Thursday, 23 October 2014

'I Refuse' by Per Petterson (Review)

While I do my best to cover the wide world of fiction in translation, there's still much out there untried, with many writers I want to check out.  One, in particular, that I've been meaning to get to for some time is Per Petterson, author of several books including Out Stealing Horses, a work which won both the IMPAC Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  With a copy of his most recent book dropping through my letter box recently, now seemed like a good opportunity to see him in action - and on the strength of this one, he's definitely a writer I want to try more of in the future :)

I Refuse (translated by Don Bartlett, review copy courtesy of Random House UK) begins in 2006 on a bridge near Oslo.  Jim, an unemployed middle-aged man, is off fishing early in the morning, when a car stops and a window goes down, through which a greeting is proffered.  The man in the car is Tommy, Jim's closest childhood friend, one he hasn't seen for over thirty years.  After a brief exchange of pleasantries, they go their separate ways, but both feel that they have unfinished business which needs to be resolved.

Then it's back to the early sixties, where we encounter two boys about to enter their teens, a couple of friends in the middle of small-town blues and family crises.  Through the ups and downs, and flashes both forward and back, we see what was and what has developed, witnessing decisions which turned out to be life changing.  We are also present when offers are refused and backs are turned - little things which set the course for the boys' future...

I'm definitely very happy I picked this book up.  Though I Refuse is a book which is easy to read, it's most certainly not simplistic.  Petterson's novel is a well-worked, absorbing story of two friends and the choices they make, and it also paints a picture of small-town Norway in the sixties and seventies while touching on more serious contemporary issues.

The main focus is on the two boys/men, mismatched friends who turn out quite differently.  Jim is a quiet boy, intelligent and brought up strictly by his Christian mother, so when we see how he's ended up (unemployed, sleeping around, with undiagnosed mental issues), it's a bit of a surprise.  Slowly, we learn more about his struggles, his loneliness and the panic attacks:
"And then all of a sudden I couldn't breathe and tumbled against the wall and the coats hanging there from their pegs and pulled at least two of them down with me and crashed against the shoe rack, and there was a big plastic shoehorn stuck in behind the rack, and it hit me in the ribs like a spear, and it hurt so much I was about to start howling, which was something I often did in those days, when I was alone, pretty often in fact, it's true, and it had been like that for quite a while, and I didn't know why, but this time not a sound came out."
pp.86/7 (Harvill Secker, 2014)
During his school days, Jim always had Tommy to turn to in his darkest hours; however, as an adult, Jim is very alone with a problem he struggles to handle.

While Tommy's life has turned out a little differently, he has (and has had) problems of his own.  The teenage Tommy is an angry young man with every right to his rage.  His mother has run away (leaving Tommy to care for the family) mainly through fear of her husband - and Tommy's father is a very scary man indeed:
"Gently, almost, he held my arm and led me into the living room.  Then he closed the door carefully behind us, turned and suddenly he started to shove me around the room among the little furniture we had, and each time I was sent flying, he came after me and punched me hard in the shoulder and the throat and hurled me against the wall, where my head smacked against the panel, and it was shocking that he didn't use his boots." (p.28)
Tommy, as he will in the future, refuses to accept the status quo and decides to stand up for himself.  However, when we make a decision, we can never be completely sure of the consequences, and his stand shapes the lives of more people than he could have expected.

The novel initially appears to be focused purely on the two friends, but as it progresses, we begin to hear different voices.  The main one is Siri, Tommy's sister, the only person with strong links to both of the boys, and her perspective allows us to see Jim and Tommy through different eyes, a more objective viewpoint.  Towards the end of the novel, we also hear from Tommy's mother and Jonsen, the man who takes Tommy in.  The more we hear from these people, the more of the story we get to know about, allowing us to piece together puzzles which had previously remained a mystery.

I Refuse is an excellent story of growing up in small-town Norway, with the writer showing us how strong friendships develop, and how they can gradually unravel.  At times, it can be a little bleak, but there are many nice touches, one of which is a fairly casual 'interrogation' at the local police station.  In a small town, where secrets are a scarce commodity, everyone knows who's guilty, but there's no need to try too hard to get a conviction...

For those who have been following Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle series, there are plenty of similarities to be found here, with echoes of both Boyhood Island (kids on bikes riding to the local petrol station, bus rides to school) and A Death in the Family - especially when Tommy visits his father's house:
"And everywhere there was rubbish in plastic bags which had never got across the doorstep nor down to the road, and most wasn't even in the bag but was tossed around, so the floor was covered with litter, and an evil smell drifted in through the open doors of two other rooms, from the bathroom and what must have been the room where he slept with the windows closed, and it was disgusting to think that he could sleep in that room, and the worst was the foul, numbing, ominous stench wafting in from the kitchen, where my father stood by the door..." (pp.216/7)
No, it's not a book which completely echoes Knausi's work, but with Karl Ove receiving such attention in English, comparisons with his fellow Norwegian writer are, frankly speaking, inevitable.

That's especially so as the excellent translation was created by Don Bartlett, a man who also provides the English voice of a certain other Norwegian writer...  While it's another great job by Bartlett, it's a very different style.  The writing is simple and elegant, flowing sentences with multiple simple clauses sweeping the reader along.  A childish enthusiasm turns descriptive prose into a kind of confession, taking the reader into the characters' confidence.  At times, it seems almost as if we have their ear...

The story is also wonderfully constructed, and secrets are gradually unveiled in a calm, matter-of-fact way until the big picture becomes clear.  The reader is given parts of the puzzle, but is forced to wait to see how they come together.  However, the same is true for the two main characters, as they spend the contemporary part of the book crossing paths unaware.  Theirs are two very different lives in terms of success and wealth - despite this, they are both broken and unhappy.

I Refuse is an enjoyable work, one I'd definitely recommend, and it's a book which will certainly be under discussion come IFFP time next year.  Luckily for me, having only just started with Petterson's work, there are plenty more of his books out there - another six of his novels have been translated into English (and many of them are available at my local library).  Now, of course, there's only one thing stopping me trying another one - I just need to find the time to read it ;)

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

'The Road to Sampo' by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

I've already tried a couple of novels by Hwang Sok-yong this year, so I was very happy to receive one of his books in the bundle I received recently.  However, where the others I read were fairly lengthy novels (particularly The Shadow of Arms), today's choice is a much briefer affair.  Nevertheless, it's a work which is very well known in Korea, one which forms an important part of his legacy...

The Road to Sampo (translated by Kim U-chang, review copy courtesy of Asia Publishers) is a short story in the Modern Korean Literature Bilingual Editions series, and it's one of Hwang's more popular works.  It's set in the early seventies and is a brief tale of an unlikely trio of fellow travellers walking through a wintry countryside in search of the local train station.

The story begins with Yeong-dal, a young worker who has just left a construction site which is closing down for the winter.  Meeting Cheong, a fellow worker, at the side of the road, he decides to accompany him for part of the journey, and the two men are later joined by Paek-hwa, a prostitute who has run away from the café-cum-brothel she was staying at.  Together, the three of them trudge through the snow, sharing stories about their lives as they go - and as poor workers in a rapidly changing landscape, they have plenty of tales to tell...

The Road to Sampo is a great story, an almost cinematic road trip (it actually was made into a film in Korea).  It's a short trip, but it makes for a brief respite from the grind of daily life, an example of the typical, transient friendships of the travelling working classes of the time.  In addition, the story has a beautiful winter setting, with the icy winds, the snow and the silent landscape adding to the cinematic feel.

Hwang's story is also a humorous one, with many light touches.  When the (slightly naive) Yeong-dal questions Cheong about his work skills, the older man dryly hints at where he picked them up:
"Wow, having all those skills, you must feel very secure," Yeong-dal said admiringly.
  "I've been doing them for more than ten years," said Cheong.
  "Where did you learn them?" asked Yeong-dal.
  "There's a very nice place where they teach you all those skills," answered the other man.
  "I wish I could go there," said Yeong-dal naively.
  But Cheong said with a bitter smile, shaking his head: "It's easy to go there, but I'm not sure you would really want to go.  It is a very big place - only too big."
pp.25/7 (Asia Publishers, 2012)
Let's just say that it's unlikely Cheong ended up there of his own accord...  Another memorable moment is when the two men finally catch up with the runaway Paek-hwa.  She's a beautiful woman, but they don't initially see her from her best angle ;)

However, there are serious undertones to the story.  The Road to Sampo is another of those stories set in a time of upheaval in Korea.  The shift from an agrarian to an industrial society is in full swing, a development which has an enormous effect on the workers.  There has been a massive shift from the countryside to the cities, and the poor are forced to travel to look for work.  Yeong-dal is just one of the many who have been forced to leave loved ones behind in order to make ends meet.

While not the major focus of the author, another area of interest is the role of women in the story.  It begins with the wife of the canteen owner, a woman who has taken Yeong-dal into her bed, being casually beaten, and the major female character is Paek-hwa, a young woman whose only chance of making a living is to trade her beauty.  She certainly feisty enough, yet at twenty-two she already appears jaded, washed out.  It's definitely not only the men who suffered at the time...

The Sampo of the title is Cheong's hometown, the destination he and Yeong-dal are working towards:
"Which way is Sampo?"
  "South, that is, as far south as you can go," said Cheong, vaguely pointing his chin to the south.
  "How big a place is that?  Are there many people living there?" asked Yeong-dal.
  "Ten houses or so," explained Cheong.  "It's a pretty island, Sampo is.  The soil is good, lots of land.  Fishing is good too.  You can catch as much fish as you want." (p.29)
In truth, Sampo is less a real place than an imagined idyll, a memory of the past, one which is unlikely to be found again.  There's no place corresponding to the description of Cheong's Sampo in Korea, but while browsing for connections, I stumbled across a mention - in Finnish folklore...  According to Wikipedia, in Finnish mythology the Sampo or Sammas was a magical artefact of indeterminate type that brought good fortune to its holder (I wonder if Hwang was aware of this...).  Sadly, it's an item that proves to be rather elusive, and you sense that Cheong and Yeong-dal are also on a trip towards a place they'll never be able to reach...

The Road to Sampo is another entertaining story, the short text enhanced by the added extras.  There's the original Korean version, of course (still a bit too tricky for me!), with a short critical review and biography - and it's the biography that really impresses.  Hwang's a great writer with a fascinating life, including trips to North Korea, exile and imprisonment.  When he was younger, he left school and travelled around the country, working alongside the people Yeong-dal and Cheong are modelled upon.  When one of the Nobel Prize for Literature bigwigs bemoaned the move towards insular professional writers a few weeks ago, Hwang was most definitely not one of the writers he had in mind ;)

While I wasn't always entirely convinced by the translation, the quality of story shines through, and it made me keen to try more of Hwang's work.  As for the Bilingual Editions, well, they're certainly worth a try too (and if money were no object, I'd be buying up the box sets...).  Head to Amazon if you like the sound of them; there are a lot to choose from :)

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Some Ideas for German Literature Month IV

Recently, Lizzy and Caroline announced that the fourth edition of their German (-language) Literature Month would be going ahead in November, and the question for me, as always, was not whether I'd be taking part (as if...), but what I'd be reading.  So, off I went to look for some inspiration, and here are a few of the ideas I came up with - feel free to steal any you like the look of ;)

The first stop was the German-language corner of my personal library, where I discovered several likely candidates for November's reading.  While I'm waiting for his new book to come out in paperback, Peter Stamm's debut novel(la) Agnes should tide me over, and Sybille Lewitscharoff's Blumenberg, a book I didn't get to during August's Women in Translation Month, also looks interesting.  A book that's been languishing on my shelves for a long time now is Hans Keilson's Das Leben geht weiter (Life Goes On) - I wonder if I'll get to it this time around...

There are also some heavyweights among my collection.  Robert Walser's Jakob von Gunten is a book I'm eager to try, and Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) would be the third W.G. Sebald novel to be read and reviewed on the blog.  But if I read those, will I have time for the Heinrich Böll short-story collection Erzählungen, or one of the three related novels in F.C. Delius' Deutscher Herbst (German Autumn) trilogy...

Next, attention turned to my Kindle, where I had a host of classics stored and ready to go.  How does Robert Musil's Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (The Confusions of Young Torless) sound?  Or Adalbert Stifter's lengthy, impressionistic novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer)?

Then there are some of the writers whose work I've meaning to revisit - I still haven't managed to get to the second part of Gottfried Keller's Die Leute von Seldwyla (The People of Seldwyl) cycle, and Theodor Storm's Eine Halligfahrt (A Hallig Journey) and Lena Christ's Lausdirndlgeschichten (I'm not even going to try to translate that one) have been on my TBR for a while now.  But what about the Joseph Roth week to end the month?  Surely I can fit in Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker (The Legend of the Holy Drinker)?

A little fatigued by the overwhelming number of possible choices, I started to browse online sites to unwind, only to end up looking for more books.  With few female writers among my choices, perhaps Christa Wolf's Stadt der Engel or The Overcoat of Doctor Freud (City of Angels...) or Anna Seghers' Transit might be worth getting.  Also, having enjoyed Jenny Erpenbeck's Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) recently, why not try her earlier work Wörterbuch (The Book of Words)?  But that would mean not reading another by Thomas Bernhard, and I really wanted to get a copy of Alte Meister (The Old Masters)....

In the end, I'm afraid it all got a little too much for me, and I had to go and have a rest.  However, I'm sure I'll have worked it all out by the time November comes around.  Please come back then, and see what made it through the final cut - viel Spaß dabei ;)

Thursday, 16 October 2014

'Mr. Darwin's Gardener' by Kristina Carlson (Review)

Before reading today's choice, I'd already tried two of the three books from the Peirene Press class of 2013.  Both The Mussel Feast (runner-up in this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) and Chasing the King of Hearts were fairly prominent and well received works, and (to me, at least) the other of the Turning Point books seemed a little less discussed.  Today, then, it's time to try the third in the series, to see if the middle child lives up to the standard set by its more illustrious sisters...

Kristina Carlson's Mr. Darwin's Gardener (translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a novella in five short parts, set in a Kentish village in 1879.  We start with a certain Thomas Davies, an outsider in the village for reasons other than his Welsh origins.  You see, in a fairly religious community, Davies is the gardener of a local celebrity - none other than the elderly Charles Darwin, and it's surely no coincidence that Davies is the local atheist...

Davies recently lost his wife to illness, and his children both have (undefined) health issues.  Darwin's gardener has many reasons to not join the congregation on Sundays - the issues he's had are enough to make anyone question their faith.  The villagers, safely ensconced in their church, look askance at this modern man, resenting people who step outside the herd.  However, the book slowly reveals that everyone must deal with the question of faith alone...

Mr. Darwin's Gardener is a lovely little book, one with an intriguingly familiar setting for an Englishman (seen from a Finnish perspective!).  However, as much as the place is important, it's the time which is crucial:
"People in future decades and centuries will react to our ideas superciliously, as if we were children playing at thinking.  We shall look most amusing in the light of new thoughts and inventions."
p.72 (Peirene Press, 2013)
Which is an amusing nod to the supercilious reader ;)  The year is 1879, and we are very much at a turning point in cultural history.

Darwin's theories on evolution are now well known, and even devout, church-going people have begun to consider their beliefs more closely.  Life in the village is starting to change as young people yearn for the big city and the chance of more freedom.  This is also the era of electricity, and while the village isn't as yet connected, we sense that big things are just around the corner.

The small English village is a tiny melting pot, a microcosm of society, ideal for a study of the effects of change.  Despite the idyllic surface, there's a lot going on that outsiders can't see, with nasty secrets festering underneath:
"Righteousness spreads like pestilence, Henry Faine thought.
  Revenge brings great satisfaction, everyone has stored up things to avenge, but the victim is not always about.  So when a common enemy is found, people seize the opportunity - in the name of God, the church or a woman.  Or because a country village is somewhat short of entertainment." (p.52)
So what are those net curtains hiding?  Alcoholism, sexual frustration, manipulation, violence - and, above all, a distinct absence of hope...

It's against this backdrop that the struggle between the old order and progress takes place.  Davies, the Welsh gardener, is certainly one who has no time for old beliefs, preferring to pin his 'faith' in science than in an absent deity.  He is roundly mocked for burning his wife's solid wooden bed outside after her death, laughed at for the needless waste.  Obviously, the villagers are not quite up on the latest thoughts on medical hygiene...

The book is well constructed, built upon five 'scenes', each contributing to the overall story.  We see the self-satisfied villagers in church (and at the local pub), sewing for the local poor (and taking revenge on a light-fingered verger), sitting through the cold December - and enjoying the return of spring.  The characters gradually take shape, names taking on features: the snobbish Henry and Eileen Faine, the alcoholic doctor Robert Kenny, wheelchair-bound Hannah Hamilton.  By the end, they're all old friends - it's like a slightly twisted version of The Archers.

Although the story is interesting, it's the writing which makes the book, with Carlson using a range of styles to achieve her purpose.  One of these is a polyphonic chorus of voices, a feature that reminded me of Virginia Woolf's The Waves at times:
"The congregation sits in pews and the jackdaws caw in the steeple.
  We smell of wet dog.  The rain drenched us.  We are cold but singing warms us.  The hymn rises up to the roof.  God lives above the roof, amen.
  We saw Thomas Davies on the hill.  He works in Mr. Darwin's garden.
  An atheist and a lunatic, he stood alone in the field, water whipping his face.
  A godless pit pony wandering in the dark, he hails from Wales.
  Does the heathen think he can avoid getting wet outside?  Did the Devil give him an umbrella, or bat's wings?
Perhaps Thomas imagines he can control the rain.  He thinks he is higher than God.  He has his head in the clouds." (p.16)
The 'I's and 'We's scattered throughout the book are insights into the psyches of the villagers.  However, in other parts, the writing can be a lot more detached, especially when the gardener speaks.  This, perhaps, is a deliberate attempt to differentiate between the emotional villagers and the 'rational' Davies.

In fact, Mr. Darwin's Gardener is a short book full of contrasts.  We have pub bores trading quips, honouring the lord and secretly beating up a man after dark; bored women using their needles while sipping tea, then sleeping with newcomers to the village.  This is certainly a turning point, but we're not quite into the modern era yet, and this delicate balance is what makes the book so fascinating to read.  Like most Peirene books, it's one which needs to be read again if we're to really get behind what the writer wants to say - and I hope to do that very soon :)

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

'Lady Anna' by Anthony Trollope (Review)

Jane Austen taught us that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife - but what about a single woman about to come into a good fortune?  And what should be done if that single woman is planning to give her fortune to a man whose social status really doesn't warrant it?  Hmm, some tough questions there.  I think I'll need some help with this one, preferably from an expert on the delicate questions of nineteenth-century courtship...

Anthony Trollope's Lady Anna is (for Trollope, at least) a remarkably focused novel.  We begin with the plight of Josephine Murray, or Countess Lovel as she would prefer to be known.  Having married an Earl, she believes she has achieved her life's goals - until, that is, he laughingly informs her that he was already married to an Italian woman at the time of the wedding...  If the Earl is telling the truth, then the Countess would lose her title, and her daughter, Lady Anna, would no longer inherit anything.

We move on a couple of decades, and the wicked Earl has passed away, leaving lawyers to decide the truth of the matter.  With the question of the Italian marriage fading into the background, matters soon concern themselves with the contest between the two women and Anna's cousin, the new Earl.  It's a conflict that would easily be resolved if a marriage could be arranged between the two cousins - the problem, however, is that Anna's heart has already been given away elsewhere...

This is typical Trollope in many ways.  The first two chapters are all scene setting, discussing the events of twenty years and making sure the reader has a firm grasp of the nature of the court case to come.  However, once the writer has made sure everyone's up to speed, off we go at a gallop for five-hundred pages of melodrama.  Early in the novel, the Countess exclaims:
"Was it to come to her at last?  Could it be that now, now at once, people throughout the world would call her the Countess Lovel, and would own her daughter to be the Lady Anna, - till she also should become a countess?"
pp.72/3 (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
Call me a cynic, but I doubt it's going to happen on page seventy-three...

However, unlike Orley Farm, for example, Lady Anna places little importance on the court case, an anti-climax which disappoints the eager spectators who crowd into the court room.  Instead, the emphasis shifts to the battle for Anna's hand and heart.  Having grown up in straitened circumstances, it's only natural that Anna should have become attached to her childhood companion, Daniel Thwaite, and it will take a lot of persuasion to convince her to abandon a man who has loved her through thick and thin, merely to please her mother.

This is where Trollope comes into his own, gently unveiling the delights of the English upper classes, allowing both Anna and the reader to be seduced by the comforts of a sedate existence in the country, servants waiting to fulfil your every command and money as an abstract concept which is always somewhere if you need it.  You sense that the original readership would most definitely have been on the side of the gentry, particularly as Frederic, the handsome young Earl who is to marry Anna, acts so well in refusing to contest the case against the mother and daughter (a case which would make him fabulously wealthy).

This natural bias would also have been strengthened by the early appearances of the Earl's rival.  Thwaite is a radical, and while his father (who was the Countess' only supporter in earlier times) thinks it inevitable that the blue-bloods still rule the world, the son is much stronger in his desire to change the social order:
"The world is not ripe yet, Daniel."
"No; - the world is not ripe."
"There must be earls and countesses."
"I see no must in it.  There are earls and countesses as there used to be mastodons and other senseless, over-grown brutes roaming miserable and hungry through the undrained woods, - cold, comfortless, unwieldy things, which have perished in the general progress.  The big things have all to give way to the intellect of those which are more finely made." (p.39)
Definitely not views which will endear him to the Victorian moral classes ;)

However, as the novel draws on, even his opponents, the family and lawyers who oppose his interests, acknowledge that he is a good man (if not a gentleman), although they would prefer him to take some money and run.  Surprisingly, one of his biggest supporters turns out to be the chief lawyer for the Lovel family, Sir William Patterson, a man whose actions ultimately influence the outcome of the whole state of affairs, as the knight is one of those rare lawyers who seem to have the best interests of all concerned at heart - even when some believe that he's not really doing his job:
"The cause itself was no doubt peculiar, - unlike any other cause with which Mr. Flick had become acquainted in his experience; there was no saying at the present moment who had opposed interests, and who combined interests in the case; but still etiquette is etiquette, and Mr. Flick was aware that such a house as that of Messrs. Norton and Flick should not be irregular.  Nevertheless he sent for Daniel Thwaite." (p.222)
Flick should have no worries - in a Trollope novel, everything (usually) ends up for the best :)

Initially, I was a little concerned with the narrow focus of Lady Anna, thinking that the court case might become a little dull.  However, Trollope knows full well what he's doing, and the legal aspects soon fade into the background so that he can concentrate on what he really wants to discuss, which is the right of a woman to dispose of her own heart as she sees fit.  The legal obstacles soon melt away, leaving Anna to fight a moral battle against her overbearing mother and well-intentioned friends, all of whom believe it wrong for a young woman of her rank and fortune to marry below her station.

The mother is particularly harsh (reminding me of some of the strict mothers I've encountered in Korean fiction this year), resorting to psychological warfare in an attempt to bend her daughter to her will, and refusing to see her for long chunks of the story.  Unlike, say, Sir William, this lady is not for turning:
"Her daughter was all that she had to bind her to the world around her.  But she declared to herself again and again that it would be better that her daughter should die than live and be married to the tailor.  It was a case in which persecution even to the very gate of the grave would be wise and warrantable, - if by such persecution this odious monstrous marriage might be avoided." (p.228)
The Countess is playing a rather high-stakes game here, one in which, even if she wins, she's bound to suffer losses...

While Lady Anna starts a little slowly, and looks for a time as if it might be a little ho-hum, it actually turns into a ripping read, one in which the outcome isn't clear until the last fifty pages or so, and where the interest lies not only in what happens but why and how.  Trollope is limited by the conventions of the time (and the inevitable Victorian self-censorship), but he still does a good job in outlining the hypocrisy of the nobility and the intense pressure felt by young women who were seen to not be doing their duty.  The book might not quite live up to some of Trollope's best work (no matter what he might claim in his Autobiography), but it's certainly worth a few hours of your time - I'm certainly happy to have experienced another of the big man's efforts :)

Sunday, 12 October 2014

LTI Korea 20th-Century Stories (Review)

As some of you may have noticed, my reviewing activities haven't been limited to the blog over the past couple of months.  Continuing the Korean theme which has been the backbone of my 2014 reading, I've been steadily working my way through a collection of twenty free stories from the first half of the twentieth century, all translated and put on the Internet courtesy of the nice people at the Literature Translation Institute (LTI) of Korea.  But where are the reviews, I hear you ask - well, today's post looks at them in brief.  For the full picture, though, I'll be pointing you in a different direction...

The twenty stories have been carefully chosen and are meant to give English speakers a taste of early modern Korean literature.  While the majority are in the range of twenty to thirty pages, they range from a couple of fairly brief stories to one hundred-page novella.  There's also a variety of writers, with thirteen different authors represented (from memory, only two female writers, though), and the stories mainly span the last couple of decades of the colonial period, a couple coming shortly after.

Some of the better stories in the collection come from writers I was already familiar with.  The two by Yi Sang ('Child's Bone' and 'Dying Words'), while not quite as good as his famous story 'Wings', are recognisably by the same writer.  The same could be said for Yi Kwang-su's 'Gasil', an entertaining (if didactic) folk tale.  Another well-known name is Ch'ae Man-sik, and his two contributions, 'Transgressor of the Nation' and 'Frozen Fish', are among the longer and more impressive stories.

However, there were also several good stories by writers I hadn't previously encountered.  Examples include Kim Yu-jeong's humorous story 'The Golden Bean Patch' and Kim Sa-ryang's excellent piece 'Into the Light', a story originally written in Japanese, which looks at Korean-Japanese relations in Tokyo.  I also enjoyed the two stories by Kim Nam-cheon, 'After Beating Your Wife...' and 'Management', both of which were slightly more complex than some of the earlier tales in the collection.

As the collection covers a relatively short period of history, it's unsurprising that there are several recurring themes.  Many of the earlier stories examine the harsh life of the poor, particularly farmers, during the Japanese colonial period, with tales of hunger and drought aplenty.  Women also feature heavily, but not always in a good way.  Some feature mainly to be beaten or abandoned by their husbands, but others tire of a life of poverty and end up running off with richer men.  As I said, there's a heavy bias towards male writers here...

Another common subject is the political side of the occupation.  There are some stories where writers and intellectuals must weigh up the consequences of remaining true to their beliefs under the colonial system, and few pieces are completely free of the shadow of the Japanese presence.  Even those from after liberation look back at the occupation, examining the consciences of people who didn't protest as much as they might have.

While not all of the stories are wonderful (and a few of the translations are a little stilted), this is an excellent (free!) collection of stories - so why haven't I reviewed it properly?  Well, dear reader, the truth is that I already have, in great detail, on my Youtube channel!  Over the past couple of months, I've recorded fifteen short videos covering all the stories and compiled them on this playlist, so if you're interested in my thoughts, just click on the link, and away you go :)

Before I leave you to check it out, though, I'll just show you where you can access the stories (which is far more important!).  For Apple devices, go here; for the Google Play app, go here.  And if, like me, you need the PDFs, just click on this link.  There you go - lots of free stories at your fingertips :) 

That's all for now, but it's far from the end of my Korean reading - or even my Youtube activities.  You see, in addition to the twenty stories discussed today, LTI Korea has also provided fifteen more modern stories for everyone to try.  It looks like my Youtube Channel may have a new playlist in the not-too-distant future...

Thursday, 9 October 2014

'Family Heirlooms' by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares (Review)

Recently, I was looking (as you do) for something short to fill up an evening, when I remembered a book I had hanging around electronically.  A quick look on my Kindle, and I'd found a novella from Frisch & Co., digital specialists in translated fiction.  The fact that it was translated by Daniel Hahn, a man who never seems to be out of the translated fiction news at the moment, also seemed to be a sign.  So, it's off to Brazil we go, for a tale of marriage, old age and precious gems - none of which are exactly what they were thought to be...

Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares' Family Heirlooms (e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short novella centred on the figure of Maria Bráulia Munhoz, a judge's widow living out her remaining days in her apartment.  When her nephew comes to lunch, he arrives bearing bad news as the ruby ring he was given to have assessed at the jeweller's has turned out to be made of glass...

The nephew leaves Maria to digest her disappointment at the news; however, things are not quite as they seem.  You see, the old woman is not quite as surprised by the news as she might be.  As she retires to her bedroom to rest and think, the reader discovers that the story of the ruby is actually a rather complex affair... 

Family Heirlooms is a rather short work, almost a one-sitting book, and fairly easy to read, but there's a lot more going on under the surface than appears at first glance.  The swan of the cover photo is a table ornament in Maria's apartment, and it's emblematic of the civilised calm on the surface of her life with lots of frantic paddling beneath.  The novel focuses heavily on surface versus reality, whether that pertains to actions or appearances:
"With her social face once again on show, the other one, the strictly private one, recedes, as happens every morning, and is immediately forgotten by its owner.  A face that, being so rarely seen by others, assumes the same modesty as her shrunken body; bringing it into the daylight, holding it up on her neck as though it were the most natural thing in the world (which in fact is precisely what it is now), displaying it to someone else, even someone with whom she is on intimate terms, such as her nephew, would seem to her an act of the most absolute and unforgivable shamelessness."
(Frisch & Co.,  2014)
Even with her nearest and dearest, the idea of revealing her true self would never cross Maria's mind, and this reluctance to open up to the world is a trait which is explored in depth throughout the story.

The plot, at least what little there is of one, hangs on the story of the ring (a device which a Victorian author could probably have made a six-hundred-page novel out of...).  It begins with a present from Maria's husband before their marriage and is confused by the creation of a copy for everyday use - except that before too long, nobody is quite sure which is the real and which is the fake (or, indeed, whether there were ever two rings in the first place).

In truth, though, the story of the ring is merely an opportunity for Maria to look back at her life and contemplate the rigours of an undemanding married existence.  Having once thought that marriage would bring a change to her monotonous days, she discovers that life as a married woman is simply filled with different disappointments.  Her husband, the judge, is not the life partner she might have wished for:
"Judge Munhoz paced back and forth in his study, back and forth, but he couldn't make up his mind whether deception or decorum had been more important in his life."
With the judge balancing both qualities, with work and his private secretary, Maria is left to find solace in her friendship with the jeweller, Marcel de Souza Armand, a relationship which is implicit and understated - and which brings us back to the jewel.

The family heirloom of the title may be the jewel, but (as Maria's maid Maria Preta explains to her visiting niece) there are far more important things in life:
"Goodness, if I've got to explain everything I know, ten years won't be enough, not even a whole lifetime!  And everything about manners, about good breeding that I want to pass on to you, all of that!  As Dona Chiquinha used to say, these teachings are family heirlooms too.  We inherit them, they're passed down from mother and father to child."
Not that the maid is referring to the lady of the house when she thinks about manners.  There's a vast difference between how the lady of the house sees herself and how she is seen by others...

The story is nicely written, and one of the strong points is the writer's observational skill, with a careful, cinematic eye for the actions of the protagonists.  In addition to the paragraph on Maria's second 'face', there are many excellent quirky details, such as the comical look of the nephew when clasping his aunt's hands or the jeweller's resemblance to a portrait of Queen Victoria, an observation which forever plays on poor Maria's mind once her husband has made it.

In the end, though, it's the story of a woman and her days, and Ribeiro Tavares compares Maria's life to the history of the ruby.  She suggests that in the attempt to guard something precious, Maria has, in fact, wasted both her life and the precious gem, and the still atmosphere of the apartment appears to confirm this notion.  Family Heirlooms, as noted, is a fairly sedate book, but it's certainly a story which makes you think.  The moral, if there is one, is that life is definitely for living, not for hiding away like a jewel you're scared of losing...

Monday, 6 October 2014

'The Foundling Boy' by Michel Déon (Review)

While the idea of the recently-founded Folio Academy, electors of the Folio Prize, may sound impressive to some, when it comes to literary élites, there are groups with much stronger credentials, and one of those is the Académie Française, France's premier institution for the promotion (and protection) of language and literature.  Today's book is by one of the biggest of big cheeses, a man who has been a member of this esteemed group since 1978, so I was expecting a lot.  Luckily, it's a cracker ;)

Michel Déon's The Foundling Boy (translated by Julian Evans, review copy courtesy of Gallic Books) takes us to Normandy, where Jeanne and Albert Arnaud, caretakers of the estate of the du Courseau family, are woken one morning in 1919 by cries.  On investigating, they discover a baby in a wicker basket abandoned on their doorstep, and they decide to take the child in as their own, despite the objections of Madame du Courseau (who would prefer the child to grow up in her own house).

The years pass, and Jean, as the child is named, grows into a strapping young man, blessed with good looks, a strong body and ample intelligence.  However, the mystery of his provenance is always at the back of his mind, and this refuses to allow him the peace required to settle down - he's a boy with itchy feet, and his wanderings will take him far and wide.  Meanwhile, just as Jean reaches maturity, the clouds of war begin to gather once more.  France prepares itself to send another generation of young men to the slaughter...

The Foundling Boy is wonderful, a really enjoyable novel.  It's a book you fly through, sepia-tinted, but with a razor-sharp drollness, a Bildungsroman of the best kind:
"I sense that the reader is eager, as I am, to reach the point where Jean Arnaud becomes a man.  But patience!  None of us turns into an adult overnight, and nothing would be properly clear (or properly fictional) if I failed to illustrate the stages of our hero's childhood in some carefully chosen anecdotes."
p.80 (Gallic Books, 2013)
With a sympathetic main character, and an excellent supporting cast, this is a book full of interesting people living through very interesting times.

The novel paints a picture of France, and elsewhere in Europe, during the interwar period.  The scars of 'The Great War' are still visible, whether psychological, as in the constant fear of another conflict, or physical, in the form of Albert's missing leg or the mutilated face of another old soldier, Léon Cece.  Throughout the novel, the tension gradually builds, and by the end of the story, the uneasy peace binding Europe together has finally broken down...

Despite the shadow of war in the background, though, the novel is really all about Jean.  He's a boy growing up with a mystery, a child of humble origins who will owe his rise in the world to a mysterious benefactor.  If that sounds vaguely familiar, it should, as there are numerous parallels here to Great Expectations.  The eerie start to the book has echoes of Dickens' novel, and the enigmatic figure of Constantin Palfy, Jean's own Herbert Pocket, helps Jean to understand the ways of the world (in London!).  There's even a beautiful, seemingly untouchable, love interest in the form of Chantal de Malemort.

If it's a Great Expectations tribute, though, it's certainly a very French one, from the images of the Norman hawthorns on the first page to its occasional mocking of the English and Germans.  One of the major themes of the novel is Jean's sexual awakening, and there's a fair bit of action between the sheets, and seduction of willing housewives.  As he says in his diary:
"I've bought myself a notebook where I've started making a few notes:
  a) Duplicity: absolutely necessary for a life without dramas.  You have to harden your heart.  I need to be capable, without blushing to my roots, of sleeping with a woman and then being a jolly decent chap to her lover or her husband.  This is essential.  Without it society would be impossible." (p.240)
Ah, the French...  Suffice it to say, this is one lesson Jean manages to take to heart ;)

Moving on to non-sexual matters, part of Jean's education is learning from the people he encounters, as each person teaches him something new, removing the scales from his innocent eyes.  His travels in Italy with the budding Nazi Ernst teach him that a helpful nature and racist rage are not incompatible, while his friendship with Palfy shows him that people with no morals can make the most enjoyable companions.  It takes time, but our hero eventually grasps that what we see on the outside rarely reflects the inside completely - people tend to have more than one face...

My enjoyment of the novel was enhanced by the idiosyncrasies of the narrator.  He's a constant intrusion, a self-important, witty, manipulative ghost, who leaves you in no doubt as to who is in control of the story:
"...Everyone came to watch: Adèle, Jeanne, Marie-Thérèse, Albert, Jean, Michel, Antoinette and two other servants, whose names I shan't bother with because they were only casual staff." (p.48)
Not everyone likes this kind of authorial presence, but I appreciated the skillful switches from a distanced narrative to a distinct involvement in the tale.  Occasionally, however, this intrusion has a darker side.  From time to time, the narrator takes us on little trips into the future, where we see the fate of minor characters who are no longer required for the story...

The Foundling Boy is a book I enjoyed immensely, gripping and very funny, with never a dull moment.  It's a novel with a wonderful style - Evans' translation is excellent, and the text never seemed clumsy or unnatural.  The best thing of all, though, is that the story doesn't end there.  With The Foundling Boy ending at the very start of the Second World War (revealing some secrets, but leaving others to uncover another day), the scene is set for a sequel - which you can get your hands on now too!  Gallic Books is bringing The Foundling's War out in a matter of days, and I, for one, can't wait to catch up with Jean and his friends for another trip down memory lane.

I'm sure it'll be another very French experience ;)

Saturday, 4 October 2014

September 2014 Wrap-Up

September was a fairly calm month, with a bit of catching up with review copies and review writing.  Other activities meant that I didn't read that many books last month, but never fear - there are still plenty of reviews on the way :)

Total Books Read: 9

Year-to-Date: 95


Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 1
Review Copies: 8
From the Library: 0
On the Kindle: 2 (2 review copies)

Novels: 5
Novellas: 2
Short Stories: 2 

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

Books reviewed in September were:
1) Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
2) Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard
3) Antón Mallick Wants to Be Happy by Nicolás Casariego
4) The Plains by Gerald Murnane
5) One Spoon on this Earth by Hyun Ki-young
6) A Distant Father by Antonio Skármeta
7) Ich nannte ihn Krawatte (I Called Him Necktie) by Milena Michiko Flašar
8) Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
9) I Live in Bongcheon-dong by Jo Kyung-ran
10) The Things We Don't Do by Andrés Neuman

Tony's Turkey for September is:
Hyun Ki-young's One Spoon on This Earth

An interesting book marred by an awful translation - another turkey, I'm afraid...

Tony's Recommendation for September is:
Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight

Aside from the turkey, there were some wonderful books reviewed this month, and it was hard to overlook a lot of them for the main honour.  Murakami, Knausgaard, Murnane and (especially) Neuman can all feel disappointed, but in the end, I just had to go with Szerb's classic tale of a marriage on the rocks in Italy :)
October will see much of the same, but as the month draws on, I'll be turning my focus to all things Teutonic.  Yes, German Literature Month is not far off, so it's time for me to get cracking ;)

Thursday, 2 October 2014

'They Were Found Wanting' by Miklós Bánffy (Review)

It's been a while, but after enjoying the excellent They Were Counted, I finally found some time to move on to the second part of Miklós Bánffy's 'Transylvanian Trilogy', which continues the personal and political struggles of the Hungarian gentry just before the First World War.  Of course, as it's a sequel, there may be a few details revealed over the course of the review which could affect your enjoyment of the first book - so be warned ;)

They Were Found Wanting (translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, review copy courtesy of Arcadia Books) begins with a parliament (as usual) in turmoil.  With a fragile coalition government unable to pass any meaningful legislation, time is spent on petty squabbles, while outside in the real world (and the Hungarian parliament is a bubble which appears blind to events outside Budapest) Europe is taking the first steps towards the catastrophic war which will erupt in just a few short years.

Things are no less dramatic for the two main characters of the series.  Laszlo Gyeroffy, having fallen from grace, is reduced to living in squalor in his ramshackle family home, even though there is no shortage of women ready to take a chance on the attractive drunkard.  As for the aristocratic Balint Abady, while his love for Adrienne Miloth is as strong as ever, he is becoming impatient for her to finally take the step of leaving her husband, the sinister Pali Uzdy.  However, there's something preventing her from asking for her freedom, something which may make the divorce impossible...

I read the first of the trilogy, They Were Counted, a few months back, and it took a while to remember all the names and connections, but once I'd found my feet, I again raced through Bánffy's world of the Hungarian élite in the pre-WW1 era.  It has that same, calming feeling as reading one of the big Victorian novels I enjoy so much, but dating from a later era (and another location), there's a slightly different mood hanging over the novel, a gloomier modernist Weltschmerz which contrasts with the more confident and secure Victorian era.

Of course, there's every justification for the tone as Bánffy is looking back from the 1930s to a time just before his country was to be torn apart, both by the war and the peace that followed.  While the writing is clearly on the wall, hindsight is a wonderful thing - the poor Hungarians of the time, blinded by petty squabbles, are oblivious to the impending disaster, even when they read of dramatic events elsewhere in Europe:
"The news was mulled over when they read the morning newspapers, argued and discussed in the clubs and coffee-houses and possibly even discussed at the family meals but, while it was, everyday life went on as usual and most people only thought seriously about their work, their business interests, property, family and friends, their social activities, about love and sport and maybe a little about local politics and the myriad trifles that are and always have been everyone's daily preoccupation.  And how could it have been otherwise?"
p.301 (Arcadia Press, 2011)
We, who have history to guide us, realise how foolish this is, knowing what's just around the corner...

A large portion of the novel is set in the Hungarian parliament, and through the eyes of the main character, Balint Abady, we are able to witness how futile the years of discussions there are.  A junior (rather submissive) partner to Austria in the dual monarchy, the Hungarian government spends its whole time with its head in the sand, trying desperately to keep together a ruling coalition which has achieved absolutely nothing.  It won't be to everyone's taste, but if you're a fan of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, you'll be at home in the Budapest parliament's dark corridors, even if it's a little noisier than you're used to ;)

If it's Trollope's Barchester Chronicles that appeal more, though, then the other half of the story will be for you as the time outside parliament is mostly spent in the country, where the landed gentry, drink, flirt and shoot anything that moves.  There's a hunting scene which could have come straight out of a Trollope novel, and we're not short of a scheming lady or two, hoping to make a conquest of a handsome young visitor (either for life or for the night...).  With the addition of dances and a country fair, it would be easy to think we'd ended up in Barchester by mistake.

Even here, though, the more melancholy mood is evident, and the love lives of the two principal characters, Abady and his cousin Gyeroffy, rarely go as planned.  Balint and Adrienne are separated by the small fact of her being married to a madman, while poor Laszlo continues the downward spiral started by his addiction to gambling in the first novel.  Tragically, he is unable to accept the help of those who wish to save him (and there are plenty of people who want to help the attractive, talented musician), and he is degraded further and further the longer the novel draws on.  It's tempting to compare his decline with that of the country in general...

They Were Found Wanting isn't a light, fluffy read, but it's an excellent novel for those prepared to devote their attention to it.  Populated by likeable characters, the book delights in complicating their lives, leaving them searching, usually in vain, for the one thing that will make it all worthwhile:
"Whatever Fate sent one's way, somehow it was never enough.  It was not a question of wanting more of the same thing, it was just that there was always something else, something one did not yet have but which was or now seemed necessary for complete happiness.  It was this constant desire which kept human joy in check, for everyone felt that if only he could achieve just this one little thing more then all would be well." (pp.105/6)
Alas, the moral of the story seems to be that you can't always get what you want (and if you try sometimes, you might find yourself even further away from your happiness...).

The 'Transylvanian Trilogy' ends with They Were Divided, a title with a multitude of implications, and with the first two books slowly leading us up to the First World War, you sense that the series will end with a bang.  Will our heroes finally find happiness?  It's doubtful, but one thing's for sure - the reader is likely to enjoy it all, whatever the outcome.  I'm sure I will :)