Friday, 22 August 2014

Tony's Reading List Goes Korean

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that my major focus on the blog in 2014 has been Korean literature, and it's an area which will be occupying a fair chunk of my time in the coming months too.  Today, then, I'd just like to talk about a few things related to K-Lit in the hope that a few of you out there might find the urge to check them out.

No pressure... ;)

The first of my items today is the contest currently being run by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, one in which they ask you to post a video review of a Korean Short Story.  But I don't have any short stories, I hear you shout/whinge...  No worries - there are two collections of free stories for you to choose from: twenty classic K-Lit tales are available here; and fifteen twenty-first century stories can be accessed here.  See - easy :)  Just click on this link for details of how to enter, with the possibility of winning yourself a USD500 Amazon Gift card...

Of course, I'd quite like to win that Gift Card for myself, so I've been working hard on the stories - so much so that this has become my new project.  Yes, I now have my own Youtube channel, and with the exception of a few V-Logs from several years back (a time when health issues made it tricky for me to post normal reviews), all my videos are of the LTI Korea stories.  To date, I've posted six videos, covering eight of the twentieth-century stories, and I'm planning to review all of the free stories on this channel.  So, if you want a laugh (and you're interested in how I look - and talk- in real life), why not drop by and have a look?  They're all fairly short, promise...

Of course, I've been reading a lot more Korean literature than just the stories mentioned above.  So far in 2014, I've read and reviewed almost twenty works of Korean literature, and there are many more to come before the year is out.  Almost half of these have been from the Dalkey Archive Press Library of Korean Literature, and that would be a great place to start for anyone interested in taking their first steps into K-Lit.

However, if you've still got cold feet, and are unwilling to commit to a long work, there's still a way to get a taste for Korean literature.  Quite apart from the LTI Korea stories mentioned above, Charles Montgomery's excellent Korean Literature in Translation site has a section dedicated to bringing you free stories in English.  Just head over to the site, download one of the stories, and say thank you to Uncle Charles ;)

There you have it - my summary of what's going on in K-Lit around these parts.  Hopefully, I'll have persuaded you to give it a try, whether it's from literary or mercenary reasons ;)  And if you do develop a taste for Korean writing, just stay tuned to the blog as there'll be many more Korean literature reviews to come in the last few months of 2014 :)

Thursday, 21 August 2014

'There a Petal Silently Falls' by Ch'oe Yun (Review)

As I noted in my post on O Chong-hui, the Modern Korean Fiction collection, in addition to containing some wonderful stories, proved to be an excellent starting point for finding new books and authors to explore.  The collection only had a few stories by female writers, but those were some of the better ones in the book, and Ch'oe Yun's 'The Gray Snowman' was definitely one of my favourites.  So would Ch'oe's other work measure up to that one?  The answer is a resounding yes...

The beautiful book in the picture is There a Petal Silently Falls (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, and Kichung Kim, from Columbia University Press, review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Footprint Books).  It's a collection of three stories, a thirty-page tale sandwiched between two novella-length pieces, and the three selections come from a five-year period between 1988 and 1993.  Each has a very different style, with the selection outlining the writer's ability to experiment with different forms and content matter.

The shortest piece, 'Whisper Yet', is about a woman on a family 'vacance' at a friend's orchard.  Over the course of a lazy summer day spent with her daughter, memories of the woman's childhood home come back to her, in particular those involving a helper at the family's orchard.  His name was Ajaebi, and he struck up an unlikely friendship with the woman's father (only later did she discover just how unlikely it was...).

It's a story set in the immediate post-Korean-war period, a clever piece about the secrets adults keep from children.  However, it's also one whose underlying message is that having differing ideologies is not necessarily an obstacle to developing a friendship, with Ajaebi and the narrator's father being on opposite sides of the political divide.  The politics here aren't especially foregrounded, though, and this is a lovely, subtle story which evokes memories of pleasant summer days in the sun :)

The politics are much more evident, however, in the title story, perhaps the most well known of the three.  In an emotionally-charged debut piece of writing, Ch'oe creates the story of a girl found by a construction worker as she is wandering the streets.  The initial scenes are loaded with rape, violence and then silence, but as the story progresses, we are shown that the story is about much more than just one unfortunate girl.

In fact, 'There a Petal Silently Falls' is an allegorical story picking at the open wounds of the Kwangju uprising in 1980, when a large group of rebellious inhabitants in the southern city were slaughtered by government troops:
"As you pass by the grave sites scattered throughout the city, you may encounter her, a girl whose maroon velvet dress barely covers her, a girl who lingers near the burial mounds.  Please don't stop if she approaches you, and don't look back once she's passed you by.  If your eye should be drawn to the flesh showing between the folds of that torn, soiled dress, or drawn to something resembling a wound, walk away with downcast eyes as if you hadn't seen a thing."
'There a Petal Silently Falls', p.3 (Columbia University Press, 2008)
The girl is a shell-shocked refugee wandering ever-northwards, psychologically scarred after having witnessed her mother's death.  In order to protect herself, she has draped a 'curtain' over her memories, a self-imposed barrier to help her forget what she's seen.

It's a story in three voices, with alternating chapters told from differing points of view.  One strand follows the girl as she journeys towards Seoul; the second is told by the man who finds (and violates) the girl, only to be tormented by guilt afterwards; the final one is the voice of an uncertain 'we', which turns out to be student friends of the girl's missing brother.  While assigning roles to these voices is a risky affair, it's tempting to see the girl as the people of Kwangju and the man as the state, sharing the character's post-massacre regrets (wishing that she - and the whole country - could return to normal).  And the students?  They are the voice of the ordinary people of Korea, following the rumours of the uprising as it spreads northwards in the form of the girl...

It's an excellently-structured piece of writing, utilising the chorus of voices to conceal parts of the story until the appropriate time arrives.  There's a gradual release of details, and the full horror of the troops' attack on Kwangju only becomes apparent towards the end of the story.  I'd have to say that as a first offering, it's a very impressive work.

Five years on, 'The Thirteen-Scent Flower' also criticised Korean society, albeit it in a more general, and sophisticated, manner.  The story starts as a kind of fairy-tale in which Bye, a young man obsessed with dreams of the Arctic, runs into Green Hands, a young woman with nothing to live for (but with a skill for tending plants).  Having recognised the unique connection between them, off they go in his truck to the mountains, where they discover a rare, unnamed flower and settle down in the idyllic surroundings.

There's a lilting, fairy-tale quality to the story, aided by the discovery of the wondrous flower high in the mountains:
"Wind Chrysanthemum.  Commonly known as the Arctic Flower.  Hardy plant living in a land of bitter cold, your tender blossoms streaming in winter's north wind beneath high clouds; your delicate purple blossoms reaching out for the sunlight shining through the clouds, symbol of your thirst for life; your fifty-five petals ever mindful that your beauty is based on the number five; your snow-white scent a distillate of the manifold desires embodied in your small form, a sad dedication to the world."
'The Thirteen-Scent Flower', p.139
Having tracked the plant down, Bye and Green Hands begin work on developing different varieties, each of which has its own, inimitable scent, and the more their work progresses, the more people come to join them in their high-altitude community.

Gradually though, real life seeps into Ch'oe's fairytale.  You see, when a flower as rare and beautiful as this is found, society demands that it be exploited for the common good.  Pharmaceutical companies, perfume designers, botanists, resort developers - they all come flocking to the mountains to see how they can use the flower to make money.  Everyone wants a piece of the magical and delicate flower, yet with a limited supply, not everyone can get what they want...

'The Thirteen-Scent Flower' is a critique of the commercialisation of modern life, a society where fairy tales are rarely permitted to have a happily ever after.  Anything beautiful which is uncovered must be harnessed for the good of the people - that's what we call progress...  It's a story which is as powerful in its own way as 'There a Petal Silently Falls', but in its subtle approach it's perhaps an example of a more developed writer.

This book is a superb collection, and if I'd had the time (and energy...), I could easily have explored each story in a lot more depth.  It's definitely a collection I'd urge you to try, and I'm looking forward to exploring the web to see if any more of Ch'oe's work has made it into English.  Before that, there's one more thing I should do, though - head back to my trusty copy of Modern Korean Fiction and see which K-Lit author I should check out next ;)

Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website :)

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

'Numéro Six' ('Number Six') by Véronique Olmi (Review)

Looking back at my reading list recently, I noticed that the last few months have been totally devoid of any foreign-language reading - by which I mean reading books in a language other than English (reading books originally written in another language is a different story altogether).  While Women In Translation Month is all about promoting books others might like to read, I also felt it was time to stretch myself a little and try a couple which aren't available in English yet.  Who know?  After reading my reviews, maybe someone will decide to bring them out in English at some point.

I wouldn't hold my breath, though...

Many readers will be aware of Véronique Olmi's Beside the Sea (translated by Adriana Hunter), which was Peirene Press' debut offering, but virtually none of her other works have made it into English thus far.  However, my French-language edition of Bord de Mer actually came with a companion story, the enigmatically-named Numéro Six (Number Six).  It's no coincidence that the two works are bundled together.  As well as being Olmi's first two published works of fiction, the stories complement each other nicely as they both look at parent-child relationships - just from differing viewpoints.

The story begins with a family on the beach, nicely lined up for a family picture, but this peaceful scene soon turns sour:
"Le père leur demande de ne plus bouger, de sourire à l'objectif.  Il regarde dans son Leica.  Quleques secondes, puis il relève la tête, inquiet.  Il les regarde tous.  Il les compte.  Il les recompte.  Son cœur s'emballe.  La dernière, Fanny, n'est pas sur la photo.  N'est pas dans la groupe.  N'est pas sur la plage."
p.87 (J'ai Lu, 2010)

"The father tells them to keep still, to smile for the camera.  He looks into his Leica.  A few seconds, and then he raises his head again, troubled.  He looks at them all.  He counts them.  He counts them again.  His heart races.  The youngest, Fanny, isn't in the photo.  Isn't in the group.  Isn't on the beach." (***My Translation)
We then switch to the point of view of the missing child and wade into the ocean with her, waves breaking over us as we slowly make our way into deeper waters.  If only someone could come and save us...

Decades later, Fanny Delbast, the child in the water, picks up the tale of her life as she watches over her father.  She is now fifty years old, and her father, a former doctor and war hero, has just reached his century, an old man enjoying the quiet of his final years.  What seems like a perfect father-daughter relationship has a darker side, however.  Fanny, 'numéro six' in the Delbast family, is a woman who has craved her father's attention all her life, and this book is the story of how she tried to get it - starting with her journey into the water.

One of the main themes Olmi looks at in Numéro Six is the fragile bond between a daughter who idolises, and idealises, her father and a man who doesn't really notice her much at all.  Her decision to take on the responsibility for his care in his twilight years is anything but altruistic, even if her brothers and sisters see it this way.  With the mother who monopolised her father's affection finally gone, it's Fanny's turn to sit by her father's side:
"J'ai mis toute mon énergie à trouver cet endroit.  Je te voulais près de moi.  Dépendant de moi.  Quel soulagement pour le aînés, ils n'y croyaient pas, ils ont dit qu'ils pouvaient payer, que le prix ne devait pas être un obstacle, surtout que rien ne m'arrête dans mes recherches.
 Rien ne m'a arrêtée." (p.90)

"I put all my energy into finding this place.  I wanted you close to me.  Dependent on me.  What a relief for the others, they couldn't believe it, they said that they'd pay, that price was no object, just as long as nothing got in the way of my research.
 Nothing got in my way." ***
As we travel through her early life, we see why she longs for her father's affection so much.  An afterthought, a late, unexpected addition to a large Catholic family, she is less Fanny than numéro six, just a number, the last of the children.  Any trick she thinks of to draw her father's attention seems to backfire, her efforts ignored or repulsed.  She even goes to the extreme of faking a debilitating illness in her childhood - one which renders her virtually bed bound for an entire year.
In truth, though, the more the story develops, the less Numéro Six is about the daughter and the more it becomes the story of the father.  While the man of the now is a hundred-year-old child waiting for his life to end, the narrator gradually shows us more of his roles.  He was a respected doctor, a feared family head, a loving young son and, perhaps most importantly, a soldier during the Great War, one of the sons of France who responded to the call to arms in 1914.

Learning about the war years through her father's letters, the only things Fanny received from the carving up of her parents' estate, she gains an insight into the emotions behind the paternal mask.  Much of her father's behaviour in later years (his fierce love for his wife, his need for silence) can be explained by what happened during the war years, his dreams haunted by memories of life in the trenches and those who were left behind on Flanders' fields.

For me, the lasting memory of the book is of the father, a man who fought for his country but suffered from the effects of the conflict for his whole life (it's a book which is particularly poignant in the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War...).  Fanny is very clear about what she wants from life, needing her father close to her - there's no room for anyone else:
"L'homme de ma vie, c'est toi." (p.107)

"The man of my life is you." ***
Sadly, as much as she tries to claim her father for herself, she never quite gets there.  By the time her mother has left the scene, the man she has waited for her whole life is no longer really there any more...

Numéro Six is fairly short, even shorter than Bord de Mer, but it provides the reader with a lot to think about.  While I've focused more on the father, another review could easily concentrate on the daughter, looking at the dangers of her intense desire to appropriate her father's love.  It'd be nice to think that it'll make its way into English eventually (I actually preferred it to the earlier story), but I suspect that it's unlikely to happen.  It's an awkward length, too long for a short-story collection, and too short to be published as a stand-alone publication.  Still, if your French is up to it, it's well worth a read - and if there's any publisher out there who wants to prove me wrong... ;)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

'Sworn Virgin' by Elvira Dones (Review)

Part of the motivation for Women in Translation Month is redressing the gender inequality in the world of translated fiction.  However, as we all know, literature isn't the only area where the numbers don't quite add up.  Today's book, instead of pushing for equality of the sexes, takes a rather different approach to the issue, though - it seems like a good example of the old saying "if you can't beat them, join them"...

Elvira Dones' Sworn Virgin (translated by Clarissa Botsford, e-copy courtesy of And Other Stories) begins on an aeroplane headed for the USA as Mark Duda, a prospective immigrant from Albania, prepares to land, looking forward to starting a new life in the states.  Cousins are there to welcome Mark to the new country, and the welcomes are warm, greeting the new addition to the expatriate community.

Once back at the home of Lila, Mark's cousin, things get a little more serious.  It's time to make a start on an ambitious project, one which has brought the Albanian from the mountains to the outskirts of the American capital.  You see, Mark's real name is actually Hana - and it's time for the self-sufficient mountain man to blossom into the young woman who has been trapped inside for so long...

Sworn Virgin isn't a transgender tale in the usual sense.  Instead, it's a thought-provoking story based on a real-life phenomenon, that of the sworn virgins of the mountainous northern regions of Albania.  A woman who, for whatever reason, decides not to accept the subservient life of a woman, can legally become a man, taking on the responsibilities (and privileges) of the gender.  While this involves guns, cigarettes and lots of raki, there's also one major sacrifice to be made.  Taking this step is also tantamount to making a vow of chastity.

The story jumps back and forth between Albania and the States, exploring the reasons for Hana's decision to become Mark and the long, arduous process of shedding her male persona:
"I've been a man for fourteen years."  Lila tries to drown her gaze in the oily dregs of the coffee.  "It's not going to be easy," she says finally.  "Not for any of us."
(And Other Stories, 2014)
Hana isn't the only one who's going to struggle with the change.  For example, Shtjefën, her brother-in-law, has seen Hana as a man all his life...

To understand why Hana became Mark, we need to see the background, where the young student is caught between two worlds.  While the communist era pledges equality, things are very different in the deeply conservative mountain regions.  With a sick uncle to care for (her parents having died many years earlier), there's a need for Hana to observe tradition, and (as a fellow student remarks) freedom of action is fairly thin on the ground:
"Free from what, Hana?" he mutters, while she pulls away from him.  "Free from where?  We're just like horses, going round and round in circles."
This is as true for the people in Tirana, under a communist regime, as it is for those in the mountains.  

Once in America, Hana adapts well in some ways to life as a woman in a new country.  She's used to solitude, and she's a hard worker with good language skills.  However, in others she struggles somewhat - she's not really one for dresses, make-up and talking about her feelings.  The final challenge is the most daunting, though, as her goal is to have a real relationship (the 'sworn virgin' is exactly that).  As she begins to meet men, will she be able to alter her mindset and let someone in?

The focus of the book is, naturally, Hana, but Dones also spends time looking at the problems of some of the other characters.  While Hana's niece, Jonida, has thrived in the States, her parents aren't quite as happy.  Shtjefën is working like a dog to make a living, and Lila is, in many ways, more trapped by her gender role than Hana.  A housewife, a cleaner, a fading beauty - her dreams are buried beneath her family responsibilities:
"Because I'd have to go back to school for years and I have a home to run and a daughter to take care of.  I can't afford to pay for another course.  It's too late now."
Despite her attempt to mould Hana in her own image, life as a woman in America isn't as wonderful as Lila would have her cousin believe...

Sworn Virgin works very well, and Dones is especially good at showing the struggles Hana faces in dropping the Mark persona, with Hana having to deal with much more than just superficial, cosmetic changes:
"On the outside she looks almost like a woman.  What's missing is her vision, the point of view from which she is supposed to read the world."
A vital part of her transformation is adopting a female philosophy, a different way of seeing the world - which is not to say that her thinking is completely masculine.  In fact, she often gets caught between two modes of thought.  Despite this, one criticism I'd make of Sworn Virgin is that the novel focuses too much on Hana, and Mark doesn't get a look in.  We see a lot of what caused the change, and a lot of the difficulties of changing back.  It would have been great to see more of how Mark fitted into his community and the practicalities of life as a 'man'.

It's still a great story though, one in which, as Ismail Kadare notes in his (brief) introduction, while it may seem that Hana is gaining something by becoming Mark, in fact, she's losing a lot more.  Hers is a life of many sacrifices, not all of which are willingly made - you see, becoming a man isn't all it's cracked up to be...

Thursday, 14 August 2014

'Spirit on the Wind (and Other Stories)' by O Chong-hui (Review)

One of the standout stories from when I recently read the Modern Korean Fiction collection was 'Wayfarer', a wonderful story by O Chong-hui (AKA Oh Jung-hee) about a woman deserted by friends and family after a traumatic event.  Eager to try more of her work, I looked around to see what else was out there, and if you're looking for a (free) taste of Korean literature, there is (of course) only one place to go - over to Korean Literature in Translation to see what Uncle Charles has found out there on the net.  It turns out that there are a fair few of O's stories you can sample online for free - perfect for another Women in Translation Month post :)

The first story I tried, 'Evening Game' (tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé), was immediately recognisable as a work by the writer of 'Wayfarer'.  It's a story about a woman past marrying age at home with her father, and O never shies away from making her character less than perfect:
"Dizzy from Anaemia and panting from the reeking smell that made me nauseous, I'd stood before the mirror, studying the fine wrinkles and filthy patches of ringworm on my dry skin.  The stains on the gas range tarnishing the stainless steel would prove more malevolent and last longer than my memory of them."
Old before her time, she's trapped at home playing cards with her father every evening.  Why?  Well, there are some secrets in her past which will eventually be revealed... 

Next up were a couple of shorter tales, one of which I uncovered for myself at the Acta Koreana site.  'Weaver Woman' (tr. Miseli Jeon) is a slightly atypical story looking at a woman and her largely silent husband, one with rain, flowers and symbolism which went flying well over my head.  'Garden of my Childhood' (tr. Ha-yun Jung), on the other hand, is recognisably one of O's stories.  It follows a young girl roaming the streets of a country town, the new home of her refugee family as they wait for their absent father to return.  A sub-plot of the mystery of the missing chickens reveals how the family is managing to adapt to their new circumstances - I think you can guess how that one plays out ;)

'Chinatown' (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is a longer, fairly well-known story, and acts almost as a continuation of 'Garden of my Childhood'.  A refugee family moves from the country to the city to restart their lives in a poor, dirty neighbourhood.  It's a coming-of-age story, a portrait of a young girl moving from childhood to puberty, but it's also a story which is built on images - the dirty children, bombed-out buildings and the 'Chinese' houses on the hill.  Like much of O's work, it's a story within a story, and we move back and forth between life in the new neighbourhood and vivid memories of the move to the city.  This is a story you'll find in at least two publications, but you can try it here for free, thanks again to the kind people at Acta Koreana.

I've raced through the first four stories, and I had good reason to.  You see, good as they were, the best one by far was a much longer piece, Spirit on the Wind (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton).  This is a substantial novella in four parts, and it centres on a woman who keeps deserting her husband and child, running off without warning, only to turn up again days (or weeks) later.  The reader soon begins to wonder what exactly is wrong with her - have no fear, we'll soon find out...

Unusually for O, the first and third parts are actually narrated by the husband, Se-ju, an old-school Korean man who expects his wife to do everything for him at home.  He loves his wife (and shows a surprising amount of support and faith in her), but as she disappears time after time, he comes to realise that he just can't do it any more:
"When she returned and our life resumed just as before, our wounds seemed at first glance to have healed.  But with her next absence they would open up, more livid and deep than ever.
 Those wounds never really healed.  On the surface they may have received balm, but it was all a deception.  Like a steady drip of water that undermines a foundation before one realizes it, those wounds had suffused our life, encroaching upon our dreams, our hopes, our trust in each other" (p.18)
While Se-ju himself has his faults, it's tempting to sympathise and believe that the wife is expecting a little too much from him...

Se-ju's wife, Un-su, is a bit of an enigma, and the reader initially wonders whether she's depressed or simply selfish.  The truth, of course, is a little more complex.  It's not giving too much away to reveal that childhood, war-related, trauma is at the heart of her problems, and it's not until the very end of the book that we find out just why she has to disappear so often.  The second and fourth parts of the story are told in the third-person, following Un-su on her journeys, and the more we learn about her past (and her present), the more our sympathies gradually start to shift.

Spirit on the Wind is an excellent novella, beautifully written and translated (by the well-known husband-and-wife team of Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, names aficionados of Korean writing will come across frequently).  In their brief preface, the translators talk of modern K-lit as a literature of trauma, and this story is certainly a good example of that.  However, it's also typical of a woman's struggle in a patriarchal society, with Un-su's issues exacerbated by her husband's attitude and pressure from other family members.

The book is also full of beautiful imagery, though, making Spirit on the Wind a joy to read.  Again, the themes of the story provide links to the writer's other work, especially when, late in the story, Un-su returns to Incheon, the setting of 'Chinatown'.  While I've enjoyed O's other stories, though, this one stands out in my mind as the best of her work I've read so far.  It's one I would recommend as a good introduction to women's writing in Korean literature - especially, of course, as the PDF is available to download for free :)

I did read one more story, 'Lake P'aro', but I'm leaving that one for another time. You see, there is a longer collection of the writer's stories available in English, River of Fire, (which contains 'Lake P'aro'), and I'm hoping to get hold of a copy in the near future.  Stay tuned for more about O Chong-hui/Oh Jung-hee very soon :)

Image (retrieved 23/7/14): (Spanish Wikipedia)

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

'The Blue Room' by Hanne Ørstavik (Review)

When considering books from publishers for Women In Translation Month, one small press definitely stood out.  In addition to releasing sets of three related novellas each year, Peirene Press have also kept the gender balance fairly even, with their first fourteen books equally split between male and female writers.  With that in mind, and having not read the latest Peirene offering, opting for today's book was an easy decision to make.  If only all life's decisions were as simple...

Hanne Ørstavik's The Blue Room (translated by Deborah Dawkin, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a psychological novel set in two different places.  The first is the blue room of the title, the bedroom of Norwegian student Johanne, where the unfortunate young woman wakes one morning only to find that she can't open the door - because it's been locked from the outside.

Naked, confused and distressed about being unable to get to the airport (she was about to embark on a trip overseas), she is forced to spend the day thinking about why she's being kept in her room.  The second setting for the story, then, is Johanne's mind, and we're immediately taken back a couple of weeks to her first meeting with the handsome Ivar, the catalyst for all that has followed.  However, wherever and whenever Johanne's memories take us, one thing is certain; there's a shadowy figure in her subconscious, and it's someone very close to home...

The Blue Room is an excellent book, and after one reading it's up there with my favourite Peirene books (probably my favourite of the ones I've read in English).  A fascinating read, it's also frustrating at times, as the writer takes us on a trip through the psyche of a damaged, submissive young woman.  In following Johanne's thoughts of the past two weeks, we are given a look at the problem of family relationships and the dangers arising when family members become that little bit too close.

Johanne is an intriguing creation.  While she's an intelligent, popular and presumably attractive young woman, she's also wracked with doubts, convinced she's not up to the challenging life path she's drawn up for herself.  She's a psychology student who's keen to jump to conclusions, swinging from happiness to self-loathing in seconds, and the minutely-detailed plans she has are shattered by the appearance of the charming Ivar.  Of all eventualities, it appears that love is the one she's least well-equipped to deal with...

Which is not to say that she doesn't want to be loved; in fact, she's desperate for affection.  However, Johanne is actually looking for a lot more:
"Why can't somebody take care of me?"
p.146 (Peirene Press, 2014)
This simple plea is key to her personality, revealing a longing to be dominated, a wholly submissive nature which is in danger of taking over her life.  The relationship with Ivar, which, for most people, would be a joyous time, is overshadowed at times by her depressing thoughts.  Her mind is full of disturbing images, her fantasies, nightmares, of what might happen if she allows herself to get swept away.

If you're wondering where this all comes from, you don't have to look very far.  A recent Twitter meme was asking for examples of bad parents in literature, and Johanne's Mum would be right up there.  As well as showing us a fragile young woman, Ørstavik also creates a portrait of the mother as a highly damaging influence, a controlling, manipulative shadow hanging over poor Johanne's life.  This is a mother-daughter relationship which goes a little too far (as shown by some quite disturbing scenes on the toilet..).

Of course, she is the one who has locked Johanne in her room, leaving her daughter to have a good think about her actions.  The mother herself, though, is not without her own issues, as we learn through the rare glimpses of the past which slip through Johanne's subconscious.  The daughter's fear of men stems from the mother's own experiences:
"Men are so simple.  Controlled by sex and power.  Like robots", she said. (pp.51/2)
With Johanne reliant on her mother for accommodation and living expenses if she's ever going to achieve her plan of  building up a psychology practice (an idea which someone else planted in her mind...), she feels as if she's using her mother, a feeling which leads to guilt.  In truth, though, it's most definitely the mother who is abusing her position.

Ørstavik's novel is a wonderful piece of writing, with an excellent translation, a book which skilfully inserts occasional, shocking images amongst the stream of mundane thoughts running through Johanne's mind.  For the most part, the book is written in short sentences, but the sentences become longer, and more emotion laden, when Johanne gets excited, the plain descriptive prose being overrun by frantic, violent thoughts.  In addition to the themes covered above, there are several other areas which could be explored at length, such as the importance of Johanne's faith in both helping and suppressing her and the symbolism of her back pain, a feature which comes up again and again in the story.  Someone else will have to follow those themes up, though ;)

As with most Peirene books, intertextual reading is also tempting.  Meike picks her books very carefully, and while the three works released each year form a whole, there are always nods back to previous offerings.  In terms of an unreliable narrator who offers the reader incomplete information, Next World Novella springs to mind, while the focus on a mother smothering her child will inevitably lead to thoughts of Beside the Sea.  Perhaps the guiding ethos of the Peirene empire is that mother does *not* always know best...

However, with its central theme of parental domination, perhaps it's The Mussel Feast which best complements The Blue Room.  Without giving too much away, the book is really all about Johanne's day in her room and what will happen to the mother-daughter bond when she gets out.  While the reader will be hoping Johanne manages to break free, it's difficult to see someone so guilt laden being able to stand up to her oppressor when she appears so trapped, both mentally and physically:
"But what do we do with the guilt?  Being ignorant of the moment things began, we can repeatedly deny guilt, pointing ever further back to a previous event as the starting point - it wasn't me.  I prefer to think the opposite.  To think of myself as guilty of everything, thus giving me a responsibility and a duty to change." (p.15)
It's all very well for Virginia Woolf to ask for a room of one's own - it's of no use unless you're able to go in and out without needing to ask for permission...

Sunday, 10 August 2014

'The Life of Rebecca Jones' by Angharad Price (Review)

While I've covered many languages over the course of the past few years, there are so many others out there that I haven't managed to get to.  Luckily, today's post sees me rectifying that situation with a language that's very close to home, both geographically (my hometown in England is not too far from the border) and biologically (with two of my grandparents born there, it really is the land of my fathers).  I'm sure most of you will have worked it out by now, but let's see where Women In Translation Month is taking us today :)

Angharad Price's The Life of Rebecca Jones (translated by Lloyd Jones, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) is a beautiful little book, an elegant look at the life of a woman who has spent her whole life in a secluded valley in North Wales, the heart of the Welsh-speaking community.  Part biography, part history, the book starts with the narrator at the end of her life at the beginning of the twenty-first century, from where we follow her back to the beginning of the twentieth century to see her mother and father returning after their wedding to their home in the valley of Maesglasau.  This sets the scene for Rebecca herself to appear in 1905 (and on page nineteen).

What follows is a leisurely journey through the life of the family over the next hundred years, and despite being secluded in the middle of nowhere, it's actually a rather eventful story.  With brothers born into blindness, and the risk of infant mortality ever present, growing up wasn't as easy as it might have been.  At times, she compares the unfolding of her life to the course of the stream running through the valley, even if she admits that there are limits to this comparison:
"Indeed a stream is not the best metaphor for life's regular flow between one dam and the next.
 I have not mentioned the reservoirs.  In these the emotions congregate.  I approach them with hesitation.  I stare into the still waters, fearing their hold on my memories.  In terror I see my own history in the bottomless depths."
p.35 (MacLehose Press, 2014)
On the whole, Rebecca relates the ups and downs calmly, making a hard, bitter life sound calm and desirable.  We always suspect, though, that there's something more below the surface, just waiting to be uncovered.

The Life of Rebecca Jones is a wonderful little book, and it's already considered as a Welsh-language classic, despite having been written a mere dozen years ago.  The original title (O! Tyn y Gorchudd, which translates to 'O! Pull aside the Veil') is taken from a hymn written by a resident of the valley centuries ago, but the significance goes beyond its writer.  There's an obvious nod towards the blind brothers, but there's also a hint that our sight is also limited, with certain things beyond our view.

While the plot, as it is, is fairly simply, the book is wonderfully descriptive.  It opens our eyes to a life that seems light years away, but is, in fact very similar to that lived by our own grand-parents and great-grand-parents.  The family live a life dictated by the elements, matters revolving around seasonal events such as harvest time and shearing.  For those of us accustomed to supermarkets with an almost unlimited array of food, the idea of only being able to eat what's in season (and only having fresh meat for a few months of the year) is a rather alien one.

Life's hard for everyone, but it soon becomes clear that it's doubly so for women.  The farmer works hard outside, but the wife's job spans a much wider area, with cooking, cleaning and  child-minding added to various outdoor jobs, including bringing food to the workers.  It's not a situation which would be accepted today, but Rebecca sees it as a natural consequence of the farm environment:
"At important times, such as shearing or harvest, Mother was expected to do her share of the tasks, in addition to preparing food and drink for a horde of men twice in a day.  After clearing the table she'd go out to work again until sunset.  Then she'd need to prepare supper for everyone and put us children to bed, after which she'd clean the tens of plates and dishes that had accumulated during the day.
 My father never offered to help.  It wasn't expected." (p.23)
Yes, it was still very much a man's world, as shown during one of Rebecca's rare trips to England.  Visiting Oxford, she's dazzled by the beautiful college buildings - it's just a shame that, as a woman, she's not allowed to see what's inside...

With the story being a mere succession of events, there's a danger of the novel becoming pretty, but dull, but towards the end of the story, change is skilfully woven into the structure.  Events move more quickly, changes become more obvious and progress rears its head - whether it's an ugly or attractive one depends on your point of view.  Certainly, many changes are welcome; the coming of electricity means that light can be had at any time of day, and the invention of the washing machine turns a day's hard labour into an hour sitting chatting over a cup of tea.

However, not all change is for the better, and as helpful as these innovations are, they actually help to speed up another trend, that of the demise of the local way of life.  As Rebecca sits in her ancient cottage in the twilight of her years, she sees the demographic shift sweeping across the valley, with young Welsh people moving away and the middle-class English moving in to enjoy the idyllic scenery.  She also sees into the future, predicting the gradual, yet inevitable, erosion of the status of Welsh, as English becomes used in more and more places, eventually displacing the local tongue.  In this way, a book about the passing of one old woman becomes representative for the decline of an ancient language and culture...

The Life of Rebecca Jones is a fascinating book and a rather personal one for the writer.  Angharad Price is actually Rebecca Jones' grand-niece (and is mentioned once by name in the book), and the majority of what happens in the book is simply a factual account of her family history.  However, there's a twist in the tale, and her work is an example of Sebaldian intermingling of real life and imagination, family details and black-and-white photos twisted around a liberal dose of imagination and some elegant writing.

It's this writing, above all, which makes the book, and credit must go to Lloyd Jones, a writer himself, for his excellent work.  There's a successful mixture of simple prose and more descriptive writing, and the book never comes across as stilted or unnatural.  I enjoyed the challenge of the Welsh words and place names scattered throughout the text, but those who might be a little more daunted by this are catered for too.  There's a guide to pronunciation at the back, and you'll soon be racing through phrases like Cwm Maesglasau without missing a beat ;)

In short, this is a beautiful tale of rural life and a search for tranquillity in an ever-busier world.  It's not an easy thing to seek out, a fact Rebecca acknowledges:
"From the moment of conception until the moment of death, tranquillity is within and without us.  But in the tumult of life it is not easily felt.  It shies away from our inflamed senses and all physical excitement; it recoils from our birth cries, from the rush of light to the eye, and from the fond indulgence of our loved ones, salty tears and sweet kisses, our earth-bound corruption and putrescence, the ghastly grunt of death...
 When our senses are spent we seek tranquillity again.  And as we age, our search for it becomes more passionate, though never easier." (pp.9/10)
If you're in need of some, though, you could do worse than try reading Price's (and Rebecca's) story, an island of calm in the hurried rush of life.  It's definitely a read for those in search of a little tranquillity of their own :)

Thursday, 7 August 2014

'The Pillow Book' by Sei Shōnagon (Review)

While we'll be travelling around the world during Women in Translation Month, most of our journeys will be fairly contemporary, with the majority of books written in recent years.  However, today we'll be taking a big jump in time as well as space as we look back to the end of the tenth century.  Yes, it was a man's world then too - but one best written about with a female touch ;)

Sei Shōnagon's The Pillow Book (translated by Meredith McKinney) is one of the earliest, and best-known, works of classic Japanese literature.  Less a novel than a series of musings and anecdotes, Shōnagon's work is a description of life at the Imperial court around the turn of the millennium, giving the reader an insight into how the rich and noble lived a thousand years ago.  Mainly descriptive, the book also reveals a lot about Shōnagon herself, allowing us to build up a picture of a woman at court.

As you can imagine, this was a different place and a very, very different time.  Sei describes the seclusion of a miniature world, ensconced in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, with occasional excursions for processions and pilgrimages.  The main focus of the book is the daily life at court, where hours are spent entertaining the Empress, chatting with other gentlewomen and discussing the elaborate clothes worn by courtiers and government officials.  Which may all sound a little bit... well, dull,

Actually, though, it's all a bit racier than that - morals were a little different then.  Other major areas of interest are the romances and night visits the women of the court receive from the men surrounding the Emperor, and our Sei is certainly a woman who has had her share of such liaisons, allowing her to offer her thoughts on the subject:
"One does want a lover's dawn departure to be tasteful  There he lies, reluctant to move, so that she has to press him to rise.  'Come on, it's past dawn,' she urges.  'How shocking you are!' and his sighs reassure her that he really hasn't yet had his fill of love, and is sunk in gloom at the thought that he must leave."
[60], pp.55/6 (Penguin Classics, 2006)
These relationships, while officially frowned upon, were fairly commonplace, and  Sei describes a whole ritual of poem exchanges and gift-giving which surrounded the nocturnal visits.

The writer excels in these descriptions thanks to her keen eye, her intelligence and her wit.  Coming from a family known for its literary prowess, she's constantly completing poems and recognising allusions to Chinese poetry.  While, at times, she does seem a little conceited, she's well mannered enough to be the first to admit it:
"When one's returned home on a visit and a senior courtier or someone of the sort comes to call, it would seem that there's gossip or criticism.  I don't let this annoy me, since after all I'm not exactly renowned for my modesty and prudence." [79], p.72
Still, boastful or not, she does (in her own eyes) seem to be a favourite of the Empress, and there are many examples of real friendship between the two.

She's not everyone's darling though, and the introduction mentions later criticism of Sei by Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji.  Her sneering (which reminded me a little of Charlotte Brontë's sniping at Jane Austen...) was partially explained by the fact that Murasaki was herself at court at a later date, attending on a rival empress.  It does seem unfortunate, then, that Penguin decided to adorn the cover of this book with a scene from The Tale of Genji...

Quite apart from the cultural aspects, though, The Pillow Book contains some beautiful writing, with elegant vignettes and moving poems, including the famous first lines:
"In spring, the dawn - when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple clouds float in the sky." [1], p.3
While she has an elegant, poetic turn of phrase, Sei's eye for amusing details also makes for some very entertaining stories.  One of the best of these is the story of a returning lover who stops for a morning chat with another woman of the court.  All the while, the messenger of this woman's lover waits impatiently in the shadows for the man to depart - so that the love poem from his master can be delivered to its unworthy recipient!

Despite these gems, The Pillow Book is far from perfect, and, truth be told, it can drag a bit.  The main culprits for this are the endless lists the writer provides of items she deems worthy of mention: things which are refined and elegant, things which are unsuitable, trees, waterfalls, woods...  While this is fine in moderation, many simply lose much of the intended meaning in translation (most items are chosen for puns on the names), and after a list too many, the reader's eyes begin to glaze over.  In addition, the style can be a little repetitive (deliberately so - it's scary to find that the translator has actually lessened the repetition in the course of her work...).

As much as it is Sei's work, though, much of the credit has to go to McKinney.  The Pillow Book is actually a confusion of entries (there are four different extant versions in Japanese), so there was a lot of work to be done before the actually translating could even begin.  In addition to translating the book, McKinney has provided an excellent introduction, copious notes (at times, overwhelmingly so) and numerous appendices, including glossaries, diagrams and drawings of court attire.  Hats off to McKinney and Penguin - they truly have gone all out on the extras for this one ;) 

The Pillow Book is great fun, but it's a work to dip into, not to plough through - it's definitely best taken in small doses. There are some great stories and excellent scenes of court life, showing Shōnagon as the entertainer she was.  As McKinney says:
"Shōnagon was writing not only for but, in an important sense, on behalf of her audience at court as she noted, described and discussed the myriad things that engaged her interest..." (p.xxii)
The women at court are not the only ones who benefited from her hard work - reading The Pillow Book has been great preparation for my (much-delayed) quest to read The Tale of Genji.  After my experiences with Sei Shōnagon's work, though, I think I'll be taking things a little more slowly when it comes to Lady Murasaki's masterpiece - a little classical Japanese literature goes a long, long way...

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Women in Translation Month - A Few Suggestions

Several bloggers have come up with lists of recommendations and links to reviews for Women in Translation Month, and I was very keen to follow the trend - until, that is, I realised that I actually had a fair few links to add...

Having given up on the idea of linking to all my reviews of women in translation, I opted for the next best thing, a (fairly) representative top twelve of the reviews that have appeared on the blog over the past few years of books by non-Anglophone female writers.  While the geographical grouping leaves a little to be desired (my focus on German, Japanese and - more recently - Korean literature means that these languages dominate), these were the ones I thought needed to be included in my top dozen :)  So, in order of appearance on the blog....


Das Gemeindekind (The Parish Child) by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Children in Reindeer Woods by Krístin Ómarsdóttir

Sommerhaus, später (Summerhouse, Later) by Judith Hermann

Nachdenken über Christa T. (The Quest for Christa T.) by Christa Wolf

Das Muschelessen by Birgit Vanderbeke

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

70% Acrylic 30% Wool by Viola Di Grado

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

Anatomie einer Nacht (Anatomy of a Night) by Anna Kim

No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

I'll Be Right There by Shin Kyung-sook

Some great books there, all worth hunting down and devouring - so, what are you waiting for? ;)

Monday, 4 August 2014

'My Son's Girlfriend' by Jung Mi-kyung (Review)

If you're a regular visitor round these parts, you'll know that this year has seen a lot of Korean literature reviewed, mainly because of the Library of Korean Literature project from Dalkey Archive Press and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.  While we may be focusing on Women in Translation this month, the K-Lit trend will still continue throughout August, so here's another to add to the collection :)

Jung Mi-kyung's My Son's Girlfriend (translated by Yu Young-nan, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of short stories about life in modern-day Korea.  The collection runs to almost 220 pages, but as most of the stories are about thirty-pages long (extended stories seem to be fairly common in Korean writing), there are actually only seven pieces in the collection.  However, there are several powerful stories, each exploring the problems faced by people trying to live their lives in 21st-century Korea, some universal, some specific to those living on the peninsula.

A major issue in Korean society is social mobility, and in the title story, a mother is confronted by this problem after her son falls in love with a young woman from a background of poverty.  As she attempts to allow her son to work out his feelings for himself, the beautiful, shy young girl reminds her of an admirer she had in her youth, a boy she led on even though she had no intention of developing a serious relationship with him.

It's an excellent story in which the reader sees life from various social strata.  The woman's family lives at the top of an exclusive apartment building, literally looking down on the city, and it's hard to believe that the son's passion is anything but a temporary rebellious notion.  In addition to the main action, there's also a clever sub-plot involving a driver employed by one the building's residents in which the idea of social inequality is further reinforced.

Of course, being at the top is a lot easier than getting there, and in 'I Love You' Jung takes a look at a couple who are desperate to get a foot on the ladder to success.  A struggling investment analyst and a lecturer desperate for a permanent position, they're people at risk of falling behind their contemporaries, comfortable, but going nowhere.  When an opportunity comes along for them to form close ties with a wealthy businessman, it's little wonder, then, that they take it without too much consideration.  However, it turns out that this involves a fairly indecent proposal, and the couple are left to wonder what sacrifices are worth making for a shot at a luxurious lifestyle.

Another troubled relationship is described in 'The Bison', where a sculptress puts on her first show after the death of her husband:
"Only after he was gone did I realize that all of us are carrying a chill in our hearts as heavy as the weight of the universe.  Just like the bison who lived during the Ice Age, we've been thrown here, though we don't know whence we came or why, and we must walk on ice, fighting off the cold with our entire bodies.  After he was gone, what seized me was not sorrow but an intense chill."
'The Bison', p.55 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
This passage is a little deceptive though - while the artist may miss her husband, their relationship was far from ideal.  With his saintly obsession on providing aid for the starving in the North, she felt a cold chill well before his untimely death...

By now, you'll have realized that there aren't too many happy souls in this collection, and existential malaise is a theme which runs through the stories.  'In the Wind' sees a woman going through the mental agonies of IVF treatment, all the time wondering if it's what she even wants, especially when she's not even sure about her marriage any more:
"Once formed, a relationship meant bondage to another person for a lifetime, so why did people want to weave new webs of relationships?"
'In the Wind' (p.90)
The protagonist of 'Cicadas' is also tortured, but in a very different way.  He's suffering from tinnitus, and the constant noise of Seoul is slowly driving him crazy.  A chance encounter with a fragile young woman offers some relief, but having read some of the other stories in this collection, the reader doesn't hold out much hope for a happy ending here either ;)

My Son's Girlfriend may be a little depressing, but it's a very good collection of stories (only 'Signal Red', a story about a woman's relationship with a colour-blind man, was a little disappointing).  A phrase which kept coming back to me while reading the book, my own, personal leitmotif for the collection, was one from my own younger days.  As all blur fans will no doubt remember, modern life?  Well, it's rubbish.  The sad thing is that many of these protagonists aren't even holding out for tomorrow - they'd rather just end it all today...

The last story is, in many ways, perhaps the darkest.  'Night, Be Divided!' follows a successful film-maker on a trip to Oslo, where he takes advantage of the trip to catch up with an old friend from school, a hyper-successful doctor whose brilliance always amazed his friend.  Having turned to research, the doctor's new challenge is to create a drug - to make people fall in love:
I ask, "Do you think the loss of love is a disease?"
 "Well, doctors call what they can cure a disease and what they can't cure inherent human traits.  They don't call loneliness, jealousy and sorrow diseases.  Before the advent of sleeping pills, people just couldn't sleep.  Insomnia wasn't an illness.  With the emergence of Prozac, depression became a more common ailment.  When my drug is perfected, the extinction of passion will become a disease."
'Night, Be Divided!' (p.191)
It's another chilling, horrible thought, and the story (which becomes very bleak indeed) is a fitting conclusion to the book.  It's worrying to think that for many Koreans (according to Jung, at least), modern life really is that rubbish.  Luckily, I can assure you all that My Son's Girlfriend is far from rubbish - it's actually very good :)