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Kafka dreaming: Two contemporary fabulists

Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.

My strategy for BTBA reading is very simple and very biased: I read the books by women first, and if there are no books by women, then I read the shortest ones first. I start with the women because there are fewer of them, and with the short books because they make me feel accomplished.

One of the first books I read was Can Xue’s The Last Lover (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen), a novel by one of China’s best and strangest contemporary writers. I had been enchanted a few years ago by her short story collection Vertical Motion, which is populated by all sorts of Kafkaesque sons and animals.

Can Xue’s work is dreamlike, but not in the hazy, poetic way that that word usually implies. Rather, her stories follow the logic of dreams, particularly in The Last Lover: locations shift abruptly, characters’ reactions are unexpected or irrational, elements from previous scenes are suddenly re-assembled in new configurations. The Last Lover, a story of three couples, is perhaps best understood as taking place in a largely or entirely imaginary space. The lovers are wandering not through the world, but through each other’s dreams, which nevertheless resemble some version of the world. The book is baffling at times, and after reading it I often stood up slightly dizzy. But something about it is tenacious. Like Kafka (whom she greatly admires), Can Xue is able to create metaphors that are understood deeply and intuitively even while they elude intellectual comprehension.

The Last Lover surfaced in my thoughts again recently when I found another book by a modern-day sister of Kafka’s.

Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (translated from Estonian by Ilmar Lehtpere) is a slim book (only eighty pages) of surreal fairy tales. In one, a woman bites the arms off three successive husbands, all named Jaan. In another, a skeleton called Lena tells of her life on an island that has “torn itself free from the ocean floor.” A third woman has written a grammar of bird language and collects apricots from her “six former husbands” (her enumeration of their respective qualities recalls Kafka’s story “Eleven Sons”).

Some of the stories are noticeably weaker than others, but in the best of them there is a certain freedom found in all good fables, including Kafka’s: the freedom to be read both literally and figuratively. Kristiina Ehin’s stories are metaphors for emotional events, usually ordinary ones like falling in or out of love, but they are sometimes very original metaphors, interesting as fiction in their own right. Like Can Xue, Kristiina Ehin encourages us to interpret her work while simultaneously hinting that interpretation is not important.

Whether or not either of these titles ends up on this year’s longlist, they deserve to be read, not only on their own merits, but as representatives of marginalized literatures. We know that only 3% of the English-language book market is devoted to works in translation; how much smaller is that percentage when we count only books by women, let alone books by women from China or Estonia? Indeed, it has taken me depressingly little time to get through all the BTBA submissions by women that I’ve received up to now. I hope that more are on the way, and that more (especially from under-represented countries) are slated by publishers for the coming years.

In the meantime, as I continue to read wonderful things by writers of all genders, I can’t help but noticing that these two, The Last Lover and Walker on Water, have a curious capacity to linger in my mind, even as technically “better” books fade from memory.



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