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Posts Tagged ‘Women In Translation’

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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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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Women In Translation Month‘ is hosted by the wonderful Meytal Radzinski and it happens in August every year. I haven’t participated in WIT Month for a while. This year I told myself that I will participate and read books by wonderful women writers in translation, and find out what others are reading and discover new books through their posts.

One of the exciting things about participating in a reading event is making reading plans. I always loved that. So I looked at my book collection, looked at all the books that I wanted to read which fit this theme, and made a reading list. There are 10 books in the list. I don’t think I’ll be able to read them all this month. But I hope to read atleast some of them.

So, here is the list.

(1) Collected Poems 1944-49 by Nelly Sachs (German) – Nelly Sachs is one of the great German poets. She wrote beautiful, moving poetry. She left Germany when the Nazis came to power, and moved to Sweden, from where she continued to write. She won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966. But, unfortunately, she is virtually unknown today. I have dipped into this collection before and read some of her poems, and found them very beautiful. Now I am hoping to read this collection properly from the beginning to the end.

(2) Land of Smoke by Sara Gallardo (Spanish) – This is a collection of short stories by this new-to-me Argentinian author. It looks quite fascinating.

(3) The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena (German) – I have started this book multiple times and got distracted everytime and left it halfway through. Not because of the book, because the book is really good. I hope to do better this time.

(4) Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (Polish) – I have wanted to read this book ever since it came out. I love Fitzcarraldo Editions – their minimalistic style, with all books having blue covers, no introduction or notes or anything about the author inside, they just let the book do the talking.

(5) Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto (Japanese) – I have had this book for years. I have never read a Yoshimoto book before. Can’t wait to read my first one.

(6) I Hid My Voice by Parinoush Saniee (Persian) – I discovered this book serendipitously while browsing in the bookshop. This new-to-me Iranian writer’s book seems to tell a moving story.

(7) Child of the River by Irma Joubert (Afrikaans) – I was excited to discover this book because it is written by a South African writer, but it is not written in English. South Africa is a culturally rich country with multiple languages, but unfortunately the literature written in English from that country overshadows everything else. I can’t wait to read my first South African non-English book.

(8) Nowhere Ending Sky by Marlen Haushofer (German) – Marlen Haushofer is one of my alltime favourite writers. Only three of her books have been translated into English. I have read two of them – ‘The Wall‘ and ‘The Loft‘. This is the third one. I have been saving it for a rainy day. But I think it is time now – to read my third and final Haushofer and then mourn that there are no more.

(9) Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto (Japanese) – This is the second Yoshimoto book on my list. One of my friends gifted it to me and I can’t wait to read it. I think I’ll probably read this one first, before the other one.

(10) Collected Short Stories by Ambai (Tamil) – Ambai is one of India’s greatest short story writers. She is the Indian Alice Munro. She has been writing short stories for literary magazines for nearly fifty years. All her short stories are written in Tamil. They have been translated into English and published in multiple volumes. This collection that I have has all her stories. I have dipped into this collection before. Hoping to read it properly from the beginning to the end now.

So, that’s it from my side. I’m late to the party but I can’t wait to start.

Are you participating in Women In Translation Month? What are you reading?

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