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Posts Tagged ‘Women In Translation’

I discovered Jelena Lengold’sFairground Magician‘ by pure accident. It was in the list of titles mentioned in the back of another book, with a brief description. I like discovering new books like this and as this was a collection of short stories, I thought I’ll give it a try. I’m glad I did.

Fairground Magician‘ has thirteen short stories. There are different kinds of short stories in it – there are stories about love, loss, family. There is also fantasy and science fiction. There are a couple of erotic stories. There is also one story about a cat which is very beautiful. Most of the stories have brilliant first paragraphs which pull you into the story and never let you go. There were beautiful passages in every story, even in stories which were not necessarily my favourites. In one story called ‘Nosedive‘ there is a description of domestic intimacy which is one of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve ever read. It even made me smile. In another story ‘Wanderings‘, which is a cat story, there is a beautiful description about the narrator and her cat. These were two of my favourite passages from the book. I’m sharing them below. Do tell me if you like them. I enjoyed reading most of the stories in the book. One of the erotic stories didn’t work for me, but readers who enjoy literary erotic stories might love it. It was beautifully written with just one long sentence. Atleast half of the stories were absolute favourites for me – they gave me pleasure and joy from the first sentence, and gave me lots of goosebumps till the end. One of the stories ‘Senka‘ even made me happy at the end and I’m thankful to the author for that.

I loved Jelena Lengold’s short story collection. It is one of my favourites of the year. One of the great things about the past one-and-a-half months has been discovering great short story writers from the ex-Yugoslavia region, most of them women. First it was Asja Bakić, and then it was Miljenko Jergović, and then it was Alma Lazarevska. And now I’ve discovered Jelena Jengold, and I am amazed by the richness of these short stories. Alma Lazarevska said in an interview that she prefers writing and reading short stories. I’m wondering whether the writing part is true for many of the writers from the region. It appears that the concentration of short story talent here is mind boggling. I’ve never discovered so many favourite short story writers in such a short span of time. Short stories are a tricky literary form and pulling it off with one great short story after another (like Jelena Lengold has done in this collection and others have done in the other collections I’ve read) is extremely hard. But these writers seem to have pulled off the impossible.

I’m sharing three of my favourite excerpts from the book below. Hope you like them.

From ‘Nosedive

“My husband insisted on having his own towel. I do not know whether this fact explains anything. Sometimes I would try to substitute my own towel, by using various little subterfuges. For instance, I would say that I had washed all the towels and there was only one left. Or that we were just about to go away and there was no point in dirtying so much clean laundry. Sometimes I would even hang my towel, which I had only used once, on the hook where he usually put his. But none of that helped. Quietly, without a word of protest, without expressing his wishes or displeasure out loud, he would find a clean towel and when I followed him into the bathroom later I would always find that same, definitive sign of the separation of our bodies. I was not able to understand this. There are countless places on our bodies where we touch one another, kiss and lick, but after all of that we went to wash it all off ourselves, he would always need to prevent one single dead cell from my skin from crossing onto his. I do not know exactly how to say at what moment, after so many years of shared life, I began to believe that I would fall in love, irrevocably and headlong, with the first person who would want to rub himself dry with my towel. The towel that had just wiped my stomach and my arse; that had been drawn between my legs and, possibly, still had a moist hair on it. Someone for whom something like that would be quite natural.”

From ‘Wanderings

“…she looked back at Lola, who was now lying perfectly peacefully on his shabby blanket, blinking at her with his yellow eyes. She knew he would soon fall asleep and that he would then sleep for hours. That is how it always was. People never sleep so tranquilly, she thought with a hint of envy. Not even as children. Even then, all kinds of monsters come to them in their sleep. But Lola slept without a care in the world. You could just make out his breathing, the rhythmic rising and falling of his stomach. Sometimes an ear would twitch, at a fly or bug. Sometimes, without opening his eyes, he would get up, stretch his back, change his position and carry on sleeping. And that was all. He had no worries. He did not think about what had happened the previous day, he had no plans of any kind, he was not tormented by envy, he had no ambitions, he did not know anxiety. But who knows, she thought, perhaps I am wrong; perhaps he too has his feline worries? But still, this idea seemed hardly likely. Lola, asleep like this, seemed the very picture of absolute tranquillity. Sated, washed and carefree. Perfectly safe in his garden. She wondered whether he had any conception of what safety was. Or did he know only fear, the moment he felt it. Watching the cat always soothed her in some strange way. She liked sitting beside him, sleeping beside him, watching a film beside him, eating when he ate, reading a book while he dozed with his head on her slippers, in a word – she liked it when the cat was here, in her field of vision.”

From ‘Aurora Borealis

“…with his elbows on the table, he tried to think what would be more sensible: to have a shower or make a coffee. The coffee was essential to give him the energy for a shower, but equally, a shower was an essential precondition for making coffee. How can I decide, he wondered. What if I never decide and stay forever at the table, immobilised by my dilemma? What if I never do summon up the energy to do either of these two things? Then he thought that it wasn’t all that important, after all. He had already made all the important wrong decisions. He had made them with incredible ease. With an absolute lack of awareness that every detail, even the slightest, had its own weight.”

Have you read ‘Fairground Magician‘? What do you think about it?

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Marija Knežević is a Serbian poet and writer and ‘Ekaterini‘ is the only book of hers which has been translated into English.

This book tells the story of Ekaterini, the title character, and is narrated by Ekaterini’s granddaughter. The story starts at around the beginning of the twentieth century and ends at the dawn of the twenty-first. Ekaterini is a greek girl. The story starts when she is young and how during the First World War her family falls into bad times. Ekaterini goes to work and it looks like she might get a measure of independence, but things don’t work that way. Soon a young man falls in love with her, and Ekaterini’s family likes him, but when they discover that he is not Orthodox Christian but Catholic, they distance themselves from him. When the young man discovers that this is the reason for his proposal being rejected, he feels that this is a minor thing, and he changes his religion and becomes an Orthodox Christian. Ekaterini gets married to him, and later because of another war, she has to move out of Greece and move to Yugoslavia, where her husband is from. The place is new, the people are new, she doesn’t know the language. What happens to her as she navigates these big changes in her life, and how it mirrors the history of her adopted country is told in the rest of the story.

I enjoyed reading ‘Ekaterini‘. How a Greek woman moves to a new country and becomes Yugoslavian is very beautifully told in the book. The story made me think of Miljenko Jergović’sKin‘, because in that book Miljenko Jergović talks about his great grandfather who was German and lived in Bosnia. I also loved the way the book describes how historical happenings impact Ekaterini’s life and the life of her children and grandchildren. There are beautiful scenes which describe the relationship between a mother and her daughters and later a grandmother and her granddaughter. It made me smile to read how a woman who was tough on her own daughters, loves her granddaughter unconditionally and inspires her granddaughter to be a free spirit and even encourages rebellion 😊 There is also a beautiful scene which describes a father’s love for his daughters which I loved.

Marija Knežević’s prose is pleasant to read and there are many beautiful passages. I’m sharing some of them below.

“Lucija adored her father. For her, he was all-powerful and yet tender; he’d sit her on his knee and sing her songs, and he also taught her to read and write. She remembers well the big box he brought home after one of his wholesale shopping days. He put it in the children’s room, called Lucija and Ljubica and, beaming with joy, full of that anticipation which is the greatest pleasure for those who like to please others, watched their astonished reactions when he lifted the lid. The box was full to the top with stationery. The girls were speechless with amazement. They saw all these things for the first time. They didn’t know if they were enchanted by the exercise books, rubbers, pencils and rulers per se, or by the sheer quantity of stationery, which would surely last them into their high-school days.”

“Various things can give us a sense of security: family, a beloved being or beings, customs whose repetition is reassuring. Some find calm in a comfortable life with possessions and a full house, others in the opportunity to roam and wander free. Peace can certainly play that role too, in the long or short pauses between wars. As can hard times which could easily have been the end of us, but which we survived, and become the strongest foundations of all to have been invented. They’re like wisdom after a shipwreck for the survivors, in a life which in Serbian we’d call ‘a gift’. For some, it’s enough to hear just one ‘I love you’, se agapo.”

“The sun shone in through the freshly cleaned windows and she was delighted with the day’s efforts. As if there was no glass; not a fleck to be seen! But the rays wandered around the room and played with the specks of dust, those irrepressible thousands of particles which eluded both mop and rag. She blew out smoke and began to get annoyed. This blasted dust! You go to so much effort and the room still isn’t immaculate.”

“Our first and very major limitation is that we don’t know what it was like to be born. From that very first moment on, we depend on other people’s versions and have no way of learning the truth. Everyone talks about how they felt; no one even thinks that we might have felt something at the time too, let alone what, although we were the cause of all those manifestations of happiness, excitement, fear, inebriation and sobering-up because of the birth of a child.”

“Ekaterini sat peacefully, looking at the potted basil for a while, or the cat slinking around the house, or the kids with beach balls and underwater goggles; she heard their chirpy little voices saying thalassa, the sea, and gazed with the same calm at her toenails as at her memories which rose and ebbed away again like gentle tides. She engaged with every instant of the scenes around her and inside her. She spoke to a butterfly, the dripping tap in the courtyard, aeroplanes in the sky, or Lucija. Once again she was able to hear several voices at the same time – precisely because she didn’t have to. She didn’t have to do anything. There’s no word for that individual feeling of existence in its totality, when you have the good fortune of feeling everything and all at once. Just as living abroad is impossible to explain. Foreigners just hope they will live to experience this some day, and in this way they really reconcile themselves; all their life they reconcile themselves with the truth that home now only exists in their jumbled, nomadic memory: a memory maintained by fantasy – often an outright invention – and succoured by the sweetness of victory greater than that of any battle when we manage to convince friends and family that things were exactly as we said. Nomads live on stories. Only in stories do they feel they exist. Ekaterini was finally able to abandon herself to her senses. And she listened to the language like a cherished melody, near and dear but hummed by someone else.”

“I felt immeasurable pain, she – emptiness. The former is bearable but the latter cannot be compensated for, like the deaths of people close to us, which the poet Marina Tsvetayeva speaks of after the poignant word ‘Be!’. When someone dies with whom your life has been fulfilled, she says, you miss them, but they’re still there; they’re not sundered from you because you feel their presence. But when someone dies with whom your life was unfulfilled, there remains only inconsolable sadness.”

I’m glad I discovered ‘Ekaterini‘. Hoping to read more of Marija Knežević’s work.

Have you read ‘Ekaterini‘? 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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I read Hiromi Kawakami’sThe Nakano Thrift Shop‘ last year and I loved it so much that since then I have wanted to read another book by her. I got Kawakami’s ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo‘ recently and finished reading it today.

Tsukiko is a woman in her thirties. She is single, she works hard, she doesn’t have many friends and she enjoys lots of me-time. One day when she goes to Satoru’s bar for a drink, she bumps into her old high school teacher. It is a bar that she visits often and Tsukiko and her teacher bump into each other frequently and before long a beautiful friendship develops between them. This friendship becomes something more as time passes. What happens after that is told in the rest of the story.

Strange Weather in Tokyo‘ is vintage Kawakami. Kawakami doesn’t spend time on long descriptions and internal monologues but gets into the story in the first page, in the first sentence. There is no superfluous sentence, no wasted word. All the things that Kawakami fans expect and look forward to, are there in this book – showcasing of Japanese culture in the everyday world (I learnt about furoshiki and kotatsu through my previous book of hers) and gorgeous descriptions of Japanese food. I always look forward to Kawakami’s food descriptions – I learnt about edamame, grilled aubergine (probably Nasu Dengaku), yudofu, salted yakitori, Soka Senbei (rice crackers), Asakusa Nori (seaweed), konnyaku, different kinds of mushrooms, the difference between Sawanoi saké and Tochigi saké and other things through this book. There are also literary nods to Sei Shonagon, Basho, Seihaku Irako and The Tale of the Heike, which I loved. Towards the end of the book, there is an extra chapter called ‘Parade’ which was probably added later on to the original book, which describes a day in the life of the two main characters. They just sit and have a long conversation and it is very beautiful. There is a beautiful afterword by Hiromi Kawakami after that, in which she says that “the world that exists behind a story is never fully known, not even to the author.”

The only thing I found strange in ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’. was the title. I find it disappointing that British publishers frequently change the title of a translated book and put a city’s name in the title. For example, they took Hans Fallada’s  ‘Every Man Dies Alone‘, which is a beautiful, poignant title, and changed it to ‘Alone in Berlin‘, which doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes they go crazy and do that even to American books in English which are published in British editions. For example, they took the beautiful title of Matthew Crawford’s book ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft : An Inquiry into the Value of Work‘ and changed it to the unwieldy ‘The Case for Working with Your Hands : Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good‘. It is one of the worst changes of title I have ever seen. In Kawakami’s book, the story happens in Tokyo, but there is no strange weather there, just typical Tokyo weather. There is a passage in the middle of the book, which goes like this – “Thunder rumbled in the distance. After a little while, there was a flash among the clouds. It must have been lightning. A few seconds later, thunder could be heard again. “This strange weather must be a result of the strange thing you said…”” I don’t know whether this is an accurate translation or whether it was inserted here by the translator to justify the title of the book.

I loved ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo‘. The story is beautiful and charming – it is one of the most beautiful younger woman–older man love stories I have read. I can’t wait to read my next Hiromi Kawakami book.

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

“Being with Kojima always brought to mind the word ‘grown-up’. What I mean is, when Kojima was in primary school, he was a child, of course. A suntanned kid with thin little shins. In secondary school, Kojima had seemed like a sprouting boy, on the verge of casting off his boyhood skin and becoming a young man. By the time he got to college, he must have been a fully-fledged young man, the epitome of youth. I can just imagine. Now, having reached his thirties, Kojima was a grown-up. No doubt about it.
      His behaviour was commensurate with his age. The passage of time has been evenly distributed for Kojima, and both his body and mind had developed proportionately.
      I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult. I had been very grown-up when I was in primary school. But as I continued through secondary school, I in fact became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time.”

“The calligraphy was utter gibberish to me, but I found myself enjoying the time as I listened to Sensei’s murmured bursts of ‘Such a nice hand’ or ‘A bit prosaic’ ‘Now that’s what’s called a vigorous style.’ The same way as when you’re sitting at a pavement café, furtively passing judgement on people as you watch them go by, it was amusing to attach my own impressions to these calligraphed works from the Heian or Kamakura eras : ‘That’s nice’ or ‘This one’s not bad’ or ‘It reminds me of a guy I used to go out with’.”

“With Sensei, his benevolent nature seemed to originate from his sense of fair-mindedness. It wasn’t about being kind to me; rather, it was born from a teacherly attitude of being willing to listen to my opinion without prejudice. I found this considerably more wonderful than him just being nice to me. That was quite a discovery for me, the fact that arbitrary kindness makes me uncomfortable, but that being treated fairly feels good.”

Have you read ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo‘? 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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After reading Colette’sChéri‘, I decided to read her first book in the Claudine series, ‘Claudine at School‘. I read this for ‘Women in Translation Month‘.

Claudine is a fifteen year old girl. She lives in a village and is in high school. She is the narrator of the story. In the story Claudine tells us about her adventures in school, her friends, her teacher, her love for nature, events that happen in her school and how it impacts her and her friends, her love for her dad, her love for books – these and other things are narrated in the book.

When I first heard of Claudine’s story, I thought it would be the story of a girl at school and the adventures and fun she has. I thought it would be Colette’s French version of a Judy Blume book. Part of the book is that, but there is more to the book than that. Claudine falls in love with her teacher, but her headmistress is also in love with her teacher, and there is a three-way lesbian love story there. It is amazing because Colette wrote this book in 1900, and I don’t know anyone else who wrote a lesbian love story in 1900. Even if there was, things would have been described in vague language, so that it could be open to different interpretations. Colette will have none of that nonsense and she describes things as they are. Colette was brave and she was a pioneer. After reading more of her work, I am able to understand why she has been revered by readers and writers of her time and since.

Claudine is a charming narrator and from the first lines – “My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there” – she grabs our attention and never lets go. Claudine’s voice is somewhere between that of a child and a grown-up and she describes the hypocrisies of the grown-up world as she sees it. There are no bad characters in the book, atleast I didn’t feel there were any. There were just imperfect human beings with flaws, and Claudine describes them perceptively through her fifteen year old voice. There are people she likes and people she doesn’t like, and she herself is not nice sometimes, but she doesn’t shy away from describing things as she sees them. One of the things I loved about the book is the way it beautifully describes the real world of children and teenagers – how they are nasty and fight one day and exhibit kindness towards each other the next, sometimes even in the next moment. Claudine keeps treating with contempt, one of the girls in the class who likes her, but fights for her when she is in trouble, and helps her when she needs that. Reading that took me back to my schooldays. My favourite part of the book is the one in which Claudine tells us what happens when she and her classmates go to write their final exams. Claudine takes on one of the tough professors during the oral exam and she has her own opinion on history based on her wide reading and he disagrees with her strongly, though he respects her for holding on to her opinion and standing up to him. At one point when Claudine’s headmistress tries to intervene and cool things down he says – “Let her alone, Mademoiselle, there’s no harm done. I hold to my own opinions, but I’m all in favour of others holding to theirs. This young person has false ideas and bad reading-habits, but she is not lacking in personality – one sees so many dull ones.” I smiled when I read that 🙂

The book has an introduction in which Colette describes how she wrote the book – her husband asked her to write the book and then published it in his name. It was one more case where the husband took credit for the wife’s work, and it makes us angry when we read it, and we are glad to read how Colette came out of that situation and how the books were later published in her own name.

I loved ‘Claudine at School‘. It was almost as if Colette’s was speaking in Claudine’s voice. I don’t know how much of the book is autobiographical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. Claudine is one of the great charming heroines and one of my favourites. She made me remember Ronja and Pippi, Astrid Lindgren’s great heroines. I can’t wait to read the second part of the series now, ‘Claudine in Paris‘.

Have you read ‘Claudine at School‘ or other books in the Claudine series? What do you think about this book?

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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 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 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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