like the Madinier family, and the larger picture of the political struggles involved in building the canal. I enjoyed the playful self-consciousness around story-making and congratulate the translator Anne McLean for her fluency and pitch perfect rendering of that arch and ironic tone. I could have done with a bit less detail on the interminable carousel of 19th century Colombian politics though, especially the battles: I sometimes felt I was hacking through the density of the Darien jungle myself while reading those passages. And the Conrad story felt at times like just too much stuff for a novel of this length, though of course the linking of the two threads, as in the title, is part of the point. It just makes for a very dense reading experience. So this is not my favourite Juan Gabriel Vasquez novel, but I did learn a lot about the building of that canal which I didn’t know before!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Slash and Burn by Claudia Hernandez, translated by Julia Sanches

This novel by Salvadorian writer Claudia Hernandez is an intense and compelling account of a family of women caught up in a long and devastating civil war and its aftermath. Though not mentioned by name, I’ve assumed the story is based on El Salvador’s civil war, which lasted 12 years, from late 1979 to January 1992—though the experience of conflict and its legacy can sadly be found the world over. The intensity of the novel comes not just from the events it recounts, but also from the narrative style. The novel uses the inner monologue, switching between characters within scenes and chapters, in a language which is at the intersection of oral testimony and fiction, as the translator Julia Sanches points out in her helpful note. At the same time, characters are not named, but denoted by their relationships to the central character, eldest daughter, first daughter under her roof, for example, and at times you have to concentrate hard to work out who the pronoun she is referring to. This occasional elision, the sense of characters occasionally slipping into one another, didn’t bother me—in fact it seemed to suggest an overlapping of experience, sometimes a generational echo. It does mean though that the novel requires careful and attentive reading, especially as the narrative is not chronological, but loops and spirals back to the past as it progresses forward, allowing us to see more, and more again, of what the main character and her family went through in the war, to understand their present.

The pivotal character in the novel is a mother (and daughter) and the novel starts in the post war period as she’s making plans to travel to another country, to another continent. We know she’s poor, but understand the journey’s being paid for by a donor and organised through some agency with investigators—though these practical details are just glancingly referred to, her thoughts running more on who’s going to look after her four other daughters while she’s away, will they be alright with the señora she’s asked to stand in for her? It turns out she’s going to France, to Paris, and we gradually realise the agency is one which reunites families separated through the conflict. She’s going to meet her eldest and first born daughter, now a teenager, who was given away at birth and subsequently adopted by a French family. The scene of their meeting is emotionally impactful indeed, not in any overly dramatic way, but simply through the switching of narrative standpoints, which underlines the differences in expectations and hopes they bring to this meeting: the biological mother bursting into tears with joy, while noting her daughter’s coldness, the daughter disinterested and aghast at this woman’s tacky coat, the adoptive mother relieved she’s not going to sue them, aware of her poverty, of her borrowed coat and gloves. And in the background, the brothers who’ve also been adopted, asking eagerly for news of their family, being told definitively that they really had died during the war, but yes the investigators would look out for news of their extended family, there must be some relative who was still alive and wondering whether they were, too, or what had become of them.

After the mother returns to her country the contact with this eldest daughter remains sporadic and often disappointing, yet there are subtle asides in the text just suggesting their connection. The adoptive father complains of his daughter’s tardiness and we’re reminded of a scene early in the novel when the mother as a child gets cut off by the tide and nearly drowns, when, riveted by the water and the seashells, she loses all sense of time. Later, when the second daughter under her roof goes to study in the city, she’s overwhelmed by the pace of life there and is constantly late for everything. When told about her eldest daughter’s depression in France, the mother really doesn’t understand what that means, yet when her second daughter returns, exhausted and defeated, from university in the city, constantly in tears, the mother shows an awareness of this in all but name as she tells her sisters not to nag about the chores, people in that state of mind shouldn’t be burdened any further. It’s like her body’s wounded on the inside.

The mother’s new but tenuous relationship with her eldest daughter is just one of the challenges she and her daughters face in the post conflict era. We learn of the many more immediate and pressing challenges: the thieves who break into their outhouse and steal their corn, the village rapist who clambers over the roof, terrifying the girls, constant shortage of money and food, the suspicion the mother arouses as a woman bringing four daughters up on her own. This is against a background of resentment about perceived injustices with regard to redistribution of land and rights to pensions, as well as long and often distorted memories of what individuals might have done in the war, leading to a growing sense of threat and paranoia, as well as the awareness that no-one can be trusted. It says something about the fragility of civil society during this time that the mother never lodges a complaint with the police about the thefts for example, but talks things through and makes some kind of deal with the people concerned. Later on we meet a character called the administrator of justice—but he too had a history during the war, and so has his own agenda.

It’s against this background that the stories of the other daughters are taken up and as we follow their lives in the present, the narrative goes back to their fathers, the circumstances of their birth, and their mother’s life as an insurgent in the mountains, where from the age of 15 she learned to use a gun, lived on minimal rations and grew up within a disciplined paramilitary regime. The details of this very tough life only come out gradually through the novel, though we realise early on this experience has equipped her to stand up fearlessly to the many challenges she and her daughters face. But there’s another pertinent question raised towards the end of the novel: whether people who’ve fought in a conflict can ever leave this behind? Can they ever be civilians? There’s an arresting scene where an ex-combatant friend of the mother, now running a shop, says she can always spot the ex-combatants. Something in the way they glanced around them, studying the exit points in case something were to happen…sometimes it was the way they stood which signalled that the woman in front of her in the smooth shirt and ruffled shirt was capable of firing a weapon or detonating an explosive. Yet the mother’s brother, who fled the country after the war, trying on his combatant’s uniform for his mother’s funeral, finds it no longer fits, as if his body will disabuse him of the notion that no part of him has changed and that he could go back to being the same person as before if he wished to…

I’ve only touched on some aspects of this complex and many layered novel here: I loved the story of the second daughter who got financial support to study in the city, the grandmother’s graceful acceptance of her illness and staunch refusal to allow the church any part in her funeral. I loved the tender detail and intimacy in the depiction of character and relationships and was moved by the account of loss, which moves into focus again at the end of the book.  But I also enjoyed the skilful way Claudia Hernández  knits the personal, often painful, experiences of this mother and her daughters into the broader picture: that of a country devastated by civil war, attempting to build itself back up, yet weighed down by the consequences of that conflict. I was reminded of other books while reading this: of Milkman, set at the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with its growing sense of paranoia and its nameless characters, of The Anthill, set in Colombia, in the references to the church’s influence in the distribution of aid post conflict, and even of A Thousand Moons set post American civil war where the authorities are struggling to uphold the rule of law and the end of slavery. This novel is a fantastic addition to that canon and should be read by anyone interested in the struggle to move on from war. Thanks to Claudia Hernández, to Julia Sanches for her skilful translation, and to publishers And Other Stories for bringing this book to an English speaking readership.

Posted in Books in Spanish, Books in Translation, Books set in Central America | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Dulce Compania- The Angel of Galilea- by Laura Restrepo

I never thought I’d find myself reading a book about angels—but I’d enjoyed Laura Restrepo’s book Delirium and was intrigued by the blurb on this one explaining that it’s about an angel who shows up in a poor barrio of Bogotá, Colombia, and a young journalist who’s dispatched to find the story. She’s turned up to work at the magazine Somos one regular weekday morning, expecting to  be sent off to cover a tedious beauty contest, but instead is sent by her editor to Barrio Galilea, where the angel has been sighted.

She arrives in a torrential downpour and traipses up and down, negotiating mud and eddying whirlpools, as she visits key people in an attempt to find out more. There’s the desiccated Padre Benito, a Lucky Strike hanging from his lips, who at first denies the presence of an angel, then concedes that if anything, this being is a devil. There’s the couple who run the local corner shop, La Estrella, who demand to see her journalist card before they tell her anything. They finally point her to the house of Sor Maria Crucifija where we meet the group of women she calls the junta. They take her up to the cave where the angel is stationed and set up to be admired by visitors and after a tense and atmospheric wait in this dark, mysterious cave, she is overwhelmed by the presence of the young man she sees.. el misterio que lo rodeaba, su serenidad sobrecogedora, su presencia luminosa… su belleza sobrenatural ( the mystery that surrounded him, his immense serenity, his luminous presence… his supernatural beauty).

 Wanting to find out more about his back story, the young journalist (whose name we never find out, but who the locals call La Monita, Blondie-she’s blonde) visits his mother, Doña Ara. She tells the journalist that her son, the angel, was taken from her at birth and only reappeared two years previously, (to summarise a longer story). He’s mute and can’t say where he’s spent his childhood, but at the same time she’s felt her head filled with words and stories which she’s been compelled to write down in an ever-growing pile of notebooks. Now, the main narrative of the book, all told from the journalist’s point of view, is interleaved with short sections where different angels are speaking. Those readers familiar with the different personalities and life stories of angels might linger longer on these sections: I rather glided over them, but thought this quite a clever device to give a voice to these creatures while sustaining the novel’s central questions of whether they exist and the nature of belief.

For it’s this question that the journalist/ narrator, and through her, we the readers, keep asking ourselves: can it be that this beautiful young man is a creature from another world? It’s a testament to the skill of the writer that she’s able to vividly depict the material poverty of the barrio and the wretched state of those who live there, at the same time evoking the presence of another, ethereal and otherworldly dimension. I found myself, like the journalist, swinging between these two poles—and her observation that for the poor, an angel was a power more concrete, more accessible and reliable than a judge, a policeman or a senator, not to mention the president of a republic, seems truer to me than ever right now. And sometimes there’s a real swing not just in subject matter but in tone too, sometimes with comic effect: directly after an intense moment between the narrator and angel when she feels she has a wound in her chest, that her heart is bleeding, the next chapter opens with her moaning that you can’t find a public phone box in the whole of Bogotá for love nor money.

There are some wonderful set pieces in the novel—and the subject matter does lend itself of course to crowds and a sort of poor person’s pageantry—which are often comedic too. One of my favourite scenes is when the angel’s friends and acolytes take him to see Ofelia, a psychologist friend of the narrator. He’s carried on a stretcher by several people—and though his substance is ethereal in fact he weighs a ton. Padre Benito steps in the path of the procession attempting to stop them leaving the barrio, and it soon becomes apparent that the ensuing argument between him and Doña Ara is a personal row between people once in an intimate relationship. As their retorts bounce back and forth, the stretcher bearers put one foot forward and then again back, trying to gauge whether they can move off now  please with their bulto de piedras, their sack of stones. And after this little dance, they have to bundle their precious angel with stretcher onto the bus. This had me laughing out loud.

 So I really enjoyed this novel, despite having no previous truck with angels. I found the young journalist a hugely sympathetic character from the very beginning when she’s recalling the childhood prayer angel de mi guarda, dulce compañia, no me desemparas, ni de noche ni de día-( my guardian angel, sweet company, both day and night, please stay by me.) At the same time I enjoyed the vivid description of the barrio Galilea and the colourful characters living there. Laura Restrepo touches on some themes present in Delirium too—the power of the patriarchy in Padre Benito’s unwillingness to cede power to the junta of women and the journalist’s anxiety around mental illness. And the conflict in Colombia is just referenced occasionally—the vigilante group MAFA who go off to join the paramilitaries, the FARC in the wilderness, and the angel talked about in the end as if acquiring mythological status, like Superman or Pablo Escobar, ( though the latter was of course all too real ). I read the book in the original Spanish but the novel has been translated into English by Dolores Koch and published in the US. I really recommend this novel, if you’re in the mood for angels.

Posted in Books in Spanish, Books in Translation, Books set in South America, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment