Saturday, August 27, 2016

Kim Thuy's Ru

Ru / Kim Thuy; translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.
Toronto: Vintage Canada, c2012.
141 p.

I'm late to the party with this book; I think everyone I know read it ages ago. It was hugely popular when it was published, nominated for and winning various Canadian awards and being talked about everywhere.

But I read Man first, Thuy's second novel (and enjoyed it) so thought it was about time I picked up this brief and beautiful book as well.

It really does deserve all its accolades. Told in brief segments, anywhere from a few lines to a few pages long, it captures the memories of a young woman who had to leave war-torn Vietnam as a child, escaping by boat with her family. It moves back and forth in time, from Vietnam to their refugee camp in Malaysia, to her experiences of coming to Canada - the culture shock, the snow! - to her present reflections on her past. I liked it very much.

The story sounds like someone is talking, it moves like memory does, from one fragment to another, very rapidly. It's dream-like, the images vibrant and really the whole point of the book. The narrative, such as it is, deals with the fact of displacement and war. It is all about the felt experience of this young woman who is telling us, rather detachedly, about life begun in chaos in Vietnam and how she's come to have this new life in Quebec, feeling like she half-belongs to each.

So the strength and thrust of the book lies in its storytelling, in the beautiful twists and turns of language and the precious fragility of memories. It captures moments both terrible and redemptive. And it evokes a place and time with an intensely personal perspective which makes it unforgettable. It's a brief read, but it lingers in the mind.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Douglas Notebooks

The Douglas Notebooks / Christine Eddie; translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, c2103.
184 p.

This novel is a brief and poetic story, subtitled "a fable". It is a lightly sketched story with some representative characters: a woodsman, a young apothecary, a baby, a teacher and a doctor. These characters are as much defined by their roles as their actual personalities. So perhaps there is a bit of the folktale or fable to be found here.

It's quite lovely though. The writing really is fluid and full of simple beauties, with both dark and radiant experiences set alongside one another. Romain, son of a wealthy family, doesn't seem to fit in with his life; when he is 18 he leaves home to live in the woods, becoming, eventually, known as Douglas Starling. Elena, meanwhile, grows up in a violent home, and when her father (who had murdered her mother in a rage of domestic violence) decides that he is going to trade her to a local grocer's son in exchange for a case of whiskey, she makes her getaway. She meets Romain, renaming him Douglas for the strong, noble trees he admires. They have a brief and wondrous love affair, which results in baby Rose. Rose is brought up by a whole fleet of parental figures, including that teacher and doctor referenced above -- especially after, in a fit of guilt, Douglas leaves the village and seeks his solitude in worldwide travels to remote places, communicating only through lengthy letters to Rose.

The story reveals all of these characters' lives, in light strokes. And while we see Rose growing and the others aging, we are also seeing their isolated backwoods town growing. It expands and finally begins to resemble any other town - there is a shopping centre, more housing, and new roads. As the town becomes unrecognizable, these changes break the spell, they open a gap in the metaphorical thorny hedge which has kept Rose enclosed all these years. 

As the story ends, Rose is now living in the big city studying music, but her father Douglas returns. They bridge their years of separation with Rose simply holding out a book; it's the book her stand-in mother, the teacher, has bound from all the letters he had sent -- the Douglas notebooks of the title. 

It's a simple yet touching story, with a folktale feel and some lovely evocations of place. It's structured in short named sections, with the prose in each section broken up into brief blocks of a page or two. It's as if moments of this story are caught in the light and exposed to the reader. While there doesn't seem to be a deep moral or message to this fable, it was a lovely read that kept me turning pages until the end - I didn't want to put it down and break the mood. I was also charmed by the end, in which Eddie provides the "Credits", a where-are-they-now kind of follow up to all the characters. It fit perfectly with the way the story had unfolded, and was also wryly amusing. 

This was a nice discovery to make, something a little different, and engaging and enjoyable to read on a summer's afternoon.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sanaaq & Alego

Sanaaq: an Inuit novel / Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk; transliterated and translated from Inuktitut to French by Bernard Saladin d'Anglure, translated from French by Peter Frost.
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, c2014.

In my search for Canadian novels that have been translated from languages other than French I recalled this one, originally written in Inuktitut by this amazing woman over many years, starting in the 50's. Published in Inuktitut in 1983, it was published in French in 2002, and now finally we have an English version.  The introduction places it in its context and give us an understanding of how and why it was written, which I found helpful. It also tells us a bit more about Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk herself.

It's an episodic novel, with Sanaaq as the main character. She is an Inuk woman who has one young daughter at the start of novel; she remarries a young hunter and has a son as the story progresses. It's told from Sanaaq's viewpoint, and is made up of brief chapters explaining or illustrating a common event in Inuit lives. In the introduction we learn that this novel was started as a way for Catholic priests to learn more local terms as they attempted to create a dictionary; Mitiarjuk was well known and respected for her many skills, so stepped in to help. But she found just writing vocabulary-heavy pieces dull so started to include imaginative chapters, morphing this task into a creative storytelling project. 

Through Sanaaq's eyes we see the daily activities of her settlement -- building igloos, hunting, fishing, digging clams, raising children, being terrified by polar bears, surviving storms, and more -- and we also get a feel for the traditional activities that women carried on, as well as the interpersonal ups and downs among the residents of her small circle. Some people are competent (Sanaaq in particular) and some are just unlucky, like Jiimialuk who loses an eye while cooking, and later dies in a hunting accident. Sanaaq's daughter grows in age and responsibility, and we see her awareness of community standards growing, as well as her understanding of why young people need to respect the knowledge of their elders. All of these characters are used to illuminate the way of life that Mitiarjuk had experienced, but more than just stand-ins for her messages, they become lively personalities.

As the book goes on, and Mitiarjuk was able to write more freely, there is more frank talk of sexuality, spousal abuse, traditional spiritual beliefs ,and more. While this book is not a novel in the sense of having a plot that is carried through and resolved, it does have some great characters and a really interesting narrative voice. Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was given a PhD by McGill University in 2000, and was recognized by UNESCO in 2001 for her literary and artistic contributions to maintaining and communicating Inuit culture. Her lively storytelling certainly fascinated me.

The book has retained a generous amount of Inuktitut terminology - many things are referred to only by Inuktitut names. In context it is pretty simple to figure out what the word signifies, and there is also a nice glossary at the back. I liked the feel it gave to the book, like it was really a story someone was telling. But there were a few animals referred to, like sculpin or other shore creatures, that I wasn't familiar with whether in English or Inuktitut. Luckily for me, just as I was finishing Sanaaq, I came across a picture book in my library called Alego.

Alego / Ningeokuluk Teevee; translated from Inuktitut by Nina Manning-Toonoo 
Toronto: Groundwood, c2009.
24 p.

Ningeokuluk Teevee is an artist who lives in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. She wrote and illustrated this picture book, which is a brief story of a young girl, Alego, who goes clam digging for the first time with her grandmother, Anaanatsiaq. When they get to the shore, her grandmother starts collecting clams, but like any other young child, Alego wanders and explores all the different creatures she can find. All of these creatures are shared using their Inuktitut names, and luckily for me, many of them are the same as those mentioned in Sanaaq, particularly of course those in the clam digging chapter! There is also a helpful glossary in this book, which includes illustrations, which was very enjoyable and illuminated my understanding of both books.

This picture book was charming, showing the close relationship between a young girl and her grandparents. It also shares a little of the landscape of Baffin Island, an unusual setting for a picture book. I also appreciated how the text is shown in both Inuktitut syllabics and English - it really lends that sense of the story being rooted in its community.

I greatly enjoyed both these books, as excursions into a language and a lifestyle I'm not very familiar with.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Interlude: #7favWITreads

Over at Biblibio, host of this wonderful Women in Translation month, she's just shared 7 of her favourite WIT reads -- as suggested by another reader, Jacqui at JacquiWine's Journal.

I think this is a great idea! So I'm sharing mine here -- some favourites, not favourites-of-all-time, that is too hard to whittle down. Share yours too if you would like!

Kitchen / Banana Yoshimoto (translated from Japanese by Megan Backus)

Please Look After Mom / Kyung-Sook Shin (translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim)

Wildlives / Monique Proulx (translated from French by David Homel & Fred A. Reed)

Fairy Ring / Martine Desjardins (translated from French by Fred A. Reed & David Homel)

The Artificial Silk Girl /Irmgard Keun (translated from German by Kathie von Ankum)

Broken / Karen Fossum (translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barsland)

Three Bags Full / Leonie Swann (translated from German by Anthea Bell)


Friday, August 19, 2016

Memoria by Louise Dupré

Memoria / Louise Dupré; translated from the French by Liedewy Hawke
Toronto: Dundurn, c1999.

206 p.

It's strange how sometimes you have a book sitting on your shelf quietly for many years, and when you finally take it down you realize it had this beautiful life going on inside it all the time, only you didn't know it. 

Memoria is this kind of book. I decided to read it for Women in Translation Month simply because it had been on my shelf for a while. I started the first few pages to see if I'd like it, and I just kept going. The writing is dreamy, engaging, insightful. Dupre sees things with an honest and poetic eye that caught my interest right away.

The book, on the surface of it, is the story of Emma Villeray, a translator living in Montreal whose partner of 10 years, Jerome, has just left her to move to South America. We don't meet him, we only have her recollections of him --  but she is speaking to him throughout, addressing him as 'you'. It tracks her journey from shock and loss to a new and totally different life direction than she would have had with him. 

It's about the outwardly small but inwardly huge steps she takes to keep on with her life. She moves from their apartment, buying a house even if she is all alone now. She reconnects with her best friend, and through her meets a new lover, Vincent, and has to learn to trust a new relationship. She becomes friends with the previous owner of her house, Madame Girard, who is a widow and dealing with harsher loss than Emma's own. And she deals with the repercussions of her sister's disappearance as a teen, something that has always affected her remaining family. All of these strands of loss combine, sink lower, and then rise in a beautiful story of both loss and the nature of things to get better, of how hope is restored and new life begins again. 

I loved the fragmentary structure of the book and how it reflects Emma's memories rising up as discrete life moments, with brief chapters. She recollects scenes of her life with Jerome, events from her childhood, her interior life, and current daily life, as she rebuilds. The book is split into four sections, each called a 'song', and the book is kind of like a fugue, all these lines of her life harmonizing and repeating.

The support of the women in Emma's life is wonderfully drawn - from her own mother to her best friend Benedicte, her new friend Madame Girard, her neighbour Rosa, even Jerome's ex-wife - all are complex and lovely characters. This was a fantastic read, a quiet, introspective and yet visual story that captures fleeting images and emotions.

I did find the focus on Emma's finding new reasons for living in a new relationship and mothering a bit disappointing in a way; where's the strong independent woman making it on her own? But within this story Emma's choices do make her strong, do give her her own voice once more. She becomes more fully herself by going through this emotional upheaval, and at the end the reader is hoping for her future happiness as much as she is.

I'm so glad I've finally discovered Emma, and Louise Dupre's wonderful style. So glad that I had the push to finally take this down from the shelf. 

I'll finish with a couple of quotes that show how Emma copes with her losses, and yet has something within that doesn't let her completely despair.

In my life, the past forms tiny islands I swim around, sometimes until I'm utterly exhausted. But I'm swimming, not drowning.
When my own way of seeing returned, I looked at the world differently. I could now see through things, even the bugs dangling from the thread of my thoughts.

I was observing them as I used to observe Grandmama making quilts, those hundreds of squares she patiently sewed together with her elderly fingers, the scraps of her life. She would tell the story of times past, over there Mama's dress, over here Uncle Jean's coat. I never tired of watching her work. I was already learning to turn a lot of discarded pieces into a single life.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Krane's Cafe

Krane's Cafe / Cora Sandel; translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan.
London: The Women's Press, 1984, c1946.
176 p.

Taking a break from Canadian translations for a bit, I've headed off to Norway.

Despite this being Sandel's best-known novel (and adapted for the stage) I hadn't heard of it until I found it on the shelves of one of my favourite used bookstores, Attic Books.

This is the joy of publishers like The Women's Press -- they make available things that you didn't even know you needed to read until you see them by chance.

And it has a wonderful first line:

There's a lot to be heard before your ears drop off.

It's the story of Katinka Stordal, a seamstress who has just had enough of her former husband and her spoiled, ungrateful children. She goes to Krane's Cafe to have a drink. And stays in the back room over two days, drinking and loudly complaining about the injustices of life, alongside a disreputable man -- not a local -- who sits down and commiserates, drinking alongside her.

She shocks the local community with her candour and fearless crossing of social expectations as she lets her frustrations out. She complains that her children are demanding and unappreciative, that her clients are demanding and snobby, that life itself has become too full of demands. "It's just that I'm so tired" she tells her companion, only known by the name of Bowler Hat.

Katinka's drunken complaints about the lot of women in general and herself in particular, the sad stifling of ambition and dreams, the crushed love affairs, the expectations and financial burdens on single mothers -- they are all shared without much emotional uproar, at least by herself. The waitresses have their opinions, and Mrs. Krane cries for most of the two days without knowing quite why. The whole town seems to come into Krane's Cafe during these two days, meeting and re-meeting, listening to Katinka and Bowler Hat in the next room, arguing amongst themselves as to the right manner in which to behave to Katinka from now on. They've never been very kind to her, and they're not about to change now.

I can see why this was made into a play; it takes place in one location, structured over two days as if in two acts, and there is much bustling and to-ing and fro-ing with a variety of characters. Each one shows a little bit of the class structure of this town, and reacts in their own particular way to the drama unfolding. The writing is full of conversations, along with wry commentary. It was a quick and dramatic read, which was full of characters and ideas which both appalled and intrigued me. This would be a fabulous book to discuss with other readers; there are many big issues developed in it.

The theme is succinctly expressed in the epigraph, by another of my favourite Scandinavian writers, Sweden's Hjalmar Soderberg:

Poverty is terrible. Of all so-called misfortunes, it's the one that affects you most deeply internally.

Never a truer word.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Stories of Dangerous Women: Take Two

Deathly Delights / Anne Dandurand; translated from the French by Luise von Flotow
Montreal: Vehicule Press, c1991.
111 p.

These 8 stories are prime examples of the feminist macabre, if I can call it that. They all have a sense of eroticism and death closely linked; there are women who make things happen, good or bad, but whichever it is, they are the ones making the choices. They are women who are at their limits, with anger, desire, or a deep longing of some kind.

Anne Dandurand is an actor, producer, and feminist activist alongside of being an author. These elements show in her writing, and they make the stories lively and complex. Her writing style is literary, sarcastic and full of dark humour. It's an enjoyable collection, easy to read even if a bit dark at times. Each of the stories stands alone, and really should be read, as Mavis Gallant always recommends with short stories, one at a time with a break between them when you put the book down.

I think my favourite story was one called "Lost Hearts Salon", about a hairdresser who provides perfect murders for her clients who are suffering domestically; there is a police lieutenant who has just about figured this out...but his response is rather unexpected. I thought it was a well balanced and pleasing tale, with the perfect elements of surprise and rightness in it. But all of the stories have their own interest, and I'd recommend finding this collection if you do like your short stories told with a bit of a slant. The tone reminds me of another Montreal book I read a while ago, Sean Dixon's The Last of the Lacuna Cabal -- it has the same feel of young, powerful women travelling the city dispensing justice and feeling driven by intense personal circumstances.

The Perfect Woman / Suzanne Harnois; translated from the French by Jonathan Kaplansky
Montreal: Varia Press, c1999.
142 p.

This book is quite obscure, but we had it on the shelves in our 2nd hand bookshop many years ago now -- I grabbed it, and I've been meaning to read it ever since.

It's very similar to the one above. It's a collection of short stories, in this case, 10 stories. It also features feminist themes. The Perfect Woman is an ironically perfect title for this set of stories about women who are not what one expects them to be. Each of the stories opens with a quote from a literary work that condenses the theme into a brief statement, which really works.

The perfect wife, a mild and pretty German immigrant, turns into a powerful defender when her husband's ex reappears to make their lives unbearable. Her past serves her well as she takes care of the situation, practically yet in quite an unforeseen way.  Another wife, unaware of her husband's affair, has matters taken care of by her clear-eyed best friend. Husbands, wives, children, relationships, they are all entangled. The women in these stories just want things to be peaceful and secure -- but the means they go to in order to maintain equilibrium rather defeat the purpose.

I enjoyed this one even more than Deathly Delights. The writing is assured, the characters are engaging, and the stories, while also about heightened emotions and a lot of death and despair, are not quite as macabre as Dandurand's work. I appreciated the varied settings, ranging from Montreal out into other parts of Quebec, and the cohesiveness of the collection. While I really liked the story "Olga", I also found that "Autoroute" was very touching, with a conclusion that was satisfying at first glance but which Harnois shows will never be enough for the protagonist. It was a powerful story of loss and loyalty.

The feel of this book also reminds me of a more recent collection of short stories set in Montreal, though in this case written in English, Mireille Silcoff's Chez L'Arabe. They both focus on the interior lives of women facing important changes, though Silcoff's characters generally respond in a less permanently decisive manner.

I've enjoyed reading these two Quebec novels which unexpectedly spoke to one another strongly. The 90s were a good time for strong women apparently; the feminist values of the writers shine through and the variety of women that appear in these stories cover a range of life situations and personalities. I recommend reading both if you can find them.