Hello. I’m back. My visit to Blogger lasted one month; it wasn’t working very well. I won’t go into all the reasons, but to say that most of you know me here. Also, all my posts since 2006 are here. So, I’m here again.
Sometimes, old things are the best. This is a stone bench that was built along the path I cycle in Pioneer Park. It has been here since my father was a boy, one of the original parts of our town which is quickly evolving into a bigger, louder, more materialistic place.
I like simplicity. I like familiar. I like discussing books, and life, with you. Shall we continue?
Baltasar’s writing is lyrical. While finding no point at which I could identify with the narrator, neither could I put this novel down. The images, the emotions, the lifestyles are so intimately portrayed I felt myself living with these women: the narrator, her lover, Samsa, and even the baby, Tinna.
Samsa gives her lover the nickname Boulder, and I wonder why. She is not a rock on which to depend. She is adventurous, and untethered, a cook who travels on boats and finds it hard to settle in one place. When Samsa buys a house, her lover has this reaction:
Sometimes I think she doesn’t quite get me. Quaint little houses like hers eat away at you, bit by bit. They bore deep into you and strike the most delicate nerve. By the time you notice it’s too late. You’ve already been killed by the kind of devastating energy that can only come from pain.
But, Boulder does come to live in the little yellow house with Samsa, adjusting the best she can while she spends the days in her food truck, cooking empanadas, serving coffee. She reluctantly agrees with Samsa’s desire to become a mother, although it is not a desire of her own.
I’m not into kids. I find them annoying. They’re unpredictable variables that come crashing into my coastal shelf with the gale force of their natural madness. They’re craggy, out of control, scattered. They’re drawn to me the same way cats zero in on people who are allergic to them.
They smoke, seemingly endlessly, they are intimate, they forge a life together from which Samsa desires more: a child of her own. And so Boulder gives in, and here I find the most ironic line in the whole book:
I have the sense I am buying her a kid and that the approach I’ve taken is deceitful.
You think?! That’s exactly what you are doing: buying a child for artificial insemination, an entirely unnatural procedure which would seem more than a little deceitful to me, too.
But, I will cast my judgment aside, and give another quote which is the only portion of the book for which my heart also burned:
The baby has fetal macrosomia. If only you could set fire to every word that evokes an illness…I age all at once. I’ve just learned that a child’s diagnosis can kill you too.
Boulder is a most fascinating look at parenting, motherhood, relationships. It is not up to me to agree with it. It is up to me to attest to its power.
Mark and Walter. Pitbull. But, mostly Danny and Rico. These are the mates who grow up in Leipzig, Germany, after the Zone. We see them as Pioneers; we see them as young men. But, we always see them as rebellious and daring, stubborn and wounded.
Their fathers drink, or beat them, or both. Their mothers cry, with their heads lowered on the kitchen table. Their teachers admonish, but never make any difference in these boys’ lives.
While We Were Dreaming takes us back and forth, from their ages of eleven to eighteen, never quickly revealing why they are suddenly locked up or at a funeral. We keep reading to find out who has died. Who has been burned in a stolen car driven too fast. Whose father threw his beloved dog out the window where it died in the street.
I would have thought it would be too troubling to keep on reading, but I was mesmerized. Just as I experienced while reading The Birthday Party, I could not tear myself away from the intensity of what was happening. Nor did I want to.
This will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me: if I had not committed to reading the International Booker Prize 2023 long list, I wouldn’t have read more than 50 pages of The Gospel According to the New World.
Condé does a marvelous job of giving us the Caribbean in the cadence of a skilled storyteller. But, she does an abysmal job in creating a Christ figure who is independent from the one I’ve read about in the Bible. Why does His story need to be rewritten?
She draws parallels between Jesus Christ, and her lead character, Pascal (Easter), as if they both comprised the essence of the New Testament. Pascal is born of a Spaniard, who has disappeared from the cruise ship in which he bed Pascal’s mother, Maya…she leaves the baby in a shed between the hooves of a donkey for warmth.
Many other “parallels” between Jesus and Pascal occur, such as finding twelve fishermen, multiplying the braided loaves, turning the Rialto into a den of thieves, raising Lazare from the dead…
Yet, there is also a strong representation of today’s issues. Condé addresses prejudice, wealth, and gender in her novel, for who could leave those alone in 2023?
An unknown visitor arrives for Pascal’s christening. He brings a flower, in an earthen vase, that Pascal’s mother had never seen before. “This flower’s name is Tete Negresse,” the new arrival explained. “It is designed to erase the Song of Solomon from our memory. You recall those shocking words, I am Black but I am beautiful. These words must never be pronounced again.” (p. 32)
The bride in the Song of Solomon has no case for Black or White; the girl laments that she has been darkened by the sun, mistreated by her brothers:
5 Dark am I, yet lovely, daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon. 6 Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun. My mother’s sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I had to neglect
Song of Solomon 1:5-6 (NIV)
I never took this passage to mean anything racial, or prejudicial; more than anything, it points to the cruelty of her siblings, as well as her hard work under the sun.
Then there is the statement against the middle class, as if it is despicable. “He (Pascal) argued that he was going to be twenty and was perfectly capable of deciding his future on his own. Moreover, they knew full well that he had never liked the bourgeois milieu they had forced him to accept, particularly its arrogance and selfish indifference towards everything that didn’t concern it directly.” (p. 44)
Shall we take care about whom we lump together? Not all poor are lazy. Not all middle class are indifferent to others. Not all rich are unlawful…
I found myself becoming more troubled with each page that I read. My interpretation is that Maryse Condé speaks with great irreverence about God’s Son, in whom I believe with all my heart. Quite possibly this is a book which many will enjoy, but for me, I could not accept the scornful way she seemed to mock the Word made flesh in her characterization of Pascal. The Gospel According to the New World is not for me, and it will be near the bottom of my list for the International Booker Prize this year.
Find a review from my fellow Shadow Panel Jurist, David, here,
The story starts out as perhaps many parent-child relationships do. Johanna is disgruntled with her mother, and feels shunned for the choices she made which were contrary to her parents’ wishes: leaving her husband, moving from Norway to Utah, changing from a career in law to become an artist. Even though I was a child who sought to make her parents proud, I can understand a child’s rebellion as well as desire to forge her own separate path.
But, then her behavior gets weird.
Johanna returns to Oslo, and starts stalking her mother. Her paranoid thoughts escalate with an alarming rate, as she wonders about her mother’s well being, and spends days watching her mother’s home in Arne Bruns gate 22 from within her parked car; then she makes a hiding place for herself in the cedar hedge which borders the neighboring building so she can watch more closely.
I find a suitable spot and set up camp, I spread out my rug and curl up on it. I can’t unlock the silence, I have to unlock the silence, I can’t attack it, I have to attack it. I belong in these bushes, I can smell childhood and the earth, I have found the best place to hide and no one will ever find me, I hibernate and experience time like someone in the process of leaving this world, behind me time is suspended and I lie homeless in my home, rooted in a state of stagnation.
Well, this doesn’t sound normal. I am worried that I am reading the voice of someone who is not mentally well, for she sounds almost delusional.
And then, we wonder who is the emotionally unstable one? For when Johanna summons the courage to knock on her mother’s door, her mother opens it with terrorized eyes, and then it is shut in Johanna’s face. Later, her sister texts her that she must not try to contact their mother again, or there will be consequences.
I found this novel to be a painful reflection on what it means to be a child, and what it means to be a parent. Johanna looks at herself, looks at her mother, and then looks at her own son, John, with bewilderment and yearning.
From when I was very young I had an open wound and an open door over which I had no control, and Mum entered and infected me with her misery, and don’t all children have that and don’t all mothers do that, myself included?
What a powerful, exquisitely written book this is. It holds universal questions, and truths, for all of us have been children. All of us have searched for what only perfect people could give us, and must come to accept the parents we have been given: flawed, as we ourselves are flawed.
Gaustine, officially named Augustine-Garibaldi, is an imagined psychotherapist, a specialist in memory disorders, who was “ one of the first to introduce clinics of the past.” We meet him through the unnamed narrator, who uses extraordinary irony, and memory, to grab my attention and pause my reading…
The time is coming when more and more people will want to hide in the cave of the past, to turn back. And not for happy reasons, by the way. We need to be ready with the bomb shelter of the past. Call it the time shelter, if you will.
Georgi Gospodinov, and his translator, Angela Rodel, take us through a glorious recall of the decades; the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s come alive once again to me, as I relive the scents, the scenes, and even the products that were around in my youth. (I, too, drove an Opel Rekord when I lived in West Germany in the ‘80s.)
And while they do this, there are sentences, paragraphs even, which pierce me to the quick:
There is one monster that stalks every one of us. Death, you’ll say, yes, of course, death is his brother, but old age is the monster.
…the past is full of side streets, ground-floor rooms, chalked-up patterns, and corridors. And notes in the margins about things that seemed unimportant to us – only later do we suddenly realize that the goose of the past has made her nest and laid her eggs exactly there, in the unimportant.
The second half of the novel focuses on Bulgaria in particular and Europe in general. There is a demonstration which is a historical re-enactment of one that took place during socialism, complete with accurate details such as the crackling loudspeakers and an appearance from Dimitrov.
The May twilight was delicately trying to conceal the remnants of the rebellious afternoon, the scraps of flag on the chestnuts in Boris’s Garden, empty bottles, newspapers, wrappers…I don’t know who cleans up after every revolution.
It seems that no reference is left out of this book; from Biblical stories, to political events, from childhood memories to those of a man remembering his marriage, I was caught up in Gospodinov’s revelations on every page. Consider this view of Lot and his wife, fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah:
Could the Angel of History (drawn by Klee as Angelus Novus) actually be Lot’s wife?
Why does she stop and look back?
Because it is human to do so.
What did she leave there?
Why salt, exactly?
Because salt has no memory. Nothing grows on salt.
What are we without our memories? And, what about the important dates which we must not forget, such as September 1, 1939, when Hitler began WWII? Time Shelter both begins, and ends, with that date, for with it “came the end of human time.”
…she’s going to shout, she has to, pounce on whichever one is closest to the door and who maybe won’t have come into the house yet, or who will maybe still have her hand on the doorknob, the door not closed behind her, to tell her to not close it, to leave, to get back in her car, to scream at her that they shouldn’t be here because the men aren’t friends, they took Tatie, they killed Rajah, we’re not doing anything because we’re terrified of them and they’re laughing at us, at the time they’re taking to torment us because we’re scared of them, of what they want, we don’t know what they want, or why they decided to stay here like this for the whole party and then afterwards, afterwards what are they gonna do to us, we don’t even know what they’re gonna do to us…
Normally, I don’t like to read sentences that go on for half the page. But, it is in this way that the reader feels the tension mount, as layer by layer the story is revealed.
Although a birthday party is supposed to be a joyous affair, this one is like a slow motion horror film exquisitely displayed through cinematic sentences.
The hamlet of the Three Lone Girls has three houses: one for Patrice Bergogne, his wife, Marion, and their daughter, Ida; one for Christine; and one for sale. The novel opens with Christine reporting anonymous letters, which have been slid under her door, to the police. It then progresses to a man inquiring about the sale of the empty home. But, everything tragically escalates, the night of Marion’s 40th birthday, when Christine’s dog is silenced with a knife, and the “birthday party” begins.
Three brothers, Denis, Christophe, and Stutter, have arrived to “celebrate” with Marion, to “host” a party which is anything but. The reason why they are there is gradually shown to us, leaving the reader in as much suspense as the guests, except for Marion herself. She knows why they are there. She knows what Denis is capable of.
I found The Birthday Partyto be a most engrossing novel, expertly executed through the hands of both its author and translator. The story is richly detailed, the themes are timeless. Surely, this will find a place in the International Booker Prize short list, if not at the very top.
Kumaresan and Saroja believe their love can hurdle over any obstacle. I used to feel that way, too, when I was young. But, youth learns, whether it is overcoming a class difference in the U. S., or a caste difference in India, some foes are indomitable.
There are sentences in the beginning of Pyrewhich resonated deeply with me, sentences that I identified with such as these:
His very words embraced her and carried her along.
Whatever it was, he’d say, ‘We can do it.’ It was, of course, a different matter whether he actually did or not. But just those words seemed enough, didn’t they?
She’d come placing all her trust in him.
The thought that he was all she had left increased her affection for him. Who else could she bare her heart to?
But, the fact that Kumaresan has married a woman from a completely different caste is intolerable to the people in his village. Even worse, his mother cannot, will not, stand for it. She stands outside of her son’s hut, with his bride inside, and hurls admonishments at them day and night.
‘You will have respect as long as you stay with the crowd. You will lose it as soon as you start going your own way,’ she shouted.
It is the people of the village who ultimately decide the young couple’s fate. One of them who says to the gathered crowd:
The point is that he has brought a girl here about whom we know nothing. The entire village bears a mark of impurity if there is a woman here whose caste or family are unknown. And if we start the festival here with this defilement in our midst, we might incur the wrath of Goddess Mariyatha…
It is always fascinating to me to read of other countries, other cultures. But, I was struck with how similar my American culture has become to the one about which I was reading. We do not have a caste system but surely there is a level of intolerance, particularly since the COVID pandemic, which divides people. I am intrigued with how Perumal Murugan wrote about prejudice. Exclusion. And, ultimately, hatred which led to murder.
It’s so hard to wrap my head around it. It’s so weird to think of you being pregnant. I mean, I’ve never heard you say anything about love or marriage. That’s why it was such a surprise to find out that you’ve been…getting out there, you know? Having a life.
A void can mean so many things. An emptiness. A longing. A life.
It could also mean “avoid.” Like what Shibata does to keep from cleaning up the coffee cups which have gone cold, and are filled with cigarette butts smashed into the liquid, so that they smell terrible. It is expected that a woman should clean up the mess, and so she says she can’t because she’s pregnant.
At first, Shibata stuffs her clothing with padding to carry on her ruse. But, as the story progresses, so does her pregnancy, such that near the end, even the doctor is pointing out the baby at the ultra sound.
Of course, there is no baby. And so, the novel raises many questions, like: what is the role of women in society; do doctors even know what they are doing; how does what we tell ourselves effect what we believe?
Shibata tours the factory where she works, which makes hollow cores to be used as paper toweling tubes, for example. As she watches them turn out, we read this paragraph:
Words summoning more words, making space for a new story to come into the world. Solemnly, modestly, reverently. And inside the core a void. Ready for whatever story was going to fill it.
Again: a void. Again: what story will fill it?
This was a fascinating novel, and even though it has few pages, it has many themes. None of which are easily answered.
I am hoping to see it on the International Booker Prize longlist this year.
Here we have half a month to go before the Japanese Literature Challenge 16 officially ends, and I find myself peeking eagerly into the realm of the International Booker Prize for 2023. The Shadow Jury is assembled again, prepared to read the longlist which is revealed on March 14 and to determine which books we would choose to be on the shortlist (revealed on April 18).
Before I introduce the Shadow Jury, let me give you six predictions I have for the official longlist:
Perhaps it is no surprise to you that three of the six are Japanese. And now, for the Shadow Jury. They are as follows:
Tony Malone (Twitter: @tony_malone) is an occasional ESL teacher and full-time reader who has been publishing his half-baked thoughts on literature in translation at the Tony’s Reading List blog for just over fourteen years now. One unexpected consequence of all this reading in translation has been the crafting of a few translations of his own, with English versions of works by classic German writers such as Eduard von Keyserling and Ricarda Huch appearing at his site. As always, he’s looking forward to seeing what the judges have selected, and then rolling his eyes at them…
Meredith Smith (Twitter: @bellezzamjs) has been writing about books at her site, Dolce Bellezza, since 2006. Now that she has retired from teaching, she has much more time to devote to her passion of reading translated literature. She has hosted the Japanese Literature Challenge for sixteen years and been a member of the Shadow Jury for nine. It is her great joy to read and discuss books from around the world with both the panel and fellow readers.
David Hebblethwaite (@David_Heb) is a reader and reviewer originally from Yorkshire, UK. He started reading translated fiction seriously a few years ago, and now couldn’t imagine a bookish life without it. He writes about books at David’s Book World, and is also on Goodreads, and Instagram @davidsworldofbooks. This is his tenth year on the Shadow Jury, and it has become a highlight of his reading year. There are always interesting books to read, and illuminating discussions to be had.
Oisin Harris (@literaryty), based in Canterbury in the UK, reviews books at the Literaryty blog. He earned an English degree from Sussex University and an MA in Publishing from Kingston University. He is a librarian at the University of Kent and a co-editor and contributor for The Publishing Post’s Books in Translation Team, as well as the creator of the Translator Spotlight series where prominent translators are interviewed to demystify the craft of translation. His work on Women in Translation was published in the 2020 research eBook of the Institute for Translation and Interpreting, entitled Translating Women: Activism in Action (edited by Olga Castro and Helen Vassallo).
Frances Evangelista (@nonsuchbook) works as an educator in Washington DC. She elected a career in teaching because she assumed it would provide her with lots of reading time. This was an incorrect assumption. However, she loves her work and still manages to read widely, remember the years she blogged about books fondly, chat up books on Twitter, and participate in lots of great shared reading experiences. This is her fifth year as a shadow panelist for the International Booker Prize.
Vivek Tejuja (@vivekisms) is a book blogger and reviewer from India, based in Mumbai. He loves to read books in Indian languages and translated editions of languages around the world (well, essentially world fiction, if that’s a thing). He is Culture Editor at Verve Magazine and blogs at The Hungry Reader. He is also the author of So Now You Know, a memoir of growing up gay in Mumbai in the 90s, published by Harper Collins India. His second book, Strange Bedfellows is out in September 2023, by Harper Collins India.
Areeb Ahmad (@Broke_Bookworm) currently works in the social and development sector. He moonlights as Books Editor at Inklette and Editor-at-Large for India at Asymptote. Although he is an eclectic bookworm, he swears by all things SFF. He goes out of his way to consume queer literatures, experimental writing, translated books, and contemporary poetry collections. You can find him either desperately hunting for book deals to supplement his overflowing TBR pile or trying to figure out the best angle for his next #bookstagram photo as he scrambles to write reviews. He impulsively began book blogging in 2019 and hasn’t looked back since.
Paul Fulcher (@fulcherpaul) is a Wimbledon, UK based fan of translated fiction, who is active on Goodreads, where he contributes to a MBI readers’ group. He is a Trustee of the Republic of Consciousness Foundation, which runs the Republic of Consciousness Prize (@prizeRofC), which rewards innovative fiction, including in translation, from small independent presses. His reviews can be found on his Goodreads page.
Jeremy Koenig (@KoenigRMHS) is a high school English teacher outside Washington DC. Over the years, he’s become a fierce champion of translated literature and small presses, both making up the bulk of his Best of the Year lists. His reading life has been greatly enriched by the other members of this shadow panel, to whom he’s deeply grateful. He’s also a current student of Norwegian who aspires to reading Jon Fosse’s work in the original (“på Norsk”). This is his first year as a shadow panelist.
Do follow along as we read, and review, the books for the International Booker Prize 2023. We promise to highlight the very best. At least, in our opinion.