Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Nora Ikstena, Peirene Press, Publisher, Russia, Setting

‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena

Soviet Milk

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 190 pages; 2018. Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis

Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk is a powerful novella that explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule.

I read it on a long train journey and finished it feeling as if my heart would break, for the story within its 190 pages is so unbearably sad. Not only does it show how an oppressive political regime thwarts an individual’s ability to fulfil their potential and stifles their intellectual freedom, it also shows the long-lasting repercussions on mothers and daughters when the bond between them is damaged.

Life in Latvia

Set over a 25-year period, the story is told in the first person in alternate unnamed chapters by the nameless mother, born in 1944, and her nameless daughter, born in 1969. (There is also a nameless grandmother, who plays a key role, but we never hear her side of the tale.)

The setting is Latvia, which is under Soviet rule.

From the very beginning the daughter has an unusual relationship with her mother, a young doctor who disappears for five days after giving birth. When she returns she refuses to breastfeed her child — a metaphor for sustenance and deprivation that keeps recurring throughout the story — because she feels she’s been poisoned by the State and doesn’t want to pass the poison on.

Ironically, the mother, who lacks maternal tendencies and has abdicated her parental responsibilities, letting her own mother raise her child, works in a maternity ward, where she delivers newborns. Later, through her ground-breaking but secretive scientific endeavours, she impregnates an infertile woman using what we now know to be IVF techniques and delivers her a healthy and much wanted baby.

But despite her steely will and gritty determination to succeed as a doctor, the mother’s intellectual pursuits are constantly thwarted by the State which dictates where she can study and what she can practise. Then, when she commits a hideous crime,  she is exiled to the countryside and it is here that she sinks into a deep and unshakeable depression that overshadows her fragile relationship with her daughter, the daughter who realises very early on that “the role of mother was to become mine”.

Yearning for freedom

Written in lovely, pared back language, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis, Soviet Milk is very much a story about isolation and yearning for freedom, but it’s also filled with delicate moments, finding joy in simple endeavours, noting the passing of seasons and the beauty of nature, how these small things can help create a desire for life.

It works on an emotional level because it builds up, scene by scene, two sides of the same coin: a daughter, constantly seeking the good and optimistic in life; and a mother, forever caught up in a dark web of unhappiness, lost opportunities and unrealised dreams. In the life they build together it is hard not to see that while they are both trapped in a “cage” imposed by the State, they are living in emotional cages they have imposed on themselves, unable to move forward or to see a way out.

This quietly devastating book will be published in the UK next month. It has already been a bestseller in Latvia, where it was first published in 2015. (I obtained my copy early because I have an annual Peirene subscription and subscribers receive their books up to eight weeks before they are available in bookshops.)

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, Kerstin Hensel, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘Dance by the Canal’ by Kerstin Hensel

Dance by the canal

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

Kerstin Hensel’s Dance by the Canal gives voice to the voiceless: a homeless woman living under a canal bridge in East Germany.

First published in 1994 under the German language title Tanz am Kanal, it has recently been translated into English by Jen Calleja and published by independent press Peirene as part of its East and West Series.

View from a bridge

The book opens as follows:

Now that I am sitting down here by the left pillar of the bridge with this large, smooth sheet of packing paper at my feet, I feel joy for the first time in years. It’s no coincidence that fate has brought me this paper — I’ve been chosen to write. I’ve been put on this earth for no other purpose than to tell the story of my life, and today I will begin.

What follows is a narrative that swings between two time periods — Gabriela von Haßlau’s childhood under Communism in East Germany in the 1960s and her current life as a homeless woman intently focused on scribbling her autobiography on scraps of paper salvaged from rubbish bins.

From this we learn that Gabriela was the daughter of a vascular surgeon, who rises to become Chief Medical Officer, and a society hostess and that she grew up in Leibnitz, a (fictional) industrial town in East Germany, where her parents were famous for their bourgeois ways and big parties.

Schooled with the children of labourers, textile workers and machinists, Gabriela stands out, not least because the “von” in her name indicates she’s a descendent of noble Anhaltinian stock. Yet, whether by accident or design, Gabriela does not really shine and fails to fulfil her educational potential.

Despite being taught by one of the country’s leading violinists, Gabriela shows a shocking lack of musical talent and it’s only when her teacher puts her “forceful strange tongue, thrusting and churning between my teeth” that her parents agree she can stop the lessons. She’s only five years old.

Disturbing look at life under Communism

Later, when her parents separate, Gabriela lives with her father, who becomes increasingly reliant on alchohol. He sinks into a depression, loses his job and falls out of favour with the Communists. It’s all downhill from there.

Dance by the Canal paints a convincing (and disturbing) portrait of how an oppressive political system can have long-lasting repercussions on individuals, damaging their psyches and leaving them at the mercy of a rigid, often uncaring society.

While Gabriela’s tale is told at an emotional distance in simple, succinct language, there are “muddled” passages which indicate the state of her mind. Her confusion and desire for acceptance as an individual, rather than as a cog in a machine, is heartbreaking.

Intense, sobering and dripping with melancholy, this novella leaves a dark impression on the reader.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Linda Stift, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘The Empress and the Cake’ by Linda Stift

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 172 pages; 2016. Translated from the Austrian German by Jamie Bulloch.

Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake is part of Peirene Press’ Fairy Tale Series. It’s an eccentric and twisted tale, first published under the German-language title Stierhunger in 2007, that retells the story of Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s obsession with keeping slim. Or at least I think that’s what it’s doing.

This is an odd story, a multi-layered story, a story that isn’t all that it seems. But the one abiding theme is appetite. How do we feed it, how do we control it, how does it control us?

When the story opens a young women is tempted by a cake in a pastry shop. The cake, which is known as Gugelhupf, is offered to her by an old lady, Frau Hohenemb, a stranger whom she meets on the street who has carefully noted the scars on her knuckles. (Scarred knuckles are a sign of bulimia, caused by putting your hand in your mouth to make you gag.)

The young woman, who narrates the story, then accepts an invitation to go back to Frau Hohenemb’s house to eat the cake with a cup of tea. From thereon in, the young woman becomes trapped in a kind of interdependent relationship with the old lady who may, or may not, be Empress Sissi herself. Yes, I told you it was a bit bonkers.

Over the course of this short novel (it’s just 172 pages long), the young woman gets caught up in a whole bunch of strange activities involving Frau Hohenemb and her housekeeper, Ida, including blowing up a statue of the Empress, visiting a sex museum and  stealing a royal cocaine syringe on public display. Along the way the narrator’s past life as a bulimic is retriggered and she enters a new pattern of gorging and purging on food.

The Empress and the Cake is a grotesque sort of horror story that shows how the slow erosion of willpower can be detrimental to wellbeing. It also highlights the idea that control and power can come from unusual and unexpected sources. Greed, addiction and cruelty are all themes underpinning the central storyline. I read it with a mixture of fascination and abhorrence. Do try it if you are looking for something utterly different to anything you’ve read before.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hanna Krall, holocaust, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall


Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 176 pages; 2013. Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm.

Last Christmas I treated myself to all the Peirene Press titles that I did not currently own. My plan was to work my way through them over the course of this year. Alas, with so many books — and other obligations — vying for my attention, it was only last week that I managed to pull one from the pile: Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts.

This book is not your usual Peirene fare in the sense that it’s a little too long to be classed as a novella (it certainly took me far longer than two hours to read it), but I’m not sure that really matters. The book is a tribute to one woman’s amazing ability to survive everything that World War Two throws at her, including the execution of various family members, life in the Warsaw Ghetto, several stints in jail, torture by a cruel Gestapo officer (was there any other kind?)  and  internment in Auschwitz. And that’s only the half of it.

A woman’s love for her husband

The story is framed around a love affair between a woman, Izolda Regensberg, and her husband, Shayek, the “King of Hearts” of the title, who is taken away by force to a concentration camp. Over the next few years, Izolda does everything in her power to be reunited with him — indeed, she becomes the “Queen of Chameleons”: she changes her name, her hair, her occupation and her religion. She finds new ways to make money — selling goods on the blackmarket and acting as a secret message courier — in order to fund her journey to find her beloved.

Her life is constantly in danger as she passes herself off as a blonde-haired Catholic — and for much of the time she gets away with it. But every now and then she doesn’t:

When the train stops at Radom the German takes her to the police station.
Evidently you look like a Jew, says the policeman.
She’s genuinely surprised: I look like a Jew? I’ve never heard that before.
Can you say your Hail Mary? the policeman asks.
Of course. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with the… […] Blessed art thou among women… Because she is addressing the Mother of God, who is full of grace, she goes slowly, making every word count, to show respect.
Listen to you, the policeman laughs out loud. What normal person says Hail Mary like that? Usually it’s hailmaryfullofgracethelordiswiththee… You really are a Jew!

But despite this little “hiccup” she remains steely, determined and astonishingly resilient. Nothing ever seems to faze her: not even broken shoulders and a knocked out tooth. She simply dusts herself off and continues her quest.

And it is a quest in the truest sense of the word, for Izolda comes across so many challenges and obstacles and tests of courage, yet she never gives in. Not even the horrors of Auschwitz can dent her perseverance or enthusiasm. Indeed, she’s so self-assured she approaches Dr Mengele for a job!

Fast-paced adventure story

As you might imagine for a book that covers so much geographical territory —Vienna, Warsaw and countless other towns — the narrative has a rather fast pace. Sometimes events move so quickly it’s hard to keep up —  it’s a catalogue of train journeys, some taken on purpose, others by force  — and reads like a woman’s own adventure story.

The prose style is neat and clipped. It’s written in the third person but in the present tense, which lends the story a sense of immediacy, and it brims with tension throughout. It’s not sensational in the Hollywood sense, but it is a magnificent story told with exceptional restraint. Despite being set during the Holocaust, there’s not a shred of sentimentality or pity in it.

And yet it’s never quite clear whether Izolda’s love is truly reciprocated, and her inner life, along with Shayek himself, is frustratingly unknowable because she’s so stoic and self-contained. But on the whole Chasing the King of Hearts is the kind of story that makes you marvel at humankind’s ability to adapt and survive in the face of so much adversity. It’s also the kind of story that I know will remain with me for a long time to come…

Author, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Peirene Press

‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke


Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 105 pages; 2013. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast is a classic in the author’s native Germany, where it was published to critical and popular acclaim in 1990. It won the prestigious German-language literature award,  the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, that same year. It has recently been translated into English by London-based Peirene Press.

I loved this book so much, I read it twice — when it initially came out in May and then again last weekend. It’s a tiny package, but reading it is like peeling an onion: there are so many layers that it’s almost impossible to appreciate them all first time round.

Celebratory feast

On the face of it, the story appears to be a very simple one. A woman and her two teenage children sit around the dinner table awaiting the arrival of the patriarch of the family, whom they expect to return home with news of a promotion at work. A celebratory feast of mussels and wine has been prepared. But the father is late and there is no word from him to explain his delay. Why has he not called? Has he been in an accident?

In the meantime — as the mussels grow cold and the wine gets consumed — the daughter begins to recall memories of her father and his role in the family. This is when the story takes on a deeper purpose: to show that there is more going on than meets the eye.

What emerges is a rather startling portrait of a tyrannical man, whose idealised version of what constitutes a family and family life can never reach his unrealistic expectations. And instead of drawing everyone together, he has splintered his family apart by his funny notions and cruel ways. It is, essentially, a metaphor for East and West Germany, reflecting the time period in which the book was written, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Odd ideas and notions

It turns out that the father has some rather odd ideas but is so convinced by their “rightness” that he can never be properly challenged on them. So, for example, when the children are growing up, he never lets them play outside in the fresh air with the neighbourhood children on a Sunday afternoon, because one of his “notions about a proper family dictated that all of us should all do something together” — this usually meant a very long drive, but by the time they arrived at their destination the car park would be full and their father would become furious.

He also has very funny ideas about money and thinks “that scrimping on investments is the height of provincialism”. He lives in fear of being seen as stingy or poor. This means he is overly generous with his tips at restaurants, despite not being able to afford it, and considers any clothes bought off-the-peg as “rejects”.

You can spot off-the-peg clothing from miles away, my father said, and whenever my mother wore a new dress he immediately spotted that it was another reject. You don’t have any style, he said; my mother agreed that she didn’t have any style, how could I have any style when I need to ensure that we have enough, while you’re throwing heaps of money out the window; but my father said, it’s not heaps, and, I can’t help it if you’re stingy, and then the door would slam and my father rushed out, coming back in the early hours, drunk.

Humour in the horror

This may make the book sound like a rather grim, depressing tale, but the beauty of Vanderbeke’s narrative is the highly nuanced and intelligent “voice” which lets us “read between the lines” and catch glimpses, not just of the terror at the heart of these people’s lives, but of the hope and wit too.

And because the story is narrated by the daughter, in one long, often repetitive, hypnotic monologue, the picture that emerges feels authentic and real.

I wouldn’t describe it as a black comedy, but I laughed a lot while reading this book — mainly at this man’s preposterous ideas and the ways in which his wife and his children humoured him. You get a very real sense that he is tolerated, perhaps even respected, but the first chance they get to live their lives the way they want to live them, they will take it — with both hands. If he doesn’t appear at the dinner table, then perhaps it won’t be such a tragic turn of events after all…

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Denmark, Fiction, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Pia Juul, Publisher, Setting

‘The Murder of Halland’ by Pia Juul


Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 170 pages; 2012. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Revew copy courtesy of the publisher.

Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland is not your usual Scandinavian crime novel. Yes, there’s a murder, and yes, there’s a police investigation. But in this intriguing novella by one of Denmark’s foremost literary authors, the focus is not so much on the crime but on the effect it has on the victim’s long-term partner, Bess.

Accused of shooting her husband

The story opens in spectacular style when Bess, a writer, opens her front door one morning and is told that she is under arrest for her husband’s murder. It turns out Halland, with whom she has lived for 10 years, has been shot dead in the town’s main square, where he now lies on the cold cobblestones.

How he got there and who shot him is not the concern of Juul’s perceptive eye — instead she looks at the impact it has on Bess, a complex character, whose behaviour is often baffling: she makes amends with a grandfather with whom she’s been estranged; gets back in touch  with the daughter she abandoned a decade earlier; kisses her neighbour; gets drunk at a dance and becomes spectacularly ill; sits on the jetty at five-thirty in the morning to read; and runs away from a book talk, taking her appearance fee with her.

She never really mourns in the way one would expect: there’s no weeping, no hiding away from the world. For a woman whose husband has just been murdered, is her behaviour normal? This is something Bess asks even herself, but it is Halland who provides her with an answer:

Halland always maintained that writers were privileged creatures. The more foolish and bizarre their behaviour, the happier they made those around them.

A grieving wife who behaves strangely

While The Murder of Halland is essentially a portrait of bereavement — on that count it reminded me very much of another Peirene title, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki — there’s much more going on beneath the surface. This is the kind of book that initially feels underwhelming — there’s no resolution to the crime and the narrative raises more questions than it answers — but the story stays with you. I think this is largely because nothing is straightforward and you are never quite sure if Bess — who is likable if somewhat self-obsessed — is the guilty party or not.

As her story unfolds, she reveals new bits of information that shine a new light on events or make you question her reactions. Why, for instance, is she unconcerned that Halland’s phone and laptop have gone missing? Why does the discovery of a secret room he rented not make her seethe with fury and jealousy? Is the strange pregnant woman who turns up on her doorstep really Halland’s cousin — or his mistress?

Strangely, Bess is not the only character who acts oddly: her ex-husband returns and wants her to go to bed with him; her neighbour makes amourous advances; her long-lost daughter is pleasant and forgiving.

The point you have to keep reminding yourself of is this: what is Bess forgetting to tell us?

An unconventional story

If you are expecting The Murder of Halland to follow all the normal conventions of the crime novel, you will be disappointed. Even the characters within it do not behave as one would expect. But that’s the beauty of this thought-provoking and intelligent novella, which is the kind of intriguing story that invites a re-read, if only to discover whether you missed any clues the first time round.

I love the fact that weeks after having read it, I’m still mulling the story over in my brain. I want to believe that Bess is innocent — that her behaviour can be explained by a temporary kind of insanity or a need to live life to its fullest in such close proximity to death — but there’s another part of me that wonders if, indeed, she pulled the trigger or hired someone to do so on her behalf.

Even the author won’t reveal the name of the murderer. When I met her at a Peirene bloggers’ event last month I asked her whether Bess was guilty. She kept schtum and turned the question back on me instead: ‘Who do you think did it?’ she asked. Hmmm…

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Matthias Politycki, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘Next World Novella’ by Matthias Politycki


Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 144 pages; 2011. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

What happens when we die? Do we truly know the people to whom we are closest?

These compelling questions form the heart of Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella, the fourth volume brought to us by Peirene Press, the London-based publisher which specialises in short works of translated fiction.

The story opens with Hinrich Schepp, a 60-year-old Sinologist, sneaking up on his wife, Doro, who is sitting at a desk in a sun-filled room. He plans to kiss her on the neck — “stealing up quietly like a man newly in love” — before he realises that something is not quite right. There’s a funny smell in the room, “as if Doro had forgotten to change the water for the flowers”, and objects on the desk — a fountain pen, a glass of water — have been dislodged from their normal positions. He thinks Doro is asleep, but when he sees her face — “her features relaxed, entirely at peace, her skin grey” — he realises she is dead.

As if that is not shocking enough, he notices that Doro has been editing the manuscript of a novel he began to write many years ago but had abandoned. While he had not told her about the novel’s existence, he had never deliberately concealed it, he had “just forgotten when he last had it in his hands”.

He is somewhat alarmed to see that Doro had been scribbling meticulous notes, in her neat familiar handwriting, all over the typewritten pages. The note are deeply personal; some accuse him of infidelity.

This sets Schepp (as he is called throughout the novel) on a fraught emotional journey into the interior reaches of his memory — and his heart. Had Doro always thought this badly of him? And if she really thought he was a cheat, why had she never confronted him about it? Was she a coward?

As ever there are always two sides to every story, and Matthias demonstrates this by undercutting Schepp’s ever-changing reaction to Doro’s death — he wavers between disbelief, anger and regret, in the space of a few hours — with segments of the actual manuscript Doro had been secretly editing. Further on, we get to read about Doro’s secret life revealed in a letter addressed to Schepp, and once again their whole relationship is turned on its head. Who was this woman Schepp had married? Did he even know the first thing about her? How had they grown so far apart without him even realising?

Next World Novella is an intriguing read about a love between two people which appears fine on the surface but which is bound together by only the slimmest of threads. It examines the way in which reality and truth can be very different for two people, even within the confines of marriage. In the context of life and death, it explores the two great unknowables: what happens beyond the grave, and can we ever truly understand the people we love? It’s a thought-provoking read, and one that will stay in the mind for a long while to come…

IMG01305-20110531-1206 As an aside, I had the pleasure of meeting, and chatting to, the author at a Peirene Experience in early March. The event was staged in the central London shop of bookshelf designer Visoe. Guests were treated to a glass of wine, while the actor Jack Ellis did an appropriately dramatic reading from Next World Novella. Afterwards, Matthias took questions from the floor, before mingling with guests and signing books. He was a delightful man, witty and self-deprecating, and was very happy to sign my book for me (see right).

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Friedrich Christian Delius, Italy, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’ by Friedrich Christian Delius


Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 115 pages; 2010. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

It is rare for me to read a book more than once, so it must be exceptional for me to read it three times. But with Friedrich Christian Delius’ novella, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman — which won the 2009 Evangelical Book Prize — that’s exactly what I did. And it got better and better with each read.

The story is a simple one. It is January 1943 and a 21-year-old German woman, residing in Rome while her husband is redeployed on active service in North Africa, takes a stroll from her accommodation — a guest room in an old people’s home run by Evangelical nuns — to a concert at the church on Via Sicilia. She is eight months pregnant with her first child.

During the walk, which takes roughly an hour (a little shorter than the time required to read the novel), she admires the beauty of the Roman streets, thinks about her unborn child, reminisces about her courtship with her husband, Gert, a preacher-turned-solider, and tries not to worry about the future because it is out of her hands and, in her view, up to God’s will.

There is little plot or action of which to speak, because the novel works primarily on the basis that you are inside this woman’s head and privy to her most intimate thoughts. It’s not exactly stream-of-consciousness, but her inner monologue feels incredibly authentic as it leaps about from one subject to the next and keeps coming back to the issues that most concern her — how much she misses her husband, for instance, and how she cannot bear the stares of Italian men wherever she goes.

But during her walk, there’s a real sense that Margherita is trying to come to a crucial understanding of what it means to be German under the Third Reich and how her strong evangelical belief might be blinding her to the harsh realities of war. On more than one occasion she admits that “it was better not to know too much” but she is conscious of the need to pray for victory, although, somewhat tellingly, this is not out of pure national duty, but because it might bring her beloved husband home much sooner.

While she seems alarmingly naive — she believes that “no bombs would fall on Rome, that was certain, it was obvious, the English would not raze the Eternal city”, nor can she understand “why there is not enough bread in wartime, and why it is getting even scarcer” — there’s a real sense that maybe she’s keeping her thoughts in check because to do otherwise might prove too confronting to her sense of national identity.

Indeed, national identify is a recurring theme, as Margherita constantly mulls over her foreignness and the foreignness of her surroundings and the people she meets.

Other themes include her thankfulness — for food, shelter, safety — and her unwavering faith in God. It’s clear she is very religious, but there’s a telling passage, towards the end of the book, where she recalls how her father, a preacher, tried to lead workers, communists and Nazis “away from political ideas and win them for heavenly salvation” . And later still, she comes to realise that the Nazis subverted religious symbols, in particular the eagle of John the Evangelist, for their own propaganda.

For such a “gentle” book there are some very hard-hitting ideas about politics and religion in it.

Of course, I can’t conclude my review without mentioning the book’s “selling point”, which is largely that it comprises one very long 117-page sentence. It’s not quite as off-putting as it might sound, because it is written in bite-sized stanzas, with plenty of commas, to guide your eye. In fact, it has an incredible rhythm, with a gentle, lilting, almost musical quality to it, making it a joy to read.

And finally, if you’ve ever wanted to travel to Rome, this book will have you itching to book your flights. Delius writes so evocatively of its streetscapes and architecture that it feels very much like a love letter to a beautiful city.


Just a reminder that I’m “in conversation with” Friedrich Christian Delius and his translator Jamie Bulloch at the Big Green Bookshop, London, Wood Green, N22 tomorrow evening — Friday September 17 at 7pm — to talk about this book and some of the issues I’ve hinted at in my review. Feel free to come along for an evening of free entertainment (and hopefully not too many uncomfortable sllences) and a glass of wine. But if you can’t make it, and have a question for the author, do leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to ask it on your behalf!

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Maria Barbal, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘Stone in a Landslide’ by Maria Barbal


Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 126 pages; 2010. Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell.

If you read the same blogs as I do, no doubt you will have seen very many glowing and positive reviews of this one, the second to be published by new independent press Peirene. (I actually purchased this as a three-book set: the first book, Beside the Sea, was a hugely emotional read; and I am yet to read Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, which will be published in September.)

Stone in a Landslide was first published in 1985 in Catalan as Pedra de Tartera, but this is the first time it has been published in English.

Written in a very sparse style, it tells the life story of an uneducated rural woman, who is born into a peasant family in the Catalan Pyrenees in the late 19th century. Her name is Concepció, but her family call her Conxa:

I was convinced that a Conxa would be fat and beefy and, since I was so thin, when people asked my name I always thought they would burst out laughing and I’d feel bad. But Jaume [her husband] told me that saying my name was like eating a sweet, that it was the name of something small and delicious that he liked very much. It was as if he’d been born to take away my fears, to bring light where I saw darkness and to flatten what felt like a mountain to me.

In just 126 pages (and dozens of very very short chapters, some of which are only two or three pages long) Conxa’s story covers a lot of ground at a clipping pace. Written from the perspective of an old woman, now retired in Barcelona, she recalls her life as a 13-year-old dispatched to work for her aunt and uncle in another village, her courtship, marriage and motherhood.

Conxa’s gentle, timeless voice conveys the joy of her simple yet hard-working life, but this all comes to an unexpected and abrupt halt with the onset of the Spanish Civil War.

Little by little news comes. Some people talk about fighting and deaths in the south of Spain…others talk about atrocities in Barcelona. They say that the priests have gone into hiding. Ours hasn’t been seen for two days. Jaume is exultant. He keeps saying that what the people have decided freely cannot easily be set aside, not even with guns. What does he mean, the people? The people means all the men and women who live in this country. I back away from these conversations and feel suffocated. Better not to ask anything.

Conxa’s resultant confusion, and fear, resonates off the page. Life, once so simple, becomes complicated; the social becomes political; the local becomes national.

Sadly, such big events, including the major milestones in Conxa’s life (births, deaths, marriages) are given scant regard in the text: there just isn’t the space.

And while the author may have wanted to convey the simplicity of a rural woman’s experience (Conxa is largely unfamiliar with the world beyond the fields she tends), I read the entire book feeling like an observer, and not a participant.  As a result, I didn’t love this book as much as I expected, but I did enjoy being in the company of this quiet, reflective character.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting, Véronique Olmi

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi


Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 121 pages; 2010. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

Véronique Olmi’s novel Beside the Sea has been a bestseller in its native France since publication in 2001. Thanks to a new London-based independent publishing house, Peirene Press, it has now been translated into English for the first time.

Peirene’s mission is to publish contemporary European literature in translation that is thought-provoking, well designed and short. Beside the Sea certainly ticks all those boxes — and then some.

The book opens with a single mother taking her two young boys, Stan, 9, and Kevin, 5, on their first visit to the sea. Immediately the reader realises that this is no ordinary trip — they leave on “the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us” — and this is no ordinary mother — “Yep, sometimes I sit in the kitchen for hours and I couldn’t give a stuff about anything”.

And even before they arrive at their unnamed destination things do not go according to plan: the boys play up on the bus (“talking loudly, peeing and blubbing”), and the mother, who narrates the story, is worried that other passengers are talking about them and that she will miss her stop. When they do arrive it gets worse: it’s raining, they get lost in the dark, and when they eventually find the hotel, it’s a severe disappointment:

Everything was brown: the walls, the lino, the doors, it was an old-fashioned brown – they can’t have repainted the place for centuries, and it looked like years of dirt had stuck to the walls and floor, it was like being inside a cardboard box, a shoebox actually.

This sets the pattern for what can only be described as a rather sad and squalid holiday, in which it becomes increasingly clear that the stark reality of the trip does not mesh with the mother’s expectations. Olmi plays her cards very close to her chest and drops the odd clue to the woman’s background without spelling anything out. We discover the woman has no teeth and “quite often I daren’t smile or laugh without putting my hand over my mouth” but we do not know how she lost them. Is a poor diet to blame? Perhaps domestic violence? A drug habit?

We know that she has mental health problems (“It’s not true that I’m paralyzed by my anxieties, like they say at the health centre”) and that she often takes to her bed to shut out the realities of her life. She’s also very poor and has paid for the trip using “all my little savings scrimped from the change at the baker, and sometimes at the supermarket”, bringing her coppers long in a little tea-tin.

But it’s also apparent that she loves her boys very much and that the whole trip has been planned so that they can see the sea for once in their lives.

Notwithstanding the brevity of the book, it does not take long for an ominous sense of doom to rise off the page. Despite the mother’s best intentions “bad luck” has a habit of getting in the way and screwing everything up. It’s hard not to feel pity for her and even more pity for her boys. You wonder where it might end.

And then Olmi delivers her final shocking blow. To be perfectly honest, I had seen enough reviews of this book on other blogs to guess that something very bad was going to happen. However, I still found the ending so powerful, so intense and so quietly devastating that I’m still thinking about it a week down the line… By showing the extraordinary in the very ordinary, Olmni has crafted a fine novel indeed. Beside the Sea may not be a cheery read, but it’s a hugely emotional one that deserves the widest possible audience.