9 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist as “the greatest realist writer of all time.”

Proust resolves the childish oversimplification of the realism of his time by bringing to the foreground, with unique insight and a fabulous means of expression, a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements. It is very likely that great writers are significant in that they function as a kind of crossroads – in their ability to overcome contradictions that human petty-mindedness had transformed into rigid structures. I think it is evident that Proust banished from his literary horizons petty, low-ceilinged, reductive realism. On the one hand, he is much more realist than the writers in this vein and, at the same time, succeeds in sublimating reality by getting much closer to its essence, by re-creating it in its essential entirety, in its immense, wondrous complexity.

Pla shows what he has learned from Proust in The Gray Notebook, the first of his works to be translated into English. (Archipelago Books will be releasing another one of his books in the fall.) In fact, The Gray Notebook can be seen as Pla’s version of In Search of Lost Time, although, interestingly enough, Proust had only published two of the seven books at the time Pla had originally written this. Even though Proust’s name has come up a lot lately (thanks to writers like Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard), comparing him with Pla seems appropriate.

Even though Pla initially wrote these journal entries when he was in his early twenties, he returned to them decades later, so, like Proust, he was looking back upon his youth during a time when it had been so far away from him. Pla’s writing also shares some other similarities with Proust, such as his eye for detail, but the Catalan is no imitator: Where Proust favored long, digressive sentences about the French aristocrats that populated his world, Pla offers fragments of the less fortunate town and city folk that surrounded him. Throughout these fragments, Pla’s humor and wit shine, even during the darkest moments.

In fact, Pla started The Gray Notebook during one of those dark moments in time. In 1918, as World War I was ending, a deadly influenza pandemic was spreading throughout the world. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of the world’s population was infected, and an estimated 50 million died from this flu.) As a result, the university Pla was attending in Barcelona closed for a time, so he had to return to his parents’ home in Palafrugell along the eastern coast of Spain. Even though he was studying law, Pla wanted to be a writer and, on his twenty-first birthday, he started composing his notebook entries.

After briefly mentioning his ancestors and some of his earliest memories, Pla starts to describe small-town life, which is filled with many colorful characters, including Roldós, the bohemian pianist at the local cinema, and Josep Bofill de Carreres (also known as Gori), the town magistrate. Gori has some pretty interesting opinions about everything, including justice, marriage, and the war. One night, in the café where Pla and his other friends get together, Gori talks about what he believes was the biggest effect of the war. “It introduced short underpants,” he says to Pla. “After centuries of wearing long underparts mankind today can finally breathe.” Gori also criticizes Pla for his love of realism and believes literature should be an escape from reality.

However, as seen in the quote mentioned earlier, the young Pla has plenty to say on that subject, too. Besides Proust, Pla also appreciates Catalan writers such as Josep Carner, who was also known as the “Prince of the Catalan Poets.” “Catalan literature today has a very attractive quality: It is a literature completely devoid of mannerism. Mannerism palls immediately. Its style is so difficult, so hard, so stiff, and so rigidly written and hedged with obstacles, that everybody writes as best he can . . . and make of it what you will!” He also defines realism as the “new rule” in literature because of the passion that inspires it.

Pla demonstrates this passion for realism even during the most humdrum moments. For example, his description of relaxing on a boat near the El Canadell beach is so vivid and realistic that a reader cannot help but be drawn into the scene.

At two o’clock, the toast-colored shadow is a foot wide and the sand the sun has just deserted is still warm. But as it gets later in the afternoon, the shadow spreads and the sand cools. . . . The light is a hazy, effervescent, dazzling white. It melds with the air, white walls, and pinkish sands to create misty vapors that glide, twist, and turn. The pale, bluish void of the sky seems to shimmer with light. The herd of foaming white horses gallops monotonously over the azure of the sea. Everything happens so quickly and spontaneously and in the red-hot frenzy the shade is so cooling that a drowsy stupor spreads through your body releasing and relaxing your entrails.

Not everything about Pla’s life is idyllic, though; this is particularly evident in the second half of the book, which covers most of 1919. By January of that year, Pla was able to return to Barcelona, although he was less than enthusiastic about getting his law degree (and returning to that city, which he describes as being “like one endless cemetery”). In fact, the entries for Barcelona present a sharp contrast to the ones for Palafrugell.

One of the reasons for this contrast is Pla finds himself surrounded by chaos at times. Even though the war is over, a general strike leads to the military occupying the city (Pla ends up doing some part-time service). He also witnesses unruly students wreaking havoc in a mineralogy and botany class. Meanwhile, Pla’s family becomes a source for other worries: His brother catches the still-lingering flu, and his father’s financial situation, which was never great to begin with, worsens.

Furthermore, Pla sometimes isolates himself from others. He calls himself a “chatterbox” but admits that he has “no talent for friendship”; after rudely interrupting a poet who is proposing a festival, he wins “another enemy.” Even when he is around friends, he leaves them to go out for strolls. “It seems I am fated to be a wanderer,” he writes. In fact, walking around Barcelona is something Pla likes to do a lot. At one point, he skips classes for four days so he could take strolls along the Rambla, one of his favorite streets in the city.

Still, Pla doesn’t spend this section of the book dwelling on the negative or living a life of solitude. For instance, Dr. Joaquim Borralleras (or Quim, as Pla calls him) eventually becomes a significant part of his social circle. (This circle also included Eugeni d’Ors and Francesc Pujols, who would both become famous in their own right.) While Quim criticizes Pla’s initial attempts at writing, he ultimately helps Pla fulfil his dream of being a writer by encouraging him to be a journalist. Pla apparently took Quim’s advice very seriously: He worked as a journalist until the 1970s, when he started preparing his complete works. (Incidentally, Quim was also the one who recommended that Pla read Proust.)

Pla’s remark that Proust composed “a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements” arguably applies to this work as well. Some readers may initially find it too rich: The multitude of characters, anecdotes, and opinions can seem overwhelming at times. However, Pla’s search through lost time is definitely one worth accompanying him on, especially as he grows as a writer and a man. Peter Bush’s translation is equally appealing, as he brilliantly retains the idiosyncrasies of these characters for English readers. (Having Pla call d’Ors “Frenchified” was a nice touch.) Overall, while Pla originally questioned the value of his notebook within its own pages, the reader who becomes enchanted by it will not only be thankful that it was preserved but will look forward to reading more from him in the near future.

9 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on The Gray Notebook translated by Peter Bush, and out from New York Review Books.

This is another 600+ page book that screams to be read—Pla’s tome describes life and observations in Barcelona, entries written by his twenty-year-old self in the early 1900s. And while Pla did rework and tweak his notebook over the almost fifty years he held on to it before publishing it, this promises to be a pretty candid view of what life was like in Spain then (including during the Spanish Flu, no less), and with a youthful critique and sense of certain sense of humor. And not to be overly book-reader-cocky about essay-autobiographies, but if NYRB published it, it’s obviously going to be a good read.

So add this one to your summer lists! And now, here’s a part of Chris’s review:

Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist as “the greatest realist writer of all time” . . .

Pla shows what he has learned from Proust in The Gray Notebook, the first of his works to be translated into English. (Archipelago Books will be releasing another one of his books in the fall.) In fact, The Gray Notebook can be seen as Pla’s version of In Search of Lost Time, although, interestingly enough, Proust had only published two of the seven books at the time Pla had originally written this. Even though Proust’s name has come up a lot lately (thanks to writers like Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard), comparing him with Pla seems appropriate.

Even though Pla initially wrote these journal entries when he was in his early twenties, he returned to them decades later, so, like Proust, he was looking back upon his youth during a time when it had been so far away from him. Pla’s writing also shares some other similarities with Proust, such as his eye for detail, but the Catalan is no imitator: Where Proust favored long, digressive sentences about the French aristocrats that populated his world, Pla offers fragments of the less fortunate town and city folk that surrounded him. Throughout these fragments, Pla’s humor and wit shine, even during the darkest moments.

For the review in its entirety, go here.

6 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction by Mario Bellatin, translated by David Shook, and out from Phoneme Media.

Most people can appreciate high-quality writing with a good (literary) prank, and most people can appreciate a finely cultivated mustache. And when you have both, and it stems from these guys:

you obviously and absolutely cannot go wrong. Not much more needs to be said as an introduction for either Mexican author Mario Bellatin or translator David Shook, other than that both are incredibly accomplished, and another review of Bellatin’s work is here and David has the coolest mustache and reviewed for Three Percent before. So, without further ado, here is a bit of Chris’s review:

Nagaoka’s story begins with his birth, which was difficult because of his nose. The two midwives who assisted his mother thought his large appendage was a “punishment” for his aristocratic family’s “excessive enthusiasm that accompanied the arrival of foreign ideas.” At an early age, he wrote hundreds of stories (mostly about “affairs related to the nose”) and later experimented with writing stories in multiple languages. Besides literature, Nagaoka was also interested in photography. His combined love of literature and photography later resulted in the book Photos and Words, which “heavily influenced” Juan Rulfo, the real-life writer of Pedro Páramo. However, his early investigations into photography resulted in an unsolved murder which, according to a “certain Mexican writer,” is mentioned in the untranslatable novel.

Following that incident, Nagaoka joined a Buddhist monastery and lived there for 13 years. During this time, he attempted to write “a large novel” that was originally going to be a “masculine version” of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji but somehow ended up being a Japanese version of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. At the same time, his nose became so big at one point that he needed someone to hold it up for him during meals. As if his troubles during mealtimes were not bad enough, the other monks, despite the rules of the novitiate, would taunt Nagaoka and play with his nose.

After being expelled from the monastery, Nagaoka set up a kiosk to sell rolls of film and develop them. One of his customers was a famous Japanese writer. Oddly enough, Nagaoka was not interested in this writer’s works but rather in his photographs of bathrooms. These photographs inspired Nagaoka to compose “his most solid work,” Photos and Words, which was popular enough to be translated into English by LIFE magazine in the 1950s.

For the rest of the review, go here.

6 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“I am honored to have ushered Mario Bellatin’s biography of the great Shiki Nagaoka, a writer and artist almost entirely unknown to English-language readers, into English for the first time, and it is my hope that this new translation begins to redress his under-acknowledgement as a major influence on contemporary world literature. Bellatin’s highly stylized study is the most important work on the author to appear since Pablo Soler Frost’s 1986 monograph, Possible Interpretation of [untranslatable symbol], notable for its pedantry, perhaps best evidenced by the average (mean) tally of semicolons per page: 47.”

This is how translator David Shook begins his preface to Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction. However, Nagaoka never existed; Shook is just going along with a joke which, according to a New York Times article, originated at a writer’s conference years ago. When asked about his favorite writer, Bellatin answered that it was a Japanese author who had an unusually large nose and wrote a highly-influential novel in an untranslatable language. The audience members believed the Mexican writer, so Bellatin decided to write this “biography.”

Nagaoka’s story begins with his birth, which was difficult because of his nose. The two midwives who assisted his mother thought his large appendage was a “punishment” for his aristocratic family’s “excessive enthusiasm that accompanied the arrival of foreign ideas.” At an early age, he wrote hundreds of stories (mostly about “affairs related to the nose”) and later experimented with writing stories in multiple languages. Besides literature, Nagaoka was also interested in photography. His combined love of literature and photography later resulted in the book Photos and Words, which “heavily influenced” Juan Rulfo, the real-life writer of Pedro Páramo. However, his early investigations into photography resulted in an unsolved murder which, according to a “certain Mexican writer,” is mentioned in the untranslatable novel.

Following that incident, Nagaoka joined a Buddhist monastery and lived there for 13 years. During this time, he attempted to write “a large novel” that was originally going to be a “masculine version” of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji but somehow ended up being a Japanese version of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. At the same time, his nose became so big at one point that he needed someone to hold it up for him during meals. As if his troubles during mealtimes were not bad enough, the other monks, despite the rules of the novitiate, would taunt Nagaoka and play with his nose.

After being expelled from the monastery, Nagaoka set up a kiosk to sell rolls of film and develop them. One of his customers was a famous Japanese writer. Oddly enough, Nagaoka was not interested in this writer’s works but rather in his photographs of bathrooms. These photographs inspired Nagaoka to compose “his most solid work,” Photos and Words, which was popular enough to be translated into English by LIFE magazine in the 1950s.

Still, despite the book’s popularity, Nagaoka lived in a modest house and didn’t take his writing career seriously, although he continued to write in notebooks, one of which had a giant nose on the cover. “At the end of his life,” the narrator writes, “he embraced the idea that, realistically, the size of his nose had determined his existence.” Some of these recorded memories appeared in a posthumous work called Posthumous Diary, which inspired a French cult-like group called the “Nagaokites” to further investigate his work. However, “in his final years, Shiki Nagaoka wrote a book that for many is fundamental. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in any known language.”

Bellatin is obviously having a lot of fun telling this story, and he never tries to hide the fact that it’s a prank. He also slyly pokes fun at the audience members who originally bought the story about Nagaoka. In one scene, while in a state of dementia, Nagaoka throws his manuscripts into a bonfire, which nearly destroyed a forest near the monastery. “Only the timely action of the rest of the monks, who were woken by Shiki Nagaoka’s anguished screams, reduced its consequences to a circle of singed forest. On that occasion, Shiki Nagaoka lied. He said that the fire originated from the passion he had put into his prayers.” Later, the narrator informs us that at the time, the monks didn’t question this.

Following the biographical portion of the book are 30 pages of photographs by Ximena Berecochea. While these photos appear in a section titled “Photograph Documentation of Shiki Nagaoka’s Life,” most of them consist of objects and locations mentioned in the book. Only three of them contain the author, but they were either manipulated to hide his nose or taken from a distance. In fact, the funniest photo is Nagaoka’s fifth grade graduation photo: Only a circle on the faded right side of the photo indicates Nagaoka’s appearance in it.

While it may appear that Shiki Nagaoka is a joke that has gone on for far too long, it is actually worth reading, thanks to Bellatin’s skill as a writer and prankster. Also, the actual text is only 43 pages, so that in one sitting you can also enjoy what the audience of the writer’s conference heard (and believed) so many years ago.

14 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmer, and out from Penguin Books.

Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he also runs the Good Coffee Book Blog. Here’s an excerpt from his review:

Before escaping to Wales, Emilie was a translation studies instructor who has been working on a thesis on American poet Emily Dickinson. She was fired after it was revealed that she’d had an affair with a student. She confessed the affair to her husband (most of the characters’ names are not revealed until the climax) but then fled, leaving her cell phone on the ferry. Once she arrived in Wales, she decided to rent the farm for the last two months of the year. The only things she brought with her were a mattress, some books, a portrait of Dickinson, and some painkillers.

The farm has a field with ten white geese. Despite the field being surrounded by barbed wire, the geese begin to disappear. Emilie suspects that a fox might be eating them and feels guilty about it; also, she’s only “renting” them, so when there are only six left, she builds them a shelter that they end up spurning. “They ran off the wrong way in a column or scattered, as if understanding that it was hard to choose between six separate birds. . . . Panting, she scooped up a few pebbles and threw them at the geese. ‘Ungrateful, dirty, filthy, stinking, pig-headed creatures!’ she shouted. ‘I’m trying to bloody save you!’”

Ironically, Emilie, who smokes and takes her painkillers with alcohol, seems to be the one who needs saving. Early in the novel, she’s attacked by a badger after resting on its stone circle near the house. Nobody believes that the bite on her foot came from a creature commonly perceived as peaceful. “That’s impossible,” more than one person tells her. However, this “badger story,” as it comes to be known, is not just a running gag used during the story’s lighter moments.

For the rest of the review, go here.

14 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

A few weeks after moving into a farm house in the Welsh countryside, Emilie, an expatriate from the Netherlands, starts to think about her uncle. This uncle tried to drown himself in a pond in front of the hotel where he worked. Even though he stuffed his pockets with heavy objects from the hotel, the pond was too shallow, and the water only reached his waist. At one time, Emilie was close to her uncle growing up, but she hasn’t thought of him in a long time.

Perhaps she did now, in this foreign country, because it was November here too or because she sensed how vulnerable people are when they have no idea what to do next, how to move forward or back. That a shallow hotel pond can feel like a standstill, like marking time with the bank—no start or end, a circle—as the past, present and unlimited future. And because of that, she also thought she understood him just standing there and not trying to get his head underwater. A standstill. . . . She inhabited the house the way he’d stood in the pond.

This episode haunts Emilie throughout Ten White Geese, the second novel by Gerbrand Bakker to be translated into English, as she tries to figure out how to move forward. However, in her attempts at a new life, she not only experiences cultural and language barriers, but she eventually faces the threat of going back to everything (and everyone) she abandoned.

Before escaping to Wales, Emilie was a translation studies instructor who has been working on a thesis on American poet Emily Dickinson. She was fired after it was revealed that she’d had an affair with a student. She confessed the affair to her husband (most of the characters’ names are not revealed until the climax) but then fled, leaving her cell phone on the ferry. Once she arrived in Wales, she decided to rent the farm for the last two months of the year. The only things she brought with her were a mattress, some books, a portrait of Dickinson, and some painkillers.

The farm has a field with ten white geese. Despite the field being surrounded by barbed wire, the geese begin to disappear. Emilie suspects that a fox might be eating them and feels guilty about it; also, she’s only “renting” them, so when there are only six left, she builds them a shelter that they end up spurning. “They ran off the wrong way in a column or scattered, as if understanding that it was hard to choose between six separate birds. . . . Panting, she scooped up a few pebbles and threw them at the geese. ‘Ungrateful, dirty, filthy, stinking, pig-headed creatures!’ she shouted. ‘I’m trying to bloody save you!’”

Ironically, Emilie, who smokes and takes her painkillers with alcohol, seems to be the one who needs saving. Early in the novel, she’s attacked by a badger after resting on its stone circle near the house. Nobody believes that the bite on her foot came from a creature commonly perceived as peaceful. “That’s impossible,” more than one person tells her. However, this “badger story,” as it comes to be known, is not just a running gag used during the story’s lighter moments.

In a strange way, the badger, the geese, and even that mysterious creature eating the geese are trying to tell her that she doesn’t belong in Wales. They’re not the only ones: some of the locals, including a snarky doctor and an intolerant hairdresser, treat her more like a tourist than a new resident. Even the friendly wife of a baker makes her feel that she cannot survive here on her own.

Furthermore, a couple of characters also try to assert their authority over Emilie: the repulsive “caricature of a Welshman” named Rhys Jones and the mysterious university dropout Bradwen. Jones doesn’t own the land that she’s renting, but acts as a messenger from the real-estate agent who does. Also, because of an arrangement made in the past, he lets his sheep graze on the farm without asking her permission and comes and goes whenever he pleases; at one point, he even makes an unwanted advance toward her.

Her relationship with Bradwen is more complicated. While establishing a long distance route that would include a path through her farm, he falls and hurts himself. She offers to let him and his dog Sam stay the night. They leave the next morning but return that afternoon. Since Bradwen doesn’t want to return to his father, she lets him stay; in exchange, he performs various chores and errands for her. She also agrees to help him establish the route.

Initially, it appears that Bradwen is trying to help her move forward, literally and figuratively. As the novel progresses, they become more intimate, even though she sometimes struggles to communicate with him. In one interesting scene, Emilie, who is fluent in English, finds herself having trouble understanding a simple word like “kite,” which Bradwen uses to describe a bird. “She couldn’t work it out. She knew that it meant something else, this word that the boy had said twice now, but she could only picture a red diamond on a string with a tail of knotted rags. Somewhere in her head, something needed to happen. His English needed to become her English, so that she could simply understand him.”

However, even when language is not a problem, they do not always understand each other. For example, on more than one occasion, when Emilie commands Bradwen to leave the house, he refuses. He acts as if she needs him for the errands and chores, but the reader senses that he has another motive. Sometimes, he assumes things about her; at another point, when she’s asking him questions, he shuts her down completely.

While Emilie and Bradwen are trying to work out their relationship, her husband, like Emilie’s uncle, doesn’t know whether to “move forward” or “move back”; eventually, he chooses the latter. After he is released from jail for attempting to burn down the university, he seeks help from his in-laws; however, every time he does, a communication breakdown occurs. In one scene, while the Dutch version of American Idol is distracting them, Emilie’s parents trail in and out of conversation with her husband. The in-laws do not help much, but the husband ends up finding an unlikely ally: the police officer who arrested him. When the husband accidentally learns that his wife may have some kind of serious illness, the officer helps track her down.

While Ten White Geese is not a thriller, it does have the pacing of one. Bakker gives the reader some great plot twists, which balance well with the minimalist descriptions of life in the country and the disjointed dialogue, competently translated by David Colmer. However, even though readers will be absorbed in the plot, they will also be compelled by the characters and their struggles to break through the barriers that keep them from moving forward.

2 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Christopher Iacono on Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, forthcoming in April from Archipelago Books.

Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he also runs the Good Coffee Book Blog, and has a new coffee mug that aptly describes my state of mind earlier this morning (Rochester was greeted to 6’ of snow this morning—the light, fluffy kind that makes you want to sleep in, skip the office, and slink out to the closest bunny hill for some maximally not-death-defying boarding. And by “you” I mean “Kaija,” particularly re that last part).

Since many of you are also probably back in the office this week and looking for inconspicuous ways to waste some time until you’ve fully recovered from whatever it is you do during the holiday stretch, why not read Chris’s review on a book about an ex-slave who lives in a tree and talks to herself? WELCOME TO 2014, EVERYONE! First review of the year! FIRST. DIBS. Here’s the beginning of his review:

In the beginning of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Afrikaans author Wilma Stockenström, the narrator, a former slave, walks on the path from the hollow trunk of the baobab tree in which she dwells to a water source that she shares with animals. As she collects her water using two “gifts” (a clay pot and an ostrich egg used for a scoop), she considers the journey that brought her to the African veld where she now resides:

If I cannot even know everything on the short walk from the entrance to the baobab to the heap of potsherds and other finds, so many steps there, so many back, what of my journey, which sometimes feels as if it took a lifetime and still lasts, still goes on, even if now I am traveling in circles around one place?

This journey began when she was forced into slavery as a girl. After being sold to different owners over the years, she became part of a failed expedition that brought her to the veld. However, as she observes in the quote above, the journey has not yet ended, in spite of the fact she has now made her home inside the tree. But instead of traveling to a different place, she exhibits the toll her experiences have had on her psyche as her lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the animals that wander through it are eventually overpowered by her imagination.

For the rest of the review, and to have a great 2014, click here.

2 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In the beginning of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Afrikaans author Wilma Stockenström, the narrator, a former slave, walks on the path from the hollow trunk of the baobab tree in which she dwells to a water source that she shares with animals. As she collects her water using two “gifts” (a clay pot and an ostrich egg used for a scoop), she considers the journey that brought her to the African veld where she now resides:

If I cannot even know everything on the short walk from the entrance to the baobab to the heap of potsherds and other finds, so many steps there, so many back, what of my journey, which sometimes feels as if it took a lifetime and still lasts, still goes on, even if now I am traveling in circles around one place?

This journey began when she was forced into slavery as a girl. After being sold to different owners over the years, she became part of a failed expedition that brought her to the veld. However, as she observes in the quote above, the journey has not yet ended, in spite of the fact she has now made her home inside the tree. But instead of traveling to a different place, she exhibits the toll her experiences have had on her psyche as her lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the animals that wander through it are eventually overpowered by her imagination.

The narrator (none of the characters are named) starts out by describing her life in the veld. She tries to keep track of the days by using green and black beads that she finds, although she later uses them in a more haphazard manner. She also “competes with animals” for scarce food that only makes her sick. Finally, she admits that to get through her days in the veld, sleep is “the dense solution,” and only when she wakes does she feel a sense of empowerment. “Imperiously I stand now and gaze out over the veld, and every time I step outside the world belongs to me. Every time I step out from the protecting interior of the tree I am once again a human being and powerful . . .”

This sense is quite a sharp contrast from her time as a slave. Despite her claims at the beginning that she is “ignorant” and “stupid,” she actually shows some intelligence, but her status as a slave prevents her from ever thriving beyond the confines that others have forced upon her. For example, her first owner was only interested in deflowering her and sold her as soon as she gave birth to a child, which was later taken away. Her second owner, a spice merchant, made her “toil with a pick and hoe in the garden in the murderous heat” during the day while living under the threat of having her tongue cut out. Her third owner, whom she called her “benefactor,” showed her signs of tenderness that were undermined by a bad reputation.

After the benefactor’s death, she tried to run away but was captured along with other slaves who were eventually massacred. As she relives the moment she spoke to these slaves, she discusses the fear that has remained with her all this time.

I told them all I knew about my origins. Humbly I offered them the scanty history. My facts I patched together as they occurred to me, my memory of a journey with fear the starting point and fear the end point. I was well grounded in the knowledge of fear. I had felt him in my blood vessels, for he had come to live in me and I had begun to smell like him, and with his eyes I had seen forests and plains shift by poisonous and distorted; with his ears I had listened, and there was a growling, and even the stillness rumbled, and there was bitterness in my cheeks. Oh, fear is by no means whatsoever a connoisseur of events. He gobbles up everything. He crushes everything. He leaves no bloody trail behind because he stands still. Everything comes from him, feels drawn to him, and he knows it.

Later, she goes with the benefactor’s eldest son on an expedition to try to expand his late father’s business, an expedition she calls “fantastical” and “stupidly romantic.” On the journey, she keeps close to her final owner, a man known as “the stranger.” However, things start to go awry during the expedition: leaders fight among themselves, cattle disappear. Eventually, the narrator finds herself without the protection of the stranger.

Instead, the tree becomes her only protection; it not only provides her shelter from the elements, but also becomes her confidant. As she recounts the story of that fateful expedition, she wishes she could write, so she could “scratch [the tree’s] enormous belly from top to bottom.” “Thus I decorate you line after line with our hallucinations so that you can digest, outgrown, make smooth this ridiculousness, preserve the useless information in your thick skin till the day of your spontaneous combustion . . . You are full of my scars, baobab. I did not know I had so many.”

Thanks to Stockenström’s rich language (wonderfully translated by award-winning novelist J. M. Coetzee) and brilliant use of symbolism, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is a heartbreaking story about what we stand to lose as humans, and about how what we stand to lose can never be returned. While the novel is not exactly a fable, Stockenström does incorporate elements from that genre in her story, not only by using animals for important aspects of the story, but also by eschewing names to show that, in the end, we are all part of the same human race. Finally, like the fables of the past, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree provides a moral: Regardless of our social status, the impact we cause on other humans lingers for a long time.

12 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Christopher Iacono on Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, out from New York Review Books.

Chris is a new addition to our reviewers, and is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he also runs the Good Coffee Book Blog.

Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane swept, mosquito ridden, nasty-minded island. But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing on my garden, till death comes and takes me as I dream, me and all my joy.”

This is how Telumee “Miracle” Lougandor begins her story in the new edition of The Bridge of Beyond by Caribbean novelist Simone Schwarz-Bart. This introductory paragraph sums up her life: Despite the fact that fate has brought her life so much suffering from the time she was born, she finds happiness in it. In fact, Telumee is the last of a line of strong women who showed great strength during times of great adversity.

After being freed by an owner known for his cruelty, Telumee’s great grandmother, Minerva, works the land and raises her daughter with the help of another in a hamlet called L’Abandonee. Minerva’s daughter, Toussine, is not as lucky as her mother: Her house burns down, two of her children die, and her husband is murdered. Meanwhile, her third child, Victory, who is also Telumee’s mother, spends her time getting drunk and wandering the streets, unable to care for her two daughters. Despite the tragedies and the fact that she is isolated in a cabin in another village, she becomes venerated as “Queen Without a Name.”

Go here for the rest of the review.

12 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane swept, mosquito-ridden, nasty-minded island. But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing on my garden, till death comes and takes me as I dream, me and all my joy.”

This is how Telumee “Miracle” Lougandor begins her story in the new edition of The Bridge of Beyond by Caribbean novelist Simone Schwarz-Bart. This introductory paragraph sums up her life: Despite the fact that fate has brought her life so much suffering from the time she was born, she finds happiness in it. In fact, Telumee is the last of a line of strong women who showed great strength during times of great adversity.

After being freed by an owner known for his cruelty, Telumee’s great grandmother, Minerva, works the land and raises her daughter with the help of another in a hamlet called L’Abandonee. Minerva’s daughter, Toussine, is not as lucky as her mother: Her house burns down, two of her children die, and her husband is murdered. Meanwhile, her third child, Victory, who is also Telumee’s mother, spends her time getting drunk and wandering the streets, unable to care for her two daughters. Despite the tragedies and the fact that she is isolated in a cabin in another village, she becomes venerated as “Queen Without a Name.”

After Victory finds “her god. . . . a great connoisseur of feminine flesh,” she sends Telumee to live with her grandmother. Toussine brings Telumee across “the bridge of beyond”—“a floating bridge over a strange river where huge locust trees grew along the banks, plunging everything into a blue semidarkness”—to her cabin. Despite the circumstances that brought the two together, they immediately bond with each other.

During their first years together, Toussine instills wisdom into her granddaughter through proverbs such as “life is not all meat soup” and “They’re only big whales left high and dry by the sea, and if the little fish listen to them, why, they’ll lose their fins.” She also tells stories such as “The Man Who Tried to Live on Air” to remind Telumee and her friend, Elie, about good and evil in the world. However, their relationship is not just filled with pithy expressions and mythical tales. As Telumee points out, “she was only waiting for me to pour forth the last floods of her tenderness, to revive the gleam in her worn-out eyes. There we were in the woods, supporting each other, tackling life as best we could and as we pleased.”

Toussine also introduces her to some colorful characters including the sorceress Ma Cia, who has been known to change into animals such as horses or birds. Of course, the folklore surrounding Ma Cia makes an impression on the young girl, and no one—not even the wise Toussine—tries to dispel any of the myths. During their visit to Ma Cia, though, Telumee learns about the island’s dark past. “For the first time, I realized that slavery was not some foreign country, some distant region from which a few very old people came . . . It had all happened here, in our hills and valleys, perhaps near this clump of bamboo, perhaps in the air I was breathing.”

In addition, it is around this time that Telumee learns that even though she is not a slave, she is not one of the fortunate ones, either. During a brief visit, Victory brags about her other child, Regina, who wears fancy dresses and can read and write. As if that isn’t bad enough, Telumee later becomes an employee of the Desaragnes, who are descendants of slave owners, in order to help her ailing grandmother. As their employee, Telumee not only has to put up with the insults of Madame Desaragnes, the lasciviousness Monsieur Desaragnes, and poor living conditions, but she is also not able to see her family and friends for long periods of time.

This is not to say that Telumee’s existence is completely miserable. There are moments of happiness, albeit brief. For example, she and Elie have the opportunity to go to school. She also escapes from the Desaragnes and later marries Elie, who becomes a logger and is a big dreamer like her. Later, she finds joy with Ely’s logging partner Amboise and the child Sonore.

Unfortunately, though, things do not turn out the way Telumee hoped. Those whom she thought she could depend on end up betraying her, and those who do not betray her die, leaving her alone. At one point, she even tries to unsuccessfully conjure a spell with Ma Cia’s help. Still, she remembers the lessons she learned from her upbringing with Toussine.

I see that heaven’s gift to us is that we should have our head thrust into, held down in, the murky water of scorn, cruelty, pettiness, and treachery. But I also see that we are not drowned in it. We have struggled to be born and we have struggled to be born again, and we have called the finest tree in our forests “resolute”—the strongest, the most sought after, the one that is cut down the most often.

Overall, The Bridge of Beyond, which was brilliantly translated by the late Barbara Bray in 1974, is a unique experience, a spiritual journey in a harsh place that employs the vibrant language of proverbs, legends, lore, and even songs. Even though there is no linear plot, the reader is compelled to stay with Telumee’s story until the very end because of the unbreakable bond with her ancestors from whom she learned about crossing the “bridge of beyond” over the “murky water of scorn.” Through this amazing journey, Schwarz-Bart conveys the message that these hardships are part of life, but they should not be enough to bring us down.

....
Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

Read More >

Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

Read More >

The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

Read More >

Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

Read More >

Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

Read More >

Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of. . .

Read More >

The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

Read More >