Tag Archives: IFFP

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, tr. by Philip Roughton

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels is the second volume in a trilogy that began with Heaven and Hell (published in 2011). Set in a small fishing village in 19th-century Iceland, a place that feels close to the end of the world, the story opens with the arrival of Postman Jens in the community; he’s in a bad way, battered by the bitter wind and snow, almost frozen solid on his horse. After a short recovery, Jens is challenged by Sigurður (the local pharmacist and someone with considerable influence) to cover another postal route. The terrain is treacherous, ‘likely hellish after constant snowfall, relentless wind, only to be ventured by highly experienced travellers’ and our man is unfamiliar with the area. If Jens fails to deliver the post on time, his job will be at risk; if he succeeds, it strengthens his position against the doctor and there is no love lost between these two. Jens quickly accepts the mission, the prospect of getting one over on Sigurður being too tempting to resist.

However, the central character in The Sorrow of Angels is the boywho, some quick research tells me, is the main protagonist in the earlier book Heaven and Hell. The boy, unnamed throughout, is dispatched to accompany Jens on his perilous journey to transport the mail in good time. The postman is afraid of the sea and would never make it alone over the fjord that forms the initial leg of their course. He needs someone with him who can ‘row him over, keep a decent pace with him on the trek’.

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By now we’re about one-third of the way into the novel and it’s at this point that the narrative really kicks in for me. The expedition itself plays out over the remaining 200 pages and we follow the pair as they battle through blizzards and incessant winds, struggling to survive everything the environment seems determined to throw their way:

The snow piles up on them, they keep going, step-by-step, cold but undefeated. Then Jens falls for the fifth time. Perhaps because the land has started to rise; not much, but enough. It snows and snow blows over them, blows down from the mountain in enormous amounts, blows violently, it’s nearly impossible to breathe and Jens gropes feebly for the postal trumpet, tries to free it from his shoulder and hand it to the boy, opens his mouth to say something but his tongue is frozen, because first it’s words that freeze, then life. (pgs 139-140)

They forge ahead in their endeavour to deliver the mail. The occasional isolated farmhouse offers a brief respite from the elements and some welcome, if meagre, nourishment. It’s a world where visitors are few and far between, where the kindness of strangers is everything, where small gestures speak volumes:

The boy gulps his coffee to burn off the fatigue; he would have preferred to sleep longer, Jens sits with his head bowed but looks up when Jakobina returns with flatbread and butter; she’s tall, her movements are strong and graceful, her brown eyes meet those of the postman, she places the tray between them, brushing as if by accident, Jens’ hand, which rests solidly on the table. A hand that touches another hand in this way is saying something; Jens knows this but dares not respond. (pg 201)

Alongside their physical struggle to survive, there are other journeys taking place, other battles being fought. Jens, sullen and uncommunicative, is deep in thought wrestling with his feelings for Salvör, a woman who has experienced darkness in her past. He knows he should open his heart and express his feelings to her, otherwise he risks losing a chance to find contentment. But so far he’s been unable to commit.

The boy, meanwhile, is trying to anchor himself following the loss of loved ones. As an adolescent, he’s also grappling with new emotions and thoughts of Ragnheiður, a girl from the fishing village, flicker through his mind. Keen to talk, the boy probes Jens about the cause of his soul-searching.

During their journey Jens and the boy develop an understated, yet heartfelt, bond. They come dangerously close to losing one another, but Jens remains mindful of the need to take care of his young companion. Up on the heaths and mountains, the space between life and death seems very narrow as we become acutely aware of the fragility of life.

Night is surely approaching and death is surely approaching, that invisible being, constantly lurking, stealing jewels, hoarding rubbish, doesn’t turn up its nose at anything, and sends fatigue, cold, hopelessness and surrender out ahead, four savage dogs that sniff out anything living in blind storms. (pg 181)

The Sorrow of Angels is a spellbinding novel, beautifully written in a lyrical, poetic style. Everything seems to flow seamlessly, from Stefánsson’s luminous prose through to Philip Roughton’s excellent translation. Stefánsson creates an ethereal, almost otherworldly atmosphere in this novel and it vividly captures man’s struggle with the adversities of life.

The publisher’s notes indicate that all parts of this trilogy can be read independently. However, having read The Sorrow of Angels, I do wish I’d had sufficient time to start with Heaven and Hell before embarking on part two of the trilogy. I just felt a little disorientated at the beginning of the narrative and I’m sure I missed some of the nuances and subtleties in the interplay between characters in the village community. That said, of all the books longlisted for this year’s IFFP, The Sorrow of Angels is most certainly in my top three. I’m delighted to see it in our shadow-group shortlist and the closing scenes left me yearning for the next part in the trilogy. And of course I shall have to go back and read Heaven and Hell to fill in those gaps.

I read this book as part of an IFFP-shadowing project led by Stu at Winstondad’s blog. Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed The Sorrow of Angels: Tony Malone, Tony Messenger, Stu and Bellezza – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on David Hebblethwaite’s blog (13th April 2014) and David has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Final note: I’ve now read Heaven and Hell, the first book in this series, and as one might expect, the two books share the same shimmering prose and ethereal atmosphere. And having read the first volume, I gained so much more from my second reading of Sorrows. Both books are just wonderful.

The Sorrow of Angels is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: library copy.

Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Makine, tr. by Geoffrey Strachan

When the IFFP longlist was announced in early March, I was excited to see this novel amongst the contenders. While I haven’t read any of Andreï Makine’s previous books, I know Stu (at Winstonsdad’s blog) rates this author very highly, so I was eager to get to this one.

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Brief Loves That Live Forever comprises of a series of eight episodes set within the context of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union; each of these vignettes could be considered a short story in itself, yet they are connected by the same narrator looking back on particular moments in his life.

The book opens as our unnamed narrator recalls walking home with a friend, a dissident by the name of Dmitri Ress. Ress, a dying man in his mid-forties, has experienced a sequence of imprisonments primarily for attacking the totalitarian regime and railing against the charade of National parades.  During the walk Ress seems keen to steer our narrator towards a particular route; by so doing they encounter a woman and a young boy as they emerge from an official car. Ress turns away and it seems as if there may be some connection between him and the couple. As our narrator recalls this encounter with Ress it seems to spark memories of other times in his youth — moments of tenderness, fleeting glimpses of beauty and love — and it is these transient moments that endure and resonate most strongly in his life:

What remains is the pale patch of a dress, on the front steps of a little wooden house. The gesture of a hand waving me goodbye. I walk on, drawing further away, turning back after every five paces, and the hand is still visible in the mauve, luminous spring light.

What remains is a fleeting paradise that lives on for all time, having no need of doctrines. (p. 91)

From here onwards Makine uses this theme to lead us through a series of experiences in the narrator’s life, all of which touch upon brief snatches of love, compassion or grace. We see a young girl desperately searching for a grandmother whom she has never met; a grief-stricken young woman mourning the passing of her husband; an elderly couple of seeking shelter from a storm; a lover immersing her face in a bouquet of flowers. Here’s our narrator recalling this moment in their affair:

She comes in, kisses me, sees the bouquet. And asks no questions. She quite simply leans forward, buries her face in the subtly scented halo of flowers, closes her eyes. And when she stands up, her eyes are misty with tears. “They smell of winter,” she says. “We met in December, didn’t we…”

That night there is an unaccustomed gentleness in the way we make love, as if we had found one another again after a very long separation, having suffered greatly and grown old. (p. 131-132)

These moments also offer glimmers of light in our protagonist’s world, forming the greatest defence against the grim reality and hollow emptiness of the Soviet system. The encounters are played out against the backdrop of the political development of The Soviet Union from the 1960s to the 1980s and representations of the totalitarian regime are never very far away. Early in the novel we see our narrator when, as a young boy, he becomes trapped within the imposing entrails of a grandstand used for parades:

Sunk in the torpor of a condemned man, I saw I was in a vast spider’s web spun from iron. This three-dimensional trellis was everywhere…My terror was so profound that, within this prison-like captivity, I must have glimpsed a more immense reality concerning the country I lived in, whose political character I was just beginning to grasp, thanks to snatches of conversation here and there… (p.36)

There are other symbols of the Brezhnev-era regime too; the leader’s ‘imposing face, an authoritarian gaze beneath bushy eyebrows’ on a vast hoarding on the facade on a railway station (p. 98) and an enormous sterile apple orchard, ‘an example of a Potemkin village, Soviet style’ (p. 139).

Brief Loves That Live Forever is a wonderful novel studded with beautifully haunting images, many of which are almost certainly set to drift through my mind in the days to come. Stu, in his review, likened the experience of reading this book to looking through a collection of old sepia-tinged photographs and how these can evoke memories of the past…and that’s very much how it feels for me, too. While each episode could work as a short story in its own right, they build and come together to form a more powerful, more resonant whole. And at the end of the book we come full circle and return to our narrator’s memories of Dmitri Ress, where we learn a little more about his past, causing us to reflect on our impressions of events and themes introduced in the first chapter.

There’s a melancholy, almost meditative quality to Makine’s writing, and in this respect I think it shares something with Javier Marías’s The Infatuations (also longlisted for the IFFP). Such elegant writing, too; everything seems to flow effortlessly, from Makine’s prose through to Geoffrey Strachan’s sensitive translation from the French. (Siberian-born Makine now lives in France and writes in French.)

Brief Loves That Live Forever is one of my favourite books longlisted for this year’s IFFP. I’m delighted to see it on our shadow group’s shortlist, if not the official one.

Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed this book: Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was originally published as a guest post on Stu’s blog (17th March 2014) and Stu has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Brief Loves That Live Forever is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: personal copy.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. by Allison Markin Powell

Sensei, I whispered. Sensei, I can’t find my way home.

But Sensei wasn’t here. I wondered where he was, on a night like this. It made me realise that I had never telephoned Sensei. We always met by chance, then we’d happen to go for a walk together. Or I would show up at his house, and we’d end up drinking together. Sometimes a month would go by without seeing or speaking to each other. In the past, if I didn’t hear from a boyfriend or if we didn’t have a date for a month, I’d be seized with worry. I’d wonder if, during that time he’s completely vanished from my life, or become a stranger to me.

Sensei and I didn’t see each other very often. It stands to reason since we weren’t a couple. Yet even when we were apart, Sensei never seemed far away. Sensei would always be Sensei. On a night like this, I knew he was out there somewhere. (pg. 59, Portobello Books)

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Strange Weather in Tokyo is the story of Tsukiko, a woman in her late thirties, who re-encounters one of her old high-school teachers (‘Sensei’, a man thirty years or so her senior) in a sake bar. They meet by chance one evening and over the course of the following months a connection develops as they seek solace in food, beer and sake. Their relationship feels quite unstructured; they rarely make arrangements to reconnect and weeks can pass before their visits to the sake bar coincide. They are both essentially quite solitary individuals, but there’s a sense that they gain some comfort from these encounters.

The story is told through the eyes of Tsukiko and there is an almost dreamlike, slightly surreal quality to the narrative as it unfolds over the course of the novel. We follow the couple as their relationship evolves and deepens; it starts with shared moments in the sake bar and develops to include trips to a local market, a mountain hike to collect mushrooms and a cherry blossom party. There are some wonderfully-observed details in these passages; nature features as a theme and we see the changing of the seasons as the months pass. Another passage features a description of Sensei’s house with its collection of railway teapots and this adds to the slightly offbeat tone of the novel.  In a poignant scene Tsukiko attempts to peel an apple whole, in one long curly piece (she had impressed a former boyfriend some years ago by managing to keep an apple skin intact). This time, however, the apple skin breaks part way round and Tsukiko bursts into tears as the broken peel comes to signify her loss. Tsukiko had been very much in love with this former boyfriend, but she seemed unable to express her feelings or demonstrate she cared for him.

I loved the delicate, nuanced quality of the relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei. There are times when they seem to communicate predominantly through feelings, using few words, soundlessly conveying deeper emotions and intimacy through thoughts and gestures. The unstated, yet deep nature of their relationship contrasts somewhat with Tsukiko’s brief flirtation with an old classmate from school (Kojima) whom she bumps into at the cherry blossom event. There’s a sense that Tsukiko is only content and able to settle in some way when she is with Sensei.

Everything felt so far away. Sensei, Kojima, the moon – they were all so distant from me. I stared out of the window, watching the streetscape as it rushed by. The taxi hurtled through the night-time city. Sensei! I forced out a cry. My voice was immediately drowned out by the sound of the car’s engine. I could see many cherry trees in bloom as we sped through the streets. The trees, some young and some many years old, were heavy with blossom in the night air. Sensei, I called out again, but of course no one could hear me. The taxi carried me along, speeding through the city night. (pg. 92)

I found this to be a beautifully-written and moving novel, expertly and sensitively translated by Allison Markin Powell. I think it will stay with me for some time; the ending in particular brings real emotional weight to the story of Tsukiko and Sensei’s relationship. I read this book last year and revisited it in January for Tony Malone’s focus on Japanese literature (January in Japan) and can recommend it to anyone interested in a quietly powerful book about loneliness, connections and the uncertain nature of relationships.

This review was originally published as a guest post on Tony Malone’s January in Japan blog (27th January 2014) and Tony has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Strange Weather in Tokyo has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (which I’ve been shadowing along with a group of book bloggers). Other members of the IFFP shadow group (Stu, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger) have also reviewed this book (published in other markets under the title of The Briefcase). And here’s another review from Naomi at The Writes of Women. Just click on the links to read their thoughts.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is published in the UK by Portobello Books. Source: personal copy.

A quick ‘hello’ and plans for the blog over the next few weeks

Hello, and thanks for dropping by. It’s still early days for me as far as blogging goes, but I thought it might be useful if posted a few lines on my plans for this blog and what you can expect to see over the forthcoming weeks.

I’ve started this blog primarily to share my thoughts and reviews of books. If you follow me @JacquiWine on twitter, you’ll probably be aware that I’ve been participating in a shadow group for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) 2014. The prize aims to honour the best work of fiction by a living author which has been translated into English from any other language and published in the United Kingdom in 2013. Our shadow group, ably chaired by Stu at Winstonsdad’s blog, consists of a group of six bloggers and readers from around the world. Over the past couple of months, we’ve all been reading, reviewing and rating the longlisted books. My fellow shadow-group members (Bellezza, David, Stu, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger), along with Naomi at The Writes of Women, have been hosting my IFFP reviews as guest posts and I’ll be publishing my reviews here over the next two weeks. In order to get started, I’ve already posted my reviews for the following four books:

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon (translated from the Arabic by the author)

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright)

Ten by Andrej Longo (translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis)

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (translated from the French by Sam Taylor)

I’m planning to publish reviews for the other IFFP-longlisted books over the forthcoming weeks with a new post every 2 or 3 days or so. I’ve yet to post reviews here for many of my favourites from this year’s IFFP, so do keep an eye out for future raves!

I’m also planning a couple of posts on Elena Ferrante including reviews of the first two books in her Neapolitan Novels series — My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Nameboth of which come with a very high recommendation from me. These reviews will probably be up in a couple of weeks from now.

While the focus for the IFFP is fiction in translation, I read a range of literary fiction, both contemporary and older works – novels, novellas and short story collections. I also enjoy the occasional non-fiction book, too. Alongside translations, I’m particularly interested in anything noirish/hardboiled, relatively modern classics and the best in contemporary fiction, so I plan to cover a variety of books (not solely translations).

As you may have gathered from my name, I’m a lover of wine, so I’m sure I’ll be posting some thoughts on favourite wines (just as a way of documenting my own wine notes).

Well, that’s about it for now. Thanks for dropping by and reading. If you have any comments or thoughts on the blog, I’d love to hear from you. And thanks for all the very kind support, RTs, messages and favourites on twitter – it means a lot.

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli, tr. by Sam Taylor

A Meal in Winter is a slim novella, yet it punches well above its weight. The setting is the heart of the Polish countryside at the time of the Second World War. The novella opens in a military camp as three German soldiers — Bauer, Emmerich and the unnamed narrator of the narrative — appeal to their camp commander by volunteering to look for any Jews who might be hiding in the surrounding area. By so doing, the soldiers hope to avoid the more harrowing task of executing captives, as they would ‘rather do the huntings than the shootings’. The commander grants the soldiers’ request and they leave at the crack of dawn the following morning before the first shootings begin. This means missing breakfast, too, but it’s a price they’re willing to pay to avoid their immediate supervisor, the heartless Lieutenant Graaf.

A MEal in Winter

As the soldiers spend a gruelling day combing the countryside in search of a Jew (‘one of them’), the bitter chill of winter and lack of nourishment begin to take their toll:

We came down from the hill where we had smoked. Bauer whined like a dog that he should never have sat down in the snow, that he felt cold all over now. Emmerich told him to stop, though he said it lightly, not really meaning it. Bauer yelled at us that he’d decided to whine until dark. We found another road and stayed on it for a while. It was a relief not to sink into snow at every step. On the whole, we preferred the frozen potholes, even if they were dangerous. (p. 32)

I was beginning to feel hungry, but I didn’t dare bring the subject up yet. None of us had dared mention it since we left that morning. My stomach ached. Sometimes, when I turned my head too quickly, I felt dizzy. It must have been the same for Emmerich and Bauer. (p 32-33)

They find a young Jewish boy cleverly concealed in a hole in the forest, only given away by the heat and snow-melt surrounding the ground-level chimney of his dug-out. Relieved at having captured a prisoner, the soldiers head back to camp. Chilled to the bone, tired and ravenous, they chance upon a deserted hovel and decide to shelter awhile. In desperate need of warmth, the soldiers build a fire and begin to prepare a simple soup from a few meagre ingredients; meanwhile their captive sits quietly in the storeroom.

A Polish man arrives at the hovel; at first his intentions are unclear but his actions soon show his vehemently anti-Semitic nature.

The pole took a step forward, almost touching us, then looked inside the storeroom, through the half-opened doorway. Because, up to this point, the Jew, though very close, had been invisible to him. The Pole stayed there now, motionless in front of us, staring with his black eyes at the squatting Jew, who stared sadly back. After a moment, the Pole turned his gaze on us, and the distinguished handsomeness of his face vanished. He opened his mouth and bared his gums in a kind of monstrous smile, like a dead fish without teeth. (p. 94)

As preparations for the meal unfold, questions arise: should the soldiers share their meal with the Pole in return for a slug of his potato alcohol? Can he be trusted? Will tensions flare and erupt? The mood oscillates and small shifts in the dynamics unfold across the group as each soldier starts to question his choices and the moral implications of his mission…and shadows cast by earlier events are ever-present.

This is a stealthily gripping novella with a real sense of foreboding. The small cast of five key characters coupled with the confined setting of the hovel give the drama a theatrical feel and I could almost see it working as a play. I love the way it quickly whips up an atmosphere and tangible sense of place from the first page. The prose style is fairly spare and to the point (and hats off to Sam Taylor for some sterling work on the translation). There’s not a spare word on the page, and yet it manages to pack a great deal into 135 pages.

I read this novel on a relatively mild spring evening, yet Mingarelli’s vivid depiction of the frozen landscape and biting conditions left me craving the warmth of a bowl of Ribollita, my favourite soup.  And this feeling was only heightened by the soldiers’ anticipation of their meal:

The soup looked good and smelled good. The slices of salami floated on the surface, carried there by the cornmeal, now cooked. The melted lard was still boiling.

We turned away from the stove, and the heat caressed our backs. We watched steam rise from the soup. My head was spinning. We looked at the slices of bread. The soup was continuing to simmer. The edges of the bread were toasted, reminding us of things past. (p.115)

Dare I say this is another book I’d love to see on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) shortlist? While Mingarelli has written many novels and short stories, this is his first to appear in English; I sincerely hope we’ll be able to read more of his novels and short stories in years to come.

I read this book as part of an IFFP-shadowing project led by Stu. Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed A Meal in WinterStuTony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was originally published as a guest post on Tony Malone’s blog (25th March 2014) and Tony has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

A Meal in Winter is published in the UK by Portobello Books.

Source: library copy.

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

I’m back with my thoughts on another of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist (which I’ve been reading along with a group of book bloggers chaired by Stu).

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The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, is published in the UK by Comma Press. This collection of fourteen short stories gives us a striking insight into the traumas and turmoil that penetrate the lives of Iraqis. Instances of violence, slaughter and torture are commonplace and these stories are peppered with searing images:

I heard what you wrote yesterday. How the first explosion shredded Marwan’s face. The windows shattered and the cupboards fell on top of him. His mouth filled with blood. (pg. 57)

Characters are often trying to erase or contend with painful memories of past events. Blasim draws on fables, dreams and metaphors to great effect here, mixing the surreal with the tangible to illustrate the nightmares that haunt these people as they go about their lives:

The trees sprouted out of the ground, then spread and grew within minutes to a height of more than a hundred feet. They were born dead, without leaves, and their thin branches were entangled like broken cobwebs. Every tree killed the ground for half a mile around it in a circle. The soil turned to rock and no form of life survived. It was a disaster. (pg. 105)

The Iraqi Christ is a powerful and vivid set of stories. I particularly liked the mix of abstract and realist elements, especially in ‘The Hole’ and ‘A Wolf’ (two of the strongest stories in this book). In ‘The Hole’, we meet a man on the run from two gunmen. Our man drops into a hole in which he finds a djinni and the body of Russian soldier from another war. The story has a hallucinatory quality to it, as does ‘A Wolf’ in which the lines between reality and imaginary horrors start to blur:

I was on my way to the bathroom when I saw the thing running towards me from the sitting room. I jumped into the bathroom and slammed the door behind me. I was like someone who’d seen the Angel of Death. It was a wolf. A wolf, I swear. (pg. 46)

Blasim’s collection of stories certainly deserves its place in the IFFP longlist, but I don’t think it’s quite up there with some of the other contenders for this year’s prize (and it’s a strong field this time). The stories vary in their approach and tone; some of the tighter, more focused narratives worked particularly well for me, while others I found a little meandering at times. At one point, a character says:

But we’ve strayed from the subject. Is my chatter making you dizzy? (pg. 50)

Yes, perhaps just a little. And yet, like many of the books I’ve read from the IFFP longlist, this one took me to a different place, another world.

Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed this collection: StuTony Malone and Tony Messenger – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was originally published as a guest post on Bellezza’s blog (2nd April 2014) and she has kindly granted her permission for me to republish it here.

The Iraqi Christ is published in the UK by Comma Press. Source: library copy

Ten by Andrej Longo, tr. by Howard Curtis

I’ve been reading this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist (along with a group of book bloggers chaired by Stu) and this post covers my thoughts on another of the longlisted titles.

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Andrej Longo’s Ten consists of a series of hard-hitting short stories set in Naples. Each story takes one of the Ten Commandments as its theme and we see regular working-class people struggling to get by in the face of temptations and challenges that come their way.

In the first story we meet a teenage boy who wants to keep his head down and stay on the right side of the tracks. But he gets caught up in trouble during a night out with his girlfriend, the consequences of which will set his life on a different trajectory. Another story centres on a talented singer who becomes too ambitious and greedy. We follow his rise and fall into a life of drugs and debt – in the end his only way out is to become a guinea pig, thereby enabling his dealer to test the safety of each batch of coke:

I get off at the terminal. I lean on the wall to stop myself from falling and drag myself to where there’s an open space. I sit down in the sun or the rain, it’s all the same to me, and I wait, leaning against a pillar, like the others. I wait for them to bring the syringe, already filled, look for a vein that still has room, and put the needle in. And they wait to see the effect it has, and whether you live or die. (p. 34-35)

The mafia are never very far away — to the fore in some stories, in the background in others — and we see how people have grown accustomed to living their lives under this shadow:

Maybe Ricardo was right. Maybe like he said, to avoid asking myself too many questions, I’d stopped taking any notice of what was happening around me, the mountains of rubbish in the street, the murders, the bag snatching, the parking attendant who asks for money even when there’s a meter. I’d got used to keeping my eyes down to avoid trouble, paying so that I could drive my lorry in peace, without them slashing the tyres or breaking the windows. Maybe it was it was like he said but I didn’t want to admit it. (p. 113)

All this might sound rather grim, but some of these stories capture moments of love and longing. In one of my favourite stories from the collection, ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’, a woman longs to spend a Sunday with her husband but is unable to because her man can only find work in Rome. He returns on a weekly basis, but always Tuesdays, never at the weekend:

We’d been living like this for thirteen years. Seeing each other only on Tuesdays. Just so we could pay the mortgage and provide for the kids as they grew. But now the mortgage was almost entirely paid off. And the kids were grown. They were working now, making a living for themselves. I know there’s never enough money. But I could look for a job. Anything. Just as long as he came home in the evening and slept in our bed. Just as long as we could spend one Sunday together every now and again. Go for a stroll somewhere, without counting the hours, without feeling that time was slipping through our fingers. A Sunday together like everybody else. (p. 50)

Longo is a critically-acclaimed writer of short stories as well as pieces for the theatre, radio and cinema. When he isn’t writing, Longo works as a pizza-maker in the city of Naples and he draws on his understanding of the city to great effect in this collection. He takes us through the backstreets and clubs of the city, into the homes of its inhabitants and in doing so gives us a real sense of the place, its culture and social landscape. Knives and guns seem common place here and it’s an environment where kids and teenagers often have to grow up ahead of their time to survive.

Stu has already talked about how this collection illustrates what great short stories can do; they give us a slice of the world as we glimpse people for the briefest of moments. One of the things I liked about these stories was their directness and raw honesty. Longo’s prose is quite stripped back but he quickly creates a sense of tension and atmosphere as he pulls us into these individuals’ lives.

I also liked the shifts in tone, mood and pace across the stories. We experience flashes of violence, situations with a pulsating sense of urgency, but there are times when the pace shifts down a gear as characters reflect on their regrets, their hopes and fears.

One of the reasons I wanted to get involved in shadowing the IFFP was to discover exciting examples of world-lit with a real sense of place, fiction that vividly captures the voice and the essence of a specific location and/or culture. And that exactly what Ten delivers.

Ten is one of three collections of short stories longlisted for this year’s IFFP. The other collections are Revenge by Yoko Ogawa and The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (and one could also argue that Andrei Makine’s Brief Loves That Live Forever reads as a series of interlinked stories). As for Ten’s chances in the IFFP, I’m at the halfway point in reading the longlist so it’s a little difficult to tell at this stage…but it’s an excellent collection of stories and one which I’m very glad to have discovered.

Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed this collection: Stu, Bellezza, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was originally published as a guest post on Stu’s blog (20th March 2014) and Stu has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Ten is published in the UK by Harvill Secker.

Source: personal copy.

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon, translated from the Arabic by the author

I’ve been reading this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist (along with a group of book bloggers chaired by Stu) and this post covers my thoughts on one of the longlisted titles.

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The Corpse Washer is narrated by Jawad, the youngest son from a Shi’ite family living in Baghdad. Jawad’s father (like his father before him) washes and shrouds corpses prior to burial and he expects his youngest son to learn this time-honoured ritual in order to continue the family’s calling. At an early stage in the novel, we follow the young Jawad as his father takes him to the mghaysil (washhouse) for the first time to learn the basics of the trade. Jawad’s first task is to observe his father and Hammoudy (his father’s assistant) as they attend to the ritual of cleansing and shrouding bodies. In an extended section covering several pages, Antoon describes Jawad’s introduction to the mghaysil with grace and humanity:

It was a bit smaller than I had imagined it. The scents of lotus and camphor wafted through the air, and I felt the humidity seeping into my skin. He closed the door behind us and went inside ahead of me. The first object that struck my eyes after we crossed the hallway and entered the main room was the marble bench on which the dead were washed. Its northern part, where their heads would rest, was slightly elevated so that the water could flow down. The mghaysil was more than six decades old, and many generations of our family had worked in it, including my grandfather, who had died before I was born. (pgs. 14-15)

As the young Jawad grows up, he becomes reluctant to continue the family’s vocation. He has a talent for art, aspires to be an artist and chooses instead to study at Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts. But events in Baghdad intervene and impinge on his dreams; years of economic sanctions under Saddam Hussein’s regime, followed by the American invasion and occupation of Iraq take their toll:

After weeks of bombing we woke up one morning to find the sky pitch black. The smoke from the torched oil wells in Kuwait had obliterated the sky. Black rain fell afterward, colouring everything with soot as if forecasting what would befall us later. (pg. 61)

Jawad feels trapped in a place where ‘even the statues are too terrified to sleep at night lest they wake up as ruins’. His father dies (along with his brother who is killed in the Iran-Iraq war) and it becomes virtually impossible for him to find alternative work, or to leave Iraq for the matter. As the casualties of the Iraq War continue to mount, Jawad returns to the mghaysil to maintain the ritual of washing and shrouding. Death is a dominant presence in the narrative, and our protagonist seems unable to escape its shadow:

Death is not content with what it takes from me in my waking hours, it insists on haunting me even in my sleep. Isn’t it enough that I toil all day tending to its eternal guests, preparing them to sleep in its lap? Is death punishing me because I thought I could escape its clutches? If my father were still alive he would mock my silly thoughts. He would dismiss all this as infantile, unbecoming to a man. Didn’t he spend a lifetime doing his job day after day, never once complaining of death? But death back then was timid and more measured than today. (pg. 3)

Antoon augments this effect by showing us how a combination of mind-numbing insomnia and horrific nightmares haunt Jawad by night. These distressing dreams punctuate the narrative, and in this example he’s visited by and old man with long white hair and a long white beard – once again, death is a recurring theme: 

Wake up, Jawad, and write down all the names! I think it very odd that he knows my name. I look at his eyes. They are a strange sky-blue colour, set deep into his eye sockets. His face is laced with wrinkles as if he were hundreds of years old. I ask him flatly: Who are you? What names? He smiles: You don’t recognise me? Get a pen and paper and write down all the names. Don’t forget a single name. They are the names of those whose souls I will pluck tomorrow and whose bodies I will leave for you to purify. (pg. 26)

The Corpse Washer is a powerful and very moving book. The narrative’s timeline moves backwards and forwards as Antoon shows us snapshots of key moments in Jawad’s life, almost like a series of vignettes. It’s a story of a young man’s choices in life, his dreams and ambitions and his family’s expectations. And it gives us an insight into the pain and sorrow of living with the inevitable death and destruction that come with war.

The Corpse Washer certainly deserves its place in the IFFP longlist; I particularly liked Antoon’s portrayal of Jawad’s relationship with his father and the scenes set in the mghaysil (which has the calm atmosphere of a haven within the tumultuous city). As with many of the books I’ve read this year, it took me to a different place, another world.

Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed this book: Stu, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This post was originally published as a guest post on Tony Messenger’s blog (20th April 2014) and Tony has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

The Corpse Washer is published in the UK by Yale University Press.

Source: library copy.