I can’t remember reading a thriller that is as eerily intense as Elena Varvello’s “Can You Hear Me?” This novel is partly a coming-of-age story and partly a mystery. It’s narrated by Elia who recalls the summer of 1978 when he was sixteen and living in a rural Italian town with his parents. His father Ettore Furenti was disconsolate and paranoid after being laid off from his job. The entire town was suffering from economic depression after the local cotton mill closed down, but Ettore’s behaviour became especially erratic as he spun conspiracy theories and disappeared from home for mysterious periods of time. At the same time, a local boy recently went missing and was later found murdered. The narrative alternates between Elia’s memories of that summer and a girl that Ettore has picked up in his car to drive to a remote location. Together these create a chilling account of an abduction and a boy desperately trying to come to terms with his dangerously unhinged father.

While this novel is obviously far removed from my own circumstances, the style and subject of Varvello’s story invoked a deep sense of nostalgia in me. Elia is a somewhat awkward young man who makes a loose friendship with a boy named Stefano. Their friendship develops organically. They don’t necessarily have a huge amount of shared interests but are pulled together more because of circumstances when there is no one else to spend time with. A lot of childhood friendships seem to be formed in this way and the only other book I can recall that got this so well is Tim Winton’s novel “Breath”. During their summer together they spend time swimming at a remote water hole. I have strong memories of doing something similar and the representation of this uneven friendship felt very real. But their companionship becomes complicated when Elia realizes he’s increasingly attracted to Stefano’s mother Anna. This gets even more emotionally complex when Elia realizes that his librarian mother Marta used to know Anna and scorns her.

While Elia tries to deal with these normal issues surrounding any young man’s development, he also grows increasingly wary of his father who believes that he’s been cheated out of a job and becomes increasingly absent from the home. Marta seems to bury her head in the sand about her husband Ettore’s behaviour and withdraw into herself. So this boy is mostly left to struggle with all of this on his own. Because of this, the story develops an increasing level of emotional poignancy as it goes on at the same time as it grows more unsettlingly tense. Varvello’s captivating writing style drew me in and had me gripped in that way that made me really resent having to stop reading it at the end of my commutes or lunch breaks. It’s a powerful book that reminds me of some of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels in the way that Varvello so effectively builds suspense amidst a plot involving friendship and embittered economical hardships. And (coming from me) you know that means I think very highly of it!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s my birthday today and my tradition is to read a book I’ve never got around to reading but always wanted to. I’ve been doing this for many years now. This year I picked off my shelf a novel I heard great things about when it was first published in English last year and that I bought earlier this year at the newly opened bookshop Libreria. “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler feels like the perfect novel to read on a birthday because of the brief intense panoramic view of a life that it gives. Using straightforward prose, it recounts mountain man Andreas Egger’s life throughout the early twentieth century. He lives through a difficult childhood, love, war and the development of the barren slopes around him into a fully inhabited holiday village. It’s an extremely meditative novel which patiently considers through the eyes of a man with simple values and simple aspirations what’s most important in life.

The story begins with Egger trying to rescue a dying man named Horned Hannes from his hut. As he begins carrying him on his back towards the village the old man slips off and runs into a blizzard. What becomes of him isn’t uncovered until many years later at a point when Egger has experienced all the pleasures, pains, disappointments and contentment that life can give. Hannes acts as a kind of double through whom Egger can think of all the possibilities in life he didn’t pursue. It’s observed that “In his life he too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands. But he was still here.” In a way, it feels too simple to say we experience regret or disappointment when considering the paths we’ve not taken in life. This retrospective view of life is at once more complex and more simple than that. Things turned out the way that they have and our continued existence is all that matters.

It’s especially interesting how the novel looks at Egger’s work life. As a hardy muscular man, he spends many years doing manual labour laying foundations for the growth of the countryside around him. His manager points out that “You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That’s the way it is.” What I take from this is that although we spend the majority of our lives labouring to earn a living, this work doesn’t define us. Our moment to moment experiences and thoughts are who we are. We posses this outside of whatever job it is we do all year and there’s a sort of comfort in owning that.

The first time Egger sees a TV he sees Grace Kelly waving and thinks she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen.

The first time Egger sees a TV he sees Grace Kelly waving and thinks she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen.

There is a quiet, considered nobility to this novel. For the deep impression it makes, it’s remarkably compressed. I found something movingly dignified in Egger’s mostly solitary life and the way the narrative focuses so intensely on his circumscribed experience outside of the politics or large scale changes happening around him. The movement of time in this novel reflects how you witness the world changing around you, but in some essential way you feel like the person you always were. So it can be surprising when you see physical changes to familiar places. Later in his life Egger might walk past a place where his house once stood or glance at a television to see a man stepping on the moon. It’s a testimony that society and the world around you is moving on, but you’re still here older but essentially the same.

It’s difficult not to get reflective on birthdays, especially now that social media can allow such quick easy contact with the majority of people who have been most important to you in your life. While I read about the full span of Egger’s long simple and passionate life in the mountains I received a stream of notices on my phone from friends and family wishing me happy birthday. It gave me a funny awareness of how you can be so solitary, but still exist in the net of other people’s lives. Egger oftentimes felt very much alone, but he was a presence who existed in the consciousness of people around him. Despite all the hardships and conflict in life, there’s a stoic beauty in just existing.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

I know I’ve been posting a lot about book prizes recently, but I was very intrigued to see the shortlist for this prize posted this week as it’s a really fascinating list and a very special literary award!

The Dublin Literary Award (formerly the IMPAC Award) is unique in many ways. Firstly, it’s an award presented annually by Dublin City Council to a novel written in English or that’s been translated into English. Quite exciting that a major literary award recognizes translated literature! Secondly, the prize is huge totalling €100,000 (if a translated novel wins, the author receives €75,000 and the translator €25,000). Four books on the shortlist are translations so it’s great to know that both author and translator will be rewarded so lucratively if their book wins. Finally, nominations for the award are made by over 400 libraries from major cities all over the world. Yes, librarians make up the nominations for this prize! And they know good books so you know the initial enormous longlist selection is all quality.  

I’ve read four of the ten books on the shortlist. Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is such an epic, complex novel about several people surrounding an attempted assassination of Bob Marley. Definitely a challenging read, but so worthwhile! It is probably one of the best known on the list as it won the Booker Prize, but I was delighted to be on the panel of judges for the Green Carnation Prize last year where we also selected it as our winner. Mary Costello’s “Academy Street” is a brilliantly compact tale of a woman’s life from her Irish roots to her later years living in NYC. Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” has such a powerful voice and unique perspective on relationships that it’s a book I often think back on now and then still puzzling over its meaning. “Lila” by Marilynne Robinson was absolutely one of my favorite reads of last year. Its protagonist is so strong-willed, yet vulnerable and someone who fearlessly forges her own identity far from her impoverished beginning in life.

Of the other six titles shortlisted I’m most interested in reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s “The End of Days”, Scholastique Mukasonga’s “Our Lady of the Nile” and Javier Cercas’ “Outlaws”. How about you? Have you read any on the list or are they any you're interested in reading?

The winner is announced on June 9th. 

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I haven’t felt this ambivalent about a novel for a long time. I generally get to a point fifty pages into a novel or halfway through where I pause to consider what I’m getting out of this book. If the answer is nothing I generally put it aside. I wouldn’t throw it out because there are novels I’ve come back to years later and become captivated by after dismissing them on a first reading. Books that don’t grip my imagination more often bore me than offend me. But reading González’s “In the Beginning Was the Sea” I had to patiently consider the intentions behind what I was reading. The trouble is the tone of this narrative about a couple named Elena and J. who move to a rural area in Colombia, a small farm by the sea to live a more wholesome artistically-pure existence by eschewing the materialism of the big city. Immediately they are out of their element. We’re given descriptions of the repulsive sights and smells of the local rustic population. The focal point of this story is undoubtedly Elena and J. but the narrative isn’t in their voices. So do these judgemental descriptions belong to the author, the characters or some faceless narrator in between? This question felt like a vital one to me in determining whether this novel was essentially abhorrent or not.

Let me give you an example of some of the many descriptions of characters viewed only fleetingly in this novel: “Julito’s wife was fat – unsurprisingly – and surly.” It’s a distasteful and limited amount of information to give about a character, but it’s the pompous dismissive “unsurprisingly” which really grates in my mind. Who made the assumption about her character here? Is it J., the narrator or the author? Perhaps these opinions could be counterbalanced if Julito’s wife were granted some integrity later in the novel, but she’s never given this. Even when any praise is given to characters it’s done in a backhanded way such as this passage about a fisherman named Salomon: “Though taciturn and physically unremarkable, he seemed to have an extraordinary talent.” The overriding feeling of this voice we’re reading is someone who fundamentally dislikes people. J. and Elena are not immune to such critiques either, but the novel is dedicated to rendering their grand mission as a noble – if fatally-foolish and tragic enterprise – whereas the rural population they live amongst are considered simply repulsive. Later on J. engages in an affair with a local man’s wife who “was an abysmally stupid and sensual woman, a warm mass of listless, voluptuous flesh.” Although he’s disgusted by her, he’s aroused enough to screw her. No doubt these protagonists from a privileged background refuse to grant the people around them human respect, but I don’t want the author trying to convince me that such a narrow-minded, sneering perspective of people is the only one that exists.

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   J. drinks a phenomenal amount of an alcohol called  aguardiente  in this novel.

J. drinks a phenomenal amount of an alcohol called aguardiente in this novel.

The narrative is muddled by the intentions of Elena and J. If you’re worried about reading spoilers here you really shouldn’t be because the book never makes any mystery about what a tragic enterprise it is that they embark on. Throughout the book we’re given flashes forward to how it all ends. The couple move to their new life to become farmers and merchants because they have an idealized notion about the nobility of the working class. The novel records the painful process of these notions being demystified as their business flops and people they hire fail them. J. sinks into alcoholism while Elena makes an enemy of everyone in the village. What seemed at first like paradise turns into a nightmare. Such naivety does seem ripe for satire – yet, I don’t believe it should be done at the expense of people who have resided in one place all their lives and are simply going about their day. Very late in the novel it’s remarked that J. “thought back to the time when he considered a pretentious critic at some literary magazine more truthful, more important than a taxi driver and his family washing their car and bathing in a cold, rocky stream.” If he really considers their existence as dignified, the narrator grants all these peripheral characters precious little dignity.

This novel was originally published in 1983. González has gone on to become a well-respected novelist in Colombia and is slowly gaining more global recognition. I don’t normally read reviews of novels I’m blogging about until after writing my own thoughts because I don’t want my opinion to be swayed. But this novel had me so confused I had a look at a few. I learned from this review in the Independent that the novel was inspired by González’s own brother who embarked on an identical kind of tragic enterprise. Knowing how close to home it’s subject and themes were to the novelist makes the question of narrative tone even murkier. Surely the author could not help feeling critical of the protagonists as well as the rural population – some of whose actions led to his brother’s destitution and death. That’s not to say I think people of disadvantaged socio-economic groups should be idealized or the actions of specific individuals shouldn’t be open to criticism. But how to take descriptions which sneer so openly at people? Normally readers look to literature for a sense of empathy. Though we may dislike or condemn some characters’ actions, we generally want to understand their point of view. “In the Beginning Was the Sea” resists such openings for sympathy by presenting blunt opinions and a world of discordant, closed points of view. By the end of the novel, I was somewhat beguiled by the removed and severe nature of the story. Yet I also found myself wanting more compassion to assuage the cruelty of this version of reality.

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Last night I went to an event at the SouthBank Centre organized by the Writers Centre Norwich on “Living Translation.” It's one of those special evenings with a room full of people all passionate about an important literary subject where it felt like the discussion could go on and on all night with no one getting tired. The conversation between (genius author of Artful & How to be Both which I can't stop talking about) Ali Smith, (esteemed Jose Saramago translator) Margaret Jull Costa and (documentary filmmaker & author of I Am China which I really admired when I read it earlier this summer) Xiaolu Guo moderated by Daniel Hahn touched upon many aspects of cultural, economical and political issues to do with translation. Ali Smith delivered an impassioned “provocative” speech about the origins of words to do with translation, her personal connection to it and how she believes children should be taught not only other languages from a young age but how to translate one text into another. Their lively discussion covered many areas to do with translation and “bad translation” (which some argued was a “good” thing).

I was really struck when Xiaolu Guo talked about the duality of her political and cultural identity as Chinese/Western and how that feeds into and informs her writing. She spoke about the embarrassing fact that approximately only 2% of books published in English are translated books whereas in most other countries the percentage of books in translation are much higher. It's terrifying to think how insulated this makes English-speaking nations from the rest of the world. How can we begin to understand and be part of the greater civilization without reading what they are writing? Even when writing is translated it tends to be because of the economic motivation behind it – the boom in Scandinavian detective/crime fiction, for instance. Of course, there are some small, inspirational presses like Peirene Press who publish important new literary translated works from around the world.

While I'd obviously advocate that more writing should be translated and made available to the English speaking world, the motivation to publish only certain kinds of translated books raises a worrying question for me. If the primary motivation behind translating books is financial for big publishing houses, do those decisions reinforce cultural stereotypes about that country? If the thirst for Scandi crime drama provokes a burst of translation for those languages in that genre is it only because we want to see that culture in a more simplified way? Or does this eventually help encourage translation of more diverse books from those countries as well? Certainly the sensation of Knausgaard's memoirs have opened up the possibilities for other Norwegian writers – as the phenomenon of Haruki Murakami did for more Japanese writing to be translated.

It's really interesting how the political becomes tied with the economic motivations in translation. The word “banned” can be used by some publishers as a marketing tool trying to stir a sensation so that a translated book from China or the Middle East, for instance, which has been deemed controversial for it's parent country is made more “palatable” for Western countries. The intention is to get people to think 'If they don't want their own people to read it, I want to read it!' I remember once hearing Ahdaf Soueif speak about how publishers tried to emphasize and exaggerate the controversy surrounding her books' publication in Egypt as a marketing tactic. I hasten to add many of these books are worth reading and should be read. But I think this is something we need to be mindful of because if we only read because of these political differences it can foster more of a cultural divide rather than a real unification of humanity.

The great hope is that more books - of all varieties - can be translated and published, particularly here in the West where we see such a small percentage of the world's literature. This conversation between languages and culture is necessary for bridging divides between nations. I wonder what great books we're missing out on because they haven't been translated yet. Last night really motivated me to read more books in translation. 

What are some of your favourite books in translation? Have you ever read a book both in its original language and the translated language? Are there books you've read multiple translations of and prefer one translation over another? 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

What a joy it is to newly discover small publisher Peirene Press that produces beautifully designed and carefully-chosen European literature in translation. They put out three books a year and each title is under two hundred words. Perfect for a morning or afternoon of really delving into a book and reading it in one go. That was my experience reading “The Mussel Feast” and I believe the all-in-one reading session enhanced the experience as it allowed me to really sink into the intensity of this story and Vanderbeke’s densely-packed narrative method. Set in Berlin before the fall of the Wall, it’s the story of a family that has moved from the east to the west side of the city. A mother waits with her son and daughter for the father to return with a specially prepared celebratory pot of cooked mussels – even though the father is the only one that enjoys this seafood. Narrated from the perspective of the daughter, she describes the tension of waiting as he’s very late returning home and the circumstances of their strained family life.

This nameless family has a dynamic which is sadly typical for many families and transcends the particular setting of the novel. The father is a tyrant who has visions of having a “proper family” and, when his actual family doesn’t quite fit the mould of this ideal, he becomes domineering and violent. Focused very much on appearances, he dresses impeccably and looks down upon his wife who thriftily buys discount clothes after the father squanders all their money on what he imagines are future investments of a stamp collection and shares that inevitably go bad. Ignoring their other obvious talents, he wants his son to be an excellent footballer and his daughter to be pretty. When neither meet his standards, they are punished. Vanderbeke shows great psychological insight when the narrator remarks “The more insistently he harangued me, the more stubborn I became, refusing to say a word, all speech abandoning me in one fell swoop.” When a child is forced to go against their natural passions and limits language often fails them – especially if they are a thoughtful introverted child like the girl narrator. Although it’s nothing like my own family dynamic, I connected with and understood the family strife as the father was continuously frustrated that they couldn’t embody his ideals. The children understandably resent him and it’s with a great deal of tragedy that the mother finds it necessary to defend him remarking “there are so many good sides to him.” I found myself hoping that he wouldn’t return at all, but there is a troubling sense that this would only lead to the total collapse of the family.

Alongside this personal tale of family life, there is a tension in the story particular to the time and place where this novel is set. A feeling hovers in the background that the battling family represents something of the mindset in Germany in this post-war period where there was a great split in the society’s ideology. The story explores how the smallest disruptions like a father not arriving home on time to eat the mussels he cherishes can quickly lead to catastrophe. Vanderbeke writes: “It’s astonishing how people react when the routine is disturbed, a tiny delay to the normal schedule and at once everything is different – and I mean everything: the moment a random event occurs, however insignificant, people who were once stuck together fall apart, all hell breaks loose and they tear each other’s heads off, still alive if possible; terrible violence and slaughter, the fiercest of wars ensue because, by pure accident, not everything is normal.” This quote wonderfully embodies the nervy sensation throughout the text that at any moment everything can fall apart. This includes both the micro level of family life and the macro level of government. It only takes a small change to a known and understood order to make the rules collapse and everything is chaos. The meaning and end of the story remain tantalizing ambiguous making this a haunting and thought-provoking tale.

For a story about a small moment in domestic life with the book lasting only just over one hundred pages, “The Mussel Feast” makes a big impression. I hope to read more of Peirene Press’ original and intriguing offerings.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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