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 here. Antonio 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.
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
It’s in itself quite remarkable that a book of of nearly 700 pages leaves such a small mark on the reader’s memory. Sadly, this is the case with An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (1997, Vintage).
The premise is promising: a story that takes place in my current home town Oxford in the 1660s and involves “lust, betrayal, secrets, and murder”. The same events are recounted from four different perspectives by four different characters: Venetian gentleman and ‘physick’ enthusiast Marco da Cola, Oxford student Jack Prestcott, mathematician John Wallis, and historian Anthony Wood. The Italian has arrived in England to sort out a family business in London that’s in a spot of trouble—or so he says. His true interest lies with physick, a mixture of physics, chemistry, and medicine, and he soon finds himself in the learned but ill-mannered company of Oxford academics, including John Wallis, John Locke, and Robert Boyle. Jack Prestcott is a troubled young man on a mission to clear his father’s name, tarnished in a plot to restore monarchy during the English Interregnum (1652–1659), with the help of an Irish faith-healer, whatever the cost—or so he says. Continue reading
Herman Melville‘s classic Moby-Dick (1851) is a great book and unlike any other novel I’ve read, but I’ve been at it for so long that I’m very happy to see the back of it!
I first cracked it open in May 2015 on a ferry back to Helsinki from Tallinn, Estonia, where I’d bought it in a nice little bookshop. It all started so well: how lovely to read about “getting to sea” on the gentle glimmering waves of the Baltic Sea! Fine, Melville’s a bit verbose here and there, but Ishmael‘s witty remarks and explorations on shore, such as sharing a bed with the Polynesian harpooner Queequeg at an inn, make up for it. Ishmael meets the broody Ahab, the captain of the Pequod and a man on a mission to kill the whale that maimed his leg—all good. It’s only when the long whale hunting journey begins in earnest that my attention started to waver.
Moby-Dick is about whales, and one whale in particular. The premise is very straightforward: Ahab wants to find the monstrous white whale called Moby-Dick, dissimilar to any other whale cruising the bottomless waters of the worlds, and kill it. This jolly pair have met before, and thanks to that encounter Ahab now clunks around with a wooden leg. Ishmael is the narrator of the story, and hovers somewhere between an omniscient narrator and an active participant in the story as a sailor on the Pequod.
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.
Tiszavirag, the hatching of a local mayfly species, which the locals call ‘the blooming of the river Tisza’
From the snows of Finland to the heat of Latin America. I decided to continue my streak of Conrads by reading his 1904 novel Nostromo. This was not, by any means, light holiday reading.
Nostromo (‘our man’) is named after one of the characters, the legendary ex-seaman and adventurer, current Capataz de Cargadores (head longshoreman says Wikipedia) of Italian descent, Giovanni Battista Fidanza. Even after finishing the book, I’m not entirely sure why the novel was named after him. Let me explain.
Sulaco is an imaginary coastal town in the imaginary South American country of Costaguana. Conrad, as keen as ever to grab every opportunity to insert generously descriptive passages, sets the scene in the first paragraph:
In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco—the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity—had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo. The clumsy deep-sea galleons of the conquerors that, needing a brisk gale to move at all, would lie becalmed, where your modern ship built on clipper lines forges ahead by the mere flapping of her sails, had been barred out of Sulaco by the prevailing calms of its vast gulf. Some harbours of the earth are made difficult by access by the treachery of sunken rocks and the tempests of their shores. Sulaco had found an inviolable sanctuary from the temptations of a trading world in the solemn hush of the deep Golfo Plácido as if within an enormous semi-circular and unroofed temple open to the ocean, with its walls of lofty mountains hung with the mourning draperies of cloud.
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.
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 Knausgård, Elena 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