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)

 

 

 

Captive by Claudine Dumont, tr. David Scott Hamilton #WITMonth

Captive CoverThe plot of Claudine Dumont’s debut novel, Captive, is fast-moving. We’re given just a glimpse of the protagonist’s, Emma’s, life before she’s ripped out of it. “I’m afraid of the dark. That’s what happens when I drink too much. And I drink too much. Often. And for some time now, even on weeknights. I can’t get to sleep without it. I can’t forget the empty box of my life without it.” Everything that follows depends on readers’ acceptance of what Emma’s words imply – that what came before was worse. That up until this point Emma has only gone through the motions of living.

Because after three pages everything changes .  Emma is kidnapped from her apartment and drugged. Two pages later she wakes up alone, in a locked, gray room. There are no windows and no furnishings other than a mattress on the floor. No food or water. She’s been both washed and dressed, but she has no idea who took her or why. During a panic attack she blacks out.

I don’t get up anymore. I lie on the mattress. I open my eyes. I close my eyes. I don’t dream anymore. I’m not sure if I sleep. I drift. Conscious, unconscious. But it’s always grey. And time doesn’t pass. Nothing changes. A hell in which nothing happens and nothing moves. As if I were already dead. Something has to change. I need something to mark the passage of time. So I don’t go crazy…

Short chapters and sentences are Dumont’s forte.

It’s a bit unnerving how quickly Emma grows accustomed to her new home. Pitchers of water appear which she suspects are the vehicle by which they (her captors) are drugging her. She still drinks. Her acceptance of and complacency about her circumstances is both frustrating and comforting. Emma’s life in the outside world was no life at all, remember? She used alcohol to insulate herself and in her captivity, strange it may seem, she has found the perfect substitute for tequila.

And then everything changes again.

Emma wakes up to find she has a roommate. They become subjects in a series of experiments. The suspense ramps up chapter by chapter. As far as quick reads go, Captive can’t be beat – it’s as easily digestible as an episode from The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. The pacing is perfect. Emma’s narrative voice and her reactions, though unusual, are plausible. It’s easy for the reader to buy into the bizarre premise on which this strange little novella is based.

Everything in the pages of Captive works. Dumont is a good writer and David Scott Hamilton’s translation captures the urgency of the story. If it has a weakness, it is the parameters Dumont set for herself are too small, too confining. There’s more to this story.  Captive is the second act in a three act play, and I’d like to be allowed to it through the entire performance.

Title:  Captive

Author:  Claudine Dumont

Translator:  David Scott Hamilton

Publisher: Arachnide Editions, Toronto (2017)

ISBN: 978 1 4870 0051 6


Welcome to Women In Translation Month 2017!  August seemed like the perfect time to start the blog back up again, so until the end of the month I’ll be featuring reviews of translated books by women writers.

WIT2017

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (tr. Adam Morris)

Title:  Quiet Creature on the Corner
Author:  João Gilberto Noll
Translator:  Adam Morris
Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2016)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 51 1

Quiet Creature on the Corner is a weird tale told from the point of view of an adolescent boy being punished for the rape of a young girl.  The assault occurs in an abandoned lot behind the slum-like apartment building where they both live and the boy describes the event so casually that we do not immediately absorb the import of what he is saying.  Our subsequent feeling of horror is subdued, perhaps because he is so young and lacking in self-awareness.  He has no direction and no future – abandoned first by the father he never knew and then by a mother overwhelmed by poverty. He is not a hero to like or relate to, but neither does he elicit a strong enough response for readers to entirely despise him. Everything about the character, by the author’s design, invites ambivalence.

For his crime the narrator is first jailed and then sent to a large country estate.  There he is cared for and kept in relative comfort (far more comfortable than in his previous existence) by an elderly couple named Kurt and Gerda.  He spends his time writing poetry in the solitude of his room. He carries on a secret, consensual relationship with a woman who acts as a servant at the main house. He comes to view Kurt as a father-figure and comes to subconsciously crave his approval. Days, months and (possibly) years pass unnoticed and unmarked upon  – occasionally he is surprised to realize that those around him, and he himself, have aged. In truth very little occurs to disrupt the groups quiet rhythm of existence until Gerda falls ill and must be taken to a hospital in Germany for treatments.  The trip serves as a catalyst for… well… for something

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll

Noll plays with time and memory throughout the novella, inviting comparisons to Kazuo Ishiguro (who gets a mention on the back cover). His narrator is filled with unspecified yearning and crippled by a total lack of introspection. The lens through which the boy sees the world is fogged.  The plot is further confused by the absence of contextual markers  that are usually assigned by the passage of time.  Noll is a complicated and challenging writer. Exactly what is going on always seems to lay just beyond the reader’s ken, but trying to solve the puzzle is surprisingly enjoyable.

I had affixed to the wall of my room an image that appeared nothing like the one I imagined when I first arrived at the manor: I’d recently found an old engraving in Amália’s shed, rolled up in a corner, yellowed in spots, likely by the drops of rain that came through the slats, depicting a boat setting sail. It was signed by the name Wilhelm Müller.

Kurt let me hang it up.

“That engraving evokes, with impressive realism, a farewell to one’s homeland,” he said, as if half asleep.

The poem I was writing spoke of a farewell, and in that farewell exploded a hatred that tore through everything: ripped curtains, the walls to sawdust, blood on the lapel. One thing was missing at the end of the poem that for three days I labored in vain to find.

The tone in which events are relayed, the sense that there is an underlying meaning, is designed to make readers uncomfortable.  João Gilberto Noll writes in  a muffled and detached narrative voice – as if the events that occur do so in another place and period,  – as if his narrator exists in a fugue state. Sentences run on for pages, an attempt by the author and translator to mimic “the inchoate thought process of an immature, if sophisticated, mind.” This use of an adolescent, first person narrator, one who feels no remorse and unencumbered by a moral conscience,  forces readers to enter and inhabit an alien mind… which may be the ultimate reason for the aura of weirdness that hangs about Quiet Creature on the Corner. We are unable to relate to, or even understand, the protagonist. Or is it ultimately his inability to relate to and understand us which we find so unsettling?

There is a plot. Things do happen, even if they initially seem to happen without reason or explanation.  Quiet Creature on the Corner is a book which benefits from re-reading (it is short, only 109 pages) and some understanding of Brazilian society in the late 80’s and 90’s. I definitely found this interview with the translator on Guernica’s website helpful. But the novel can also simply be read as a modern-day existential text. A boy/man disconnected from society is not a new device, or tied to a specific period of history.  And Noll’s narrator might easily call Meursault Uncle.

 

Spring Crime Spree: Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop (tr. Louise Rogers Lalaurie)

Title:  Murder Most Serene

Author:  Gabrielle Wittkop

Translator:  Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2015)

ISBN:  978 1 939663 14 6

Murder Most Serene is a study in contrasts.  It is a tale of two cities, one above and one below, during the month and years preceding Napoleon’s invasion of the then Republic of Venice. The inhabitants, fully cognizant that history is catching up to them, distract themselves with frenetic celebrations and debauchery. Venice is an empire staring down its final days – like a garishly made-up prostitute at the end of a long night staring silently at her reflection, powder caked and lipstick smeared,  in the mirror.

In Venice, everything is different. Different from what, if not Venice?… A city that shows only one-half of herself, held aloft on millions of felled trees, upon the forests of Istria, the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies, chain-bound oaks, hooped in iron, held motionless in the sand for all ages, doubly dead, etiolated corpses encrusted with lime, dead mussels, putrefied seaweed, swathed in nameless debris, decomposed rags and bones. A twin city beneath the city, inverse replica of its palaces and domes, its canals metamorphosed into the skies of Hades, a response but not a reflection, for this is the city of darkness, the city whose skies are forever black, the city below, on the other side.

Murdercover4As Venetian society whirls through candlelit ballrooms they whisper about the trials and tribulations of Count Alvise Lanzi, a hapless Bluebeard, who can’t seem to keep a wife alive. His brides’ untimely ends – punctuated by black bile, violent spasms and agonizing pain – blend together into one macabre death scene which plays across the entire novella. Alleviated only by occasional digressions into the candlelit glamour of Venetian society, the narrative bounces back and forth between an omniscient (if somewhat reticent) narrator describing the evils as they befall the Lanzi brides and a delightfully gossipy correspondent writing to his or her “dear Siren” about all that is happening in the city.  

The wives, of course, are being murdered. A seasoned mystery reader will suspect by whom very early on, but that isn’t the point.  The prose is the star of this dark little book. When Wittkop introduces Felicita and Teresa, two sisters destined to follow Lanzi to the altar and each other to the grave, they are pretty little dolls frozen in a miniature diorama.  

Felicita is a tall girl with a pure, olive complexion, capable of playing the harp and turning a compliment in Latin. People say she has an austere temperament. Teresa is quite as tall and slender, but of a paler hue. She plays the harpsichord and loves nothing so much as to shine, and shine…

In just four sentences Wittcop conjures the two young ladies – one regal and serene, the other vibrant and effervescent. But the glamour is fleeting and this image is quickly replaced with another. Death, when it comes, is not pretty or charming.

The room, near the kitchens at the back of the Mendicanti, is grayish white like a wall eye. To counter the smell, the pathologists don the old beaked mask once worn by doctors purporting to treat sufferers of the plague. Beside the table, a valet holds the flaming torches. The stench of butchery again, as at the birth. A fly – a fat blue gem covered in fine, downy hair – wanders across Felicita’s face.

Back and forth, back and forth Wittkop drags her readers. And, despite ourselves, we enjoy every minute of it. Like her previous novella, The Necrophiliac, the darker and more depraved the story gets the more playful the prose becomes.  Much of this little novella’s perfection comes from the cinematic handling of the imagery – cut scenes, close-ups and pan shots, fade ins & outs – it’s very easy to imagine a Tim Burton screen adaptation of Murder Most Serene inspired by 16th century still-life paintings (imagine exquisitely painted depictions of skulls, dead animals and rotting food). The archness of the prose belies the unsavory nature of what it describes. Like the white-eyed, too wide smile of Anne Hathaway’s powdered sugar portrayal of Carroll’s White Queen which leaves the audience unsure of whether she’s going to stroke or snap the fluffy white kitten’s neck, murder has never appeared so charming.

 


 

Murder Most Serene was longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s author, Gabrielle Wittkop, liked to refer to herself as the heir to the Marquis de Sade. And Murder Most Serene is a book de Sade would have delighted in. A woman of strong principles and beliefs, Wittkop committed suicide in 2002 when she learned she had lung cancer, preferring to meet death on her own terms.

 

The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa, tr. Stephen Snyder (a #WITMonth post)

Title:  The Diving Pool – Three Novellas
Author:  Yoko Ogawa
Translator:  Stephen Snyder
Publisher: Picador, New York (2008)
ISBN:  978 0 312 42683 5

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.

Diving PoolThe compassion Yoko Ogawa shows her protagonists, despite their flaws, consistently surprises me. These three early novellas – and novella seems a bit of a grandiose term for what are, essentially, three unrelated short stories – each feature a first person, female narrator. They are collected under the title: The Diving Pool, which is also the title of the first novella.  The three women, aging from early teens to mid-thirties, are not the most likeable of characters. In fact, much of what we learn about them seems designed to repulse us.

Ogawa has an affinity for the first person narrator. Like her 2013 book of short stories, Revenge: Eleven Dark TalesThe Diving Pool exclusively uses the “I” perspective.  The writing is disturbingly confessional in tone.  Taken together, these two characteristics make it tempting to classify Ogawa’s work as part of the Japanese I-Novel tradition.*  Ogawa’s protagonists disclose their darkest secrets to the reader.  They reveal shameful actions, though not always the motivations behind them. They are perhaps the most reliable of narrators in that they tell us things we don’t wish to hear.

The Diving Pool is, in my opinion, the strongest of the three novellas.  It’s also the most difficult to summarize. The narrator, a teenage girl, grows up neglected by her parents as they tend to the needs of the many foster children they have taken into their home – an orphanage called The Lighthouse.  Lonely and increasingly isolated, she develops a crush on one of her foster brothers and secretly spends her afternoons at the swimming pool watching him practice his diving. If this were another writer I’d say that the situation escalates, but “escalation” is too aggressive a word to apply to Ogawa.  The girl does a terrible thing; in truth has a history of doing terrible things.  The story is a perfect coalescing of the themes which obsess Ogawa – loneliness, isolation, everyday acts of desperation and cruelty.

Then, while she had her back turned, I slipped behind the kitchen door. After a few moments, the dirt on her hands began to bother her again and she dropped the shovel and bucket at her feet and stood staring at her palms. Finally, she turned for help toward the spot where I should have been sitting. As it dawned on her that I wasn’t there, that she’d been left alone, she began crying in earnest. Her sobs were violent, seemingly about to rupture inside her, and they were satisfying my cruel urge. I wanted her to cry even harder, and everything seemed perfectly arranged: no one would come to pick her up, I would be able to listen to my heart’s content, and she was too young to tell anyone afterward.

I stopped reading and put this book away for 6 months after finishing The Diving Pool.

Slightly less devastating, Dormitory features a woman in her early thirties who is waiting to join her husband in Sweden. He has found work there and has gone on ahead to settle their living arrangements. She spends her days alone, seldom leaving her home.  “My life, too, seemed to be drifting in circles, as if caught in the listless season…. I never went out to meet people and had no deadlines or projects of any sort. Formless days passed one after the other, as if swollen into an indistinguishable mass by the damp weather.” One day a younger cousin calls asking for her help finding a place to live.  He is beginning his first semester at university and knew from other family members that she’d been happy with the dormitory she’d stayed at while in school.  Six years have passed since she’d graduated, but she offered to contact the manager. “That was how I came to renew my ties with the dormitory.”

“There’s one thing I forgot to mention,” I said, finally bringing up the subject that had been on my mind all day. My cousin turned to look at me, waiting expectantly for me to continue. “The Manager is missing one leg and both arms.” There was a short silence.

“One leg and both arms,” he repeated at last.

“His left leg, to be precise.”

“What happened to him?

“I’m not sure. An accident, I suppose. There were rumors – that he’d been caught in some machine or was in a car wreck. No one could ever manage to ask him, but it must have been something awful.”

“That’s for sure,” my cousin said, looking down as he kicked a pebble.

“But he can do everything for himself – cook, get dressed, get around. He can use a can opener, a sewing machine, anything, so you won’t even notice after a while. When you’ve been around him, it somehow doesn’t seem to be very important. I just didn’t want you to be shocked when you meet him.”

“I see what you mean,” my cousin said, kicking another pebble.

WITMonth15Her cousin moves into the dormitory, in fact seems to be the only student staying there, and through him the narrator also renews her acquaintance with the dormitory manager.  A strange friendship forms between them, the narrator and Manager.  Through a series of visits a semblance of a plot begins to emerge – but Dormitory seems more of an exercise in atmosphere and sensory exploration.  Like many of Ogawa’s stories it is incredibly cinematic.  She layers sound, visual images, dialogue, even cuts in and out of scenes.  It’s easy to imagine Dormitory being made into a short, noir-style film… perhaps by a student film-maker.  The final image is profoundly haunting, – and this in a story filled with haunting imagery.

Pregnancy Diary, actually the second in order of appearance, is structured pretty much as the title implies.  A woman, living with her sister and her sister’s husband, begins keeping a diary to track her sister’s pregnancy. As the weeks progress it becomes increasingly clear that something is not right here… though I could never quite put my finger on what.

Unapologetically, Ogawa puts her damaged characters on the page and confronts us with their actions, using the first person perspective like a weapon to force our complicity.  By exposing these women so completely it would be easy to think she didn’t care, but there is a definite protectiveness to her portrayals.  She doesn’t hold them up for judgement, in fact I’d say it is just the opposite.  She treats them with gentleness and dignity – handling them more carefully than she does her readers.  There is also a visceral quality to her writing which reminds me of Naja Marie Aidt (who I’ll be reviewing next week) and other women writers I admire.  Physical cruelty, the emotionally abhorrent, the grotesque – Yoko Ogawa’s writing doesn’t shy away from the less attractive aspects of biology or human nature.

 

*As far as I know, and my understanding of the Japanese I-Novel has never been very good, the I- or True Novel genre requires an autobiographical narrative.  So in A True Novel by Minae Mizumura the author places herself into the story as a character and as part of the framing device. Ogawa, again as far as I know, never places herself into her narratives.  Though her narrators for the most part remain unnamed.