A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov, translated from the original Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

October 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

http://catalog.openletterbooks.org/images/covers/Short_Tale-front.jpgAngela Rodel has translated three Bulgarian novels for Open Letter Books: 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev, Thrown Into Nature by Milen Rouskov, and A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov (the last is the subject of this review).  She also translated Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva for the UK publisher Istros Books. In addition to being a translator she is a musician and an actress.  She lives in Bulgaria.

A Short Tale of Shame is the second book I’ve read and reviewed by Rodel.  Both books featured introspective, male protagonists dealing with loss.  Her translation recalls for me Edith Grossman’s work in Spanish. Her work is fluid, allowing readers to slip gently into the prose like they would a swimming pool.  Both 18% Gray and A Short Tale of Shame are hauntingly poetic – and while the majority of the credit for that goes to their authors, I can’t help believing that some should go to Rodel as well.  Her name should be on your list of must-read translators.

Coincidence and fortuitous meetings propel the plot of A Short Tale of Shame. Boril Krustev is a middle-aged, former rock star.  His estranged wife has just died and his relationship with his daughter is not great.  In a cliché attempt to outrun his grief, he jumps into his car and drives.  There is no plan.  Within the first few pages he picks up a group of hitchhikes, a college-aged boy and two girls.  Maya, Sirma and Spartacus are likeable young people (just as Boril is likeable) who are unusually close.  They discover over small talk that the threesome are friends with his daughter, Elena.  Shortly after this revelation it’s decided that Boril will travel with them to  Thasos, an island off the coast of Greece. The story of their barely intertwined lives unfolds from there.

Krustev felt a little duped because instead of watching the boat arrive, instead of seeing the island dust off its dress uniform to meet the new arrivals, he had to go down to the car and get ready to leave.  But he left the kids up on deck to watch the palace of the Grand Master above the dappled coast, stern and supercilious, and at least that was some consolation, as if some part of him would stay there, too, watching.  Without noticing it and without meaning to, he had already slipped into their net of key words and tacit agreements, and he was force to admit that this made him feel good.  When he stopped on that Rhodope road and picked them up, he had simply wanted company, people to chat with, to distract him, and to have some immediate goal, in order to drive them to it.  But from then on everything had developed quickly and simply, and the mutual discomfort they had felt, he with them and they with him, was actually more helpful than not, for example on the beach on Thasos he had tried to look aside so as not to stare at Sirma’s brazenly displayed breasts, this had, in fact, brought him closer to them, some quiet thread of shame gleamed in the sunlight for an instant, weaving yet another tie between them.  Alone in his car, in the garage, winded from the gas fumes, Krustev told himself that whatever the three teenagers’ secret was, he didn’t want to know it, he wasn’t enticed by the possibility of muscling his way between them, of digging through the strange space enclosed by their triangle, and he was thankful that they returned the gesture, not asking him why he had taken off on his own and what had happened, and if they had guessed, they didn’t pursue their conjectures with the doggedness of a blind hunter, something he remembered so well from his own youth, back then he had probed every patch of earth, digging down to reach a spring, and once he had drunk from the precious water, he lost interest, just as when he had played his solo and had to return to the familiar and steady rhythm of the song and somehow hold out until the end of it.

Angel Igov assumes the detached perspective of the third person, and through him the reader has  the opportunity to dip into the minds and memories of each of the four characters.  Much of what is revealed involves Elena – apparently a cruel and manipulative person.  She bothered me.  In that she remains a fragmented character who we interact with only through the memories of others.  Her motivations remain elusive; her actions go unexplained. She is Iago-like in the casual way she goes about destroying the lives of others.

It’s hard to reconcile her being Boril’s daughter.

You would think that the story of an older man traveling with three young people would immediately turn creepy, and the title: A Short Tale of Shame seems to suggest it.  But Boril is decidedly un-creepy.  He’s actually really nice.  He doesn’t overstep or ogle the girls. He’s careful not to use his money to assume a position of power. In truth, he is just as he appears: a slightly lost and lonely man mourning the death of his wife and his lack of a meaningful relationship with his daughter.

Maya, Sirma and Spartacus have no ulterior motivations either.  They do not intend to take advantage of Boril or his wealth.  The car is convenient, but mostly they seem to genuinely like and feel sorry for him. The only snake in this garden appears to be Elena.  And she is far enough away as to not pose a significant threat.

This lack of conflict comes as a surprise because there is an undercurrent of tension throughout the story – one that can’t be solely attributed to Elena.  Something doesn’t seem right. I kept expecting some kind of dark, sexual revelation to occur, when what is eventually revealed ends up being rather innocuous. This lack of a twist is strange, but it in no way takes away from the story. 

A Short Tale of Shame takes a more complicated path than one leading to a single moment or revelation.  Igov puts you in a bubble with Boril, Maya, Sirma and Spartacus.  Inevitably that bubble bursts and the ending, when it arrives, is abrupt.  The reader is left disoriented.  As if he or she has been startled from a daydream.  This, in a way, is what this book is: an interlude in the lives of these characters.  Lovely, but isolated.  The significance of which will no doubt diminish over time, even as the memory lingers.

A Short Tale of Shame was a Co-Winner of the 2012 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest.

Publisher:  Open Letter, Rochester (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 76

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The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain, translated from the original French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken

September 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is another playful offering from Gallic Press, whose The Suicide Shop I reviewed just last month.

As he picked up his second oyster he glanced discreetly to his left. The President had put on his glasses and was reading the menu.  Daniel took in the famous noble profile, seen in magazines, on television and every New Year’s Eve for the past five years.  Now he was seeing that profile in the flesh.  He could have put out his hand and touched François Mitterrand.

The waiter returned and the President ordered a dozen oysters, and the salmon.  The large man chose mushroom pâté and a rare steak, while Roland Dumas followed the President’s lead with oysters and fish.  A few minutes later, the wine waiter appeared with a silver ice bucket on a stand containing another bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé bathed in ice.  He uncorked the bottle smoothly and poured a little into the presidential glass.  François Mitterrand tasted it, approving it with a brief nod.

Daniel poured himself another glass of wine, and drank it down almost in on, before taking a teaspoon of the red shallot vinegar and dressing an oyster.

‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week…’ Daniel heard François Mitterrand say as he ate his oyster.  Never again, he told himself, would he be able to eat oysters with vinegar without hearing the words: ‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week’.

The premise is relatively simple:  The French President François Mitterrand loses his hat in a Parisian brasserie.  Well, technically, Daniel steals it after dining next to the President and his party.  Through the course of the book the hat continues to change hands and transforms the lives of the four characters who wear it.  The prose is straightforward.  The story sweet.  Like The Suicide ShopThe President’s Hat has the slapstick quality of a French comedy.  It is not particularly complicated or challenging, but very engaging.  The relaxed, gentle tone in how it is told reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series – slightly more whimsical.

Which reminds me of a friend of mine who went to a book-signing by Alexander McCall Smith at Barnes & Noble.  She came back completely charmed.  The author relayed an anecdote in which someone asked him why there were no car chases in his novels.  He laughingly replied that he felt it would be irresponsible of him to include a car chase in one of his books.  That his readers might not be able to handle that level of excitement.  But, as a compromise, he had included a shopping cart chase in the new novel he was there to sign.  It received a huge laugh and a smattering of applause from the crowd.  They knew it to be true.

There’s always been a readership for quiet books in which very little happens.  Several examples come to mind. The types of stories found in Ladies Journals were very popular when Ladies Journals were in their heyday. Today, the Persephone Press seems to thrive on catering to the  quiet reader with re-prints of books by women authors from the first half of the 20th-century.  And while planning this post I kept thinking back on some of my favorite books/authors from when I was younger: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jack & Jill, Under the Lilacs and Eight Cousins were read multiple times; and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series.  Those books had more in common with McCall Smith novels than what I read now.

So I’m wary of being too hard on or of dismissing The President’s Hat simply because I don’t have much to say about it.  I did read it in one sitting, cover to cover, and enjoyed it (particularly the little twist at the end).  I loved each of the characters who found the hat and became completely wrapped up in their individual stories.  This may be the perfect book for a quiet evening at home.  Antoine Laurain appears to have no aspirations other than to amuse his readers with a tale well told… which he does.  At least this reader was amused.  And I’m sure my friend who reads Alexander McCall Smith will love it.  In fact, I just sent her the recommendation on GoodReads.

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 908313 47 8

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The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, translated from the original French by Sue Dyson

September 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

Gallic Books is a small UK press that publishes French books translated into English. They  were founded in 2007 by two Random House alumni.   Later in September I’ll be reviewing The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain. It tells the story of Daniel Mercier, an average man who finds President François Mitterrand’s black felt hat and puts it on.  “It’s a perfect fit, and as he leaves the restaurant Daniel begins to feel somehow… different.”

Intriguing, right?  I can’t wait to find out where the author intends to go from there.

The Suicide Shop is an altogether different book by an altogether different author.  Yet, the two novels are similar enough – whimsical plots that don’t take themselves too seriously – for the personality of the publisher to begin to show itself.  Gallic Books seems to delight in the slightly off-kilter.  They’re a refreshing new (despite being established 6-years ago this is the first I’ve encountered them) voice in the world of translations.  A world too often dominated by dense, cerebral novels at one end of the spectrum and Nordic Crime fiction at the other.

The Tuvaches are a family of French shopkeepers who provide a very specific service to the citizens of a post-apocalyptic Paris: selling the implements necessary for suicide. Their motto: “Has your life been a failure?  Let’s make your death a success.”  In the Suicide Shop you can find handcrafted ropes with which to hang yourself, candies laced with arsenic mixed in jars with regular candies (Russian roulette for the very young), a poison du jour mixed-up by Madame Tuvache daily and – for those of an artistic temperament – a poisoned apple painting kit (complete with a small canvas and a paint set so that you can paint the apple before eating it).

Death has been good to this family.  The Tuvaches have successfully operated The Suicide Shop for generations.  But that changes with the birth of their youngest son.  He is a child who laughs, and smiles and wishes the customers a good day.  He has an outrageously sunny personality and it’s beginning to rub off on his older siblings.  Such happiness is (forgive the pun) killing business.

Quirky, silly, delightfully light-hearted –  the story rolls along with the comic timing of a French cabaret.  The author, Jean Teulé,  is also a film maker and The Suicide Shop was made into an animated film.   The books structure lends itself to a screen adaptation.  Each chapter is a set piece, advancing the plot in self-contained scenes that jump forward in years.  And just when you think the author has decided to end on a cliché, you arrive at the jaw-dropping last sentence.

My one small, nit-picky criticism is Teulé’s decision to place his family in a dystopian future.  While it doesn’t take anything away from the story, it doesn’t add anything to it either.   No time is spent developing the world other than to make it clear that suicides have increased with the decline of the society.  And so the insistence on events happening in some distant future – when they could have just as easily happened in a manipulated present – feels superfluous.

But, overall, this novel is a quick and entertaining read.  Written at roughly a YA level, Sue Dyson does a wonderful job capturing the upbeat swing of the prose in her playful translation.  I’d classify The Suicide Shop as dark gray versus black comedy (for example,  it’s nowhere near as dark as the 1988 film Heathers) – so everyone from junior high school students up to and including adults should find something to enjoy in the ever-amusing antics of the Tuvaches.

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 906040 093

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All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão, translated from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler

August 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

ALL DOGS ARE BLUE_FRONT cmykAll Dogs Are Blue is a beautifully nuanced portrayal of mental illness.  Rodrigo de Souza Leão has given us a story set in a Brazilian mental institution which isn’t a caricature of lunacy.  The author does not fall into the familiar stereotypes.  He does not confine his narrator within a prison of horrors.  Nor does Souza Leão romanticize the disease, assigning it the attributes of genius.  The narrator has schizophrenia, but he is not defined by it.  He possesses a consciousness and humanity outside of his mental illness.

The unnamed narrator is a patient at a Rio de Janeiro asylum.  In the course of his free-flowing, stream-of-conscious narrative he tells us about his daily routine, gives his observations on his fellow patients, his parents and caregivers, tells how he came to be committed and shares his reoccurring delusions. Two of these, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, are his best friends – the angel and the devil on his shoulders.  He masturbates a lot.  A loose subplot hinges on another inmate, The Fearsome Madman, and provides some comic relief.  All Dogs Are Blue is a book full of contradictions.  When it is funny, it’s hilarious.  When it is serious, it’s heartbreaking. 

This is by no means a traditional narrative, filtered as it is through the narrator’s – sometimes lucid, sometimes delusional – perceptions.   The routine of the asylum can be mind-numbingly boring, and yet the narrator is constantly striving to find beauty and meaning inside this narrow world.  While Souza Leão is no slouch as a novelist, his true calling is as a poet.  I recommend reading this book for the richness of the prose;  the shifts between reality and delusion; the beautiful and surreal imagery; and the symbolism of a blue toy dog.  Each and every word, up until the last period, counts.

All Dogs Are Blue is – at its heart – a long, shimmering prose poem beautifully translated by Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler.

I’ve been to China.  Saying it like that makes it sound like I’ve travelled a lot.  It was a very pretty place, full of people, bicycles and lots of clouds.  The clouds, the clouds.  There I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a foreigner and I was madly in love with those far-away clouds, oh those wonderful clouds!  Shapes in the sky.  When the day is like that, a sunny day, a day like today, I no longer want to get out of here.  I’ll sleep in the calm green of 6 mg of Lexotan.  Hold on tight to my blue dog and enter into a pact with happiness.  Remember China, its bicycles, its blood-red flag and, finally, those incredible clouds in the Chinese sky.  I think I’ll be happier once I’ve taken the bloody blood oath.  I want to die of anything, anything but of a chip I swallowed.

This is also a semi-autobiographical novel.  It’s Brazilian author, Rodrigo de Souza Leão, died in an institution.  He, like his protagonist, was not a man defined by his illness.  His artistic output during his too short life (1965-2008) was enormous.  He was the author of at least four novels, more than ten books of poetry and was co-founder/editor of the Brazilian poetry magazine Zunái.  He was a blogger and maintained friendships with several other important Brazilian poets and authors through email and social media.  In addition he was a visual artist whose paintings were posthumously exhibited, in a solo exhibition, at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art.  Most dream of, but few succeed in, leaving behind such a legacy.

____________

The English edition of All Dogs Are Blue, published by And Other Stories includes an Introduction by Deborah Levy and the Publisher’s Preface to the Second Brazilian Edition by Jorge Viveiros de Castro (Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s Brazilian publisher) who was a friend of the author’s.

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Eléctrico W by Hervé le Tellier, translated from the original French by Adriana Hunter

July 11, 2013 § 6 Comments

http://pubimages.randomhouse.com.au/getimage.aspx?vid=474500&usehttp=0&cat=default&class=books&size=custom&resize=1&dpi=300&quality=100&type=jpg&width=1500&height=2500&id=9781590515334Let’s talk about Oulipo.  It’s a French movement that includes authors and mathematicians who use constraints when creating literature.  For example:  writing an entire novel without using the letter “a”.  Or using palindromes.  Or starting  every sentence with the same word or phrase.  Or, my particular favorite, replacing every noun with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary (this constraint has its own name:  N+7).

Italo Calvino was a member of Oulipo – which is why If On A Winters Night A Traveler is a book of only beginnings.  As was Oskar Pastior, Duchamp and Georges Perec.  I consider Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch Oulipian, but discovered he was not a member.  That book, though, shares Oulipo’s fascination with puzzles – so it’s not surprising that Cortázar wrote it while living in Paris.

Hervé Le Tellier is a member.  Though, in terms of constraints the one he used for Eléctrico W seems a bit weak.  The novel follows the structure of Homer’s Odyssey.  And while I’m by no means an expert, it does so in such a vague way that I couldn’t find the parallels.*  Be that as it may – puzzles and games and Oulipo all put aside – Eléctrico W is an entertaining novel.

It was 1985, nearly twenty-seven years ago.  At the time I didn’t feel like showing it to publishers.  I did give it a title, though, and this morning, with the sun taking its time coming up, it is called Eléctrico W, the name of a tramline in Lisbon.  But that has been a provisional title for so long.

This paragraph is added in because, according to the computer, the manuscript comprised 53,278 words.  I wanted it to be a prime number.  Out of some superstition.  So I added an adjective here, and adverb there, I don’t even remember where.  And this is where the notebook starts again.

In these opening paragraphs we are introduced to the narrator, a middle aged journalist named Vincent Balmer.  He’s recently moved to Lisbon, leaving behind his life in Paris and an affair that had run its course.  He’s kept his job, though.  The French newspaper, which still employs him, has him cover  the trial of a serial killer.  He is partnered with a photojournalist, Antonio Flores, who he knows from the Paris office.  The two men spend nine days together.  One night  Flores reveals to Vincent that he grew up in Lisbon… eventually telling the story of his star-crossed love for a girl called Duck.  The story captures Vincent’s imagination (“imagination” being the key word) and he attempts to track down Duck with the vague idea of reuniting the pair.  Eléctrico W is the story of Vincent’s quest over those nine days he and Flores are assigned to the murder trial.

Vincent’s voice is introspective.  Sedate.   He does not seem to be subject to emotional peaks or valleys – regardless of what he sometimes claims.  While he  describes himself as more conventionally handsome than Antonio Flores, he lacks that male version of “jolie laide” which makes the other man irresistable to women.  In face, Vincent learns that Flores is currently sleeping with the woman who had broken up with him/Vincent in Paris.  She,  Irene, eventually joins the two men in Lisbon.  Despite all of Vincent’s professed passion for Irene his attempt at revenge seems half-hearted at best.  Based on my previous reading experience, Vincent is part of that long tradition of utterly charming but romantically (and otherwise) inept Frenchmen whom French authors seem to adore.  A cross between Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and Gérard Depardieu.

Vincent also has a hobby.  Interspersed throughout the book are short stories which he is translating, written by the fictional Portuguese author Jaime Montestrela.  Montestrela who appears in many of Le Tellier’s books.

In the town of Chiannesi (Umbria, Italy), on Shrove Tuesday, it was customary for every inhabitant to swap minds with another, women played at being men, children being parents.  This swap included animals, and mice could be seen toying cruelly with cats.  The municipality brought a definitive end to this custom in 1819, when the swap between cows and flies led to a crisis.

A small step above flash-fiction, these relatively straight-forward tales (we’re told that Montestrela might have intended them as allegories, but as Vincent doesn’t seem too worried about what they represent why should we?) provide “air” between the denser, atmospheric prose that makes up most of the novel.

A cool breeze was blowing and I shivered in the shade of the cypress tree.  Graves seen in sunshine are never entirely melancholy.  There’s always a hint of life to distract the eye, a blade of grass glimmering, a carefree chaffinch pecking at the ground, a black beetle with heavy mandibles crawling over the gravel.  And when graves have no story to tell, we don’t linger over them.

All the writing, as translated by Adriana Hunter, is stylistically elegant.  As are the characters.  Vincent, in particular, is a flawed but sympathetic protagonist.  And Le Tellier’s plot nicely mirrors the tenets of the Oulipo movement.  Just like an Oulipian work is more than what is superficially apparent (though Eléctrico W still functions very nicely at that level if you aren’t interesting in delving into it) so is there more to the story of Antonio and Duck than meets the eye.  Early on Vincent tells us how at the end of their time together he looked at Antonio and “… no longer saw a thirty-year old man in flesh and blood sitting beside me on that seat with its cracked leather, but a character, a character from a book.”  He projects his own narrative onto these two people, much like Le Tellier has projected the structure of The Odyssey onto this book.  It complicates things, but not in a bad way.   It causes confusion and, at times, surprising reveals.  I wouldn’t call Vincent an unreliable narrator, just a misguided one.  And, to my mind, all the more interesting because of it.

Punlisher: Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 534 1

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* While writing this review I began to think that it’s not the plot of The Odyssey that Le Tellier is following, but the actual physical structure – words, lines, letters, phrasing.  This is purely guesswork on my part, though. I’ve found nothing to support it.

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