Berta Isla by Javier Marias translated by Margaret Jull Costa

For a while, she wasn’t sure her husband was her husband, much as, when you’re dozing, you’re not sure whether you’re thinking or dreaming, whether you’re actually in charge of your own thoughts or have completely lost track of them out of sheer exhaustion. Sometimes she thought he was, sometimes not, and at other times, she decided to believe nothing and simply continue living her life with him, or with that man so similar to him, albeit older. But then she, too, had grown older in his absence; she was very young when they married.

So begins Berta Isla, Javier Marias’ most recent novel, and right away we are plunged into Marias’ world of doubt and unknowing, of blurred identities made more obscure by the passage of time. We’ve been there before in A Heart so White and Thus Bad Begins and that feeling of disquiet, of being unsettled, creeps up and takes residence in our minds from the very beginning.

This introduction is in fact a brief fast forward to the end of the story of Berta Isla, a madrileña, and her half Spanish, half English husband, Tom Nevison. They were childhood sweethearts, having met at school in Madrid, and Berta knew as a teenager that he was the man she wanted to marry. They were apart in their late teens, when Tom went to Oxford to study, but married when he returned to Madrid, where he got a job working for the British Embassy. She’d noticed a change in Tom when he returned from Oxford: the easy, carefree Tom had faded rather. He’d become a little anxious, he had problems sleeping, and these troubles became more marked each time he was gearing up to leave Madrid for London. The London trips become more frequent. Tom is away for weeks at a time and Berta has difficulty contacting him. This comes to a head when she’s befriended by an odd Spanish-Irish couple in Madrid who inveigle their way into her confidence and end up endangering the life of their baby- she can’t contact Tom and has to deal with this alone.

In the meantime-the narrative switches back and forth between Berta and Tom throughout the novel- the reader knows that when Tom was finishing his Oxford degree, he’s summoned to the rooms of Oxford don Peter Wheeler. Here, he’s given the infamous tap on the shoulder, i.e. invited to work for the Secret Service, where his talents as a linguist and a mimic would be highly valued. Wheeler uses all the arguments he can drum up to persuade Tom: is he content to lead an ordinary, humdrum life, exerting no influence on the course of world events, an outcast from the universe, or does he want to make a difference, does he want to be involved in the Defence of the Realm? At first, Tom refuses. Then, a set of circumstances arise which put pressure on him and he sees no alternative but to agree. He returns to Madrid, working ostensibly for the embassy but spending more and more time away on the unknown activities Berta is forbidden to ask about.

After the threat to their child, Tom comes back and long Marias- like conversations with Berta ensue-intense, one-to-one, in claustrophobic indoor spaces. He tells her what happened at Oxford and a little about his work for what he calls the Foreign Office. She is aghast at the idea of him being an infiltrator: this is Spain in 1976, just 6 months after the death of Franco, and the memories of the work of the Brigada Política-Social, the sociales, are still very much alive. These were spies working for the Brigada who infiltrated radical groups pretending to be one of them, while passing back information to the Brigada. Berta can’t stand the deception, the pretence of friendship involved in such relationships and is horrified that Thomas could be an infiltrator. Thomas insists he can’t tell her more and they both know she has the choice between accepting this situation or leaving him.

She doesn’t leave him. She’s had a second child by now, a little girl, and has become a lecturer in English literature. She’s somehow got used to the life many married women live, where husbands work away for long periods of time, who just get on with their professional and family lives, supported by family and friends. (Though we meet none of Berta’s friends, move away rarely from her solitary internal monologues). Tom’s final departure happens in 1982, just after the invasion of the Falklands, and this time he doesn’t come back. We’re told how Berta deals with this over the months and years and how the British authorities treat her-and in the last 100 pages learn from Tom’s perspective a little about what’s happened to him in the intervening time. As we know from the beginning Tom does turn up again in Berta’s life, after an absence of many years. He’s a virtual stranger and the quiet ending sees them finding a modus vivendi with which they can go forward. Yet there’s no resolution. They’re both still waiting.

The Secret Service offers up a whole world of possibilities for a writer like Javier Marias with his predilection for concealment, for unknowing and shifting identities. Some familiar tropes drive the plot forward: those claustrophobic one-to-one conversations seen here in the form of the conversation between Oxford don and student, amongst others. There is more of his inventive word play: the twisting of the phrase outcasts from the universe to include the ivory tower don Mr. Southworth in his remote Oxford college, in his post outside the universe. The translator Margaret Jull Costa must be praised here for her rendering of this word play into English. The text is threaded through with literary references too-here T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as well as Shakespeare. ( I actually love it that a married couple discuss the question of treachery through the lens of a scene from Henry V).

But there’s also that, to me at least, less appealing Marias trope of the male gaze, especially at the beginning, which had me thinking ok here we go, do we have to have the female don in the bookshop characterised as a sex goddess? But, as before, I ended up overlooking that, because there are other things which I found compelling-and very chilling. While I was reading, the deliberately oblique, and only occasional, references to Ireland stopped me in my tracks: I’ve recently watched the BBC4 documentary Spotlight on the Troubles:A Secret History and the atmosphere created by Anna Burns in her Man Booker prize winning novel Milkman is forever seared onto my brain. The images and references to the Troubles in Berta Isla hit me hard. But later, while the novel was still percolating through my mind, I’ve become angry at the British establishment, plucking young, inexperienced men and women and luring them into a world from which they’ll never be free, which will prevent them from ever leading a normal life. While the top brass, all knighted, as Marias points out, direct things from afar, remote from what happens to the agents in the field.

This is a powerful and compelling read with its slow but steady pace, its skilful build up of tension and its oblique, glancing references, all contributing to the unsettling atmosphere of uncertain identity, of not knowing. And of course the question of adopting different identities in the Secret Service world just feeds into that larger question of do we ever really know the people we’re closer to, the ones we share our lives with? I enjoyed the way Marias moors these more existential questions in the particular historical and political contexts of 60s and 70s  Madrid and Oxford. And I enjoyed spending time in the Marias world with a female protagonist this time, with Berta Isla.

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The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

A young woman in an old, high-ceilinged flat in Berlin hears a declaration of love from her  musician boyfriend. A twelve year old girl walks out of a hotel in Amsterdam and catches a train to Vienna in search of her dead aunt’s songs. What links these two events wrapping around the 900 pages of The Eighth Life, translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin, is family, and the shared experiences of a family living through the twentieth century, the red century, in Georgia. It’s the wrapping for a vast confectionery of stories, which are multi- generational and truly epic, taking place in Georgia, Russia, London and Berlin, against a background of tumultuous political and historical events. And it’s a history of Georgia too, the most beautiful place on earth, rich in rivers, waterfalls, succulent fruits and..the best wine in the world, poised between Europe and Russia, between autonomy and dependence, and its agonising red century evolution.

The novel is narrated by Niza, the young Berlin woman and from the very beginning we see how the characters are caught up in the history they lived through. Niza’s great-great-grandfather, a confectioner in a provincial town in Georgia before the First World War, enjoys the bourgeois pleasure of reading his newspaper in the town square cafes, while hearing the hum of communism ever louder in the background. The lives of his two daughters, Stasia and Christine, are shaped by the First World War and the Soviet period. Stasia has to give up her dreams of dancing with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris when she marries Simon Jashi, who later becomes an officer with the Red Army. Christine, a stunning beauty, marries a wealthy society toastmaster, but unfortunately catches the eye of the all powerful Little Big Man, aka Beria, the head of the NKVD, the notorious secret police. Stasia’s children, Kostya and Kitty, live through the Second World War, Kostya enjoying a successful career in the Russian navy, Kitty, horribly damaged by her experiences, escapes from Eastern Europe to London, from where she’s able to launch her musical career in the West. The stories of Niza, her sister, Daria and their mother, Elene, are set against the break up of the Soviet Union, the lawlessness, violence and wars which then ensued in Georgia and determined their lives. And these are just a few of the characters who appear in the book. There are other, both major and minor, characters who move centre stage for a while, and then recede, sometimes to appear unexpectedly in a different context, just like the thick and thin threads, the different coloured threads which weave together to form a pattern in the carpet of stories described by Stasia.

One of the huge pleasures of immersing yourself in a book of this length is the depth and development of character and relationships. ( Is this one of the ways in which the novel can be called Tolstoyan? I think so, though it’s decades since I read War and Peace). Sibling relationships are an important theme. We see the different personalities of Kostya and Kitty as children, the correct, neat and tidy boy irritated by his wilder, mischievous sister- and later the adult Kostya, ambitious for his daughter, Elene, infuriated by the unruly female household run by his aunts in Tbilisi.  A wide range of sexual relationships are explored, including exploitative and abusive relationships and rape. Many of these take place as a result of the political power relationships of the time- who is going to refuse Beria sexual favours when we know the cruel atrocities he’s capable of ? With others, the power relationship is not necessarily to do with politics, but more about violence against women- endured by several characters in this novel.There are moving and powerful female friendships- I loved the warm and lively friendship between Stasia and her unconventional friend Sopio whom she meets when she first moves to Tibilisi, while the connection between Kostya’s lover Ida, and the other Ida, the blinded young pianist in besieged Leningrad, reduced me to tears.  And we see relationships change, develop and attenuate over time, the accommodation of married couples, partners who outgrow each other.

The historical context of the novel is told through the characters’ stories but also by way of discursive narrative. So both Beria and Stalin are referred to in the book, notably as they both come from Georgia, and had a particular interest in the fate of Georgia and, in the case of Beria, have a bearing on the plot.  Some of the historical situations in which the characters are involved will be familiar to the general reader, like the Siege of Leningrad, but others were new to me- I’d never heard of the Georgian League, formed from Georgians persuaded by the Germans to fight on their side in World War Two in return for support for an independent Georgia at the end of the war. And the ruthlessness of the Soviet regime evoked repeatedly in the fear and terror felt by characters at many points in the stories is only borne out by the account of the assassination of 25,000 Polish officers and intellectuals at Katyn and the terrible consequences of Order 270 by which all Red Army soldiers who allowed themselves to be taken prisoner were considered traitors- and shot when returned to the Soviet Union.

But it’s not just in accounts of these big and terrible events that the novel communicates Georgia’s history: its strength is also in depicting the characters’ daily lived experiences. So after the collapse of the Soviet Union we see Georgian society descending gradually into chaos. Infrastructure deteriorates, there are frequent electricity cuts, a flourishing black market,pensions not paid, and corruption and criminality is rife. Niza’s friend, David, is stabbed to death for a gold chain, and her card-playing friends start carrying guns as a matter of course. Independence movements in Abkhazia and Ossetia develop into full blown wars with the consequent loss of life war. Drugs, including heroin, enter the country, and play a role in the downward spiral of the beautiful and talented Daria and her husband Lasha. It’s the experience of her country falling apart which induces Niza to get out and try to build a life for herself in Berlin-bringing us back to that morning when Aman says he loves her and a panic phone call from her mother sees her flying out of the door, looking for Brilka.

The title of this book is The Eighth Life (for Brilka), and indeed Brilka is found and brought back to live with her aunt, Niza, in Berlin for a while. Brilka’s trip to Vienna was to find Kitty’s music to use for a dance performance about her family. She asks Niza to provide the stories. Niza agrees and spends a year travelling round Europe researching and reading, and the result is this book.

It’s impossible to do justice to such a big novel in a humble blog post like this. Not only is it long, but there’s such a huge cast of characters and the plot does indeed stretch over a whole century. Some of the subject matter is really gruelling and I take my hat off to the translators for having the steadiness of character to be able to cope with the grimness, never mind the technical demands of the translation. But it’s an utterly compelling and very readable family story, which opened my eyes to Georgia, a part of the world I don’t know, and its tumultuous and painful history. Do read it. It’s one of those books that demands time and commitment, but you won’t regret it.

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My 10 Peak Reads of 2019

How hard to sift through the brilliant books I’ve read this year to find my top favourites- but here they are, some well known prize winners, some more personal choices, all of them books which have resonated with me this year.

  1. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. This novel, reviewed in more detail here, is about journeying, amongst other things. There’s a Mexican American family- two adults, two children- travelling west from New York. There are children making the dangerous journey from Central America to the Mexican/ US border. The journeys are odysseys and there’s plenty of references to Homer and Virgil as well as David Bowie’s Space Oddity. This is a profoundly moving novel and, with its depiction of the children making that perilous journey, very pertinent to our times.
  2. Disoriental by Négar Djavadi. This novel, by the French/ Iranian film maker Négar Djavadi, is translated from French by Tina Kover, and deals with the experiences of Kimiâ, a young Iranian girl whose family has fled political persecution in Iran and is now trying to make her life in France. The structure of the book is intriguing, alternating between the adult Kimiâ in a Parisian clinic, and the history of her family in Iran. It plays cleverly with our expectations in its exploration of identity and is reviewed in more detail here.
  3. Geisterbahn/ Ghost Train by Ursula Krechel. This third novel by one of my favourite German writers, deals, like her others, with the Nazi period. But this time the focus is on events and characters in the city of Trier, following amongst others the lives of a Sinti family and a Communist family during this period. As in Landgericht/ State Justice, the novel embraces both narrative and history, giving us detailed information about real events. It also crosses generations, showing us the consequences and continued trauma of families persecuted in the Nazi period. Ursula Krechel’s writing is intense and at times harrowing but the story of the Sinti family in particular is a story that needs to be heard. It’s not yet been translated into English but you can read more details here.
  4. On the Red Hill by Mike Parker. This is an altogether lighter read and a chance book I came across on a trip to Wales when exploring family links there. It’s about the history of two gay couples who are friends, and the house Rhiw Goch in mid Wales, which the older couple bequeath to Mike Parker and his partner. The book combines some of my favourite genres, nature writing and memoir, and both are evocatively brought to life by the inclusion of many black and white photos, chronicling the lives of the men and the evolution of Rhiw Goch over the years. Reviewed here.
  5. Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. I couldn’t quite face reading this book when I was given it in 2015 after Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But I went back to it this year after visiting Ukraine and reading  The Unwomanly Face of War by the same writer. This is a collection of oral histories gathered a few years after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. I found them illuminating, not just in terms of the range of people affected by the accident and their experiences, but also in terms of what these accounts reveal about the Soviet system, its citizens’ faith in that system and their capacity for suffering and endurance given the terrible and tragic twentieth century history they’d lived through. More here.
  6. The Years by Annie Ernaux. More on twentieth century history in this book, translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer and the winner of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2019. It’s a novel but reads like a memoir and charts the life of a French woman born in the early 1940s against a background of political and social change in France. The novel is both intimate in its detailed description of family photos marking seminal moments and in its use of the pronoun we to denote generational experiences and change. This will be of interest to anyone who’s  lived through those changes themselves or is a follower of French culture and society. Reviewed here.
  7. Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon. This is another book which could be classified as memoir, translated from the French by Michael Lucey. It’s one of the books which has stayed with me because it’s an exploration of changing social class,  leaving working class roots behind and the consequences of that, a theme I’m interested in right now. Didier Eribon was the only person in his family to receive a university education and to leave his home town of Reims. This book is about his return after many years, his reconnection with his mother and his reflections on growing up in a family in which he felt fundamentally different- not conforming to social norms of masculinity, being bookish and being gay. Reviewed here.
  8. When I hit you by Meena Kandasamy. This powerful  novel about domestic violence in India was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018. It’s a novel about a brief marriage between an educated young couple in southern India- the woman comes from Chennai- where controlling behaviour from the husband escalates into violence and rape. The woman’s feelings of isolation and desperation are intensified by the fact of living in a culture where women’s obedience and subservience in marriage is the absolute norm. The role of the parents here is interesting and I also admired the variety in tone and voice used to great effect by the narrator. Reviewed here.
  9. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. This fabulous huge novel won the Man Booker prize this year, 2019, and deservedly so. Its about the lives of 12 women living in Britain today, most of them black. It explores issues of race, sexuality, gender and identity through their stories which cleverly interconnect, and tells us in some cases the history of their arrival in the UK, e.g. the Windrush people. The novel starts off being London centred so it was both a relief and intriguing when it opened up to include the West Country and the North East. The writing is lively, pithy and witty and at times had me laughing out loud. Reviewed here. 
  10. The Eighth Life by Nino Haratschvili. I’ve just finished this epic family novel brilliantly co-translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin- and what a note to finish the year on! It’s a multi-generational family saga set against the background of the twentieth century history of Georgia and was for me as much the story of that country, positioned between Europe and Russia, and very much within the orbit of the Soviet Union for much of the century. The family goes through the Russian revolution, the Communist period, the Second World war, the Soviet and post Soviet era and suffers and endures. Against this historical background we see strong female relationships, family tensions, sibling rivalries, youthful passion and the ebbing away of love. At 900 pages it may be daunting, but it’s extraordinary and worth setting other things on one side to devote yourself to it. Reviewed here.
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Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, Man Booker Prize Winner 2019

This clever and entertaining Booker winning novel explores the intersection of race, class, gender and identity in today’s Britain through the stories of twelve people-‘mostly women, mostly black’.  They’re mostly metropolitan too, though one story takes place in rural Northumberland and Yorkshire. The characters belong to different generations, giving a historical dimension to the experience of black women against a background of social change. Their stories are interconnected in different ways, both through plot and theme, involving the reader in that delicious forensic task of spotting characters and connections as they reappear. And while exploring some issues for women today head on, the writer, Bernadine Evaristo has a light touch with others, raising questions, sometimes inverting the reader’s expectations, making us question our assumptions-and also making us laugh out loud.

The characters come from a range of backgrounds and heritages: Dominique’s father is Indo-Guyanese, her mother Afro- Guyanese, Amma’s mother mixed race Scottish/ Nigerian, her father, Ghanaian. Winsome came to the UK from Jamaica in the 50s as part of the Windrush generation, and Hattie’s ancestors were Ethiopian and Caribbean. Racism is an everyday experience for all of them and Bernadine Evaristo skilfully weaves this into the narratives, showing its changing face as the characters move through history and up the social ladder. So when Winsome and Clovis live briefly in the South West in the 50s, the locals wind down car windows to insult her, refuse her accommodation or service in shops, bar her from cafes and deliberately drive through puddles to splash her as she pushes a pram with two toddlers beside her. Shirley, her daughter, is aware of passengers clutching their handbags tighter as she passes them on the bus and is never sure whether her teacher colleagues’ rudeness in the 70s is down to her race or gender. Carole, a Cambridge graduate and high-flying banker in the 21st century, knows that when she enters a room for a meeting, the client will look at her as if she should be attached to the tea trolley and then past her to the person they are clearly expecting to meet.

Bernadine Evaristo gives us a more nuanced picture when it comes to the male experience of racism: Clovis working at Plymouth docks in the 1950s is accepted by the other stevedores who’ve travelled through the world’s ports and seen people of many nationalities. Slim, settling with Hattie in rural Northumberland in the late 40s, is liked by the community for his pleasant and courteous manners and deep baritone voice in the church choir. Is it just that racism is not a uniform phenomenon and that there are pockets of tolerant people open to people different from themselves? Or is it that these men are doing traditionally male manual jobs and staying in their lower social class, whereas women like Shirley and Carole have ideas beyond their station, breaking into hitherto masculine professional worlds- all the more unprecedented because they’re black?

Moving up the social ladder and the role of education in this move is a theme present in many stories. Bummi is a cleaner, Winsome a bus conductress and they want better paid jobs, with more prestige and less drudgery, for their daughters. So we see Carole, a gifted mathematician, making it to Cambridge and a stellar career in banking. We see her teacher, Mrs. King, dedicated to opening doors for the hard working and talented at the Peckham Comprehensive where she teaches. We see mothers controlling their children’s homework, keen for them to gain the qualifications they didn’t get themselves. However, these experiences are played out in the highly structured class system of the U.K. and its educational offer. We learn that a girl’s chances are better if she goes to New Cross Grammar School with the middle classes of Greenwich and Blackheath, than at Peckham Comprehensive with its escalating problems of poverty and gang violence. And when they do make it to university, how hard it is to enter such an utterly different world. Carole’s reaction on arriving at Cambridge:

she overheard loud reminiscences about the dorms and drugs of boarding school, Christmas holidays in Goa, the Bahamas, gap years spent climbing Machu Picchu, or building a school for the poor in Kenya, 

Nobody talked loudly about growing up in a council flat on a skyscraper estate with a single mother who worked as a cleaner

Nobody talked loudly about never having gone on a single holiday, like ever

Nobody talked loudly about never having been on a plane, seen a play or the sea, or eaten in a restaurant, with waiters

Female sexuality and relationships are a theme and, again, we are given a range of experiences: heterosexual, lesbian, polyamory, transgender. Early sexual experience is common to several characters. One of the characters suffers a gang rape at the age of 13 and tells no one about it. Another character suffers a different sort of rape, an incident of non consensual sex on a first date- and wonders afterwards if she is to blame? The shame and degradation felt by these women afterwards is movingly told. I felt a mixture of sadness and despondency in general at the seemingly irreconcilable desires of young women and  men- she wants a regular boyfriend, someone to talk to, he wants a shag-but also outrage that the perpetrator of the rape is a teacher, a respectable member of society, a fact just thrown in lightly, once, by the writer, to make us think about those men who do such damage with impunity.

Of course, the result of early sex, both consensual and not, is pregnancy, early motherhood and fatherless children, and we see that play out across the generations. LaTisha, Carole’s contemporary at school, has 3 children by the age of 21, raising them alone by working as a supervisor in Fruit and Veg in the local supermarket. Two women of earlier generations also give birth as teenagers: one keeps the baby, but has to leave home, and the other gives her baby up for adoption- and we see the stories of those babies weave in and out of the narrative.

One great strength of the novel is its occasional inversion of our expectations. I mentioned earlier Slim being welcomed and accepted into a rural community. There’s a refreshingly upbeat section where his mixed race mother-in-law Grace is orphaned at the age of 8-and you’re immediately thinking Oh no! Jane Eyre! Lowood School! But Grace is sent to the Northern Association’s Home for Girls where the teachers believe in women’s suffrage and giving their girls a decent elementary education so they can earn their own living. Grace is told she has a natural elegance, given confidence and a sense of self worth here, which stands her in good stead in her later relationship with the man she marries, Joseph Rydendale. (And here again, that light touch- he calls her his Queen Cleopatra, the Lady of the Nile-is he exocitising? She reminds him her heritage is Abyssinian, not Egyptian, he tells her gently it’s called Ethiopia these days, part of a humorous and loving banter in their early relationship. We might call this racism now- but should we be critical of him for attitudes prevalent in the past?) But the most shocking challenge to our expectations- and I’m basing that claim on the reaction of my book group and others-is an expression of sexual desire by one of the twelve which feels very transgressive. To say more would be to spoil.

This is a brilliant kaleidoscope of a book, whose characters and lives touch, interconnect, retreat and reappear. Inevitably, with a range of characters, some will resonate more than others, and I have to say I found the sections with Amma and the London luvvies the least appealing. It was when Carole appeared in the second section that I was really gripped and with the stories all the way. The style is pacy and upbeat, particularly with the lack of full stops, which has irked some readers, but didn’t bother me. Yet beneath the paciness there is meticulous plotting, succinct yet vivid portrayal of character and real emotional depth. And some considerable research has gone into the historical sections. The epilogue has the last word, with Penelope investigating her DNA via Ancestry, to see where she comes from, to find her identity. This is a fantastic novel for our times and a worthy winner of the Booker Prize. Thank you Bernadine Evaristo.

 

 

 

 

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Riveting Germans: Writers and translators reflect 30 years after the fall of the Wall.

I was thrilled to hear about this event, Riveting Germans: After the Wall, hosted by Rosie Goldsmith of the European Literature Network and featuring, among others, one of my favourite German writers, Julia Franck. ( Her novel The Blind Side of the Heart is reviewed here). Nino Haratischvili, writer of the much praised The Eighth Life, was also taking part as well as the German poet Durs Grünbein. Their translators, Ruth Martin, Charlotte Collins and Karen Leeder were participating too. What more could you want? So I signed up, organised train tickets and accommodation, and hot footed it down to the wonderful British Library last Tuesday to soak up things German- and European.

The first part of the evening saw Rosie Goldsmith in conversation with all three writers. Nino Haratischvili talked about her move to Germany from Georgia as a child and the birth of her great novel The Eighth Life, published in English this month by Scribe in translation by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin. The novel is the story of her Georgian family over six generations and the historical and political upheavals they went through during the twentieth century. She’d been aware that when Georgia featured in writing it was seen through the eyes of others, not from the Georgian perspective, so she set out to address that, not intending originally to produce such an epic book (it’s been called Tolstoyan). Interestingly, when asked about her decision to write in German rather than Georgian, she said she found writing in German gave her a little more distance from her material, allowed her to be more playful.

Durs Grünbein and Julia Franck talked more about their memories of divided Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Julia Franck left East Germany for the West as a child before 1989 and spent one year in a transit camp- her book Lagerfeuer ( translated as West) deals with this time. She talked about the difficulties of living in a camp, of sharing intimate space with strangers, and said the camp itself is a protagonist in the novel. The conversation then turned to the tough mothers in her novels, in die Mittagsfrau ( The Blind Side of the Heart) and Rücken an Rücken ( Back to Back). (This brought up a few nostalgic moments for me as I used to reward myself with a Julia Franck novel when taking school trips to Germany and Rücken an Rücken was the very first German novel we discussed in our German book group 7 years ago now).

We then heard readings from all three writers, firstly in the original German and then in translation. These were mesmerising. I didn’t know Durs Grünbein’s poetry at all so it was fantastic to hear two of his poems, both in the original and in translation, Kiosk by the Sea and On Learning Old Vocabulary. After the readings the translators took centre stage and we heard from Ruth Martin and Charlotte Collins about the long process of co-translating The Eighth Life ( at 900 plus pages this took 4 years, on and off) and their current translation projects.

So this was a fabulous evening, brilliantly hosted by Rosie Goldsmith, and, yes, I did come away with a signed copy of The Eighth Life. I’m wondering how and when I can lock myself away from other obligations for several days to read it, but let it be soon! I’m looking forward hugely to this Lesefest and will report back.

 

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The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price, translated from the Welsh by Lloyd Jones.

This deceptively slender novel is a rich and moving account of growing up in a remote valley in rural mid-Wales in the last century. It’s a story of a farming family, of continuity and change, and of lives lived close to the countryside and the natural world. The first person narrator, Rebecca, begins with her parents, Evan and Rebecca Jones, returning from their wedding in 1905 to Evan’s family farm, Tynybraich, in the Cwm Maesglau valley. Custom has it that the older woman has to cede her place to the new wife and we see Catrin, Evan’s mother, moving out for Rebecca to take her place.

The narrator is Rebecca and Evan’s eldest child and her birth is followed closely by the birth of her brother, Bob, in 1906. The narrator describes her mother’s tough life as a farmer’s wife: bringing up two small children, cleaning, cooking, baking and washing by hand, putting the clothes through the mangle and spreading them out on the hedgerow to dry. Quite apart from her duties on the farm: fetching water from the well, feeding the hens and collecting eggs, feeding the pigs and mucking out the sheds, to name but a few. Yet her mother could read and write, and indeed an old chest in the farmhouse contained some precious books from Evan’s family, including William Morgan’s 1588 Bible and many early English books bought in London. Rebecca and Bob were avid readers and loved poring over these books as well as playing house in the remains of the old oak tree in the farmyard, blasted and split open by a lightning bolt.

Tragedy hits the family when two subsequent brothers are born blind: the little girl witnesses the sad scenes when her father realises the tiny babies are not reacting to visual stimuli and her parents’ sorrow when this is confirmed. It’s just as heart rending when a third little boy, Lewis, starts to lose his sight at the age of 6. He disappears one day and his sister Rebecca finds him lying face down amongst the bluebells:

I lay by his side, asking him what was wrong. He pressed the flowers against his eyes, inhaling their blue scent. He said that this was his last chance to see the bluebells. Next year he’d be at school and his sight would go.

The two blind brothers, Gruffydd and William, are sent away to a preparatory school for blind children at Rhyl at the very young age of 5 and 3 and a half. They go on to have an excellent academic education at the College for the Blind at Worcester, and then at university in England. Extraordinary as this is, given the family’s rural background,  this puts them under considerable financial strain as a result of which Rebecca and Bob receive only a basic education. Bob can’t realise his ambition to be a doctor and has to take over the farm. Rebecca becomes a seamstress.

There are wonderful scenes of community, as well as family, life.The different tasks of the harvest are carried out by up to twenty farmers, working side by side, moving from one farm to the next. The tasks are described in meticulous detail, yet with a wonderful lyricism:

The days of harvest were days of gold, rich and opulent. The green gold of hay in swathes. The gold of haycock, rick and stack. The gold of hayloft and barn. The gold of stubble.

And there is wonderful observational detail about nature too. In a passage about highland tracks falling into disuse the narrator describes the peregrine falcon seen on the moorland:

the most rapid of all pilgrims, reaching its end with a missile’s speed and precision…a sublime bird, dark of cheek, blue-grey of body and wings, its belly a speckled white.. a steel bullet sheathed in feathers.

Yet the narrator also describes the intimate, domestic world of the family with subtlety and nuance. She’s unsentimental about family,likening it to an anchor which holds us in place, which holds us secure in a storm– but also holds us back in fair weather. I enjoyed her account of her father as he grew older, weaker and more dependent and how he differed from her brother, Bob:

Father was a conversationalist; Bob a reasoner and a debater. Father  loved the pithy remark, Bob the paragraph. Father loved farming, Bob hated it. My father was a countryman, Bob a politician.

And there is also a brief but searing account of the change in her mother’s personality at the end of her life as she deteriorated with Alzheimer’s.

The narrator, Rebecca, assumes the role of family chronicler in the book, telling us about her brothers’ marriages, children and grandchildren. But what of her own emotional and romantic needs, her own desires? We are told one story: during the war, the family received some Italian Prisoners of War to work on the farm, including one Angelo. Rebecca, a woman of nearly forty, falls deeply and magically in love with him and has four months of joy, a sort of happiness I had never experienced before. At the end of four months he leaves-there’s no discussion about whether they could be together. She has a sort of breakdown afterwards and then moves out of the farmhouse to her grandmother’s home at Maesglasau Bach at the end of the valley as if to confirm her singleness.

Yet she has much pleasure in other relationships,particularly with her sister-in-law, Olwen, with whom she laughed and chatted on a daily basis. There’s a wonderful account of Olwen, an instinctive Plaid Cymru supporter, putting a Plaid banner in her car window on market day as soon as she was out of sight of the house-her husband, Bob, being a staunch Labour man. She’d leave the banner up for all to see while her car was in the car park all day, only removing it when returning to the house at night. When Olwen dies, Rebecca is bereft. She misses her on her daily walks, comparing her to the lovely Olwen of the Mabinogian myths, wherever she walked, white clover would grow in her footsteps, longing to see her friend again, to pull her back into this world, so that we might talk and laugh again, and share our life at Cwm Maesglasau.

At the end of the book, as her brothers and sisters die one by one, there is a deep sense of Rebecca’s loneliness but also her closeness to that other realm, as if separated by just a thin veil. We are finally told about the hymn-writer, Hugh Jones, whose words preface some of the chapters and given the words to his hymn ‘O! Pull Aside the Veil’, which the narrator says was inspired by the mountain above Maesglasau with its constant mists. This is a world where the preachers and hymn-writers are inspired by the mountains and valleys of mid- Wales and the spiritual dimension of people’s lives is expressed in their closeness to the natural world.

In Jane Aaron’s afterword she wonders whether the narrative voice sounds too highbrow in translation into English: Rebecca was, after all, not an educated woman. For me, this was not a problem at all- though the novel is a personal account it’s also a kind of chronicle of a family and community across time, and so a more educated narrator’s voice is entirely appropriate. We also learn that the story is about Angharad Price’s own family: she’s a descendant of Rebecca’s family at Tynybraich.  Though I can’t compare to the original Welsh, the translation reads smoothly and beautifully, allowing those of us who don’t read Welsh access to continuity and change in the rural world at Cwm Maesglasau. This is a beautiful and moving novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Disoriental by Negar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover

Disoriental, the début novel of the French-Iranian filmmaker Négar Djavadi, is a brilliant, kaleidoscopic account of the writer’s Iranian family and their flight to France to escape political persecution. Published first in France in 2018 as Désorientale, it’s been brought to an English readership in a superb translation by Tina Kover and is currently shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. The title reflects the narrator’s own experience of landing in a foreign country: you’re asked to integrate, but you’ve first got to separate, detach, dissociate from your own country. Arriving in France at the age of 10 after crossing the mountains on horseback, this is Kimiâ’s story-the story of finding her place in a very different, Western, society while recognising, connecting with and exploring her Iranian cultural and family heritage.

The contrast between the two places is there from the beginning.The story starts with the narrator in the waiting room of Cochin Hospital in Paris, a treatment centre for infertility, where the French couples are waiting to be seen in an atmosphere of thick silence, politely ignoring their fellow patients. If this were Iran, the narrator says, the place would be a caravanserai, a chaos of chat, discovered family connections, gossip and take out food. It’s from this hospital waiting room that the narrator tells her family stories, weaving tales of her father’s family, the Sadrs, from Mazandaran in the North East of Iran, into her account of fertility treatment in France. This is no chronological account, as we’re warned at the beginning, even the family history switching between her grandparents’s stories, and the stories of her parents, Darius and Sara. And this interweaving seems to underline the co-existence of the old and the new in Iran: grandmother Emma, reading the coffee grounds, believing in Fate, sticking to her own theories of genetic inheritance, while global discoveries in genetics enter the discourse in Iran in the 60s as elsewhere.

From the family stories emerges the story of Darius, the narrator’s father. He rejects the expectations of his conservative, authoritarian father, and flees to Paris as a young man, escaping his law course and an arranged marriage. He lives there for 10 years and it is from this experience that the family’s great love of all things French is born. He returns to Iran, a reader, thinker, journalist and political activist and marries Sara, a teacher. I hugely enjoyed these sections dealing with their family life in the 60s, which illustrates that mixture of modernity and tradition. Sara and Darius move into a new development called Mehr in Iran where they have an active social life. They befriend their neighbours, the Nasrs, with whom they share lots of new experiences, not least a viewing of the new film Emmanuelle. Both have a role outside the home- Sara is a teacher, and takes on more classes when Darius resigns from his job as a journalist. She too is a courageous champion of human rights and democracy, wearing mourning to school on the death of the populist politician Mossadegh in exile, teaching her students about him that day, for which she receives death threats.

Yet this is a society which implacably upholds many traditions, for example a rigid division of the sexes. I was taken aback at the casual mention, after Sara gives birth, of a hospital nursery reserved for baby girls. Really? Why would you see the need to place tiny infants in separate rooms according to their gender? The fact that teenage boys were sent abroad to study, leaving the girls and mothers to holiday without them, comes as less of a surprise. But this rigid gender division also leads to an absolute silence on the question of homosexuality: being gay isn’t shameful. It’s impossible. A non-reality. And the narrator is deeply saddened when, many years later in Paris, she tries to bring up the subject of her uncle, a gay man who married, and her father, Darius, the liberal democrat, can’t say the word homosexual. Yet there are advancements in sexual matters in the heterosexual world: a worldly and well travelled Iranian doctor introduces the new word vagina into discourse. While many men are puzzling about what this actually is, women in their groups are describing it, its likes and possibilities, in short articulating female desire. Yet sexual orientation doesn’t feature.

The family stories are told against a background of the history of 20th century Iran, which the narrator characterises as nothing but invasion and totalitarianism. This is a country which has always been of interest to the west for its oil and, post second world war, to the British for its strategic position close to Russia. We learn about the involvement of the US and UK in the arrest of Mossadegh and the demise of his nationalist populist government, opening the way for the Shah and, in the 70s, the Iranian Revolution and the ever tightening grip of Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs. The narrator defines the moment her father becomes a revolutionary as the moment in 1975 a member of SAVAK ( the National Intelligence and Security Agency) is appointed to the editorship of the newspaper he works for. Darius resigns, and later, flees to the west.

Side B of the book, referencing Kimiâ’s later role as a DJ, deals with the family’s life in France (and we’re reminded in a footnote that some Side B tracks did make good in the end-think Gloria Gaynor’s I will survive). The misery, isolation and depression felt by Darius and Sara in exile is well evoked, as well as the ignorance and discrimination suffered by the narrator and her two sisters, Leila and Mina: In the early 1980s the French didn’t really differentiate between us and the hezbollahis. Mina becomes a different girl, refusing to go to school and only making it to her baccalaureate exams because Sara pulls her out of bed, pushes her into the shower and out of the door. Kimiâ responds in a different way: she discovers punk music and a whole scene of young people dressing and living in a particular way in which her difference and foreign-ness is unnoticed and irrelevant. She becomes totally alienated from her family, leaves home and lives in a squat- (though still goes to school and passes her bac). She then spends several years as a young woman living in Brussels, Berlin and Amsterdam, DJing in clubs, exploring relationships before returning to Paris and, eventually, the Cochin clinic.

Disoriental is a big book: it sweeps across continents and decades, following the story of Kimiâ and her family through political and social upheaval, and giving the reader a real feel for the times. It paints a warmly vivid portrait of Darius and Sara in particular, which makes what happens to them in France all the more tragic. Kimiâ’s own story is well told, and true to many a story-telling tradition, vital elements are withheld, and I’ve chosen to honour that in this post. The whole is engagingly told in a tone which is often chatty, sometimes amused, sometimes ironic and yet which doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to the hard facts of political repression. That voice is perfectly and consistently rendered in Tina Kover’s skilled translation. This is a fabulous read, its place on the shortlist for the Warwick prize well deserved. Thank you Négar Djavadi and Tina Kover.

 

 

 

 

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