Category Archives: Books in Translation

The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide

Now you know all know that I love cats don’t you? To the point where if I could I would probably buy a new kitten every few weeks, though I don’t think Oscar and Millie would be too pleased as they barely tolerate each other unless it is very cold. Despite this love of cats I can’t say I am one of those people, not that I am judging them mind, who would rush out to by The Adventures of Tibbles the Cat Who Saved My Life When I Was Stuck in a Pothole in 1993, yes I made that up – it could sell though! They just aren’t my bag. And yes, I made that title up. Therefore I wasn’t sure The Guest Cat would be my cup of tea but last Sunday morning I fancied something short and so picked it up after I had been sent it from the publishers (possibly because of my outward seemingly cat lady tendencies) and what I found was possibly my perfect version of ‘a cat book’.

Picador Books, paperback, 2014, novella, 144 pages, translated by Eric Selland, kindly sent by the publisher

The story of The Guest Cat is really a very simple one. A couple, both who are writers, find the dream rental spot hidden away, down a lightening like street, from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. This small house, in the grounds of a bigger house owned by an elderly couple, is the perfect retreat to work in solitude yet soon they have a visitor in the form of the neighbour’s cat, who they soon learn is named Chibi. Initially flighty and aloof (well always aloof like the best of cats) Chibi starts to visit more and more regularly and little by little becomes a small companion to the couple and in the smallest of ways has a more and more positive effect on their lives.

In essence that is the book. Only it isn’t.

You see this novella is also so much more when you read between the lines and look a little further, or even if you don’t and it goes in subconsciously. In a rather silent and stealthy manner, creeping up on you (this is the only cat analogy I will make, promise) The Guest Cat actually features a plethora of themes and insights into the world of Tokyo in the 1980’s. The first, and possibly the least interesting yet still insightful, is the housing market in Tokyo when the city was almost out pricing itself (the slightly boring bit) but also losing all of its green spaces and heritage/traditional housing in favour of building big new modern  condominiums or swanky business pads (I found this side of it really interesting).

The second thing it looks at, which I found actually as moving as the story of how this couple befriends Chibi, is how it is to grow old which we see through the landlords in the bigger house. How do you cope as you age and become frailer? How do you look after a loved one they age and you age too? How do you cope with their death and then prepare for the inevitability of your own? I found a real poignancy in that.

The Guest Cat also treads that thin line between autobiography and fiction. As this is a story by an author about two authors (and indeed Takashi Hirade’s wife is a writer so hence the autobiographical link) and the life of the writer and of course the writing process. I always like this element when I come across it in a book as I find the process of writing really interesting, be it what hinders it or what inspires it. So again more layers, not just a book about a pretty cute if elusive cat.

Oh and without giving anything away get ready for an ending which leaves you with a big question, and a mystery, that might have you heading back to the beginning again.

The Guest Cat is one of those books which one the one hand is a very simple tale but can also be read in a multitude of ways and probably needs to be read a few times, especially with the ending I have alluded to above. You can of course, like every book, just read it for the story which is touching and beguilingly simplistic. In essence, like Chibi when she visits her adopted-when-the-needs-arise owners, it is a book that makes us look at life and try and appreciate the intricate and subtle nuances that sometimes we over look, take for granted or simply forget. It is a little gem*.

*I am not going to start reading lots of cat books though, just sharing that with you before they all start arriving.

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Filed under Books in Translation, Picador Books, Review, Takashi Hiraide

Ways of Going Home – Alejandro Zambra

I am wondering, though maybe after yesterdays post I should be careful what I say here, if there is a genre to describe when an author writes their book about writing their book, be it in a fictional or non fictional way? Is it simply metafiction? This is part of what Alejandro Zambra’s latest English PEN winning novel, if that is the right term, ‘Ways of Going Home’ does and I have also seen this in a recent Graham Greene read and ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet, a book that I need to get back to. It is a style that I find I liked and wasn’t expecting when I picked this latest book up completely by whim – it was the cover that did the trick, though I was in the mood for a book and author I knew nothing about; we all get that craving now and again don’t we? This appealed because I know little about Chilean fiction and I also want to read more translated fiction. All boxes ticked then!

**** Granta Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 139 pages, translated byMegan McDowell, kindly sent unsolicited by the publisher

‘Ways of Going Home’ opens during at time of both a political time of unease and natural physical concerns in Chile. General Pinochet is dictator of the country and there is murder and torture going on, oblivious to this, initially, is a young unnamed boy who is camping out on the streets as the Santiago has been hit by an earthquake. On that night the boy meets a mysterious girl called Claudia who he becomes infatuated with and who asks him to spy on his neighbour who turns out to be her cousin. The boy doesn’t know why but does it, and we are left to work it out ourselves.

Suddenly though we are drawn out of that narrative to find that we are now in the mind of the author who himself is writing about a young boy who meets a mysterious girl called Claudia on the night of an earthquake. Is this in fact a fictionalisation of his childhood of relative safety under the rule of a dictator that he is looking back on and dealing with the guilt of coming away from such a time so apparently easy? Well the thing is we are never really sure and this adds intrigue along to an already very interesting premise. Is the boy therefore really Zambra? Is the ‘writer’ that we meet? We are never really sure, either way Zambra uses this double narrative and fictional hindsight, as it seems to be, to look at a man’s thoughts at that slightly naive time in youth and then now with adult eyes.

“Back then I was, as I always have been, and I always will be, for Colo-Colo. As for Pinochet, to me he was a television personality who hosted a show with no fixed schedule, and I hated him for that, for the stuffy national channels that interrupted their programming during the best parts. Later I hated him for being a son of a bitch, for being a murderer, but back then I hated him only for those inconvenient shows that Dad watched without saying a word, without acceding any movement other than a more forceful drag on the cigarette he always had glued to his lips.”

The fact this second section, which alternates with the younger aspect again once more in this very short book (which is actually Zambra’s longest at 139 pages), then comes into play made the book doubly intriguing for me. I found this ‘fictional narrators’ reaction of guilt at not being a victim of Pinochet oddly fascinating though I did feel that this reaction in itself highlighted to me that no one in a country where such things are going on ever comes away with an easy mind. Zambra’s writer, and therefore Zambra either way that you look at it (though it can hurt your head), also discusses how writing and reading deal with these things also.

“To read is to cover one’s face, I thought.
To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.”

As much as ‘Ways of Going Home’ looks at the Pinochet regime in Chile and how it affected the country afterwards, how hingsight comes into play, how children of the murdered and murderers going to school together etc. It is also a book about the importance, and indeed the power, of books and the relationship between reader and writer and fictional and the non fictional. It is a book that leaves you with a long list of other books to read and plenty to go away and think about and discover more on too.

Has anyone else read this novel and what did you make of it? Are Zambra, the boy and the fictional author all one and the same? Has anyone else read any of Zambra’s other works? If they are as interesting as this one I will have to seek them out.

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Filed under Alejandro Zambra, Books in Translation, Granta Books, Review

Down The Rabbit Hole – Juan Pablo Villalobos

I first heard about Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ when it was voted as a submission for the Guardian’s First Book Award last year but the newspaper’s readers. It was clearly a hit with the judging panel as it went through to the shortlist. I was intrigued by the fact that it was such a hit with readers and also a translated novel and so when I saw it in the library I snaffled up a copy. Well this was one of those books which you don’t want to give back.

And Other Stories, paperback, 2011, fiction, 130 pages, translated by Rosalind Harvey, borrowed from the library

All Tochtli, the seven year old narrator of ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ wants in life is to have a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. We all want crazy outlandish pets as children (I really wanted a panther, I was bought a duck I named Rapunzel) only for a child like Tochtli this wish could actually be a reality as he lives in a strange wonderland (not quite the rabbit hole Alice fell down) where as the son of a very rich man anything is possible. Only it is the reasons behind his wealth and his father’s position in society at which this book gives a sly, often funny, sometimes horrific and occasionally disturbing look at over its shoulder. There is a lot more going on with this tale than initially meets the eye.

“This is what was on the news today on the TV: the tigers in the zoo in Guadalajara ate a woman all up, apart from her left leg. Maybe her left leg wasn’t a very juicy bit. Or maybe the togers were already full up. I’ve never been to the zoo in Guadalajara. Once I asked Yolcaut to take me, but instead of taking me he brought more animals to the palace. That was when he bought me the lion. And he said something to me about a man who couldn’t go to a mountain and so the mountain came to him.”

Child narrators are something which either work superbly in a novel and make it or can completely ruin it with a more saccharinely sweet, naive and possibly precociously irritating tone. It is a very fine line and one that an author has to get just right. When done well they can be used as a way of innocently describing much more adult themes in a book or for leaving gaps in which we as adults can put the blanks, this is the way that Juan Pablo Villalobos uses his narrator Tochtli. Tochtli is a wonderful narrator as he describes the strange circumstances, somewhere in Mexico, he finds himself in as the son of a drug lord – of course Tochtli doesn’t know this but through what he doesn’t say we put the pieces of the puzzle together. I will admit Tochtli is rather precocious, almost spoilt and yet he didn’t grate on me in fact I found him rather endearing in a way, often funny even when the things he discusses are horrendous. Villalobos uses this tool of child narrator adeptly and it shows the power of Rosalind Harvey as a translator that she makes this voice carry on ringing so true.

“Today there was an enigmatic corpse on the TV: they cut off the his head and he wasn’t even a king. It didn’t look like it was the work of the French either, who like cutting off heads so much. The French put the heads in a basket after cutting them off. I saw it in a film.

…On the TV they showed a photo of the head and the truth is he had a really bad hairstyle.”

The other thing that Juan Pablo Villalobos masters so well is making so much happen in so little time and space, both in the period that the book lasts but also with so few pages. To give too much detail would be to spoil what is a wonderful read. There are other things going on in the background the more you look at the book (and I read it twice once just before New Year and again just after) such as the fact that in translation Tochtli’s name means ‘rabbit’ and his fathers ‘rattlesnake’. It alsmot sums up the relationship in the book. More clever games are played with humour, there are some darkly funny moments yet soon there are some simply darkly disturbing ones.  I think I can say that I wasn’t expecting the ending at all and it left me with a very strange and uneasy feeling and one that has lasted with me for quite some time, it hit me even more the second time round and I wondered what Tochtli’s future might be. I shall say no more here though; I would love people to discuss this with though if you have read the book, maybe by email in case of spoiler.

‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ is a short, sharp (both in its humour and its subject) book of brilliance which can easily be devoured in one sitting, and I would almost recommend you do sit and read it in one go to truly absorb its power. I haven’t read anything quite like it and its once more highlighted the fact that I don’t read enough translated fiction, of this book is anything to go by there are so many worlds and experiences that I am missing out on and I am now desperate to discover more.

Who else has read this and what did you think?

Oh and I should give a shout out to the publishers And Other Stories who I went off and found out more about after finishing this. They are a new not-for-profit publishers sponsored by the Arts Council, I wish I had known about them sooner, especially if all their books are going to be this good, as I would have asked for a subscription to their works as a Christmas present, though of course my 30th is on the horizon.

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Filed under And Other Stories, Books in Translation, Books of 2012, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Review

Next World Novella – Matthias Politycki

One of my highlights reading wise in 2010 was the joys of the a new publishing house that was translating short novels and novella’s that brought works from all over Europe into the English reading consciousness. This publishing house was of course Peirene Press. I was left rather breathless after reading ‘Beside The Sea’, thought ‘Stone in a Landslide’ was another beautiful book and was then impressed by the single sentence structure (which I didn’t think would be readable yet was) of ‘Portrait of a Mother as a Young Woman’. So why oh why then had I left it so long to read the 4th of their collection so far ‘Next World Novella’ by Matthias Politycki? Well I am not quite sure, though it might have been to do with the fact I thought it was a dystopian surreal novella from the title (wrong assumption), yet when I wanted something short that I knew would be good it was the book that I turned to next.

It would be hard enough to find the person you have been married to and in love with for the last few decades dead over their desk one morning out of the blue, the thought that flowers in a vase had rotten and gone off leading to quite a different discovery. It would then be even worse to then find that the person you had been happily married to, or so you thought, had in fact not been so happy all along. This is the position that Hinrich Schepp finds himself in one morning at the opening of ‘Next World Novella’ as sees that his wife has been keeping her secret thoughts about him and them in the margins of the work he wrote long ago and she has been secretly editing. Rather than call a doctor, or phone for an ambulance Hinrich starts to read his work and the thoughts his wife really had and soon comes to some uncomfortable and upsetting conclusions.

This is a book that I almost found unbearably sad. Not only is it a look at people’s beliefs in death, Hinrich’s wife Doro believes death is an island surrounded by a lake you must swim through only to die once more, and death itself but how we grieve and deal with it. Add to that the uncovering of someone’s true feelings that you can no longer question or argue with and you have a highly emotional piece of writing. This is no happy tale and indeed left me with a feeling of ‘goodness we never really know what anyone thinks do we?’ which was rather depressing and yet its written with such control, minimalism and understated raw emotion it’s a compelling and masterly piece of writing all in one, in fact credit must do to the translator Anthea Bell too for managing to keep all this in, all in under 140 pages.

What to me made the book an even rarer gem was the fact that though initially Doro I dead from the start I didn’t think she would have a voice, character, or live and breathe on the pages. Yet through her notes, and as Hinrich’s past and Doro’s thoughts on it all within them come to light, her character is actually the dominating voice of ‘Next World Novella’. This I found incredible, I don’t think I have ever read a novel before where a dead character, unless relating the tale from heaven or some such, can take so much control of a piece of fiction or be such an impressive force and shadow over every page.

As gripping as it is haunting ‘Next World Novella’ is in my mind a mini-masterpiece. I can only hope that now we have one of Politycki’s novels readily available in translation in the UK that there will be many more to follow. After all he has several other books and collections of poems that we are yet to discover here yet have sold in their hundreds of thousands in his homeland of Germany. If you are to discover one new author this year then I think Matthias Politycki would be your best bet and ‘Next World Novella’ should be added to your TBR pretty soon. 9.5/10

This novella was kindly sent by the publisher.

I have been left rather breathless by ‘Next World Novella’ and I think its my second favourite of the Peirene titles so far (though the new forthcoming ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ has recently arrived and looks good), have you read any of the Peirene books and what have you thought? Have you a favourite? I have also been left thinking about ‘Next World Novella’ for several weeks after I put it down and those are the sort of books I want to be reading much more of. So have their been any books you have read of late that have had this effect on you as I would love to read some more books like this?

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Filed under Books in Translation, Books of 2011, Matthias Politycki, Peirene Press, Review