Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree


The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree / Shokoofeh Azar
trans. from the Farsi by ?
NY: Europa, 2020, c2017.
256 p.

This read is one I've been meaning to get to for a while. It's the story of Iran through decades of governmental change and repression, from the 1979 Iranian revolution to recent years. 

But it's also the story of one family and their tragic encounters with politics and religion in this totalitarian state. Reviews note that this book is told in a magical realism style, influenced by Persian storytelling traditions and newer writers like Marquez. This can be a good thing if you like it, and a stumbling block to the story if you don't.

I fall somewhere in between. While I generally like imaginative styles I don't think I was in the right mood for it here. I read the whole book carefully; I appreciated the family stories and the way they are bookish and cultured in the face of fanaticism. I found quite a lot to enjoy. But the endless interlinked, nested stories and the constant flights of fancy tired me out a little.  

Nevertheless, this is an interesting read. Full of tragedy and awful events, it still has a lyrical style and approach to it all. It ties together ancient Iranian history (a group of Zoroastrian ghosts in their Razan home, for example) with modern, and shows it as a constant line. That was really effective and gives the sense of Iran as an ancient place that is only currently suffering from the dictatorship in power now. 

The story is narrated by 13 year old Bahar, who we soon learn is a ghost. She was murdered in a revolutionary attack on her father's house and his musical instruments. As someone in the world of the dead, she has a kind of omniscience that the others don't. And she can tell the stories of her older brother Sohrab, arrested and executed; the story of her mother who leaves home to wander for many years, her sister Beeta who is changed into a mermaid, and her father, who leaves the tragic surroundings of the home in rural Razan where they'd moved to avoid political unrest in order to return to Tehran when his family has scattered. 

Their stories are unlikely, infused with djinns, mermaids, spirits, and other mystical creatures and events. There are side characters who appear after their stories are told; and those who reappear in the village, broken loose from the Iranian past by becoming a modern, violent, absolutist soldier. 

This book certainly gives a strong feel for the Iranian social climate, and the way oppression kills the imagination as much as it does actual lives. It feels like this book is a reclamation of that wild imagination that is the heritage of Iranians. I liked it but I don't know enough about Iranian history (or legends) to tell what is real and what is imagined, so it was a harder reading experience for me in that way. 

Monday, August 15, 2022

Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down


Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down / Zdena Salivarová
trans. from the Czech by Jan Drábek
Toronto: LarkWood Books, c1976.
165 p.

I found this little book a while ago in a second hand bookstore. It's the story of a young woman in Communist Czechoslovakia, and her doomed love affair with a Latvian basketball player. But it's also more than that; it reveals the daily grind of life for her family and how those who 'go along' with the new Communist regime no matter what they think do well, while those who don't (like her father) don't end up so well. 

The author, along with her spouse, the writer Josef Skvorecky, emigrated from Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Soviet Invasion. They ended up in Toronto, where they started a publishing company, sharing the works of dissident Czech writers ie: Kundera, Klima, Vaclev Havel among others. They were also both writers, and this novel was first published in Czech and won awards, then was translated and published in English by a division of their company, 68 Publications. 

So the political situation in Czechoslovakia was a strong part of this writer's consciousness, and it shows in this book. It follows one family, through the eyes of Vera, a young woman who wanted to go to university but didn't have the right connections. Her uncle has managed to find her a job at a tv studio instead, where she ends up helping with coverage at a basketball tournament. There are teams from all over the Eastern Bloc, and she literally bumps into Janis, a tall Latvian player, in the halls. That's kismet for them, and they begin a desperate affair that only lasts a week or so, until he has to return to Latvia, which was at that time in the USSR. They both know it's unlikely they'll see each other again, but she attempts to get permission to go to Latvia, to everyone's astonishment -- people don't ask to go TO the USSR. However, all her wrangling leads nowhere, since just as she's about to succeed in her quest, she gets a letter from an anonymous Latvian acquaintance of Janis' telling her not to write to him anymore, he won't be receiving her letters any longer. That's the basic plot but there's so much more to the story. The details of political maneuvering shaping every part of daily life, of lack and scarcity, of lost opportunity, of desperation, of the recent political past in her Grandmother and Father's activities, of how all people are equal but some are more equal than others...it shows in the intimate story of one young woman's life. 

And it's a timely read in light of Russia's current behaviour; this shows that even in the 60s it was the same thing. The characters despise Russians, they mock the basketball teams from USSR countries, and nobody wants to let Russians in to clubs -- no matter if they are actually Russians or from a country controlled by Russia. Vera's Grandmother is an old Social Democrat, and she has no use for the new regime. She shares an article she wrote for an underground newspaper with Vera at one point: 
She handed me a yellowed mimeographed paper with the title "Will We Always Look On In Silence?". She wrote about how we passively witness genocide. "Killing off whole nations can not possibly be in the best interest of a workers' revolution. And just because certain nations don't want to give up their territory to those who claim it in the name of some highly doubtful class justice doesn't make it so. ... How come Russian imperialism suddenly develops a taste for the blood of workers and especially farmers and educated people in the Baltic? Isn't this a clear example of Russian imperialist designs? Don't they want to acquire new territory suitable for the invasion of countries in the West?
Lots to think about in this brief novel. From how women are always affected most harshly in these regimes to wider political discussions, to the very granular effect on one young woman's life and future. A small but mighty read. 

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Dog Park by Oksanen

Dog Park / Sofi Oksanen
trans. from the Finnish by Owen F Witesman
TO: Anansi International, 2021, c2019
352 p.

This is a dark and twisty tale of international surrogacy and egg donor agencies; it's a call back to Oksanen's earlier novel Norma which I read a few years ago, and the presence in that novel of baby farms and Ukrainian women being used for both their hair and their reproductive abilities. However, unlike Norma, this novel doesn't have any magical quirkiness to it. Rather, it's very grounded in the depressing, desperate lives of young women in Eastern Ukraine, specifically the Donbas region. 

Our main character Olenka meets someone she knows in a dog park in Helsinki. She's startled because she thought she'd escaped her previous life in Eastern Ukraine but here is someone who could bring it all down. Daria was a former protégé of Olenka's at the agency she worked at, before it all came crashing to a halt. 

The story then goes backward into Olenka's story; her childhood in Tallinn and her family's move to her father's hometown of Snizhne in the Donbas when she was a young teen. They move in with his mother in this depressed area; her father has grand plans of profiting from the Wild West atmosphere which followed the breakdown of the Soviet Union. He has a local partner (who happens to be Daria's father) and together they are going to take over some of the mines in the area and become rich. Of course this doesn't happen, with tragedy coming instead. 

Olenka then tries to go West and become a model so that she can send money home but that also falters. When she has to return to Snizhne she is desperate for work, and that's when her life as a successful coordinator at a donor clinic begins. Everything seems to be going well; she is good at her job, finds girls who are willing to become egg donors, knows how to scrub their backgrounds to give a shining bio to each, has new ideas for expansion and is eager to progress. But after a couple of her ideas don't turn out too well, she has to come up with something better, and then the opportunity to provide a donor to one of the richest, most well-connected gangster families in the area pops up. This brings her a chance for glory, as well as a very unexpected romance. But all the time, her past is waiting to explode into this shining future. 

How and why does she end up fleeing to Finland? And why is Daria there too? The book is twisty and keeps us guessing, although the reader starts to see the outlines before they are all revealed. I found the parts when Olenka was active more interesting than the parts in Helsinki where she's reflecting back and trying to confess the facts to a distant "you" (her lost lover) -- it slowed down the pace of the story a bit, even though the reason she's so focused on "you" makes sense in the end. I thought that this book approached an unusual subject and was unflinching in exposing the kind of poverty, instability and lack of opportunity that dogged women's lives both under the USSR and in the first years of capitalism. Things don't change in an instant; these women's lives were still difficult and limited, and the novel shows how that was easily manipulated by those with the desire for money and power. It is a dark read but also one that caught me. 

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex


Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex / Oksana Zabuzhko
trans. from the Ukrainian by Halyna Hryn
Amazon Crossing, 2011, c1996.
168 p.

I'm very glad that Halyna Hryn has taken on the job of translating Zabuzhko's works; otherwise they'd be inaccessible, since I haven't seen any of them translated by anyone else. I read Zabuzhko's short story collection Your Ad Could Go Here last year, and now I'm tackling her classic, a book that was published in 1996 when Ukrainian independence was still fresh, and whichbecame a bestseller for a decade. Many of the translated versions use the same cover as the original because, I mean, it's perfect. 

This novel is told from the perspective of a Ukrainian writer who is in the States as a visiting professor in Slavic Studies. She begins a relationship with a Ukrainian artist, someone who is familiar with her culture and her language (language is a big issue here; a symbol of home and stubborness in the face of Soviet oppression, of identity and the future). However, despite the link to home, there are flaws in their relationship; he doesn't give her the physical satisfaction she's wanting, in fact he can be quite violent. And their emotional relationship becomes fractured and manipulative the longer they go on. She's quite settled in the US, while he prefers to travel back to Ukraine often, so their expectations of social conventions around relationships diverge as well.

Zabuzhko's style is a breathless, hurtling one with long sentences full of numerous subclauses and various thoughts crammed in. I enjoy this style especially in this book, it seems to fit the confessional tone of the narrative well. She is frank and open about her sexual life, something that was not common when this book was written; it's a perspective that was missing from Ukrainian literature but her feminist approach meant she opened up these themes for Ukrainian women writers. She also ties the examination of abusive relationships to the national questions of Ukrainian identity and its struggle under an abusive neighbour. The narrator is able to be a staunch Ukrainian, grounded in her Ukrainian identity and the value she places on the language and history, while still recognizing the flaws of misogyny and patriarchy in that culture. 

Anyhow, as to plot, the story itself is a readable, confessional story of a bad relationship that can't be saved no matter how hard she tries (and predictably, it is mostly just the female character who is trying to fix things). There is a sentence about 3/4 of the way through that provides the turning point; it's a dream that our main character has had:

"he was slowly walking away, back toward her...walking along a narrow plank heading down somewhere, where -- she couldn't tell... and matter-of-factly the realization came in her sleep: he won't be saved, nope, he won't."

At that point there seems to be a decision, no matter how small, to move forward, to reclaim a sense of self and identity outside this relationship. The book is fiction, although there is some discussion of just how fictional it is, and how much is drawn directly from Zabuzhko's life. It has a strong voice, and it's a passionate monologue about language, national identity, feminist values, and the flaws of the culture that she is nevertheless deeply committed to. It's discursive, ranging all over the place and switching between first, second and third person (in the way that we do when we are thinking or talking grandly about life). I love her style and her rants are angry, sharp and pointed. The plot is a bit of a romantic cliché but it's used as much as a metaphor as a reality, which makes sense in the end. If you like her style, you've got to read this one - a real Ukrainian modern classic that has been called "“the most influential Ukrainian book for the 15 years of independence” (ie: since 1991). I feel like the translation captures the edgy tone of the book even if it doesn't feel as shocking as it might have when first published. Definitely worth a look. 

Friday, August 12, 2022

A Russian Story by Kononenko


A Russian Story / Eugenia Kononenko
trans. from the Ukrainian by Patrick John Corness
London: Glagoslav, 2013.
124 p.

Despite the title, this is a very Ukrainian story; it investigates the life of an average man whose life seems to take on the outlines of the classic Pushkin story, Eugene Onegin. 

But more than that simple idea, Eugene Samarsky's situation highlights the place of a man in Ukraine during the end of the Soviet Union and the beginnings of independent Ukraine. He reflects that social change -- and how hard it is for older generations to change in step with the rapid shifts in society. 

As a young man, Eugene starts to hang around with a group who proudly reclaim Ukrainian as their language, and who are involved with restoring Ukrainian culture (both visual and literary) in their circles. The narrative comments on the use of Ukrainian and the different shades of meaning in how and why they speak it; there is also discussion of how Russian culture has overwhelmed the sense of identity for many Ukrainian citizens. Eugene's mother is a teacher of Russian literature and loves it; she even named him after Eugene Onegin. And his great uncle is one of those country fellows of Russian literature; living in a manor in a small village in Eastern Ukraine, he has no direct heirs, so invites Eugene to come and stay. 

Since Eugene has just left his wife and child and is at loose ends (not wanting to return to his parents' home, where they are equally uninterested in having their adult son live with them) so he agrees to this invitation.

His uncle dies shortly after his arrival, and Eugene takes possession of the house, and develops a routine. However, his plans to write in solitude are rather disrupted by the villagers. They are accustomed to dropping in on his uncle as they wish, just coming right in and delivering milk, produce, etc. and settling in for a chat. Eugene begins to be drawn into the village life, including a family with two young and pretty daughters; he also befriends the local doctor. But fate intervenes, and in a struggle over the elder daughter one night after drinking, Eugene knocks down the doctor and believes he's killed him. The younger daughter whisks him to the train station, from whence he flees to America -- fortunately he's just been offered a writing position there. But is a Russian story inevitable?

Much of the book takes place in America, much later on, with chapters filling in Eugene's backstory. The opening is memorable, with Eugene and his American professor wife picnicking on a hill with Eugene's ex-wife, her new French partner, and their son. The most awkward difficulty of this picnic isn't the relationships - they all get along fine - but which language to speak. Between them they have varied combinations of  French, English, Ukrainian and Russian, but the only common ground for all is Russian. This is another highlight of the way language doesn't define national identity for any of them. 

I really enjoyed the style of this one, and the reflections on language, the stories that shape culture, and the way in which Russian monoculture overshadows so much of what they all do, no matter if they're in Kyiv or middle America. I thought it was a clever story with references to literary tropes and characters gently blended in. I'm sure that reading it in the original would have been an even more evocative experience as the references would be clearer to a local reader. Still, I thought it examined a lot of intriguing themes that make the reader think, and the ending was pretty great. The last page makes the whole story pay off. I liked this one a lot. 

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Translation Thursday!

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. Today I'm reading some Japanese literature. 

Currently Reading:

Tokyo Ueno Station / Yu Miri;
translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles

Want to Read:

There's No Such Thing As An Easy Job / Kikuko Tsumura; 
trans. from the Japanese by Polly Barton

Life Ceremony / Sayaka Murata;
trans. from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Dead-End Memories / Banana Yoshimoto;
trans. from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Lost Button

The Lost Button / Irene Rozdobudko
trans. from the Ukrainian by Michael Naydan & Olha Tytarenko
London: Glagoslav, 2012.

Another novel that starts out in the Carpathians, this is a contemporary melodrama by a Ukrainian mystery writer that melds psychology, crossed lovers and a mystery. 

Film maker Denys is with other young artists at a Carpathian resort in the 1970s when he comes across Liza, an older woman who has made a splash in a recent movie. She's distant and much more worldly than he is, but they end up spending a night together, which sparks his obsession with her which will continue for many years. Liza, meanwhile, forgets about him and is more concerned about furthering her stalling career and caring for her young daughter Lika. 

Denys is an annoying character who I didn't much like right off the bat. Added to that, the opening at the resort is a bit slow and takes effort to engage with. Once the second section starts, with Liza as the focus, I found the pace picked up and the story flowed more easily. And when the entanglements of Denys and Liza's life start growing, the mystery and the interest grow as well. 

Will Denys be obsessed with Liza forever? Or will his new wife gain his full focus? Will she put up with him or not? (I know my answer...) There is a lot psychological melodrama about oddball characters in this story -- all 3 of the main characters are slightly obsessed with something, and they're all mixed up. The story ranges across Ukraine and into Europe and the US, and the characters are involved with the media during the waning Soviet years and into independent Ukraine, which adds its own flavour to their actions and perceptions. 

I felt that it tried to dig into both personal relationships and the broader social context of conditions of women's lives. An American character near the end is quite blunt about wondering why a woman would want to stay with a Ukrainian husband, with the social expectations on her, when she could be with said American instead. It points out how life can turn on the smallest detail, like a lost button; and that looking back is a mug's game, rather, you should be focusing on what you have now. 

But in the end, it really read like a telenovela (like the ones that one of the characters seems to be watching in one scene) and in fact, this story has been made into a tv movie in Ukraine. If you are looking for a genre read set in Ukraine which is modern and focused on more of a contemporary setting, this might be a good pick.