War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (translated by David McKay): Man Booker Long List 2017

I have not read such a gorgeously written book in a long time. The images which Stefan Hertmans paint for us, brilliantly translated by David McKay, are as clear in my mind as if I had watched them on film. From my mind, though, they become seared on my heart until I must put down the book for a brief respite.

This story is a vivid re-imagining of the narrator’s grandfather, a man with the birth and death dates exactly matching those of my maternal grandfather: (1891-1981) “as though the numbers played leapfrog with each other.” From two notebooks of handwritten memoirs he  reconstructs his grandfather’s life, and thus creates a more complete understanding of his own.

When his grandfather comes down the stairs to present him with a gold pocket watch, the grandson has no way of knowing what a precious gift it is. The story of this watch, passed from generation to generation before it was passed to him, was yet unknown. When it slipped from his grasp, and broke into bits minutes within receiving it, he had no way of knowing the places it had been in his grandfather’s pocket. Or, in his grandfather’s life.

And I broke it, an heirloom that was nearly an antique when he was young. What could he have done with the shattered pieces? A man walks by with a panting Doberman straining at the leash; I hear pigeons cooing. It’s too late now for the remorse that holds me helpless in its grip.

(How well I remember my grandmother giving me the pearl earrings she wore for her own wedding day, and several months later asking me how I liked them. I had to tell her that I had felt my ears one day, to find that one was missing. She looked at me for awhile, but never once scolded me, before she said, “These things happen.” What memories of hers were lost with my carelessness?)

War and Turpentine tells of his grandfather’s life, from these small experiences as a young boy, to an adolescent who works a grown man’s job in an iron foundry, to his enlistment in World War I, to seeing the woman he wants to marry in an upstairs window behind his house. Before he can marry her she dies of pneumonia, and he bravely marries her elder sister, for he is a man who

…seemed to possess no egotism, conceit, or self-importance, but only an instinctive eagerness to be of service, a quality that made him both a hero and a first-class chump.

The narrative of this man, who was “tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he’d wished to become” became a tool for me to think back on my own family, my own history, and the hunger I often feel for time gone by.

Consider this snippet of a quote:

“…if you praise a simple fellow like that, it’ll only go to his head, and he’ll stop applying himself.”

How heartily my teachers, and even some members of my family, adhered to that sentiment! It has caused me to work unceasingly for praise, and when I became a mother, to render it too easily to my own son.

And now, perhaps you’re wondering about the inclusion of the painting by the cover of the book? It is Velazquez’s Venus at Her Mirror, known as the Rokeby Venus. But, Urbain Martien has repainted it, and unbeknownst to him is discovered by his grandson crying over the portrait. For the face which he has painted on the Venus is that of Maria Emelia, the one woman whom he truly loved, the one woman with whom the life he desired was denied. She brackets the beginning of the story, as well as the end, and lies in the shadows of all the pages in between.

Find more reviews at Tony’s Reading List, Messenger’s Booker, and ANZ Litlovers Lit Blog.

War and Turpentine by Sefan Hertmans
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Published August 9, 2016
304 pages

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell): Man Booker International Prize Long List

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The important thing already happened. What follows are only consequences.

The pace of this book is frenetic, building up panic as those who have suffered a terrifying dream are well aware; we want to wake up, we want things to be better, we want to find out that none of what we dreamed was real.

Amanda lies dying on rough, coarse sheets. A boy murmurs to her, and their dialogue is all we have to tell us their story. To lead us to “the important thing.” At the boy’s prompting to remember, she relives the horrors that have brought them to this place.

In a disjointed, and bizarre narrative, we find that she and her daughter, Nina, have come from town to vacation in the peace of the countryside. She has befriended the boy’s mother, Carla, a beautiful woman with an elegant walk whose red hair is worn in a bun.

The boy’s mother has witnessed a stallion die after it has drunk from a stream. Next to the stream was a dead bird, and when the boy’s mother becomes aware that her son has drunk from the same stream, she carries him almost immediately to the green house. There, a woman to whom people go rather than the clinic, takes David into a back room.

Later, Nina sits down in the grass, becoming wet in what her mother assumes is dew. She and her mother are given pills at the local clinic and told to go home, rest. They have had too much sun.

Can it be mere stupidity that denies the effects of poison which has infiltrated the ground, the water? Or, perhaps is it easier to deny the truth than deal with its consequences. But, a mother’s desire to save her child, the “rescue distance” as Schweblin so aptly calls it, can only stretch so far in its effectiveness. And as the lines between the two children blur, so do the ramifications for the rest of the community.

This is a frightening book, an alarming story which seems part sci-fi and part horror. It has just the kind of emotional tension which the books on the Man Booker International Prize long list so cleverly create.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Published March 2, 2017 by Oneworld
160 pages

Find more reviews from Tony’s Reading List, 1st Reading’s Blog, and A Little Blog of Books.

The Man Booker International Prize and the 2017 Shadow Jury Panel

img_3846It is with great anticipation that I await March 15, for that is when the Man Booker International Prize long list will be made known to us. It is from this list that many of my favorite books of the year are read; several of them linger still in my memory so great is their power. If you have not read The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker, or The Dark Road by Ma Jian or The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson perhaps you should stop reading this post and begin them now.

I became a member of the shadow jury panel in 2014, the year after I learned about the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It has since evolved into the Man Booker International Prize. Fortunately, Stu and Tony have invited me back, and now for the second year in a row our panel consists of the following book bloggers:

Stu Allen is returning to chair the first Man Booker International Prize shadow jury after hosting four shadow IFFP juries. He blogs out of Winstonsdad’s Blog, home to 500-plus translated books in review. He can be found on twitter (@stujallen), where he also started the successful translated fiction hashtag #TranslationThurs over five years ago.

Tony Malone is an Anglo-Australian reviewer with a particular focus on German-language, Japanese and Korean fiction. He blogs at Tony’s Reading List, and his reviews have also appeared at Words Without Borders, Necessary Fiction, Shiny New Books and Asymptote. Based in Melbourne, he teaches ESL to prospective university students when he’s not reading and reviewing. He can also be found on Twitter @tony_malone

Clare started blogging at A Little Blog of Books five years ago. She does most of her reading during her commute to work in London and reviews contemporary literary fiction and some non-fiction on her blog. She particularly enjoys reading French and Japanese fiction in translation. Twitter: @littleblogbooks

Tony Messenger is addicted to lists, and books – put the two together (especially translated works) and the bookshelves sigh under the weight of new purchases as the “to be read” piles grow and the voracious all-night reading continues. Another Tony from Melbourne Australia, @Messy_tony (his Twitter handle) also reads Australian Poetry, interviewing a range of poets on his blog, which can be found at Messengers Booker (and more) and at Messenger’s Booker on Facebook – with a blog containing the word “booker” why wouldn’t he read this list?

Lori Feathers lives in Dallas, Texas and is co-owner and book buyer for Interabang Books, an independent bookstore in Dallas. She is a freelance book critic and board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She currently serves as a fiction judge for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. Her recent reviews can be found @LoriFeathers.

David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer from the north of England, now based in the south. He has written about translated fiction for Words Without Borders, Shiny New Books, Strange Horizons, and We Love This Book. He blogs at David’s Book World and tweets as @David_Heb.

Grant Rintoul is a Scottish reviewer who lives on the coast not far from the 39 steps said to have inspired Buchan’s novel. Luckily the weather is generally ideal for reading. He blogs at 1streading, so-called as he rarely has time to look at anything twice. He can sometimes be found on Twitter @GrantRintoul

Although we comprise an unofficial jury, I think our opinion matters, for we represent the readers. Our passion lies with translated books, and each year we have unanimously agreed on which is the best work of literature from those presented on the long list. Please follow our thoughts on our collective blogs as we once again embark on a journey to discover which will be named the Man Booker International Prize winner on June 14, 2017.

And thank you, Daniel Hahn, for your brilliant work editing, writing and translating literature, as well as following me on Twitter. 😉