Thing #1 — I’ve been a listener to the Book Fight! podcast pretty much from the beginning. I own a tee-shirt. I frequently laugh out loud while listening to the two hosts, Tom & Mike, banter about NANOWRIMO, Kit-Kats, fan fiction and, occasionally, books. And it’s through them I learned about Barrelhouse, a magazine devoted to literature and pop culture (but not always in that order). I wrote my first review for their recently re-vamped Book Reviews section back in May.
Thing #2 — Did I mention I wrote my first review for Barrelhouse’s website on Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated by Emma Ramadan? It begins like this:
Every once in a while I find a book so dense that it seems impenetrable. The kind of book that requires research to read. Like Joyce’s Ulysses (I took an entire course on Joyce in college) or Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury (Cliff Notes provided by my High School English teacher). I’ve always enjoyed information mining. But, the Geography of Rebels Trilogy is next level… I can’t imagine who the intended audience was or is.
It’s not a bad book. I find it fascinating, though I don’t entirely understand it. Llansol plays with language in ways I’ve never encountered, and her translator Audrey Young does an excellent job of conveying this. Pick a page at random – one of the benefits of a book that doesn’t recognize linear structure – and read. There’s always something interesting happening at a sentence level.
Anyone coming to Llansol with any kind of “normal” expectations at all will likely be disappointed. Plot, logical structure, continuity, a sense of linear time and/or space— you won’t find any of that here. At least not in any form that is readily apparent. Instead, Llansol immerses her readers in a shared hallucinatory vision, seemingly fueled by religious hysteria and open to multiple interpretations.
The key into Llansol is provided by Benjamin Moser in an extremely helpful afterword, which I recommend reading before delving into the Geography of Rebels. In it Moser explains that, while in exile with her husband in Belgium, Llansol “discovered an institution peculiar to the Low Countries: the beguinage, medieval hostels that offered refuge to spiritually inclined laypeople.” These hostels were built for women who did not wish or intend to take holy orders but wanted to live a life of religious contemplation and celibacy. They still exist today. And it was after visiting one such beguinage in Bruges that Llansol “suddenly understood that ‘several levels of reality were deepening their roots, coexisting without any intervention of time.’”
This small insight into the author’s history helps to explain the real-life, historical figures she chose to populate the pages of her books——a veritable who’s who of medieval Christian mystics throughout the ages. Saint John of the Cross was a 16th-century Spanish Carmelite priest and mystic, still revered in Spain for his poetry. One poem, in particular, stands out—his Spiritual Canticle, in which he coined the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” Ana de Peñalosa was his patron, with whom he corresponded. (Llansol lifts whole quotes directly from the letters John wrote Ana de Peñalosa). Thomas Müntzer, a German theologian alive at the turn of the 15th century was imprisoned and tortured, as was John, for his faith. In the pages of Llansol’s book all three talk and interact like old friends (despite Müntzer walking around with his severed head in his hands, having died seventeen years prior to John’s birth).
The Governesses is easily one of the stand-out books of 2018 for me. I love everything about it – from the playful and mannered prose to the cinematic and stylized storytelling. The fenced in house and garden remind me of an elaborate glass terrarium like you might find in a Victorian parlor… a whimsical, shrunken down version of the Temperate House in Kew Gardens. And all the eccentric characters! I imagined herds and herds of children, boys and “maids” (I never quite figured out whether the maids were meant to be little girls or the domestic help) stampeding through every scene. The entire effect is magical.
Below is an excerpt from my review. The Inhumanity of Isolation: Anne Serre’s The Governesses, translated by Mark Hutchinson at Vol. 1 Brooklyn (October 31, 2018).
The Governesses by Anne Serre teases its readers with elements of allegory and fairy story. Three young women stroll through the gates of a manor house, the kingdom of M. and Mme. Austier and home to innumerable little maids and boys. Eléonore, Laura and Inès, the titular governesses, are entirely lacking in their roles. It is immediately clear to even the densest of readers that no one would hire this trio to watch over a pen of guinea pigs, let alone a houseful of children. As the narrator tells us – “You would even wager there was something fishy going on.”
Fishy, indeed. This “scatterbrained band of young women” seldom do the work for which they are employed: i.e. – educating the little boys in their identical sailor suits, who are forever rolling hoops up and down the stairs and looking for all the world like the faceless figures in an M.C. Escher drawing. Instead, the governesses prefer to spend their time lolling around naked in fields, performing lewd pantomimes for the elderly gentleman who spies on them from across the way, and ravishing the strange and anonymous men who innocently “stray into the garden”. They behave and are treated more like pampered princesses than employees. Shallow and vain, if cell phones existed in their sheltered little world (and there is no indication that they do) Eléonore, Laura and Inès would be posting an endless stream of selfies to Instagram – #BlessedLife.
All through the house, on the stairs and landings, little boys march up and down, passing each other in silence. Sometimes a hoop trundles down the stairs and bounces across the wide hall. Only once does it go all the way through the wall without stopping and on into the salon, catching on a vase on one of the side-tables. Whereupon children arrive half a dozen together to pick up the pieces.
Three soldiers sent by King Herod to massacre innocent babies experience a moment of doubt, only to have their resolve strengthened (and hearts hardened) by the words of a sinister old man. An urchin boy styling himself King David sacrifices everything to keep his subjects safe. A rich man seeks out healers and prophets, desperate to cure his first-born son of a debilitating stutter. A prostitute searches for the man she loves and finds acceptance and community with a group of strangers. This baker’s dozen collection of short stories by Swedish writer Lars Petter Sveen reimagines the Bible as a work of speculative fiction, freshened up with contemporary prose. Featuring an overlapping cast of lepers, prostitutes, orphans, murderers, and thieves – these stories remind us that Jesus’ followers were often society’s outcasts. Sveen gives voices to the men, women and, children who are mentioned, but not considered important enough to name, in the Christian Gospels.
Children of God is told in the straightforward, character-driven style of a genre novel. There’s a substantial amount of dialogue. The prose does the job, but Sveen is not a stylist and Guy Puzey’s translation (from the original Norwegian) reflects that reality. But if you like fantasy-style novels, and aren’t quick to cry BLASPHEME!, this isn’t a bad read. In “I Smell of the Earth” a dead woman seeks to escape her demon lover. The demon is defined only by his voice, there is no physical description. We recognize him by the sibilants of his speech patterns. The way he hisses out the “s” in Ssssssarah, appearing suddenly out of the darkness, is chilling.
In “Martha’s Story” a young girl plays a game with an old man in which they both must tell stories to Martha’s little brothers and sisters. This old, blind man “stays in the shadows while light falls elsewhere” and connects the material world to the spiritual. He appears throughout the book. More Saruman than Satan (though, of course, we’re meant to recognize him as the latter) he plants doubt and corruption wherever he goes. He will tell the children a story to make them cry. Martha must make them smile or laugh again, or he will take her as a forfeit (one guesses to suffer Sarah’s fate). “Martha’s Story” is formatted differently from the others in the book – surrounded by wide margins which compress the text, giving it the appearance of a children’s book. It’s the second to last story. In my opinion, it should have closed the book out. Without spoiling too much, when it’s Martha’s turn she pulls a character we’ve met before into her tale, allowing him a chance at redemption. It’s a surprising, metafiction moment that had me thinking of another Graywolf book, The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, which touches on the same idea: the performance of author as a god. A strange and unexpected connection.
Discovering how the stories overlap and tracing the connections between the individual characters is a large part of the fun. For that reason, I recommend reading in order. There’s very little world-building otherwise, either historical or genre, and there appears to be the implicit (if unspoken) understanding that the reader brings at least a superficial knowledge of the Bible to the page. Eight years of Catholic school, after which I lapsed hard, stood me well. While probably not necessary, having that foundation did make things more interesting.
Children of God is Sveen’s English language debut. An entertaining, occasionally formulaic collection based on New Testament stories by an author who recognizes that the foundational themes/tenets of Christianity, in which the forces of good and evil battle for the hearts and souls of mankind, lend themselves handily to the genre of speculative fiction.
In Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary the future is, somewhat predictably, bleak. Japanese children are frail and infirm creatures, cared for by grandparents and great-grandparents who remain strong and vigorous well past the hundred-year mark. The two main characters, Yoshiro and his great-grandson Mumei, live in a world recovering from the aftermath of an unspecified disaster. The intervening generations, — Mumei’s grandparents, father, and mother, — are all conspicuously absent. Yoshiro has a vague idea of where they are and what they are doing, but no strong inclination to connect with them. He is entirely invested in, and responsible for, the care of Mumei. Everything and everyone else is of tertiary significance.
There are no cars. English words are taboo. Banks have closed. Higher education has been exposed as a mercenary business that takes students’ money while doing very little to prepare them for finding jobs. The ground has been contaminated and most animals have gone extinct. (Dogs still exist. Yoshiro rents a dog from the Rent-A-Dog store every morning to take on his run along the river). The nation of Japan is cut off from the international community and “closed to the outside world.”
“Why is it closed?”
“Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself. Remember when I took you to the Showa-Heisei Museum? All the rooms were separated by steel doors, so if a fire starts in one room it can’t spread to the next one.”
Over the course of the book, Mumei goes from barely being able to walk to being confined to a wheelchair. We learn about his and Yoshiro’s daily routines. We watch as he makes a friend and falls in love. To a certain extent, we’re given hints at the fates of their extended family. But The Emissary poses a lot of questions and is frustratingly short on answers. What happened to isolate Japan? Why are children physically deteriorating so rapidly? Why are the elderly, in contrast, so healthy and long-lived? What is the state and status of the generations in between? What is the role of the reader in this story? Tawada is all about world building on the micro scale, to the extent that this novel contains very little plot and an inexplicable fascination with incidental details. The writing is mesmerizingly beautiful. Emotions are conveyed using fluid and clean sentences. It’s easy to understand why The Emissary won newly re-instated, 2018 National Book Award for Translation. But it a work of fiction that is disconcerting both in its construction and lack of hope.
The two fell silent, both thinking roughly the same thing. Since orchards are actually factories that produce food, working in one all day, cut off from the outside world, might be pretty miserable. The word orchard brings a paradise to mind, which makes people envious. They imagine workers walking in the mountains looking for wild mushrooms, discovering miniature farms made of moss on the forest floor on the way as they breathe in moist air wafting through the ferns… That’s not what Amana was doing, though…
Mumei is a remarkably sweet child for whom eating an orange is a feat of strength. He and children like him, are empathetic, kind and wise far beyond their years. They have a cryptic way of speaking – like Greek oracles – making pronouncements that the adults dedicated to their care accept without question. When the pediatrician asks Mumei whether he likes milk, the child says that he prefers worms. Instead of treating it as the nonsensical statement that we imagine it is, the doctor explains the pros and cons of an insect-based diet and advises sticking to flying insects due to ground/soil contamination.
Yoshiro is perpetually sad. He despairs because of his great-grandson’s failing health and his own helplessness against it. He believes he has nothing to teach Mumei as all the institutions and belief systems on which he based his past life on have proven false… or at the very least, no longer applicable in this new society. This strain of impotence and defeat – the inability to fix or make the world better – runs through the story. Tawada makes a feeble attempt at introducing something else resembling a plot to carry the reader forward. We learn that there is a program to smuggle these wonderful children out into the wide world as emissaries of hope. But the percentage of the book spent on what is, at best, a sub-plot is negligible. Tawada appears barely interested in it as an idea, so why should we care?
This is a book that is defined by the number of unanswered questions it contains. Most important among them being: what is the role of the reader in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary? Dystopian fiction is seldom written without an underlying message. So that when I come across this type of book I ask myself – a bit like Ebeneezer Scrooge – what does it mean, Spirit? Tawada has incorporated multiple criticisms of our current institutions – distrust in banks, failures in our educational system, the super-aging society of Japan (according to one article, by 2025 “20% of Japanese nationals will be at least 75 years old and 30% at least 65. In other words, Japan will become a super-aged society with no parallel in history”), – but provides very little context. Is this an exercise in immersion? Is it a cautionary tale? An attempt at a genre novel or a reimagining of what a genre novel might be? It’s very difficult to gauge the writer’s intention. And without that…
At it’s best, The Emissary is a remarkably polished and seductive exercise in world building. Tawada plays with and develops the details for what we can imagine eventually becoming a more expansive story – one containing a plot, character development, and a narrative arc. But when she halfheartedly attempts to inject those elements here, adding weak plot elements to pad out her page count, that The Emissary is at its weakest. While not her best book, Yoko Tawada has the ability to submerge her readers into strange, new worlds and The Emissary still accomplishes this feat brilliantly.