The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

BF313D3C-0F46-4DEF-8308-BA91807682AB

This is a rather shocking story which reads, forgive me, a little bit like watching the film Thelma and Louise. You can sense the imminent danger that lies ahead from the very first page.

Two young and naive girls from Holland, vacationing in their parents’ country of Morocco, come across a young man named Saleh. He leads them through alleyways to a hovel, where the ceiling is little higher than the door, and introduces them to a young man named Murat, with terribly decayed teeth, and his mother. They are living the poorest existence, and yet set out a tray of dates and tasteless pastries for their visitors, giving the very best of what they have.

One of the girls, named Thouraya, wears Miu Miu sunglasses and carries a D&G rose-pink bag over her shoulder, “looking like a film star on her way to do charity work.”

She couldn’t stand the poverty, the heat, and the dust. It exhausted her. There was compassion in her, but beneath the surface also the conviction that poor people had only themselves to blame for living like this. A kind of payback for something. That thought bore her up a little, made it easier to tolerate what she was seeing.

But Thouraya and her friend Ilham begrudgingly agree to do as Murat’s mother begs them on her knees; they agree to take Murat in their rented Audi, stuffing him in the trunk where the spare tyre goes, piling suitcases on top of him to keep him hidden. Lots of Moroccans cross like this, according to Saleh. It happens all the time.

If they don’t help, they are heartless and selfish. If they do help, they take dreadful chances of being apprehended.  It is a terrible dilemma.

If her (Ilham’s) own parents hadn’t risked the crossing, she might be in the same situation as this woman on her knees, this desperate family that smelled of poverty. A bitter feeling of gall rose up in her – she, the ingrate, who had been given every chance in life, was now denying that to someone else.

Of course, they decide to hide Murat in the car as they cross on a ferry, and of course (as you can tell by the title), he dies of suffocation in the trunk. When Saleh sees that Murat is dead, he takes the money given to them and flees. The girls must figure out what to do with the body, and having no money, on their own. They are thousands of kilometers from home, and they have the gas left for only a couple of hundred kilometers.

It makes for an interesting story, of people taking advantage of one another, but more importantly addressing an issue so prevalent today: immigration. Murat’s body in the trunk starts to produce a terrible smell, as someone from the shadow jury pointed out, so like the smell that immigrants give for those who don’t want them in their country.

As the Man Booker International Prize so often does, The Death of Murat Idrissi makes a profound political, as well as a literary, statement.

(Thank you to Scribe Publications for the copy of this book to review.)

The Years by Annie Ernaux (translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer, Man Booker International Prize 2019): Addendum

BC84103C-525E-4C5D-9706-CE167D038B1F

I have begun this book several times and been impressed until I get halfway through. There are brilliant insights into life in France, life in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the life of a girl growing up in such a time frame. Consider these quotes:

Religion was the sole font of morality. It bestowed human dignity, without which our lives would resemble those of dogs.

and

Only teachers were allowed to ask questions. If we did not understand a word or explanation, the fault was ours.

and

The future is too immense for her to imagine. It will happen, that’s all.

Annie Ernaux explores memory, both hers, her family’s, and even the world’s at large. “Where were you,” she asks, “on September 11, 2001?”

I love these quotes regarding our memories:

Like sexual desire, memory never stops. It pairs the dead with the living, real with imaginary beings, dreams with history.

or

They were saddled with other people’s memories and a secret nostalgia for the time they’d missed by so little, along with the hope of living it one day…

But. Halfway through this memoir, a piece which was the co-winner of the 2019 French-American Foundation Translation Prize in Nonfiction, yet was included in the Man Booker International Prize which awards the “best, eligible full-length novel”, I became so weary I had to lay it down. Endless streams of observations like this, pertinent as some may be, became exhausting to read.

Clearly the official judges, and the members of the Shadow Jury, do not agree with me. They have given reason, plausible I’m sure, as to why The Years should be included as a piece of fiction. Perhaps that is all that needs to be said: our memories are not fully real.

Do not be surprised to see this on the Shadow Jury’s short list, nor, I dare say, on the official short list. It just won’t be on mine.

(Thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for a copy of The Years to review.)

Addendum: After reading this interview with The Guardian, my dislike for The Years became clearer to me. Because I am a stranger in this world, more often than not having an opinion directly opposite of the mainstream, the interview with Annie Ernaux made me sad. I see her as an angry, hurt woman, and her book seems to further the anger of women (in the current #MeToo trend). She does not speak for me. I love men; I love being protected and honored by men such as my father, my husband and my son. Some of my greatest friends are men, and I find the disparaging of men despicable. I feel sorry for her life’s frustrations, but they are not anything I feel personally. Nor do I feel they should be upheld in our society. Do the feminists really want a world run by women? I shudder at the thought.

Three titles for Boekenweek: We & Me by Saskia de Coster, Craving by Esther Gerritsen, You Have Me to Love by Jaap Robben

79DA07F9-8FB6-41E5-BB10-116F9775A8A6

We & Me by Saskia de Coster

The only thing you have is your family, he realizes, but you don’t know them. You’re a bystander with a ringside seat. You can’t go back to that bourgeois life where nothing is happening, but you can’t run away anymore either. (p. 253)

I loved this book, even when it got scary and sad in the middle. The lines are gorgeous, taking simple things and turning them around so I can examine them in a new light. Or, reminding me of what I already know but tend to forget.

In his letter Jempy writes that he’s coming to visit her soon. How long has it been since she’s seen her brother? How anybody can live like Jempy does is beyond her…but it’s out there in the great beyond that her love for her brother lies. He’s like a cat: you don’t know where he’s come from and whose flowers he’s going to destroy, but you can be pretty sure he’ll be back, in perfect health and beaming all over.

This family surely has someone who resembles a member of our own. There’s a mother who endlessly combs the carpets in a neurotic impulse to gain control over her life; a husband who has false teeth because on the farm where he grew up the animals were better taken care of than the humans; a rebellious daughter who writes alternative music and fights endlessly with her mother. They love each other, this family who wounds each other. They search out ways to meet one another’s needs, but not as much as meeting their own; they seem incapable of both.

Craving by Esther Gerritsen

Does Coco’s mother Elizabeth have autism? Augsberger’s? Or, is it anthropomorphism as her daughter’s lover, Hans, wants to discover? That is possible, as she lovingly refers to her daughter as “my little fish”; her husband is “my dog.” Whichever diagnosis applies, I find her childlike mannerisms fascinating, if not aloof. I would like, I think, to be so free from accepting condemnation. She asks a question, but she doesn’t look for a response.

“I always forget whether I’ve thought something or said it out loud.”

“No, you always forget to look for a reaction. That’s it.” p. 107

In fact, I wonder if the daughter is as odd as her mother. They both seem unwilling to address any of the issues they face in a straight forward manner.

Elizabeth cannot cope well with the cancer that has metastasized in her head. She takes it upon herself to decrease her medicine. She tries to return to the shop where she has worked, expertly, building frames for pictures.

Coco cannot cope with the fact that Hans does not really want continue their relationship. She is willing to visit the sculpture exhibition in Haarlem with him, even though she does not want to. She falls asleep angry, surprised that she can do both at the same time.

There is a deep craving within these pages. A desire for something in each of the characters: mother, father, stepmother, daughter, that cannot be satiated. More than anything, I think, is the craving that has hold of Coco (the daughter). She yearns for food, for sex, for love and acceptance in the hopes that the void her mother created will finally be filled.

You Have Me To Love by Jaap Robben

There’s a terrible tension in the beginning of the book, and running throughout it. A nine year old boy named Mikael comes home for dinner reluctant to tell his mum that his dad has disappeared while swimming. He can’t bring himself to tell the whole story until much, much later. His sorrow and the guilt are too much.

He and his mother, Dora, live on an island. The closest town is Tramsund; their only neighbor is Karl. The third house belonged to Miss Augusta, who has since died, but Mikael and his father would bring things back from her house as “presents” to Dora. For she is erratic, at best.

Her mood swings from inappropriate intimacy to aloofness. She is unpredictable and demanding, a person who would be impossible to live with. Yet her son obeys her, apologizes to her for angering her by not wearing his father’s sweater at her demand. He longs for peace; he longs for his father.

When he finds a gull nesting on Miss Augusta’s bed, he cares for her chick. He brings this chick mashed up mussels, and hopes that some day the chick will be “his.” These two are similar, for they are both struggling to grow up in the presence of demanding mothers.

Yet there is no way Mikael can meet the needs of his mother. “You should be with me,” she says several times by the end of the novel. “This is where you should be.”

As the book draws to a close, one can’t help but wonder if the Baby Gull, at least, will get away. Or, if the father’s disappearance was intentional.

I have read these three powerful, and often disturbing, books for Boekenweek which is a celebration of Dutch literature celebrated March 23 – 31. They are better than several I have read from the Man Booker International Prize long list, for their portryal of characters, for putting me in a world other than my own, for their sheer power to stir my emotions. I am grateful to World Editions for sending me these books and inviting me to take part of this event. If you would like to win one of the above titles, please leave a comment as to which most appeals to you, and I will declare three winners a week from today. (U.S. only, please.)

4556F883-3CE9-482C-A6FD-6E9CB0645A56.png

Find more about Boekenweek and World Editions, as well as a list of blogs celebrating Boekenweek, here.

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

I had a hard time following this novel as I read. It seems simple enough: a story about Moon Hollow, a slum in Korea where parents and their children have to fight for their existence. But there are many points of view, many different names, and no heading at the beginning of each chapter to indicate which character may be narrating the story.

Is is it Park Minwoo, who was able to lift himself out of poverty, go to college, become an architect, and all the while fail to consider the people he’s left behind in the slum? Is it Cha Soona, the beautiful girl who loves him? Or, is it Jung Wohee, the beginning playwright and director who has inserted herself, unbeknownst to Minwoo, into their lives? It all becomes clear in the end, while on the way to the conclusion there are terrible stories of life in the slum.

Park Minwoo’s father fries fishcakes, Cha Soona’s family make noodles, and one group of children establish a shoe shine business. A group of ten raggedy-looking boys all work as shoeshine boys for Jaemyung, including his younger brother, Jaegeun.  They are not about to lose their business to a kid named Tomak, who suddenly comes in from another neighborhood and tells them to find work elsewhere, especially as it is Jaemyung who keeps the family together after the death of his father. The fights that ensue, as he earns the right to keep his shoeshine stands, are terrifying and brutal. They are what is necessary to survive.

It is disturbing to me that Park Minwoo is able to extricate himself so completely from this environment. On one hand, he is to be commended for gaining the knowledge and skill necessary to be a skilled architect, one who has worked himself up from such extreme poverty. On the other, how is it that he is able to distance himself so completely from his family and friends in their ramshackle houses?

In the past, when slum neighborhoods were rebuilt, construction company employees would go door to door to offer some form of appeasement and get their signatures, but nowadays the process went no further than a reconstruction committee’s approval…Perfectly good buildings were ruthlessly demolished, the excavators letting out their terrible roars, while helpless shouts and cries rang out from among the protesters. The families would hold out for three or four days, but as the street filled with wreckage and rubble, they would start to leave, one or two at a time, and the community would fall apart, as splintered and fragmented as their demolished homes.

Hwang Sok-yung’s novel is surely not appicable to Korea alone. With it, he causes us to look at the poverty around us, much of it overshadowed by mansions behind thick walls. How much responsibility do we bear to alleviate some of the suffering, not only for the good of the people, but for the good of ourselves?

On the last page, Park Minwoo is divorced and living alone. His professional success has brought him neither love nor family, and the last line is this:

And so I stood, in the middle of the sidewalk of what was once Moon Hollow, like a man who’d lost his way.

It is a bitter, sharp awareness that he has come to, facing the consequences of the choices he has made.

(Thanks to Scribe publishers for a copy of At Dusk to review for the Man Booker International Prize. Find another review of this book at Tony’s Reading List.)

Japanese Literature Challenge 12: State of the Challenge #10

15460976539741900534543.jpg

Gretchen of Gladsome Lights has written a beautiful post entitled Four Sad Poems from the Japanese, taken from a collection of One Hundred Poems From the Japanese, gathered and edited by Kenneth Rexroth in 1964.

Here is another post of hers highlighting two poems. One is entitled At The Boundaries of Life and Death by Jun Takami, and the other poem is by Kusatao Makamura.

She has also read Kusamakura by Natsume Sōseki, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, and Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki, although I did not see reviews of the last two books. (How much I would like to know your thoughts on the Murata book, Gretchen!)

Michele of su[shu] has written a review of Hideo Yokoyama’s book, Six Four, a novel I have started at least three times and always abandoned as I was intrigued by the mystery, but found the police bureaucracy so tedious!

She has also read and reviewed The Emissary by Yoko Towada, published outside of the States as The Lost Children of Tokyo.

Akylina of The Literary Sisters has read and reviewed Three Short Stories by Akutagawa and Others. Whenever I see the name Akutagawa, I think of Japan’s literary prize named in memory of him, especially as he is known as the “Father of Japanese short story.”

Sylvie, of Sylvie’s English and French blog, read and reviewed Farewell My Orange by Iwaki Kei. It sounds like an unusual and touching book, reflecting Sylvie’s caring heart when she wrote this sentence: “Written with great warmth, Farewell, My Orange offers optimism in the face of adversity.” It won the Kenzaburo Oe prize.

There is only one week left in March, and so I will write a wrap up post for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12 on Sunday, March 31. I have enjoyed writing a weekly post highlighting what I know has been read and reviewed, but I am certain I have not caught all the posts written or books read for the challenge. Do let me know if I can link to something I have missed.

With the Japanese Literature Challenge coming up to the time that the Man Booker International Prize long list is announced, I find my interests rather divided. I am thinking that next year, the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 will be for only one month: January. What do you think of that? While the duration is shorter, the intensity is more concentrated, and that appeals to me, but I am always interested in suggestions and improvement. Until next Sunday, then, happy reading!

Jokes for The Gunman by Mazen Maarouf (translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

9781846276675

Here we have a collection of stories told from the perspective of the young. The narrators seem to believe in their ability to overcome the death and fear which surrounds them. Their wishful thinking wounds me in its futility.

One of them thinks he will be able to buy a glass eye for his father; at the end of the story we learn the son must wear a glass eye after losing his in a game where a ball strikes him in the head. My sorrow for him is mitigated by the fact that he wanted to sell his deaf twin brother to get the money for his father’s eye.

Another father who plays the gramophone in a bar loses both his arms when a bomb strikes. He asks his son to give him one of his arms, for him being reduced to one is better than the father having none.

In “Biscuit”, a son drives his mother to a care-home, not because she has Alzheimer’s, “but to make sure she goes on believing the biscuit story.” A story he told her when an elderly man was killed at an intersection as they were passing through. The fantastic story he told involved this man “hopping nimbly between the vehicles, avoiding one car, dodging and weaving, whirling around, spinning like a wheel, doing splits and throwing feeble punches.” Whenever the old man touched the side of a car, he would turn it into a biscuit. Making it much more palatable a situation, of course, than the man spinning futively to his death.

“Aquarium” is about a clot of blood, which could or could not be a foetus. The couple loves it, and names it Munir, and keeps it in an aquarium. Of course there had to be such a story, in times like these when people don’t seem to know when life starts.

As you can see, not all of the stories are about war, although most of them are. They are interesting, and bizarre, but not nearly as dreadful as Samanta Schweblin’s collection reviewed earlier.

It’s interesting that two of the thirteen books on the long list are short stories. I always think the novel has so much more power.

(Thanks to Granta for the copy of Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf to review.)

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (translated from the German by Jen Calleja, Man Booker International Prize 2010)

The first thing I loved about this book was how it mirrored my experience in Japan this October. I could immediately relate to seeing Japan for the first time from a Westerner’s point of view. The cleanliness, the bare beauty, the efficiency, everything described was similar to what I noticed as well.

Gilbert Silvester has dreamed that his wife Mathilde has been cheating on him. And so he flies to Tokyo on a transcontinental flight, leaving quite abruptly.

Soon he meets Yosa Tamagotchi, who is poised to throw himself in front of a train because he is terrified he won’t pass his exams. Because his beard is trendy and neat, and Gilbert is a beard researcher, Gilbert decides to speak to him. Because Yosa is a Japanese young man, and therefore extremely polite, he interrupts his plan to talk with Gilbert.

Gilbert suggests there must be a better place for Yosa’s intentions. He decides to follow the poet Basho’s footsteps to Matsushima, “the most beautiful place in Japan, the bay of pine islands.” They would travel to the pine islands, taking the same route Basho took; it would be a pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual cleansing.

Somewhere along the way, Yosa disappears. We do not find out if he has changed his mind, or if he has gone elsewhere to fulfill his original plan. Several times, Gilbert thinks he sees him, but perhaps it was only a reflection in the tea bowl or in a dream.

Gilbert makes it to the pine islands himself. He writes haiku as Basho did, and explores his journey.

20181014_203032_Burst01

Far away from home

pine trees as old as the stones –

fleeting clouds above.

This haiku examined the relationship between durability and ephemerality, the unremitting transitoriness of things, of travelling.

It is such a quiet kind of book that I didn’t realize its impact until I closed it. Only then could I see that the implications are universal. We are all ephemeral.

p.s. The night has passed since I finished this book and wrote this extremely brief post. I am still thinking about all the nuances within its pages, about the haikus and how difficult they must have been to translate accurately.

Typical of so many Japanese novels, The Pine Islands is more of a “slice of life”: dropping us in, and pulling us out, of the story before anything is truly settled. We take the pilgrimage with Gilbert, mimicking Basho’s travels. And the more I think about it, the more the novel has crept into my mind like a mist which will not readily dissipate.

(Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for my copy of The Pine Islands.)

A Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

I’ll make this short, as I don’t like to disparage authors or their hard work. Also, I sent my opinion out in Twitter and Instagram, so you may already know this.

I didn’t like A Mouthful of Birds.

This collection of short stories had an auspicious beginning. The first story, “Headlights”, tells of a bride abandoned by her husband while she’s still in her wedding dress standing by the side of a road. One has the idea that the field nearby is filled with abandoned brides who are screaming; near the end, a trail of headlights are seen coming back.

Another story, “Preserves”, has a pregnant woman not emotionally prepared to have her baby yet. After seeing a doctor, who has developed a solution, she spits an almond shaped object into a jar of fluid.

The story taking the title of the collection, “A Mouthful of Birds,” has a set of parents who do not know what to do with their daughter who thrives on eating birds. Alive and whole.

“The Test” is a horrible story about a man who must kill a dog to prove that he can follow orders and eventually kill a person. He bashes a dog over the head with a shovel, but doesn’t quite kill it. Instead, the dog is in agony, and the man learns he didn’t qualify because he hesitated when given the order to strike.

Each story is more upsetting then the previous one. I suppose you could say the writing is imaginative; it certainly is bizarre. But ultimately, the dark violence became overwhelming, and I came away from this book quite distraught. If literature reflects life, I am concerned about how Samanta Schweblin sees the world.

Japanese Literature Challenge 12 (State of the Challenge #9 and winner of Star by Yukio Mishima)

Michelle of su[shu] has read The Traveling Cat Chronicles and written a beautiful review here.

Akylina of The Literary Sisters has read and reviewed Masks by Fumiko Encho here. She gives us a meaningful look at what the book means, one I have intended to read myself for quite awhile.

Mel U of The Reading Life has read a short story entitled The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach by Akiyuki Nosaka. There is time yet for a good short story before the challenge ends!

I have read Star by Yukio Mishima, which is not only appropriate to the Academy Awards ceremony we had in America in February, but is applicable to so much of life itself. The winner of the give away for this novel is Lewis Mclean. I will contact you for your mailing address.

Now that I am reading so assiduously for the Man Booker International Prize, my reading of Japanese literature will dwindle somewhat. But, as you continue, please be sure to inform me of reviews you have published so I can link them to these weekly updates.

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Man Booker International Prize 2019) ~ As near to perfect a book as I have ever read.

I was alone in the world and in the evening I watched the river as I ate.

This sentence, on the very first page, pierces me with its loneliness. But when our narrator, Benia, joins the Red Army to fight on the Romanian front, he finds he is not alone anymore.

He met Pavel when he was hidden from the road, behind a wall, heating up water to make some tea. They met Kyabine, who was built like a lumberjack and seemed a bit slow, when he watched them playing dice in the middle of the street. They invited Sifra, who never had any trouble with anyone, to help them build a hut in the pine forest where they could endure the winter, and the group became four.

They discover a pond, which they keep to themselves, and Pavel and Kyabine splash in it like children. They play dice and gamble tobacco, or roll it into cigarettes. They take turns sleeping with a watch, taken off of a fallen soldier, that has a picture of a woman inside it. When Pavel gets up in the darkness, he gently wakes Benia to accompany him; Benia is his comfort from the terrible nightmares that come in the night.

Their friendship charms me.

The tenderness of their youth charms me.

There is an innocence and joy about the comrades, about the four soldiers, that charms me.

And, there is a sorrow lying underneath the joy that is almost unbearable.

Once, while trying to capture a horse, they became separated.

So I spoke in my head to my parents: Don’t believe what you see. I told them: There’s Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra somewhere in the field, so don’t worry.

I sat down in the grass.

I watched the sun sink beteeen the grass stalls, and after a while I lowered my head and began to sob. But believe me, it wasn’t out of sadness…

And now I held them both in my arms and I sobbed as I pressed them against me and I swear it wasn’t out of sadness.

You know they have to leave the pond, burning the huts they have built because they don’t need them anymore. They are ordered to advance on the enemy.

A kid they have met, who sleeps in their tent and writes in a notebook with a pencil tied to a string, records their precious days together. They tell him all that they want him to write, reminding him to skip no detail.

When Benia takes the notebook after the kid has fallen, there are only letters. Nothing that could form a word. It does not take away the time they shared as four comrades, but it does point to the impermanence of their lives.

I am as impressed by this book as I ever have been. It caught me by surprise because I don’t like books about war, and I didn’t particularly like Mingarelli’s earlier book, A Meal in Winter.

But, The Four Soldiers? I will never forget it. Reading it caused a worthy sadness.

(The Four Soldiers is also published by New Press.)