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Archive for the ‘Women in Translation Month’ Category

Tea Tulić is a Croatian writer and ‘Hair Everywhere‘ is her first book.

The narrator of ‘Hair Everywhere‘ is a young girl. The book has short chapters which are mostly just a paragraph long, in which the narrator describes her everyday life, her mother, her grandmother, her father, her sister, her neighbours, her pets, and shares her thoughts on things that she finds interesting. One day her mother is unwell and is admitted at the hospital. She stays there for a while. It turns out that her mother has cancer. While her mother’s health declines, we see how our narrator’s life changes and how she reacts to it through her writing.

Hair Everywhere‘ is a beautiful, poignant book. We see the unfolding tragedy through a young girl’s voice, which is beautiful, charming, unique, honest and candid, like only a young person’s voice can be. The title comes from this passage, in which the narrator describes her mother after the situation has worsened.

“Hair is everywhere. On the pillow. On the floor. In her hands and mine. We talk about coloured Indian scarves. About thick soup. Bad weather. Discipline. We talk about dry skin. We talk about everything, but still we feel sad because of the hair. It is a symbol of the greedy animal in her head. Her skin is flaking off her too. When she changes her vest, tiny flakes waft through the air.”

It is heartbreaking to read.

I loved ‘Hair Everywhere‘. It gives literary shape to a nightmare that every child has about their mother. It also shows how in the middle of big personal tragedies, everyday life just keeps flowing along. It was beautiful and heartbreaking to read. ‘Hair Everywhere’ won wide praise and literary awards when it was first published in Croatian ten years back.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The next snapshot shows an aeroplane dropping bombs that are falling somewhere down below, into a thick forest. In the picture you can’t see that the forest hides squirrels, owls, foxes, people and our vision. When the bomb reaches the ground, it won’t matter whether the man down there was a good teacher. Or that he exchanged his coat for a sack of potatoes. Or that the slaughter of the squirrels caused God-knows what disruption in Nature. The green trees survived.”

“In the big market place, stuffed with people and different kinds of yoghurts, I buy cheese. Only people, of all the mammals in the world, consume milk and milk products after they grow up. And all those people are here, in the queue in front of me…”

“My brother is angry because the doctors say they cannot help Mum. I tell him Patrick Swayze had lots of money but he still died of cancer.”

“Once in the newspaper it said that three Japanese fishermen had been fishing in the middle of the ocean and that a cow fell from the sky and killed them. The cow had been dropped from a plane flying directly above them. And two more the same way! They were too heavy for the plane to fly properly. The unfortunate Japanese drowned, and the bizarre ugly fish continued to circle around, down there in the darkness.”

Have you read ‘Hair Everywhere‘? What do you think about it?

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I loved John Cox’s translation of Biljana Jovanović’s book, especially his introductory essay on Yugoslavian / Serbian literature and on Jovanović’s work. So I did some research on which other books he has translated and that is how I discovered Ajla Terzić’sThis Could Have Been a Simple Story’. Ajla Terzić is a Bosnian writer and this book was originally published in Bosnian.

Esma works in an organization which helps people. She is single. She doesn’t have any near family – her dad moved away when she was young, and her mom has passed. She has an aunt and uncle and cousins and they invite her home during festival times. Once her office sends her to Vienna for a seminar. She meets a woman in the train compartment and sparks fly. But later the woman disappears. After a couple of days, this woman, called Roza, calls up Esma and they meet again. The sparks become a fire. And that is the end of life, as Esma knows it. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

This Could Have Been a Simple Story‘ is a beautiful lesbian love story. The first meeting, the attraction, the love, and the relationship between Esma and Roza is beautifully depicted. The kind of resistance that these two have to put up, and the battles they have to fight, especially when facing opposition from their friends, family members and loved ones, has been portrayed in the story in a nuanced way. In the last chapter of the book, Esma is at the edge of the precipice (a metaphorical precipice, of course), and we can feel the author Ajla Terzić literally pause her pen over paper, and contemplate on what to do next, and we readers realize that the fate of our heroine Esma, and our own happiness lies in the author’s hands, and we wait with bated breath to find out what happens next. Does Esma take the risk and jump off the precipice and take the plunge? Or does she step back to the safety of her previous life before all this happened? You have to read the story to find out.

It was nice to discover a new Bosnian author in Ajla Terzić. There is a beautiful introduction at the beginning of the story, in which the translator John Cox introduces us to Bosnian literature and Ajla Terzić’s work. It is vintage John Cox. John Cox is odd among translators, because he is a Balkan historian. So his knowledge of Balkan and Bosnian history, culture, literature and language is deep and that is clearly visible in the introductory essay and in the footnotes throughout the book.

John Cox says this in his introduction – “She (Ajla Terzić) herself sees no need to stress this, but you are about to read the first novel by a Bosnian woman that has appeared in English translation.” If this is true, then this book breaks new ground and this translation is pioneering. And the fact that the first book by a Bosnian woman to be translated into English is a lesbian love story – that makes it even better.

One of the central things in the book is the way music is embedded throughout the story. This would be easily perceptible to a Bosnian reader, but to an outsider like myself, it would be impossible to see. For this reason, the introduction is invaluable. The main character Esma’s name, the title of the book, and the titles of all the chapters are taken from the songs of the famous Yugoslav band Bijelo Dugme, and John Cox explains the connection between the band and the author and the book. One of my favourite musical discoveries from the book was a Bosnian music form called Sevdalinka, which expresses unrequited longing through music. I went and listened to a recording of it. It was beautiful, haunting, heartbreaking. (Do search for ‘U Stambolu na Bosforu’ by Daphne Kritharas, in YouTube, if you’d like to listen.)

I enjoyed reading ‘This Could Have Been a Simple Story‘. I can’t wait to read more books by Ajla Terzić.

Have you read ‘This Could Have Been a Simple Story’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Zlata’s Diary‘ by Zlata Filipović recently and read it today.

Zlata is a eleven year old girl living in Sarajevo. It is the year 1991. It is a normal year. Zlata goes to school, plays with friends, celebrates birthdays, plays the piano, catches up with her grandparents who live nearby, goes on holiday trips with her family. She writes about all this in her diary. Then one day news arrives that there is war in a nearby town. And after that rumours spread. Then one day the rumours arrive that Sarajevo is going to be shelled on a particular day. People who believe in the rumours start leaving the city. Smart people, wise people like Zlata’s parents, are sad that people are believing in rumours and misinformation. Sarajevo is a peaceful city and they believe that things will continue to be peaceful there. Unfortunately, the rumour-believers turn out to be right. The shelling happens and all hell breaks loose. Zlata continues recording all these happenings in her diary, which she calls Mimmy. So everyday, she has a conversation with Mimmy. For nearly two years, we get a firsthand account of what happened in Sarajevo during those terrible, war-torn years, as we see the daily happenings, the small happy ones and the big sad ones through the eyes of a eleven year old (and later twelve year old and thirteen year old). Our heart goes out to Zlata, as she wonders why there is a meaningless war going on, and why grownups who are supposed to be making rational decisions and doing better, keep the fires of war and hate burning.

Zlata’s Diary‘ takes us into the everyday life of a Bosnian family, and then before we know it, we are transported into a war-torn zone, which is scary as we can almost hear the shells exploding in the front of our streets, and the fear and dread creeping into our hearts. It is a powerful book. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed reading it – it was scary and heartbreaking – but I am glad I read it.

I am sharing a couple of my favourite passages from the book below.

From the entry on Thursday, 19 November 1992

“I keep wanting to explain these stupid politics to myself, because it seems to me that politics caused this war, making it our everyday reality. War has crossed out the day and replaced it with horror, and now horrors are unfolding instead of days. It looks to me as though these politics mean Serbs, Croats and Muslims. But they are all people. They are all the same. They all look like people, there’s no difference. They all have arms, legs and heads, they walk and talk, but now there’s ‘something’ that wants to make them different. Among my girlfriends, among our friends, in our family, there are Serbs and Croats and Muslims. It’s a mixed group and I never knew who was a Serb, a Croat or a Muslim. Now politics has started meddling around. It has put an ‘S’ on Serbs, an ‘M’ on Muslims and a ‘C’ on Croats, it wants to separate them. And to do so it has chosen the worst, blackest pencil of all – the pencil of war which spells only misery and death. Why is politics making us unhappy, separating us, when we ourselves know who is good and who isn’t? We mix with the good, not with the bad. And among the good there are Serbs and Croats and Muslims, just as there are among the bad. I simply don’t understand it. Of course, I’m ‘young’, and politics are conducted by ‘grown-ups’. But I think we ‘young’ would do it better. We certainly wouldn’t have chosen war. The ‘kids’ really are playing, which is why us kids are not playing, we are living in fear, we are suffering, we are not enjoying the sun and flowers, we are not enjoying our childhood. WE ARE CRYING.”

From the entry on Monday, 15 March 1993

“And spring is around the corner. The second spring of the war. I know from the calendar, but I don’t see it. I can’t see it because I can’t feel it…There are no trees to blossom and no birds, because the war has destroyed them as well. There is no sound of birds twittering in springtime. There aren’t even any pigeons – the symbol of Sarajevo. No noisy children, no games. Even the children no longer seem like children. They’ve had their childhood taken away from them, and without that they can’t be children. It’s as if Sarajevo is slowly dying, disappearing. Life is disappearing. So how can I feel spring, when spring is something that awakens life, and here there is no life, here everything seems to have died.”

I read this for Women in Translation Month which is celebrated during the whole of August.

Have you read ‘Zlata’s Diary‘? What do you think about it?

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Lakshmi’s was one of my mom’s favourite Tamil writers. Many women from my mom’s generation grew up reading Lakshmi’s books. Though my mom loved other writers too, there was a kind of veneration, a reverence that my mom and other women from her generation felt for Lakshmi. There was a reason for that. Lakshmi wrote books which had strong women characters who were inspiring. She singlehandedly increased the female readership in Tamil by many times through her stories which were published to much acclaim. She did it in the late 1930s / early 1940s, when a woman Tamil author was rare or unheard of. In addition to all this, she was a doctor. She started writing stories during her student days in medical school and continued till the end. My mom had told me about this memoir of hers, many times, and I had wanted to read it for a long time. I finally got around to reading it.

Before I read the memoir I thought that Lakshmi was from a privileged family and that is how she could go to medical school, and after finishing college, she got married and became a homemaker and she started writing as a hobby and became successful. Every one of those assumptions turned out to be wrong, of course. There was a reason I thought that, because I have seen many highly educated, talented Indian women – doctors, lawyers, scientists, bankers, PhDs – do this. But still, I was an idiot to believe in those assumptions. Lakshmi shows in her memoir why.

Lakshmi’s memoir has two parts. The first part starts from 1921, when she was born, and continues till the time she finishes high school and pre-college and enters medical school. The second part covers her years through medical school and ends a little after that, sometime after the end of the Second World War in 1945. In the first part Lakshmi talks about how she grew up in her grandparents’ home and how her grandparents brought her up during her childhood, because her dad was away studying. This part of the book depicts a beautiful, fascinating picture of the India of that time, an India which was conservative, kind and casteist, an India which was filled with patriarchy, misogyny, colourism and love at the same time. It is the kind of world which defies modern simplistic descriptions and definitions. To share an example from the book, when Lakshmi’s father wants to send her to school, her grandmothers and aunts vehemently oppose it, saying that a girl doesn’t need an education. Lakshmi’s father defies them and sends her to school. That is, the women oppose the girl’s education, while the man encourages it. When Lakshmi finishes elementary school and has to go to middle school, there is only a middle school for boys nearby, and that school has never had a girl student and so refuses to take her in. Lakshmi’s father fights for her cause, and somehow gets her into that school. This battle for education continues till pre-college, and Lakshmi’s father fights every step of the way for her. Then Lakshmi gets into med school, which is a huge accomplishment for a woman from her generation. But after that, her father flip flops. One day he is encouraging, another day he asks her to wind up things and come back home and take care of the family. Lakshmi’s life is very uncertain during this period, as she doesn’t know whether her education will continue or end suddenly. Her father, from the supporting champion he was, turns into the opposite and tries to undermine her.

Through the course of the two volumes, Lakshmi tells us about her family members, friends, teachers, inspiring people she met, strangers who were kind to her. She tells us things, as they are, in a non-judgemental way, but in a gentle, loving tone. She describes how she became a writer – because she wanted to support herself when she was a med school student, as her dad couldn’t afford to pay the fees – and how writing stories and connecting with people through them has enriched her life. She also describes the Madras of her time, and it looks very beautiful and glamorous, filled with cool people that we would like to meet, very unlike the Madras of today’s time. It almost feels like the film ‘Midnight in Paris’. She also talks about the Independence movement and how things were during the Second World War.

The book ends with Lakshmi graduating from med school. She was a successful writer and a doctor for more than forty years after that, but that is not covered in the book. The end of the second volume seems to imply a third volume, but unfortunately that was not to be. I wish we had atleast one or two volumes after this which described her literary career, her years in South Africa, how she got married (her two younger sisters got married before she did, which is rare in India even today, but almost unheard of during her time), her experiences with the movie industry when her story was adapted into a movie. Unfortunately, that is not to be, and this is all there is. I feel sad.

I loved Lakshmi’s ‘A Writer’s Story‘. It gave me goosebumps, and it is one of my favourite reads of the year. I wish my mom was still around so that I could discuss it with her. It belongs up there with the memoirs of R.K.Narayan and Kamala Das, among Indian memoirs. I wish it gets translated into English. It deserves more readers.

I read this for ‘Women in Translation’ Month.

Have you read ‘A Writer’s Story‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read ‘Nada‘ by Carmen Laforet for years, since I first discovered it. When Emma from Book Around the Corner suggested a readalong, I was excited. What started as a readalong for Spanish Literature Month in July, ended up becoming a book I read for Women in Translation Month in August, because I got into a deep reading slump in the second half of July and couldn’t read the book. But I am glad that I finally got to read it and finished it today.

In ‘Nada‘, a young woman called Andrea, who is our narrator, arrives in Barcelona by train, in the middle of the night. She reaches her relatives home and it is not at all what she expected. Andrea has come to Barcelona to study at the university. Her relatives receive her well, initially, but soon Andrea discovers that there are complications. Her aunt Angustias seems to be the matriarch of the family and is a person to be feared and obeyed. Then there is Andreas’ grandmother, Angustias’ mother. Then there are two of Angustias’ brothers, Andreas’ uncles, Juan and Román. Then there is Juan’s wife Gloria and their child. Then there is the cook and maid, Antonia. With so many grownups living together, and the time being just after the Spanish Civil War, when life was hard, there are constant conflicts, tantrums, slanging matches and fights everyday. In the midst of this chaos, Andrea starts going to university, and after the initial shy start, she makes new friends. How Andrea navigates this complex home life with relatives and her friendships at university, the beautiful experiences she has, and the ups and downs her emotional life goes through is depicted in the rest of the book.

Most of the characters in the book are fascinating. I loved our narrator, Andrea, of course. Her best friend Ena is wonderful too. Then her artist friends who paint everyday are fascinating too. Her grandmother is kind, Gloria is a friend and like an elder sister to her, and Aunt Angustias is scary. Juan behaves like a madman half the time, beating up his wife and threatening to kill her. Román is the enigmatic uncle, who seems to be charming and menacing at the same time, and it is hard for us to decide whether to like him or hate him. Andrea’s best friend Ena’s mother plays a minor but important part in the story, and there is one whole chapter dedicated to her, which was one of my favourite parts of the book. Ena’s mother was one of my favourite characters in the story.

Carmen Laforet’s prose has the perfect balance of beautiful sentences and easy flow. The pages are filled with beauty but they also speed by fast, and we wonder how. Carmen Laforet’s descriptions and the images she paints are so exquisite and such a pleasure to read. There are beautiful sentences strewn like pearls throughout the book. Laforet was twenty two or twenty three when she wrote this book. I wondered what I was doing when I was twenty three. Mostly being useless, I think. While Laforet created this beautiful work of art.

Edith Grossman’s translation is beautiful and pitch perfect. Sometimes it is hard to tell where Laforet’s prose ends and Grossman’s translation begins.

Towards the end of the story, the mad uncle Juan says to Andrea – “Well, niece, I hope things go well for you. In any case, you’ll see how living in a house of strangers isn’t the same as being with your family…” I laughed when I read that, and I thought, “Yeah, right!” 😁 When you read the story you’ll know why.

Thought I’ll share one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Tell me, don’t you want to make some music today?”
Then Román opened the little cabinet at the end of the bookcases and took out the violin…At the moment when, standing next to the fireplace, he began to move the bow, I changed completely…My soul, extended like my own hands, received the sound as if it were rain on dry ground. Román seemed a marvelous, unique artist. He wove in the music a joy so fine that it went beyond the limits of sadness. That nameless music, Román’s music, which I’ve not heard again since that time.
The small window opened to the dark night sky. The light of the lamp made Román taller and more immobile, only breathing in his music. And it came to me in waves : first innocent memories, dreams, struggles, my own vacillating present, and then, sharp joys, sorrows, despair, a significant contraction of life, a negation into nothing…the feeling of my total despair turned into beauty, an anguished harmony without light.
And suddenly an enormous silence and then Román’s voice : “You could be hypnotized…What does that music say to you?”

Nada‘ is a story about a dysfunctional family and how the past always keeps impacting the present and the future. It is also a beautiful story of friendship. I loved it. It is one of my favourite reads of the year and one of my favourite reads ever. I can’t believe that it took me so long to read it, but I am glad that I finally read it.

Nada‘ seems to be the only book of Carmen Laforet available in English translation. Hope other books of hers get translated into English. Edith Grossman, are you listening? 😁

Thanks to Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’ for hosting this readalong and inviting me to join. You can find Emma’s review here.

You can find other reviews of the book here.

Claire (Word by Word)

Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Have you read ‘Nada‘? What do you think about it?

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This is the third book I read for ‘Women in Translation‘ Month. I have had Colette’sChéri‘ with me for many years. I finally took it down from the bookshelf and read it.

Léa is a courtesan. She is forty-nine years old. She is in love with twenty-five year old Chéri. They have been together for a few years. Now Chéri’s mother decides that it is time for him to get married to a rich young woman. Léa reluctantly accepts that this is the end of their relationship. But both she and Chéri find it hard to let go. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I liked very much, the first part, which runs to around fifty pages. Léa is the main character in that, she is my favourite character, and we see things from her point of view. Then she disappears from the story for around thirty pages, and we see things from Chéri’s point of view. In my opinion, this part wasn’t that appealing. Then Léa comes back into the story, but for some reason the story isn’t as good as it was in the first part. The ending is heartbreaking.

The book created a lot of waves when it first came out in 1920. Interestingly, this year is the book’s centenary. There are other books which tell the love story of an older woman and a younger man. But I think ‘Chéri’ must have been the first story or one of the earliest ones with this plot, written by a woman writer. The blurb says that this is Colette’s finest novel. I liked the book in parts, but I feel that the book hasn’t aged well. I think it will make a great movie though, and I want to watch the movie adaptation.

Colette’s prose is beautiful. There were beautiful sentences and passages sprinkled across the book. I am sharing one of my favourites here.

“She took a thermometer from the drawer of her bedside table and put it under her arm. ‘My temperature’s normal, so it’s nothing physical. I see. I’m just unhappy. Something must be done about it.’ She drank some water, got out of bed, bathed her inflamed eyes, put on a little powder, poked the fire, and went back to bed. She was on her guard, full of mistrust for an enemy she had never known : grief. She had just said goodbye to thirty years of easy living : years spent pleasantly, intent often on love, sometimes on money. This had left her, at almost fifty, still young and defenceless.”

Colette was one of the great French writers and someone who defied the conservative world of her time. She once gave this advice to a young writer – “Look for a long time at what pleases you, and longer still at what pains you.” That always makes me think. I have heard great things about her Claudine books. I want to read them sometime.

Have you read ‘Chéri‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Colette book?

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This is the second book I read for ‘Women in Translation’ month, hosted by Meytal, which runs through the whole of August.

Clara‘ by Cecile and Lemoine is a surprising beautiful discovery for me. It is a comic / graphic novel.

Clara’s favourite time of the day is when her mother comes to her schoo in the evening to take her back home. They walk the streets, feed the ducks in the park, play in the swing, go to the bakery and try some treats, go home and play the guitar and take a bath together. This is a time Clara looks forward to everyday. One day her mother doesn’t come on time. Clara stays for sometime at the daycare centre at school. When her mother finally arrives, she doesn’t speak much. She looks worried, distracted. That day, they don’t indulge in their usual adventures. That evening Clara’s father comes home early and he and her mother have a long, quiet conversation which Clara is not able to hear. We, the readers, of course, feel a dark premonition.

Well, I can’t tell you more. You have to read the book to find out what happens next.

Clara‘ is a beautiful, heartbreaking story about love, loss and grief, seen through the eyes of a young girl. It puts into pictures the nightmare that every child has, and it also shows how one particular child handles it.

Cecile’s artwork is beautiful and charming and tries to lessen the weight of the grief for us. I read that Cecile never attended art school and is a self taught artist, which was fascinating to know. I have shared a few pages so that you can experience the beauty of her art.

I loved ‘Clara‘. I can’t wait to read more of Cecile’s work.

Have you read ‘Clara‘? What do you think about it?

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This is the first day of ‘Women in Translation Month‘ which happens in August every year and which is hosted by Meytal Radzinski. This is the first book I read for this year’s edition. I discovered ‘The Dog‘ by Kerstin Ekman through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) review of it. I read it today in one breath.

A man goes out of his house on some work, and his dog follows him. This dog has a puppy which follows her. But then it rains, there is a storm and the puppy gets lost in the forest. What happens to this puppy, as it navigates the hours, the days, the weeks on its own, is told in the rest of the story.

I have read many dog stories, but this is a story, the likes of which I’ve never read. Kristin Ekman tells us the story in the third person, but we are taken into the puppy’s mind, into his heart, and we see things through his eyes, we smell the new smells he does, sense the dangers he feels, feel things through his skin, and before long it is us in the forest, feeling the cold and the hunger, and the danger. Ekman doesn’t anthropomorphize the dog, doesn’t make it human, but takes us into the dog’s mind, into the dog’s heart, and makes us see how the world looks from there. It is fascinating. From the first passage,

“When does something begin? It doesn’t begin. There’s always something else before it. It begins the way a stream starts as a rivulet and a rivulet starts as a trickle of water in the marsh. It’s the rain that makes the marsh water rise.

Where does a tale begin? Under the root of a spruce, perhaps. Yes, under the root of a spruce tree. A little grey fellow was lying there, all curled up, his muzzle tucked under his tail. A dog. But he didn’t know that.”

the book grabs our attention, and refuses to let go till the end.

I loved ‘The Dog‘. It is one of my favourite dog novels, up there with ‘Dogsbody’ by Diana Wynne Jones, and ‘The Poet’s Dog‘ by Patricia McLachlan. I am glad I read it. I want to read more of Kerstin Ekman’s books now. She is one of the great Swedish writers and I discovered that she has a long backlist. Hoping that more of her books are available in English translation.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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This is the eight and last book I read for this year’s Women in Translation Month. I discovered Irma Joubert’sChild of the River‘ during one of my browsing sessions at the bookshop. The reason it appealed to me was that the author was South African and she didn’t write this in English. These days the default assumption is that all South African writers write in English. But South Africa is a complex and linguistically rich country and English is not the only language there. So I was very excited to see Irma Joubert’s book. Irma Joubert writes in Afrikaans, and this is the first time I am reading an Afrikaans book.

Pérsomi is a eleven year old girl. She is white but her family is very poor. She has many siblings. Her father is an unkind person and her mother is a nice person who gets bullied very easily. Pérsomi and her family live in a small house which is near the farm where her father works. The story describes Pérsomi’s life as she discovers secrets about her family, goes to the high school in town and distinguishes herself well, makes new friends, the kindness and affection and friendship shown by neighbours, how she falls in love and what happens after that. I just want to leave the story there – you should read the book to find out what happens next.

The book is set during the time just before the Second World War and the story continues till around the late ’60s. So we get to know a lot about South African history of that time, the tensions between the Afrikaner population and the England-supporting government, the onset of the Apartheid era and how it impacted people. The story is rich in historical detail and I loved learning the history of South Africa of that time, watching it unfold through Pérsomi’s eyes. Sometimes I couldn’t stop laughing, when reading about the racist laws that idiotic politicians of that time enacted. I thought to myself, “Who does this? Doesn’t it look silly and illogical and idiotic? Why can’t they see that?” When some of the lawyers, government officials, politicians in the book defend an unfair, racist law and say, “This is the law“, we want to scream at them, and quote the legendary first lines of William Gaddis‘ ‘A Frolic of His Own‘ –

“Justice? -You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.”

It would have been comic if it was not tragic. Irma Joubert gives a detailed account of some of these laws, and some of them play an important part in the story, which is fascinating to read. The life of the Afrikaners of that time is also portrayed quite beautifully in the story. Irma Joubert’s prose is spare and simple and moves the story at a wonderful pace. Pérsomi is a fascinating heroine and it is interesting to follow her life and loves. This book got me so interested in South African history, that I want to read a book on South African history soon.

Child of the River‘ is a fascinating historical novel. It is also a beautiful love story and a beautiful story of friendship. I loved it. I can’t wait to read more books by Irma Joubert.

Have you read ‘Child of the River‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Olga Tokarczuk’sFlights‘ ever since I heard about it. I finally got a chance to read it for Women in Translation Month.

So, what is ‘Flights‘ about? It has been described as a novel about travel, human anatomy, life, death, motion, migration. It is all that, but one thing it is not, is a novel. It is like we walk into a forest filled with stories, and we discover a writer who takes everything that she likes and she knows, sculpts that into a beautiful, wild shape and squeezes it into the pages of a book and presents it to us. It is a strange, wild literary animal and it defies classification. For want of a better word, it has been called a novel. Reading it is a fascinating experience, because there is no overall plot, there are no characters who appear through the book. There are stories which are short and which are long – some of which are half a page long and others which are thirty pages long – some of which are based on facts and which appear to be descriptions of actual happenings, while others appear to be fictional –though there are some which appear to inhabit the twilight region between fact and fiction, in which the facts are inextricably woven into the fictional imagination of the author. The best we can say about this book is that it resembles a series of diary entries, and we can open a random page, find the start of the nearest section and start reading from there, without any loss of continuity. There are some stories which have multiple parts, which sometimes immediately follow one another, and which at other times are separated by other stories for a few pages. It is possible to identify these different parts and get to the beginning of that story. There is one story in which two parts are separated by hundreds of pages, and that is the only one in which the parts are hard to connect if we are reading randomly, because these two parts can be read independently too. Outside of this, this book can be read as we please, randomly. I don’t know whether that was the intention of the author. Reading the book is like reading Pascal’sPensées‘ or Marcus Aurelius’Meditations‘ or Jules Renard’sJournals‘ or Madame de Sevigne’sCollected Letters‘ – we can start reading from anywhere and end reading anywhere. The author seems to have given over the control of the reading experience totally to the reader. It is very interesting to contemplate on.

This book was written in Polish originally and was translated into English a couple of years back. If this book had originally been written in English, it probably wouldn’t have seen the light of the day. Most mainstream publishers of fiction in English, who give importance to regular predictable elements like a good first page, a good first paragraph, a plot, character development, conflict in the story, a surprise ending and things like that, wouldn’t have touched this book with a barge pole. Creative writing teachers and students would have critiqued the book adversely during their classes and literary agents would have asked the author to rewrite the book with a plot. That is the state of literature written in English today. I am glad Olga Tokarczuk didn’t write in English. I am glad she wrote in Polish. I am glad she experimented with form and created this incredibly beautiful and endlessly fascinating literary work, which defies classification. I am glad that when the English speaking world has become predictable, European writers continue to take literary risks and produce these wild masterpieces. And I am glad that this beautiful indie publisher called Fitzcarraldo Editions brought out this book in English translation and introduced this strange, glorious, wild literary being to us. Fitzcarraldo Editions, to whom we should be eternally thankful, for publishing this and other great innovative literary works, which were unheard of before.

The book has many beautiful passages and my highlighting pen didn’t stop working. I am sharing a few below.

“Describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. Enormous damage has been done by travel literature – a veritable scourge, an epidemic. Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet; published in editions numbering in the millions, in many languages, they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours. Even I, in my youthful naiveté, once took a shot at the description of places. But when I would go back to those descriptions later, when I’d try to take a deep breath and allow their intense presence to choke me up all over again, when I’d try to listen in on their murmurings, I was always in for a shock. The truth is terrible : describing is destroying.”

“Many people believe that there exists in the world’s coordinate system a perfect point where time and space reach an agreement. This may even be why these people travel, leaving their homes behind, hoping that even by moving around in a chaotic fashion they will increase their likelihood of happening upon this point. Landing at the right time in the right place – seizing the opportunity, grabbing the moment and not letting go – would mean the code to the safe has been cracked, the combination revealed, the truth exposed. No more being passed by, no more surfing coincidences, accidents and turns of fate. You don’t have to do anything – you just have to show up, sign in at that one single configuration of time and place. There you will find your great love, happiness, a winning lottery ticket or the revelation of the mystery everyone’s been killing themselves over in vain for all these years, or death. Sometimes in the morning one even has the impression that this moment is close by, that today might be the day it will arrive.”

“The internet is a fraud. It promises so much – that it will execute your every command, that it will find you what you’re looking for; execution, fulfilment, reward. But in essence that promise is a kind of bait, because you immediately fall into a trance, into hypnosis. The paths quickly diverge, double and multiple, and you go down them, still chasing an aim that will now get blurry and undergo some transformations. You lose the ground beneath your feet, the place you started from just gets forgotten, and your aim finally vanishes from sight, disappears in the passage of more and more pages, businesses that always promise more than they can give, shamelessly pretending that under the flat plane of the screen there is some cosmos. But nothing could be more deceptive…”

“It wasn’t a big river, only the Oder, but I, too, was little then. It had its place in the hierarchy of rivers, which I later checked on the maps – a minor one, but present, nonetheless, a kind of country viscountess at the court of the Amazon Queen. But it was more than enough for me. It seemed enormous. It flowed as it liked, essentially unimpeded, prone to flooding, unpredictable. Occasionally along the banks it would catch on some underwater obstacle, and eddies would develop. But the river flowed on, parading, concerned only with its hidden aims beyond the horizon, somewhere far off to the north. Your eyes couldn’t keep focused on the water, which pulled your gaze along up past the horizon, so that you’d lose your balance.
To me, of course, the river paid no attention, caring only for itself, those changing, roving waters into which – as I later learned – you can never step twice.

Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that – in spite of all the risks involved – a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.”

Have you read Olga Tokarczuk’sFlights‘? What do you think about it?

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