Tag Archives: Women in Translation

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

24 Aug

HungerAngelAfter I read The Land of Green Plums a few years ago, Herta Müller joined a short list of authors whose work I want to read all of.  I am not the sort of reader who methodically works through an oeuvre; I crave different voices. But this list includes Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Mavis Gallant. (It used to include Angela Carter; I adore her short fiction, but actually found trying to read her novels like trying to eat an entire chocolate mousse cake.) Müller’s fiction is poetic and harrowing and sheds light on the country my family comes from.  For me, she is a must.

For my third installment of  Women In Translation Month, I tackled The Hunger Angel. This novel tells the story of Leo Auberg, a young German man in Romania deported to a labor camp in Russia in January 1945. I was surprised to learn that this happened: all Germans living in Romania and from the ages of 17-45 were forced to “rebuild” the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Müller explains in her Afterword, this was something shameful that Germans in Romania only discussed among themselves, if they discussed it at all. (Müller emigrated to West Germany after being persecuted by Ceausescu’s secret police.)

The Hunger Angel meditates on objects. Life in a gulag is tedious, so in lieu of a tight narrative arc, the first two-thirds of the book move laterally from things like cement and coal to yellow sand and firs. There’s a weirdly loving chapter about a kind of shovel known as “the heart-shovel,” which, by virtue of its design, allows Leo to forget himself as he works in ways that other tools or tasks don’t.

And, of course, as the title implies, there’s a food problem. With just one piece of bread a day and two bowls of cabbage soup, and no mid-day meal, the hunger angel emerges an antagonist who skews how prisoners perceive their world and how they behave. But memories of food from childhood buoy Leo and his prison-mates. One day, every summer, his mother would take him to the Café Martini where he could gorge himself on sweets:

We could choose among marizpan truffles, chocolate cake, savarins, cream cake, nutcake roll, Ischler tartlet, cream puffs, hazelnut crisps, rum cake, napoleons, nougat, and doboschtorte. And ice cream–strawberry ice cream in a silver dish or vanilla ice cream in a glass dish or chocolate ice cream in a porcelain bowl, always with whipped cream. And finally, if we were still able, sour-cherry cake with jelly.

As if being in a gulag is not challenging enough, Leo is in the closet. When men and women dance on Saturday nights (who knew they had dances, albeit sad dances, in gulags?), he remains off to the side. Men and women couple in the barracks; he does not. Though he observes: “Half-starved humans are really neither masculine nor feminine but genderless, like objects.” Over the course of the novel, this meditation on objects also becomes a larger meditation on loneliness and longing and trying to stay alive.

Leo has a poet’s eye, and it is that vision, that attention to language, which makes reading this essential book bearable.

Silvina Ocampo’s “The Imposter”

17 Aug

ocampoSilvina Ocampo, an Argentine author who was a contemporary of Borges, writes with a strangeness that alternates between a delicious sensuality and a deep, deep creepiness. For my second Women In Translation Month installment, I decided to tackle “The Imposter” in her posthumous collection Thus Were Their Faces, translated by Daniel Balderston. In this novella from 1948, Luis Maidaina is a young man who sets off from Buenos Aires to the more-or-less abandoned Swans Ranch taken up by another young man,  Armando Heredia, who is troubled.  Luis is to pretend to befriend Armando and keep an eye on him, reporting back to Armando’s father, who owns the ranch and is a friend of Luis’s father.

The train ride from the city to the country is ripe with color and texture: “The burning light of day was resting in all its blue brilliance on the glass, on the metal handles, on the motionless fans, on the leather seats.” A woman in white muslin covering “voluminous breasts,” daintily eating alfajores with her daughter, asks Luis about his destination and seems to know of the Heredia family as well as well Luis’s father. The town where Luis must debark is her hometown, Cacharí, apparently haunted by “a terrible Indian chief” murdered by the army a century ago, who for three days and nights yelled “Cacharí! Cacharí! Cacharí!” as he died and no one dared approach him. The woman continues: “They say that even today, when the wind blows at midnight in the winter, you can hear Cacharí’s cry.” She warns that the Swans Ranch is infested with bats and frogs and that Armando burned his horse’s eyes out with “Turkish cigarettes” because it disobeyed. Meanwhile, “the horizon made the sun look squat and almost purple” and they pass “an endless lagoon in which some sleepy flamingos were resting like flowers” and  later “a llama and…rhea lit up by the monstrous light of the train.”

The woman’s gossipy warnings set the tone for the remainder the story. Off the train a “hoarse” ranch hand who picks Luis up recalls Cacharí. In the landscape bird cries also recall that slain chief. The house is dark, dusty, leaky, crumbling. The heavy wooden furniture is adorned with mermaid tails. Armando tells Luis the Swans Ranch has no swans–his grandfather had them all killed when his Aunt Celina, swimming in their lagoon, fell ill and eventually died. After that, the family left the ranch to decay.

Despite Armando clearly posing a danger, Luis grows close to him. They talk about dreams–Armando doesn’t dream while Luis has many dreams which trouble is waking life with serious bouts of déjà vu. Armando claims he would commit a crime just to dream, that a lack of dreams feels like a lack of memory. Luis tries to uncover whether Armando has a girlfriend, whether that girlfriend really exists (or has been dead for four years), and whether to write to Armando’s father for help. Each time Armando suspects Luis of spying, he threatens to kill him. And Luis worries if he tries to escape the ranch, he will also be killed.

The story is rife with birds, strange dogs and cats, abandoned rotting spaces, and talk of tigers, doppelgängers, and frightening mirrors. The questioning of reality, memory, and imagination builds more and more, taking the story into the realm of the truly fantastic (at least, by Todorov’s definition)–where reader and character alike question reality.

Italo Calvino wrote that Ocampo “captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don’t show us” better than anyone. Borges said “her stories have no equal in our literature.” I can’t wait to devour the rest of this collection and I hope if Calvino and Borges are up your alley, you’ll read up all of Ocampo too.

“The Ball” by Irène Némirovsky

10 Aug

Golder

I read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française in French to prepare for my language exam at UW. Among the three works I inched through, it was the only one I managed to finish that summer. (The others were Swann’s Way, which I hope to tackle again one day, though it will probably have to be in English with some kind of Proust support group, and a vintage collection of short stories in a volume designed for college students, which was kind of stodgy.)  What I remember best from Suite Française, other than the scenes of Parisians evacuating before the German Occupation, is Némirovsky’s use of light. A woman hiding in a house shrouded in trees seems trapped in something aquatic. It was then that I learned and cherished the word glaucous.

Other than the fact that the French were fleeing the Nazis, there was no whiff of anti-Semitism in that book that I, with my limited language skills, could detect. So I was surprised, when reading Claire Messud’s introduction to the collection David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair that Némirovsky was virulently anti-Semitic, a token Jew at a right-wing newspaper, and a convert to Catholicism. Not that any of this saved her in the end. (For an in-depth discussion of Némirovsky see Susan Rubin Suleiman’s The Némirovsky Question.)

Michael read “David Golder,” the novel that made Némirovsky famous at 26. Though the story is well-written, the stereotypical depictions of Jewish businessmen did not sit well with him. (It should be pointed out, if you don’t know, that the stereotype of the banker Jew is a result of centuries of discrimination, as Jews were not allowed to practice most other professions or own land.) I wondered whether the popularity of “David Golder” had any connection to pandering to stereotypes. I decided to save my time and skip to “The Ball.”

Here, the Kampfs are a nouveau-riche couple who want to throw their first big party. M. Kampf “made a killing” in the Stock Market and in just four years they moved from a modest apartment to one that could accommodate (if a bit uncomfortably) 200 guests. The story was published in 1929 and you can feel the imminent doom.

M. Kampf is Jewish (alas, the Jewish stockbroker) and his wife is Catholic. They’re raising their fourteen-year-old daughter Antoinette to be Catholic. Mme. Kampf, whose past is questioned and who married M. Kampf for money, is desperate to host a glamorous party that will establish her reputation with the aristocracy. She hires a band to play the blues and the Charleston, and orders a bevy of roses, buckets of champagne, aspic, oysters, foie gras, caviar sandwiches, game, fish, petit fours, and, a modern luxury to be delivered fresh at 11 pm: ice cream.

Poor Antoinette keeps getting in the way of party planning. It is her violent emotions that attract me most to this story. Her thoughts feel the most real, compared to the somewhat flat, Mme. Bovary-esque aspirations of Mme. Kampf. Indignant, in bed, Antoinette thinks:

To them a fourteen-year-old was just a kid–to be pushed around like a dog…I want to die! God, please make me die…Dear God, sweet Holy Virgin, why did you make me their child? Punish them, I’m begging you. Punish them just once, and after that, I’ll gladly die.

Antoinette’s desire for vengeance suggests something darker here than your run-of-the-mill teen anger, but it also pushes this story deliciously to its conclusion. The characters probably aren’t any more likable than in “David Golder,” not that that is a requirement for my reading pleasure. But Antoinette’s course of action moves the story toward a complex, yet surprisingly tender, picture of mother-daughter conflicts.  If you like the glamor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age Stories, or coming-of-age stories in general, you’ll want to check this one out.

“Translation is not kale” in The Seattle Review of Books

10 Aug

WITMonth2017-2August is Women in Translation Month. This is the fourth year of the campaign, which was founded by literary blogger and biophysicist Meytal Radzinksi. I’m a big fan of this effort to raise awareness about women writers in translation and read more of them. And, I’m super excited to have my piece “Translation is not kale” in The Seattle Review of Books today, which discusses WITMonth in a wider context and revels in some of my favorite-favorite books. You can read “Translation is not kale” here. I’ve also got three reviews scheduled right here on my blog, starting today and continuing the next two Thursdays. More soon!

 

Women in Translation Month

26 Jul

Women in Translation Month is around the corner! Last year, I compiled a list of translated books by women that I enjoyed and created a Women in Translation Bingo game. I also wrote about novellas by Marguerite Duras and Eileen Chang and poetry collections from Rocío Cerón and Angélica Freitas.

This summer has been a bit more hectic as I’ve been teaching more, taking my second novel through an eighth draft, and researching my third novel. However! I’m excited for Women In Translation Month and wanted to share with you four books on my to-read pile.

What have you been reading? WITMonth2016

Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas & Diorama by Rocío Cerón

27 Aug

Thanks to Women in Translation Month, I recently learned about two fantastic contemporary poets published by Phoneme Media, which, I must say, designs some gorgeous bilingual books.

Diorama by Rocio Ceron, translated by Anna Rosenwong, Phoneme MediaDiorama, by Rocío Cerón, is super rich and multilayered. Her long poem “13 Ways To Inhabit a Corner,” under the subtitle “Pinhole” speaks particularly to peering into something very closely. The looking is so careful, the sensual details so packed in, the poem demands and rewards multiple rereadings. Each of the 13 sections builds a particular atmosphere. In section I: “In the midst of a stampede, a hand rests on the arc of a kneecap. Cigar and smoke. Rosy cypress sleep.” And, in section VII: “Hills, clouds, boreal forest. Woman undressing on a frozen bed. Beneath the folds of her clothing a constellation of sleet.” As her translator Anna Rosenwong points out, the work is associative and hallucinatory. Other poems are more political. “DIY Instructions or the National Telluric” includes the line “civil disobedience breaks out but still the dead pile up” — a line that made me sit up out of the intense dream state of “13 Ways to Inhabit a Corner.” Diorama won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, and it’s no wonder. It’s the sort of beautiful, meaty book you need to settle into, chew on, and revisit.

Rilke Shake by Angelica Freitas, translated by Hilary Kaplan, Phoneme MediaWhereas Diorama is experimental and gorgeous and challenging, Rilke Shake,by Angélica Freitas is more fun for everyone. Playful, energetic, and irreverent, Freitas takes references to poetry greats (Rilke, Keats, Gertrude Stein, etc.) and popular culture, and simply shakes. The work is sonically chewy: “I think about stravinski / and the beard of klaus kinski / and the nose of karabtchevsky / and a poem by joseph brodsky” she writes in the poem titled “what passed through the head of the violinist as he hurled toward his death against his black hair clutching his stradivarius in yesterday’s great air disaster”. She imagines bathing with Gertrude Stein, who “lets one loose under the water” and asks in “i can’t read the cantos”: “shall we free ourselves from ezra pound?” The poems do have poignant moments, such as in “sioban 4” where the speaker wonders: “does she think of me / does she also ask what happened // to the good girls of sodom, the ones who / always // kissed on the stairs / vanished in libraries / preferred to turn to salt?” I will be pushing Rilke Shake on many people. It’s too good to be missed.

“Sisters” by Alexandra Kollontai

13 Aug

Love of Worker Bees by Alexandra Kollontai, translated by Cathy PorterI picked up Alexandra Kollontai’s Love of Worker Bees at Boneshaker Books during the AWP conference in Minneapolis. Usually, I skip a book’s introduction, dive right into the fiction, and read the introduction afterwards. Kollontai’s work is a rare look at the Russian Revolution, and since I’m also reading Dr. Zhivago, I wanted to get some background on her. This may have marred my reading experience.

The introduction made me crave reading more history, and perhaps Kollontai’s nonfiction. Her fiction served to illustrate the feminist causes she fought for, and so in reading the short story “Sisters” I felt biased against the artistry of the story, about “a deserted wife and a prostitute who find a common bond.” (Let me back up and say I think if the explicit aim of the writer is to illustrate a political cause, it would be more effective to write nonfiction. That isn’t to say fiction must be apolitical. Pretty much all art is political. I believe a fiction writer should make story primary. The politics arising out of the story tend to emerge in a more complex, satisfying way when you don’t set out to illustrate a specific agenda. Let the story drive.)

Set in the 1920s, “Sisters” is a frame story in which someone at a “delegates conference” is being confided in. The storyteller has left her husband, has nowhere to go, and fears she may have to resort to prostitution. After her daughter’s illness, she was laid off from her job. Her husband, an executive in a government trust company, has taken to coming home drunk. She would like to work and he would like her to stay home. Things get worse when their daughter dies; he brings prostitutes home. The woman is horrified, humiliated, ready to run the second prostitute out of their house–but she sees a desperation in this sad young woman’s eyes, and as they talk, realizes she is an educated young woman without money or shelter, starving, anguished. The storyteller realizes that if she hadn’t been married, she’d be in a similar situation. She leaves her husband and…is at risk at being in the same situation. The story illustrates a pressing issue that Kollontai had to fight for relentlessly, that women’s rights are an essential part of the revolution. She ended up in diplomatic exile for much of her adult life.

The story is affecting, in the way that if someone you met told you that story you would care and be concerned, and want to do something. So in this way, the story achieves a goal. However, the story is mostly told in summary, in the way that someone might relate their tale in real life, not told in scene, with the kind of sensory detail that draws you closer to the humanity of the characters. It feels one step removed. And so I didn’t love the story, and I wouldn’t press it upon anyone unless they were digging into the subject matter–the issues of feminism and Communism, the struggles of people living in Russia after the Revolution. I’ll add as another caveat that is the third piece in the book. I did not read the first two and do wonder if the book is “front loaded” with stronger stories. So take my lack of enthusiasm with a grain of salt, check it out if it intrigues you, and let me know what you think.

This series on Women in Translation continues next week with a Duras novella and will finish at the end of August with a couple surprise books of contemporary poetry, review copies I was delighted to receive in the mail.

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