Wednesday, August 15, 2018

This House is Mine

This House Is Mine / Dorte Hansen; translated from the German by Anne-Marie Stokes
New York :, St. Martin's Press,, 2016
325 p.

Hildegard von Kamcke arrives at the Altland house of Ida Eckhoff alongside her 5 year old daughter Vera, displaced from East Prussia in 1945. They are taken in, begrudgingly, and given a small room and sparse food in return for work on the farm.

Ida's coldness doesn't drive Hildegard away; rather as she adjusts, she becomes more and more attached to this house. After Ida's son Karl returns from WWII a broken man, Hildegard ends up marrying him, and the house indeed then becomes her own.  

The book follows Hildegard and Vera as they make a home in this setting; but only Vera sticks. Hildegard finds a better offer from a rich man with a villa, and leaves with him - but without Vera, who is then cared for by her stepfather Karl. Vera's never fully accepted by the neighbourhood, always with a taint of 'outsider' despite her commitment to this place, despite the fact that she grew up there. She's too different, too independent. 

But when Karl, old and ill with PTSD, needs her, Vera cares for him in the old rambling house that is falling down around them. But into the picture comes her niece Anne and her son Leo, looking for refuge when Anne's relationship fails. They move to the country because of course rural life is purer and more healing, and develop a new relationship with the cold and emotionally distant Vera. Family heals all wounds! No, seriously, while it does sound a bit like a Hallmark movie, there is more darkness and toughness in this one. Hansen notes, "Vera Eckhoff didn’t know much about her niece, but she knew a refugee when she saw one."

I actually enjoyed the sense of hope and healing that Hansen allowed to arise in the relationship between these two women. While I can be a cynical reader at times, I appreciated that this book was not fully despairing despite its beginnings in war, suicide, trauma, and family dissolution. The power of place and belonging comes through here; while families can break apart, they can also reform themselves into something new. And the very specific place of the house was a powerful central theme, and vital to the creation of belonging. The house had a motto carved on its front: 

“This hoose is mine ain and yet no mine ain, he that follows will caw it his.”

The only constant is change, and this book illuminates that perfectly. The theme of refugees and identities in Germany right now is pretty topical, and Hansen explores the long history of such movement within Germany to give another perspective on alienation and belonging. This was a bestseller in Germany, and its readability, strong story, and additional wry humour might explain why. Recommended. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Go, Went, Gone

Go, Went, Gone / Jenny Erpenbeck; translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
New York: New Directions Books, 2017.
286 p.

After finishing a string of novels that all seemed concerned in some way or another about women and procreation and all that comes of that, it was refreshing to read this current novel by Jenny Erpenbeck.

Not only does it not focus on procreation, it mostly looks at men and migration.

This story takes on the plight of refugees and migrants in Germany, centred in the experiences of Richard, a recently retired Professor of Classics. He is very privileged indeed, at the top of the heap - an educated white man in his own country with lots to live on and a sense of a solid life with pretty small first world problems to concern himself with. 

But then he comes across a demonstration on Alexanderplatz - African migrants staging a hunger strike, trying to bring attention to their hopeless situation. 

As Richard gets drawn in to the lives of this set of refugees once he volunteers to teach German at a temporary residence, he learns more and more about the impossible situation they are in. Bureaucracy means that they can't work in Germany without having papers, but not being able to work means they can't get papers. Various things like that reappear again and again - if they've landed in Italy they have to claim residence there, but can't unless other conditions are met which can't be met. It's painful to read the frustration and the stalled hopes of these refugees & migrants (almost entirely men in this book). Their back histories are slowly revealed as they trust Richard more and his desire to help expands. And not all interactions he has are glowing with joy; Erpenbeck is no Pollyanna. While some of Richard's friends think he is ridiculous, others start to understand more about what is happening, thanks to his newly awakened awareness. 

This book takes on very timely themes of migration, our sense of identity, belonging, and entitlement, and the responsibility of us all to recognize our common humanity. Erpenbeck writes with intensity and with moral complexity; while it's a timely topic with political currency, this story is a story, not a screed. It's not a political pamphlet at all, rather, a deep and compassionate exploration of people and relationships, and the human connection we owe to one another. It was a thought-provoking and important read. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Roy's Garden in the Wind

Garden in the Wind / Gabrielle Roy; translated from the French by Alan Brown
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004, c1977.
175 p.

This collection of stories really hit me. It's made up of these four titles:

A Tramp At The Door
Where Will You Go, Sam Lee Wong?
Hoodoo Valley
Garden in the Wind

Out of the four, only the first comes from Roy's own lived experience of being a Western Canadian Francophone. The other three take on different experiences - Chinese immigrants to small prairie towns, Doukhobours, and Ukrainian immigrants, respectively.

You'd think this wouldn't work - that there's no way she could enter into these very different lives. And there are problems, both in the way she refers to her characters (ie: Sam Lee Wong is "a Chinese") or the places (ie: it's always 'the Ukraine', not 'Ukraine') But I'm not sure whether much of this comes mostly from the fact that they were written in the 70s, because Roy's extreme empathy does illuminate much of the other storytelling. It's not perfect, by any means, but particularly in the title story I think she captures something essential. 

The first story, A Tramp at the Door, follows the fortunes of a tramp who appears at the Trudeau family farm one day, and worms his way in by claiming he's a long lost cousin from Quebec. He tells stories of the homesick father's extended family, feeding the longing for family news that the isolated French settlers in Western Canada feel for their Quebec roots in all of Roy's work. He stays for a long time, working as a handyman, but then moves on and as the reader suspected, tries this on again with other French families. How the family reacts to this falsity is the true heart of the story, I think, and the conclusion is as bittersweet as expected from this author.

The middle two stories are well crafted, in Roy's quiet style. She represents the size and isolation of prairie towns/settlements very well, and in both of these stories the place of the outsider is often always as the outsider, one who can never break the code and really understand the place they've landed in. They are precise, sad and nostalgic. These stories are also a little uncomfortable for the modern reader, though, as the issues of race or culture and appropriation/representation are much more in the forefront now.

That said, the final and title story, Garden in the Wind, is beautiful, believable, and heart-breaking. The main character is a Ukrainian woman who still lives on her Saskatchewan farm many years after settling there. 

Her children are grown and off to their respective adult lives in other prairie cities, and they are infrequent visitors, embarrassed by their old world parents. Stepan, her husband, is often drunk and often difficult. They haven't spoken to one another in years. Marta's reminiscence is the heart of the story, and as she speaks she shares that she is seriously ill. But why go to a doctor? Why have tests and have to make a fuss of the end of her life? Instead she releases her hold on life, in a way, and stops working and fretting, instead enjoying her flowers that she nurses in the dry and windy yard. She wishes that the stand of poplars beside the house was once again beautiful as it was when it was new and not overrun with broken down machinery and junk. 

Somehow Stepan senses that there is something in the wind, and cleans the yard, tries to keep her flowers going, and ends up feeding her when she settles into bed. All this is so emotionally resonant and so real. I really believed that Marta was a Ukrainian immigrant - she sounds like the people in my own family history, as do all the permutations of her family history and her past. Roy captures the internal life of characters so different from herself, in the smallest and most personal ways.

This story left me emotionally wrung out. It's full of pathos but not sentimentality; Marta is clear eyed and practical, and yet loves the world so much. This story alone is worth reading this book, I feel. 

It's probably clear that I'm really in tune with Gabrielle Roy's themes and her very particular style. If you also love this kind of nostalgic exploration of the past, of small histories passing out of memory, of beautifully wrought, quotable prose, you might like to try her stories out as well.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Roy's Enchanted Summer

Enchanted Summer / Gabrielle Roy; translated from the French by Joyce Marshall.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004, c1976.
125 p.

I first began reading this little tale of a summer in the Quebec countryside ages ago, in an old hardcover edition I'd found somewhere. Then I got to page 80 and realized that the book had a misprint -- the signature repeated itself and then jumped to the next, so I could reread the beginning and skip over most of the middle if I wanted! Well, of course I didn't, so I laid it down, and only began reading it again recently when I came across this little New Canadian Library (no.155) edition, with two collected short works included. 

I am generally a fan of most everything Gabrielle Roy has written. There are some works that are stronger and some that are not quite as strong but still charming and enjoyable to read. This is one of the latter for me.

It is made up of short pieces describing a rather idyllic summer she spends in the rural countryside of the Charlevoix region of Quebec. The narrator introduces us to her friends, to the locals, to visitors and to family - not to mention a heavy rotation of pets, wild animals, bugs and birds. It's a style of impressionistic writing that makes me think of the nature writers of the 70s overall, a kind of sun-washed, floral, almost naive style. Though Roy never backs away from the realities of life and death and much in between. 

We begin with the two friends encountering a bullfrog on an evening walk, in a humorous moment, which turns to pathos by the end when the bullfrog is gone - in all likelihood eaten - by the next summer. An elderly aunt comes to visit and a big production is made to get her down to the river one last time, the great St Lawrence River of her childhood; and as it turns out it's the last time she ever sees it. The book also includes a flashback to the memory of a teaching post in Manitoba when as Roy leads the school children to the home of a dead classmate to say goodbye. It's considered natural though tragic. There is a sense of the sublime in these essays - how the world in its own rhythms towers over our small lives. But there is also some humour, much charm in her descriptions of crows, cats and more, and an almost overwhelming nostalgia - one of the signatures of her style. 

I am glad I persevered and found a readable edition of this book - it's the perfect book to read when your own summer vacation is much more urban and truncated than this lengthy rural idyll. The weekend feels much longer when you spend it in Roy's company. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018


Disoriental / Negar Djavadi; translated from the French by Tina A. Kover
New York, N.Y. : Europa Editions, 2018
338 p.

This is one of the best books I've read this year. And since I have been recommending it to everyone I know, I thought I'd better share my thoughts here as well. 

The narrator is Kimia Sadr, who fled Iran at age 10 with her family due to her parents' political outspokenness and opposition to the Islamic regime. The family ends up in France; why, when, and how we only find out slowly, as Kimia tells the story in retrospect, flipping between present and past at will.

As the book opens, Kimia is waiting alone in a fertility clinic waiting room for the results of her recent visits. As she waits, she shares her thoughts - about her fertility doctor, about the process she's taken to get there, and then suddenly back to her great-grandfather in the province of Mazandaran, and to the birth of her grandmother, Nour. These beginnings are almost folkloric, with the harem and their superstitions around Nour's birth and the very elaborate, beautiful setting. This family background keeps getting fleshed out, all the way to the births and then marriage of Kimia's parents.

These family stories keep flashing back and forth during the first part of the book. The rapidity with which Kimia switches streams reflects the way memories work, and sounds so much like someone just telling family stories, the way they get interrupted or redirected by a comment, or how the teller just starts going off on a tangent. 

In the second part of the book, it shifts a little more from the Sadr family history in Iran to their recent past in France. We learn more about Kimia herself, and what the defining moments of her nuclear family history really are. There's a sense of the narrative almost getting to a point that you're expecting then backing off - and when you protest, the narrator saying, yes, yes, I'm getting to that, and continuing on. It's a fairly long book but read so quickly for me. The family stories are rich with atmosphere and history, told in a captivating style. And Kimia herself is an opinionated, sarcastic, honest and complex storyteller. 

There are themes of identity - national and personal, of being true to one's self and beliefs, of politics and its effect on daily life, and all sorts of other elements that come together in this story of a strong woman who survives a turbulent youth and ends up happy. There is a real exploration of what it means to be family, to be relations, siblings, parent & child.  It was thoroughly entertaining, illuminating, and educational in all the best ways. It's a very adult book, in the sense that it never takes the easy way out, and is comfortable in its own messy complexity. 

Definitely a top read of the year. Go find it!

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly / Sun-Mi Hwang; translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim
New York: Penguin, 2013, c2000.
134 p.

This little fable, prettily illustrated by Nomoco, is a very quick read that seems straightforward on first view.

A laying hen, having named herself Sprout, finds a kind of freedom after surviving a cull of non-productive hens. She's outside of the coop, in the farmyard, as she's always dreamed.

But the other animals - the rooster, hen and flock of ducks, alongside the guard dog, don't seem to want her there. She tries and tries to fit in, hovering at the edges of the farmyard society and taking the scraps of what's left. Until finally she realizes that this just isn't enough. She follows a wild duck from the barnyard out into the fields and there gains her heart's desire -- to hatch a chick.

Unfortunately the chick is from an abandoned duck egg, and Sprout must raise this duckling on her own, with only her own love for it to guide her. 

All the metaphors of sacrificial motherhood as the highest calling are found here. Sprout protects Baby from the stalking of the wild Weasel and the mockery of the farmyard society which she briefly tries to return to. She gives up everything, she's hypervigilant, she subsumes her own brief life and hopes of freedom in her care for Baby. She raises him, allows him to strike out on his own with a flock of mallards who appear on the lake and finds the apotheosis of her sacrifice when he flies south with these ducks of his own kind.

I'm sure there are many parallels to the acceptance of multiracial norms in Korea that I'm missing - perhaps a social bias about adoption - and certainly an attitude of maternal sainthood. While this book has been compared to animal stories as varied as Charlotte's Web to Animal Farm, I don't think there is a bigger message here other than that maternal relationship as the whole of life's meaning. 

It's a very short book, an easy read, with a definite fable-like tone. I do feel like I'm not grasping the full implications of her metaphors and references, perhaps because of my lack of familiarity with the social structure she's reflecting, and perhaps because the glorification of motherhood is not a theme I connect with at all. If anyone has read this and has another take on it, please share! 

It's still a charming book for the characterizations of all the different animals, and the realization that 'enemies' like the Weasel and Sprout herself have personhood in common (again, this comes via the maternal theme). Sprout's desire for freedom and her unquenchable independence did save the story from becoming only a maudlin paean to maternity. It's a lovely physical object as well, and the illustrations add an extra touch. Despite my reservations about elements of the theme, it's worth exploring.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Translation Thursday: Currently Reading

It's Translation Thursday! Each Thursday this month I'm going to share the translation I'm currently reading plus a few more on my reading list. Here's today's list:

Currently reading:

The Nakano Thrift Shop / Hiromi Kawakami
(as reviewed by Tony's Reading List)

Want to read:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear / Yoko Tawada (as reviewed by The Literary Sisters

Convenience Store Woman / Sayaka Murata (as reviewed by Lisa Ann Reads)

Ms. Ice Sandwich / Meiko Kawakami  (as reviewed by Never Imitate)