Book Review: My Cat Yugoslavia

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci (translated by David Hackston), is a somewhat fragmented story involving metaphors that often slip into the surreal. It tells of a family of Albanians living in Kosovo who move to Finland when the increasing conflict threatens their safety. As refugees they are caught between their old culture and that of the country that has taken them in. What is regarded as respect by the older generation is clearly abuse by the Western European standards in which the children are now raised.

The story opens with an on line hookup between two men, both described as superficially handsome. One wishes to see the other again but is rejected. Thus we discover the problem Bekim has with trust, his fear of settling into a loving relationship and then being hurt. Instead of men he decides to share his life with a snake, the boa constrictor he purchases allowed to roam free in his apartment rather than being confined to its terrarium. His next relationship, which starts in a gay bar, is with a talking cat that wears clothes and has hateful views on homosexuals and immigrants. The snake and cat metaphors are used in subsequent encounters with Bekim’s wider family.

Born in Kosovo, Bekim moved to Finland with his parents and siblings when just a few years old. He was viciously bullied at school for being poor and a refugee. He learned to dread the question, “Where do you come from?” and the judgement that followed. As soon as he was old enough he cut off contact with his parents, ostensibly to further his education. He hated how they treated him, their desire that he behave as would have been expected in their homeland.

Although Bekim’s personal demons are represented by creatures, the second plot line unfolds more clearly. This takes the reader back to 1980 when Bekim’s mother, Emine, first meets the young man she is to marry. Although still at school she has been raised to be a good, Kosovan wife and is happy with the prospect of living with the handsome Bajram. Unlike her parents, he is from a wealthy family. He promises to treat her well.

Preparations for the wedding are described in detail, involving days of prescribed, public ritual where true feelings must be hidden. When Bajram and Emine are finally allowed to be alone together she discovers that he is brutal and demanding. Kosovan men are raised to believe that within their homes they are as gods. The women must acquiesce and serve them quietly, never complaining however disdainfully they are treated.

When the family flee to Finland they live first in a refugee centre and then in a cramped apartment. Although Bajram eventually finds work this does not last as he refuses to accept the concepts of equality and multiculturalism. He mixes with other immigrants and refugees, expecting his family to continue to treat him as the most important member of their household.

“He blindly believed in his own world.”

“People’s attitudes and values seemed to have remained unchanged from the time when they left the country, and they were preserved in tight-knit communities in overcrowded European apartment buildings in disreputable parts of town”

When Kosovo enters a fragile peace, the family become immigrants rather than refugees. The Finnish people’s resentments at their continued presence perpetuates divisions. Bajram feels no gratitude for the home he has been given. He feels justified in taking what he can by whatever means.

Emine does her best to put up with Bajram’s behaviour but understands better than he how their children are torn between the culture of Kosovo and that of Finland.

“How could he possibly have thought that his children would work, pay taxes, then return to him and help make his dreams come true instead of their own?”

Emine, Bajram and Bekim each struggle to find ways to exist having been displaced from everything they were raised to be. They are not the people they once were, but neither do they fit easily into the expectations of their adopted country.

It is always interesting to learn of different cultures, however shocking their accepted behaviours appear to a Western European reader. I was surprised by the attitudes of the refugees and immigrants portrayed as, like the Finnish people, I expected more gratitude. Perhaps I would understand better had I experienced the openly hostile reception they suffered. From that point of view this was a thought-provoking read. As a story though I found the more surreal scenes unclear.

This tale evokes less rapport than I am comfortable with for the characters portrayed due to their reluctant assimilation and demands made of their children. An unusual but not entirely satisfying read.

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

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Book Review: The Book of Riga

The Book of Riga is a collection of ten short stories written by Latvian authors and set in the country’s capital city. It opens with a history of the region written by a former president. As I am unfamiliar with the background and local culture, such information was of interest, although at times I still struggled to place each of the stories within the time-frame intended.

The authors write with a distinctive, Baltic voice yet their themes are universal. They explore the frustration protagonists feel at family, particularly the older generation with their undeviating demands and expectations.

In The Girl Who Cut My Hair a group of young people indulge in what they consider meaningful discussions whilst polishing their personal vanities and youthful if frivolous preoccupations.

“We were virgins with condoms in our handbags.
Our parents had not read either Freud or Henry Miller, absolutely not.
We were always at the ready – what if life should suddenly start?”

Westside Garden revolves around a place once owned by a wealthy family, now subdivided but still housing an elderly relic of that era. The events narrated differ between the lived experience and what is recalled with the benefit of hindsight and shared reminiscences. Sexual encounters are described as a sometimes necessary irritant. The women are still expected to adhere to a standard of presentation and behaviour.

“don’t fool around with slacks and bobbed haircuts, but act like a real woman.”

In The Birds of Kipsala Island, new build homes in the city housing young families and professionals are evocatively described

“like lockers in a gym changing room”

Within the changes imposed on the historic city, a creative community seek out places were they may indulge their conceits together. Self defined artists and intellectuals eventually realise

“no one in real life is as happy, as witty, or as capable of making sound judgements, as characters in fiction.”

The Shakes is set in an office where a successful businessman observes an increase in street demonstrations and tries to see into the future using history and detailed reasoning. In trying to draw his assistant into his endeavour he risks being seen as unhinged. She too feels something out of kilter in the air but prefers to perpetuate, while she can, the comfort of accepted roles and routines.

A White Jacket With Gold Buttons offers a picture of a writer’s hubris yet sensitivity to criticism, particularly from a rival he refuses to rate.

“Writing is, in a sense, close to psychoanalysis: the power of the written word comes exactly from the fact that an author spits out his most hidden feelings, without the shiny veneer that comes from pretending.”

The collection finishes with a supernatural tale, The Night Shift, that could be a metaphor for the realities of life, and inevitability of death.

The writing throughout presents with a distinctive cadence that is somewhat mordant yet arresting in the themes explored and characters developed. The city shines through as a beguiling survivor of its history, adapting whilst retaining its hold on certain citizens and visitors. I had never before considered visiting Riga. After reading this collection, I am tempted.

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

Book Review: The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland, by Nicolai Houm (translated by Anna Paterson), opens with a woman waking up in a tent believing she is going to die. Just a short time before she had flown to Norway to meet up with distant relatives. She has now been abandoned in a cold, lonely landscape; left without food, water or a map. The woman’s name is Jane Ashland and she struggles to relate to anyone, or to care much about their reactions to her behaviour.

The story moves around in time between Jane’s years studying literature at university, her relationships, the time spent with relatives in Norway, and the events leading to her abandonment. It becomes clear that Jane is damaged. She drinks heavily and relies on prescription drugs. Each chapter is a jigsaw piece in the puzzle that reveals the story of her life. It takes a little while for the picture to take shape, for the pieces to slot together.

Jane’s behaviour early on may be harshly judged, initial impressions being as they are reliant on a code of social conformity. The snapshots given of her background, shown as they are out of order, encourage the reader to guess at reasons. This is cleverly done – prejudices may be revealed.

From Jane’s earlier life in America through to her attempts to connect with family in Norway there is an underlying feeling of impending crisis. The complexities inherent in any relationship are adroitly presented. The evocation of grief is vivid and piercing.

The non linear structure requires the reader to follow multiple threads. Knowing that Jane ends up in a life threatening situation adds tension. The writing though is more literary than thriller in style. It is haunting and deeply moving.

This is a love story depicted with realism and regret, an exploration of empathy, or its lack, in what comes after. Jane’s behaviour will take the reader through a roller-coaster of emotions. A powerful, enthralling read.

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

Book Review: The End Of The Moment We Had

The End Of The Moment We Had, by Toshiki Okada (translated by Sam Malissa), is the latest in a series of Japanese novellas published by Pushkin Press. It contains two short stories that offer snapshots of ordinary lives, streams of consciousness from a variety of voices. They are visceral in their honesty, disturbing in their depiction of life’s quotidian pain.

The first story opens with a group of loud, drunk men travelling on a train. Their boisterous chatter disturbs other passengers yet no complaints are made. The men make their way to a club where a performance is to be held. One of the group had been told of the venue by a girl he met on an outing to the cinema, their conversation awkward in a way it is hard for the girl to get beyond as she watches the man zone out and then walk away.

After the performance at the club one of the group makes his way to a love hotel with another attendee. They spend four nights at this place, talking and having sex, before going their separate ways. They do not tell each other their names.

The narrative includes thoughts and conversations which demonstrate how little individuals understand or even care about many of those they interact with. The time in which the story is set coincides with the American offensive against Iraq and protests are being held in the streets. The characters observe what is happening – to themselves, close to home, and abroad. They remain self-absorbed, savouring their ability to briefly escape what they regard as mundane.

The second story is told from the point of view of a young woman lying in her bed. She has decided to take the day off work for no justifiable reason. As she stretches out her body and observes the grime and mould in her home she considers her husband who is working two jobs but still leaves her frustrated and dissatisfied with the circumstances in which they live. She reads a blog that details interactions at a call centre. She thinks back on times she has lashed out at her husband, wondering why he reacted as he did.

Although the actions of the characters are described, it is their meandering thoughts that are being explored. The stories offer little in the way of resolution – life goes on.

An interesting if somewhat sparse read that depicts recognisable human experiences. There may be a dearth of anything uplifting in the narrative, but the reader can empathise with the everyday tribulations.

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

Book Review: Black Sugar

Black Sugar, by Miguel Bonnefoy (translated by Emily Boyce), is a story of pirates, buried treasure and rum. Set in the forests of Venezuela it charts the country’s development through the twentieth century alongside that of residents of a remote sugar plantation. The elegant, often humorous prose is fable like. There is desire, intrigue, greed and the unstoppable rhythms of life.

The story opens with a shipwreck. Marooned inland, surrounded by swampy forest, Captain Henry Morgan is dying atop his lifetime’s hoard of treasure. As the weeks go by his marooned ship and valuable supplies rot, or are consumed by the land and his hungry crew. There follows a storm, a mutiny, and the captain and his treasure disappear.

Three centuries later the land has been drained and cultivated. A village has been built, the tale of an English pirate and his lost hoard become legend. On the Otero family farm, Ezequiel and his wife Candelaria live modestly with their late born daughter, Serena. The child has developed an interest in botany, observing her surroundings whilst dreaming of new horizons.

Their quiet life is enlivened by the arrival of a stranger. Severo Bracamonte, a young man in his twenties, has purchased documents from a travelling merchant purporting to reveal the location of the English captain’s buried treasure. He asks for permission to stay on the farm while he conducts a meticulous and methodical search. In exchange he offers a share of the booty he is convinced he will find.

Serena is unimpressed by this slight, pale faced man. As the weeks go by with no success she becomes annoyed at her parents’ tolerance of Severo’s continued presence. All this changes when he finally brings back an artifact. Serena’s reaction causes him to rethink his ambitions.

With Severo’s help the farm grows in size and wealth. He branches out, creating a mill and distillery. Serena works alongside him, keeping the farm books but yearning for a child. The arrival of another stranger, an Andalusian treasure seeker, changes their prospects once again.

Treasure comes in many forms, what use it is put to determining its value. Each of the characters achieves, but not necessarily what they thought they desired. Greed is shown to be a disease, wealth an entanglement. This is a deft and gratifying evocation of the cycle of life in an ever evolving land.

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

Q&A with World Editions

Today I am delighted to welcome Judith Uyterlinde, publishing director at World Editions, an independent publisher set up to bring international literature to a global readership. This year World Editions is bringing the Netherlands’ Boekenweek (Book Week) to the UK by promoting three prize winning Dutch authors they have had translated into English. If you click on the covers below you may read my reviews of these books.

Judith has answered some question I put to her about World Editions. I hope that you enjoy finding out more about this publishing house.

 

Can you tell me a little about World Editions and why it was set up?

World Editions publishes and promotes high quality literary titles from all over the world in translation into English. We believe there are a lot of treasures to discover for English language readers. There are so many great books out there that haven’t been translated into English yet!

You publish books from around the world. With such a wide remit how do you select the titles you wish to acquire?

One has to read a lot and trust one’s taste. I believe I have a nose for good literature. And of course you need the help and advice of other people too. We have a broad network of agents and publishers, translators and authors all over the world. We visit book fairs in London, Paris, Frankfurt and other places all over the world, to find the most beautiful books to translate into English.

What is the most rewarding aspect of independent publishing, and the most challenging?

The most rewarding aspect is getting to know the most wonderful people and ideas. The most challenging is making sure that the books reach the wide readership they deserve.

Is your experience of marketing what you expected when you started out – how do you connect with booksellers and readers?

The books and the authors need to be visible: in the bookshops, at festivals, on (social) media, everywhere. We are a very young Publishing House – we only just got started with a brand new team in the UK and the USA, so there still is a lot of work to do!

There are a good number of small publishers out there publishing some great works. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

We focus on translated books and we all read them ourselves. Coming from a small, international oriented country, the Netherlands, with a strong tradition in traveling, trading and translating, we have the advantage of reading many languages. Within our team we read French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Polish and English. And on top of that all of us have a lot of publishing experience from working for big international literary houses in both Europe and the USA before.

Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

Selling books is like winning a war – it’s only with hindsight that you can tell who the winner is. But you need to keep trusting that gut feeling and convince others of it!

Ebook or hard copy – what do your buyers want?

Hard copies are still most popular but E-books have their merit too in international publishing.

Do you consider World Editions to be niche or mainstream?

We are specialised in the sense that there are not many Publishing Houses which focus on international literature and translations as intensively as we do. But our ambitions and the quality of our books do not differ from those of the major literary houses.

When working with your authors are you collaborative or dictatorial?

Working together with the authors is one of the things I love most about publishing. There is no use or fun in being dictatorial.

Plans for the future?

To keep on publishing the best books from all over the world! To contribute to an intercultural dialogue. If books can change our view of the world, they can also change the world. Is that enough of an ambition?

 

Visit the World Editions website here.

You may follow them on Twitter: @WorldEdBooks

 

Book Review: The Darkness that Divides Us

The Darkness that Divides Us, by Renate Dorrestein (translated by Hester Velmans), is a story of lives blighted by secrets surrounding a murder. Told from the points of view of the children most affected, it highlights the misunderstandings and frustrations that arise when adults charged with caring for young people forget that children speak a different language to them.

The book is set in and around a new housing estate in the Netherlands, a prototype that the government promised would allow families to grow amongst like minded people, detached from the problems and fears of inner city living. Young couples moved into these sterile and remote dwellings, and soon began procreating. As fathers had to travel longer distances to work, the mothers would get together to air their grievances. Thus their children got to know each other from the cradle.

Close to these new homes is an old rectory. Here lives Lucy, her bohemian mother and their two lodgers, Ludo and Duco. Lucy’s mother illustrates children’s story books. She reads Tarot cards for the other mothers. She doesn’t fuss if clothes are dirty or juice is spilt. The children love to visit her house and Lucy, always ready to suggest a daring and imaginative game, becomes the de facto leader of the preschool group.

When a new boy, Thomas, moves into a house on the estate Lucy chooses him as her special friend, deciding that they will become engaged. A party is held at her house to celebrate the occasion which turns inexplicably grim when Lucy’s mother discovers Thomas’s origins. She decides that her family can no longer live in the rectory, that they must move far from these people. Appalled, Lucy decides to run away.

On a stormy night Lucy sneaks out of the house, overhearing an argument between her mother and their two lodgers as she leaves. The next morning Thomas’s father is found dead.

The children are six years old and have only just started school. Their escapades and reasoning appear precocious, a reminder that adults struggle to empathise with young people at their level. Parents will think they know best and try to protect. Children observe the fickleness of adult friendships, the interesting facts they refuse to share, how their opinions are swayed by gossip and speculation.

Events of that stormy night change Lucy forever. The other children are frustrated by her sudden restraint and try to force her to react by tormenting her, desiring the return of their exuberant leader. Unbeknownst to them Lucy has been tasked with keeping a dark secret that over time she locks away in the recesses of her mind. She accepts years of vicious bullying believing it is her due.

Lucy’s mother goes to prison and her child is cared for by Ludo and Duco. The men are largely unaware of the torments Lucy suffers at the behest of her erstwhile friends. When her mother is released it becomes clear that their situation has become untenable. The four decide to move away.

The first part of the book is told from the point of view of one of the bullies, a child living in a supposedly ideal family unit. The second part, set on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, is narrated by Lucy. Here she must learn a new language and find a way to fit in with local children raised on the remote island. Although still only twelve years old, the damage caused by her childhood reverberates.

Ludo and Duco continue to offer Lucy their unconditional if somewhat gauche support. Lucy and her mother struggle to cope with what the other has become. Lucy is trying to move forwards, unsure of the truth of her memories from the pivotal night, unwilling to think too deeply about what happened and her role in events.

“The story that lay pressed between the covers of our mutual silence had best remain what it was; a closed book.”

The damage caused by her mother’s attempts to protect Lucy lead to her dealing with the island children’s taunts in a shocking way. She is terrified of once again becoming the victim of unrelenting bullying. She longs for the company of younger children who have not yet learned to torture those they perceive as not fitting in.

By the denouement Lucy has turned eighteen and is facing her future. Out in the world, away from the support of Ludo and Duco, she is forced to confront the way she has allowed the secrets of her past to shape how she thinks. The adults who cared for her may have had her best interests at heart but each person, child and adult, were affected in ways the others proved unable to comprehend.

This tale is in many ways chilling, not least because of the uncomfortable truths it lays bare. As adults it is too easy to think we know better than the children we interact with. We cannot control the events they will remember, the conversations and silences they will translate in unforeseen ways. The voices of the narrators are a reminder that, whatever our age, it is only possible to live inside one’s own head, unable to fully appreciate other’s perceptions, feeling at the moment and dwelling on whatever causes pain.

A complex and unusual story that, whilst heart-rending, is never sentimental. It is tense in places, thought provoking and engaging. A recommended read.

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