Thursday, 18 December 2014

'Wayfarer - New Fiction by Korean Women', edited and translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (Review)

The next stop on my cruise through the history of Korean literature is the latest book from my recent visit to the local university library.  It's a book which comes highly recommended (e.g. by Charles over at Korean Literature in Translation), and having read it, I can see why.  A great collection of stories, this is definitely a book more people should be aware of :)

*****
Wayfarer - New Fiction by Korean Women is a 1997 anthology from Women in Translation Press, edited and translated by (of course) Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton.  It introduces eight female writers from South Korea, each represented by one story.  Originally released between 1974 and 1994, the stories are a representation of the influence female writers are having on Modern Korean Literature.

The title comes from a story from O Chong-hui (and an excellent one it is too) about a woman trying to rejoin society after a traumatic incident.  However, I won't say too much about it here as it was one of the stories I featured in my post on the Modern Korean Fiction anthology earlier this year, and one that piqued my interest in female writers from the country.

Even if we overlook O's story, though, there are several other great pieces, with a few common themes.  One of those is the struggle women have with gender roles, with So Yong-un's excellent 'Dear Distant Love' being a prime example.  It features a woman obsessed with a no-good lover, a man who walks all over her (and took her daughter away soon after the birth).  Yet somehow she still feels a need to treat him as a (Korean) husband should be treated:
"Before Han-su could knock on the door, Mun-ja recognized the sound of his steps and went out to welcome him.  She helped him off with his coat, she removed his socks, she brought a basin of hot water and washed his feet, and each of these objects turned the color of gold."
'Dear Distant Love', p.125 (Women in Translation Press, 1997)
It's a twisted tale, and poor Mun-ja is a martyr to her no-good lover, a woman who believes that no sacrifice is too great for the man she has decided to devote her life to...

A shorter story is Kim Chi-won's 'Almaden', which describes the life of a Korean woman at a bottle shop in New York.  The story alternates between the dull description of her work routine and her fantasies of the rugged man who comes in every day for a bottle of cheap wine.  Almaden (her name for the man, but actually the brand of wine he drinks) comes to be a symbol of escape from everyday life, representative of the life she'd like to lead if only she dared.

A more subtle approach is provided by a writer I've encountered a couple of times before, namely Ch'oe Yun.  In 'The Last of Hanak'o', a man on a business trip to Italy attempts to pluck up the courage to meet up with a female friend from his younger years.  As the story evolves, events of the past are revealed, slowly emerging from the mist:
"It is forbidden to venture near the canal railing on stormy days.  Take precautions in the fog, particularly the winter fog... Then enter the labyrinth.  And bear in mind, the more frightened you are, the more lost you will be."
'The Last of Hanak'o', p.11
These words start the story, taken from a sign near the Grand Canal, but they could just as easily refer to the man's struggles to come to grips with the past.  This one is a wonderful tale of men struggling to deal with women for who they are, a story with a nice (if fairly obvious) twist in the tail.

Not all the stories are as good, though.  Two later pieces which look at the role of housewives are the weakest of the eight (perhaps I'm not the right reader for this kind of story).  Kong Son-ok's 'The Flowering of Our Lives' looks at a woman struggling to come to terms with her relationships with her mother and daughter, preferring drinking to looking after her daughter.  Meanwhile, Park Wan-suh's 'Identical Apartments' provides another typical tale of a housewife dying of boredom, never satisfied, whether living with the in-laws or moving into a new apartment.  Once again, as I've discovered several times before, Park's privileged whinging proves not to be to my taste...

However, the remaining stories are much better, and the final two summarised here have a more political edge.  Kong Chi-yong's 'Human Decency' portrays a magazine journalist working on two different stories: one is on a former artist, a beauty who has written a book on meditation; the other deals with a recently released political prisoner.  This second assignment brings back memories of the journalist's own time as a protester in the 1980s:
"How single-minded we children of the 1980s were to believe that right would triumph whatever the circumstances; how firmly we grew up believing that justice would win out in the end."
'Human Decency', p.75
The question here is which story she should prioritise in a country that would prefer to forget the past...

There are more politics on show in Kim Min-suk's 'Scarlet Fingernails'.  In this one, a woman gets to meet her father for the first time after he has spent decades in prison for being a suspected spy from the North.  It's an excellent story looking at the problem of guilt by association, an issue which was only recently resolved.  Many of the family members resent the prisoner, not because of the years he's spent away from them, but for the shadow he has nevertheless cast over their dreams and ambitions.

Even if not all of the stories were to my taste, Wayfarer is a great collection, one I'd definitely recommend.  Some similarities in style are evident across the stories, one being the gradual reveal, switching between the present-day setting and pivotal moments of the past to colour in the whole picture (perhaps the influence of O Chong-hui on later writers).  There's also sterling work, as always, by the Fultons, including an introduction giving a background of female writing throughout Korean history.  While I would have enjoyed more stories (eight is a fairly small selection), the overall quality is unquestionable - Wayfarer is well worth a read and a great first step into the area of female-written Korean fiction :)

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

'Rain Over Madrid' by Andrés Barba (Review)

Despite the best worst combined efforts of Royal Mail and Australia Post, I recently received some more reading fare from the wonderful Hispabooks.  The first of the three is by a writer who was included in Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists issue, a man whose sentences flow smoothly and whose stories entertain and intrigue.  So, without further ado, let's take a trip to Spain...

*****
Andrés Barba's Rain Over Madrid (translated by Lisa Dillman) is a collection of four novellas running to just over two-hundred pages.  Each takes place in the Spanish capital, and the stories are mostly about people coming to terms with love and family - fairly commonplace topics, but handled nicely.

The first piece, 'Fatherhood' sees a semi-successful musician becoming a father when his rich girlfriend unexpectedly falls pregnant.  While the relationship with the mother is fairly shortlived, he realises that fatherhood is something that lasts forever:
"It seemed then, for the first time, that a sort of transference took place; he didn't know how else to explain it - a boundless well of emotion, and also pain at the fact that intimacy and natural behaviour were not possible between them.  Until that moment, he'd only ever sensed it in the vaguest of ways, but now it seemed undeniable."
'Fatherhood', p.33 (Hispabooks, 2014)
The story extends over several years, with Barba chronicling the man's attempt to stay close to the boy he rarely sees.  Will he ever be able to break through the barrier of politeness separating them?

The other stories then move on to see matters through the eyes of women.  In 'Guilt', a married woman is forced to act as the focal point for her family, with matters coming to a head when she is forced to look for (yet another) live-in home help for her ageing, cantankerous mother.  The main character of 'Fidelity', by contrast, is a teenage girl discovering sex for the first time and generally having a wonderful time.  However, her summer in the sun turns a little sour when she finds out that she's not the only one in her family having some fun.

The final piece, 'Shopping', follows a woman approaching middle age and her glamorous mother, Nelly.  This is no maternal figure, rather a whirlwind in Prada, and her idea of being 'natural' is not what the daughter would hope for:
"Not so for Nelly.  Nelly is natural like a typhoon is natural, like all self-centered egotists, like a disaster, like the Grand Canyon, like a luxury item ensconced in an absurdly minimalist display case in a glittery shop window."
'Shopping', p.171
As they go shopping in the snow for Christmas presents, the daughter sees chinks in her mother's armour for the first time, making it easier for her to make allowances for Nelly's bossy behaviour.  After all, everyone gets old...

Rain Over Madrid is an enjoyable read with four excellent stories.  Despite the extended time span of the first two stories, it almost seems as if the book is divided into seasons, as we move from the eternal spring of 'Fatherhood', to the winter streetscape of 'Shopping'.  Each story looks at a moment of realisation, a time when a life changes direction.  Not all of the turning points are dramatic, but they're all important in their own way.

The protagonists (mostly written in the first person) struggle with relationships, and each must deal with big personalities in their lives, whether they be lovers, sisters, fathers or mothers.  Introverts for the most part, yet desiring emotion and human contact, the central characters are confronted by people who are completely self-absorbed and self-obsessed.  In order to get what they want from their relationships, Barba's creations must make an effort to assert themselves, even though it may seem easier at times to just go with the flow.

The stories are written in an excellent style, calm, casual and very easy to read.  I enjoyed Dillman's work with the translation as the stories flow nicely.  There are no jarring tones, and the dialogue and description are seamlessly integrated, making for an excellent read.  There are a few obvious Americanisms, but you can't have everything, especially when the translator comes from the States ;)

Rain Over Madrid is another enjoyable work from Hispabooks, and it's definitely a book many will enjoy.  The four stories are interesting, very accessible and easy to read in a single setting, despite their length - hopefully this bodes well for getting more from Barba into English soon :)

Sunday, 14 December 2014

'In Other Words' from the British Centre for Literary Translation

I'm a big fan of the good people at the British Centre for Literary Translation, the hub of all things concerning literary translation back in the UK, so I was intrigued to hear about their twice-yearly journal In Other Words.  Recently, I was lucky enough to be sent a PDF of the latest edition after a discussion on Twitter - particularly so as I was actually name-checked in one of the articles ;)

*****
The journal runs to about 100 pages of articles on literary translation, with the submissions covering a variety of topics.  The main focus of the latest edition is on the effects of the digital age, with a piece by translation doyenne Anthea Bell on how she has kept up to date with technology throughout her long and distinguished career.  Another interesting article looked at the concept of video game 'localisation', where the translators have to deal with issues not only of language but also of visuals and sound (and usually on a rather tight schedule).

There are many areas covered outside the digital focus.  As well as a round-up of conference events and a description of what some translators are doing inside British schools, there's an intriguing look at a close reading of some translation (from Finnish!) and a lovely piece by Roland Glasser in which (lucky man) he describes his experiences of a translation residency near Zurich...

A couple of familiar names popped up as contributors.  Peirene Press' Meike Ziervogel looked at Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, focusing on the influence Conrad's linguistic background had on the book, and Esther Allen's article was a plea to reviewers to engage more with the work of the translator when looking at translated fiction (which isn't quite as easy as she makes it sound...).

My main reason for reading, though, was the article written by Robert Burdock (AKA the creator of Rob Around Books).  His piece explained the evolution of his career as a 'literary evangelist' and was a stirring call to arms to all involved in bringing fiction in translation to the notice of the wider public.  It was nice of him to acknowledge others fighting the good fight, and Stu, Lizzy and myself were all mentioned in dispatches ;)

I'd have to agree with his main point as it really is good to feel part of a community (I've heard of - and tweeted with - a surprising number of the people mentioned in the journal).  Like Rob, I find that it's easy to feel a little isolated at times; living on the far-flung outer-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, I'm probably more isolated than most from the centres of the translated fiction world.  I do like to get involved with these things, though, whether in Norwich/London (the British side of the Atlantic) or Rochester/New York/San Francisco (across the pond), so it's good to hear from all the names I see mentioned so frequently :)

If you're interested in the field, you could do a lot worse than have a look at In Other Words.  There's something for everyone, whether you're a writer, translator, agent or reader.  And let's face it - in a world of Dan Browns and Tom Clancys, we need as much support as we can get ;)

Thursday, 11 December 2014

'The Republic of Užupis' by Haïlji (Review)

This year has seen a fair bit of Korean literature reviewed on Tony's Reading List, and the instigator for this was definitely the Library of Korean Literature project brought about by Dalkey Archive Press and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.  The number of K-Lit reviews has already passed twenty-five for the year (fairly impressive when you think that prior to 2014 I'd only read and reviewed one...), but today is a landmark day anyway.  You see, this post is my tenth review from the Dalkey series - and, luckily enough, it turns out to be on my favourite book from the series so far :)

*****
Haïlji's The Republic of Užupis (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of the publisher and Australian distributor Footprint Books) is a wonderful addition to my burgeoning K-Lit library, a novel much more experimental and western-influenced than most of what I've read before.  The novel begins with an Asian man arriving in Lithuania, attempting to get past the rather tall guards at immigration.  When asked if he plans to stay long in the country, his reply is rather unusual - he intends to depart within a day or so, as soon as he has worked out how to get to his intended destination.

So, where is he off to?  Russia?  Poland?  Belarus?  No...  Hal, our inscrutable Oriental, is actually a native of a land which has just reclaimed its independence after decades under foreign control.  His goal is the Republic of Užupis, the land of his birth, the home of the language he understands but can no longer speak.  If only he could find someone who knows where his country is actually located...

The Republic of Užupis is a superb book, one-hundred-and-fifty pages of inventiveness, the story of a man trying to find a country which may not exist.  It's full of a deliberately confusing series of events including encounters with strangers, beautiful women, tall men and lots of snow, geese and grandfather clocks (really).  Trust me, it all makes some kind of sense (to the author, at least).

In Vilnius, there is a real Užupis (a semi-official micro-state), a place which inspires jokes from the locals, and the book acknowledges the real-life situation:
"The people of this city call this particular area Užupis - it means 'the other side of the river'.  It is the most run-down area in Vilnius.  As a joke, the struggling artists who live here began calling it the Republic of Užupis.  They even wrote a Declaration of Independence and established April Fool's Day as their Independence Day."
pp.19/20 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014)
This mock republic, however, is not the place Hal is looking for:
"That's interesting - a bogus Republic of Užupis.  But where I'm going is not a joke, it's the actual Republic of Užupis."  With that, Hal pulled the postcard from his pocket and displayed it.  "This was mailed from the actual Republic of Užupis." (p.20)
Exiled for most of his life in the land of Han (a thinly-concealed Korea), where his father was an ambassador, all Hal has to guide him on his way is a suitcase with photos showing people and flags.  Oh, and memories of the haunting anthem...

On the search for his elusive homeland, he heads onto the streets of Vilnius and is thrown straight into a whirlwind of parties and chance encounters.  Just who are these 6' 6'' men he encounters (and seriously, what's with the obsession with the grandfather clocks...)?  Eventually, he catches up with a woman he spotted during his first hours in Lithuania, the beautiful Jurgita, and hears about her involvement in the past with an Užupis man of Asian appearance.  With time running out, will this chance connection show him the way home?

The Republic of Užupis  is a short book, but it's one which throws up a million questions.  Time loops around (this isn't a book to follow the laws of time and space), and over the course of his constant encounters with his new friends, the reader begins to suspect that they might actually be old ones.  Everywhere Hal goes, he sees places he vaguely remembers, photos that look oddly familiar:
"In another photograph, taken in a study, people sat around a huge table engaged in conversation.  The walls were lined with bookshelves packed with ancient tomes in ornate bindings.  The walls to the right, as you looked at the photo, bore windows, the source of light for the scene.  Prominent in the photo was the marble sculpture set between the windows, a bust of a man whose agonized face was cupped in his hands.  The study was virtually identical to the room in which Hal now sat with Vladimir.  But the three men failed to notice this." (p.38)
It's almost as if he keeps walking into another time, his memory failing to remind him that he's seen these things before...

The book is a superb look at the importance of home and the impossibility of reaching that different country, the past, and while Haïlji is a writer with his own style, a western reader would be hard pressed to read this novel without being reminded of Kafka.  There's the snowy beginning, the aimless wandering through menacing streets, the large ramshackle houses, the cafés, the meandering corridors in government offices - all recounted in the writer's own calm, casual voice.  The reader is never quite sure exactly what's happening - they're sure to enjoy it, nonetheless.

One of the keys to the novel is language.  The Republic of Užupis is set in Lithuania, but as Hal doesn't know the language, much of the dialogue takes place in English (a story of our times...).  However, as the book progresses, there are more occasions when Hal suddenly hears Užupis being spoken.  He knows what's being said, but, having lost the ability to communicate in the language, he finds himself in the frustrating position of being unable to make himself understood.  This miscommunication only adds to the difficulty of finally getting home...

All of the above makes for a clever, mind-bending book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys novels which require more than simple page-turning.  It's superbly translated by the Fultons (which goes without saying), catching the slightly off-kilter tone and the unnatural conversations which often occur between people communicating in a third language.  The Republic of Užupis is a book I want to reread when I find a few spare hours, and it's one I hope will get some decent recognition.  Just as is the case with No One Writes Back and Pavane for a Dead Princess, this is a book which deserves to rise above the status of merely one work in the Library collection.  Here's hoping it finds the audience it deserves :)

*****
Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website :)

Monday, 8 December 2014

'Texas: The Great Theft' by Carmen Boullosa (Review)

A recent addition to the family of publishers translating fiction from foreign languages is Deep Vellum Publishing, a small press working out of Dallas.  The energy behind the venture is Will Evans, a man distinguished by his energy in setting up the project (and his moustache, which would go well with a Stetson).  Perhaps, then, it's apt that Deep Vellum's first offering is a book that looks at life in a multicultural society - and also provides a glimpse into the frontier past of the Lone Star State...

*****
Carmen Boullosa's Texas: The Great Theft (translated by Samantha Schnee, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher) takes place in 1859, some time after Texas was annexed by the United States.  We're down on the border in the town of Bruneville (on the American side of the Rio Grande), and it's high noon in a dusty, sun-baked street.  Now that's an ominous sign if ever there was one...

... and we're not mistaken:
In the market square, in front of Café Ronsard, Sheriff Shears spits five words at Don Nepomuceno:
  "Shut up you dirty greaser."
(Deep Vellum Publishing, 2014)
It doesn't take a genius to work out that Nepomuceno, one of the most respected and powerful Mexicans in the region, isn't likely to take kindly to the insult.  It's also fairly clear to see that once the shooting starts, it's going to be hard to stop.  Life in Bruneville is about to become a whole lot more interesting - and, for many people, rather short.

Texas: The Great Theft is a novel that looks at the border region in a time when matters were still unsettled.  The Mexicans are still unhappy about the way their land was stolen, both by force and by legal tricks, while the Americans are in a constant state of unease, aware that they're living life on the edge.  The high tension evident in the region means any spark can ignite an explosion.

So, a story of Yanks against Mexicans?  It's not quite as simple as that - this is a rather diverse region:
"On the other side they also have people of all stripes - Indians, cowboys, bandits, Negros, Mexicans, gringos - as well as profitable mines and endless acres of land, but it's different.  The Río Bravo divides the world in two, perhaps even three or more.  No fool would say that the gringos are all on one side and the Mexicans on the other, with separate territories for the Indians, the Negros, and even for sonsofbitches.  None of these categories is absolute."
The cosmopolitan towns make for a political nightmare, forcing both the Americans and the Mexicans into shifting, temporary alliances with the various native tribes.  It's a case of everyone trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else.

From the start, the average reader assumes that this will be a story about gun fights; in fact, the novel takes a good while to get moving in terms of action.  Texas: The Great Theft is much more a description of the world the incidents take place in, and as the sheriff's words travel from mouth to mouth, through the town, across the river and out to the Indian settlements, Boullosa paints a picture of the time.

Of course, the 'incident' is the backbone upon which all of the description hangs, and the Mayor of the Mexican town of Matasánchez isn't the only one who sees the dangers ahead:
He curses up and down, left and right.
When he's vented this string of insults he asks loudly, "And now what are we supposed to do?  There's no doubt that Nepomuceno will retaliate, and how!  Where does this leave the rest of us?"
By the time we return to see what Nepomuceno actually does about the insult, dozens of pages have passed, and we are now acquainted with the majority of the cast who will play out the aftermath.

Eventually, the action does get underway, with Nepomuceno retreating across the Rio Grande/Río Bravo to plan his next move.  There's tension on both sides of the river, but that doesn't stop normal life completely - the card sharps keep playing, the drunks keep drinking, the whores keep whoring.  All the while, everyone knows that soon something big is going to happen...

Texas: The Great Theft is a fascinating story, one which is well told.  There isn't a great amount of descriptive, literary writing, but it's not that kind of book.  Boullosa's story is one that balances description with action, and does it well on the whole.  It doesn't have the magic of some writers, but it's fascinating enough to keep drawing the reader ever deeper into Nepomuceno's struggle.

Schnee's translation is excellent, bringing across the tone of the book, casual, light story-telling (with a dry, disinterested narratorial voice).  Events start off slowly, but they do eventually turn ugly, with atrocities from both all sides.  Interestingly, the tone stays fairly casual, even when the killing increases - this is Texas, after all...

I enjoyed Texas: The Great Theft immensely, but I can't help thinking that it's a daring move for a new publisher based in Texas.  This is a book which, despite the bitter actions and language of all sides, probably has the Americans coming off worst (I do wonder if this one might be a hard sell up in Dallas...).  However, it's well worth trying, and hopefully, Deep Vellum will gather enough support to continue with their plan to bring translated literature to Texas - and beyond :)

Saturday, 6 December 2014

November 2014 Wrap-Up

November was all about Lizzy and Caroline's German Literature Month, and while I didn't get around to reading quite as much as in previous years, I did get to try quite a few impressive German-language books.  However, even in the midst of all these Teutonic literary shenanigans, my Korean literature odyssey continued unabated, and I'm well on track to knocking off a good number of my remaining review copies before the end of the year :)

But I digress...

*****
Total Books Read: 11

Year-to-Date: 119

New:11

Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 3
Review Copies: 5
From the Library: 2
On the Kindle: 2 (1 review copy)

Novels: 6
Novellas: 1
Short Stories: 4

Non-English Language: 11 (5 German, 4 Korean, 2 Spanish)
In Original Language: 4 (4 German)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (1/3)
Japanese Literature Challenge 8: 0 (4/1)

*****
Books reviewed in November were:
1) Agnes by Peter Stamm
2) Transit by Anna Seghers
3) The Parent Trap by Erich Kästner
4) Eine Halligfahrt (Journey to a Hallig) by Theodor Storm
5) Blumenberg by Sibylle Lewitscharoff
6) River of Fire and Other Stories by O Chong-hui
7) Irrungen, Wirrungen (Trials and Tribulations) by Theodor Fontane
8) Mario und der Zauberer (Mario and the Magician) by Thomas Mann
9) Mujong: the Heartless by Yi Kwang-su
10) Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner
11) Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) by W.G. Sebald
12) Alte Meister (The Old Masters) by Thomas Bernhard

Tony's Turkey for November is: Nothing

Another turkeyless month - surely December will see one more for the year ;)

Tony's Recommendation for November is:
Thomas Bernhard's Alte Meister

I was very close to causing major outrage by choosing one of my Korean books (River of Fire) as my pick for German Literature Month, but in the end Bernhard managed to redeem the honour of the German-language world with his claustrophobic tale of a morning in an art gallery (one I had the dubious pleasure of sharing in my post...).  It was definitely a close call, though ;)
 
*****
December is a time to relax from the rigours of German-language reading and look forward to the next challenge.  You see, the first month of the new year will see the third edition of my January in Japan blogging event - which means it'll soon be time to start cracking open the J-Lit.  Do join me ;)

Thursday, 4 December 2014

'Dinner with Buffett' by Park Min-gyu (Review)

Regular readers may have heard of Asia Publishers through my reviews of a couple of their Modern Korean Literature Bilingual Edition books (I Live in Bongcheon-dong, The Road to Sampo), but they recently added a new series to their collection.  Where the first series focused on some of the older writers on the Korean scene, the recently announced K-Fiction Series looks at stories by the next generation - and the first one I looked at was by a writer whose name is rather familiar :)

*****
Park Min-gyu's Dinner with Buffett (translated by Jeon Sung-hee, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a story featuring American finance guru Warren Buffett, an endearingly bizarre tale which looks at a day in the life of the wizard of the stock market, one he's unlikely to forget in a hurry.  After a meeting with the American President in which they discuss peculiar developments, he rushes back to New York for dinner with the winner of a charity auction.

You'd expect a man who's shelled out big bucks to eat with Buffett to be eager to get some insights into his financial dealings.  In fact, the winner, a young Korean man, just seems happy to share dinner with the great man, with no ulterior motive.  Something's not quite right here...

My last look at Park's work was the excellent Pavane for a Dead Princess, and this is another wonderful piece.  The story takes a look at the contemporary world and wonders if there's an alternative to the soulless neoliberal state we find ourselves in.  The reason Buffett has been summoned to Washington is that the President has become aware of a threat (one the reader is not entirely privy to) - all we know is that 'they' are coming, and that their values are very different to those the two men share.

It seems a rather unusual threat, but for people like Buffett this is scarier than any alien invasion, the idea of money having little value.  On the plane back, he reminisces about his beginnings, a time which may be about to fade into history:
"He thought that people were like sailors on a ship, sailing across time itself, and that he had been living in the great age of investment.  That age was not yet over.  But he also wondered if he was perhaps still carrying out the business of the past century, the sweet flavor of which had already vanished.  He was still chewing his gum."
pp.19/21 (Asia Publishers, 2014)
Little does he know that his first encounter with 'them' is just around the corner...

Ahn, the winning bidder for the meal, is not the kind of person Buffett was expecting, and the dinner doesn't exactly run as he would have expected either.  The winning bid is a six-figure sum, but when we find out where it came from, the great financier isn't the only one to get a surprise.  With Ahn seemingly uninterested in pumping Buffett for financial knowledge, it all seems a waste...  Why did he come to the dinner?  Is he happy with the choices he's made?
"I'm fine thanks,"
And then,
"And you?" (p.67)
It's a question that Buffett might need some time to ponder.

Dinner with Buffett is a rather topical story (the traffic jam Buffett runs into on the way to dinner is caused by Occupy protests); in a post-GFC climate, it's a story looking at a possible post-capitalist ideology.  The idea is that if enough people turn their backs on chasing the dollar, great things could happen - the way to shake bankers from their complacency is to simply ignore them...  It's an intriguing idea, although I'm not sure quite how feasible it is.  What's certain is that this is a wonderful story, with Jeong Sung-hee's translation bringing the deceptively casual tone across nicely.  Definitely a piece that makes you wonder if it really is that easy to change the world...

*****
The new K-Fiction series has kicked off with five stories by young writers.  It has the same format as the Modern Korean Fiction series, with the text in both Korean and English, plus an analysis at the end of the book (the only difference is that the covers are more colourful!).  If you're interested in the rest of the series, all five have already been reviewed over at Korean Literature in Translation.  I have another two to read and review, so I'm sure you'll be seeing more about them over here at some point too.

But wait - there's more...  In Seoul, on the 13th of December, there's an opportunity to meet all five authors at a special event.  You can check out this link for all the details - including the fact that it's free!  This is an excellent chance to get up close and personal with some of the rising stars of K-Lit, so congratulations to Asia Publishers, Barry Welsh and Charles Montgomery for getting the show on the road.

When you add this kind of event to the great things the Literature Translation Institute of Korea has been doing recently, you can see that this is an exciting time for Korean literature in translation.  If any of this sounds like your kind of thing, why not get on board?  I'm sure 2015 is going to be just as big as this year has been, with lots of exciting events in store - stay tuned for details ;)

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

'The Adventures of Shola' by Bernardo Atxaga (Review)

After the positive reception of Emily's first review last month, we thought that we'd try looking at another book together, and today's choice is a further offering from Pushkin Children's Books.  The writer and translator, once again, are very familiar names - the star of the show, however, is a little hairier than last time around ;)

*****
What's the name of the book, and who is it by?
The name of the book is The Adventures of Shola, and it's by Bernardo Atxaga.

What's it about?
It's about a dog called Shola and her owner, Señor Grogo.  Shola is no ordinary dog.  She likes going on adventures, maybe she is a 'rara avis' (laughs).  She's a little white dog, and she has lots and lots of adventures, like going on a wild boar hunt and being a lioness!

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
I liked two of the stories, but I didn't like the other two stories as much.  They were just a little bit boring because there wasn't much excitement in them.  I liked the other stories better because they have lots of excitement, and Shola is on the run!

What was your favourite story?  Why?
'Shola and the Aunt from America', because it was very funny.  In this story, Señor Grogo's aunt is coming over from America, and Shola thinks she is going to be a rude, nasty cowgirl, but she is a 'no-leaded dogs person', so Shola is very surprised about her reaction of being free.  Shola cannot believe that the aunt from America threw away her lead.

I also liked 'Shola and the Wild Boar'.  It was full of excitement, and Shola was the smallest dog, but she was the bravest of all.  Even though they didn't even see a real wild boar, it was a terrifying hunt!

Was it difficult to read?
Maybe the words on the TV show 'Live in the Park' (in the 'Shola and the Aunt from America' story), like 'rara avis' and 'discombobulated', were a bit tricky.  The rest of the book was easy to read, and I liked the colourful pictures.  My favourite picture was of the American aunt :)

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
It would be a good book for dog-lovers and anyone who likes crazy things!

Emily, thank you very much :)

*****
Our second choice from the Pushkin Children's range is another by a high-profile team.  The writer is Bernardo Atxaga, a Basque author well known for his adult books (e.g. Seven Houses in France) while the translator (from Atxaga's own Spanish translation) is one of the biggest names in the game, the wonderful Margaret Jull Costa (translator of, among many others, Javier Marías and José Saramago).  There is a third member of the team too, illustrator Mikel Valverde, and his wonderful colourful drawings are an integral part of the stories, allowing us to see the fearless Shola in all her glory.

The four stories were originally released individually, and this collection is a wonderful book, a beautiful hardback edition running to more than two-hundred pages.  Some of the vocabulary might be a little tricky for younger readers (even the intrepid Emily), but there's always the option of reading the book to your child yourself.  I suspect I might try reading one of the stories to her over a few evenings to see if it works better that way...

So, another great children's book, and a further insight into what kids overseas are reading (or having read to them).  I wonder what else we can find to entertain Miss Emily with?  Hopefully, it won't be too long until we get back to you with the next instalment of her adventures in translated fiction :)

Sunday, 30 November 2014

'Alte Meister' ('The Old Masters') by Thomas Bernhard (Review)

Although my appointment with Reger in the Museum of Art History in Vienna wasn't until half-past eleven, I was already there at half-past ten in order, as I had desired for a long time now, to observe him undisturbed from the best possible viewpoint, writes Atzbacher.  He was already seated, as always, on his usual bench in the so-called Bordone Room in front of Tintoretto's Portrait of a White-Bearded Man, and the museum attendant Irrsigler, as always, was walking around, both keeping an eye on other visitors and waiting for any sign from Reger, who, for thirty-six years, has spent several hours every second day in front of the Tintoretto, and as I stood there observing Reger, with Irrsigler walking past, again, ignoring me, I saw a large coach pull up outside the museum and a group of tourists get out, bookish people by the looks of them, and I saw them disappear in the direction of the entrance, and looking back to Reger who, as always, was observing the Tintoretto painting, as he waited for me, as I observed him, sitting in the Bordone Room, with Irrsigler somewhere in the background, I saw the bookish-looking people appear again, wandering around in the
manner of tourists with no concept of art, one of them said he was going to look for the bathroom, and he walked off, walked past me, into the Bordone Room, almost bumping into Irrsigler, who stopped to look at the man as he entered the Bordone Room, looking around for something, turning around and then stopping in front of the Portrait of a White-Bearded Man, Reger noticed the man and asked him to sit down on the bench next to him and asked the man where he was from, and the man introduced himself as Tony and said that he was a blogger, a literary blogger, I can't stand bloggers, failed writers who fail to see that they are failed writers, said Reger, literature, well literature I like even less, especially contemporary literature, writers today, especially here, in Austria, are tedious, they are tedious people writing tedious attempts at novels, and the man, this Tony, smiled nervously and said he'd actually just been reading a book by Thomas Bernhard and, and Bernhard is the worst of them all, said Reger, a tedious, repetitive writer, a writer who repeats himself all the time, Bernhard's work is typical of the culture of this wretched country, said Reger from his bench in the Bordone Room, as Irrsigler completed another round of his rooms, as I observed, as the large bus waited outside the museum, a tedious collection of words which are meant to be insightful, but which, in fact, are merely laughable, and Tony, obviously feeling uncomfortable, asked Reger if he preferred art to literature, not at all, I loathe all of these so-called Old Masters, these so-called geniuses, flawed every one of them, this museum is full of paintings, world-famous paintings, but, in truth, this museum is laughable, there isn't one single worthwhile piece in the whole building, in fact, said Reger, this whole tedious country is full of worthless pieces of so-called art, all of which belong on a dung heap, rotting with all of the other manure in the garden, all of it, and, said Reger, pulling on Tony's sleeve to prevent him from leaving, the worst thing is that the people come here and enjoy this manure, they think this is great art, when it's nothing more than laughable, said Reger from his bench in the Bordone Room in front of Tintoretto's Portrait of a White-Bearded Man, but you must like Vienna, said Tony, looking around nervously, it's such a beautiful city, so many beautiful buildings, they might look beautiful, but if you look at them carefully, said Reger, if you really examine them, they are all simply tedious, monstrous blocks of concrete, and the people, the Viennese people, they are simply laughable, awful, awful people, but the people who live outside Vienna are even worse, tedious people incapable of producing a thought of their own, and yet outside Austria things are even worse, in England, for example, at which point Tony ran screaming from the room, observed by Irrsigler, who was completing another of his rounds, and I watched as the rest of the bookish-looking people quickly left the museum, and the large coach drove off a few moments later, and I turned back to the Bordone Room, where Reger was talking to Irrsigler, an Englishman who was talking about that tedious Bernhard, I find people who think they can write about literature laughable, what manure they come up with, how tedious they really are, said Reger, and I decided, writes Atzbacher, that I couldn't be bothered waiting any longer and that Reger had always been a bit of a prick, so I left the museum and went down the pub for a beer instead.  The beer was awful.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

'Die Ausgewanderten' ('The Emigrants') by W.G. Sebald (Review)

Of the plans I made for German Literature Month, today's book was the one most set in concrete.  Having read (and loved) two books by W.G. Sebald already, I was eager to try another of his (unfortunately small) back catalogue, this time a book of four connected stories.  The setting is a little different, but there's no mistaking the style - he was a writer who definitely had a way with words...

*****
Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) was one of Sebald's earlier works of fiction, a book where a familiar narrator tells us stories of people forced to leave their homelands at some point during the twentieth century.  The four sections each focus on a different person, all of them someone from the narrator's life.  There's a man the narrator rented a house from in East Anglia; his former primary school teacher; a great-uncle who emigrated to the US; and an artist he met during his time as a research student in Manchester.  Over 350 pages, we learn that these men are linked by their experiences - and are representative of the fates of millions of people throughout Europe in the twentieth century...

Die Ausgewanderten is another Sebaldian trip through time, four excellent stories accompanied by the usual black-and-white photos.  For the first-time reader, one of the main puzzles is working out whether the book is fact or fiction.  These are stories, but you could be forgiven for thinking it's all out of the Sebald family archives - which is not to say that it's completely made up.  The ideas are obviously close to the writer's heart.

The main theme of the book is the effect of war on Europe and, in particular, its Jewish population.  Each of the four protagonists is affected in some way, with most being forced to leave their home, and their fate is representative of the wider suffering of their people, a suffering (as shown with the narrator's Great-Uncle Ambros) which leaves its mark:
"Nichtsdestoweniger erweckte er, selbst wenn er nur am Fenster stand und hinausblickte, stets den Eindruck, als sei er von einem heillosen Leid erfüllt."
p.162 (Fischer Verlag, 2013)
"Nevertheless, he constantly aroused, even when merely standing at the window and gazing out, the impression that he was suffused with incurable suffering." *** (my translation)
These examples of the Jewish diaspora show the reader that the pain caused by displacement never really goes away. 

The suffering takes its toll, and the four men are gradually worn down by a life that shouldn't have been theirs.  As each story nears its end we learn of the inevitable consequences of their hurt, whether it be self-harm, deliberate isolation or suicide, with each of the men turning away from the world.  On the whole they prefer nature to the company of other people, hiding as far away as possible, in hunting lodges, abandoned buildings or the mountains.

The narrator is a curious researcher, drawn to find out more about the figures from the past, each fact leading him on, drawing him further into the story.  This communicates itself to the reader in the way the stories lead on to other stories, giving us third- or even fourth-hand information (and the rather blurred lines between fact and fiction).  Whether we ever really get to the heart of the matter is another question entirely...

While the Jewish question is the obvious starting point of the book, another major theme
is homosexuality, overt in at least one story, latent in all the others.  All of the main characters are men who seem uncomfortable in the presence of women (even the man who's married to one), and there's a hint of a suggestion that a rejection of a so-called 'normal' sexual orientation is another way of turning against the world.  This is a topic which has been handled at length by the academic and writer Helen Finch, in her book Sebald's Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life, and while I've only read summaries of her work, having finished Die Ausgewanderten, I can definitely see where she's coming from.

While there are four stories, they're of differing lengths with the final two being much longer than the first sections.  I enjoyed them all, but I found the third part, about the great-uncle, to be the weakest of the four; it was far too long for what it was and was overburdened by too many diary extracts.  However, once Sebald gets back to the narrator's voice, the language, as always, is stunning.  It's the usual tale of meticulously constructed sentences with a sprinkling of slightly formal, old-fashioned language (e.g. obzwar, demungeachtet, wenn ich ihrer ansichtig wurde).  This old-fashioned tone works well here, adding to the effect of a man unearthing history. 

A tale of four men, then?  Well, no - I'd say five.  You see, the fifth of the 'emigrants' is the narrator himself (i.e. Sebald...), and this becomes obvious when he makes a trip to Germany towards the end of the book in an attempt to find his lost home.  It's an endeavour that was never likely to succeed:
"Obgleich ich während meines mehrtägigen Aufenthalts in Kissingen und in dem von seinem einstmaligen Charakter nicht das geringste mehr verratenden Steinach zur Genüge beschäftigt gewesen bin mit meinen Nachforschungen und meiner wie immer nur mühevoll vorangehenden Schreibarbeit, spürte ich doch in zunehmendem Maß, daß die rings mich umgebende Geistesverarmung und Erinnerungslosigkeit der Deutschen, das Geschick, mit dem man alles bereinigt hatte, mir Kopf und Nerven anzugreifen begann." (pp.332/3)
"Although, during my stay of several days in Kissingen and in Steinach, which revealed not the slightest hint of its former character, I was satisfactorily engaged with my research and my writing, which, as always, was progressing only with great difficulty, I increasingly felt that the surrounding intellectual poverty and inability to remember of the German people, the skill with which everything had been whitewashed, was beginning to play on my nerves." ***
Sometimes, it's just not possible to go home...

*****
An English version (The Emigrants) is available from Vintage Books in Michael Hulse's translation (and having laboured for an age to produce the tiny (inadequate) quotation just above, I take my hat off to him...).