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.]

The Notebook – Agota Kristof (translated by Alan Sheridan)

Twin brothers are taken by their mother to live with their grandmother while the war rages.

“My grandsons? I don’t even know them. How many are there?”
“Two. Two boys. Twins.”
The voice asks:
“What have you done with the others?”
Mother asks:
“What others?”
“Bitches have four or five puppies at a time. You keep one or two and drown the others.”

Grandmother’s personality is established very quickly. Kristof uses short, precise sentences to convey information:

Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she’s finished eating or drinking. She doesn’t wear underpants. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs, and pisses on the ground under her skirt. Of course, she doesn’t do it in the house.

Early in the novella, we are told the reason for this: it is one of many exercises that the boys carry out. These exercises begin when they realise their grandmother’s treatment of them is harsh – she’s sold the luxuries their mother sent them with; she makes them do chores to earn their food and shelter; there’s nothing to wash with, and she hits, pulls and grabs them.

Their first exercise is to toughen the body: they slap and punch each other; they strip naked and hit each other with a belt; they put their hands over fire; they cut their thighs, arms and chests, and they pour alcohol on their wounds.

Their second exercise is to toughen the mind. Their grandmother calls them “Sons of a bitch!” Others say worse.

When we hear these words, our faces get red, our ears buzz, our eyes sting, our knees tremble.

They don’t want to react that way, so they call each other abusive names until they are immune to them. They also use the words their mother used to say to them: “My darlings! My loves! My joy! My adorable little babies!” By repeating them, they also lose their power.

This is the crux of Kristof’s exploration: if two young children are taken from those they love, with whom they have a comfortable life and are placed in the care of mean and cruel people – and it’s not just their grandmother, there is also the soldier they come into regular contact with and the priest and his housekeeper and Harelip, who lives next door and thinks no one loves her so allows the twin’s dog to penetrate her – how will they survive? What will they become?

Their story is told by the twins themselves. They blackmail the local bookseller into supplying them with writing equipment, including a notebook. In it they write compositions which they set each other.

To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not Good”, we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what it is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “People call Grandmother the Witch.”

It is forbidden to write, “The Little Town is beautiful,” because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else.

Similarly, if we write, “The orderly is nice,” this isn’t a truth, because the orderly may be capable of malicious acts that we know nothing about. So we would simply write, “The orderly has given us some blankets.”

By doing this, Kristof has set herself quite a restrictive writing challenge. The problem with ‘flat writing’, as the name seems to imply, is it could lead to writing that lacks depth. However, her skill ensures that this style is used to allow gaps in the writing that the reader fills. These gaps provoke utter horror at the way the twins are treated and at their behaviour.

The Notebook is an incredible book – I use that term to refer to both the content and the style. It is brutal from beginning to end but it is also gripping; I read it in one sitting and when I reached the end – and what an end it is – I was glad I’d bought the edition that includes the other two novellas in the trilogy – The Proof and The Third Lie because really, the end of The Notebook is the beginning of the story.