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.

 

 

 

IFFP & BTBA 2013 Short Lists – They’re Here!

The two translation prize shortlists are out – and it’s exciting to see how many different languages (and countries) are represented.  I’ve still only read three of the books on the BTBA list – and of those I’ll keep my money on Dowlatabadi for the win.  There is something so visceral about The Colonel.  It’s a book that encompasses all the senses – particularly in the opening chapters when the colonel is summoned to bury his daughter.  The darkness, the rain, the smell of cigarettes – the density of the prose – they’re all still with me though it’s been months since I put it down.  Not every book does that.  Certainly not The Hunger Angel or The Planets – both good books by great authors. But they don’t even come close to The Colonel in scope, technique or plot.

The 2013 Best Translated Book Award Fiction

  • The Planets by Sergio Chejfec/Heather Cleary, translator (Spanish)
  • Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard/Alyson Waters, translator (French)
  • The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi/Tom Patterdale, translator (Persian)
  • Satantango by László Krasznahorkai/George Szirtes, translator (Hungarian)
  • Autoportrait by Edouard Levé/Lorin Stein, translator (French)
  • A Breath of Life: Pulsations by Clarice Lispector/Johnny Lorenz, translator (Portuguese)
  • The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller/Philip Boehm, translator (German)
  • Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin/Marian Schwartz, translator (Russian)
  • Transit by Abdourahman A. Waberi/David Ball & Nicole Ball, translators (French)
  • My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer/Donal McLaughlin, translator (German)

As for the IFFP:  neither of the two books I read on the long list – HHhH and Black Bazaar – made it to the short list.  I’m not surprised, though I think the judges are undervaluing how hard it is to write like Alain Mabanckou writes and make it look easy.  Even in translation.  Regardless, as a result I don’t have anything to contribute to this particular short list other than that Ismail Kadare is one of my favorite authors.

The 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

  • Bundu by Chris Barnard/Michiel Heyns, translator (Afrikaans)
  • The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker/David Colmer, translator (Dutch)
  • Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas/Rosalind Harvey & Anne McLean, translators (Spanish)
  • The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare/John Hodgson, translators (Albanian)
  • Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman/Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia, translators (Spanish)
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić/Ellen Elias-Bursać, translator (Croatian)

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National Book Award Blog Bounce

In case anyone was wondering, I’m getting caught up on my reading.   In the meantime, the list of National Book Award Finalists came out last week.  I haven’t read any of the Fiction Finalists, so I’m providing links to those who have.

I couldn’t find a blog review for Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (due in stores on November 14th).  If you know of one, please post it in the comments below.  Ironic, though, since it is that book and I, Hotel which  I’d most like to read.

And for fun, here’s the Non-fiction list:

  • Barbara Demick  Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group)
  • John W. Dower  Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (W.W. Norton & Co/The New Press )
  • Patti Smith  Just Kids (Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
  • Justin Spring  Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • Megan K. Stack  Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War (Doubleday)

Winners are scheduled to be announce Wednesday, November 17th.  And I should have a new review up over the weekend.

Mad About Moers! – A Review of The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers

Summer is over, but no one says we need to back away from the escapist fiction!  There’s no shame in losing yourself between the covers of a good book.  Just don’t confuse this kind of escape with the chick lit, mysteries and thrillers you were reading on the beach.    Save those for next year’s daiquiri.  Instead, we advise walking proudly into the Sci-Fi / Fantasy aisle of your local bookshop.  Shove past the pallid guy with the stack of Forgotten Realms paperbacks and the teenage girls with dark circles under their eyes surrounding the Twilight feature table.  Hold your head high!  We’re about to let you in on a little secret.  You see,  there are fantasy novels and then there are Fantasy novels.

In the latter category are Alice in Wonderland, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Harry Potter, Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  Books so cleverly conceived and brilliantly written that they can be enjoyed by both adults and children alike.  Their authors don’t tell stories, they create worlds.  Worlds that are intriguing, exciting, and a little bit frightening.  Unfortunately, everyone has read those stories (or should have).  You’re looking for something a little more BookSexy, a little more cutting edge – a book that hasn’t gone viral…at least not yet.

Moers.Statue

Enter Walter Moers’ Zamonia novels, published by The Overlook Press.  Moers is a German author and cartoonist who has had five books translated into English (four of which are set in Zamonia).  The most recent being The Alchemaster’s Apprentice.  These books can be read in any order, so don’t worry about starting with the newest book first.  What Moers has done is set about exploring Zamonia – so while characters may make cameos in eachothers’ stories, this is not a chronologically told tale.  You will not be following the continuing saga of one single character or event through a series of books.  Instead, with each story the reader is allowed to pop in and out of different sections and cities of Zamonia.  You learn about Wolpertings and Crats, Lindworms and Blue Bears, Shark Grubs and more.  You’ll visit Bookholm, the Netherworld and, in this newest adventure, Malaisea.

Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia!  A little town with winding streets and crooked houses, and looming over it a creepy-looking castle perched on a black crag.  A town afflicted by the rarest bacteria and the oddest diseases: cerebral whooping cough, hepatic migraine, gastric mumps, intestinal acne, digital tinnitus, renal measles, mini-influenza, to which only persons less than one metre tall are susceptible, witching-hour headaches that develop on the stroke of midnight and disappear at one a.m. precisely on the first Thursday of every month, phantom toothaches experienced only by persons wearing a full set of dentures.

Picture a town where there are more apothecaries and herbalists, quacks and tooth-pullers, crutch manufacturers and bandage weavers than anywhere else on the Zamonian continent.  Where ‘Ouch!’ is the conventional form of greeting and ‘Get well soon!’ takes the place of ‘Goodbye’.  Where the air smells of ether and pus, cod-liver oil and emetics, iodine and putrefaction.  Where people vegetate and wheeze instead of living and breathing.  Where nobody laughs, just moans and groans.

And the cause of all this sickness is Ghoolion the Terrible, the Alchemaster of the book’s title and resident of the creepy-looking castle.

Echo, a Crat (looks like a cat, but can speak any language and has two livers), is our hero.  After his mistress’ death he  is left to starve on the streets of Malaisea.  Ghoolion finds Echo and offers him a Faustian bargain.  Until the full moon he will feed Echo the most delicious foods the Crat has ever eaten and teach Echo all his alchemical secrets.  Then, at month’s end, Ghoolion will render Echo down for his fat to use in experiments (Crat fat being extremely rare).  Seeing no other option other than starvation, Echo agrees.

Moers is not only an inventive writer, he is also a very funny one.  As the story progresses, Ghoolion (not without a certain charisma) and Echo form a demented odd couple.  The Alchemaster more than keeps to his part of the bargain – and the two main characters seem to develop a mutual respect which borders on friendship.  Their interactions, evenMoers.Story moreso than Echo’s quest to break his contract, really propel the plot forward.  (In fact, if it wasn’t for the whole killing the Crat for his fat and torturing the citizens of Malaisea with fear and disease – we’d be rooting for team Ghoolian).

The subtitle of The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is A Culinary Tale from Zamonia – and the Zamonian delicacies Ghoolion prepares for Echo are an important (as well as entertaining)  element of the story.

My dear Echo,

I regret my inability to offer you a particularly lavish breakfast this morning, as I will be engaged on a research project all day.  However, the honey on the bread is very special.  It’s made by the Demonic Bees of Honey Valley.

Don’t worry about the dead bees in it, they’ve had their stings removed and they make the honey nice and crunchy.  But be sure to chew with care.  It sometimes happens, though very rarely, that one of the bees has not had its sting removed.  Although a prick in the gum or tongue wouldn’t kill you, it would certainly give you an unpleasant time.  The risk factor is said to be part of the enjoyment one derives from eating a slice of bee-bread.

Bon Apetit!

Succubius Ghoolion

‘Well, well,’ Echo thought sleepily, ‘Demonic Bees from Honey Valley.  Whatever.  After last  night I’d eat a grilled Sewer Dragon, with or without it’s knilch.’ He hurriedly devoured a few morsels and took a swig of milk.  The milk tasted odd – soapy, somehow – so he wolfed another piece of bee-bread to take the taste away – and instantly felt a stabbing pain in his tongue.

‘Ouch!’  he said, but that was as far as he got.  The room began to revolve, alternately bathed in light and darkness, and he went plummeting down a black-and-white shaft that spiraled into the depths, losing consciousness on the way.

When Echo came to, he seemed to be looking into a shattered mirror that reflected many little fragments of the world around him…

(What comes next is one of the funniest scenes in the book, but we won’t ruin it for you).

Moers.5The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is a story that you lose yourself in – the very definition of escapist literature.  It has a cast of supporting characters and settings – all examples of Zamonian flora and fauna – that will fascinate and enchant you.  And when you finish, we promise you’ll want to get the rest of the series:  Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures; The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Blue Bear, and The City of Dreaming Books.  You can pass them on to your friends or just wait for them to discover the books themselves.  “Oh… Moers?  Sweetie, I was reading him back in 2009. The movie just isn’t as good…”

Suggestions:  The Zamonia novels are perfect to share with the little people in your life.  Whether as a bedtime story that won’t put you to sleep,  or just to give you something to talk about on the car trip to the grandparents (nothing like discussing Leathermice philosophy with your favorite tween) – there’s something here for everyone.    Including illustrations.

*R.I.P. IV Challenge