Eventide by Therese Bohman, translated by Marlaine Delargy

Therese Bohman’s novels have fascinated me since I first read her English language debut, Drowned, in 2012. For a long time, I thought it was simply the ferocity of the stories that I admired. Her portrayals of love, and what passes for love, is intimidating. Reminiscent of Virginie Despentes, sex is a power struggle. There’s an undercurrent of violence and manipulation in all male/female interactions.

Eventide, her third book translated into English, maybe her breakthrough. It has received more attention than her two previous books combined, having arrived at the perfect intersection of the #MeToo movement and a demand for more books in translation by women. I always want to talk about Bohman during Women In Translation month… though I sadly didn’t manage to get this post done for WIT2019.

Karolina is Bohman’s first middle-aged heroine. She is an art historian and academic. Her last romantic relationship (which was characterized as having the longevity and monogamy of marriage) has just ended. Not because of infidelity, tragedy or abuse, but because Karolina decided she no longer loved her partner. She finds this new phase in her life both exciting and frightening — an emotional cocktail which leaves her vulnerable to the attention of a charismatic graduate student she’s been assigned to advise.

In many ways, Karolina is the logical evolution of Bohman’s previous female protagonists — all of whom are involved in some variation of a romantic triangle. In Drowned two sisters are seduced and ensnared by the elder’s husband. In The Other Woman, a twenty-something cafeteria worker begins a romantic relationship with an older, married man and, unknowingly, the man’s daughter. In Eventide it is Karolina, her student Anton, and Lennart Olsson (another professor in the art department), who form the novel’s emotional triumvirate.

Anton has made a fascinating — and possibly groundbreaking — discovery. He has uncovered a cache of work by a forgotten woman artist from the Mannerist period, which is Karolina’s particular area of expertise. Lennart Olsson has made his career on “discovering” overlooked and forgotten female artists. In Anton, he sees the possibility of advancement… should he become Anton’s advisor. But, of course, everything is not as it appears. Anton’s progress on his thesis is slow, his research haphazard, and Karolina quickly senses a problem.

Eventide is a type of quiet drama that centers around situations and challenges particular to the lives of women. The stakes might appear relatively low to us but, from Karolina’s perspective, they are everything. Is Anton a fraud? Will Karolina be helping him perpetuate an academic lie, thus endangering her own career and reputation? And, always, underlying everything is Karolina’s fears about being a single woman in her forties, childless and alone.

What would she be remembered for? She might end up with neither children nor a partner; what had she done to make an impression on the world? Her writing didn’t interest many people. Maybe she ought to write more, something really radical. Surely she ought to express her opinion when she had one, for example in the debate on the columns in the new subway station? If everything else was doomed to disappear into oblivion, the least she could do was to write what she really thought.

It’s difficult not to consider how different Karolina’s situation might be or appear if the character were a man. She has a reasonably successful career and is comfortable financially. Her work and social circle at the University remain unchanged after her separation. She is attractive, intelligent, and her life is very much her own. And, yet, Bohman understands how gender affects perception. Lennert is meant to function as Karolina’s male counterpart. He, too, is single and financially well-off. He is considered something of a ladies’ man, though Karolina doesn’t see it. The difference is that Lennert has been more successful professionally. He is an opportunist. He has benefitted from all the advantages of white, male privilege, and Karolina understands that, in contrast to her own sense of self, “Lennert thought he deserved the acclaim”.

Examinations of the lives of older women are becoming more common. The New York Times columnist, Gail Collins, even has a new book on that subject No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History (I’m buying multiple copies for Christmas this year). For those familiar with Minae Mitzumara’s, Inheritance From Mother — Karolina has more in common with Mitsuki, the book’s fifty-something heroine, than with the lost young women of Boehman’s previous two novels. Both characters, Karolina and Mitsuki, are used to explore what a fulfilling life looks like for a middle-aged woman existing outside of the societal expectations of lover, daughter, and mother. Karolina’s story, like Mitsuki’s, is one of persistence and continuity versus revolution and reinvention.

Because few people possess the courage to sell their belongings, cut off ties to their family and friends and move to an Ashram in India. Or have the luxury of spending three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Or the financial resources to eat, pray and love their way around the world. But, more often than not, these are the stories we are told. Bohman writes different stories. She portrays a woman’s life without resorting to extremes in characterization and reaction. Her heroines are allowed to misstep, behave badly and make morally questionable decisions. They are transgressive. Karolina is a refreshing respite from characters like Emma Bovary, April Wheeler and the entire literary canon built around women disproportionately punished, and/or made ridiculous, for aspiring to more. And while the stories Boehman writes are not as rare as they once were, they are still very welcome.

Title: Eventide
Author: Therese Bohman
Translator: Marlaine Delargy
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2017)
ISBN: 978 159051 893 9

In Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary the future is, predictably, bleak.

Title: The Emissary
Author: Yoko Tawada
Translator:  Margaret Mitsutani
Publisher: New Directions Books, New York (2018)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 2762 9

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…

I also can’t help wondering why the U.S. publisher went with the title: The Emissary and not The Last Children of Tokyo (as it was released in the UK). The latter seems better, and less misleading, considering the substance of the novel.

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.

The Embalmer by Anne-Renée Caillé, tr. Rhonda Mullins

Title: The Embalmer
Author: Anne-Renée Caillé
Translator:  Rhonda Mullins
Publisher: Coach House Books, Toronto (2018)
ISBN:  978 1 55243 780

We’re all going to die. And while nobody wants to dwell on the state of their own mortality, we’re perfectly happy consuming stories, both on screen and page, involving the deaths of strangers.  Especially if a crime is involved. (We do love our crime. I’ve lost count of the number of murder-of- the-week series in my Netflix queue, true-crime podcasts I’m listening to, and in England, sales of crime fiction have surpassed that of general and literary fiction for the first time.)

But The Embalmer is not a crime novel, though it does feature the occasional victim. Written in the first person, a nameless narrator conducts a series of interviews with her father about his work. He was a mortician — an embalmer. In short vignettes, he describes working with the dead. And she, in turn, describes him. They meet at a diner. The premise is that simple. Except when it’s not. Anne-Renée Caillé manages to convey a great deal with only a few lines of text.

The mother is in the lab, asks for the skates. They are still on his feet, the request is disturbing, then he tells himself she has some ten children, after all.

He unlaces the first skate and pulls gently, but the foot comes off.

In the skate a foot — the mother doesn’t want it anymore, she lets it go.


Parent-child relationships are complicated. The embalmer/father is cautious, trying to protect his daughter (and himself) while still honoring her request and answering her questions. His daughter carefully watches his mannerisms and describes to the reader what she observes. “He thinks and adds…”, “Clearly he saved this for last, put it off —  uncomfortable with the stories he tells me two…”, “He moves quickly through the short list in front of him, handwritten, folded, unfolded, refolded, folded, refolded, higgledy-piggledy.” There is love, but also a distance maintained, in their interactions. Though they are only the briefest of sketches on the page, no names or physical descriptions are provided, these two characters gradually solidify in our imaginations. We’ve all been to diners. They could be sitting in the next booth.

If you’ve read Gabrielle Wittkop (The Necrophiliac and Murder Most Serene ) then this subject matter is familiar. A shared fascination with death. But while both writers lay out a veritable smorgasbord of death and decomposition, they are very different in approach and intent. Whereas Wittkop’s work is gothic and visceral, almost cloyingly so, Caillé takes a more practical and moderate approach. She is more respectful. While Wittkop’s narrators are gleeful and gossipy, the embalmer is reticent. He summarizes. The rare details volunteered are unembellished.

Morbid fascination. Macabre. Gallows humor. Black comedy. Horror. We want to look, but only when it’s our choice. When no one we care about is involved. When we have the ability to walk away emotionally unscathed. My sister, who has never lived more than fifteen minutes from my parents, jokes that when they die she will have their bodies stuffed and sit them at her kitchen table. “Dad’s forehead is looking a little dusty, get the Swiffer.” We all laugh until she starts to tear up and leaves the room. This has happened more than once. Our parents, though in their seventies, are in amazingly good health. Our father is retired. He drives a shuttle bus on the campus at the local college because he hates sitting at home. Our mother watches my nieces during the week with more energy and patience than anyone else in the family can muster. My point is, neither is teetering on the brink of the grave. And still, the idea of them not being there is terrifying.

Eventually, the stories told across the table, between father and daughter, become more personal. Caillé writes with emotional vulnerability and a complete lack of cynicism, and yet she still manages to insert a twist which surprises and changes her reader’s experience of the book.

There are dozens of novels written by edgy, young writers. They all seem to be short, with unusual formatting, and truncated chapters. They all seem to be published by small, indie presses. Though no one else has that beautiful, textured, Coach House paper. But The Embalmer stands out. It’s worth your time… and not because of the paper. Anne-Renée Caillé walks you to the edge of a cliff and makes you look down. The ending of her book is abrupt, unexpected, and initially, that bothered me. I thought it was a flaw. But it has lingered with me for weeks now. Regardless of whether I wanted it to or not.

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.

 

 

 

Welcome to Women In Translation Month 2016 – #WITMonth

WomenInTranslation Logo 2016Women In Translation Month is here again.  This event, in its third year, was started by the blogger Meytal Radzinski.  The idea came out of a number of posts she wrote in which she used The Three Percent website’s yearly translation database to determine the percentage of books in translation written by women which are published each year.  The 2014 and 2015 results were depressing and this year seems to be a continuation of previous years’ trends.

In case you’ve forgotten: the goals for Women In Translation Month are simple –

  1. Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation
  2. Read more books by women in translation
  3. And if you’re a blogger or reviewer (or both) – BE AWARE!  Make sure you’re reviewing women in translation.  If publishers aren’t sending you the books, then start requesting them. It’s our job to let the readers know what they’re missing.

Want to be a part of the discussion?  –

I’ll be reading and posting about Women In Translation all of August. And while I probably won’t get to them all, here’s a peek at my TBR list –

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