Aharon Appelfeld ‘Days of a Startling Lucidity’


They went missing, often for three or Four days, sometimes a week. img_1287Mostly to hill top monastries…she was moved to tears at each ancient monastry they reached.
Most of the time the monks welcomed her politely. When they realised she was Jewish they asked: “what do you like so much here?”
“Everything!…”
The more skeptical thought she wasn’t all there and stopped asking questions.***


At the end of the war, Theo left his fellow survivors from camp 8 having decided to return home to Sternberg in Austria across Europe alone on foot in this book read for the “Roman de Rochefort prize”. As he slowly advances his mind plays back to his childhood, to his mother,Yetti, at once fragile and overwhelming, who unusually for a Jew, came from a peasant background and moved to the town of Sternberg when she married Martin. She was always on the move, seeking out the music of Bach which radiated in her but which was linked to churches and monasteries, the only places where she really felt at peace. She would just up and off with Theo taking him out of school on her journeys until her money ran out and then coming home as illustrated in the opening quote.

Theo was never close to his father Martin who indulged Yetti, dilapidating his family savings and running down his bookshop to pay for her trips. Theo advances alone but regularly meeting  people from camps like himself, some advancing, some not moving such as the lady in the following quote:


“I’ve worked all night so that the soup would be ready at noon…its better to go home having built up a bit of strength…”
“I dont need to hurry youngster. My children live now in the land of truth and I’m getting ready to join them. I’ve a little ways to go before that. I’d like to give to others everything I have….”
“And you’re not leaving here?”
“No, young man. Everyone who means something to me lays at rest here in this forest behind me. Who else will watch over them? A month before the end of the war they were brought up here, dug there own graves and were executed. So for now I’m watching over them and soon I’ll join them.”***


Amongst the people Theo meets is the seriously ill Madeleine who takes him for his father, and as Theo tries to take care of her he finds out that Madeleine went to school with Martin and Yetti and that everyone, Madeleine included, thought that she and Martin would make their lives together. Through the brief interlude with Madeleine Theo, through Madeleine, begins to better understand and to better know his own father, to place him in perspective and to feel a certain peace.

As Theo advances and meets people, he always answers the first question asked of him “which camp do you come from?” and then talks about where they are going. Theo discovers that looking for his mother, where he last saw her, at the monastery of Sankt Peter is something the other refugees from the camps cannot aprehend and for which there are violent feelings, these churches and monasteries are the worshiping places of the people that had done this to them, the churches that condoned the actions.

Theo slowly goes over and over his decision to leave the others from the camp to strike out alone, to leave the solidarity that had helped so many to survive, reaching a kind of inner peace. Finally as Theo is close to the Austrian border he meets up with a brigade helping the refugees to return home and learns that he is one of the few that do not stop on route, one of the few that actually want to go home, although he does not know who he will see, or where he will stay. he was certainly not welcome when he and all the other Jews of the region were deported together during scenes of overt hatred.

A strangely peaceful book as Theo is slowly reborn.

First Published in Hebrew as “Yamim shel behirout madhima” in 2014 by Dvir publishing house.
Translated into French by Valérie Zenatti and published as “Des jours d’une stupéfiante clarté” by Editions de l’olivier in 2018
*** My translation

José Eduardo Agualusa ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’


Ludovica never liked having to face the sky. While still only a little girl, she was horrified by open spaces. She felt, upon leaving the house, fragile and vulnerable, like a turtle whose shell had been torn off. C2F764A0-5DD1-4BEC-865C-E80B3905C946When she was very small –six, seven years old –she was already refusing to go to school without the protection of a vast black umbrella, whatever the weather. Neither her parents’ annoyance nor the cruel mockery of the other children deterred her. Later on, it got better. Until what she called ‘The Accident’ happened and she started to look back on this feeling of primordial dread as something like a premonition.


I remember Angola from the news reports of the seventies as a battle ground involving Cubans and mercenaries fighting over the remains of the country, Here, read for Spanish and Portuguese lit months, Agualusa brings me up to date with what actually happend, not concentrating on the political detail but on the events in Angola over twenty five years seen through the eyes of Ludo, who as the opening quote tells us sufered from agraphobia.

Agualusa was given the documents on which he based this story, including photos of Ludos walls, covered in writing, by Sabalu whose roll we discover towards the end of the story. Ludo was a Portuguese woman living with her sister and brother in law in Luanda in 1975 as Angola obtained its independance from Portugal and the chaos began. When one evening her sister and bother in law did not make it home, she manages to frighten off the kidnappers who came to the door of her appartment looking for diamonds which her brother in law was supposed to have stolen, shooting and killing one of them. Ludo then, using building material that was at hand and food and drink left behind by the other Portuguese in her building in their hurry to leave the country, builds a wall across her corridor just before her appartment door where she then lives without ever leaving for a period of twenty five years with her dog Phantom and the dead body of the kidnapper which she plants in a flower bed on her terrace. Her understanding of events is based on what she witnesses through her window.


I was woken by gun shots. Later, through the living room window, I saw a very thin man running. Phantom was restless all day, running in circles from his own fear, biting his paws. I heard shouting in the neighbouring apartment. several men were talking. Silence followed. I was unable to sleep all night. At four in the morning
I went up to the terrace.
The night, like a well swallowed the stars.

That’s when I saw a truck loading the bodies.


 

Agualusa also mixes in chapters on other people living through the chaos who have an impact on Ludo’s life, such as the thin man, Jeremiah Carrasco, observed in the previous quote, who had been one of the kidnappers and whom we follow through the events surrounding his life, his arrest and summary execution, his being left for dead but surviving, and his twenty five years of being reborn and living clandestinely as a Kuvale cowherd up to his eventual meeting with Ludo. We follow the torturers and he tortured, up to the day when Subalu, à child, climbs a scaffolding and enters Ludo’s apartment and finding her in a state worst than himself leaves her bread which she discovers on waking.

This is a rich story full of unlikely characters of which Ludo is just one of many. At the end of the book we discover Ludo’s secret, of the “Accident” and of the tragedy of her life. Her twenty five year ordeal is somehow a positive event for her, a cleansing of her mind. A marvellously poetic story.

First Published in Portuguese (Angola) as “Teoria geral do esquecimento” in 2012 by D. Quixote.
Translated into English by Daniel Hahn and published as “A General Theory of Oblivion” by Archipelago in 2015
Translated into French by Geneviève Leibrich and published as “Théorie Générale de l’oubli” in 2014 by Editions Métailié

Juan José Saer ‘The Witness’


In this already strange situation, the cabin boy faces other adversities. In the absence of women the ambiguity of his juvenile form,05579E62-011E-457F-85DE-B3C45B6AA0CF a product of his incomplete virility, eventually becomes more appreciable. That which the sailors, in other situations good family men, consider repugnant, seems to them, in the course of the sea crossing, as being more and more natural.***


The action of Saer’s novel, read in French,  takes place at the very beginning of the 16th century as a Spanish ship, whilst searching the coast of the Americas for a route through to the Indies, and during a seemingly safe survey of the mouth of a river in smaller boats in what appears to be an uninhabited land, is attacked by a group of Indians. All of the survey party except the cabin boy are killed by the Indians who then run off into the jungle at a sustained pace for a full day, carrying the dead sailors and the cabin boy before reaching their village where the dead are cut up, roasted and eaten, followed by several days of drinking to excess (several people die) and then orgies, all of this witnessed by the cabin boy. He then repeatedly, once a year over the time of his stay, re-lives similar events, as hunting parties return with dead captives and a witness before once again repeating the canabalistic events. These witnesses seem to accept and understand what is happening to them and are soon after sent back into the jungle in canoes full of food. He is kept 10 years by the Indians, he has nowhere to go back to, and then one day without warning he is sent of in a canoe and soon after comes across Spanish ships, where it soon becomes clear that he has forgotten his mother tongue:


To calm them I began to tell them my story but as the story advanced, I could see the sense of wonderment growing on their faces until, after a moment, I realised that I was speaking in the Indians language. I tried then to speak in my mother tongue, realising then that I had forgotten it.***


Years later towards the end of his life, the now aged witness writes about these events and his later life in an attempt to analyse and understand what had happened to him. This story follows the outline of others, such as The Legend of Tarzan and the double shock of being brought up in another world and then rediscovering ones own “civilised” world and seeing it through new eyes

Were the orgies of the Indians, described in some detail, any worse than his experiences as a cabin boy? Was the sense of belonging to a community such as the Indians not better than his treatment as an orphan in Europe? The narrator then joins a travelling theatre group to tell his story to packed audiences throughout Spain, but he realises that the people did not want to know what really happened, they wanted confirmation of their own ideas and prejudices.

On to the crux of the matter, why he was left alive and what was the role of the witnesses? This is the point that pushes him to write and maybe towards the end pushes us to continue. This was not an easy read, there is a certain amount of repetition and to be fair I was reading Antonio Muñoz Molina in parallel and how can you compete with the beauty of his writing (and excellent translation).

 

First Published in Spanish as  “El Entenado” in 1983 by Folios Ediciones.
Translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa as “The Witness” and published by Serpent’s Tail in 2009
Translated into French by Laure Bataillon as “L’Ancêtre” and published by Flammarion in 1987
*** My translation

Kiyoko Murata ‘Fille de Joie’


—A woman doesn’t just need to take care of her face, added Miss Shinonome. A hairy inside leg is not only ugly but it interferes in bed. Hair removal with tweezers.A93E07D3-B4E8-4DA0-B0FB-B3A3D7D6A116 If we use a razor, the stubble is uncomfortable for the customers, she explains, frowning, with a stifled cry as each hair is removed by Miss Murasaki wealding the tweezers with expertise, not pausing once.
—Watching them, Ichi is reminded of the adults repairing fishing nets***


Ichi from the southern fishing island of Satsuma is sold into prostitution for ten years by her parents at the age of 15, and if she works hard during this time she should be able to pay off her debt, if not, she will be sold on down the chain to lower and lower levels of pleasure houses. This book, ‘Girl of Joy’ follows Ichi and her friends through this first year as they are taken under the wing of an Oiran, a top level courtisan, in Ichi’s case Miss Shinonome from the opening quote, and as the full understanding of their new life comes upon them. All of Ichi’s hopes are then dashed following the visit of her father, one year later, to the owners of the pleasure house but who does not see her and contracts a further debt she must pay off:


—The end of the year was a difficult time for fishermen and peasants. They got by thanks to their daughters bodies….
—I even calculated how long it would take me to pay back my debt counting 5 yen’s per month…
she would need 8 years without spending any money….
—furthermore, even if I earn more, my father will come back.***


But a wind of change is blowing over Japan, a law had been passed some years earlier to free the girls from their debt, the reasoning was simple, when the girls became courtisans they were no longer human, but animals, as were cattle and horses, and who would ask cattle or horses to pay back a debt. But even this did not help as the owners of these pleasure houses, the police and local magistrates agreed not to apply it and went on as before.

We live the disgust of Ichi at the Salvation Army who were battling to free the girls based on the fact that they had chosen their fallen way of life.

A first in Japan then takes place, a strike in the shipyards of Nagasaki, the girls learn from this and post a list of demands before considering going back to work:


Reduction in the price of tobacco
The right to an evening meal even when they don’t have clients
Fish once every three days
An extra egg on days of many clients
Coal in winter even when we don’t have clients
A reduction in the price of clothes necessary for work
Fifteen days holidays after abortions
The right to say no to clients with syphilis.***


A historically interesting book about these times.

First published in Japanese
Translated into French by Sophie Refle as ‘Fille De Joie’ and published by Actes Sud in 2017
***My translation

Alaa El Aswany ‘L’automobile Club d’Egypt’

Alaa El Aswany who is probably the best known modern day Egyptian Writer has three novels now translated into French, with the third due to be published in English in the near future. Tell me more