20 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Andrea Reece on Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends, translated by Jordan Stump and out from Two Lines Press.

Andrea has worked as a professional translator for many years and recently completed an MA in literary translation at the University of Exeter. Here’s a part of her review:

All My Friends consists of five stories in a slim, 140-page volume whose length belies its complexity. Of course, short stories cannot be summed up in a single sentence, but just to give an idea of what they contain, whilst leaving them to reveal their own surprises to future readers, here are five one-line summaries:

The title story “All My Friends” is about a separated former school teacher who amorously pursues an ex-pupil; “The Death of Claude François” charts an encounter between two childhood friends that reveals very contrasting lives thirty years later; “The Boys” portrays two youngsters whose sacrifice rescues their families from hunger and hardship; “Brulard’s Day,” the longest story, follows a fading, second-rate actress as she loses her self-esteem. In the final story, “Revelation,” just six pages long, a mother and son go on a bus journey from which only the mother will return.

The deliciously mouth-watering opening sentence immediately gets to work: “The next time I see Werner, once this is all over, a nervous snicker will be his only greeting. He’ll back a few steps away, cautious and for once, unsure of himself.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

20 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

For my first review for Open Letter Books, I was delighted to discover in my letterbox in the French Pyrenees a copy of Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends. Tearing open the package, I savored the look and feel of the jacket covers, as is my habit prior to dipping into a book. It was smooth, rich and velvety to the touch, black as darkness on the front, and milky brown as my favorite galaxy chocolate bar on the back, deep, luscious colors connected by the electric blue of the spine.

I delighted in rolling the sound of the author’s surname on my tongue—two syllables or perhaps three, a name as exotic sounding as the translator’s definitive single syllable is business-like. His name on the cover already a pleasant surprise for a British reader accustomed to the translator’s invisibility, hidden away as he or she normally is in small font on an inside page.

And then there was the suitcase on the front cover—brown leather, battered and worn, disappearing into the black inkiness to who knows where. The back cover, a close-up of the tacks holding it together. Memories of a half a dozen or so such cases in my grandparents’ loft touched a profound emotional chord. I liked the book already, there are friends in the title and we are going on a journey or journeys with a suitcase—if there were but that in life, it would be plenty.

A final exterior tour before settling into the first story. The back cover blurb leaps out at me with the assertion that this is “NDiaye’s lacerating look at the personal trials we fight every day to suppress” and the New York Times Book Review on the inside cover flap boldly claims that NDiaye is a storyteller “with an unflinching understanding of the rock-bottom reality of most people’s lives.” Intriguing . . . will I, inside these pages, find my personal trials or rock-bottom realities mirrored? Let’s see . . .

All My Friends consists of five stories in a slim, 140-page volume whose length belies its complexity. Of course, short stories cannot be summed up in a single sentence, but just to give an idea of what they contain, whilst leaving them to reveal their own surprises to future readers, here are five one-line summaries:

The title story “All My Friends” is about a separated former school teacher who amorously pursues an ex-pupil; “The Death of Claude François” charts an encounter between two childhood friends that reveals very contrasting lives thirty years later; “The Boys” portrays two youngsters whose sacrifice rescues their families from hunger and hardship; “Brulard’s Day,” the longest story, follows a fading, second-rate actress as she loses her self-esteem. In the final story, “Revelation,” just six pages long, a mother and son go on a bus journey from which only the mother will return.

The deliciously mouth-watering opening sentence immediately gets to work: “The next time I see Werner, once this is all over, a nervous snicker will be his only greeting. He’ll back a few steps away, cautious and for once, unsure of himself.”

NDiaye opens the suitcase and displays her consummate short-storytelling skills: a flash forward, the mysterious Werner who doesn’t appear again until eight pages later and whose identity is not revealed for another fifteen, a first-person narrator whose gender remains murky for seven long pages, and plenty more questions besides. NDiaye skillfully and elliptically draws us in. As a British reader, I linger on the unfamiliar American “snicker,” not sure of its exact intent (mocking, ironic, dry, embarrassed . . . ?) and also because it seems to tilt me into an American context rather than the expected French one.

Yet the snicker jogs me into wondering—is place important in NDiaye’s stories? Some characters’ names are French, others could cross borders unnoticed. Settings are generally in France or the Francosphere, but the further the reader penetrates the stories, the more the themes and motifs become insistently human rather than culture-specific.

The thread running through the work is the broken, defective connections between people themselves and between individuals’ inner desires and outer reality. These connections are like dots that, no matter how hard you try, are impossible to join up to make a coherent picture.

The protagonist in All My Friends, abandoned by his spouse and the victim of unrequited love, slides into an insanity that feeds his belief that even his house opposes him, as he speaks of “the disquiet that my house’s whispering depths inspire in me every night (for my house doesn’t like me).” His house machinates against him while Werner, more in control of his life, has “the house of a flourishing adult.” In “Brulard’s Day,” ageing actress Eve is tormented by the invisible presence of her youthful self and is caught in an unstoppable decline embodied by her “brown tasseled loafers. That she’d been reduced to wearing such shoes tormented and astonished her at the same time.”

Other stories juxtapose wealth with poverty, choice with lack of choice and are peopled with characters who orbit one another in utterly different realities. In “The Boys,” “feeble, scrawny and misshapen” René, who blends in with the “shabby chiaroscuro of the far end of the room,” looks on enviously as his handsome young neighbor Anthony is sold to a rich city woman to rescue Anthony’s mother from hardship. Yet René’s fervent wish “Let me be bought, bought, bought” gets him something very different from what he anticipated.

Similarly, the characters in “The Death of Claude François” pay high prices to achieve their desires: to engender her ideal child, Zaka had “coupled with a white elephant, and that generous but slow-witted animal wouldn’t give up on the idea that it was her equal.” Desire and reality—like the stories themselves—slip in and out of reach.
“Revelation,” the final story, is a perfect distillation of all NDiaye’s themes—the opposition between inner and outer worlds, between self and the other, and the missed connections that do indeed mirror our personal trials, as the blurb suggested. Struggles that are never more clearly explored than in the mind of the mother willfully abandoning her damaged child: “She’d be coming home alone, thank God: how she would miss him!”

All My Friends is not an easy read; short stories by their nature are laconic and elliptical, and NDiaye courageously constructs plots and writes of issues that are inherently, almost overly, complex. The reader is required to engage his or her own imagination and interpretation—but is richly rewarded for the effort.

8 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Tiffany Nichols on Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories by Santiago Roncagliolo, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman and published by Two Lines Press.

Tiffany, who is relatively new to the Three Percent contributors’ club, is an avid reader of literature in translation and runs the mouthwatering food porn and book-geeking Tumblr blog tiffany ist.

Here’s a bit from Tiffany’s review:

When starting Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories, Santiago Roncagliolo’s second work to be translated into English, I was expecting Roncagliolo to explore the line between evil and religion that was front and center in Red April. Admittedly, I could have not been more wrong. Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories makes no direct mention of religion or evil, instead consisting of four dark short stories, each focusing on isolation and detachment. What draws the reader to the characters of this work is that each of us has analyzed such a withdrawn individual in ourselves, or in another, with gross curiosity and misunderstanding.

The first story, “Hi This Is Conchita,” is a collection of telephone conversations, unrelated at first, but which over time magically and seamlessly come together to reveal a social network of underlying love, deceit, and irony among the callers. The conversations are stripped of all literary fluff, leaving only the dialog exchanged on the line. One conversation involves an obsessive-compulsive phone sex customer who cannot reach climax due to his concern of the placement of a green filing cabinet in the office in which he secretly makes the calls. Another conversation concerns an ex-boyfriend who obsessively counts the most mundane things about his past relationship on his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine, trying to attribute these tallies to meaning in their failed relationship. The third conversation concerns a customer who uses a customer service line as his only daily form of human contact. The last focuses on a hit man who falls in love with his target, only to find that he has misidentified the target after it is too late.

8 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

When starting Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories, Santiago Roncagliolo’s second work to be translated into English, I was expecting Roncagliolo to explore the line between evil and religion that was front and center in Red April. Admittedly, I could have not been more wrong. Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories makes no direct mention of religion or evil, instead consisting of four dark short stories, each focusing on isolation and detachment. What draws the reader to the characters of this work is that each of us has analyzed such a withdrawn individual in ourselves, or in another, with gross curiosity and misunderstanding.

The first story, “Hi This Is Conchita,” is a collection of telephone conversations, unrelated at first, but which over time magically and seamlessly come together to reveal a social network of underlying love, deceit, and irony among the callers. The conversations are stripped of all literary fluff, leaving only the dialog exchanged on the line. One conversation involves an obsessive-compulsive phone sex customer who cannot reach climax due to his concern of the placement of a green filing cabinet in the office in which he secretly makes the calls. Another conversation concerns an ex-boyfriend who obsessively counts the most mundane things about his past relationship on his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine, trying to attribute these tallies to meaning in their failed relationship. The third conversation concerns a customer who uses a customer service line as his only daily form of human contact. The last focuses on a hit man who falls in love with his target, only to find that he has misidentified the target after it is too late.

“Despoiler,” the second story in the collection, is an intriguing and atypical example of fabulism where Carmen, an isolated women crossing the right of passage of turning forty, is reacquainted with the beloved stuffed animals of her childhood in human form during Carnival. Of course, these animals appear to be adults in costume, but as we all learned at a young age—looks, especially when masks are involved, can be deceiving.

The third and probably most disturbing story, “Butterflies Fastened With Pins,” is a compendium of individuals who have committed suicide and whom the narrator has encountered. What is most troubling about the recollection of the suicides is how detached the narrator is from the victims, but how vividly he is able to describe everyone else’s personal reactions to the suicides and their aftermath. The narrator always remains detached, calculated, and controlled in descriptions of the facts surrounding the suicides, but provides an almost poetic account of how the other observers succumb to grief, misunderstanding of death, and inability to cope with the suicides.

The collection closes with “The Passenger Beside You.” Although “Butterflies” was the most disturbing, “Passenger” is by far the most eerie in the collection. In this account, Roncagliolo explores a corpse’s last moment of intimacy during a final examination by a medical examiner mechanically performing his job function. What is most unnatural about the account is how closely the reader will experience these last moments of intimacy from the perspective of the corpse. The corpse narrator vividly describes the methodical carefulness of the medical examiner’s touch, starting from the outside surface of the body and moving to his calculated exploration inside the corpse’s body. The progression will cause you to shudder, but will also leave you almost invigorated and intrigued by the intimate connection between the corpse and her detached examiner.

Roncagliolo is an incredibly gifted storyteller who is able to execute many writing styles, as evidenced in the shock thriller Red April and the delicate and sensual exploration of the relationships between the connected and detached in Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stores. In each of these works, Roncagliolo reminds us that, although we are isolated by default, we are all connected to each other in some way. For this reason, in addition to Roncagliolo’s partnership with the translator, Edith Grossman, I urge everyone to actively follow the presence of Roncagliolo’s work in the English (and Spanish) language.

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