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.

18 December 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.

One of the many interesting things about judging the Best Translated Book Award is the sense it gives you of what (and how much) is actually being translated into English (and published/distributed in the US). Thanks largely to Dalkey Archive Press’ Library of Korean Literature, for example, we’re suddenly exposed to about a dozen Korean titles this year (without the Dalkey publications, it would be more like … one). The statistics can be revealing – and disappointing. Sure, we get … well, if not quite any number so at least a whole lot of French titles – but Chinese ? Isn’t Chinese literature hot right now ? Last time the database we rely on was updated (i.e. there might still be some unaccounted for) I counted all of three eligible titles.

Numbers-wise, among the literatures which seems to consistently punch above its population-weight, along with Icelandic and Hebrew, is Dutch (meaning: Dutch and Flemish), and while we have (at last count) quote-unquote only six works of fiction to consider … well, damn, it is an impressive selection (and the Vondel Prize-folks — who have to consider two years’ worth of publications — have their work cut out for them).

I haven’t seen one of these yet — The Square of Revenge, ‘An Inspector Van In novel’ by Pieter Aspe – and I suspect that its being part of a mystery series makes it a longshot to get longlisted, but I note that Aspe has apparently sold millions and that this book did get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (only as part of Marilyn Stasio‘s ‘Crime’-round-up, but still). [As it turns out, there’s a double-bill of Inspector Van In novels eligible – a second one, The Midas Murders, having also appeared in the eligible period (but failing to make it onto the database for now – an omission Chad will rectify shortly. So that’s seven – and counting … – Dutch titles in the running.]

Even if they are great mysteries, the Aspes will be hard-pressed to compete with the other Dutch titles elbowing for spots on the longlist. First off, there’s Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake , in Ina Rilke’s translation — which fellow-judge Daniel Medin has already delighted in in a previous Three Percent/BTBA post. Haasse — who died just two years ago, at a very ripe old age – wrote this back in 1948. While quite a bit of the work by this grand old lady of Dutch literature has been published in translation, it’s great to see this important, powerful little novel about colonial Indonesia finally also available in English.

There’s another, even older work in the running, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s 1932 novel, The Forbidden Kingdom. This unusual time-bridging narrative features Portuguese traveler and poet, Luís de Camões, as well as a modern-day (well, early 20th-century) events, and is a wonderful (and wonderfully surprising) more-than-just-adventure novel.

Then there’s Gerbrand Bakker’s Ten White Geese — which you might also recognize from the title it was published in the UK under, The Detour , since it, in David Colmer’s translation, already won the biggest translation-into-English prize on the other side of the Atlantic, the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, With Bakker’s previous novel, The Twin, already making the 2010 BTBA shortlist it’s clear he’s an author – and this a book – that has to be taken pretty seriously.

Finally, there are the two Sam Garrett-translated titles – notable not just because they share a translator (Anthea Bell has him beat there, hands down, with five translations in the BTBA-running) but because they’re in many ways quite similar works – and both were incredibly successful in the Netherlands. One is Tirza, by Arnon Grunberg, the other The Dinner by Herman Koch. Amazingly, both were reviewed in the not-known-as-very-open-to-fiction-in-translation New York Times Book Reviewhere and here – and The Dinner even got the Janet Maslin treatment in the daily Times (she loathed it).

One seems to have done much, much better sales-wise than the other — The Dinner, which actually can boast of being a New York Times bestseller (indeed, it spent quite a few weeks on the bestseller lists). Yet Tirza is the clearly superior work; as Claire Messud concluded in her NYTBR review of The Dinner, that novel, while “absorbing and highly readable, proves in the end strangely shallow”. Tirza, on the other hand, is both entertaining and, ultimately, profound.

Both novels have a horrific twist. In the case of The Dinner it is one that’s, at least in its outlines, fairly obvious early on – but just keeps getting more twisted and horrific as the novel progresses (an admittedly very nice and disturbing touch). Tirza seems to follow a simpler arc of personal dissolution before taking its more surprising final turn into the abyss.

The Dinner uses a meal at a fancy restaurant as its foundation, taking readers through the many courses while incongruously (that’s the intent, anyway) increasingly disturbing revelations are made. With one of the characters running for high political office (prime minister, in fact), The Dinner is a cruel satire of contemporary Dutch movers and shakers (and any notion of civilized behavior in general). By turns shocking as well as occasionally funny, it does have considerable shock-value-appeal – but there’s not that much more to it. Koch does reasonably well, but not quite well enough with what is also ultimately a very ugly tale that – as Messud noted – doesn’t really have much depth to it.

Tirza also involves an almost unspeakable act, but Grunberg is the far superior craftsman in leading readers there, the shock, when it comes, all the more affecting. It’s a remarkably convincing portrait of a man falling apart. Like Koch’s novel, it’s uncomfortable to read, in part, but whereas Koch’s exaggerated satire can also be shrugged off – good for cocktail-party chatter, but hardly to be taken seriously as an in any way a profound critique of society – Grunberg’s novel sits much deeper.

I can see the easy appeal of The Dinner – part of which is surely also that it can be shrugged off fairly easily, as over-the-top satire often can. Tirza, much more personal than public (no one running for the highest office in the land here …), may not be a novel whose protagonist readers want to identify with either, but it’s a completely convincing portrait of (a) contemporary man and contemporary society.

This BTBA selection process, of narrowing down the three or four hundred eligible books, first to a longlist, is challenging. I’ve just gone over the Dutch titles here, and I think there’s a strong case to be made for four of them to at least reach the final-25 stage. Whatever the outcome – I am only of nine judges, after all, and I can’t be sure how my fellow judges feel about these (and the many other worthy) titles – I’d be surprised if Tirza didn’t make the cut, and if The Dinner did.

15 February 13 | Chad W. Post |

I hate to admit it, but a few years ago, when Archipelago first sent me a copy of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, I assumed that it was a book that I was probably never going to read. I mean, it’s a book about a farmer. A quiet book about a farmer. An introspective aging farmer taking care of his invalid father. From the jacket copy:

Ostensibly a novel about the countryside, The Twin ultimately poses difficult questions about solitude and the possibility of taking life into one’s own hands. It chronicles a way of life that has resisted modernity, a world culturally apart yet laden with familiar longing.

Nothing about this seems like the sort of jagged, crazy, confusing, challenging books that I generally find myself drawn to.

But man was I wrong about this one.

I did end up reading it, and recommended it for the Best Translated Book Award shortlist. And damn, is it a spectacular book. Everything’s so understated in here, but never boring. Here’s what “I wrote about it back in 2010:”:

[I] started reading one night and literally couldn’t put this down. There’s something mesmerizing in Bakker’s prose, in the way he slowly builds the sense of isolation and duty that rules Helmer’s life. Unveiling secrets small and large in very precise, stark language. Lyrical in an understated way.

Now, although Bakker didn’t win the BTBA that year, he did end up winning the IMPAC, which helped give this book a significant boost and practically ensured that his other books would eventually make their way into English.

Which brings us to Ten White Geese, which comes out from Penguin on the 26th. I received a copy of this just a few days ago, and haven’t had a chance to start it, but unlike my reaction back in 2009, this time I’m certain that I’ll read this.

Especially since John Siciliano hand wrote me a note stating that this was “perhaps my favorite of all the novels I’ve published.” That’s some high praise from a very trustworthy source.

Once again, the set-up sounds quiet and introspective. According to the copy, it’s a novel “haunted by the spirit of Emily Dickinson” and takes place in rural Wales. On a farm. With geese. And cows, dogs, badgers, etc. But in contrast to The Twin, this sounds a bit more mysterious and tinged with danger.

On the farm she finds ten geese. One by one they disappear. Who is this woman? Will her husband manage to find her? The young man who stays the night: Why won’t he leave? And the vanishing geese?

Expect a full review in the near future. Actually, rather than waiting for that, you should just get both The Twin and Ten White Geese now. They’re worth it.

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