Back to Back by Julia Franck Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Jacqui’s third Independent Foreign Fiction Prize guest review is for a book that sounds brutal yet brilliant; another addition to the TBR shelf for me.

Scrolling through the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) longlist at the beginning of March, one of the books I was particularly looking forward to reading was Back to Back. Julia Franck is a new author to me, but her critically-acclaimed earlier novel The Blind Side of the Heart won the German Book Prize and I was intrigued by the prospect of Franck’s latest one.

Back to Back opens in East Berlin in the late 1950s as Ella (aged eleven) and Thomas (aged ten) anticipate the imminent return of Käthe, their mother and only surviving parent. Having been left to fend for themselves for two weeks, the children spend hours feverishly cleaning the house from top to bottom. Thomas prepares a meal of lentil soup and Ella decorates the table with flowers freshly picked from their garden. Surely Käthe will be surprised and impressed by their efforts? But on her arrival Käthe notices virtually nothing of these preparations, choosing instead to snap at the children for failing to heat the soup properly and the lack of a salad to accompany their meal. She is a woman utterly wrapped up in her own world, one who seems to care little for her children:

But Käthe avoided hugging, it was as if she froze in physical proximity to anyone, she would press her arms close to her sides, stiffen her back, shake herself. There must be something she disliked about a hug; Thomas thought that was possible. She often used to tell the children: Don’t cling like that – when they were only close to her. There were never any hugs. (pg. 10)

At the end of this scene, in an attempt to gain their mother’s attention, the children decide to head off in a boat. Ella is confident they will be missed by supper time, but Käthe seems oblivious to the children’s absence, only realising they are missing once they return home days later dripping wet and shivering. Here’s Ella, a few years down the line, as she challenges her mother about this incident from their childhood:

Why didn’t you come looking for us when we were out in the boat? Ella called after her. You didn’t even notice we were missing! Not for three days, not for three nights, and all the time we were out on the stupid Müggelsee until our boat capsized. The water was icy. We were lucky it happened so close to the bank; who knows how long we could have swum in the lake? (pg.51)

This powerful opening gives the reader a taste of the children’s life with Käthe, a Jewish sculptor and avid supporter of the socialist ideology. Käthe, a self-centred and callous woman who cultivates relations with the State to further her career, is a formidable presence in the book. But it is Ella and Thomas who form the heart of the narrative; Back to Back carves the story of their adolescence.

These loving children find themselves on the receiving end of an unrelenting series of abuses, each sibling experiencing his or her own personal atrocities. Ella is subjected to rape and sexual molestation, first by Eduard (Käthe’s lover), then repeatedly by the family’s lodger (a member of the Stasi who has a hold over the family). Unwilling to tell her mother, Ella confides in Thomas but he is powerless to prevent these violations. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching debasement of all is metered out by Käthe herself on Ella’s sixteenth birthday. Suspecting her daughter of pilfering chocolate, nuts and raisins from the pantry, Käthe presents Ella with a mountain of sugar and triumphantly declares ‘you eat your sugar…only when you’ve finished it all up do you get something proper to eat again.’ (pg. 48)

Thomas, the more sensitive of the two siblings, also suffers at the hands of his mother as she forces him to pose for her sculptures naked and shivering in the cold. The teenage Thomas finds a release through poetry; he’s talented and dreams of becoming a writer, a journalist, but Käthe has other plans for his future. Dismayed at his lack of interest in the Party and the birth of a new society, she arranges for Thomas to undertake a ‘manual apprenticeship.’ On finishing school, the young and fragile Thomas is dispatched to a stone quarry to work for the ‘class struggle. The role turn out to be little more than slave labour; he experiences further abuse — both physical and emotional – and comes perilously close to being destroyed altogether.

In the final third of the novel, Thomas finds love in a tender and compassionate relationship with Marie, a ward sister at the local hospital. To reveal any more of the narrative at this stage would be unfair, save to say that this closing section is deeply affecting and worthy of the reader’s investment in this fine book.

Back to Back is an acutely penetrating and haunting book. Not an easy read, but one that will gnaw away at me for weeks to come. In one sense, this novel paints a picture of a heartless and indifferent mother. It gives us a window into the fractured lives of adolescents raised in such an environment, abandoned by their mother and subjected to systematic abuse at almost every turn. In another sense, it can be read on a more allegorical level with Käthe representing the harsh realities of the political system in place in the German Democratic Republic in the late 1950s and early 1960. It’s a regime that smothers the hopes and dreams of those who look to their guardian for support and encouragement in life; Thomas especially feels penned in by the Berlin Wall, trapped by its oppressive presence. The metaphor isn’t quite as straightforward as I’ve described there — Käthe is a complex character and past events have left their mark on her character — but it’s a plausible one nonetheless.

Franck’s prose, especially in the early sections of the narrative, is very much in tune with the tone of these themes. She writes in a style that is quite concentrated, a little close-knit in places and it took me a while to adjust to its pattern and rhythm. However, Franck is a very accomplished writer indeed and Anthea Bell’s translation is excellent. There are segments where the prose opens up and shines, particularly in the final third of the book….and once I fell into step with the cadence of its language, I found myself totally engrossed in Back to Back’s narrative, emotionally invested in Ella and Thomas’s characters. Their story becomes all the more poignant when we learn that Thomas’s poems, which appear throughout the novel, were written by Franck’s uncle (Gottlieb Friedrich Franck) as a young man; Julia Franck appears to be drawing on the roots of her own family history here.

Finally, turning to Back to Back’s chances as a contender for the IFFP…I consider it an excellent book, one of the best I’ve read so far this year. Back to Back has been ripping me apart since I finished it at the weekend; it’s right up there with the best of the longlisted titles for me.

Back to Back has also been reviewed by fellow shadow-group members Bellezza and Tony Messenger.

Back to Back is published in the UK by Harvill Secker.

Source: library copy.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa – Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Today it’s Jacqui’s second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize review. I have to say I’m very keen to read this now.

When the independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) longlist was announced in early March, I was thrilled to see Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge among the contenders. Ogawa is one of two female writers from Japan to make the cut this year; the other is Hiromi Kawakami for her novel Strange Weather in Tokyo which both Naomi and I have already reviewed for January in Japan, an annual focus on Japanese literature hosted by blogger (and fellow IFFP shadow-judge) Tony Malone (My review; Naomi’s review.)

Revenge is a stunning yet unsettling collection of eleven interlinked short stories; while each individual tale works as a short story in its own right, they are elegantly connected by a set of recurring images and signifiers threaded through the stories. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective has changed. It’s all very cleverly constructed and part of the satisfaction in reading Revenge comes from spotting the connections between characters, scenes and narrative fragments throughout the collection.

To give you an example, the collection opens with ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ in which a woman visits a bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday. At first the bakery appears to be empty, but then the woman notices the patissier standing in the kitchen sobbing gently while talking to someone on the telephone. This story ends before we learn more about the patissier but she reappears in the next tale (‘Fruit Juice’) where we discover the source of her sadness.  And strawberry shortcakes crop up again in a later story (‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’) when another girl buys cakes (from the same bakery, as it happens) for a dinner with her boyfriend.

The stories in Revenge explore some pretty dark themes, and in this respect there’s a clear connection to Ogawa’s earlier collection The Diving Pool, which Naomi and I both read earlier this year. In Revenge we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way. Many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness:

She was an inconspicuous girl, perhaps the quietest in our grade. She almost never spoke in class, and when asked to stand up and translate a passage from English, or to solve a math problem on the board, she did it as discreetly as possible, without fuss. She had no friends to speak of, belonged to no clubs, and she ate her lunch in a corner by herself. (pg 15)

Ogawa often describes characters in a way that suggests a certain fragile quality to their persona. They seem delicate, yet easily shattered or damaged:

The woman fell silent again and sat as still as a doll. In fact, everything about her was doll-like: her tiny figure, her porcelain skin, her bobbed hair. Her wrists and fingers and ankles were so delicate they seemed as though they would break if you touched them. (pg 132)

Desertion or rejection is another theme. In some stories Ogawa uses a forgotten building (like the abandoned Post Office we visit in ‘Fruit Juice’) to illustrate this feature; in others the characters themselves are the rejected ones:

As I walked, I recalled, one by one, all the times I had ever been rejected. This process had become something of a ritual with me since my husband’s affair had started. I would unearth memories, beginning in childhood, of places and occasions when someone had hurt me. In that way, I believed, I would see that my pain was due not only to my husband but to the cruelty of countless others besides. I found it somehow comforting to think that his coldness was in no way special or unique. (pg 124)

This all leads to some very disturbing behaviour indeed. Some of the stories explore the dark, sinister side of desire and how rejection or jealousy can precipitate acts of revenge.  There are some chilling scenes in this book, and one or two of them appear almost out of nowhere which makes them all the more disquieting…

And there are some very macabre images, too. I’ve already mentioned the Museum of Torture and in another story, ‘Old Mrs. J’ (one of my favourites from the collection), Mrs. J unearths from her garden a carrot in the shape of a hand:

It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed: five fingers, with a thick thumb and long finger in the middle. The greens looked like a scrap of lace decorating the wrist. (pg 31)

Ogawa uses some of these images to explore the theme of decay and death. We see dilapidated buildings which have faded over the years; tomatoes squashed and splattered on a road following an accident involving a lorry; and a strawberry shortcake is left to rot and harden, growing mould in the process:

‘It was like breathing in death’ (pg. 6)

And I wonder if some of the motifs running through these stories are coded references to bodily secretions. After all, as a character in ‘Lab Coats’ remarks ‘It’s amazing all the stuff that can ooze out of a body’(pg. 56)

Revenge is an excellent collection of short stories, each one adding new layers and connections to the overall narrative. On the surface Ogawa’s prose is clean and precise, beautifully captured by Stephen Snyder’s crystalline translation. And yet there’s an unsettling chill rippling through her work, an undercurrent of darkness if you like, which I find strangely alluring. Some of her stories have the feel of modern-day fairy tales, almost ethereal in their tone. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche and how chilling acts of darkness can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. In this respect, her work reminds me a little of some of David Lynch’s films, especially Blue Velvet which opens with its lead character making a gruesome discovery in a field. And others, including Natalie Haynes one of the judges for this year’s IFFP, have likened Revenge to some of Angela Carter’s stories. High praise indeed.

So, what about its chances as a contender for the IFFP? Well, this is one of my personal favourites thus far, I must admit. Yoko Ogawa has won every major Japanese literary award going and Revenge – her fourth book to be translated into English – has a great chance of making the IFFP shortlist.

Revenge is published in the UK by Harvill Secker.
Source: personal copy.

Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir – Translated from the Icelandic by Brian Fitzgibbon

Today is Jacqui’s (@JacquiWine) first guest post on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist which she is shadow judging, along with several other bloggers. You can find more information about it on my introductory post here.

The first IFFP longlist contender by a woman Jacqui’s reviewing here is Butterflies in November.

Butterflies in November is a quirky and darkly humorous novel narrated by a unnamed woman in her early thirties.  She has a talent for languages and earns a living as translator and proof-reader. The story opens in Reykjavik where our narrator is having quite an eventful day. Having being dumped by her lover she arrives home where her husband reveals he’s leaving her for another woman (a work colleague who happens to be pregnant with his baby).

Audur, a close friend of our narrator, persuades her to visit a medium/fortune-teller who predicts a journey ahead and a future involving money and love. After being told to buy lottery tickets, our narrator soon discovers that she has a double win on her hands, netting her a prefabricated summer bungalow coupled with a life-changing amount of money totalling several million kroner.

As a result of these events, she decides to restart her life by embarking on a road trip around Iceland with the intention of visiting the area she loved as a child, a location where her grandmother once lived. To complicate matters, though, Audur requires a huge favour of our protagonist. Just before the trip is due to commence, Audur, a single mother heavily pregnant with twins, twists her ankle. Complications with her pregnancy come to light and an extended stay in hospital is prescribed. She asks our narrator to look after Tumi, her four-year-old son who happens to be hearing-impaired, and seems keen for him to experience the trip. So, before she realises it, our narrator has agreed to look after Tumi and to take him with her on vacation…all this despite her apparent lack of both maternal instincts and previous experience of caring for a child.

These events form the first third of the book. The road trip itself plays out over the remainder of the novel as the couple encounter a variety of animals, birds and an Estonian choir who seem to crop up repeatedly. These sections of the novel remind me a little of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared with its cast of idiosyncratic characters and slightly surreal journey and I wonder if Butterflies might appeal to fans of this one.

As the story unfolds, we also learn more about our narrator through occasional glimpses into her own childhood and teenager years and these snapshots provide hints and clues as to the nature of her somewhat detached demeanour. If anything, I would have liked further exploration of these elements as they point towards significant darkness and sadness in her past…and I couldn’t quite piece all of these fragments together to form a coherent picture. Some of these recollections are quite distinct, others more opaque:

It’s as if everything were filtered through a veil of white silk or film, giving it a soft and blurred appearance, like the fading pages of an old psalm book or an over-exposed photograph. I think I’m in a white knitted woollen sweater. My cousins are also dressed in white, strange as it may sound, white tuxedos, so removed from reality, so close to the memory.

Butterflies in November is a slightly difficult novel to describe. Everything feels just a little off kilter. Peoples’ limbs and bodies can seem oddly out of proportion and characters (especially the protagonist’s husband) pop up and disappear again in the most unexpected places:

He has stood up and I realise how tall he is, he is literally towering over the table. He hands me a parcel wrapped in gilded paper, after fishing it out of the inside pocket of his jacket. I finish the remains of two glasses before opening it, exhausting my annual ration of alcohol in a single day.

There’s a sense of time being stretched and then collapsed, distance too. Here are our narrator and Tumi in the Icelandic countryside:

I drag the little man with me onto the moor, moving swiftly in my leather boots, which sink into the soggy earth. After some initial effort to keep up with me he starts to drag his feet and falter, tripping over rocks, as I tow him over clusters of heather that scratch his calves, and stumbling against something every few metres, because the pile of stones that we are heading towards on this forsaken path always seems to remain at the same distance, at least another hundred years away.

It’s a novel that draws on the senses; one in which scents, smells and fabrics play a role as reminder of specific people or events. Perfumes, after-shaves and items of clothing appear as signifiers and there are other recurring motifs, too.

Darkly comic moments also feature, especially in the initial sections of the narrative, and these slightly surreal touches drew me into the opening scenes. The tone and mood shift somewhat as the trip unfolds and our narrator begins to develop a close and heartfelt bond with Tumi. We can see she’s undertaking and emotional journey as well as a physical one…and perhaps the butterfly (which makes a few fleeting appearances in the novel) is a metaphor for change and re-invention, signalling a transformation in her life as she learns to take more risks?

As Naomi mentions in her review, the novel ends with forty-seven rather unusual cooking recipes and one for knitting, although Ólafsdóttir accepts that some might be more suited to the page than the plate! And this addendum feels very much in tune with the off-beat, slightly surreal nature of the book.

In summary, I found Butterflies in November to be a quirky and enjoyable novel, although I preferred the first third of the book to the subsequent sections involving the road trip where the narrative just lost some of its momentum for me.

What about its chances as a contender for the IFFP? Well, it strikes me as an interesting inclusion on the longlist, but I’m not sure it’s quite strong enough to make it to the final six. There are a couple of other longlisted books by women writers that I’d place ahead of Butterflies in the pecking order – more about those books in future posts.

Butterflies in November has also been reviewed by fellow judge Stu.

Butterflies in November is published in the UK by Pushkin Press.
Source: personal copy.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

Last week, when I was getting all excited about the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize longlist, another corner of my bookish internet was animatedly discussing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.

‘The Prize honours the best work of fiction by a living author, which has been translated into English from any other language and published in the United Kingdom. Uniquely, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize gives the winning author and translator equal status: each receives £5,000.’

Following a number of bloggers who specialise in writing about translated fiction has led me to become more interested in it and I’d already committed myself to reading more books in translation this year than I have previously. Unfortunately, fewer books written by women are translated into English; a huge shame considering those books that do make it through are usually very good indeed.

What it was good to see when the longlist was announced was the inclusion of five female writers. Although that’s only a third of the total, it’s an increase on 2013 and 2012 when there were two. I’ve already read and reviewed two of them – Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir and Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. However, the clash between the timing of the IFFP and the Bailey’s Prize means that I can’t shadow them both; that’s where the bloggers’ shadow jury and in particular Jacqui (@JacquiWine), comes in.

Every year Stu (@stujallen) who blogs at Winston’s Dad, chairs a shadow jury for the IFFP and is joined by a variety of different bloggers. The rest of this year’s panel consists of Tony (@Tony_malone) at Tony’s Reading List, Tony (@messy_tony) at Messengers Booker, Dan (@utterbiblio) at Utterbiblio, David (@David_Heb) at Follow the Thread, Bellezza (@bellezzamjs) at Dolce Bellezza and Jacqui.

Unfortunately (I say that because she’d be superb at it), Jacqui doesn’t have her own blog and so will be guest posting her reviews on other members of the shadow jury’s blogs. Except her reviews of the books by female writers, which I’m delighted to say I’ll be hosting here throughout March and April. Jacqui’s an astute reviewer and reviewed Strange Weather in Tokyo over on Tony’s January in Japan blog earlier this year. I’m looking forward to what she, and the rest of the shadow jury, make of the longlisted books.

 

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist (females first):

Julia Franck Back to Back (German; trans. Anthea Bell) Harvill Secker

Hiromi Kawakami Strange Weather in Tokyo (Japanese; trans. Allison Markin Powell) Portobello Books

Yoko Ogawa Revenge (Japanese; trans. Stephen Snyder) Harvill Secker

Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir Butterflies in November (Icelandic; trans. Brian FitzGibbon) Pushkin Press

Birgit Vanderbeke The Mussel Feast (German; trans. Jamie Bulloch) Peirene Press

Sinan Antoon The Corpse Washer (Arabic; translated by the author) Yale University Press

Hassan Blasim The Iraqi Christ (Arabic; trans. Jonathan Wright) Comma Press

Sayed Kashua Exposure (Hebrew; trans. Mitch Ginsberg) Chatto & Windus

Karl Ove Knausgaard A Man in Love (Norwegian; trans. Don Bartlett) Harvill Secker

Andrej Longo Ten (Italian; trans. Howard Curtis) Harvill Secker

Ma Jian The Dark Road (Chinese; trans. Flora Drew) Chatto & Windus

Andreï Makine Brief Loves that Live Forever (French; trans. Geoffrey Strachan) MacLehose Press

Javier Marías The Infatuations (Spanish; trans. Margaret Jull Costa) Hamish Hamilton

Hubert Mingarelli A Meal in Winter (French; trans. Sam Taylor) Portobello Books

Jón Kalman Stefánsson The Sorrow of Angels (Icelandic; trans. Philip Roughton) MacLehose Press