Tag Archives: #WomeninTranslation

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

I’ve been meaning to try more of Annie Ernaux’s work for the past six months, ever since I read her hugely impressive memoir, The Years, published in France in 2008. It’s a fascinating, distinctive book, a kind of collective biography in which the cultural and social history of a generation – Ernaux’s generation – is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. So, with the imminent release of Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of Ernaux’s Happening (another memoir), I was galvanised into action. (The film picked up the prestigious Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and I’m very eager to see it.)

First published in French in 2000, and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was twenty-three, studying literature at Rouen University and living in the college halls of residence. Like most young women of her day, Ernaux uses the Ogino (or ‘rhythm’) method of birth control to minimise the chances of conceiving. (Other, more reliable forms of contraception were not legally sanctioned in France until 1967, four years down the line.)

Unfortunately for Ernaux, she falls pregnant, something she resists naming explicitly as this would feel like a validation of her status – for example, why use the word ‘expecting’ when she has no intention of giving birth? It’s a pregnancy that Ernaux is determined to terminate, partly due to the restrictions it would impose on her day-to-day life and partly for the associated stigma and sense of shame. (Ernaux’s desire to distance herself from her working-class background – her parents run a grocer’s shop – remains an important theme in her work.)

Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalaureate nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure. (p. 23)

Abortion was illegal in France in the early ‘60s, and the penalties for any involvement in such a practice were widely known to be severe. Consequently, Ernaux must find someone who is willing to perform a backstreet termination – something she manages to do through a contact of a friend. The abortionist is a nurse, a plain-speaking woman in her sixties who will conduct the procedure at her home in Paris, a small flat in the 17th arrondissement. Interestingly, there is a quiet determination about this woman who simply focuses on the essentials at hand. She makes no judgments about Annie’s decision to abort; there are no awkward questions or feelings to be explored, just the practical details of what needs to happen and when.

In essence, Happening is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of the abortion – her quest to secure it, what takes place during the procedure and the days that follow, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. While Ernaux wishes to convey a steady flow of unhappiness during this time in her life, she remains mindful of not clouding her experiences with any emotional outbursts – outpourings that would signal either anger or emotional pain.

What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. Ernaux spares us nothing about the messy details of the procedure itself and what happens in the aftermath. As such, readers need to be aware of the potentially triggering nature of some of the content in this book. Happening is a searingly honest account of a taboo subject, but it may cut too close to the bone for some readers depending on their own views and experiences.

Interspersed throughout the text are some of Ernaux’s reflections about writing the book, ruminations on what she is trying to achieve by exploring these events. There is a sense of her trying to immerse herself in a particular section of her life to learn what can be found there. It’s an experience that comes with its own challenges, forty years on. For instance, she talks about the process of accessing various memories, how certain objects such as a basin of water in the woman’s apartment remain vivid in her mind while specific emotions are much harder to recapture. Nevertheless, some general feelings remain accessible even if the finer details do not.

(To experience anew the emotions I felt back then is quite impossible. The closest I can get to the state of terror thrust upon me that week is to pick out any hostile, harsh-looking woman in her sixties waiting in line at the supermarket or the post office and to imagine that she is going to rummage around in my loins with some foreign object.) (p. 51)

By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. Towards the end of Happening, she wonders whether the true purpose of her life is to channel various experiences – both physical and emotional – into her writing. There is a desire to create ‘something intelligent and universal’ from her existence, reflections that may prove useful to others – an aim I think she has achieved with this powerful, uncompromising book.

Happening is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks for the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Described by Lahiri as a kind of linguistic memoir, In Other Words is a beautiful, meditative series of reflections on the author’s quest to immerse herself in the Italian language – a passion she has nurtured since her days as a college student. It’s a fascinating volume, presented in a dual-language format showing Lahiri’s original Italian text on the left-handed pages with Ann Goldstein’s English translation on the right. Thematically, the book has much in common with Lahiri’s fiction, tapping into subjects such as identity, alienation, belonging – and, perhaps most importantly, how it feels to be in exile, an outsider as such.

This love affair begins in December 1994 when Lahiri takes a short trip to Florence in the company of her sister. While there, she feels an immediate connection with the Italian language, which seems foreign yet also strangely familiar – a paradox of sorts, a simultaneous closeness and remoteness.

I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment, a closeness and at the same time a distance. What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight. (p. 15)

Following her return to America, Lahiri begins to study Italian – partly for her doctoral thesis about the influence of Italian architecture on English playwrights and partly to feed a personal passion for the language, a desire ignited by the trip.

In time – and as her writing career takes off – Lahiri continues her relationship with Italian, working her way through a series of private tutors, learning enough to converse, albeit somewhat hesitantly. Nevertheless, she feels limited by her lack of knowledge and familiarity with the language – a feeling that prompts a move to Rome on a semi-permanent basis, uprooting the family to accompany her in this quest. Only by living in Italy and continually conversing in Italian can Lahiri fully immerse herself in the language – and hopefully fulfil her aims.

Naturally, there are practical obstacles to be overcome when the family arrive in Rome, especially given their lack of friends or acquaintances in the city. But this is not Lahiri’s main focus here; instead, the book is an intimate series of reflections on Lahiri’s relationship with a new language – the painstaking process of learning and immersion, with all the attendant emotions this transformation involves.

In the six months leading up to the move to Italy, Lahiri reads solely in Italian, mainly as a way of preparing herself for this new world. Then, on her arrival in the city, she begins a new diary in Italian – a spontaneous impulse, despite her uncertainties with the language and a tendency to make mistakes.

In Rome, however, writing in Italian is the only way to feel myself present here—maybe to have a connection, especially as a writer, with Italy. The new diary, although imperfect, although riddled with mistakes, mirrors my disorientation clearly. It reflects a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment (p. 57)

In effect, this whole expedience prompts a kind of renewal for Lahiri as she rediscovers her reasons for writing – more specifically, what drives her interest in language and how she uses it to understand the world.

Despite the limitations imposed by a reduced vocabulary and her concerns about grammar, Lahiri finds the process of writing in Italian very liberating. There is a sense of freedom about it, a kind of permission to be forgiving and accepting of imperfections. It’s a tension that underpins many of Lahiri’s meditations in this book, a paradoxical link between liberation and restriction (or, in other instances, between closeness and remoteness).

How is it possible that when I write in Italian I feel both freer and confined, constricted? Maybe because in Italian I have the freedom to be imperfect. (p. 83)

Identity and belonging are prominent themes here too, mirroring the preoccupations of much of Lahiri’s fiction. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, Lahiri was born in London and raised in America, following the family’s move to the US when Jhumpa was aged three. Consequently, English is her second language, the one she learned in school and by reading voraciously as a child. At home, however, the family spoke only Bengali – Lahiri’s first language and her only way of communicating until nursery school at the age of four. In some respects, Lahiri has always felt a sense of divided identity. As a girl growing up in America, she wanted to assimilate and be considered American, a citizen of her adopted country, while also wishing to please her parents by speaking perfect Bengali at home. Perhaps because of this duality, she strongly identifies with life on the margins – individuals who find themselves on the edges of countries and their cultures.

I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures. A peripheral zone where it’s impossible for me to feel rooted, but where I’m comfortable. The only zone where I think that, in some way, I belong. (p. 93)

The sense of affinity Lahiri experiences with the Italian language prompts her to question the nature of her identity, stirring feelings of dislocation and a degree of estrangement. The more she immerses herself in the Italian language, the less comfortable she feels about returning to English, prompting her to write professionally in the former. (Her latest novella, Whereabouts – which I loved – was also written in Italian and subsequently translated into English, in this instance by the author herself.)

Why don’t I feel more at home in English? How is it that the language I learned to read and write in doesn’t comfort me? What happened, and what does it mean? The estrangement, the disenchantment confuses, disturbs me. I feel more than ever that I am a writer without a definitive language, without origin, without definition. (pp. 129-131)

In Other Words is a very intimate and personal book – a meditation on finding a sense of freedom through the creative process, however uncomfortable that might feel. Lahiri writes openly about the experiences of learning a new language, complete with all the challenges and frustrations this creates. Nevertheless, these difficulties are balanced by the author’s passion and determination; the liberation she experiences is beautifully conveyed. One gets the sense that writing in Italian has given Lahiri a new sense of direction with her work, prompting a creative rejuvenation that is fascinating to observe.

Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone interested in writing, translating and learning a new language – or Lahiri’s fiction, particularly given the resonances with the book’s themes.  

In Other Words is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy. 

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in 1966, this remarkable novella by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Judite de Carvalho was recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa. It’s a work of great precision and compression – a quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see.

The story centres on Dora Rosário – a widow who we see over the course of ten years from the age of twenty-five through to thirty-six. For ten years, Dora mourns her husband Duarte’s death, making a career out of grief and widowhood, effectively building a shrine to him through the memories in her mind. Duarte – a lazy, unambitious man – left Dora virtually penniless, forcing her to embark on a humiliating round of visits, searching for handouts from family and friends. These are ‘the others’, separated from Dora and her daughter, Lisa, by the nature of their circumstances.

Many of Duarte’s friends and acquaintances distance themselves from Dora, fearing she will ask for help or financial support. Even Duarte’s mother – the forthright, morally powerful Ana – is reluctant to provide any money, despite her conspicuous wealth. While Ana is happy to look after Lisa, caring for her while Dora looks for a job, she draws the line at anything else.

…all this happened under the simultaneously suspicious and reticent eye of her mother-in-law, the eye of someone who “in her place” would have done things differently. However, this suddenly easy life didn’t smooth any corners or heal any riffs. She and her daughter continued to be on one side and the others on the other side. (p. 15)

Carvalho quickly conveys a striking portrait of Dora, a woman suppressed by the hand that life has dealt her, an inward-looking individual who seems old before her time.

She never said more than was strictly necessary—the bare indispensable minimum—or else she would begin to say only what was necessary, then quickly grow tired, or stop mid-stream, as though she suddenly realized that it wasn’t worth going on and was a waste of effort. She would sit quite still then, her face a blank, like someone poised on the edge of an ellipsis or standing hesitantly at the sea’s edge in winter, and at such moments, all the light would go out of her eyes as if absorbed by a piece of blotting paper; (p. 5)

Luckily for Dora, a friend finds her a suitable job, managing an antique shop while the owner is abroad. ‘The Museum’, as her daughter Lisa calls it, seems a fitting environment for Dora, with its collection of vintage tables, desks and chairs, ‘gathered together like decaying aristocrats in a home for superior elderly folk’.  

Despite Duarte’s fecklessness and impractical principles, Dora still worships her deceased husband, whom she reflects on during the evenings after work. Her life is small and uneventful, except for the Museum and her visits to Ana and Aunt Júlia’s house for supper on Sunday evenings. Júlia too has been permanently damaged by men, haunted by the shame of her illegitimate son, who died young from Scarlet Fever. Now she is plagued by severe fits – possibly signs of madness – babbling uncontrollably in imaginary conversations with her former lover.

For Ana – who is desperate to hold off any signs of ageing – the future lies in her granddaughter, Lisa, a bright, inquisitive young teenager whose whole life is ahead of her. At seventeen, Lisa wants to travel the world, viewing a career as an air stewardess as her ticket to exotic locations. She sees her mother as hopeless and antiquated – a somewhat dowdy but polite woman who is wedded to the past.

One night, while Júlia is recovering from one of her episodes, Ana reveals something to Dora – a secret relating to Duarte which shatters Dora’s world.

[Dora:] “…At the moment, I don’t know where I am or who I am. I must be crumbling into pieces, there must be bits of me all over the place.”

[Ana:] “Sweep them up when you’re feeling brave enough and put them together again.”

“Yes, that’s what I have to do, isn’t it?” Dora said, not even thinking about what she was saying. And then immediately afterward, her voice rose dangerously in volume: When would she, too, fall and shatter? It was as if she had lost control of herself and of her voice. Or perhaps it was as if she were screaming for help from inside a coffin that had just that minute been nailed shut: (pp. 63–64)

Consequently, Dora sets about reinventing herself while simultaneously erasing Duarte from her memory, catalysing a series of events that ends in devastation.

Carvalho’s novella is narrated not by Dora herself but by a friend, Manuela, who also finds herself drawn into the turmoil generated by Ana’s revelations. Manuela has man troubles of her own; effectively isolated, she is stuck in a stagnating relationship with Ernesto, a vain, self-centred man in his early forties. In her failure to provide Ernesto with a child, Manuela realises that she is no longer her partner’s lover or companion. Instead, Ernesto sees her as ‘the landscape to which he had grown accustomed’ – a convenient audience or backdrop to reflect back his greatness.

He [Ernesto] would arrive home, give me a peck on the cheek, drink his usual glass of whiskey, then tell me all about his day in great detail, and so I thought he really loved and needed me. In fact, I was merely a convenient body beside him, and ever-attentive audience always ready to express unconditional admiration when he told me of yet another professional triumph. (p. 158)

I don’t want to say how this story plays out, other than to confirm it’s devastating to observe. Carvalho explores these women in depth, showing us how they have been failed by the men who supposedly love them. Betrayal, duplicity, selfishness and abdication of responsibility all play their parts in marginalising these women, confining them to the roles deemed acceptable by Portuguese society – a patriarchal doctrine, heavily influenced by Catholicism and Salazar’s authoritarian regime.

Furthermore, the relationships between these women are also far from ideal. Following Duarte’s death, Dora receives little support from her few remaining female friends or family members. Ana makes no secret of the fact that she partially blames Dora for Duarte’s lack of ambition – he didn’t amount to anything when alive because Dora had never pushed him. In light of this perception, Ana’s actions towards Dora – especially the bombshell revelation – seem unnecessary and cruel.

This brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. A timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them. All credit to Two Lines Press for publishing this English translation – and Gary Michael Perry, whose recommendation brought it to my attention. As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, fans of Anita Brookner, Natalia Ginzburg (and possibly Penelope Mortimer) would likely enjoy this rediscovered gem.

The Years by Annie Ernaux (tr. Alison L. Strayer)

Broad in scope, evocative in detail, The Years is the French writer Annie Ernaux’s dazzling collective autobiography, in which the cultural and social history of a generation is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. It is a hugely impressive work, drawing on photographs, personal memories, cultural references, political history and social trends, threading together the perspectives of an individual (Ernaux), a generation (those who grew up in the aftermath of WW2) and a nation (France).

The underlying narrative running through the text is based on the trajectory of Ernaux’s life, from 1940, her birth year, to the mid-2000s, not long before the book was first published in French. Interestingly Ernaux uses ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ when conveying her own personal experiences, almost as if she is observing herself from a distance while writing the book. The collective experiences, however, are conveyed through the use of ‘we’, reflecting the ideas and perspectives of Ernaux’s generation and social class.

In fact, the question of how best to approach this style of memoir is one that Ernaux grapples with in the book. This is not the usual kind of autobiography, designed to convey an individual’s life history, story or analysis of the self. Instead, Ernaux envisages ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, a text that will portray the passage of time, both individually and collectively – the blending of the personal with the universal referred to above.

She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of the generation. (p. 169)

By applying this approach to The Years, Ernaux recognises that our lives and experiences are influenced by the broader political, social and cultural environments in which we find ourselves. Moreover, our personal values and beliefs are reflected in our stances on these external dynamics, highlighting the relationship between the internal and external.

Over the course of the book, Ernaux focuses on key timepoints in her life: birth, childhood, adolescence, a move to college, early marriage and motherhood, the separation and divorce from her husband at forty, her relationship with a much younger lover at the age of fifty-seven. Each of these snapshots in time is introduced through the description of a photograph or a video clip. It’s an engaging way to open each section, cleverly blending imagery with glimpses of the author’s personal experiences and inner thoughts. In the photo described here, Ernaux – who is nineteen at this point – is posing with her college classmates, the philosophy class at the Rouen Lycée.

She is in the second row, third from the left. It is difficult to see in her the girl with the provocative pose from the previous photo, taken scarcely two years earlier. She wears glasses again, and a ponytail from which a lock of hair escapes at the neck. Frizzy bangs do nothing to soften her serious demeanour. Her face bears no sign of the events of the summer before, the boy’s invasion of her being, as semi-defloration evinced by the bloodstained underwear hidden between some books in her cupboard. No sign, either, of her actions and movements after the event: walking the streets after school in hope of seeing him; returning to the young ladies’ residence and weeping. Spending hours on an essay topic and understanding nothing. (pp. 73–74)

Feminism, sex and the female body are prominent themes in the book, highlighting their importance to Ernaux and her generation. Ernaux was a teenager in the mid-1950s, a decade too early to fully benefit from the sexual revolution at this point. It was a time when parents monitored their daughters very closely, scrutinising their clothes, make-up, movements and relationships. For Ernaux and her contemporaries, ‘shame lay in wait at every turn’, while the need to conform to societal expirations limited their freedoms and experiences. Nevertheless, like any enterprising teenagers, they managed to evade these restrictions now again, immersing themselves in the culture of the moment.

But we outsmarted the surveillance and went to see The Girl in the Bikini and Tempest in the Flesh with Françoise Arnoul. We would have loved to resemble the film heroines, possess the freedom to behave as they did. But between the films and books, on the one hand, and the dictates of society on the other, lay a vast zone of prohibition and moral judgement. To identify with anything we saw in the films or the heroines was forbidden. (p. 50)

Cultural and technological references also feature heavily in the book, with Ernaux conveying a picture of post-war French life, a world of rapidly evolving technologies, cultural trends and consumer behaviour. In terms of approach, the following passage gives a feel for Ernaux’s style, characterised as it is by the fusion of elements from various aspects of her world.

There would be the SS France, the Caravelle jetliner and the Concorde, school until sixteen, centres of arts and culture, the Common Market, and, sooner or later peace in Algeria. There were new francs, scoubidou bracelets, flavoured yoghurt, milk in cartons, transistor radios. For the first time one could listen to music anywhere, whether one was lying on the beach with the radio next one’s head or walking down the street. The joy of the transistor was of an unknown species. One could be alone but not alone, and have at one’s command the noise and diversity of the world (p. 76)

As one might expect, historical and political events cast their shadows over the lived experience – developments such as the Algerian war, the protests of May 1968, the election of François Mitterrand, the rise of the far right, AIDS, 9/11, etc. etc. As the years go by, we continue to glimpse moments from Ernaux’s life as her two sons grow up, leave home, find partners and have children of their own. Towards the end, there is a noticeable sense of melancholy, a growing awareness perhaps on the part of Ernaux of her own mortality, as the time she has ahead of her inevitably decreases. Not for any pressing reason – it’s simply the natural passage of time.

In summary, The Years is an evocative meditation on the lives of a generation, a beautifully written text that highlights the impact of collective history on personal memories and experiences. A fascinating book best experienced in person – I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here.

The Years is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that can sometimes accompany it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties, who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes.

The titles of these individual chapters mostly refer to various physical spaces – ‘On the Street’, ‘In the Piazza’, ‘At the Ticket Counter’, ‘By the Sea’ etc. Nevertheless, the novella is as much a reflection of the narrator’s emotional mindset as it is of her physical location. The Italian title Dove Mi Trove (‘where you find me’ or ‘where I find myself’), can be interpreted in two different but closely connected ways, encompassing the narrator’s situation physically and emotionally. While three chapters carry the title ‘In My Head’, explicitly referencing the narrator’s inner thoughts, this emotional dimension is detectible throughout the book, like a thread or undercurrent running through the text.

As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, avenues left unexplored or chances that were never taken.

Now and then on the streets of my neighbourhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with. He always looks happy to see me. He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children. Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction. He talks excitedly about his projects, he gesticulates, and at times as we’re walking our synchronized bodies, already quite close, discreetly overlap. (p. 5)

We learn about this woman’s childhood, the tensions that existed between her parents, the devastation she felt when her father died relatively suddenly some thirty years earlier – a loss that has left its mark on her life. While the narrator seems relatively comfortable with her solitary existence, knowing that she has chosen freedom and independence over a different type of path, there is a sense that she has disappointed her mother in some way – failing perhaps to live up to the traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood, the more expansive kind of life these experiences would have granted. Consequently, there is an unspoken sense of guilt or resignation in the narrator’s interactions with her mother – a somewhat oppressive elderly women who also lives alone.  

When I was young, even when my father was alive, she kept me close to her side, she never wanted us to be apart, not even briefly. She safeguarded me, she protected me from solitude as if it were a nightmare, or a wasp. We were an unhealthy amalgam until I left to lead a life of my own. Was I the shield between her and her terror, was I the one who kept her from sinking into the abyss? Was it the fear of her fear that’s led me to a life like this? (pp. 29–30).

I love the way Lahiri uses this collection of fragments – there are around forty-five in total – to build up a picture of her narrator’s life, her emotional frame of mind and quotidian existence. As a result, we get the sense of a woman who is aware of her solitude – her aloneness – without feeling weighed down or oppressed by it. Someone who feels resigned to living a solitary life despite the odd regret or tinge of anxiety.

Occasionally, there are social situations she finds stressful – overwhelming, even – inducing a kind of claustrophobia alongside the feeling of exclusion. It’s a state that Lahiri eloquently captures in ‘By the Sea’, which features a celebratory dinner for the baptism of a colleague’s child – a situation that prompts the narrator to seek solace on the adjacent beach, complete with the sea in all its restless magnificence. At other times, however, she takes comfort from her sense of separateness when surrounded by others, sometimes forging unspoken connections with like-minded souls.

In ‘At My Home’, we see how protective she can be about her privacy and how violated she feels if someone invades it. When an old school friend and her new husband come to visit, the narrator finds the latter arrogant – a pompous, self-centred man who looks through the narrator’s bookshelves, eats all the best pastries and bemoans the untidy state of the city. Later, after the family’s departure, the narrator discovers that the couple’s toddler has drawn ‘a thin errant line’ in ballpoint pen on her white leather couch. It’s as if the visitors have left an indelible mark on the narrator’s privacy, a violation that proves impossible to erase or cover up. 

At heart, the protagonist is a people watcher, a consummate observer of others, often wondering about their lives, their current preoccupations and concerns, maybe even their desires. In one fragment, which appears towards the end of the novel, she sees a woman who seems to be very similar to herself – their clothes and body movements are virtually identical, mirroring one another in a ghostly sort of way. Who is this other woman? she wonders. An alter ego, perhaps? A more purposeful or determined version of herself? A figure with ‘a sprightly step’ who ‘clearly knows where she is going’.

Has she always lived here, like me? Or is she just visiting? If so, why? Is she meeting someone? Is it something for work? Is she going to visit her grandmother, a woman in a wheelchair who can no longer come downstairs and sit in the piazza? Is she a woman with millions of things to do? Is she anxious or carefree? Married or alone? Is she going to ring the buzzer of a friend of hers? A lover? (p. 151)

It’s a passage that feels indicative of the slightly elusive nature of this central figure, conveying the air of mystery or privacy that surrounds her existence.

There is a luminosity to these vignettes, a beautiful dreamlike quality that runs through the text. Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world. This is a quietly reflective novella, the sort of book that benefits from close attention and the focus of a single-sitting reading. I’d love to see it on the longlist for the International Booker Prize, which will be announced next March.

Whereabouts is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

The Shooting Gallery by Yūko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

First published in English in 1988, The Shooting Gallery is a collection of eight short stories by the acclaimed Japanese writer Yūko Tsushima (daughter of Osamu Dazai, also a renowned author). When viewed as a whole, the book is very much of piece with Tsushima’s other work, much of which is concerned with single mothers – modern women who defy the conventional expectations of marriage and motherhood, a stance which tends to place them on the margins of traditional society. (You can read my thoughts about Tsushima’s excellent novellas Territory of Light and Child of Fortune by clicking on the relevant links.)

In several of these stories, the central protagonist is a somewhat isolated mother, typically divorced or separated from her previous partner, often struggling to balance her desire for freedom with the responsibilities of raising children with little or no support. While Tsushima’s prose appears clear on the surface, there is a subtlety to it, a sense of mystery or elusiveness that adds to its beauty.

In the titular story (from 1975), a single mother – previously abandoned by her husband – takes her two young sons on a trip to the seaside for a day out. During the train journey, the two boys, aged seven and four, spend most of their time squabbling with one another in their impatience to get to the sea. (It is abundantly clear from the start that the boys are something of a handful.) Further frustration ensues once the family arrive at their destination. It is April, very early in the season, and several of the local attractions are closed. The beach itself is deserted, smelly and littered with rubbish – hardly the picturesque setting the children were promised. As the mother searches for somewhere suitable to have lunch, the boys become increasingly cranky, highlighting the challenges of single motherhood and the constraints this situation imposes. 

Tsushima makes excellent use of imagery in this story, ranging from the variety of associations suggested by the sea to the mother’s daydream of a winged dragon – the latter acting as a metaphor for freedom and a means of escape.

During The Shooting Gallery, the mother reflects on the fact that her children don’t really know their father; in essence, the man is so ‘absent’ from the family that as far as the boys are concerned, he may as well not exist. This feeling of dissociation or abandonment is also very present in The Silent Traders (1982), in which a divorced mother arranges an opportunity for her two children to see their father after a long absence. In essence, she considers it important that the children interact with him as a living, breathing individual – not just a static photo that never moves or speaks. The father, however, has clearly moved on, his new family being the sole focus of attention…

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, I thought in confusion, unable to say a word about the children. He was indeed their father, but not a father who watched over them. As far as he was concerned the only children he had were the two borne by his wife. Agreeing to see mine was simply a favour on his part, for which I could only be grateful. (p. 43)

One of Tsushima’s strengths is her ability to capture the differences in emotional investment on the part of women vs men. While the mother sees the importance of her children spending time with their father, her ex-husband does not.

Other stories in the collection explore slightly different aspects of marriage and/or motherhood. In Missing (1973)one of my favourite narratives in the book a mother waits anxiously for her teenage daughter to return, fearful that she might have left for good. As she tries to distract herself from the situation, the mother reflects on her sister, whose seventh-anniversary service was earlier in the day. It’s a story of wasted talents, missed opportunities and a career put on hold – all for the sake of ‘three grubby children’, the sister’s only notable achievement while still alive.

The Chrysanthemum Beetle (1983) is a very interesting story, a tale of male jealously and the consequences of this insecurity for the women caught in its slipstream. As the narrative unfolds, Izumi, a young woman who lives with her widowed mother, realises she is in a three-way relationship with her lover, Takashi, and another woman, Nobuko. In this scene, Nobuko relates her theory about Takashi to Izumi when the two women meet for dinner…

He goes through life dreading his own jealous nature, so that as soon as he finds a relationship that take some of the pressure off – as I did, and you did – he can’t rest until he’s satisfied himself that the other person is jealous too. And while he’s at it he seems to lose his own balance. It’s both a disappointment and a relief when it turns out that we are jealous, and then he starts brooding over what makes us that way, which leads him into very deep water… (p. 71)

It’s a fascinating piece that blends contemporary scenarios with elements from classic Japanese myths and ghost stories, all woven together in the author’s lucid yet layered prose.  

Finally, in A Sensitive Season (1974) – the only story in the collection to focus on a male protagonist – a young boy, Yutaka, finds himself in the care of his Aunt Natchan, having being abandoned by his wayward mother.

One day Yutaka’s mother had turned up very pregnant; she has shut herself away at home for three years and then quite suddenly ran off leaving the child behind. It was then that his aunt had reluctantly given up her job at a kindergarten to become private nanny to Yukata and his grandfather, but perhaps what had worked at the kindergarten didn’t work at home, for she had soon dropped the cheerful expression she used to wear for the children and became nervy and silent instead. (pp. 6–7) 

When Natchan develops an interest in a man working at the adjacent house, Yutaka worries that he will be abandoned once again – left to fend for himself and his invalid grandfather. It’s another story that explores the balance between familial obligations and personal independence – made all the more interesting in this instance due to the way Natchan is painted, i.e. as a rather unsympathetic character who views her dependents as annoying.

In summary, The Shooting Gallery is an excellent collection of stories, very much in line with Tsushima’s other (better-known) work. While the female protagonists are shaded and nuanced, frequently reflecting on their relationships, both past and present, the men tend to be more ambivalent in their emotions, often placing themselves at a distance from their ex-wives and children. There is a haunting, melancholy tone to some of these pieces that augments the feeling of alienation. A beautiful collection of stories about the challenges of single motherhood and the desire for a degree of liberty, this is a book that deserves to be back in print.

I read this book for Biblibio’s Women in Translation #WITMonth – more info here.

Spanish Lit Month – some reading recommendations for July

As some of you may know, July is Spanish Lit Month (#SpanishLitMonth), hosted by Stu at the Winstonsdad’s blog. It’s a month-long celebration of literature first published in the Spanish language – you can find out more about it here. In recent years, Stu and his sometimes co-host, Richard, have also included Portuguese literature in the mix, and that’s very much the case for 2021 too.

I’ve reviewed quite a few books that fall into the category of Spanish lit over the lifespan of this blog (although not so many of the Portuguese front). If you’re thinking of joining in and are looking for some ideas on what to read, here are a few of my favourites.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan (tr. Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves)

This is a marvellous novel, a great discovery for me, courtesy of fellow Spanish Lit Month veteran, Grant from 1streading. The House of Ulloa tells a feisty tale of contrasting values as a virtuous Christian chaplain finds himself embroiled in the exploits of a rough and ready marquis and those of his equally lively companions. This classic of 19th-century Spanish literature is a joy from start to finish, packed full of incident to keep the reader entertained.

Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti (tr. Nick Caistor)

This intriguing, elusive novella by the Uruguayan author and journalist, Mario Benedetti, uses various different forms to examine a timeless story of love and misunderstandings. We hear accounts from three different individuals embroiled in a love triangle. Assumptions are made; doubts are cast; and misunderstandings prevail – and we are never quite sure which of the three accounts is the most representative of the true situation, if indeed such a thing exists. Who among us can make that judgement when presented with these individuals’ perceptions of their relationships with others? This is a thoughtful, mercurial novella to capture the soul.

Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina McSweeney)

A beautiful collection of illuminating essays, several of which focus on locations, spaces and cities, and how these have evolved over time. Luiselli, a keen observer, is a little like a modern-day flâneur (or in one essay, a ‘cycleur’, a flâneur on a bicycle) as we follow her through the city streets and sidewalks, seeing the surroundings through her eyes and gaining access to her thoughts. A gorgeous selection of pieces, shot through with a melancholy, philosophical tone.

Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another wonderful collection of short pieces – fiction this time – many of which focus on the everyday. Minor occurrences take on a greater level of significance; fleeting moments have the power to resonate and live long in the memory. These pieces are subtle, nuanced and beautifully observed, highlighting situations or moods that turn on the tiniest of moments. While Fraile’s focus is on the minutiae of everyday life, the stories themselves are far from ordinary – they sparkle, refracting the light like the crystal chandelier in Child’s Play, one of my favourite pieces from this selection.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

My first Marías, and it remains a firm favourite. A man is stabbed to death in a shocking incident in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes an immersive meditation, touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. Those long, looping sentences are beguiling, pulling the reader into a shadowy world, where things are not quite what they seem on at first sight.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the pieces in this volume of forty-two stories, drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing – the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory as they progress. Several of them point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday, the sense of strangeness that lies hidden in the seemingly ordinary. Published by NYRB Classics, Thus Were Their Faces is an unusual, poetic collection of vignettes, many of which blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Best approached as a volume to dip into whenever you’re in the mood for something different and beguiling.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean)

Vila-Matas travels to Paris where he spends a month recalling the time he previously spent in this city, trying to live the life of an aspiring writer – just like the one Ernest Hemingway recounts in his memoir, A Moveable FeastVila-Matas’ notes on this rather ironic revisitation are to form the core of an extended lecture on the theme of irony entitled ‘Never Any End to Paris’; and it is in this form that the story is presented to the reader. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging novel, full of self-deprecating humour and charm.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during the month, possibly more if the event is extended into August, as in recent years.

Maybe you have plans of your own for Spanish Lit Month – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book, first published in Spanish or Portuguese? Feel free to mention it alongside any other comments below.

Foreign language films directed by women – a list of recommendations for #WITMonth

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen the thread I’ve been running during August. It’s a list of foreign language films directed by women, with a new recommendation going up every day – a bit like a version of #WITMonth for home streaming or the cinema.

Just to make it easier to see the full list, I’ve collated it here, with the final entry to be added tomorrow.

It’s been a fun thing to do, particularly as I’ve tried to include as many different directors as possible without doubling up. So, if you enjoy world cinema, maybe you’ll discover some new suggestions here. (All the films listed are available to view on home-streaming platforms or DVD, certainly in the UK.)

As ever, do feel free to mention any of your own favourites in the comments. Who knows, if I’m still here next year, I may well run it again with a different selection of films!

Day 1: PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Celine Sciamma). Everything Sciamma has made is excellent, but this ravishing love story set in 18th-century Brittany is my personal favourite. An exquisitely-paced exploration of passion and desire.

Day 2: FILL THE VOID (Rama Burshtein). Set within the Orthodox Hasidic community of Tel Aviv, this sensitive, understated gem is well worth seeking out. In the wake of a tragedy, a young woman must try to reconcile family obligations with her own personal wishes.

Day 3: LOURDES (Jessica Hausner). Sylvie Testud is terrific in this subtle, unsettling film about faith, delusions and the desire to believe in miracles. A slow burner shot through with flashes of poignancy and dry humour.

Day 4: THE WONDERS (Alice Rohrwacher). This director has been getting rave reviews for her latest, HAPPY AS LAZZARO, but her earlier film about family, aspirations and beekeeping is probably my fave. The children in this are wonderfully naturalistic.

Day 5: PERSEPOLIS (Marjane Satrapi). Based on Satrapi’s comic book series of the same name, this striking animated film is powerful depiction of a young girl growing up in 1970s/’80s Iran. I am definitely due another watch of this.

Day 6: HEAL THE LIVING (Katell Quillévéré). This beautiful, moving film, which follows the journey of a human heart from donor to recipient, captures something of the lyricism of Maylis de Kerangal’s source novel. (No longer on All 4 but available elsewhere.)

Day 7: I AM NOT A WITCH (Rungano Nyoni). A young Zambian girl is accused of being a witch in this striking satirical fable — the imagery is stunning. A BAFTA winner for Outstanding Debut, there is a real sense of poignancy here.

Day 8: SUMMERTIME (Catherine Corsini). Set in 1970s France, this sensitive film about sexual freedom, family commitments and the quest for women’s rights is ideal viewing for the heady days of summer. The central relationship between two young women is beautifully judged.

Day 9: THINGS TO COME (Mia Hansen-Løve). Pretty much everything this director has made is brilliant, but this exploration of a woman’s life is a personal favourite. Isabelle Huppert is superb as a philosophy professor whose world begins to collapse around her.

Day 10: THE GOOD GIRLS (Alejandra Márquez Abella). A recent discovery for me. Set in 1980s Mexico as the economic collapse begins to bite, this smart satire about ladies who lunch is a barbed delight. The petty jealousies between the characters are brilliantly observed.

Day 11: WAJIB (Annemarie Jacir). A father and son drive around Nazareth delivering wedding invitations in this sensitive, bittersweet film of family tensions and the balance between tradition and modernity. Fans of Abbas Kiarostami will likely enjoy this.

Day 12: 35 SHOTS OF RUM (Claire Denis). Plenty of choice with this director, but I’m going with this gem from 2008. A rich, emotionally elegant portrayal of a father-daughter relationship. The central performances are very subtle.

Day 13: TONI ERDMANN (Maren Ade). What to say about this film other than it is completely unique and unpredictable. A portrayal of an awkward father-daughter relationship unlike any other. By turns, uproariously funny, wonderfully surreal and oddly poignant. A triumph.

Day 14: MUSTANG (Deniz Gamze Ergüven). With its focus on five Turkish sisters, this brilliant film is a vibrant yet painful insight into life as a young girl in an oppressive society where arranged marriages are the order of day. Absolutely worth seeking out.

Day 15: CAPERNAUM (Nadine Labaki). Setting aside the somewhat contrived framing device, this wonderfully naturalistic film about a street kid on the run makes for compelling viewing. The shots of Beirut are evocative and affecting.

Day 16: ON BODY AND SOUL (Ildikó Enyedi). There is a curious fairytale-like quality to this story of two co-workers, a hesitant romance playing out as they share the same dream. I loved this one – just don’t let the first 20 minutes put you off!

Day 17: THE APPLE (Samira Makhmalbaf). After being locked up by their parents for 11 years, two young Iranian girls are finally released, free to experience a new life in Tehran.  It’s a long time since I watched this, but I recall it being very moving.

Day 18: SUMMER 1993 (Carla Simón). Something of a critics’ favourite, this subtle, naturalistic film about loss and the complexities of family dynamics is well worth seeking out. As with Alice Rohrawcher’s THE WONDERS (no 4), the children are really terrific here.

Day 19: IN BETWEEN (Maysaloun Hamoud). Three Palestinian women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv, each fighting against the constraints of conformity, repression and familial expectations. This excellent film follows their quest for independence.

Day 20: THE HEADLESS WOMAN (Lucretia Martel). I love this mysterious, dreamlike film about a woman who is involved in a car accident. A compelling exploration of guilt, denial, concealment and inaction – Maria Onetto is brilliant in the lead role.

Day 21: JEUNE FEMME (Léonor Serraille). Laetitia Dosch is terrific in this painfully funny depiction of a young woman shuttling around the apartments and shopping malls of Paris in search of a job and some kind of identity. (Currently on Mubi, if you have access to that.)

Day 22: THE CHAMBERMAID (Lila Avilés). A brilliant debut feature that explores the life of a young chambermaid in a wealthy Mexico City hotel. This very affecting film is an understated gem, full of small humiliations and reinforcements of the social hierarchy at play.

Day 23: THE FAREWELL (Lulu Wang). A charming, humane, bittersweet film of clashing cultures and family values. Like many of the best stories, it blends humour with poignancy in fairly equal measure. Probably one of the best crowd-pleasers of 2019.

Day 24: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (Ana Lily Amirpour). A lonely young woman, dressed in a hijab, wanders around the streets of Bad City at night in this stylish film that tips its hat to Jim Jarmusch. Beautifully shot in cool black and white.

Day 25: DISORDER (Alice Winocour). Great work here from Matthias Schoenaerts, channelling the pain and paranoia of PTSD, in this underrated thriller from Winocour (co-writer of MUSTANG, no. 14). The visuals and soundscape are excellent, adding to the intensity of the film.

Day 26: THE PORTUGUESE WOMAN (Rita Azevedo Gomes). The glacial pace won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but this story of a 16th-century noblewoman is beautifully shot. One ravishing image after another, it’s the closest I’ll get to an art gallery during lockdown.

DAY 27: WADJA (Haifaa Al Mansour). Notable for being the first Saudi-Arabian film ever to be directed by a woman, this portrayal of a young girl rubbing up against the restrictions of a strictly conservative society has tremendous spirit and heart.

Day 28: ALMAYER’S FOLLY (Chantal Akerman). Akerman explores themes of colonialism and identity in this compelling adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name – all shot in this director’s characteristically observant style. (Currently on Mubi, if you have access to that.)

Day 29: CLÉO FROM 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda). Over the course of two hours, a beautiful young woman tries to occupy herself while waiting for the results of a biopsy. A film that perfectly captures the spirit of Parisian life in the 1960s; a true classic of the French New Wave.

Day 30: OPEN HEARTS (Susanne Bier). Mads Mikkelsen stars in this compelling film about two couples whose lives become intertwined following a car accident. An early film by the director whose later English-language work includes TV’s THE NIGHT MANAGER. 

Day 31: ATLANTICS (Mati Diop). There is an element of supernatural mystery about this story of two young Senegalese lovers forced to make life-changing choices. One of the most poetic, visually stunning films released last year. I loved it.

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 set over three consecutive summer seasons – recently reissued by NYRB Classics in a beautiful new edition. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

The story focuses on three sisters – Maria (aged 20), Infanta (aged 18), and Katerina (aged 16) – who live with their mother, their unmarried Aunt Theresa, and their grandfather in the Greek countryside just north of Athens. The girls’ mother, Anna, is separated from her husband, Miltos, following the latter’s open affairs. A Polish grandmother, whom we never actually meet in person, is another important character in the novel. There is a whiff of scandal and romanticism around this woman, mainly because she left her husband for a travelling musician several years earlier, abandoning Anna and Theresa in their childhood.   

In an evocative opening chapter, we see how the three sisters differ from one another in terms of character, their particular patches of garden reflecting something of the nature of their personalities. While Maria’s tiny vegetable garden is ordered and divided into discrete squares, Infanta’s is wild, containing almond trees that can survive without frequent watering or special care. Katerina’s, by contrast, is more spontaneous still, bursting with flowers grown from randomly-scattered seeds – a riot of contrasting colours all packed together. As Katerina is the novel’s narrator, it is predominantly through her eyes that we see the rest of the family.

At first sight, it might appear as though the novel is presenting a simple story, one of three sisters 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.

The houses were closer together again here. About forty all in a clump, crowded together out of loneliness, like people. The gardens were beautiful this year. The heavy rains that winter had done them good. They were full of green and the trunks of the trees were shiny. Tiny tomatoes were beginning to appear. You could already see the yellow stamen on the male pistachio trees, and the female ones waiting. The males would go to the females. All the females could do was ready their juices, receive the male and bear fruit. They waited, in the burning heat, sensitive to any gust of wind that might bring them the seed. (pp. 50-51)

Maria is the most sexually liberated of the three girls, losing her virginity during a chance encounter with a physically attractive young man in the village. Nevertheless, she is quick to choose a life of stability and domesticity by marrying Marios, the boy who has worshipped her from childhood. The first of the three seasons ends with Maria and Marios’s wedding – the arrival of their first two children swiftly follow, one in each of the two subsequent summers.

Infanta is more withdrawn than her sisters, preferring the company of her beloved horse to that of her family. A beautiful, courageous girl at heart, Infanta spends most of her time riding in the countryside, often accompanied by Nikitas, a local boy who clears harbours feelings for her.

Katerina is perhaps the most romantic of the three girls, forever daydreaming and exercising her curiosity about the world around her. By the second summer, she is wildly in love with David, an astronomer who is also writing a book. For Katerina, love is a passionate thing, a feeling characterised by a sense of anticipation and anxiety, manifesting itself in a rapidly beating heart. And yet, by the end of the novel, she is oscillating between a desire for David and a yearning for a more adventurous, independent life, one in which she has the freedom to travel the world.

I’m not like Maria. I wouldn’t let a boy touch me just to pass the time. Maybe I’ll find someone who will watch the daisies blooming in the field with me, who will cut me a branch of the first autumn berries and bring it to me with the leaves are still damp. Or maybe I’ll set out to see the world alone. (p. 20)

To complicate matters further, Katerina has an unexpected rival for David’s affections. Maria’s forty-five-year-old mother-in-law, Laura Parigori, is forever hanging around the young man, eager to capture his imagination and affections, much to the annoyance of Katerina.

Alongside the theme of sexual awakening, the novel offers different perspectives on the nature of love and marriage, society’s expectations of women at the time, and the balance between passion and stoicism. We learn more about Aunt Theresa, how an incident with her former fiancé has coloured her life, making her somewhat nervous and fearful as a consequence. There are other family secrets too – perhaps most notably the reason for Anna’s detachment and lack of passion, something that Katerina is curious to uncover.

While Three Summers may not be the most polished or literary of novels, its language is dreamy and evocative, capturing the sultry nature of summer in lush, sensuous prose. 

Mornings were different now. Day broke with less brilliance than in the summer, but everything was somehow clearer. The air smelled of crushed apples, and left in your mouth the juicy, tart taste of apples eaten unpeeled. It was a delicate air, sometimes chilly. The sky was blue – a deep, rich blue – with white clouds racing by. (p. 81)

In the end 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. It’s 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’ll finish with a final quote which captures something of the essence of the novel, replete with its languid, reflective prose. 

Now my sisters and I no longer lie around in the hay talking. We aren’t all in the same place the way we were last year and other years. And when we happen to be together it’s as if there is a new awkwardness, as if we had betrayed one another by doing our own thing.

Certainly some day the awkwardness will pass, though time will never undo the betrayal. And perhaps when it does pass we will long for the time when we all lay around in the hay and our desires were so fluid and uncertain that they were no longer our own. They became the air we breathed; a thought of Maria’s became mine and mine Infanta’s – a kind of unearthly communion. (p.130)

(This is my second read for August’s focus on Women in Translation, a.k.a. #WITMonth – if it’s of interest, you can find more details about it here.)

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins, 2020)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations.

The setting for the novella – this French-Korean writer’s debut – is Sokcho, a coastal city in the far north-east of South Korea, close to the North Korean border. Dusapin’s story revolves around a young woman in her early twenties, currently working as a cook and housemaid in a run-down guest house struggling to keep up with the new hotels in the city.

The narrator – who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Moreover, she is being made to feel inadequate by her conventional Korean mother, a woman who sells seafood at the nearby fish market. There are repeated references to the narrator’s weight and her status as an unmarried woman, both of which give rise to pressure from the mother. The narrator, for her part, feels at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to her boyfriend, Jun-oh, an aspiring model intent on furthering his career in Seoul.

Into the narrator’s life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, an undeniable charge that feels detectable to the reader. 

I felt a chill as a draught blew through the kitchen. Turning round I saw Kerrand come in. He wanted a glass of water. He watched me work while he drank it, staring hard as if he were trying to make sense of the image in front of him. I lost concentration and nicked the palm of my hand. Blood welled onto the carrots, hardening to form a brownish crust. Kerrand took a handkerchief from his pocket. He stood close to me and held it to the wound.

‘You should be more careful.’

‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’

‘Just as well.’

 He smiled, pressing his hand against mine. I broke away, feeling uneasy. (p. 8)

With few contemporaries of her own age close at hand, the young woman is intrigued by Kerrand and his reasons for coming to Sokcho, particularly in the low season. In truth, the Frenchman is looking for inspiration for his new book, the final instalment in a series featuring a travelling archaeologist – a loner who bears a striking resemblance to Kennard with his dark looks and striking features.

At night, the young woman hears Kennard sketching in the next room, a sound shot through with sadness and melancholy, seeping into her consciousness as she tries to fall sleep.

In bed later, I heard the pen scratching. I pinned myself against the thin wall. A gnawing sound, irritating. Working its way under my skin. Stopping and starting. I pictured Kerrand, his fingers scurrying like spiders’ legs, his eyes are travelling up, scrutinising the model, looking down at the paper again, looking back up to make sure his pen conveyed the truth of his vision, to keep her from vanishing while he traced the lines. (p. 67)

There is a sense that the narrator is disturbed by Kennard’s potential vision of her, reflected in some of the drawings she secretly watches him sketching.

As the narrative unfolds, the connection between Kennard and the narrator waxes and wanes, defined by occasional moments of intensity interspersed with significant periods of latency. At first, the young woman does not reveal her dual nationality to him, choosing to communicate in broken English instead of her competent French. He eschews the Korean meals she cooks for the guests, preferring instead to pick up Western-style junk food which he eats alone in his room. Nevertheless, Kennard is sufficiently interested in the narrator to ask her to show him something of Sokcho. A trip to the border with North Korea follows, complete with a visit to the museum whose ghostly souvenir shop is staffed by a waxwork-like attendant, her face frozen as if in aspic.

Threaded through the novella are signs of tension between the South and the North. At Naksan these are highly visible, from the barbed wire on the beaches to the bunkers with sub-machine guns poking out from their openings. While the scars from WW2 on the beaches of Normandy are old and worn, those in South Korea remain raw, signalling a country still at war with its neighbour.    

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends. (p. 88)

Body image is another running theme, particularly the various pressures – both external and self-imposed – an individual can experience to look ‘perfect’ or attractive. Several aspects of the story tap into these anxieties, from the narrator’s battle with bulimia to her boyfriend’s obsession with modelling to a female guest’s recovery from plastic surgery. Food too plays an important role in the novella, mostly through the traditional meals the young woman prepares at the guest house, frequently using octopuses from her mother’s stall. The pufferfish is also highly symbolic here, a poisonous delicacy that must be prepared correctly to avoid death on consumption.

This novella is beautifully-written, characterised by Dusapin’s clipped, crystalline prose. The desolate South Korean landscape is skilfully evoked, the stark imagery reflecting feelings of division and alienation. Winters in Sokcho are especially cold and bleak. As the narrator reflects, one has to live through them to understand this, defined as they are by the essence of the city – the sights, the smells and the isolation – these are the elements that seep into the soul.

The book finishes on an enigmatic note, an ending that feels at once both mysterious and strangely inevitable. All in all, this is a haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty. Very highly recommended indeed.  

Winter in Sokcho is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers/Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.