Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, tr. Lisa Dillman – a #BTBA2018 flashlight

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I’m surprised more people haven’t made the Lord of the Flies comparisons between William Golding’s classic book and Andrés Barba’s Such Small Hands. Perhaps it’s a little too obvious? And yet, Barba explores the power dynamics of female relationships using girls in the same way Golding did with young boys – with equally horrifying results.

smallhands_online.pngA 7-year old girl arrives at an orphanage, the only survivor of the automobile accident which kills both her parents.

Marina holds herself aloof from the other girls, focusing all her attention on her dolly (also named Marina). The orphans are enraptured by the otherness of her. “And we didn’t know what to do with our love, either, it was so heavy.”

The atmosphere is that of a hothouse. We are trapped in the impermeable world of children, claustrophobic and separate from the one adults inhabit. Marina’s fellow orphans function as a Greek chorus – miniature Einyes, infernal child-goddesses, Furies in training – who obsessively following her every move. Or – like Hitchcock’s birds, gathering in silence; perching on power lines, cars and fences – always watching; un-blinking; waiting.

But then at recess, out on the playground, everything went back again. Marina shrank and we grew. She stood alone, with her doll, by the statue of Saint Anne, watching us. Or was it the doll who was watching? We didn’t know who the doll really was. Because sometimes she looked like Marina, and she, too, seemed to have a hungry heart, and clenched fists held close to her body, and she, too, was silent even when invited to join in; and she nodded her head back and forth, something we’d never seen a doll do before. And she seemed persecuted and excluded, too. If you sat her on the ground, from above she looked like a little girl and we were the adults, and we thought that we actually were a little like that, a tiny head you could hardly see, a head you had to lift by the chin in order to see its full face. Even her face was like ours, though wary and full, like when you got scared.

Eventually, Marina teaches the other orphans a game. One they can only play at night, after the teachers have gone to bed. Tragedy, of course, ensues.

Barba based the plot on an event he heard about by way of a Clarice Lispector short story “in which some girls in an orphanage of Rio de Janeiro kill another girl and play with her body for various days as if it were a doll.” That’s a bit of a spoiler, but one I suspect is really more of an open secret. Reader’s enjoyment (questionable word choice) of this book doesn’t hinge on plot points, but rather the fraught atmosphere Barba has created. Lisa Dillman’s translation is dense, dark and evocative. She embraces the author’s psychologically charged representation of feminine isolation and, possibly, hysteria. It’s very reminiscent of Sophia Coppola’s 2017 reinterpretation of The Beguiled – in which it is the anticipation of horror more than the horror itself which fascinates.

Ultimately, Barba’s affinity for the macabre, combined with a creepy tendency to hyper-sexualize Marina and the orphans (unconsciously done… I think?), creates a deeply disturbing reading experience, but also a very interesting one. Such Small Hands is mercifully short and quickly absorbed… as all truly unsettling stories must be.

 

Title:  Such Small Hands

Author: Andrés Barba

Translator: Lisa Dillman

Publisher: Transit Books (Oakland, 2017)

 

 

 

Inheritance from Mother by Minae Mizumura, tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter – a #BTBA2018 flashlight

Reinvention is a popular topic in novels written by, for or about women. I’m not sure why it is so prevalent, or gender specific, but I know it’s not a character arc I associate with male protagonists. Call it the heroine’s journey: the female character, out of dissatisfaction with her current life, or because it is crumbling around her, goes on a journey of self discovery. She upends her routines, re-examines her relationships and priorities, perhaps has an adventure or two along the way. If things don’t end tragically (always a possibility) by the final chapter she is successfully installed in a new life – by way of a move to Tuscany, getting her groove back or finding solace in food, religion & romance. Vague dissatisfaction and regret are the monsters the heroine must overcome to reach her happily ever after. In Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother that heroine is named Mitsuki Katsura.

Mitsuki handles the discovery of her husband’s affair, his second of their marriage, with a surprising lack of fuss. Maybe because they’re both in their mid-fifties and childless. Or because they’ve been gradually growing apart for some time. Over the past several years she has been occupied with caring for her elderly parents – first her father and, more recently, her mother. Her ongoing role of caretaker has depleted Mitsuki’s emotional reserves. Plainly put – she is exhausted. At the same time, in all aspects of her life, she remains almost ruthlessly efficient. While the catalyst for change is her husband’s betrayal (though, in the context of this particular book “betrayal” implies more drama than Mizumura’s prose allows), it is her mother’s death which provides Mitsuki with the means to leave him and start over.

Mizumura’s uses chapter titles in Inheritance from Mother, a charming practice that seems to have fallen out of fashion among writers. Chapter One is “The Long Telephone Call In Lieu of a Wake”, which begins in the middle of a phone call between Mitsuki and her sister, calculating how much they will inherit now that their mother is dead. We learn that it is a substantial amount, even for the sister who married into a wealthy family. Her mother, Noriko, was a vain and demanding woman towards whom Mitsuki and her sister feel mostly animosity. Theirs is an extremely complicated relationship, even in the realm of mothers and daughters. Their family history unfolds in a series of flashbacks and extended passages of

20180512_210029.jpg

introspection. Mitsuki replays the pivotal moments of her life, as well as those in the lives of her sister, mother and grandmother. Women unwilling to sacrifice their personal happiness in order to fulfill the role of selfless wife/mother/daughter.

Discussions of literature, Japanese culture and history are present throughout the text. Minae Mizumura wrote a book of criticism: The Fall of the Japanese Language in the World of English which was translated into English and published by Columbia University Press. Without going in depth – suffice to say that some of the themes and preoccupations she discusses there are also present in Inheritance from Mother. Like when she segues from a description of how Japanese marriages were arranged by previous generations to an explanation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Western novels made much of lover and lovers, an influence that came to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West. Although the eponymous hero of the classic Tale of the Genji was known for his amorous adventures, in Japanese literature romantic love had always been merely one theme among many – certainly less central than the change of seasons. The Western novels that had reached Japan in the last century and a half were almost all romance novels, transforming Japanese readers – especially women – into romantics. Women became more particular. They grew discontented with the husbands chosen for them by parents, relatives, or neighbors, longing like Emma for someone to whisper thrilling words of love. Their dissatisfaction with reality increased until, like Noriko, they rejected barbers’ sons and fled, each to her “Yokohama.” Not all of them went so far as to commit suicide, of course, but they led small, discontented lives and then died.

Novels are heartless.

Like the classic Japanese literature Mizumura mentions in the passage above, she is more concerned with the symbolic change of seasons than soap opera melodrama. While this is a story of reinvention, it is also one about the seasons of life. Mitsuki is entering Autumn – and she is doing it alone. I was reminded of May Sarton’s journals, particularly Journal of aSolitude, in which she quietly records her day-to-day life – the life of a single woman, without children, in middle age.

A complete lack of drama, though, can be disconcerting. There is a tonal flatness to Inheritance from Mother. Only in scenes with Noriko do we experience an exuberant, animated presence, – one that easily overshadows all the other characters. Juliet Winters Carpenter manages to preserve an idiosyncrasy of Minae Mizumura’s writing: an absence of crests and troughs in the plot. And a sense of stillness, the filtering out of background/ambient noise from the prose, which Carpenter renders beautifully into English.

We are used to reading about more volatile relationships between women. Relationships that often revolve around men. Yet, Mitsuki’s relationship with her mother, her sister, the female friend she asks to act as an intermediary between her and her husband once she decides to leave him, all get more page space than the cheating husband or the dead father (who appears to have been no more than a cipher even when alive). But most of the novel is dedicated to Mitsuki’s exploration of what the future looks like to her. Complicated ideas are explored in these pages, in ambitious (if quiet) ways. And while Mitsuki may resent and disapprove of her mother, she scrupulously does her duty as a daughter. Eventually realizing that you can’t always wait for happiness – sometimes you have to take it. Something that readers from any culture can relate to.

Title: Inheritance From Mother
Author: Minae Mizumura
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publisher: Other Press (New York, 2017)
ISBN: 978-1-59051-783-3

The Lieutenant of Kouta – a #BTBA2018 flashlight

I’ve learned that there are a lot of reasons why a book doesn’t make it onto a long list. Mostly it’s about the numbers… there are hundreds of books and a limited number of opportunities to recognize them. And so, while I am proud of having contributed to this year’s Best Translated Book Award Long List, and on the whole I think it’s excellent, I still have an entire stack of books which I feel deserve honorable mentions at the very least.

Over the next few weeks I’d like to talk about the novels I read from 2017 that – for a huge variety of reasons, all of which are so benign as to be entirely uninteresting – didn’t make it onto this year’s long list.  These are books I enjoyed and wanted to shine my little flashlight on.


The Lieutenant of Kouta is the first in a trilogy of books by the Malian writer Massa Makan Diabaté to be translated into English. Written in 1979, and set in a fictionalized version of the author’s hometown of Kita, it follows the adventures/journey of one Lieutenant Siriman Keita, a retired tirailleur sénégalais (the name taken by members of the black African infantry of the French Army) who returns to Kouta after his years of service to France. Once home he builds an expensive house (square, like those he saw on the continent) and – puffed up on his own importance, surrounded by hangers-on and overly impressed with the French colonial government, – he settles down to criticize, annoy and unintentionally entertain the locals. Initially, Siriman Keita does not make himself beloved to his neighbors. Just the opposite: he rebuffs the overtures of the local imam and openly criticizes the local customs. His pride gets him into some embarrassing, and ultimately humbling, situations. The tone of his exploits veer mostly towards slapstick, like the time he falls from his horse while trying to impress a young woman’s family.

Emboldened by the applause, at the limit of his self-control, he made his horse rear until it was almost vertical; then he ordered it to prostrate itself before his future in-laws. The beast bent its knees; the cries of admiration rose, and the band resumed, even more beautifully. Surprised, the horse reared, launching its rider into a mud-filled ditch. The crowd gathered around the lieutenant in a circle to block him from sight. The rumor spread throughout the village; his image was tarnished.

“It looks like he pooped his pants, like a baby,” some said. The more merciful maintained that he had only pissed himself…

The Lieutenant of Kouta gets high marks just for its entertainment value. It’s really funny. Diabaté’s prose style has a folksy charm reminiscent of Eudora Welty’s rowdier tales, like Losing Battles and Why I Live at the P.O.  His characters also have a lot in common with one of John Steinbeck’s down-on-their-luck heroes. Both writers concerned themselves with the situation of disenfranchised men struggling, through a mix of humor and pathos, to retain their dignity in rapidly changing worlds. Steinbeck once wrote “I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature”, which makes me think he would have approved of Diabeté’s work… if it’d been available in English during his lifetime. Because despite being from different continents and very different cultural backgrounds, these three writers were contemporaries. And once you realize that simple fact, the overlap in their work is obvious.

Massa Makan Diabaté (1938-1988) was descended from a family of griots, with deep roots in Mali, Africa. Griots were oral historians, storytellers, spreaders of news and gossip, entertainers and the advisers to kings.  Their job was to preserve and disseminate important community information in the absence of the written word.  Diabaté was trained by his two uncles, both renowned griots. His life’s work would be to keep the griot tradition relevant in 20th century society. Shane Auerbach’s and David Yost’s vibrant translation celebrates that history by preserving the sense that this novel comes out of an oral, storytelling tradition.  Most of the lieutenant’s escapades are related to us as anecdotes, casual gossip passed between neighbors.

The narrative structure is fairly standard, and for some readers, those who might be over modernism and need a break from experimental prose, the no frills approach to character and plot can be something of a relief. It’s the local nature of the subject matter which elevates it, coming at us from an unusual point of view – that of the crowd. In the waning days of colonialism returning soldiers, receiving government pensions and indoctrinated with military discipline, served as unofficial extensions of the colonial administration. (Mali didn’t gain independence until 1960.) Lieutenant Siriman Keita is no exception, with his susceptibility to flattery and misplaced allegiance to France. But hints are dropped early on that there is more to this character.  He possesses a kind heart. The novel opens with laughter as we (along with a group of villagers) witness the lieutenant catch a local boy stealing his eggs. The uncowed child, Famakan, is paraded through the streets, responding to the Lieutenant’s constant berating and threats of dire punishments with his own muttered asides. The two reach a bridge and the boy, knowing he will come out of it unharmed, says that for his punishment he chooses to be thrown over the side. Siriman, not wanting to do Famakan actual harm, believes this too harsh. But Famakan insists. “He’s suicidal,” the lieutenant shouted. ‘“He chose for me to throw him from a bridge. Let none accuse me of murder!”’ A struggle ensues as the lieutenant tries to restrain/dissuade Famakan. The boy manages to push his captor headfirst into the mud below and “To disguise his ruse, the boy dove in after him, to the applause, shouts, and laughter of the audience.” Ever aware of his dignity, Siriman shouts to the spectators, “Mark my words… Whoever tells this story will have to pay twenty francs! Ten francs will go to me, and ten will go to Famakan.”

The fact that he is willing to split the fine so that the boy benefits reflects well on him. Later the lieutenant will adopt Famakan and reenacting their first, inauspicious meeting will become a game between them. One designed to make the boy smile and laugh. Diabaté’s secret sauce is allowing his character to evolve, balancing the man’s pomposity with an almost tragic integrity. Eventually – after several comedic missteps which serve to lighten what is ultimately a tale about one man’s disillusionment with colonialism – the lieutenant’s better nature will win out and his transformation into an entirely sympathetic character will be complete. Perhaps even into a heroic one, in that way that introspection in old age can sometimes become heroic. At the end, I was surprisingly moved by The Lieutenant of Kouta journey.

 

Title: The Lieutenant of Kouta

Author:  Massa Makan Diabate

Translator: Shane Auerbach & David Yost

Publisher: Michigan State University Press, 2017

Alafair Burke’s The Wife Pushes Readers To Ask Themselves “Where Do You Draw The Line?”

 

“…Alafair Burke has the intuitive ability to up-cycle genre trends, cherry-picking the best elements from an abundance of novels and current events, and then transforming them into something that still manages to feel wholly original. She is a master of her craft…”

I know this is not the usual type of book (i.e. – not a translation) you expect to see reviewed here, but never fear.  This is easily the best whodunnit and whydunnit I’ve read in ages. To find out why, read my full review of Alafair Burke’s The Wife at the Los Angeles Review of Books website. And if you’re looking for a thriller to take with you on vacation, this is it.

The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria

The plot of The Twenty Days of Turin can be compared to the Bermuda Triangle – lots of weird stuff supposedly happens in it, but no one knows why.

Giorgio De Maria’s 1975 Italian cult classic The Twenty Days of Turin, translated into English for the first time by Ramon Glazov, is easily one of the strangest books I’ve come across in recent memory. De Maria, who’s been compared  to H.P. Lovecraft, Borges and Poe, has written one of those modern-day allegories that is open to an infinite number of interpretations: a commentary on the rise of fascism in Italy, for example, or a foreshadowing of the phenomenon of social media. It’s all a bit of a conceptual mess, but no less enjoyable for it.

Our adventure begins when an unnamed journalist traveling to Turin to investigate an incident which took place 20 years before, when a collective insomnia took hold of most of the town’s population, causing them to shamble through the streets and squares at night in vulnerable, fugue-like states. The following morning the mangled remains of the victims are discovered  – their bodies broken at odd angles as if they’d been swung about by the feet. The murderers are never identified and the events remain shrouded in mystery. This dark time comes to be known (conveniently) as the Twenty Days of Turin.

At the same time as bodies are being found, a group of young men travel door to door inviting residents to join a shadowy institution known as the Library. The Library is a place in which average people are encouraged to deposit and read each others private journals. A kind of social experiment created to foster community and relationships, encouraging strangers to connect through the sharing of each other’s deepest and darkest secrets.

Everything could be deposited into the Library: works that were slender or unnaturally bulky, sometimes with a disarming naiveté in a world of slyness. Masterpieces could appear by accident, but they were about as easy to track down as a particle of gold in a heap of gravel. There were manuscripts whose first hundred pages didn’t reveal any oddity, which then crumbled little by little into the depths of bottomless madness; or works that seemed normal at the beginning and end, but were pitted with fearful abysses further inward. Others, meanwhile, were conceived in a spirit of pure malice: pages and pages just to indicate, to a poor elderly woman without children or a husband, that her skin was the color of a lemon and her spine was warping – things she already knew well enough. The range was infinite: it had the variety and a the same time the wretchedness of things that can’t find harmony with Creation, but still exist, and need someone to observe them, if only to recognize that it was another like himself who’d created them.

As the journalist attempts to unravel the layers of mysteries surrounding, and connections linking, the Twenty Days and the Library, unidentified forces are rising against him. Time is running out. And the events of the Twenty Days appear to be happening again.


I read H.P. Lovecraft when I was too young to understand what a horrible and damaged human being he was. I read his work superficially, enjoying the horror stories without comprehending the racist subtext they contained. I think this is how it was for many people, and as a result it can be hard to reconcile the stories we enjoy with the madness (and hatred) of the man who wrote them. The Shadow Over Innsmouth was my favorite.  The premise of a fishing village haunted by alien gods known as the Deep Ones fascinated me. And the formula of the first person narrator, descending into madness, investigating a mysterious evil that he suddenly (and tragically) finds himself the focus of is hard to mess up.  Giorgio De Maria obviously read Lovecraft, too, because he follows that same formula. He inserts interviews, recordings and correspondences – building layer upon layer of false reality until the reader finds herself half convinced that what she is reading is true.

book coverBut Lovecraft is just one in a patchwork of influences. There are a lot of rabbit holes on these pages for readers interested in falling down. Time is measured in intervals of twenty in a surprising number of folktales (For example: Rip Van Winkle and his predecessor Peter Klaus’ naps both lasted that long). And while the victims of the Twenty Days suffered from lack of sleep versus too much – I was still reminded of these older tales in which ordinary people join the games or celebrations of powerful, supernatural beings and suffer as a result.  Like folktales which come to us through an oral traditions of storytelling, The Twenty Days of Turin has an abridged quality to it. It has its own supernatural beings and their minions, who are central to the plot, but whose motivations are never adequately explored. Elements like the Library are introduced seemingly because the writer finds them interesting (rightfully so) or because they embellish the text. Not because they contribute to the overall narrative.  De Maria creates and relies on all these mythological touchstones without bothering to explain them. We are, in a way, being asked to revert to a naive reader. One who embraces superstition as an explanation for the unknown.

The Twenty Days of Turin can be classified as a novella. It takes up only 144 of the 186 pages of the physical book, which also includes two short stories by the same author: The Death of Missolonghi and Phenomenology of the Screamer, tacked on as appendices. There’s also a twelve page Translator’s Introduction. The two short stories aren’t very interesting and I found the Introduction a needless distraction, which is unusual for me. (I am a conscientious reader of forwards, introductions, afterwords and translators notes). But the author’s voice is what pulls you into this story and nothing should be allowed to detract from it. The symbolism and atmosphere are what make up for the overall lack of depth. And, it’s probably no coincidence that the actual, titular story is short enough that, even if your left dissatisfied with the ending and what passes for a resolution of the mysteries, you won’t feel you’ve wasted two hours of your life you can never get back. In this way The Twenty Days of Turin is the rare exception to the rule: the sum of its parts are by far greater than its whole.

Title: The Twenty Days of Turin

Author: Giorgio De Maria

Translator: Ramon Glazon

Publisher: Liveright, New York (2017)