& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Mexico, Publisher, Setting, USA, Yuri Herrera

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera

Signs-preceding-the-end-of-the-world

Fiction – paperback; & Other Stories; 114 pages; 2015. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

At a time when the world seems increasingly more divided between people who are free to travel around the world, seemingly on a whim, and those who cannot, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is a timely story about illegal border crossings and people smuggling.

This short, sharp and occasionally violent novella focuses on Makina, a young Mexican woman, who crosses the border between Mexico and the United States in search of her brother, who had gone there to “settle some business” for an underworld figure. She carries two messages with her — one from her mother, and one from Mr Aitch (presumably some kind of crime boss) — but her journey is not straightforward.

Along the way she must fight off lust-filled young men (the way she deals with them is quite extraordinary) and gun-toting policemen who patrol the border. But that’s only half her problem: the other half is trying to find her sibling in an unfamiliar country based on sketchy details and few resources — she has no money, no change of clothing, nowhere to stay.

She asked the way to the city and they told her Over there (finger pointing to where the sun comes up).
She asked farther on for the way to the suburb and they told her There’s four with that name, but maybe she wanted the one by the bridge.
She asked farther on for the way to the bridge, but they told her she didn’t want that suburb but the one with the zoo.
She asked farther on for the way to the zoo and they told her it was near the statue of a man in a frock coat.
She asked farther on for the way to the statue of the man in the frock coat and they said Can’t you see, it’s right behind you.
Then she asked for the way to the street written down and they said This is it.
She asked for the way to her brother, perhaps too urgently, and they shrugged.
She asked finally for the way to the promised land and that person looked annoyed before responding.
There was still some light in the sky but it was turning dark, like a giant pool of drying blood.

From the above quote, you can see that much of the prose reads like poetry. It’s very stripped back and to-the-point, but without sacrificing beauty or power (clearly a triumph of translation). It plays with language, too — all the underworld figures, for instance, are named after letters of the alphabet, so that you get Mr Aitch, Mr Double-U and Mr Q, and there are “invented” words, such as “verse”, which means to exit — which the translator explains in a highly readable and intriguing note at the end of the novella.

And while Signs Preceding the End of the World is mainly an adventure tale, this is also the kind of book that has layers of deeper meaning — about immigration, patriotism, the black market, exploitation, prejudice and war. In many ways it would make a terrific companion read with T.C. Boyle’s wonderful novel, The Tortilla Curtain, which examines similar issues. Like that book, it looks at what it is like to be a second-class citizen in (supposedly) the world’s richest country — and it doesn’t pull its punches:

We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anaemic. We the barbarians.

The story is also ripe with metaphors — the underworld is a constant refrain; the story begins with a sinkhole opening up and ends with a visit to a tunnel — and could be read as an allegory. But for me, it was just a wonderfully rich and tension-filled read.

I also loved the muscularity of the prose. I loved its feisty, determined protagonist. And I loved its themes — epic, biblical, universal — about journeys and belonging and culture. Yet it’s not an easy book to like: it’s confronting, sometimes brutal, often sad and constantly unsettling.

You can find other excellent reviews of Signs Preceding the End of the World at The Guardian and Bookslut.

& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Deborah Levy, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Swimming Home’ by Deborah Levy

Swimming_Home

Fiction – Kindle edition; And Other Stories; 127 pages; 2012.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is the kind of short, sharp novel that may make you think twice about going on holiday with family friends.

A holiday in France

The story takes place across eight days in July 1994. The setting is the Alpes-Maritimes, France, where two English families share a holiday villa.  War correspondent Isabel Jacobs, her husband Joe — a celebrated poet — and their 14-year-old daughter, Nina, are joined by long-time friends, Mitchell and Laura, who run a shop in Euston, London.

When the five arrive at the villa they discover a body floating in the deep end of the swimming pool. They initially mistake it for a bear, but it turns out to be a young woman called Kitty French, who has exceedingly long hair.

Kitty seems to think she has a booking at the villa, too, but there’s been a mix-up with the rental dates. All the local hotels are booked up, so Isabel offers her the spare room. This vague but kind invitation will end up having far-reaching repercussions for everyone.

Deceptive appearances

There are two other characters — Jurgen, the German caretaker, and Madeleine Sheridan, the next-door neighbour — who are both crucial to the plot, because they have had past experiences with Kitty.

Of course Kitty is not all that she seems (indeed, no-one in this novella is what they seem to be when you first meet them). She tells everyone she is a botanist, but she also writes poetry and her arrival at the villa is part of a charade to meet Joe, whom she has long admired.

It is no plot spoiler to reveal that she ends up having sex with him — we find this out on page one as the pair drive through the night, two hours after their consummation in the Hotel Negresco.

A stranger’s arrival

Levy has taken an old formulaic plot — that of the stranger who arrives unannounced to disrupt a group dynamic — but given it an original twist. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which does something similar and which was also shortlisted for the Booker — in 2005.)

It’s not an emotional book — although it does have a shock ending — but more an intellectual one, because there’s quite a lot to mull over and think about. (For instance, is Kitty’s poem that she wants Joe to read, really a poem — or a suicide note?)

And while the characters are not particularly fleshed out — indeed Laura seems to disappear not long after she’s been introduced and Mitchell doesn’t fare much better — they are deeply intriguing. All have closely guarded secrets, and part of the joy of reading Swimming Home is discovering these as Levy shifts her perceptive eye from character to character.

A book to read twice?

I rather suspect that this is a book that demands a second reading. Levy’s prose and the book’s structure is so deft and tight, that the narrative zips along at a furious pace. Occasionally, I wondered if I might have missed something and went back and reread pages — just to make sure.

In a way, this is a novel of contradictions: it’s dry and dispassionate throughout, but the ending is very moving and leaves one feeling particularly unnerved; the writing is taut and sparse, but it feels lyrical and Levy can capture a mood or scene in just a few words (“it was snowing seagulls on every rooftop in Nice”); the barely-there plot is rather dull but the story is intriguing and compelling.

While I feel kind of ambivalent about the book — I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either — I rather suspect the Man Booker judges may think differently. The winning novel — and it will probably be this one — is named on October 16.

& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Juan Pablo Villalobos, literary fiction, Mexico, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos

Down-the-rabbit-hole

Fiction – paperback; And Other Stories; 74 pages; 2011. Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Most of us understand the phrase “down the rabbit hole” as a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. But the only similarity between that novel and this one is the surreal nature of the journey the reader is taken on.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s novella Down the Rabbit Hole was recently shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award — and it’s easy to see why. It’s a mesmerising and powerful read about one small boy’s dream to acquire a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia.

This might sound outlandish, but seven-year-old motherless Tochtli lives a rather cossetted life in a secure compound — or “palace” as he describes it — where his drug baron father will buy him anything — toys, playthings and even a pet lion — in order to compensate for the guilt of his unusual upbringing.

The story is set in Mexico, with a side trip to Liberia to look for the rather endangered you-know-what, and is told entirely from Tochtli’s perspective.

A precocious little boy

Tochtli is an ordinary little boy, albeit with an advanced vocabulary — “Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating” — who has an over-active imagination and loves wandering around all day in his dressing gown because he thinks it makes him look like a Samurai.

But he’s also fascinated by guns, violence and death.

There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices. Orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out. Bullets from pistols make orifices and knives can make orifices too. If your blood comes out there’s a point when your heart or your liver stops working. Or your brain. And you die.

A perfectly pitched voice

His naive voice is beautifully rendered. It’s never cloying or “fake” as some child narrators are wont to be and even though he knows a lot of advanced words, he doesn’t quite understand the context in which to use them — which makes for some funny moments.

Most of his narration treads a fine line between comedy and heartbreak. It works because you know that the violence Tochtli witnesses on a day-to-day basis, the bad language he hears and the puzzling behaviour of his elders that he experiences, is largely incomprehensible in one so young.

For instance, he is confused by the presence of Quecholli, a woman who visits their palace two or three times a week. He doesn’t realise she is a prostitute hired by his father, but he knows there is something not quite right about her.

Everything about Quecholli is a secret. She walks around the palace without looking at anyone, without making a sound, always clinging to Yolcaut. Sometimes they disappear and then reappear, really mysterious. They spend hours like that, the whole day, until Quecholli leaves. Then Miztli brings her back again and it’s back to the secrets and disappearing.

A fast but powerful read

Like the very best novels, this one presents an unfamiliar world that feels so real you forget that you are reading a book. And Tochtli is such a brilliant character, someone you want to protect and keep close, that it’s hard not to be affected by his situation — you understand the danger he is in, even if he doesn’t.

Down the Rabbit Hole is an ultra-quick read — you can easily consume it in a couple of hours — but its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. This is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read.

Finally, just a word about And Other Stories, the publisher of this book. This small independent press has been set up as a not-for-private-profit company and encourages its subscribers to have a say in what gets published next. If Down the Rabbit Hole is any indication of the quality of the rest of its titles then readers are in for a real treat! You can find out more via its official website.

Note that its production values are very high and the books have a similar look and feel to Peirene Press’s award-winning designs.