Book Review: Resistance

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn).

Resistance is a fairly short novel but one that should on no account be rushed. The language and turns of phrases reward those who savour. It is a story about a family and how each are differently affected by the same experiences, both shared and inherited. The insights offered are meticulous, sympathetic and deserving of attention.

The narrator of the tale is the youngest of three siblings whose parents fled Argentina in the 1970s and settled in Brazil. The couple brought with them their infant son who they had adopted after failing to conceive. They knew little of their new-born’s background – how he came to be offered to them. They were assured it would be better this way.

Their younger two children were born after the forced migration. The children always knew their brother was adopted although it was rarely referred to. The narrator is exploring if, within his family, this difference in birth – parentage and country – had a detrimental effect.

“I’m writing […] a book about that child, my brother, about the pains and experiences of childhood, but also about persecution and resistance, about terror, torture and disappearances.”

Each chapter is short offering a vignette on childhood, a retelling of family mythology, and the narrator’s questioning of the truth behind his memories. He recognises the difficulty of expressing feelings that continue to reverberate across years during which the events will have been retold on a variety of occasions.

“They’re all disposable fictions, nothing but distortions.”

Photograph albums are viewed and an apartment in Argentina visited as the narrator attempts to reconstruct the anecdotes his parents shared.

He recalls missteps, embarrassing incidents when he said or did something he immediately regretted. Childhood experiences leave imprints that grow imprecise in recollection.

There is a careful hesitancy, a striving for authenticity, yet the prose is piercing in its power to convey with clarity the difficulties of being a child in a close knit family whose history involved conflict and deracination.

An Argentinian colleague who was disappeared by the regime is remembered by the narrator’s mother, her story thereby impacting the next generation.

“I never knew Martha Brea, her absence does not live inside me. But her absence lived in our house.”

These family stories are an aspect of a childhood that was itself loving and stable. Also remembered are later difficulties dealing with the elder brother, although these are viewed differently by their parents and perhaps by the subject himself.

“I have tried to construct the ediface of this story, on deeply buried foundations that are highly unstable.”

The narrator is drawing on the experiences of parents and other forebears in an attempt to explore how an adopted child may be impacted when raised alongside unadopted siblings.

“An attempt to forge the meanings life refuses to give us”

The narrator writes of how his brother is regarded by their family and also by the boy’s friends. He acknowledges that the family view can only be his interpretation, and is perhaps not shared by his siblings or their parents.

“Our children always transcend how we think of them.”

After spending two years pulling together his various stories and analysing his thoughts on them he concludes:

“writing about the family and reflecting so much on it isn’t the same as experiencing it, sharing its routine, inhabiting its present.”

The narrator can only view his brother through a personal lens.

As a reader it is not so much the unfolding history, interesting though it is, that affected; rather, it is the carefully considered depiction of family and their interpretations of shared memories that reverberates.

The prose is breathtaking in its power and beauty, carefully crafted and always engaging. This was a joy to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

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Spotlight on independent publisher, Charco Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Charco Press contributed a fascinating guest post about the origins and aims of their publishing house last year after one of their inaugural titles, Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, was longlisted for the RofC prize. This title went on to make the 2018 shortlist and was also longlisted for that year’s Man Booker International Prize.

You may read the guest post here.

I did not ask them to contribute again but was grateful to receive a copy of this year’s longlisted book, Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), which I will review tomorrow.

In looking at what has been happening at the press in the past year there was a wealth of exciting news and achievements (summarised on their website). Charco are reaching impressive heights in the literary world and deserve further, wider attention.

A conversation between Ellen Jones and Charco’s Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell, published in Hotel magazine, was of particular interest – you may read it here. Amongst other topics they talk of: the exciting publishing scene in Scotland; their vision for the visual presentation of their beautiful books; the value of bringing established and respected authors who have won awards internationally to English speaking readers.

Resistance has already won the Jabuti Award for Book of the Year (2016), the Oceanos Prize (2016), the José Saramago Literary Prize (2017) and the Anna Seghers Prize (2018). Julián Fuks has gained recognition as one of Brazil’s most outstanding young writers.

Charco’s aims are best summarised in their own words from their website.

“Charco Press was born from a desire to do something a little out of the ordinary. To bring you, the reader, books from a different part of the world. Outstanding books. Books you want to read. Maybe even books you need to read.

Charco Press is ambitious. We aim to change the current literary scene and make room for a kind of literature that has been overlooked. We want to be that bridge between a world of talented contemporary writers and yourself.

We select authors whose work feeds the imagination, challenges perspective and sparks debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors that have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.

Until now.”

Personally I would like to read every book put out by this fabulous publisher. I am grateful that the Republic of Consciousness Prize brought them to my attention.

 

You may follow Charco Press on Twitter: @CharcoPress

Book Review: Children of the Cave

Children of the Cave, by Virve Sammalkorpi (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah), is the first book in the latest Peirene series: There Be Monsters. Presented in the form of annotated and incomplete diary entries, it tells the story of an ill fated scientific expedition to a remote forested area in north west Russia.

Setting out from Paris in 1819, the leader of the group is Professor Jean Moltique, a controversial figure within the Académie des Sciences. His assistant, translator and author of the diaries is Iax Agolasky, a Russian born twenty-four year old eager to travel and work alongside a man he naively admires.

A year into the expedition the group comes across signs of life outside a cave. They set up camp and prepare to observe. What they encounter is a group of small creatures – not quite human yet not quite animal. The reactions of the various adventurers to this discovery lead to disagreements due to ethical issues. The arrogant Moltique pounces on the opportunity to present an exciting discovery to the scientific community. Agolasky is learning that sometimes facts will be bent to fit a preformed conclusion.

“I am surprised that an experienced and esteemed scientist like him, albeit one who is sensational and controversial, is not more critical of his own ideas.”

Agolasky succeeds in getting close to what are now referred to as the children. He no longer fully trusts Moltique but recognises that the professor is more likely to protect his research subjects than the other men in the group, who are described as rogues. They have their uses as labourers and hunters but have appetites that repel the young scholar who is more used to academic life.

“It is unfortunate, but the men who have ended up on this journey are better off outside the reach of officialdom.”

While Moltique is mulling over the best way to collate and present his findings, Agolasky is tasked with learning more about the strange creatures they are attempting to study. The children grow to trust him, something that places them in danger. Caught between the needs of these anomalous beings and his own people the young man struggles to stand up against Moltique’s stated plans.

“I fear his ambition blinds him.”

Agolasky notes in his diary that the professor sympathises most with the creatures that look most human, most like him.

The story builds around the attitudes of so called civilised society towards beings that are different from what is regarded as the norm. Given the way members of the expedition behave, the creatures’ looks are given precedence over their actions. Moltique’s theories require that they be animal yet he punishes those in his cohort who treat them as similar to the creatures they must feed on to survive. Agolasky now understands where the children came from but has neither the strength nor influence to fully protect them. He grows disillusioned with Moltique and at times in fear of his own life.

“To tell the truth I was impressed by the certainty with which the scientist I admired pursued the theory he desired. I could not help considering what the truth was about the yeti and his other achievements.”

The difficulties of living in an inhospitable forest take their toll as the years pass with Moltique still struggling to document his findings with any coherence. Meanwhile the other men in the group see a different potential for the children. Agolasky despairs at his ineffectiveness as events approach their inexorable conclusion.

The staccato style of writing serves to move the story forward quickly, offering snapshots of the changes taking place in each of the explorers. Their behaviour highlights the animal traits in all.

Although set two centuries ago this story has contemporary relevance. With fear of the other growing and swathes of society being dehumanised to protect the comfort of the privileged it is worth questioning the rights we grant humans, and how these are so inequitably enforced.

In many ways this is a disturbing read because of the truths it tells about man’s behaviour. Poignant and piercing, it is a story for our times.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Doppelgänger

“Nothing is crucial to me, but I don’t realise that yet.”

Doppelgänger, by Daša Drndić, contains two stories that are subtlety interlinked. Each emanates an anguish exacerbated by the protagonists’ loneliness. These are not comfortable reads as they challenge the bland acceptance of society’s expectations of how the old and discarded should behave. There is a deep felt sadness that goes unanswered.

The first story, translated by S.D. Curtis, tells of a meeting between two septuagenarians. The characters are introduced with descriptions of the slow decay of their bodies. They wear adult nappies. Their skin is flaccid. They each live alone having once had families. Between sections that detail their histories are police dossiers. They are being surveilled.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day, Artur and Isabella are walking the quiet streets of their small town in Croatia. They are very different in their demeanour and habits but accept each other’s company. They engage in a sex act.

“We’re grown-ups, there’s no sense in equivocating. We should give it a try.”

While out, their flats are searched.

The second story, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, opens on a damp autumn day at a zoo in Belgrade. Printz is watching two neglected rhinos in their enclosure. It is a distressing scene to read. We learn that Printz’s mother died recently after a long illness, and that he helped care for her as her body failed. He is sleeping on a camp bed in his parents’ flat. His younger brother is waiting to inherit their many possessions.

Despite being raised by a wealthy family, Printz carries out acts of socialism. His parents valued their coveted things with which Printz is generous, perhaps attempting to bolster his self-worth. He accepts his ongoing descent in the eyes of society. He has a photographic memory, a wealth of knowledge, but lacks experience of feeling loved.

He remembers with fondness a childhood friend, Maristella, although their relationship emerges as tainted due to his behaviour. It calls into question how he was aware at five years old of the acts he performs on her.

The tale is a slow burner with a disturbing undercurrent. There is much for the reader to consider.

Both stories explore the legacy of Nazism and then Communism. Children cannot choose their parents yet are deeply affected by the inheritance of actions both before and after their birth. The writing has a haunted quality. Changing borders, geographic and familial, leave citizens unmoored.

Complex and at times elusive, the observations and actions so tautly and meticulously described can be unnerving. These are stories that ask the reader to step outside their comfort zone and confront a reality of historic dark deeds and their repercussions.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Istros Books.

Book Review: Katalin Street

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“the dead are not dead but continue living in this world, in one form or another”

In March 1944 German forces invaded Hungary to enforce the extermination of Jews. A year later the Soviets ‘liberated’ the country, imposing full Stalinist control from 1949. An uprising in October 1956 was quashed by Soviet intervention.

Set in Budapest between 1934 and 1968, these portentous events form the backdrop to a story of three families whose close connections are cemented during the time they live as neighbours in upmarket Katalin Street. Although impacting the course their lives take, the significance of historic events will only be recognised with hindsight. What matters at the time are the minutiae of personal interactions.

Henriette Held is six years old when she moves with her parents from the countryside to their new home in Katalin Street, nestled between the houses belonging to the Bírós and the Elekeses. Mr Held is friends with Major Bíró – they served together in the First World War. Henriette is taken under the wing of the Major’s son, Bálint, joining his group of close childhood friends which is completed by sisters Irén and Blanka Elekes.

The tale is told from the points of view of these four children across the decades. The timeframe is non linear and the reader learns early that Henriette dies. The aftershock of this event is key to the directions the others’ lives subsequently take. Each views what is happening through the prism of their personal fears and desires – their interpretations of how they imagine their friends must think and feel.

Lives can be messy and be further messed up due to: wider circumstances, misunderstandings, selfishness, and love. The horrors of the various national conflicts are downplayed in the narrative with greater emphasis given to the damage inflicted by those the cast most care for. There is sibling rivalry, jealousy, and guilt over what happens to the Helds. The girls all adore Bálint whose behaviour impacts their outcomes. Small actions, some well intentioned, continue to resonate.

Later in the story a marriage proposal takes place amidst statues – grotesques that could represent loved ones now lost. Death is depicted as no more of a loss than aging – the change in character caused by choices and experience. Such change is aptly portrayed in Henriette’s afterlife where she is reunited with her parents. They have regressed to childhood and prefer the company of their parents who shower them with attention. Henriette is angered to discover that her parent’s choices no longer revolve around her needs.

Their shared time in Katalin Street ties the three families together yet cannot bring a closer understanding to essentially disparate individuals. Those trying to build loving relationships encounter entanglements that prove how elusive and fragmented happiness can be. The depth and urgency of both the pleasure and pain of emotions is effortlessly conveyed.

Any Cop?: The story is beautifully written – an impressive feat of translation. It explores timeless themes with empathy and passion. Engaging and affecting it offers a window into the human condition. This was a pleasure to read.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Trap

Trap, by Lilja Sigurðardóttir (translated by Quentin Bates), is the second novel in the author’s Reykjavik series of crime thrillers. I have not read the first. While the story holds together as a standalone I wondered if the limited backstory, which brought new readers up to speed, contributed to my inability to sympathise with any of the characters. Perhaps had I better understood how they ended up in the difficulties they must now face I would have felt more concern over their fates. It is hard to care for drug runners and murderers no matter how much they love those dear to them.

Opening in April 2011, in a trailer park in sunny Florida, Sonja wakes from an unplanned nap to realise that her young son, Tómas, is not where she expected. The pair are on the run from Adam, the boy’s father. He is furious that Sonja has thus far evaded him.

Forced to return to Iceland and resume her job as a drugs courier, Sonja contacts her former lover, Agla, for assistance. Neither of the women appear to understand what the other works as. Theirs is an unbalanced relationship based on sexual attraction – a driving lust and its associated jealousies.

Following the financial crash Agla’s money laundering activities are under investigation. What the authorities are unaware of is their size and reach. Needing to clear a large debt she schemes with others working the financial markets to pull off a lucrative deal. She has many associates who will benefit, operating in powerful places.

As both women call on their contacts in an attempt to extricate themselves from official attention and underworld danger, their games of cat and mouse are surveilled by circling predators. Agla’s activities have come under scrutiny from a diligent investigator at the special prosecutor’s office. Sonja finds herself caught between drug barons vying for power on both sides of the Atlantic, including Adam who is using Tómas as leverage. Even when supposed kingpins are taken down there is always another ready to step into the vacated space.

It is not hard to believe that this is how the mega wealthy operate, and that they will always have minions seeking to increase their personal power and influence by whatever means. The observations on the men involved – driven by ego and unwilling to admire any woman’s superior contribution to their business – were familiar.

Sonja’s strength and resilience were sometimes irritatingly erratic – perhaps this was an attempt to make her appear more human by showing occasional weakness.

Agla misunderstands love, associating it with some form of ownership and control, as did Adam. Despite being clear headed and capable in business she too suffers weaknesses – her egocentric attitude to Sonja, and cocaine.

The writing and structure maintain the tension as each character takes risks and encounters danger. The movement of drugs and money is portrayed as beyond the control of authority – above the law due to the influence of the globally wealthy. Although the story held my interest and attention I found this, and the way key characters were willing to behave in extremis, somewhat depressing to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda.

Book Review: The Man Who Died

“Death only comes round once in a lifetime”

The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston), is a thriller written with a wicked sense of humour. Set in Finland during a sultry summer, it opens with the protagonist, thirty-seven year old Jaakko Kaunismaa, being told by his doctor that he will die soon, possibly within the next few days. Jaakko has been slowly poisoned, irreparably damaging vital organs. This news comes as something of a shock as Jaakko believed he had flu and would be cured with a course of antibiotics. With death imminent he is determined to discover who has done this to him.

Still in shock, Jaakko seeks out his wife, Taina, for advice. He finds her in a compromising position with one of their employees. While digesting this second piece of new and unwelcome information he starts to suspect that she may be behind the poisoning. Taina is a skilled cook and prepares most of what Jaakko eats. If he is to confront her he requires proof.

Jaakko is CEO of a moderately successful mushroom processing and distribution company. Recently, competitors have set up beside his factory. Run by three local thugs they threaten Jaakko and headhunt key members of his staff. With his life close to its end Jaakko decides that he wishes to save the business and ensure it does not all go to his suspected murderer.

From being a comfortable but unexciting boss, Jaakko proposes innovative changes to operations. This sudden switch in personality surprises everyone, not least his wife. The competitors are impatient with Jaakko’s refusal to do as they demand and threaten violence. In a bizarre series of events the police become involved and Jaakko is forced into hiding. He discovers that Taina is planning something to do with the business and is determined to thwart her.

Plans require immediate action as Jaakko may have little time left. He must also battle the symptoms which can, at times, be debilitating. He requires assistance but must be clever in bringing on board those who he previously had little to do with. Imminent death brings into sharp focus what must be achieved when reacting to unfolding events. While there is still life though, there are also typically human vanities and concerns. These are portrayed with sympathy, gently mocking at times but empathetic.

This is a clever and entertaining take on the thriller genre, offering unexpected twists with just a touch of the surreal. Coming face to face with one’s demise may sharpen focus but death is, after all, a prospect anyone living could face on any given day. Deftly written with a satisfying originality this is a warm and witty but still suspenseful read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda.