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August is #WITMonth – some recommendations of books by women in translation

As you may well know, August is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. It’s a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the past few years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here are a few of my recent favourites.

The Island by Ana Maria Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

The loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature. It’s a thread that runs through many coming-of-age novels, this one included. Matute’s story is set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, fourteen-year-old Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother, Aunt Emilia and duplicitous cousin, Borja – not a situation she relishes. This dark, visceral novel charts Matia’s awakening to the adult world, beautifully executed in the author’s lucid prose. Matute excels at heightening the sense of danger on the island through her vivid descriptions of the elements, e.g., the intense heat of the sun and the turbulent depths of the sea.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr Antonia Lloyd Jones)

This 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I loved it.

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Avril Bardoni)

There has been something of a revival of interest in the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg in recent years, driven by reissues of some of her novels and essays by Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Valentino and Sagittarius are two separate yet related novellas from the 1950s, reissued together in one stylish edition from NYRB. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships, the tensions that arise when one person behaves selfishly at the expense of those around them. Resentment, delusion, evasion, pride, loyalty and compassion all come together to form these perceptive, richly textured narratives. When viewed together, they highlight how foolhardy we can be, especially when investing all our hopes in a particular individual or venture – the fallout for the surrounding family members is often painful in the extreme.

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

First published in 1946, Three Summers is something of a classic of Greek literature, a languid coming-of-age novel featuring three sisters, set over three consecutive summer seasons. At first sight, it might appear as though the book is presenting a simple story, one of three very different young women growing up in the idyllic Greek countryside. However, there are darker, more complex issues bubbling away under the surface as the sisters must learn to navigate the choices that will shape the future directions of their lives. Sexual awakening is a major theme, with the novel’s lush and sensual tone echoing the rhythms of the natural world. Ultimately though it is the portrait of the three sisters that really shines through – the opportunities open to them and the limitations society may wish to dictate. This a novel about working out who you are as a person and finding your place in the world; of being aware of the consequences of certain life choices and everything these decisions entails. (I read this book in the NYRB Classics livery, but Penguin have recently published a beautiful new edition as part of their European Writers series.)

Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese (tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee)

First published in Italian in 1953, this is a brilliant collection of short stories and reportage by the critically acclaimed writer Anna Maria Ortese. As a whole, the book conveys a vivid portrait of post-war Naples in all its vitality, devastation and squalor – a place that remains resilient despite being torn apart by war. Sharp contrasts are everywhere Ortese’s writing, juxtaposing the city’s ugliness with its beauty, the desperation of extreme poverty with the indifference of the bourgeoisie, the reality of the situation with the subjectivity of our imagination. The attention to detail is meticulous – as is the level of emotional insight, particularly about women’s lives and family dynamics.

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

This novella, which revolves around Kōko, a thirty-six-year-old divorced woman, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako, shares many similarities with Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a book I really adored. Like Territory, Child of Fortune explores themes of marginalisation, motherhood and the pressure to conform to conventional societal expectations – the setting of 1970s Japan is highly significant here. This is a haunting, beautifully written book – by turns subtle, reflective and deeply melancholic. And yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end, a sense of Kōko finally seizing control, once again ready to forge her own path in life.

(You can find some of my other faves in last year’s WIT Month recommendations post from July 2020, including books by Françoise Sagan, Irmgard Keun, Yuko Tsushima and Tove Ditlevsen. There’s also my list of recommendations for foreign language films directed by women – a Twitter thread I may well repeat next month, with new suggestions of movies to seek out.)

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading one or two of them next month. Perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it below.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

The loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature. It’s a thread that runs through many coming-of-age novels, including Agostino by Alberto Moravia, Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley. Ana María Matute’s 1959 novella The Island – recently translated by Laura Lonsdale – is an excellent addition to the list, a darkly evocative narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. I loved it.

The story is set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Also living in the house are the family’s housekeeper, Antonia, and her son, Lauro, who acts as the children’s teacher and companion. At fifteen, Borja is a duplicitous boy, smart enough to behave sweetly in the company of his grandmother but sufficiently malevolent to show his true colours when her back is turned.

He affected innocence and purity, gallantry and poise in the presence of our grandmother, when in reality […] he was weak, cruel and proud, just a good-for-nothing boy on the way to being a man. (p.5)

Borja is particularly cruel to Lauro, whom he calls ‘Chinky’, confident in the belief that he can leverage a shameful secret the tutor is harbouring. Matia, on the other hand, has been expelled from her former convent school for kicking the Prioress. Consequently, the children’s grandmother – a tyrannical old crone who keeps watch over the neighbouring tenants through her opera glasses – considers Matia to be disobedient and in need of taming. In truth, however, Matia is simply confused and lonely, the product of a disruptive childhood short on parental love and affection – now firmly in adolescence, a time of turbulent emotions for any young girl.

One of the things Matute excels at in this novel is her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting. While we might consider the Mediterranean islands to be idyllic, Matute’s Mallorca has a radically different atmosphere. In reality, it is a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions.

Throughout the novella, the author makes excellent use of the natural world to reinforce this impression of danger. For example, the sun is frequently portrayed as intense, blistering and ferocious, mirroring the island’s capacity to breed violence and inflict damage on its inhabitants.

A cruel sense of violence, an irritated fire burned above, and everything was filled, saturated, with its black light. (p. 53)

The sea, too, can seem threatening, a volatile force with the potential to unnerve.

From high up in the square, where the Jews had been burned alive, the sea was like a deep, blue threat, terrifying and unsteady, mixing with the wind and sky. And it seemed that shining worlds could disappear there, and rootless echoes wander and be lost. Looking down, it seemed that everything must roll down to meet it. And life seemed both terrible and remote. (p. 80)

Menacing associations are everywhere on this island from the damaged agaves, their ‘edges withering like scar tissue’ to the stony soil, ‘an accretion of the dead upon the dead’. The torrid atmosphere is further augmented by the sickly aromas in the abuela’s house, a heady blend of jasmine, leather and cedar, plus the smoke from Aunt Emilia’s Turkish cigarettes.

Matute is particularly adept at setting her narrator’s internal anxieties against the island’s broader political and racial conflicts. Consequently, as the novella unfolds, Matia becomes increasingly aware of the violence and injustice that surround her. At first, Matia falls in line with Borja, the two children playing chess with one another by day and holding whispered conversations together at night. Nevertheless, there are certain developments that Matia doesn’t fully understand, things that she hears or observes that seem confusing, particularly when taken at face value. Unsurprisingly, this strengthens her impressions of the adult world as a mysterious, potentially dangerous place.

But there was something about life, it seemed to me, that was all too real. I knew, because they never stopped reminding me, that the world was wicked and wide. And it frightened me to think it could be even more terrifying than I imagined. I looked at the earth, and I remembered that we lived upon the dead. (p. 76)

In her desire for a bit of warmth and friendship, Matia begins to gravitate towards Manuel Taronji, the son of a neighbouring family persecuted by the locals for their political allegiances and Jewish heritage. In effect, Matia sees Manuel as a kindred spirit, someone she can talk to openly despite his outsider status as a ‘Chueta’. Borja, however, takes a vehement dislike to Manuel, particularly when it emerges that he might be the illegitimate son of Jorge, the powerful islander whom Borja clearly worships.

During the novella, we learn that Manuel’s stepfather, José, was murdered by the local fascists – the jack-booted Taronji brothers – for his Republican leanings. The fact that José was killed by members of his own extended family illustrates the strength of feeling surrounding the Nationalist movement, with supporters being prepared to kill their own flesh and blood to further the cause. Moreover, it gives a sense of the complex network of connections between the island’s inhabitants, encompassing familial, racial and political dimensions.

While Borja and his teenage contemporaries fight one another with butcher’s hooks, these various episodes of violence are punctuated by reports of the broader conflict in mainland Spain, typically relayed through hearsay and secondhand information.

(‘They say they’re killing whole families over there, shooting priests and putting out their eyes…throwing people into vats of boiling oil…May God have mercy on their souls!’) My grandmother would look shocked, but her eyes would shift a little closer together, like siblings whispering dark secrets to one another, as she listened to these morbid tales. (p. 3)

Alongside these depictions of brutality at the time of the Civil War, Matute remains alert to the atrocities of the past, reminding us that the island has long harboured prejudices against the Jewish community. For example, there are mentions of ‘the square, where the Jews had been burned alive’ – a direct reference to a case in which three Jews – including one named Taronji – were burned alive for refusing to denounce their faith. These echoes between past and present acts of barbarism add another dimension to the narrative, reminding us that prejudices can run deep if they remain unchecked.  

As the novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her.

In summary, then, The Island, is a dark and visceral novella, beautifully executed through Matute’s lucid prose. This combination of a highly evocative first-person narrative and the oppressive atmosphere is somewhat reminiscent of Carmen Laforet’s Nada, another excellent Spanish novel set around the time of the Civil War.  

The Island is published by Penguin; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. I read this book for Stu’s Spanish Lit Month – more details here.