Pereira Maintains: a gem of a novel in translation

I did some reading this past week on character vs plot driven fiction, inspired by the comments section of The Guardian’s very interesting podcast on editing. There’s a fair bit of writing on this topic out there in case you are interested in the details. It also made me wonder where I stand on this issue.

I’ve always been drawn to the quality of the language itself in books. It’s not so much about what you write but about how you write it, and in the majority of the cases this overlaps with the characteristics of character driven fiction. I’ve also jotted down some thoughts on what I think makes for interesting books hereAntonio Tabucchi‘s Pereira Maintains (Canongate 2010) is definitely fiction of the character driven kind. This is a book in which nothing much, and a whole lot, happens at the same time—and that is a fantastic combination.

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Pereira Maintains takes place in Lisbon, and I can’t not mention I’ve just booked a holiday to go there myself at the end of September, hooray! I bought this book a while back and forgot where it’s set, but surely it was providence that guided my hand to this slim (only 195 pages) copy in my bookshelf… Tabucchi’s protagonist is the editor of the culture section at the Lisboa newspaper, the veteran journalist Dr Pereira. In the impossibly hot summer of 1938, in the midst of translating French short stories for the paper, talking to a photograph of his dead wife, repeatedly eating an omelette aux fins herbes with a lemonade at his regular place, and taking seaweed baths to alleviate his heart trouble, his uncomplicated life becomes entangled with that of a troubled young man, Monteiro Rossi. Continue reading

A Serbian holiday

Sorry about the silence—been trying to get over the Brexit horror. I’m not sure the reality has quite sunk in yet. In addition to the multitude of other consequences, what impact will Brexit have on the future of publishing books in translation in the UK, the number of which has been on a significant rise over the past years ?

Despite all the confusion, fear, and sadness I will try to gather my thoughts and review the great book that is Kati Hiekkapelto‘s Tumma (Otava, 2016)! This is the third book in her series on the Yugoslavian-born detective Anna Fekete, who lives and works in Finland, and will be published in English with the title The Exiled later this year by Orenda Books. Orenda also published the two first installments, and you can read my thoughts on the previous book, The Defenceless, here.

After the murder of her father, also a police officer, in the 1980s and the start of the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s, young Anna flees to Finland with her mother and brother Àkos. But even after nearly 30 years, the past won’t leave her alone. The Exiled begins almost directly where The Defenceless ended: after a long winter, Anna is finally on summer holiday and travels to the borderlands of Serbia and Hungary to visit her family and friends. Her mother has moved back, and even her recovering alcoholic brother, who Anna begins to realise has been her strength and stay in Finland as well as the only link to her roots, is planning on remaining in their home village after falling in love with a local during a visit.

 

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Tiszavirag, the hatching of a local mayfly species, which the locals call ‘the blooming of the river Tisza’

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Finnish literature in focus: Kati Hiekkapelto—The Defenceless

Kati Hiekkapelto (b. 1970) has an interesting background. She hails from the northern city of Oulu, and studied fine art and special education before working with immigrant children as a special needs teacher. She lives on a 200-year-old farm in the countryside, which means she gets to spend the long, dark, and cold Finnish winters not only writing, but also chopping wood and shovelling snow. Hiekkapelto speaks fluent Hungarian, thanks to having lived in the Hungarian-speaking part of Serbia.

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Kati Hiekkapelto

Hiekkapelto’s genre is crime fiction, the Nordic noir, and her heroine Anna Fekete, a 30-something detective whose family escaped Hungarian speaking Serbia to an unnamed city somewhere in northern Finland during the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s. The first book in the Fekete series, The Hummingbird (Kolibri), was published in Finnish by Otava in 2013 and in English a year later. The other two parts to come out so far are The Defenceless (Suojattomat, 2014), and The Exiled (Tumma, 2016). Hiekkapelto won the prize for the best detective novel, awarded by The Finnish Whodunnit Society, in 2015.

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Haven’t you heard? It’s Finnish

This is a new series in which I will be presenting and talking about books from Finland. First up: a very short introduction to Finnish literary history up until the 1980s.

Finnish literature might just be the next big thing. Sweden and Norway are both quite well established on the world literature scene after the successes of Karl Ove Knausgård, Jonas Jonasson, Henning Mankell, and many others, but Finland is still waiting for its big break. You might in the past heard the names of Tove Jansson (of the Moomins fame), Arto Paasilinna (who enjoys popularity in France), or more recently Sofi Oksanen. Pushkin Press published the YA novel Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff a few months ago, and Aki Ollikainen‘s White Hunger (Peirene Press) was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Finland was also the guest of honour at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair. So much great Finnish literature is being translated right now, you really should stay in the loop!

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Moominpappa enjoys life

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Let’s talk about poo

A little non-fiction this time, in the shape of The Gut by Giulia Enders.

It’s quite surprising really how taboo talking about the human digestive system and its by-products still are. Think about another taboo topic, sex, which has been discussed and shown in public from every possible angle for at least the past 20 years, and has in this process practically lost all of its taboo status. You might discuss your bedroom activities with your girlfriends, but the consistency of your poop? Much more unlikely.

Enders is, without a doubt, doing her part in stripping these topics off the air of secrecy and embarrassment that currently surrounds them. In The Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ (Scribe), first published in German in 2014 and in translation in 2015, Enders succeeds in talking about our digestive system in a way that is engaging and fun, but at the same time maintains a sound scientific backing. The first two sections of the book cover the digestive process from the moment food enters out mouth to the moment it exits, transformed into feces. The third part deal with the little helpers and adversaries that colonise the entire digestive systems, the millions upon millions of microbes, and the effect their workings have on us from protecting us from allergies to giving us a food poisoning.

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Translator: Redefined

While the number of books published in translation in the United Kingdom remains low—research by Literature Across Frontiers, a platform for literary exchange, translation and policy debate produced an average figure of 3% over the past 20 years—the success of the likes of Karl Ove KnausgårdElena Ferrante, and Han Kang is catalysing interest towards books written in languages other than English. The number of literary translations grew by 66% between 1990 and 2015, LAF says. Among the most popular source languages were Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch, alongside Arabic and Japanese. These figures conceal the fact that out of the world’s thousands of literary cultures, only a few ever achieve any level of representation in English. For those who translate from these under-represented languages, it is an opportunity to act beyond the traditional boundaries of a translator.

Mo Yan’s 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature win has yet to ease China’s big break on the Western literary market. “There is a huge canon of contemporary Chinese literature that no one in the United Kingdom has ever heard of,” says Nicky Harman, previously a teacher of translation at Imperial College London and a full-time translator of Chinese since 2011. “I have the privilege of pushing open the window.” Harman is one of the Chinese into English translators who set up Paper Republic, a website that promotes Chinese literature, in 2008. Continue reading

Not bad, Markovitch

Thanks to the Easter holidays (bliss), I’ve just managed to start and finish Ayelet Gundar-Goshen‘s debut novel One Night, Markovitch (2012, published in English by Pushkin Press in 2015). This was of course also thanks to Gundar-Goshen’s very readable writing. The Amazon reviews of this book are, by the way, rather scathing. Although it didn’t quite live up to its excellent first impressions, I still think it’s a lovely novel and well worth a read.

 

Despite its name, One Night, Markovitch, features a bunch of eccentric characters living in a small, gossipy village whose interwoven story we get to know. Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg are two Jewish blokes living in Palestine in what is presumably the 1930s. The men have similar interests – milky-white boobs, vaginas that smell of fruit, and other female body-parts – but couldn’t be more different. Feinberg is the one gets (all) the ladies: he’s imposing, charismatic, and

first of all, a mustache. Not blue eyes, not bushy eyebrows, not sharp teeth. Zeev Feinberg’s mustache was famous in the entire area, and, some said, in the entire country. When an Irgun member returned from a trip to the south, he talked about “the blushing girl who asked whether the sultan with the mustache was still with us”.

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Death in a cold climate

I’ll be honest: I love book cover art. LOVE it.

Unless I’m buying a classic, a great cover can well be the decisive factor in choosing a book  – and even in the case of a classic, if several editions with different covers exist, I always buy the one I like the most.

So. Andrey Kurkov‘s Death and the Penguin (1996, Vintage Books). Spotted in an independent book shop in Chelsea. Amazing yellow cover (I also happen to love yellow). Imaginative use of the penguin figure. Front cover tagline:

In today’s Ukraine, all that stands between one man and murder by the mafia is a penguin

Must buy!

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Vintage cover (source: http://bit.ly/1H16kLv)

The reader is promised a “tragicomic masterpiece” and “chilling black comedy”. There’s quite possible something wrong with me and my reading of the book, but despite the absurd figure of the penguin and many of the book’s similarly absurd events failed to, well, amuse me. Not a bad read at all, no. But comic? Not so much.

The book begins in Ukraine’s capital Kiev with the aspiring writer of fiction, Viktor Zolotaryov, living quite frankly a boring, unaccomplished life* with his pet penguin Misha, who he’d rescued from a local zoo giving away animals it could no longer care for. Viktor’s short stories aren’t a success with Igor Lvovitch, the editor in chief of Capital News, but he finally finds his niche when given the task to write speculative obituaries, i.e. obituaries of notable people who haven’t yet died, for Lvovitch’s paper. Using the pseudonym A Group of Friends, his obelisks certainly have a style of their own:

Much against his will, the departed acquiesced in the murder of his younger brother, the latter having chanced upon a list of shareholders of an as yet unprivatized washing-machine factory. However, the monument erected by the deceased in memory of his brother has become a veritable adornment of the cemetery. Often life makes it necessary to kill, while the death of someone close makes it necessary to live on regardless… Everything in this world is united by virtue of blood.

The editor in chief loves it, and a success story is born. Or at least until the people Viktor has written obituaries on begin to die – naturally or unnaturally – and he is forced to attend their funerals with Misha the penguin in tow, or else…!

I did quite like the book, although it wasn’t funny as I’d hoped. It was certainly a dramatic change in scenery from The Talented Mr Ripley‘s Italy. One of the qualities I actually enjoyed the most about Death and the Penguin was the depiction of the harsh, long, snowy winter, so similar to that of my native Finland. Another highlight is of course Misha the penguin, itself (or himself?) a figure of loneliness and depression:

A little later, the penguin emerged from behind the dark-green settee, and sauntered towards the half-open living-room door. En route he paused by the sleeping girl, gazed thoughtfully at her, then continued on into the corridor. Pushing the next door open, he proceeded to the kitchen.

Sitting asleep in his mater’s place, head resting on the table, was a strange man.

For several minutes the penguin considered him, standing motionless by the door, then turned about and retraced his steps.

I might read Death and the Penguin‘s sequel, Penguin Lost, just to find out what happens to Misha.

 

 

The book is written in a laconic style and in short chapters that are quick to read. Throughout the book I expected something really exciting and scary to happen. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler if I say that nothing did, or at least nothing exciting enough for me.

It’s possible some of the humour and excitement of the original was literally lost in translation. I’d say I’m very familiar with reading translated fiction – my mother tongue is Finnish after all, which means that before university I would have read most foreign books as translations. In fact, one of the most recent translated books I read in Finnish was Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina. Perhaps it was a matter of excellent translation, but while reading it I never stopped and noticed I wasn’t reading the book in the original language.

George Bird‘s translation of Death and the Penguin however… felt a bit empty somehow. Lacking in content and colour. I found myself thinking I wish I could’ve read another translation of it for the sake of comparison. Sadly, this option was not available, so it’s impossible to know whether this feeling of lacking was a feature of Kurkov’s original text or something that happened in translation. I do appreciate that Kurkov writes in a laconic style, but I feel this was a question of more than just that.

I don’t want to sound too disappointed or as if I didn’t like and enjoy the book at all. I did enjoy it. For me, it just wasn’t what I would have expected. Still, I’d raise a glass of Finlandia vodka to Viktor, Misha, and Andrey.

*Distinct similarities with Auster‘s City of Glasswithout the penguin of course!

 

Death and the Penguin reviews

The Guardian
The New York Times

Kurkov talks about his book on the BBC World Book Club 

 

andrey-kurkov-007Andrey Yuryevich Kurkov (1961-) is a Ukrainian novelist and an independent thinker who writes in Russian. He is the author of 18 novels, 7 books for children, and about 20 documentary, fiction and TV movie scripts.

(Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrey_Kurkov

 

 

 

(featured image source: http://bit.ly/1ESGYSK)