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Archive for the ‘Women In Translation’ Category

After reading Jelena Lengold’s wonderful short story collection ‘Fairground Magician‘, I wanted to explore more of her work. The only other book of hers available in English translation was her novel ‘Baltimore‘. So I decided to read that.

Baltimore‘ starts with our narrator, who is a forty-something woman living in Belgrade, looking at her computer everyday afternoon. She has somehow managed to hook up to a camera in Baltimore, Maryland. And she waits for a young man, who comes at a specific time everyday, and waits for the bus, and boards it when it arrives. She makes up imaginary stories about him and even has a name for him. The second part of the chapter is about a woman who is of similar age, who meets her therapist and talks about her problems. We are taken deeply into this therapy session during this section. Both these women look like the same person – the voice is similar, their age is similar, their moms look similar. So we conclude, it is the same person. The first section of a chapter sometimes assumes a Dostoevskian shape. Our narrator shares her thoughts on life, which was one of my favourite parts of the book. She then proceeds to describe events from her life which serve as examples which prove the truth of her views on life. I loved this structure. In one of these chapters, the narrator talks about how once she stopped going to work, became silent and refused to talk to anyone, but did the household chores and kept things running, and every morning, after her husband went to work, she took a book and went to a park and read for most of the day (sometimes she went to the park to crochet and watch children play) and how it made her happy, while her family thought that it was strange and she was not well. I loved that chapter and it made me smile, because I did that once. I didn’t go silent, but I quit my job and went to the cafe in the morning and read for the whole day there. I carried this on for a while, and I loved it and it made me happy, but others thought it strange. Towards the end of the book, all the different story strands come together (or do they? You have to read the book to find out 😊) and there is even a surprise (it was a surprise atleast to me), and the ending was interesting.

Baltimore‘ had everything that Jelena Lengold’s readers look forward to, in her stories – a little dreamy surrealism, the occasional erotica, a kick-ass main character who speaks her mind (the book starts with these lines – “Let’s get something clear first : If this is going to be one of those stories in which everyone is nice and polite, then we’d better stop now. I would like to tell you everything about everything, and there is so much to say. You get that, don’t you? When you want to say it all, not everyone can be pleasant and polite. Least of all me.” How can we not fall in love with the narrator after reading that?), the profound commentary on contemporary life which is almost Dostoevskian in depth, and lots of quotable passages. I enjoyed reading it.

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

“I don’t know exactly when I made the decision not to have children. Or if it even was a decision or just one of those things you keep putting off indefinitely, knowing full well the time that you have is limited. Maybe only fifteen, twenty years at the most. And then, you suddenly realize that the decision is no longer up to you. You definitely can’t have them, even if you wanted to. Stories like: A woman in India gave birth at the age of sixty! Both mother and infant are healthy and doing fine…. You somehow know this doesn’t apply to you and that this is just a newspaper article. Was this another one of those decisions I tend to make for the sole purpose of making myself feel bad? Either way, that’s how it turned out. It’s not that bad for now. We have our time. And time is one of the rare things a person can actually have. We have our afternoons and our weekends. We have order in our kitchen and neatly stacked shelves. We never had to use the washing machine twice a day because of dirty diapers. Nor did we have to get out of bed ten times during the night. You don’t think that’s really a plus? Okay. Maybe you’re right. I’m just presenting my arguments. Your family and friends resign themselves to the idea when you reach your late thirties. This is when they definitely lose all hope. But, there are always those times when you need to get your hair done. In hair salons, most of the talk is about children. Photographs are taken out. Pregnant women get their hair done out of turn. There’s mention of C-sections, pelvic births, measles, baby-teeth are shown around, and sometimes even the children are brought in to get their hair cut with their mothers, at which time we all have to sigh and cry oh, he’s so cute and swear the child is the spitting image of its mother. I’ve yet to see a woman who comes into a salon and talks about her ill mannered, full-grown child. I’ve never heard a woman talk about how her son had to repeat a grade, as she was getting a perm. Or how he robbed a corner store. Or how he started taking drugs. Or how he beat up a neighbor. Or how he can’t get into college. Or how he moved to another continent and calls only once a year, just to ask for money. In a hair salon, children exist solely in their angelic form. A form that only gives rise to plain, unadulterated envy. A form which makes you want to get out of there, with the curlers still in your hair, but not before you apologize to everyone for being there, even though you’re not worthy of their company. Because they, these women, know something that you don’t. And they have felt something you never will. They are a family. You are a couple, at the most.”

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

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I discovered Andrea Jeftanovic’sTheatre of War‘ recently and decided to read it today.

When the story starts, the narrator Tamara describes a play which is being staged in which she is one of the performers. Soon we realize that the play might be the story of her life, as the narrator describes her childhood, her life with her siblings and her parents, how her dad moved from his war-torn country to a new one, but still has nightmares about it, how her mom is nearly always unhappy, how her brother and sister look different compared to her and the secret behind that. The story starts with this and continues as it charts Tamara’s life as she grows up, goes to college, falls in love and has interesting and challenging life experiences.The story starts with a war and it ends with a war and its aftermath. In between, it is the story of a family which navigates these troubled waters called life.

The descriptions in the book on how Tamara’s family goes through hard times because of financial circumstances is very moving. Reading about how they frequently get evicted from their house because they couldn’t pay the bills and how their personal possessions are all auctioned off (once the TV is plugged off and taken away while they are watching a programme) before they are evicted is heartbreaking to read. Being poor and being an immigrant is always hard and the book depicts that movingly. How Tamara’s dad continues to be a nine year old boy who has nightmares of war and how Tamara’s mom loves her family but hates responsibility and yearns to be a free spirit is beautifully depicted in the book.

Andrea Jeftanovic’s prose is beautiful and a pleasure to read. In some places she decides to be playful and toys with the reader. I remember reading one passage at the end of which I felt something strange – there was a dissonance there and it didn’t make sense overall. I felt the passage was hiding a secret and it refused to reveal it to me, because I wasn’t giving it the attention and love it deserved. I decided to read it again more slowly pausing after every sentence and taking it in, and this time, the passage opened its heart and spoke to me and revealed its secret to me. Every sentence in the passage changed the point of view – the first sentence was about Tamara and the second sentence was about her dad and it continued like this. When I discovered this, the whole passage glowed with its beauty and music. In music, there is a form called contrapuntal, in which two are more independent melodic parts are connected together by a common harmony. This passage was like that. It was brilliant and beautiful.

When we reach the end of the book, an interesting question arises. Is the whole book the narrator Tamara’s story? Or is the book just the story told in the play in which Tamara plays one of the parts? Or is it both? It is a fascinating thought to ponder on. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this if you get to read this book.

I loved ‘Theatre of War‘. Andrea Jeftanovic is clearly a talented writer and this is a brilliant debut. This book was first published around twenty years back (so it has been around for a while), though it has been translated into English only recently (it was originally written in Spanish. Andrea Jeftanovic is from Chile.) She has published more books since then – I spotted atleast one more novel, three collections of short stories and one collection of essays. I hope they get translated into English soon.

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

“Mum prepares breakfast for two kids every morning. She kisses Adela and Davor on the forehead as they leave the house. She makes two beds, fills the tub two times. She hugs one child with each arm. From the balcony her eyes follow two shapes as they walk away. She holds out one hand to cross the street, then the other. I’m left at the end of the line, clutching at my sister. She whispers a little secret to the right, another to the left. Her two legs guide two paths. Two tears roll down her face as she watches her children sleeping. She doesn’t know the little girl who lies beside her and follows her around the house, snatching at her dress and repeating her name. She is incapable of including me in her twofold affection.
      I don’t want to hear her ask again : Who’s that girl lying there naked with her hair all tangled? Mum never reaches my centre, just brushes around my edges, grazes my surface. I spread out before her like an incomprehensible atlas. A pair of steaming bowls are waiting for us when we get home from school. My brother and sister don’t say anything, just silently serve a third portion on the bread plate. I have lunch at the corner of the table. And for a moment I want to drive it into my abdomen.
      Another day my sister and brother and I all come home together and I stop to tie my shoes. As I reach the door, mere steps behind them, it slams in my face and I’m locked outside. I watch Mum, her welcoming smile, her wrist turning the key in the lock. Her world is a perfect triangle, not an awkward square. I’m the edge that doesn’t fit into that geometric shape. For Mum I’m nothing more than an empty space in her brain, a black hole that swallows up all memory of me.”

Have you read Andrea Jeftanovic’sTheatre of War‘? What do you think about it?

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