Women in Translation Month: 100 Best WIT

It’s the first of August and that means it’s Women in Translation month. To find out more about it, head to founder Meytal’s blog and follow the #WITMonth and #womenintranslation hashtags on social media. Throughout the month I’ll be sharing reviews of the books I’ve been reading by women that have been translated into English. To start the month though, I’m posting my contribution to #100BestWIT. The rules are on the photo above so if you haven’t already, add yours to the list. Mine are in alphabetical order because creating a top ten in order of favourites was too difficult. If you click on the title, it will take you to my review of the book.

Vernon Subutex 1 – Virginie Despentes (tr. Frank Wynne)

Vernon Subutex once ran a legendary record shop in Paris. When his benefactor and musician friend, Alex Bleach, dies, Vernon is left homeless. Subutex moves between the houses and apartments of friends and acquaintances before ending up on the streets. Despentes gives a searing commentary on Western society’s views of a range of hot topics: social media, hijabs, the rich, sex workers and a whole lot more. Despentes is a fierce and unflinching writer.
[No link for this one as I’ve reposted the short review I wrote when this was a book of the year in 2017.]

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (tr. Sondra Silverston)

Doctor Etian Green, driving his SUV along a difficult track at the end of a nineteen-hour shift, hits and kills a man. Etian thinks no one’s seen him and leaves, but the following morning the dead man’s wife, Sirkit, arrives at Etian’s front door holding Eitan’s wallet. Sirkit makes a deal with him. Then Eitan’s wife, senior detective in the Israeli police force, is assigned to the murder case. A moral dilemma. Flawed humans who are neither wholly good nor bad. A gripping read.

Human Acts – Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

The story of the aftermath of the student uprising and massacre in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Told by seven narrators, including the soul of Jeong-dae, each reveals the events of the uprising, its brutal suppression and the violence of the state. A disturbing and powerful novel.

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo (tr. Janet Hong)

A story in two halves. In the first half, is the tale of two twelve-year-old children: Mia, the child with two fathers, and The Child. Mia is privileged and spoiled. The Child lives in poverty and is abused and neglected. In the second half of the book the narrator is revealed to be the Child who is now both the writer writing the novel and a character in the novel. Han explores what fiction is and, in doing so, questions how we fictionalise our own lives.

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (tr. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

The unnamed narrator of Die, My Love is an immigrant, a wife, a mother of a sixth-month-old son. She is also a woman full of rage and lust and love and hate. The book chronicles her increasingly desperate and often violent attempts to reconcile herself with the version of womanhood patriarchal society expects of her. An angry, passionate and powerful exploration of a woman on the edge.

Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami (tr. Allison Markin Powell)

Tsukiko Omachi and the man she calls Sensei meet regularly – without arrangement – at a bar near the train station. She’s 37 and jaded; he’s in his late 60s, a retired widower. He considers her to be unladylike; she thinks he’s old-fashioned. But they drink together; they go on walks together; he recites to her fragments of the poetry he swears he taught her at school. A beautiful, mostly gentle book about a slow-burning relationship.

The Notebook – Agota Kristof (tr. Alan Sheridan)

Twin brothers are taken by their mother to live with their grandmother while the war rages. Grandmother makes them do chores to earn their food and shelter; there’s nothing to wash with, and she hits, pulls and grabs them. The boys begin to do exercises to toughen their bodies and their minds. They also set each other composition exercises which they write in the notebook and which have to be true. Brutal, highly stylised and gripping.

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy (tr. Alison Entrekin)

A novel told in four strands. The first, the narrator’s journey to Turkey to her grandfather’s house. The second, the grandfather’s journey to Portugal. The third, the narrator’s relationship with her, now deceased, mother. The fourth, a passionate love affair between the narrator and an unnamed man. A story about exile in various forms and the impact that can have.

Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

An unnamed female narrator writes a book about the lesser known Mexican poet Gilberto Owen. She frames this with comments about her current family life and the life she had before she married. Her family think there is a ghost in their house and the narrator spends time ‘with Gilberto Owen’s ghost’ who eventually tries to take over the narration. Clever and engaging.

The Mussel Feast – Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

A mother and her teenage children wait for their husband and father to return from a business trip. The mother has prepared a feast of mussels, but it soon becomes clear that something isn’t right. A tale of an abusive father, narrated by his daughter, this has a tense atmosphere throughout.
[Review by Jacqui who guest-posted some IFFP reviews on my blog before she began her own excellent blog.]

One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

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Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg are friends. Indeed, Feinberg is Markovitch’s only friend and the pair couldn’t be more different:

[…]there are people who walk through the world as if they were there by mistake, as if at any moment someone would put a hand on their shoulder and shout in their ears, “What is this? Who let you in? Get out, fast.” And there are people who don’t walk through the world at all. Just the opposite, they sail through it, slicing the water in two wherever they pass, like a boat full of confidence.

Feinberg is the latter, while Markovitch is ‘gloriously average […his] face was remarkably free of distinguishing features. So much that your eyes could not linger on him, but slipped onwards to other objects’.

The book begins with Markovitch saving Feinberg’s life; a young Arab almost shoots him as he has sex with Rachel Mandelbaum. However, Rachel is the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer, who will not hesitate to kill. The following morning when the moustache rash on Rachel’s chest confirms that she was having sex with Feinberg, he and Markovitch are forced to go on the run.

The men go to see the deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s. He sends them to Europe where they will marry ‘a Jewish girl’ and bring them back to Palestine, thus circumventing the closed gates of Europe. Once the men return, they will divorce and the women will be free to remain.

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Three women form the backbone of the story: Rachel Mandelbaum, Sonya, and Bella Zeigerman.

Rachel Mandelbaum came to Palestine five years prior to the beginning of the book. As she stood at the port, Avraham arrived, as he had every few weeks, looking for some one to fill his loneliness.

In her green dress she looked to him like a bottle that had been thrown out to sea and washed up on the shore, and he, the lonely survivor, would pick it up and read what was inside it. He took her home and married her but never succeeded in deciphering the words that were in the bottle.

Rachel never reveals herself to anyone. She abandons the German language of her childhood and keeps the Austrian soldier she loved locked inside her. Her story is one of loneliness and sadness.

Sonya is Feinberg’s girlfriend who he swears he’ll marry once he and Markovitch return from Europe because:

[…] that woman has the strength of ten men […] a heart the size of a dove, and a vagina of sweet water. […]she can make you laugh until your balls twist themselves around each other.

While Feinberg is gone, Sonya spends every day standing at the edge of the water, waiting for his return.

[…] if she was doomed to wait, even if she was cursed with the humiliating tendency of women everywhere to find a piece of sand on which to stand and look at the sea, waiting for their man to return, at least she had the strength to be angry about it. And so she cursed Zeev Feinberg with all her heart and soul, loudly and resolutely.

But after the deputy commander of the Irgun returns a visit she paid to him, she finds herself in bed with Feinberg’s friend through sheer boredom. Unfortunately, she has quite an affect on the deputy commander and it isn’t sated by her marriage to Feinberg on his return.

Bella Zeigerman is the woman Yaacov Markovitch marries in Europe.

[…]Bella Zeigerman was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most beautiful woman in the apartment. And although, unlike Yaacov Markovitch, [Feinberg] didn’t think she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, she undeniably belonged to the Olympus of goddess-like women which would never admit Yaacov Markovitch, even as a servant.

On their return, Markovitch refuses to divorce her and the two stay locked in a frosty marriage which sees Markovitch fall out with his best friend, Bella leave and return, and Markovitch raise someone else’s child.

Gundar-Goshen covers several, intertwined lives in this novel. The ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here. The relationships and the children, born to different fathers struck me as Shakespearian. These twists could have become farcical and the fact that they do not demonstrates Gundar-Goshen’s ability to plot on a large scale. Her characters are fully-rounded and it was refreshing to read about three women who were distinctly different people.

Credit must also go to the translator, Sondra Silverston: the writing fizzes throughout. It was an utter joy to read.

I finished reading One Night, Markovitch bathed in a warm glow. Although the novel has difficult and sometimes tragic elements to it, there’s something truly life-affirming about it. Like all great literature, it has eternal truths about humanity at its core, while telling a truly individual story. It is a wonderful book.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.