In the Distance With You by Carla Guelfenbein, tr. John Cullen

I know some bloggers/critics don’t want to waste their time reviewing books they don’t like when there are so many good books to talk about. Which makes perfect sense. But for me — and if you follow Reader@Large you already know this — I enjoy talking about books that aren’t exactly masterpieces. I think it comes out of my art school background. When visiting museums the works that excite me the most are the ones where the pencil lines are still visible under the paint. Or, even better, an incomplete study in an old sketchbook where the artist is working out ideas for his or her final piece.

I’m also fascinated by the whole wabi-sabi home thing.

Below is an excerpt from my review of Carla Guelfenbein’s In the Distance With You, which was published on the Los Angeles Review of Books site (August 31, 2018). The title of the piece, which I didn’t choose but still love, is Messy Human Beings: On “In the Distance With You”. The novel, itself, is a bit of a mess… but a delightfully well-crafted mess. Despite that (or maybe even because?) this is one of my favorites of all the reviews I’ve written over the years.


THERE’S NO DENYING the thrill of a well-constructed book in which plot and characters move across the page in perfect synchronicity. Why, then, is it so often the messier books, riddled with inconsistencies and never reaching logical resolutions, which capture our imagination? Books that, intentionally or not, invite us to stick our fingers into plot holes and probe around, and that cause us to shake our heads in frustration at the incomprehensible choices of their authors. Those are the ones that stay with us, that we pick apart in our book clubs, that provide the endless fodder for heated discussions with other like-minded literary obsessives.

Carla Guelfenbein’s In the Distance with You starts with a promising premise. An 80-year-old writer is discovered unconscious in her home, her half-naked body crumpled at the foot of the stairs. The obvious conclusion is that she tripped and fell. But Daniel, the friend and neighbor who finds her, believes she was pushed. He convinces the local authorities to open an inquiry and, at the same time, begins his own investigation into what happened. As he searches for answers, he compulsively carries on a one-sided conversation with her, at her bedside and in his head.

Your hands were curled into claws, as if they’d been scratching invisible bodies before they surrendered. A pool of blood encircled your head. You also had a long scratch on one arm, a reddish streak that ran from your wrist to your elbow. Your nightgown was bunched up around your hips, and your pubis, smooth and white, showed between your open, elderly legs. I covered you as best I could with your nightgown.

This is our undignified introduction to Vera Sigall, the fictional Chilean writer who spends the majority of Guelfenbein’s novel in a coma. She is modeled on the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (whom Guelfenbein has cited as a literary influence, along with Virginia Woolf), but could just as easily be based on any number of the 20th-century female artists — Georgia O’Keeffe, María Luisa Bombal, Agnes Martin, and Victoria and Silvina Ocampo — whose tumultuous lives and savage talent gained them cult-like followings in their lifetimes. This link, between Vera and her historical counterparts, is the lure. But though it is presented ostensibly as her story, Vera Sigall is merely the juncture at which other stories converge.

Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, translated by Bienvu Sene Mongaba

Title: Mr. Fix-It
Author: Richard Ali A Mutu
Translator: Bienvu Sene Mongaba
Publisher: Phoneme Media, Los Angeles (2017)
ISBN: 978 1 944700 07 2

Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, a Congolese writer from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a book I’m really excited about. It was originally written and published in Lingala, a language spoken by roughly 10 million people and almost exclusively in the DRC  and the Republic of Congo*.  The U.S. publisher, Phoneme Media, explained in an email that Mr. Fix-It was “put out by a publishing house based between Kinshasa and Brussels, run by Ali A Mutu’s translators.”  The house, Editions Mabiki, “publish textbooks used throughout the DRC, as well as a small number of fiction titles in both Lingala and French.” 

An excerpt from the novel (at 102 pages it’s really  more of a novella) was originally published in the anthology Africa39 in 2014. For those not familiar with the Africa39 project or its significance, it was “a partnership with Rainbow Book Club, celebrating Port Harcourt: UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 by identifying 39 of the most promising writers under the age of 40 with the potential and talent to define trends in the development of literature from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora”.  For context: Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie is also a contributor to the Africa39 anthology.

The title Mr. Fix-It is a play on the hero’s name, Ebamba, which  means “Mender” in Lingala. A misnomer, as this young man is anything but. His is a story about love, betrayal and loss. Ebamba is a sad-sack protagonist in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, and while much of what happens to him is beyond his control, if there is a bad decision to be made it seems likely he will be the one to make it.

The book opens with a dowry negotiation during which the bride’s mercenary family recites an ever-growing and ever more expensive list of demands. When Ebamba’s uncle (who is negotiating on behalf of his nephew) attempts to interject he is immediately cut off.

“But…”

“But, but… What are you arguing for? Are we going to haggle over this? Is this the market?”

“No, but…”

“What do you mean, ‘no but’? You have a problem with this? We aren’t even finished yet. The girl’s uncles haven’t spoken, or her mom. Her older brothers and sisters have yet to state their demands…”

Eyenga, the fiance, also attempts to protest the mercantile treatment of her potential marriage. But to no avail. Her mother explains that when she was young “they only asked for salt and some kola nut. It was the good old days when we lived according to the traditions of old. Now things have changed. When you have a daughter, you have a readymade treasure…” 

As bad as the situation is for the couple, it’s hard not to laugh at the machinations of their friends, relatives and neighbors. Ali A Mutu balances humor against hard truths about the economic situation for young people like Ebamba and Eyenga, caught in a world transitioning from tradition to Capitalism. Jobs in Kinshasa are hard to come by and so, despite being intelligent and well-educated, Ebamba is unemployed.  There is no hope of his fulfilling Eyenga’s family’s list of goods. He is past due on his rent and avoids homelessness only because his landlady has decided he will make the perfect husband for her daughter, Maguy. Maguy wholeheartedly agrees with her mother and initiates a campaign of seduction Ebamba is too weak to resist for long. It all ends in tragedy, to absolutely no one’s surprise.

Ali A Mutu has a gift for writing funny, back-and-forth banter and takes full advantage of that talent. Mr. Fix-It reads like a genre novel, though it’s a genre I’ve never encountered. A rom-tragi-com, perhaps? Whatever it is, it’s entertaining as hell and goes by much too fast.
Mid-way through the most wonderful thing happens. Ebamba and Eyenga go on a date, and while sitting at a bar begin to sing to each other. For nine pages, Ali A Mutu transcribes the lyrics to Cheval by the Congolese Soukus (a type of dance music) singer Koffi olomide.  A little digging turned up this video on YouTube. It’s a duet, and the singers have beautiful voices… I recommend giving it a listen.  

 

 

Cheval is just one example of the many ways which Mr. Fix-It feels like it’s been written for a local audience. In some ways it reminds me of Alain Mabanckou’s work, though less cosmopolitan in scope. Ebamba’s trials and travails call to mind the journey of the hero of Black Bazaarin particular, perhaps because both men write with humor and empathy about their characters’ attempts at navigating relationships. But, despite some similarities of spirit, Richard Ali A Mutu’s prose remains distinctly and uniquely his own. Uncluttered by preoccupations with style and concerned only with serving the story, it’s easy to imagine Mr. Fix-It as a graphic novel.

These are exciting times for readers interested in contemporary African fiction. Writers like Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo), Wilfried N’Sondé (Republic of Congo), Naivo (Madagascar), Ondjaki (Angola), Amir Taj Al-Sir (Sudan) and the aforementioned Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo) are all available in English and can be easily found online. All thanks to the work and dedication of small university and independent presses.

 

 

*For context: There currently 570 million Spanish speakers, 300-400 million English speakers, and 1.2 billion native Chinese speakers. The population of North Carolina is estimated at 10,273,419 people.

 

 

 

WOMEN IN TRANSLATION MONTH 2018 – Thank You, Meytal! #WITMonth

Women In Translation Month is upon us!  Meytal Radzinski (Biblibio to those who knew her back in the day 🙂 ) embodies the idea of being a “literary citizen” to her core. She is a force of nature and someone I hugely admire. In 2014 she began a conversation on her blog which  evolved into an international celebration of women writers in translation.  The fact that it has spread as far as it has in the four years since then is entirely due to her hard work and lovely personality. I do not mean to minimize the work of the publishers, translators, booksellers, bloggers and all the other people who make #WITMonth a success year after year – but I think it’s important to acknowledge who this community is built around and why she built it.  So, in her own words:

Approximately 30% of new translations into English are of books by women writers. Given how few books are translated into English to begin with, this means that women are a minority within a minority. The problem then filters down to how books by women writers in translation are reviewed/covered in the media, recognized by award committees, promoted in bookstores, sent out to reviews, and ultimately reach readers themselves.

While imperfect, WITMonth gives many publishers the chance to promote their existing titles written by women in translation, while also giving readers an organized means of finding the books that already exist. WITMonth ultimately serves to help readers find excellent books to read… those books just happen to be by women writing in languages other than English!

For my part – you will find most of my Women In Translation Month recommendations on Instagram and Twitter. Every day of the month of August I will be featuring a book written by a woman and translated into English. You can follow me on IG @taracheesman and on Twitter @booksexyreview

And don’t forget to check out all the #WITMonth hashtags on both Twitter & Instagram.

 

 

 

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

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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