Georgi Gospodinov ‘Time Shelter’

“Booker International Prize 2023: Books that made my shortlist for this prize.
“Time Shelter”: In order of reading book number 1.

Becoming attached to people here is painful because you realise you are getting attached to someone who will soon leave you. I feel especially close to mr M, his is likely a case of retrograde amnesia , he has only just come to the clinic and the agent follows him like a shadow visiting him twice a week, clearly he too enjoys it or feels some need to do it because he comes all the way from the city every time and spends the whole afternoon here. In the beginning we sent a car for him but he turned it down and started coming with his own, people need to tell stories I think even people like him, before he couldn’t and now he can nobody cares. Suddenly he has found somebody who hangs on his every word one man who has turned into an ear for all those stories from back then, one man who was ready to hear everything, the man he followed who was losing his memory and has ended up being erased twice over.

This quite extraordinary book about memory, treats, in the first half of the book, amongst other subjects amnesia. In a first instance individual amnesia due to age and illness is addressed where the narrator and his friend Gaustin, create the first time shelters for troubled people. Gaustin is the ideas and concepts part of the pair and the narrator is the person that manages these ideas. The time shelters are rooms in a clinic where everything is from an era, for instance the fifties, so that people whose memories are being stripped away can find solace in a period they can still remember. There are two other ideas introduced here, firstly the fact that in Eastern Europe memories may be very different than in Western Europe, both Gaustin and the narrator are from Bulgaria and their clinics are initially set up in Switzerland and that not only loss of memory but also more complex ideas of, for instance guilt may be treated, take for example the opening quote with the patient Mr M and the state informant from communist times who is now the only person who knows about him.

Gaustin then predicts the needs of these shelters for the more generalised case of people wanting to return to the soft cocoon of a past period of their own will as he imagines the next step for his clinics:

One day when this business really takes off Gaustin continued we’ll create these clinics and sanatoriums in various countries, the past is also a local thing, there’ll be houses from various years everywhere, little neighbourhoods one day we’ll even have small cities, maybe even have a whole country for patients with failing memories, Alzheimer’s, dementia whatever you want to call it, for all of those who already are living solely in the present of their past, and for us he said finally After a short pause letting out a long stream of smoke this sudden groundswell of people who have lost their memories today is no coincidence they are here to tell us something and believe me one day very soon the majority of people will start returning to the past of their own accord, they’ll start losing their memories willingly the time is coming when more and more people will want to hide in the cave of the past, to turn back and not for happy reasons by the way, we need to be ready with the bomb shelter of the past.

Things then slowly step out control as the idea is taken forward by the European Union, after an important member of the Commission has used à center for a loved one losing their memory, each country in the Union should hold a referendum on which time in the past they wish to live in. The narrator, tells us of each country making different choices with the favourites, such as the Sixties, not necessarily being as loved as that.

The narrator becomes aware that Gaustin is his creation, but not that he is the writer’s creation. This book was a real pleasure, the first of my planned reads for this prize, how can the others compete?

Translated into English by Angela Rodel and published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2023

Zhang Yueran ‘L’Hotel du Cygne’

She couldn’t believe it. She had intended to extort a little money from her employers before leaving them. She knew plenty about them, They had a lot to risk if she decided to denounce them. If it should worry Chen Wen then what could be more normal than giving her a little something to keep quiet? But Chen Dongliang had wanted to kidnap the child…..he’d prepared everything to mistreat their hostage, even to never return him to his parents alive.***

The “Swan Hotel” is my sixth book read for the Prix du roman de Rochefort this year, and it was quite some surprise, this is a layer cake of of corruption and greed in modern, one child China. The initial premise is that a very rich couple with no time have a child, a boy, Dada, who is looked after almost full time by a minder, Yu Ling. Yu Ling after 10 years living in Beijing and looking after Dada faithfully and well is like everything else in her employer’s life, a throw away item.

Yu Ling and her accomplice/lover, Dongliang plan to kidnap Dada and ask for a ransom because after all these years living in her employer’s house she knows a thing or two about their business that she thinks they would be willing to pay to keep quiet. They plan their picnic and drive away with the boy. During their picnic, they hear on the radio of Dada’s grandfather being charged with corruption and of his father being arrested. Dada’s mother is abroad and it is pretty clear she won’t be coming back any time soon. So much for the blackmail. They decide to drive the boy back to his house. After a few days Dongliang is unreachable and Yu Ling suspects the worst:

She went into his room and pounced on his bag. no credit card. She let out a short laugh, her legs shaky. Two years earlier, Dongliang and her had gone to the bank together to pick up the credit card, and Dongliang had insisted that the password should be their birth dates. To think that she had even asked him, smiling, which date she should put first….***

The fridge is well stocked and Yu Ling has nowhere to go so she stays to look after Dada with no idea how things will work out. And then Huang Xiaomin turns up at the door, Dada’s father’s mistress who also has no money and nowhere to go, the relationship between the two women is initially strained but they slowly recognise the despair in each other. Dada, the only child, abandoned, still remains the one to obey:

“Can you do something for me? Dada would really like some cheesecake, would you go and buy some? I’ll give you the address.” “You can do it yourself , answered Huang Xiaomin, I promised Dada that I’d play with him.” “I need to take care of him. If you don’t want to go I’ll let you sort that out with Dada.” “Well then, would you rather play together? We can have cake another time!” cooed Huang Xiaomin stroking the childs hair. “I want to eat cheesecake first, we can play afterwards” answered Dada firmly.***

A refreshing view of chinese wild west capitalism and its effects on the people around it, no harmony here.

First Published in chinese.

Translated into french by Lucie Modde and published by Zulma in 2021

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Elle n’en revenait pas. Elle avait pensé extorquer un peu d’argent à ses employeurs avant de les quitter. Elle en savait long sur eux, ils risquaient gros s’il lui prenait l’envie de les dénoncer. Si la chose suffisait à inquièter Chen Wen, quoi de plus normal qu’elle lui donne une compensation pour l’inciter à se taire? Mais Chen Dongliang avait voulu kidnapper le petit… avait tout préparé pour maltraiter leur otage, voire ne jamais le rendre vivant à ses parents.

Elle entra dans sa chambre et se jeta sur sa sacoche. Pas de carte bleue. Elle lâcha un petit rire, les jambes vacillantes. Il y a deux ans, Dongliang et elle étaient allés récupérer cette carte à la banque ensemble, et Dongliang avait insisté pour que le mot de passe soit leurs dates d’anniversaire. Dire qu’elle lui avait demandé en souriant quelle date mettre en premier…

“Vous pourriez me rendre un service? Dada à très envie de cheesecake, vous pourriez aller lui en acheter? Je vous donne l’adresse.” “Tu n’as qu’à le faire, répondit Huang Xiaomin, j’ai promis à Dada que je jouerais avec lui.” “Je dois m’occuper de lui. Si vous ne voulez pas y aller, je vous laisse régler ça avec Dada.” “Bah alors, tu veux qu’on joue plutôt? On mangera du gâteau une autre fois!” roucoula Huang Xiaomin en caressant les cheveux de l’enfant. “Je veux d’abord manger du cheesecake, on jouera après” répondit Dada d’un ton ferme.

Olga Tokarczuk ‘Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead’

With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts.

Olga Tokarczuk’s multi-prize winning book begins on the remote, high, snow covered Polish plains, close to the Czech border, with the death of Big Foot at his filthy home, and his neighbours, Oddball and Duszejko, finding his body. Duszejko then discovers both the overt and the covert original sins that are at the driving forces behind the book. No spoilers here, we’ll only consider the overt original sin. As they arrive, a group of wild deer seem to be watching them intently with deer tracks around the house, Duszejko then discovers to her horror and disgust that Big Foot had set up a feeding area at the back of his house and that he had shot a deer from his grange as they came to feed.

How much does it take to push a convinced believer into radical action? To the poetry of Blake, as the book advances the retired and recluse engineer Duszejko, who’s views of Hunters are clearly laid out in the opening quote, slowly sees a group of friends coalesce around her, whilst in parallel the number of suspicious deaths of hunters builds up.

At each crime scene no obvious murder weapon is to be found but there are deer tracks found around the bodies, after each death Duszejko, an old woman, who believes everything in life can be explained by astrology and who is not taken seriously, goes into town, to the police station to explain about the deer tracks and to push the police into considering that the animals are taking revenge.

As the hunters die, we discover that illegal actions within their number lead to payoffs to the police whilst the rest of the community scrape to get by.

Amongst many of the quotes from Blake, being translated into Polish by Dizzy, one of Duszejko friends, one sums up this state of affairs:

God made Man happy & Rich but cunning made the innocent Poor.

This is a book that would push you towards the animal cause, confronting two ideologies, the responsibility of man towards animals to help them live a full and happy life and that of the hunters epitomised by the following quote from the local priest blessing the hunters:

My dear brothers and sisters, hunters are the ambassadors and partners of the Lord God in the work of creation, in caring for game animals. Nature among which man lives needs help in order to flourish. Through their culls the hunters conduct the correct policy.

A great deal of work is carried out by the hunting lobby to show that hunters are necessary to regulate the wilds and that Q.E.D. They are the animals’ best friends.

Back to the whodunit, just a small detail, a lovely touch, Duszejko’s car, a Samouraï.

First Published in Polish as “Prowadż swój pług przez kości umarlych” in 2010 by Wydawnictwo Literackie.
Translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published in 2018 as Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Translated into French by Margot Carlier and published in 2012 as “Sur les ossements des morts” by Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc

The quote as read in French

L’âge venant, beaucoup d’hommes soufrent d’une sorte de déficit, que j’appelle “autisme testostéronien”. Il se manifeste par une atrophie progressive de l’intelligence dite sociale et de la capacité à communiquer, et cela handicape également l’expression de la pensée.

Dieu créa l’homme heureux et riche. La ruse rendit pauvres les innocents

Les chasseurs, chers frères et sœurs, sont les ambassadeurs et les compagnons de Dieu dans l’œuvre de la Création et de la protection de la faune. Ses meilleurs collaborateurs. Il faut aider la nature qui nous accueille en son sein à se développer. Grâce à l’abattage systématique du gibier, les chasseurs mènent une action juste.

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld ‘The Discomfort of Evening’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Discomfort of Evening”: In order of reading book number 5.

It hasn’t occurred to me before that Mum and Dad couldn’t only be overcome by death but they could beat death to it.img_0081That you could plan the Day of Judgement just like a birthday party.

Jas, the narrator is, like Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, brought up in a Dutch Reform family in a Reform community, cut off from the rest of the world, “the other side”, the upbringing is strict in a religious sense and feelings are not shown or talked about, the family is poor and fights to just subsist. But Jas is brought up with her brothers Obbe and Matthies and her sister Hanna on a dairy farm with more than one hundred head of cattle and with country folk’s natural understanding of reproduction. At the outset of the book the initial tragedy takes place as Matthies takes part in a local skating competition where the winner “got a plate of stewed udders with mustard and a gold medal with the year 2000 on it.” He falls through the ice and drowns.

This story then studies the effect of this event on Jas’ family as the natural characteristics of each of the family members is magnified by the event. It begs the question of religion; does this age old unchanged religion help to cope with such a tragedy? Firstly, the mother who in her sorrow has no time for her children or for herself and clearly is torn with the thought of suicide. In her morbid state she provides no stability for the family as illustrated by the following quote from Jas who used to enjoy watching the stars:

I’ve learned that the heavens aren’t a wishing-well but a mass grave. Every star is a dead child, and the most beautiful star is Matthies – Mum taught us that.

The eldest son Obbe becomes obsessed with death and repeatedly tries to re-enact his brothers death, firstly with animals, drowning a hamster and looking on with Jas and becoming more and more dangerous. Jas herself, concious of the danger posed by her brother, nonetheless goes on to push her younger sister off of the bridge leading to “the other side” into the river just to see what would happen.

The lack of understanding between the generations, of what it is to be an adolescent, can best be illustrated by Jas’ father’s udder cloths:

He secures the cows between the bars, attaches the cups to their udders, then uses one of my old underpants covered in salve to clean them afterwards. I often used to feel embarrassed when Dad rubbed one of my worn-out pairs of knickers on the udders, or cleaned the milking cups with them without any kind of bashfulness – but sometimes at night I’ve thought about the crotch that has passed through so many other people’s hands, from Obbe’s to Farmer Janssen’s, and that they touch me that way, with calluses and blisters on their palms. Sometimes a pair of knickers gets lost among the cows before finally getting kicked between the gratings. Dad calls them udder cloths; he doesn’t see them as underpants any more. On Saturdays Mum washes the udder cloths and hangs them to dry on the washing line.

When things can’t get worse, they do. Foot and moith disease reaches the community and the family, disoriented by death, must now witness the killing of their cattle:

Death hasn’t only entered Mum and Dad but is also inside us – it will always look for a body or an animal and it won’t rest until it’s got hold of something.

The book then heads towards an ending that no longer surprises us.
This book was at times difficult to read, especially when addressing the deeds and missdeeds of the children and their sexual awakening in this, their troubled time. Violence, lack of conscience, morbidity and sexual experiments make for uneasy reading. We need to talk about Obbe!

First Published in Dutch in 2018 by Atlas Contact.
Translated into english by Michele Hutchinson and published as “The Discomfort of Evening” by Faber & Faber in 2020
Translated into french by Daniel Cunin and published as “qui sème le vent” by Buchet Chastel in 2020

Yoko Ogawa ‘The Memory Police’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
1. “The Memory Police”: In order of reading book number 2.

I don’t normally follow this prize in detail but I end up reading some of the shortlisted books, since, due to the confinement, the award has been delayed and I’m into my third book of the six, I thought here goes.
In order to follow this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed books and propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020

My favorite story was the one about “perfume,” a clear liquid in a small glass bottle. The first time my mother placed it in my hand, I thought it was some sort of sugar water, and I started to bring it to my mouth. “No, it’s not to drink,” my mother cried, laughing. “You put just a drop on your neck, like this.” Then she carefully dabbed the bottle behind her ear. “But why would you do that?” I asked, thoroughly puzzled. “Perfume is invisible to the eye, but this little bottle nevertheless contains something quite powerful,” she said. I held it up and studied it. “When you put it on, it has a wonderful smell. It’s a way of charming someone. When I was young, we would use it before we went out with a boy. Choosing the right scent was as important as choosing the right dress—you wanted the boy to like both. This is the perfume I wore when your father and I were courting. We used to meet at a rose garden on the hill south of town, and I had a terrible time finding a fragrance that wouldn’t be overpowered by the flowers. When the wind rustled my hair, I would give him a look as if to ask whether he’d noticed my perfume.” My mother was at her most lively when she talked about this small bottle. “In those days, everyone could smell perfume. Everyone knew how wonderful it was. But no more. It’s not sold anywhere, and no one wants it.

The female novelist and narrator in this, Yoko Ogawa’s 1994 novel, lives on an unamed island under the control of an unknown totalitarian power, unknown to us and also to the narrator it would seem. The island is policed by the strict and all powerfull Memory Police. The story begins, with small things, small events, and we do not know where the narrator is taking us as she tells us of her mother who had been taken away and the stories she used to tell her, epitomised by the long opening quote telling us that no one now knows what perfume is. But if her mother told her, then she had not forgotten.

As the story progresses, things are occasionally dissapeared, initially roses, and we understand that from one day to the next everyone on the island, which is cut off from the world, forgets the existence of roses. Slowly as the novel advances the scale of the things that are dissapeared is ratcheted up.

The narrator is a writer and we understand quickly that not everybody forgets the objects that are dissapeared. Her publisher, who had known her mother, comes to her and we learn that this sensitive man, R, can no longer hide his memories and is in fear for his life. The narrator with the help of an old family friend, the old man, decide to hide him from the memory police. The old man had been the ferry man before the ferry had dissapeared and no one remembered where it went. R shows them some of the things that had been dissapeared but for which examples had been hidden, he then explains the importance of these objects and their eventual memories to the narrator and the old man:

I’m not the one who needs these things, you two are. The old man let out a low sigh as though lost in thought. “I truely believe they have the power to change you to alter your hearts and minds, the slightest sensation can have an effect, can help you to remember, these things will restore your memories.” The old man and I glanced at each other and then looked down. We had known that R would tell us something like this but now that we were confronted with his actual words no appropriate response came to mind. “If we do remember something” said the old man struggling to find words “What do we do then?”
“I suppose memories live here and there in the body.” the old man said moving his hand from his chest to the top of his head “But they’re invisible aren’t they? And no matter how wonderful the memory it vanishes if you leave it alone, if no one pays attention to it. They leave no trace, no evidence that they ever existed.”

What is memory and where can the manipulation of memory lead? As the narrator tries to come to terms with memory through the experience of R, she slowly loses her ability to write. R insists that she keep working on it and she slowly tells a parallel story of a man who captures the voices of writers by taking their typewriters, which contain their voices away from them and the eventual awareness of the situation by the female narrator of this story within a story:

At that moment I noticed something that should have been perfectly obvious, there was no paper anywhere in the room, not a single sheet of typing paper, not even a scrap fit for a note. There was no point in looking for a working typewriter if there was nothing to type on. Once I realized there was no means to get them out, words seem to proliferate wildly inside me, filling my chest and suffocating me.
“Fix one quickly!”
Unconsciously my fingers began to move as though tapping out these words, but with nothing to strike they just fluttered in the air. I went to the pile, retrieved my broken typewriter and placed it in front of him again, unable to stand the trapped feeling a moment longer. “Why won’t you fix it? what’s wrong with it? I can’t stand it if I can’t talk to you.” I held tight to his shoulder trying with all my might to convey this feeling to him through the expression on my face. His hand stopped moving and he let out a long sigh, then he wrapped the stopwatch in the velvet cloth and set it on the table. “Your voice will never come back.”

This is a haunting novel about the birth of hope and rebellion in a totally hopeless situation, it will come back to you from time to time, a truely impressive work.

First Published in Japanese in 1994. Translated into English by Stephen Snyder and published in 2019 as The Memory Police by Pantheon.

Alaa El Aswany ‘j’ai couru vers le Nil’

—You know, I deserve a citation of excellence , but of course they are only open to sons of paschas.
His father did’t understand and Khaled explained to him that the university administration awarded citations of excellence to children of the teaching staff and to those of high officials in order to ensure their nomination as assistants. This angered Madani.
—But this is unjust.
—But of course it’s unjust
—you must lodge a complaint.
Khaled broke out laughing:
—What complaint? Haj Madani. We’re in Egypt. injustice is the rule.***

This is El Aswany’s novel treating the Egyptian spring, how the revolution came to remove Mubarak and how the military were able to stop the threatened revolution and to keep power, with the will of the people. This book is still banned in Egypt and when you read it you will understand why. The book begins with the movement in Tahrir Square already underway and treats a microcosm of Egyptian society. There are two students, Khaled the son of a chauffeur who explains to his father in the opening quote how the system is stacked against him and Dania the free thinking daughter of the head of state security, general Alouani. The following conversation between Dania and her father shows how an age old religion, here Islam, can be interpreted to justify almost anything as she has been protesting for justice for a dead protestor:

—We ask that his assassins are brought to justice.
—Who is we?
—My fellow students from university and I.
—I don’t understand are you a lawyer or a law student?
—I’m a muslim
—We’re all muslims
—Islam requires us to defend what is just.
—Islam says that sedition is worst than murder.
—Islam sanctifies man and forbids humiliation and torture.
—These are the words of human rights groups payed for by the european union. Who told you that Islam forbids torture? the lash, stoning, hands cut off, these aren’t torture? Islam permits torture of certain individuals and even killing them to ensure the stability of a country. Have you heard of taazir? According to taazir he who governs has the right to judge alone a crime and to decide on the accused’s punishment.***

This book is told through the stories these and of the other members of this microcosm, Asma a teacher, Mazen a unionist, Aschraf a rich Copt and his servant Akram as well as Nourhane a television presenter. We learn of the extreme violence of the army against their own people, including murders, torture and running over protestors at speed in narrow streets with their tanks, of the enforced and humiliating virginity tests carried out on the female protestors with soldiers watching on, these told through individual testimonies.

We are told of how State security, organises for rich private Egyptians within the media to set up a successful smear campaign against the young protestors persuading the average Egyptian that their is a plot against order and the army, financed from abroad, as in this excerpt concerning Nourhane:

Every evening the Egyptians watch Nourhane. She invites university professors, intellectuals, specialists in strategic affairs. All confirm with proof that the Egyptian revolution had only ever been a conspiracy financed and planned by the American secret services and their counterparts in Mossad. Each time, you could read the emotion on Nourhane’s beautiful face as she ended her program calling the almighty in a humble voice as the camera gives a closeup of her face:
—Oh God, make Egypt safe and free her from traitors and those that wish her ill.***

This is a deeply disturbing book mixing manipulation with religion and the underlying influence of Wahabism, the power of the rich arab states, to explain how Egypt’s present day has been shaped. I suspect this book is not going to be available in Egypt in the forseeable future.

First Published in Arabic as “Al-Joumhouriyya Ka’anna” in 2018 by Dar Al-Adab
Translated into french byGilles Gauthier and published by Actes Sud in 2018
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

—Nous demandons que ses assassins soient soumis à un proces juste.
—C’est qui, vous?
—Mes condisciples de l’université et moi.
—Je ne comprends pas: tu es avocate ou étudiante en droit?
—Je suis musulmane
—Nous sommes tous musulmans
—L’islam nous ordonne de défendre ce qui est juste.
—L’islam dit que la sédition est pire que le meurtre.
—L’islam a sanctifié l’homme et interdit de l’humilier et de le torturer.
—Ce sont là les propos des associations des droits de l’homme financés par l’Union européenne. Qui t’as dit que L’Islam interdit la torture? Le fouet, la lapidation, les mains coupées ne sont ils pas des torture? L’islam permet de torturer certains individus, et même de les tuer pour assurer la stabilité du pays. As–tu entendu parler du taazir? Selon le taazir, celui qui gouverne à le droit de juger seul le crime et de décider du châtiment de l’accusé.

—Tu sais, je mérite une mention d’excellence mais, bien sûr, elle est réservée aux fils de Pacha
Son père ne comprenait pas et Khaled lui expliqua que l’administration de la faculté accordait la mention d’excellence aux enfants des professeurs et des hauts responsables, de façon à assurer leur nomination comme assistants. Cela mit Madani en colère.
—Mais c’est une injustice.
—Bien sûr que c’est une injustice.
—Il faut que tu déposes plainte.
Khaled éclata de rire:
—Quelle plainte? Hadj Madani. Nous sommes en Égypte. L’injustice est la règle.

Tous les soirs les Égyptiens regardaient Nourhane. Elle invitait des professeurs d’université, des penseurs, des spécialistes des affaires stratégiques. Tous confirmaient avec preuves à l’appui que la révolution en Égypte n’avait été qu’un complot financé et planifié par les services secrets américains aidés par leurs confrères israéliens du Mossad. Chaque fois, l’émotion se lisait sur le beau visage de Nourhane, qui terminait son émission par une invocation qu’elle prononçait d’une voix humble tandis que la caméra faisait un gros plan sur son visage:
—Mon Dieu, donne la sécurité à l’Égypte et délivre-la des traîtres et de ceux qui lui veulent du mal.

David Machado ‘The shelf life of happiness’

The vacuum cleaner scheme went like this: the company that sold them (it was called WRU, though I never found out what that stood for) rented equipment by the week to its employees—me and everyone else who had been selected—so we could do demos. We were expected to arrange these demos ourselves, … They didn’t give me a desk, just the address of a warehouse where I’d go pick up the vacuum cleaners. Everything else was done over the phone. I didn’t have a contract, which allowed me to keep collecting unemployment, and I earned a commission for each vacuum cleaner I sold, between 7 and 11 percent, minus rental fees. In other words, I had to pay to work. I accepted the job immediately.

David Machado’s Daniel had a job, a family and friends and them came Portugal’s financial crisis. In this book read for Spanish and Portuguese lit month, as Daniel ‘s wife moves back in with her parents at the other end of Portugal to find work, and then Daniel’s well paid job as a lunch pin in a travel agent’s just get’s swept away in the internet tsunami, We follow Daniel as he fights to survive in a world that no longer really exists, unable to face up to what is happening to him. There are no jobs out there and in order to try to keep the appartement his family no longer live in he is forced towards degrading jobs, like the one in the opening quote.

The story is told as a conversation between Daniel and his friend, Almodôvar, who is in prison and we slowly learn that despite himself, Daniel is there for his friends and their families around him, for instance for the seemingly asocial Xavier, who has not left his room for a decade and who was more Almodôvar’s friend where we hear of the website the three friends had tried to create to try to bring people together to help each other:

In Xavier’s room, time slows down, things take longer to happen, as if our bodies become denser there, as if nothing—no gesture, no sentence, no silence—could ever really end. After about three minutes, he spoke. “We messed up,” he said. “What do you mean, ‘we messed up’?” “The site,” he said. “The site isn’t working.” Can you believe it? The dude was still working on the site. You hadn’t been around for over six months and Xavier had kept working on that shitty site. … He was right: the site wasn’t working. But I had forgotten about it a long time before. Meanwhile, a year later, Xavier was still messing around with it. I didn’t want to have that pointless conversation, so I tried to be patient. “What do you want to do about it?” I asked him. “We can’t put in more money.” He closed his laptop, and his face went dark. “There are people using the site,” he said. “The problem is that none of them need any help.”

And for Almôdovar’s son, Vasco, who, since his father has been jailed, has become mixed up with other kids of his age, first of all filming themselves pissing on drunks and then posting the films on line, films which, to Daniel’s surprise, have tens of thousands of views a day “who would want to watch this?” And then when Daniel has lost his appartement and is living in his car, as he is talking to Vasco, these same friends set fire to his car.

It takes a road trip in a van with Xavier, Vasco, Daniel’s troubled children and a pensioner who had posted on their website to say he had a seven seater van, in order to help the first person that had ever asked for help on their website, for Daniel to see that everyone struggles and that he needs to let go of the past to redefine himself. And as for Almodôvar, well the clue to what’s happening there is in the first page.

First Published in Portuguese as “Índice médio de felicidade” in 2013 by Publicações Dom Quixote
Translated into English by Hillary Locke and published as “The Shelf Life of Happiness” in 2016 by AmazonCrossing

Jeroen Olyslaegers ‘Murky’

I know what everyone thinks: he’s going to fall down and break his hip. He’ll find himself in a bed in Saint-Vincent’s. And that’ll be the end of him, struck down by one of those bacteria they have the secret of growing in hospitals. It’s strange how old people allow themselves to be contaminated by other people’s fear. Because of that fear they let themselves be locked up in old people’s homes, let themselves be ovecome with tasteless muck and twaddle, with a stupid bingo night and a Maroccain woman stuck behind their bums with a strip of toilet paper.***

So begins Olyslaeger’s excellent novel of the Second World War in Anderlecht, a story being told by a cynical old man to his unborn great grandson in this Dutch language Belgian book read for the “Roman De Rochefort” prize. As the title suggests the narrator, a young man at the outbreak of the Second World War walks a questionable line in this occupied city. As the story begins Wilfried Wils obtains a job as a Belgian policeman in order to avoid forced labour service in Germany, but pretty soon he was employed in rounding up those that tried to avoid this same service, with an insight into the ambiguous views of the public in general, welcoming the Nazis, and the police force in general to the German occupation. As he comments after being ordered by German military to follow them:

In principal, we should present ourselves to get our orders, but when a Feldfritz shouts, you obey. We head down the Pelikaanstraat towards the south. Lode and I marching behind the two uniformed Übermenschen in complete silence, like two punished children. The Germans have only been here seven months and it’s as if they’ve been here several years. The town lead on its back, legs wide open, for these supermen.***

Wilfried Wils sails through pretty muddy water, not necessarily understanding everything that’s going on around himself, mostly putting up with the Germans but with an ambivalent reaction to their occupation, pushed by his friend Lode who despite personal risk seems to have a clearer view of the “übermenschen” and despises the local lookalikes:

A Waffen-SS uniform suddenly pulls up at our table.
May I invite the young lady to accompany me to the dance floor?
We look up. He’s not a German. He’s one of our’s, but with his hair shaved on the sides and the heels he clacks together, you could take him for the real thing, as if this town was only good for shitting in and that his heart and soul had been cast in Prussia.***

Olyslaegers, in interviews,tells of his personal relationship to this story as, at a university reading, he comes across a story of a Jewish family who, during the first roundup of Jews in Anderlecht commit suicide with the father cutting his own throat spouting blood on the Belgian policeman that had come to get him. The street name in the story rang a bell to him and when he later asked his mother she told him he had an aunt who worked for a Jewish family, who had committed suicide, in that street and that afterwards she had lived on in the house with her SS boyfriend.

He tells us of Wilfried Wils living this story and of the policemen wanting to file reports saying that the Jews had not been told why they were being arrested but that they caved in under pressure from above. Wils had found his job with the police through an old school teacher, an active Nazi sympathiser with whom he keeps up a relationship throughout the war, despite his abhorrence, a friend of his aunt’s Nazi boyfriend, this quote towards the end of the book, gives an idea of the views of this group of people:

For you, its a fucking game. But it’s people like me that pay for it. We succeeded in wiping out the Jews in this town, those parasites who have infested our town for so many years are nearly all gone. It was a promise we kept. the credit is mine in part, in spite of the hypocrisy of people like you…..All that I want, is ….a tobacconist’s with Jenny….comfortable…without a Jew boy in view, in a town fully thankfull to people like me for all the sacrifices we’ve made.***

Even those that seem to be less murky than others, such as Lode and his father who hide a Jew at great risk to themselves are shown to be doing it for money, Anderlecht was the diamond capital of Europe. As the war comes to an end and Wilfried Wils gets involved in a bloody act of vengeance against one of the worst Jew hunters, disgusting Lode with his violence. All of which comes back to haunt him in a personal tragedy some fifty years later.

This is a book that, far from the binary simplification of good and bad, goes some way to explaining how life might have been under occupation in a town showing no real sympathy to what they considered a migrant population. As Wils says early in the story, no one knew where the Jews were being sent but at the same time they didn’t suppose that it was to a place where they could be integrated into society.

First Published in Dutch as “Wil” in 2016 by Bezige Bij b.v.
Translated into French by Françoise Antoine and published as “Trouble” in 2019 by Stock
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Je sais ce que tout le monde pense: il va tomber et se fracturer la hanche. Il va se trouver dans un lit à saint-Vincent. Et puis s’en sera fini de lui, terrassé qu’il sera par l’une de ces bactéries qu’ils ont le don de cultiver dans les hôpitaux. C’est curieux comme les vieilles personnes se laissent contaminer par la peur des autres. À cause de cette peur, elles se laissent enfermer dans les maisons de repos, se laissent abreuver de fadaises et de bouillies froides, avec une soirée bingo à la con et une Marocaine pendue à leur derrière avec un morceau de papier cul.

En principe, nous devions nous présenter pour recevoir nos ordres, mais quand un Feldfritz gueule, tu t’exécutes. Nous prenons la Pelikaanstraat en direction du sud. Lode et moi marchons derrière les deux Übermenschen en uniforme dans un silence parfait, comme deux enfants punis. Les Allemands ne sont ici que depuis sept mois et c’est comme si la place était à eux depuis des années. La ville s’est couchée, cuisses grandes ouvertes, devant ces surhommes.

Un uniforme de la Waffen-SS se dresse tout à coup à côté de notre table.
Puis-je inviter la demoiselle à m’accompagner sur la piste de danse?
On lève les yeux. Ce n’est pas un Allemand. C’est un gars de chez nous, mais avec des cheveux rasés sur les côtés et les talons qu’il fait claquer l’un contre l’autre, on dirait un presque vrai, comme si cette ville n’était plus bonne que pour y déféquer, et que son corps et son esprit avaient été coulés en Prusse.

Pour toi, c’est un jeu salaud. Mais ce sont des gens comme moi qui paient l’addition. On a réussi à exterminer les juifs de cette ville, ces parasites qui ont infesté notre ville pendant tant d’années sont presque tous partis. C’était une promesse et nous l’avons réalisée.Le mérite m’en revenait en partie, malgré l’hypocrisie de gens comme toi….Tout ce que je veux, c’est.. un tabac avec Jenny…à notre aise…sans un youpin à l’horizon, dans une ville pleine de gratitude à l’égard de gens comme moi pour tous les sacrifices consentis.

Idra Novey ‘Ways to Disappear’

When she finally emerged from Rio’s Galeão International Airport, she took in the familiar stink of armpits, car exhaust, and guavas that assaulted her as she stepped out of the baggage claim and the outside air pressed in…Already she could feel her dress adhering to her arms and lower back. After so much winter, the sticky sensation, the rising odours were glorious. To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere. Her cab driver had a body as well, much of it on display beneath his pink muscle shirt, all of it glistening with sweat.

The famous Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda is seen climbing into an almond tree with a suitcase and then dissapears at the beginning of this book by Idris Nova about the author and her young English translator, Emma Neufeld, which although written in English, is set in Brazil and so I am proposing this for the Spanish And Portuguese lit month. Emma having translated all of Beatriz’s works and remembers a prison warden climbing a tree in one of them decides to travel to Brazil and look for her. As always when she arrives the shock to her senses awakens her body as illustrated in the opening quote.

When she comes to Brazil, Emma always stays with Beatriz and this time as she arrives she finds Beatriz’s grown children Raquel and Marcus. Raquel is exasperated to see her and cannot understand why someone who has read everything she has written should presume to know her mother better than her, thinking that it was more important to know what she hadn’t written down. They quickly discover that Beatriz is persued by a loanshark due to an on line gambling habit.

As Emma meets up with the loanshark, quickly painted in a few brush strokes by Idra Novey, she quickly learns that he doesn’t quite understand the meager amount of money in play in translated literature:

Listen, he said to her breasts, fuck the story. You know what I want? I want the six hundred thousand fucking dollars she owes me. Okay? I know she’s broke. So you need to get the damn book from her. Whatever you get for it in your country, half a million is mine, and then I won’t have to kill her.

To underline the translating theme, the book is interspersed with definitions and dry humour examples from the text, such as the one below inspired by the previous quote:

PROMISE: From the late Middle English prom-is. First known use 15th century. 1. A declaration of what a person intends to do, which may correspond to what a person actually does, or may not. 2. A verb used to assure of a certain outcome, as in: With time, a translator gets used to promising the impossible the way a loan shark gets used to promising carnage.

We meet many other characters, including Beatriz’s Brazilian publisher in this successfully humorous book as Emma follows successive leads searching for Beatriz, who cannot afford to be found. A fun book that lived up to its hype (Oh, and Emma and the good looking Marcus….).

First Published in English as “Ways to Dissapear” in 2016 by Daunt Books

Cixin Liu ‘The Three Body Problem’

And your conclusion?
Everything thats happening is coordinated by someone behind the scenes with one goal to completely ruin scientific research.
I dont know, but I can sense the plan. A very comprehensive, intricate plan. damage scientific research installations, kill scientists, drive scientists like you crazy and make you commit suicide, but the main goal is to misdirect your thoughts until you’re even more foolish than ordinary people.

Something is seriously wrong, the worlds top theoretical physicists are commiting suicide and an unlikely duo are brought together, the applied physicist Wang Miao and the rough detective Shi Qiang as Wang Miao is persuaded to infiltrate a mysterious organisation, The Frontiers of Science. One day Wang Miao has a count down which only he can see appear before his eyes, beginning at 1200 hours and nothing he can do will make it disappear, Wang Miao becomes worried and goes to visit Shen Yufei, a member The Frontiers of Science who tells him if he gives up his research and directs his laboratory to work on another problem the count down will stop, he tries this for a few days and it does. Whilst at Shen Yufei’s apartment he notices that She and her Husband are playing a Computer game whose internet address he notes down. Shi Qiang an untypical policeman is brought in by the military to work on the problem of the suicides without being told of the background which he nevertheless begins to intuit as illustrated in the opening quote as he gets Wang Miao back on track.

What is the computer game that the members of the Frontiers of Science are playing owners Wang Miao, The Three Body Problem? the aim is to solve a problem in an imaginary world of a planet and two suns where a civilisation tries to develop but suffers near annihilation at irregular intervals which they cannot predict and which are linked to the movement of the three bodies. The civilisation only survives because they have evolved the capability to dehydrate when the suns come too close (a chaotic era) and to rehydrate again when all is safe. A computer game at many levels as at the end of each chaotic era the rehydrated civilisation, which evolves from era to era, tries to solve the three body problem in order to predict these chaotic eras using known eras and characters from our historical past.

This book is the beginning of a trilogy involving the Trisolariens whose world is about to come to a cataclysmic end and who have been seeking another world. At a secret Chinese deep space listening centre Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who had been sent out to this centre at the back of beyond decades earlier during the cultural revolution, emits a message about the Earth and then picks up a first ever message from outer space in return. Will she then reply knowing that with the direction of the message and the time between sending and receiving the Trisloariens would discover Earth.

Liu Cixin then introduces us to Superstring Theory as the Trisolariens propel a proton towards the Earth at the speed of light, a proton you will say can do no damage, Wrong! When unwrapped from up to 11 dimensions down to 2 dimensions it can contain information and commands and can wrap itself around the Earth. For more explanations try fiction unbound.

If you read Science fiction and haven’t yet read Liu Cixin, a nine times winner of the Chinese Galaxy Award and want to know How far do She Hang and Wang Miao get? Do they discover Ye Wenjie? Does anyone suspect what is behind the suicides? and can anything be done? Then get out there and buy it!

First Published in Chinese as “San Ti” by Chongqing Publishing House in 2006.
Translated into English by Ken Liu and published in 2015 by Head of Zeus
Translated into French by Gwennaël Gaffric and published by Actes Sud in 2016