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Archive for the ‘Women in Translation Month’ Category

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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I have had Katharina Hagena’sThe Taste of Apple Seeds‘ in my bookshelf for a long time. Yesterday I finally took it down and read it. This is the sixth book I read for ‘Women in Translation Month‘.

Iris goes to her hometown because her grandmother has passed away recently. Her mother and her mother’s two sisters, Iris’ aunts, have also come. After the funeral is over, the lawyers come to her grandmother’s place and read the will. To everyone surprise, it is revealed that Iris inherits her grandmother’s house. Everyone leaves sometime after the funeral, but Iris stays on. Iris used to visit her grandmother every summer when she was a child and later as a teenager. She used to spend a lot of time with her cousin Rosmarie, who was her Aunt Harriet’s daughter. So this house carries a lot of old memories for her. As Iris stays in the house, she looks back on the old times, and we get to know more about her mother and her aunts, and her grandmother and grandfather, and their lives and their loves. We also get to know more about Rosmarie and her friend Mira. As Iris reminisces her past, things are also happening in the present. A young man who was a boy once upon a time, and who was a part of her childhood, walks back into her life and sparks fly. But we also get to know that there are some deep secrets in her family’s past and some of them seem to be tragic and some of them seem to be dark. What these secrets are, how they are unfolded, and how they impact the present, form the rest of the story.

I loved ‘The Taste of Apple Seeds‘. Katharina Hagena’s prose is very elegant – there are pauses where she meditates on a particular topic and those passages are such a pleasure to read, and at other places her prose moves the plot at a beautiful, even pace. There are some surprising revelations towards the end, and the ending – is it happy or sad? I am not telling you that. Go and read yourself and find out 🙂 ‘The Taste of Apple Seeds’ is a beautiful, sensitively told story of love and family, the complexity of human relationships, and the occasional unkindness of young people.

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

“I worked with books, I bought books, I even borrowed the odd one. But read them? No. I used to – oh yes, I used to read all the time, in bed, while eating, on my bike. But it stopped. Reading was the same as collecting, and collecting was the same as keeping, and keeping was the same as remembering, and remembering was the same as not knowing exactly, and not knowing exactly was the same as having forgotten, and having forgotten was the same as falling, and at some point you had to stop falling.”

“Sunday mornings felt different, you noticed this straightaway. The air had a different texture : it was heavier and slowed everything down. Even familiar noises sounded different. More muffled and yet more emphatic. This must have been down to the lack of car noise…Perhaps it was also due to the fact that on Sundays you paid attention to breezes and sounds that you wouldn’t waste a second on during the week. But actually I didn’t believe that, because Sundays felt like this even during the holidays.”

“I always felt secure when I swam. The ground beneath my feet couldn’t be taken away. It couldn’t crumble, sink or shift, couldn’t gape open or swallow me up. I didn’t bump into things that I couldn’t see, didn’t accidentally tread on things, didn’t injure myself or others. You knew what water was going to be like, it always stayed the same. OK, sometimes it was clear, sometimes black, sometimes cold, sometimes warm, sometimes calm, sometimes choppy, but its substance, if not its state of matter, always stayed the same : it was always water. And swimming was flying for cowards. Floating without the danger of falling. My stroke wasn’t particularly beautiful – my leg kicks were asymmetrical – but it was brisk and strong, and I could go on for hours if need be. I loved the moment when I left the earth, the change in elements, and I loved the moment when I trusted the water to carry me. And it did, unlike the earth and the air. Just so long as I swam.”

“Sometimes fabricated stories became true in hindsight, and some stories fabricated the truth. Truth is closely related to forgetting; I knew this because I still read dictionaries, encyclopaedias, catalogues and other reference books. In the Greek word for truth, aletheia, the underworld river Lethe flows covertly. Whoever drank from this river discarded their memories as they already had their mortal coil, in preparation for the realm of shadows. And so the truth was what was not forgotten. But did it make sense to look for the truth where there was no forgetting? Didn’t truth prefer to hide in the cracks and holes of memory?”

Have you read ‘The Taste of Apple Seeds‘ by Katharina Hagena? What do you think about it?

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Marlen Haushofer is one of my alltime favourite writers and her book ‘The Wall‘ is a masterpiece and one of my alltime favourite books. Haushofer was probably well known during her time, atleast in her native Austria, but has mostly been forgotten during the decades since. Interest in her work revived a few years back when a film adaptation of ‘The Wall‘ came out and it was received with great acclaim. But since those heady few months, Haushofer has sunk back into obscurity. I don’t even know whether she is read in her native Austria now.

The Wall‘ was the first book of Marlen Haushofer that I read. I loved it so much that I searched for all of her books which were in print. I found only two more in English translation – ‘The Loft‘ and ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. I got them both and read ‘The Loft‘ soon. I kept ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ aside for a rainy day. I read the first few pages many times, but refused to go ahead. A few days back I decided that it was time. It was time to take it out and read it properly and enjoy the pleasures and the insights it had to offer.

Nowhere Ending Sky‘ is the story of a girl called Meta. When the story starts, Meta is around two-and-a-half years old. We see the world through her eyes, as she views grown-ups including her parents as giants, she loves the barrel in which someone keeps her for a while, while they work in the farm, she loves the tree, the big old stone, the dog, her house. As the story progresses, we get introduced to new characters – Meta’s uncles, aunts and grandparents, her neighbours, the people who work in her home, the casual visitors who turn up at her home. At some point Meta’s mother gives birth to a new baby and now Meta has a baby brother. Initially she is jealous of him, because now her mother ignores her and gives the baby her full attention. But one day, Meta is able to see the situation from her mother’s point of view and after that day she is not jealous of her baby brother anymore. We get to see how life is in the farm, the pleasures that it offers and the challenges that it provides. We get to see how the change of seasons initiates a new set of activities in the farm and results in the arrival of new people. We get to know about Meta’s relationship with her father and mother and how different they are – her father is a dreamy type who is nostalgic about the past while her mother is a practical type. We also get to know how Meta’s uncles and aunts are very different from each other but how they all love her in their own ways. We get to know about how Meta and her dog love each other and trust each other. There is even a white hen in the farm which the other hens ignore and Meta is kind to that hen and it gets attached to her and keeps following her everywhere. There are more things in the book, but I’ll stop here.

I loved ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. One of the things I loved about the book was the point of view from which the story is told. We see the world through the two-and-a-half year old Meta’s eyes at the beginning of the book, and we become two-and-a-half years old while reading it. And as Meta grows up every day and week and month and year, and as her perspective about the world and her relationship to her surroundings and the people around her changes and evolves, we continue growing up with her and see the world in new ways. This transformation of perspective is gradual and natural and is not rushed or forced. It is beautiful and we don’t even realize that it is happening. But after we finish reading, say, fifty pages of the book and then go back and check the first page, we realize that things have changed so much, but when the change was happening and we were in the middle of it, we were not aware of it. Only a master can pull this off and Marlen Haushofer does it so beautifully and elegantly. Haushofer’s prose is beautiful and charming. She is a beautiful soul and it shows in every sentence of the book. You will know why when you read it. There are so many beautiful passages in the book and I couldn’t stop highlighting.

How does ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ compare to Haushofer’s other two books, ‘The Wall‘ and ‘The Loft‘? It is hard to tell. I loved them all and they are all very different. ‘The Wall’ will probably be my favourite out of the three, but now after reading ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘, I am not very sure, because this is equally beautiful as well.

Nowhere Ending Sky‘ starts when Meta is around two-and-a-half and ends when she is probably in her early teens. The ending is beautiful and poignant, because lots of things have changed since the beginning and Meta is not a baby anymore, and her relationship with the world has changed. The ending was heartbreaking for me. It was heartbreaking because while Meta mourned the passage of her childhood, I mourned the end of the last book of my favourite writer. It is sad that all good things have to come to an end. It is sad that there won’t be any more new Marlen Haushofer books. There is one novel, one novella and a collection of short stories of hers in German, which are still not available in English translation. I hope someday one of the translators decide to translate them into English. Till then, this is it. I am so thankful that there was a writer called Marlen Haushofer and she lived in the 20th century, and she was a beautiful soul, and she wrote these beautiful, sensitive books. I am so happy that I discovered her books and I am so glad that I loved them. I am so sad that the party is over now. One of these days, I’ll take down all the three Haushofer books I have and read them again, slowly, and enjoy the beauty of each sentence. But right now, it is time to mourn the end of an era.

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

“The best thing about Father’s stories is that they keep changing imperceptibly all the time. He is incapable of telling the same story twice in the same way, and this creates a kind of web that spreads out in all directions. Nothing is fixed and therefore nothing is boring. Meta could go on listening for ever, and for quite a while now she herself has in fact been helping to spin the web. She makes suggestions, promotes and demotes officers and troops. Unpopular figures are flushed into oblivion and nobody cares a hoot. Sometimes her imagination runs away with her, and then Father gently takes another tack. One evening, for example, she transfers the whole regiment to Beluchistan, simply because she likes the name; he doesn’t contradict her, he just leaves the fact hanging there until she forgets about it. He always maintains that nearly everything sorts itself out if you give it time. And it is important to remember this.”

“What can it be like, never to have been born? She closed her eyes tightly, shuts down as many senses as she can – sight, taste, hearing – and remains motionless. But she is still there : her tummy rumbles, her heart beats and there is a red sort of curtain affair behind her lids. She must make herself smaller, shut herself even tighter. Rolled into a ball, her mouth pressed against her knees, she does her best to achieve a state of never-having-been-born. The red behind her eyelids fades, her arms and legs go numb, her tummy falls silent and her heartbeat slows. She has never been born. There is nothing uncomfortable about not being in the world; you don’t feel anything at all. Then slowly she comes to life again. Her ears are the first things to open, and they hear the wasps buzzing in the roof beams. Next her nose catches the smell of the flour sacks on which she is lying; on her tongue she can taste saliva; and when she opens her eyes the whole world comes flooding back. She is there again, delivered up to the assault of noises and sights and smells. This not-being-able-to-fend-them-off is what life is…’You ought to be grateful,’ Mamma always says, but for the first time Meta starts to doubt it. She is not grateful; she is alive, and that’s all there is to it. Sometimes it’s nice, often it isn’t, and always it’s a big oppression.”

“What grips her most is not so much the actual stories as the wealth of fascinating new words she learns from them. Just the words, not the meanings – she is in fact careful not to enquire too closely into meanings in case a fuller explanation should rob them of their mystical power. At one point she comes across the phrase ‘his voice rang with a note of triumph’, and spends the rest of the day in a trance, just musing on it. Triumph, triumph, what a dark, proud, shapely word; its meaning is not important; one day it will fall into place like everything else she hasn’t yet learnt, and in the meantime the word will retain all its magic. She is convinced that to discover new things, all you have to do is to get your words in the right order. All magicians know this, and it is the basis of their power. She would like to gain this power herself one day, but at present she is afraid of it and decides to put off working magic until she is older : she might, for instance, pronounce a wrong word by mistake and awaken some terrible monster, and she is too young and weak for that. No, for the moment her task is merely to swallow the words – not difficult because she has always had a desire to swallow things she likes – and wait for her time to come. Fortunately reading is a way of gobbling up things you love for which there is no punishment.”

Have you read Marlen Haushofer’sNowhere Ending Sky‘? What do you think about it?

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This is the fourth book I read for Women in Translation Month. I discovered Parinoush Saniee’sI Hid My Voice‘ when I was browsing in the bookshop. The story told in the book goes like this.

The story starts with twenty-year old Shahaab celebrating a party in his home. He finds the noise and the attention too much and yearns for some solitude and goes to the terrace. While enjoying some quiet time there, he looks back on his past. When Shahaab was a four-year old boy, he couldn’t speak. His parents worried about him and took him to specialist doctors. The doctors said that there was nothing wrong with him physically. His father and relatives suspect that he might have psychological problems. But his mother always backs him and defends him. We hear the story from Shahaab’s perspective and so we know that he is smart and he can think. But because he doesn’t speak, the outside world thinks that he is dumb. Because Shahaab is quiet he is bullied. He sometimes takes revenge on his bullies. Sometimes he does nasty things because someone hurts him or his mother, emotionally, or when he mistakenly assumes that someone has hurt him or his mother. Because people around don’t understand him, they just assume that Shahaab has some serious psychological issues and he has a mean streak. His own father feels that way.

What happens to Shahaab? What kind of challenging times does he have to go through in the middle of people who don’t understand him? Is he able to survive the bullies? Is he able to speak, in the end? The answers to these questions are revealed by the end of the book.

I loved ‘I Hid My Voice‘. It is a beautiful portrait of modern day Iran. It is a beautiful love letter to the Iranian family, the relationship between parents and children, husband and wife, daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, between siblings and cousins. Parinoush Saniee’s prose is simple and spare and moves the plot along smoothly. There are no long descriptions and philosophical ruminations. I loved most of the characters in the story, especially Shahaab, his imaginary friends Asi and Babi, his mother Maryam, his cousin Fereshteh, the kind strangers Karimi and Soudabeh who take care of Shahaab when he gets lost, Shahaab’s aunt and Fereshteh’s mother Fataneh, and most of all Shahaab’s grandmother Bibi. These are all the nice characters. There are the not-so-nice characters who have their part to play, and there is Shahaab’s father Nasser, with whom Shahaab’s relationship us complicated. That complexity is described beautifully and insightfully throughout the book. ‘I Hid My Voice‘ is a beautiful love letter to a boy without a voice and how the kindness of family members and strangers help him find full and glorious expression to his voice.

I am so glad I read ‘I Hid My Voice‘. I was waiting to read a book set in contemporary Iran which describes everyday Iranian life. I had my heart’s fill. Now I can’t wait to read Parinoush Saniee’s other book ‘The Book of Fate‘.

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

“Back then I didn’t understand why I wanted to swear so badly, but I felt it was a great way for getting even. You didn’t need to be powerful or big and strong to use bad language, you just needed to know how to speak, to open your mouth and say something to make the other person mad. Words could be powerful. If you used the right word at the right time you could make people fume with anger without having to break or destroy anything. It was as if those words had been invented for small, weak people like myself.”

“Words were not just a series of letters to me. They each represented their own world. Over my years of speechlessness, I’d struggled with each word. I knew the weight and colour of each one and felt its volume. How could I express all the qualities of a word just by writing it? This is why writing in a single colour was difficult for me. I needed all my coloured pencils in order to do homework. I had to write ‘blood’ with a red pencil, and black was a more appropriate colour for ‘death’. I used green for ‘love’ and grey for ‘sadness’. In my eyes ‘Father’ was always an unpleasant brown and ‘Mother’ was a dull yellow, like the sun subdued by dark clouds. For a long time my biggest challenge was using white for ‘kindness’, which was hard to do on a white piece of paper. I discovered the solution after several attempts. I found out that if I drew the outline of the word with black and left it white on the inside, it would still be legible. I carefully wrote each word in a beautiful script using the correct colours.”

Have you read Parinoush Saniee’sI Hid My Voice‘? What do you think about it?

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