Olga Grjasnowa: All Russians Love Birch Trees

Grjasnowa, Olga (2012), Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt, Hanser
ISBN 978-3-446-23854-1

[English translation: Grjasnowa, Olga (2014), All Russians Love Birch Trees, Other Press
Translated by Eva Bacon
ISBN 978-1-590-51584-6]

birch3In reading and reviewing books I have certain recurring interests, which may lead to similarities in my introductions to the books I’m discussing. So stop me if you’ve heard this before. But do read on. Because this writer and this book is definitely worth your attention. I have never had a great love for German postwar literature, with a few notable exceptions. I have found, consistently, that between 1945 and 1990. the best literary work in German came from Austria or the GDR, and it’s not particularly close, in my opinion. There is a third group that has produced exciting work for decades and that’s immigrant writers to Germany. Many of the standout immigrant writers are easy to look up if you are so inclined. They have received the Adelbert von Chamisso award, a prize in honor of the German writer who was born in France. The prize is awarded to the best immigrant writer producing their work in German (not necessarily exclusively). Since the GDR group of writers slowly dried or died out (again, with notable exceptions), there has been a bit of a hole to fill. Consistently, that hole has been filled with young immigrant writers. I do feel like many of the best ones do not choose to settle in Germany. In this review I discussed the mysterious attraction of Switzerland to young Romanian writers. Other writers settle in Austria. Still, a few settle in Germany, and of those, there are some truly admirable writers. Some are of Turkish origin, like the spellbinding novelist and playwright Emine Özdamar. A surprisingly large section of writers, however, sprang from the carcass of the former Soviet Union. Artur Becker is one of them. Katja Petrowskaja has won a few prizes last year. And then there’s Olga Grjasnowa. Younger than most of the writers I admire, my god, younger than me, she wrote a debut novel that is unfinished, jumbled, a novel that screams “debut” too often to count. But it’s also a magnificent novel. I I read it twice cover to cover just to really take it in. I have sometimes high expectations of novels dealing with certain topics, and for female Soviet Union emigrés writing about love and loss in Germany, the high water mark is the scintillating and frequently brutal work of Natascha Wodin, whose best novel has been translated into English many years ago and which you should pick up immediately. Olga Grjasnowa manages to write a book that is so deeply suffused with brilliance and talent, with emotion and thinking, with historical ambiguity and emotional clarity, that she promises to eventually be among our best writers. All Russians Love Birch Trees is already one of our best books. Write her name down. You’ll need to remember it.

birchIn just under 300 pages, All Russians Love Birch Trees offers us a story that is attempting a whole lot at once. She doesn’t have the density of writing that, for example, Grigorcea showed in her debut, and so much of it is slightly underdeveloped. Yet at the same time, Grjasnowa has an unteachable knack for understanding how many political, personal and historical issues are interconnected and she offers us these connections with clarity and purpose. It’s hard to describe what kind of book it is, if that requires us to summarize it in a single sentence. That’s due, in part, to the book’s frequent pivots. The book starts out as a story of personal grief in a German hospital and ends up in a field in Israel. Blood, suffering and confusion are the only connections. And we get there from here not with labored cuts and jumps (although these happen occasionally), but through a cohesive sense of how identity works for someone who has to constantly fight to maintain hers. Like Grjasnowa herself, her protagonist Mascha was born in Azerbaijan, fled during the upheavals in that country and settled in Germany. Like the author, Mascha is Jewish and ends up spending some time in Israel. Mascha’s full name is Maria Kogan. If that sounds like a simple name to you – it doesn’t feel that way to some of the German characters in the book, like a doctor early on who says “your last name is a bit complicated – may I call you Maria?”(note: I read the book in German, any quotes are rough translations, not quotes from Eva Bacon’s much more considered work). Grjasnowa herself, with a last name sporting many more syllables, must have had similar problems. That she chooses to have her two-syllable protagonist run into this problem very early points to an important discussion that will re-occur througout the book and that is maybe closest to what I was looking for in terms of what kind of book it is. It’s a book about translation and understanding, and how openness and willingness are important elements in the way to achieving them. On the one hand, you have the Germans who run on pure closed-minded condescension. There’s the doctor who refuses to understand that simple name. There’s a a professor at her university who loves his ideas of multiculturalism and poverty porn, and whose idea of support for someone who appears to be “foreign” is to be condescendingly generous to them. There is a lady from Germany in Israel who jumps at the opportunity to criticise Jews (“If you see the news, it’s quite natural to start hating the Jews”). In contrast to all them is Mascha, who speaks multiple languages and trains to become an interpreter.

birch1If these examples made it seem like the book can be a bit heavy handed, your eyes did not deceive you. Indeed, subtlety is not one of Grjasnowa’s strengths even though she does a great job at undercutting easy readings by interesting juxtapositions. Her main achievement is the way she wove personal and political story into the fabric of the same story. There is, I think, no doubt that the first half of the novel is significantly better than the second. And that’s because that half is not as plot focused. Before she knuckles down and really digs into Mascha’s present life and lets her plot run free, she spends half the book telling us who that woman is and what happened to her. We learn about her German boyfriend, Elias, and how his death devastates her. We learn about her childhood in Azerbaijan and the way it corroded her sense of family and safety and the trauma she suffered there and hid away for years. Grjasnowa makes us understand how cruelty, desire, lust and sadness can be sides of similar coins. There is a small episode early in the book, where she kills a rabbit in an attempt to improvise some pagan ritual to have her boyfriend survive a difficult operation. Before smashing that rabbit’s head with a stone, she speaks a Jewish prayer, asking God to exchange lives. When that fails, she takes things into her own hands. Throughout the book there’s a definite sense of history being both hard on individuals, and kind of malleable, depending on one’s action and view. Grjasnowa’s protagonist does her utmost to fight and battle loss. Her personal and family history is one of devastation and melancholy. Her parents, well educated and with good jobs in Azerbaijan have to settle for alienated (and alienating) poor existences in Germany. Mascha is a driven woman, and her achievements, by all accounts, are considerable, but she is consistently and tragically alienated from her surroundings herself. Trying to find a connection in sexual liaisons with men and women, trying to find accepting communities, all of these are doomed and complicated by Mascha’s thorny sense of pre-determined alienation. She pushes the world away from her at the same time as she longs to be embraced by it. And none of this is helped by the omnipresent bigotry of people around her.

Admittedly, Grjasnowa doesn’t always choose the best way to express these things. Believe it or not, at some point, Mascha looks her mother in the face and says “everything and everyone around me dies.” I am not a supporter of the “show not tell” school of thought, but some young novelists do need to do less telling, especially when the telling is as trite as that. Much less of a cliché is Grjasnowa’s treatment of Jewish issues. Having a Jew travel to Israel to connect to her heritage may seem like something we’ve already seen (too) many times, but Grjasnowa’s book is very explicitly a German novel written by someone from Germany in German. Grjasnowa uses contrasts judiciously, but she is particularly interesting when she shows how Jewishness triggers various German cultural mechanisms, including those of Muslims in Germany. She has ill-informed philosemites in the book who, at the drop of a hat, turn antisemites in later portions of the book, she shows how Germans are involved in Israel itself, and most of all, she shows how her own conflicted heritage leads her to challenge, change and adapt assumptions about herself and the communities she’s a part of. Much of this, while interesting, is not thoroughly worked through in her writing, much of it is more idea than finished literary product, and now and then, she settles for too simple phrases instead of working out her thinking more thoroughly. It is too rarely that we can see in her work, as Bishop said about Hopkins, “a mind thinking” – instead, we see the thoughts in the ideas and tableaux rather than in the actual writing.

514qGj9igGL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_At the same time, her writing is never actually bad, unlike some others, much more praised writers I could think of. It’s frequently inventive and always clean and well considered. Moreover, we are shown an awful lot and it should affect all but the most closed-minded of readers. In fact, the seared and searing emotional core or the book compared well to Natascha Wodin’s masterpiece Einmal Lebt’ Ich, translated into English by Ian Galbraith as Once I Lived, published by Serpent’s Tail and currently tragically out of print. Get yourself a used copy now. Seriously. Wodin’s short but powerful novel, the best book of her absolutely extraordinary literary achievement (I can see at least one more review on this coming up) is a searing hot story of a Soviet immigrant to Germany who struggles to find connection and support in this strange and condescendingly hostile country – all of which isn’t helped by her father’s alienation that has pushed an already cruel man to punish, police and violate his daughter. Published in 1989, this novel and novels like it are the wellspring from which mediocre books like Katerina Poladjan’s deplorable debut feed (I discussed it a bit here). But it has also fed and empowered writers like Grjasnowa, whose sense of sexuality and violence, of immigration and alienation, and especially of the way that being a woman puts you in even more difficult situations than you’d be as a first or second generation immigrant alone, I can’t help but feel to be in Wodin’s debt. That second point, of feminity and how it feeds into the general malaise is interesting. Another topic she brings up, and a topic that Wodin similarly connects (but in a different novel, the strange and melancholy Erfindung einer Liebe) is homosexuality. Grjasnowa is clear on the fact that being a woman, and being gay allows for power to be projected on you in additional ways. There’s a term invented by African American theorists that’s called intersectionality and it describes the way that people are often touched by different vectors of oppression and that this creates a more complex picture. Now, I don’t think Wodin, or Grjasnowa, really, would have all that much patience for this terminology, but both are insistent on looking at the way individuals move through society and note that the path for immigrants is a harder path, and that being a woman – or gay – makes the progress even more difficult.

birch2I will say that, in contrast to Wodin, Grjasnowa’s protagonist is nor mired in a slough of despond. Indeed, while she cannot quite muster Wodin’s formal or linguistic qualities, in some sense, despite the book’s ending, she offers a more confident path. There’s a purpose to Mascha’s sexual misadventures that seems like it would not have been possible to offer in a book published in the 1980s or before (although some female GDR writers would be an exception, possibly). Mascha declines to offer us the suffering and complaints we may have come to expect from a certain kind of narrative. Mascha looks at her losses and moves on, pushing on, trying to deal with an increasingly heavy psychological load, until her troubles finally just take over. Maybe this is Grjasnowa’s greatest achievement in her book: offering us a character that’s both suffused with literary tradition and bucking it at the same time to explore new territory. There’s a lot about this book that’s good and lovely and even sometimes great and I already own her sophomore novel even though I have not had an opportunity to look at it. Purpose, urgency and intelligence are lovely things in fiction and they cover up many flaws. All Russians Love Birch Trees has all three in spades and Olga Grjasnowa is one of the young German novelists I most readily admire. Get this book, but also, get Natascha Wodin’s novel (and maybe bully Serpent’s Tail or the NYRB imprint to get it back into print). That is all.


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Kyril Bonfiglioli: Don’t Point That Thing At Me

Bonfiglioli. Kyril (1973, 2014), Don’t Point That Thing At Me, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-241-97025-6

DSC_1263 If you ever read one of my reviews and thought – yeah, ok, but why aren’t these a bit shorter? You are in luck! Having recently finished Don’t point that thing at me by English novelist and art dealer Kyril Bonfiglioli, I really wanted to review it, but I don’t really have a lot of context for the genre. The obvious reason why I stumbled across this lovely nasty little book is because of Mortdecai, the Johnny Depp-led film that was made based on its protagonist. In this case, the book is absolutely lovely and it’s the movie that is almost spectacularly bad. The novel, the first of overall 4 ½ novels in the same vein, is short, incredibly entertaining, well written, well structured and is threaded through and through by a surprising amount of unexpurgated violence. I have not read the other books and I am not entirely sure I will do so anytime soon because Don’t point that thing at me ends on a perfect note, with a desperate, drunk art dealer charging the police, Goya and gun in hand. There. I spoiled it in the first paragraph. But the book, despite being very clearly a mystery novel and not some literary novelist’s tired attempt at genre (I’m looking at you, McCarthy!), also doesn’t really run on suspense. About halfway through the book, the reader, Mortdecai, and various other principal participants in the plot, have stopped running the usual passing routes and a mild form of chaos descends on the book’s events. I don’t know what I expected – but I do know that I was delighted to find this Wodehouse/Hammett/Chandler hybrid, which comes with a strong and well-sculpted voice, sharp and precise writing and a plot that knows when and how to raise the stakes. It’s not perfect, but for a quickly written 1973 thriller it weathered the passing time remarkably well, much better than some other would-be genre classics I’m currently reading. What’s more, it cleverly touches in passing on Jewish and literary issues, without ever being weighed down by any of it, and parts of it will remind the reader of Baudrillard’s time spent “dans les déserts et sur les routes” of America.

The protagonist of Don’t point that thing at me is Charlie Mortdecai, an honest art dealer – as honest as an art dealer can get who deals in stolen or otherwise crooked art. He’s fairly well off, petty, not the youngest anymore and of “above-average weight” – making Johnny Depp a curious casting choice. He has one foot in British aristocracy and the other foot firmly planted in the grit and dirt of a life lived at the margins of legality. The plot of the novel leads the book’s hero from the UK to the US and back, and at times you can see the author toying with the conventions of Ian Fleming’s classic spy novels as they intersect with the Hammett/Chandler school of writing. He shares with them the sense of overwhelming darkness and corruption, in which the protagonist has to fulfill a task. The goal, as it does in many Chandler novels, changes multiple times during the book, as Mortdecai scrambles to adapt. He is not, however, a hapless idiot, as he’s interpreted by Mr. Depp. Mortdecai is a capable fighter, drinker and negotiator. He prides himself on his brain, much as he is aware of its limits. His wit isn’t subtle, but it’s subtle enough not to really be coarse, even when he thinks or speaks badly of his fellow man. The book is supposedly written from his perspective and he keeps interrogating and tweaking the conventions of how to write a genre novel. I say he’s the author and not just the narrator, because the book, at the end, takes care to preserve suspense by giving up the coherent genteel novel structure for short, dashed off diary entries. Mortdecai mocks everything – including his criminal life and the culture around him. He’s literate, but in a dashed-off, almost superficial way – as when he quotes a famous line by Mallarmé, which you’ll find much more often quoted by Brits than by French writers.

This pretend erudition is curiously mirrored by the author himself who has attached epigraphs from Robert Browning’s poetry to each chapter – and moreover, the book’s final action packed encounter takes place in the lake district, an area of Britain indelibly connected to the work of Wordsworth. There is a paper waiting to be written about the Browning – Wordsworth tension and how it’s reflected in the plot of this little British potboiler. Another interesting angle of the book is its connection to Jewishness. There’s a peculiar history in British culture to Jewishness (for contemporary comment see the work of Howard Jacobson or Anthony Julius’ recent romp through British literary and cultural history), and I can’t help but feel the book at times toy with it. There’s Mortdecai himself, whose name carries “a hint of Jewry” and later on we are introduced to other Jewish people with various connections to Europe and history. None of this is foregrounded, and in a way, the central passages of the book that sees Mortdecai travel through the US have a whiff of the laid-back anthropology of Jean Baudrillard’s anthropology-road trip. The elements are there: we have the desert, the wideness of space, the overdetermined, hyperreal, “déserts du trop de signification.” But none of this weighs down the book in any way, we witness the book nodding to certain figures of thought here and there, but it all happens en passant.

Mortdecai_poster (1)And there’s more: despite all the levity of Mortdecai’s tone and the games he plays with genre expectations – the world of the novel is by turns dark and grotesque. A nymphomaniac Jewish woman from Vienna who married (and possibly killed) a famous (and criminal) art collector, living on a farm somewhere in the American heartland? Surely grotesque. Police and other government agencies that are corrupt, unscrupulous and brutal, willing to torture, kill and deceive to protect politicians from scandal? Dark but not necessarily grotesque. It is amusing that the movie Mortdecai kept some of the murders and (in the movie: attempted) torture scenes, but hands them over to stereotypical Chinese or Russian villains. I think it speaks to Bonfiglioli’s novel that it managed to combine humor and brutality in one cohesive story, and it was too dicey or difficult for the movie version to do the same, so the movie went back to the Hot Shots school of villainy, except it also lacked the commitment to pure unadulterated silliness. As an art world noir, Don’t Point That Thing At Me is a rousing success, a book much more complicated and interesting than we might be tempted to think. And the writing itself is just such a joy. And its standout lines stick with you, so much so that, upon watching the ill-conceived Depp vehicle, you notice each and every direct quote from the book. Not because you remember them from reading – but because in a mediocre, tired script, they shine like some purloined jewelry in the dry summer grass.

The first epigraph of the novel is from Pippa Passes, Browning’s first major post-Sordello work. Pippa Passes is noteworthy in part because of the non-judgmental way it depicts immorality. The epigraph chosen by Bonfiglioli is “So old a story and tell it no better?” – divorced from Browning’s context (the Intendant’s plans for Pippa), it’s also significant for the book itself. Coming this early in the book, it works like a challenge from Bonfiglioli, a mischievous, spirited writer if I ever saw one, to himself. And he tells it much better.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Kerascoët & Vehlmann: Beautiful Darkness

Kerascoët and Vehlmann, Fabien (2009), Jolies Ténèbres, Dupuis ISBN 978-2-8001-4238-8

[English translation: Kerascoët and Vehlmann, Fabien (2014), Beautiful Darkness, Drawn & Quarterly Translated by Helge Dascher ISBN 978-1770461291]

DSC_1267I will admit. Even though I read quite a healthy number of comic books and graphic novels and whatever else your preferred nomenclature is, I rarely come across a book in the genre that really, truly, profoundly delights and astonishes me any more. Jolies Ténèbres by Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann is such a comic. In it, the creative trio (Kerascoët is a duo of artists, consisting of the Parisian Sebastien Cosset and the Brest native Marie Pommepuy, who also co-wrote the script with Fabien Vehlmann) takes us onto a journey that is both magical and horrifying, into a story that’s equal parts allegory, fairy tale and gritty realism. The art and the writing complement each other so well that it is difficult to believe that the book is not the result of one person’s inventive but slightly strange brain and in a way it is Marie Pommepuy’s creation, since it’s based on her idea, and she is both part of the writing and the illustrating team. The book was published in France in 2009 and has been translated into multiple languages, one of which is English. It’s published in English by Drawn & Quarterly and I hope they managed to produce as fine a volume as the original publisher Dupuis, because the book on my desk is magnificent in every way. Magnificently written, magnificently drawn and magnificently produced. In its English translation, the book has made a number of best-of lists – and with good reason. This book is more than a compelling read – it’s also endlessly re-readable, offering layers upon layers to its spellbound readers. The creative team doesn’t deploy allegory as a cheap moralizing technique and yet there’s an air of almost medieval weight to the way life, death and obsession is meted out on the books’ faux-adorable characters. Beautiful Darkness is very, very good and manages to strike the difficult balance between being very smart and clever on the one hand, and incredibly enjoyable on the other. Buy it, read it. Go on. I’ll wait.

BEAUTIFUL-02_0 I admit I haven’t had an opportunity to read Drawn & Quarterly’s translation, but I found one editorial decision highly dubious. Even though the French edition makes clear that the book is based on an idea by Marie Pommepuy, that the script was written by Pommepuy and Vehlmann and that Kerascoët (i.e. Pommepuy and Cosset) are the illustrators, and the French spine has “Kerascoët & Vehlmann” as the attribution, the English edition has, in big and bold letters, the attribution “Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët” and most reviews I could rustle up treated Vehlmann as the author and Kerascoët merely as the illustrators. This might seem like a minor issue, and a bit of an odd issue to mention this early in the review, but it irks me. Maybe because I’ve just put up my review of Hunger’s Brides and was reminded of the fact that, going back all the way to the middle ages, as Karen McKnight showed, men were primarily seen as authors, and women at best as mechanical escritors. I’m sure Vehlmann contributed most or a hefty chunk of the script. Of the three artists involved in the project, he’s the one with the most extensive experience writing comic book scripts. Yet Pommepuy’s involvement at all stages of the project seems at least as significant, and pushing her aside to share the illustrating role strikes me as odd. Especially because Beautiful Darkness is, to an important degree, a book about female experience. It’s a female encounter with death, a female mind disintegrating into a large mass of overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) female characters and shards (I’ll explain in a moment) with an ending that directly addresses questions of family, patriarchy and dominance. Moreover, the French book jacket shows two women, one pale, faded, real and dead, one colorful, cartoonish and curious. No matter what your interpretation of the book is (and there’s a fair variety of possible readings in a book whose authors pride themselves on the indeterminate story they crafted), there’s no doubt that this is a profoundly gendered story. These being the facts, I am rubbed the wrong way by Fabien Vehlmann being the first and most distinguishable name on the cover of Drawn & Quarterly’s Beautiful Darkness.

DSC_1274So much of the book’s first reading depends, I think on the surprise of what develops and how it develops, so I won’t discuss the plot, except to mention the premise. A dead girl lies in a meadow in a wood clearing. She’s roughly 8, wearing wellies and next to her is a school bag. Has she been murdered? Has she died of natural causes? Has she had an accident? We are not told and depending on how you read the book as a whole, we might not know even after the book’s conclusion. The image of the dead girl as we first see her, rain pouring down on her still body, is powerful, realistic and frightening – and comes as a bit of a shock to the reader who has read the opening pages of two cartoonish, cute characters having a sort of tea party as their house suddenly collapses. In the next pages, a multitude of cute, cartoon characters leaves the dead body through its various orifices. The book is painted in watercolors (I think), but the cartoon characters with their large eyes will remind the reader more of the black and white traditions of manga and the inventiveness of the golden age of Spirou magazine, when it carried early versions of now legendary and bestselling titles like Boule et Bill, the Smurfs or the eponymous Spirou (when it was written by the great André Franquin). The manga association mainly stems from my reading of the work of Osamu Tezuka, as far as I have read it, which combines adorable, large eyed characters with at times brutal or terrifying stories, which is not something I associate with the French tradition. Additionally, the French tradition as outlined skews very male (with Peyo’s Smurfette even having become shorthand for a misogynist trope), while the Tezuka line allows for more room. The tensions and violence in gender relations are part of Tezuka’s work as early as 1949 when he first published Metropolis and continuing with books like Princess Knight (aka “the Mother of all shōjo manga”) and Ayako (cf. my review here). That said, I don’t have enough background on the genre to really elucidate the comic book lines of influence on Beautiful Darkness.

DSC_1262 Embedded in the comic is the story of a young girl who has suddenly fallen into a topsy-turvy world of confusion, and has to use her wits to combat it and make her way through it – a story clearly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland (it helps that the color scheme of the character in question broadly corresponds to the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland). There are only light similarities (the topics of eating and consumption are prominent in both books, themes of perspective, truth and identity are discussed in both books etc.), but in a way, Beautiful Darkness is constructed out of a vary broad set of light resemblances. Another similarity can be found in the rich tradition of children’s book characters that live with or alongside humans and that are not quite animals and not quite human like The Wombles or especially Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. The book uses these influences as a kind of distancing effect – we see the cartoonish figures make do with everyday objects that they employ for strange or humorous effect. Another reference are surely Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, especially the early ones, where Jansson just throws her creations into all kinds of adventurous situations. The first one, The Moomins and the Great Flood seems particularly of interest as a comparison, which includes the art of the illustrations. We have strange, small characters in a dangerous and confusing natural environment, we have animals used as transportation by characters that are cartoonish and neither human nor clearly animal. There’s a limit to the role that children’s books can have in the creation of Beautiful Darkness, however, since the book is not just dark as the title suggests, but also very brutal, sometimes abruptly so. The only genre that can offer similar levels of cruelty and darkness are fairly tales, especially the unexpurgated versions. Look at the Grimm Brothers. There’s a story in their collection of a girl walking around with her cut off hands tied to a string and hung around her neck.

DSC_1265More significantly, look at Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Less obviously brutal than the Brothers Grimm, the Danish writer composed fairy tales that were equally rooted in folk tales as well as in the fertile imagination of a talented writer, writing in the mid-19th century, with modernity in full swing. Significantly for a reading of Beautiful Darkness, Andersen’s stories are not clustered around a moral message, which was loudly decried at the time of publication, but the lightly worn immorality has helped ensure Andersen’s longevity. Immorality is an important aspect of the comic. Not because it’s intentionally immoral, but because it carefully and intentionally sidesteps the idea of moralizing its story. Frequently, story twists are actually twists away from an expected and moralistic fable. That’s also what separates Beautiful Darkness from yet another tradition: allegory, especially medieval allegory. It’s entirely feasible (up to a point) to read many of the cartoonish characters as emblematic of aspects of the young girl’s personality. This is not far from classic books like Pilgrim’s Progress, which has remained a fascinating read for centuries. Other books that allegorically discuss human nature like Lord of the Flies are obvious candidates (perhaps, even, if we employ a generous abstraction, the Hunger Games) for interpretative foils. But both Bunyan and Golding have a message to impart to their respective readers – Kerascoët and Vehlmann do not. They make use of the seductive power of allegory, and of the interpretative paths it opens for their book but ultimately they decline the moral commitment. They are aware of all the intertexts or at least many of them, and sometimes appear to offer them to the reader on a silver platter, telling them: we know that you know. They use them to get the reader’s brain to work, to read the text more attentively, more precisely, more openly. They invite us to read the book not as this or that but as this and that. Discussing the different personalities living in us and looking at what happens to us when we fall into the wilderness, left to our own devices, for example.

I am aware that this attribution page inside the book says, as does the French

I am aware that this attribution page inside the book says, as does the French “Based on original idea by Marie Pommepuy. Story by Marie Pommepuy & Fabien Vehlmann”. It changes little about the cover, especially since it’s in small print under a repetition of the cover attribution (which the French book doesn’t have)

And this, at the end, is where I return to my earlier rant. I did say the book does not commit to an easy morality – but it is not without commitment. It’s a very tightly scripted story with no lost panels, with every page, every panel, every detail constributing either to the plot or the atmosphere of the book, but on a different level, with all the allusions and the ambiguous readings it allows, it’s also baggy and expansive. It challenges easy readings by offering us dozens of intertexts and then breaking with them, in one way or another, eventually ending in a symbolically and psychoanalytically rich final tableau. My first association was with Luce Irigaray’s early and controversial SPECULUM: De l’autre femme. Like Irigaray’s explosive book, there’s a way to read Beautiful Darkness as commenting on a certain gendered tradition of storytelling without really arguing a case, just offering its readers a way to think through it. Because that was my association upon reading it I find the foregrounding of Fabien Vehlmann a bit irksome. I do think the book has a commitment: a commitment to storytelling itself. Or maybe I’m over-interpreting. Even without all my blather, the fact is that Beautiful Darkness is a lovely, funny, terrifying, mystifying masterpiece of the genre. Please read it at your earliest convenience. This is my 6th review this year and it’s very clearly the best book I’ve reviewed so far. I’m not exaggerating. If you like comic books you will love this. GO NOW.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

W. Paul Anderson: Hunger’s Brides

Anderson, W. Paul (2005), Hunger’s Brides, Carroll & Graf.

ISBN 9780786715411

DSC_1250Everyone knows Randall Jarrell’s definition of a novel (“…a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it…”), which he wrote in his extraordinary review of Christina Stead’s wild and amazingly miserable masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children. Frequently, this quote is used to discuss the relative merits of shorter books as compared to longer books. The most perfect novels I know tend to be short of length, like Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier or James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (possibly more of a novella, that one). The longer a book, the more writers are tempted to include mischief, to be undisciplined and a bit muddled. Hence Jarrell’s description, voiced in a vociferous defense of a novel that is both very messy and very, very good. Some of the book’s faults “are the faults a large enough, live enough thing naturally has,” he wrote. Me, personally, I prefer the messy, long and ambitious book to the short and disciplined one. I find it hard to overlook lapses and faults in a novel when it barely exceeds 150 pages, but a long book powered by literary ambition is much easier to forgive for its flaws and problems. Most of my favorite books are so-called doorstoppers, from Gaddis’ The Recognitions to A Glastonbury Romance. Not all attempts at voluminous ambition are as successful as those three, and yet I am always drawn to the big and alive books. Adam Levin’s gargantuan novel of Jewish prophecy and rebellion The Instructions was one of my favorite novels published that year and I still regret never having reviewed it. It’s very flawed, clearly longer than it should have been but ultimately, it’s precisely its length and implied scope and vision that makes that book such a joy to read. Even in genre fiction, size is a potent argument for me. Similarly, if I was to make a list of all the things wrong with Paul Anderson’s 1400 page behemoth Hunger’s Brides, it would far exceed the usual length of my reviews.

DSC_1248 Having finished the book 1 ½ times I am not even entirely sure he’s a very good writer, but every time I browse the book I am itching to reread it. There’s just so much of it, and that statement exceeds questions of length and weight (I believe it’s much heavier than other books of similar length I own; this is a weapon, not a book!). There’s a novel-within-a-novel, a diary-within-a-diary, there are footnotes that are not instructive but integral to the story, there’s a film script, there’s poetry, there are scholarly discussions and there are, finally, translations from the work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. And despite all of this potentially overwhelming surfeit of material and the years and years of complex work that have gone into the book, the author has managed to present us with not one, not two, but three gripping narratives. There’s a contemporary novel of detection and mystery, there is the narrative of a young student’s discovery of the importance of Sor Juana’s work and thinking for her own life and that of other women, and finally, in the center of the book, there’s the story of the stubborn and brilliant Mexican nun herself who, despite many difficulties, wrote poetry, prose and theology at a time when women were not supposed to be participating in the public conversation. Through this story, we are offered an intense view of 17th century Mexico, but through the other layers of the book, we can see how Sor Juana’s work and story reverberates through the centuries. And finally, there are pages and paged of footnotes, carefully detailing scholarship and reception of Sor Juana, footnotes that interrogate the narrative, but also contextualize it within the broader and very colorful literary history of Sor Juana. Not all of this is a success. There’s so much that annoys me about this book, and so much that isn’t fully achieved, and yet – it’s a stupendous achievement to put all of this into a book and have it be so eminently readable. If you have the time, go buy a copy and then read it. Take it to the beach.

DSC_1249The book itself, as I intimated earlier, is structured like an onion, stories wrapped in stories, wrapped in stories. The basic conceit of Hunger’s Brides is that it’s a collection of edited, narrated and footnoted documents found and assembled by Donald Gregory, college professor, adulterer and all around swell human being. The documents he found are the diary and manuscript of Beulah Limosneros (pronounced “BYOOlah LeemosNEHRos” as we learn in the book). He assembles and presents it as a kind of defense in the case of her disappearance, because as it turns out, they were lovers once and he may or may not have had a hand in her disappearance. Both Gregory and Beulah are a bit obnoxious in their own way, but the college professor’s overbearing style and manner surely takes the cake. Paul Anderson takes care to carefully balance a characterization of Gregory through his words and style with the task of giving us basic information about the situation. Gregory may be an unreliable narrator, but he is all we have – and that extends to the task of factchecking Beulah’s documents. The fact is, Gregory is also the one who wrote the footnotes at the back which both enlighten us as to other literature on the topic, and explain certain allusions and other opaque passages to us, as well as give us additional information about Gregory’s relationship to Beulah. Paul Anderson did 12 years of research on this book and he does not wear his research lightly – but he made the choice of letting his two protagonists carry the burden of being know-it-alls with a flowery diction and a dire need for editorial toughness. Anderson does an excellent job of controlling both his research as well as his characters, using the frequent infodumps and research humblebrags for great literary effect. With their help, he constructs two characters who are very dissimilar, but united in their obsession for scholarship, Sor Juana and the life of Beulah Limosneros.

DSC_1256The major source of research for Beulah is Octavio Paz’s magnificent book on the Mexican poet. If you want solid information on her, that’s the book you should read, or grab one of the many translations that are available. Hunger’s Brides is not interested in giving you the truth, if by “truth” we mean historically accurate and verifiable truth. Early in the book, Gregory offers us a disquisition on literary liars, by which he means novelists who have written books on a historical topic and who were less than truthful. He puts particular emphasis on noted teutonic trickster Karl May and concludes “if you want to better understand the true, study the liar.” I will say that the biography of Sor Juana is not a complete fabrication. Much of it dovetails nicely with what I read from Paz and some other sources, but Beulah, who is the ‘author’ of the story of Sor Juana, embellishes and, more importantly, fills gaps in the fairly spotty historical record. Her method is empathy, and part of her research involves an intense trip to Mexico. The journal that she keeps during that trip, before and after, is the second layer of the onion. Her writing is curiously purple, riddled with mixed metaphors and an entirely authentic intensity as you’d expect from a young grad student with very strong personal convictions. The first time we meet her is when she walks up to Prof. Gregory after a class and confronts him with weaknesses in his syllabus. He is attracted to this young student who doesn’t walk out but “sways out of the room”, and who has also read “everything [he] published”. Feeling flattered and sexually stimulated, Gregory quickly turns into the kind of professor readers remember from books by Roth, Updike or Coetzee and like those writers, the story quickly develops overtones of a male/female struggle for power. Paul Anderson brilliantly draws on these archetypes in order to interrogate some of their underlying assumptions. The figure and example of Sor Juana and the nuns who preceded her help him destabilize some well worn binaries of the campus novel.

DSC_1258The main contrast is the one of the young, passionate and nubile woman, and the old, rational and angry professor. Anderson has his protagonist grouse about his “horror of magical realism” and recounts his preference to “approach[ing] Beulah’s story […] scientifically, methodically”. This contrast, which we know even today as beig put forth by some writers on gender was particularly important in Sor Juana’s time, especially for a woman pursuing the kind of writing and influence she did. As Grace Jantzen points out, “Emphasis on the intellect marginalised women because they were considered to be ‘misbegotten males’, deficient alike in intellect and in morality.” Jantzen and Stacey Schlau point out how this emphasis on “charismatic” women, as contrasted with the more deliberate and intelligent men, served to put female theologies under constant threat. At a first glance, Hunger’s Bride’s writing seems to support rather than undermine such mindsets, as Gregory’s framing story and footnotes appear to be much more openly intellectual than Beulah’s documents, many of whom are emotional, empathetic searches for the real Sor Juana. Since much of the book’s excitement comes from following her mind down those winding roads, I can hardly detail them here, but what’s interesting is that Anderson takes care to constantly nudge us away from the binary view of Beulah as the natural, empathetic one and Gregory as the rational intellectual. Not only is Gregory’s comment constantly fraught with paranoia, self-love and fear, as he himself is trying to evade prosecution and find out what happened to Beulah; more, Beulah herself is frequently led to situations where she has to acknowledge the limits of her academic conception of reading and readers, and the ensuing economic assumptions. One particular striking encounter is the one with her guide through the mexican wilderness, Xochitl and her daughter. At one point, early in the book, she exclaims, in shock “You read books?” That’s not far from Saul Bellow and the Zulus, and yet she is presented to us as an enlightened young woman, well skilled in the theories of the day. This serves us to understand how these oppositions are not just entrenched, but also unstable and can shift. One is reminded of the poverty of today’s identity-focused discussions (in contrast to, say, theories by Foucault or Cassirer).

There was no room for it in the review but there's a similarity to the 2003

There was no room for it in the review but there’s a similarity to the 2003 “Murder-Mystery” HA! by fellow Canadian Sheppard in the way Anderson handles his Gregory voice.

Moreover, it’s not as easy as seeing the diary as an inferior form of writing as compared to Gregory’s footnotes and commentary. The choice of diary as the form in which we encounter Beulah’s writing is actually quite inspired. As Felicity Nussbaum points out, “[women’s] journals, diaries and fragments of autobiographies may be devices to construct, imagine and declare an identity [and they] undermine ideologies of recovering and representing reality.” and Gillian Ahlgren states that, while it eventually came to be a liability, initially, the role of laywomen in charismatic, empathetic, experience-based discourses was a method to escape fixed roles. Hunger’s Brides is subtitled “A Novel of the Baroque” and the notion of the Baroque is rather helpful in understanding the way this novel works. Through Beulah’s diary and her story/novel of Sor Juana’s life, notions of truth and perception are jumbled. I think the term of the Baroque as used by Deleuze, with the figure of ‘the fold’ that reverses and confuses ideas of interiority and exteriority is apropos here. Sor Juana herself, we learn in Stephanie Merrim’s book on the poet, offered a very complex disquisition on knowledge and Holy Ignorance in a poem that’s sadly not in my selection of her work. Paz’ elegant and very learned book on Sor Juana has done much to emphasize the depth of her engagement with tradition and myth and literature, but he occasionally falls prey to the same condescension that many students of Sor Juana’s work have brought to the table. Her autodidacticism has kept many people from truly valuing her achievement, as Stephanie Merrim’s monumental study, which Anderson surely knew when writing his book, points out in exhaustive detail. There is a sense in Hunger’s Brides of us seeing this bias in Gregory’s writing and in Beulah’s strides towards knowledge and truth. At the same time, the woman we get to know in the diaries is not a genius, and I can’t help but feel as if Paul Anderson’s emotional protagonist Beulah is a strange foil to use in a discussion of the undeniably brilliant Sor Juana.

DSC_1259Because Sor Juana’s life and work really engages our ideas of feminity and writing, and because Anderson’s book is such an overwhelming grab-bag of ideas, locales, genres and characters, much of it seems to fit in one way or another. And this is not an exercise in guessing intentions, but we know from many sources like Frank Warnke’s lovely book on the Baroque that the theater, both as a genre as well as a trope and metaphor, were very important during that time. Is this enough to see the film script at the end as a clever commentary on, to quote Warnke, “the concern with the illusory quality of experience which runs obsessively through the literature of the first two-thirds of the 17th century”? Or is that just postmodern exuberance and a feeling of just trying things out? Reading the book and rereading it, I sometimes feel like it’s more the latter. Hunger’s Brides offers us a lot of ideas – but it also offers us a lot of space to spread those ideas. There’s a distinct lack of writerly and editorial discipline, and it’s not like in the similarly flawed (but more engaging) The Instructions, where the leisurely speed at least corresponds to the chosen genre. Anderson is clearly not on Sor Juana’s level, and the open ended, mystical way he deals with historical knowledge indicates that he knows this -but it still makes for a slightly awkward reading experience. I will say this. I don’t know that I would instantly grab whatever next book Paul Anderson publishes, but with all its flaws, Hunger’s Brides is a unique book, a large book by a writer with not quite that large a literary talent. Its faults don’t grate, however. They feed into the book, they add to its characters and they add to the overall fascination that book has with Sor Juana, with history, and with the quest of writing about yourself and about history. In a way, it throws up its hands about history, especially the buried, neglected and abused history of women in a way that reminds one of Absalom, Absalom: “It’s just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that’s it: they don’t explain and we are not supposed to know.” Go read this book. It’s a ton of fun. It really is.

DSC_1251If you, however, attempt to purchase the book, make sure to get the right one. The author and publisher have also published a second book that contains just one of the many narratives of the book. The two book covers are very similar, but the second version is a 750 page abbreviation, almost half the length of the original book. Going by the title of Sor Juana or the Breath of Heaven: The Essential Story from the Epic Hunger’s Brides, it contains the novel-within-a-novel about Sor Juana, but, judging from the summary, also portions relating to the present day. It’s not quite as radical an excision as The Whalestoe Letters, the very slim book of mother-son letters drawn from the larger and more difficult novel House of Leaves, but it clearly aims to present a “readable” version of the original novel. So be careful. The book’s existence itself is a bit of a puzzle to me since the original novel is not a difficult read, and is, overall, exciting and often even spellbinding. I understand the issue of length, but I don’t think the reading public is much more reticent to buyy into a 1300 page novel than into a 750 page novel. Danielewski’s Whalestoe Letters are a mere 80 pages, a significant enough difference that its excision and separate publication makes financial sense. And lastly, I take issue with the idea that there is an “essental story” to be cut from the larger body of Hunger’s Brides. The book itself, repeatedly, undertakes a defense of the baroque, the luxuriant, large project as contrasted to Puritan simplicity and discipline. It’s not just over-bordering richness, it’s also using the baroque as a figure to express larger aesthetic concerns with meaning beyond what’s easily put into words. The abbreviated book is an odd betrayal of the original novel that I am personally not convinced translates into significantly better sales.


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Stalking Robert Walser

When I went to Switzerland for a reading (see here and here) I found out that the city my publisher is based in is not only the city that Der Gehülfe is based in but the Villa Abendstern, centrally featured in the novel, is still there and reasonably well preserved. Imagine my excitement. The two people on one of the pictures feature me and my publisher, not a bear mauling an innocent woman.

Das Toblersche Haus war überdies noch zweiteilig, es bestund aus einem Wohnhaus sowohl wie einem Geschäftshaus, und Josephs Pflicht und Schuldigkeit war, beide Sorten Hauser ergründen zu lernen.

walser 1

walser 2

walser 3

walser 4

Grigorcea, Bachmann and Germany’s Next Idol

tddl If you follow me on twitter and you wondered about the deluge of German tweets on Friday and Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain. I was live-tweeting the strangest of events.

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, Frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are all more or less young writers but they don’t have to be novelists. Actually, poets tend to do well. Lutz Seiler, one of Germany’s leading and best poets, won the competition in 2007, and his first novel wasn’t published until last year. This year’s winner is the extraordinary Nora-Eugenie Gomringer, daughter of one of Germany’s greatest living poets, Eugen Gomringer, and an excellent and influential poet and slam poet in her own right. She hasn’t published fiction yet, but her extraordinary feel for language allowed her to sway enough jurors to her cause. At 37 years of age, she’s I believe the oldest of the three prize winners.

One of the two other prizes voted on by the jury went to Dana Grigorcea, whose debut novel Baba Rada I’ve reviewed recently in anticipation of her reading. She read an excerpt from her forthcoming novel which is extremely different from her debut novel, as far as I can tell from the text she read. It’s a much more detail oriented, carefully sculpted, sober text about a childhood and adolescence in Bucharest, just as the country went through its own pangs of change and maturation. No wild metaphors, murders or insanity in this book, but from what I can tell, it’s the same exquisite writing.

You can, if your German is up to it, see videos of all the readings and jury discussions from this year’s TDDL here (though I’m not sure how long they’ll be available online) and you can find all the texts as .pdf files here.

Dana Grigorcea: Baba Rada

Grigorcea, Dana (2011), Baba Rada: Das Leben ist vergänglich wie die Kopfhaare, KaMeRu Verlag
ISBN 978-3-906739-67-0

dg_babarada-202x300I will say this. We all have blind spots for texts if they hit our sweet spot very precisely. I mentioned that in my review of the most recent John Irving novel. In those situations, we (or at least I) can just throw up our hands and say: hey, I like it. Is it good? I don’t know. Sometimes there are texts that come close to checking all the boxes, but don’t hit the sweet spot quite that exactly, so that you’re left with a vague unease. Jim Jarmusch’s most recent movie Only Lovers Left Alive is, for me, that kind of movie. On the one hand, it’s exactly the kind of movie that would appeal to me (take from that what you will), but I have enough of a distance, however tiny, to have some msigivings about the way it’s constructed (and Hiddleston’s acting). Dana Grigorcea’s debut novel Baba Rada has a very similar effect on me. Despite the author’s name and the book’s main title, both of which are obviously Romanian, the book itself is written in German. It’s a very unsubtle German, but suffused with a clearly understood sense of what it can mean to be poetic while writing prose. Make no mistake: this is prose clearly intended to be “poetic” – but Grigorcea pulls it off most of the time, using the inversions, odd subjects and unusual choices of verbs and adjectives to build atmosphere. That’s relevant because for much of the novel that’s the main task of the prose: building atmosphere. The plot happens almost imperceptibly. People die, marry, cheat, in what’s ultimately a fairly short a mount of time, but somehow we don’t feel hurried through a plot. Instead we see episodes bloom in each short chapter, as if staged. Into these short episodes and the overall plot Grigorcea puts ample servings of politics, history, and questions of gender, nation and travel. It’s far from a perfect book, but it’s the debut novel of a very young woman, and the potential here is immense. And as a book, even without the potential, it’s an absolutely lovely book, and if you are a translator looking for your next project, why not take a look at this book, which you should translate at your earliest convenience.

In the next weeks, I will review two or three or more novels written by immigrants (judging from the half written reviews on my desktop), but this is the only one written by a Romanian. Dana Grigorcea was born in Romania, where she studied German and Dutch languages and literature. At the age of 23 (she’s 35 now) she moved first to Belgium, then to Austria, where she finished her M.A.. Eventually she settled in Switzerland where she published her debut novel with a small Swiss publisher. As a Romanian writing in German, she’s part of a long tradition, but at the same time, she’s also part of a much younger tradition. Let me explain. For decades, German literature has been enriched by writers from Romania. Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer on the one hand, and more recent authors like Herta Müller and Oskar Pastior on the other. The commonality between Celan and Müller is that neither of them is ethnically Romanian. Both of them grew up speaking German. Paul Celan in the Jewish community of Czernowitz and Müller in the German community of the Banat. It’s been that way for a while until a more recent wave of writers from Romania arrived on the literary scene. Of the ones I read and remember, there’s Catalin Dorian Florescu, born in Timișoara, there’s Aglaja Veteranyi, born in Bucharest and finally there’s Dana Grigorcea. Interestingly, all three eventually settled in Switzerland. Florescu and Veteranyi are/were extraordinary writers and Grigorcea looks to continue this new tradition. But in a way, tracing this lineage is misleading. All of the writers in this paragraph wrote (or are still writng) in German primarily, and all of them do or did an exceptional job. Except for one odd mannierism in Grigorcea’s novel, there’s really no reason to tie any of them to their country of origin except in how it influences their choice of subject matter etc. If anything, these writers are better prose writers than their contemporaries (well, I have some misgivings re: Florescu), regardless of where they were born or which language they spoke in school.

Baba Rada is a strange little book. Split into tiny chapters, each of which has a title that’s a kind of summary of the events about to transpire, it tells us the story of an older woman/grandmother, whose life somewhere in the south of Romania, is about to be thoroughly shaken when an acquaintance (as well as the father of her grandchild) drops off a “terrorist”, and is subsequently murdered himself. The unfolding story involves her daughter, Baba Rada’s hopes for the future, the terrorist and Baba Rada’s long amorous history. Much more important than the story are the numerous small descriptions that Grigorcea peppers her book with, the odd characters and the shards of memory and dream that keep surfacing. Violence barely makes a dent in Baba Rada’s life, which is the life of a survivor. She knows how to deal with hardships and has acquired the reputation of a hard-nosed, quick-witted and sharp-tongued woman around the village. Some chapters are written from her perspective, some are not. Those that are not, invariably contain a phrase to the effect that “if Baba Rada had heard of this, she would have had something sharp to say.” If this description makes you infer a certain oral quality to the work, you’re both right and wrong. Yes, the book is clearly supposed to be spoken loud by at least two speakers. This is a story told, not a story written. This effect is buttressed by the limpid quality of the stories told. Digressions, strange details, angry remarks and sometimes seemingly superfluous characterizations abound. Early on, a female character is introduced through a long, evocative description, only to be unceremoniously murdered off stage two short chapters later. It’s equally important that we add a character to our mental map of the landscape as it is what eventually happens to said character. A minor male character remembers a long period of his life in less than three small pages, yet the author offers us two full paragraphs within that small bit of text to emblematically describe just one, admittedly brief, sexual act. Why? Because Grigorcea’s writing is so dense and evocative that these two paragraphs are enough for us to understand the great love between the two lovers of the scene, as well as the sense of tragic passion, and commitment to art, that pervades the whole book.

Grigorcea's forthcoming sophomore novel - a sober novel aabout a childhood in Bucharest

Grigorcea’s forthcoming sophomore novel – a sober novel about a childhood in Bucharest

It is admittedly a bit much sometimes. Baba Rada is enormously rich, which isn’t helped by the fact that despite all the hints at orality, the writing is actually highly artificial and self consciously “poetic”, sometimes in an almost saccharine way. Grigorcea makes the rookie mistake of debut novelists and tries to just cram everything into the short span of her books. From a highly literate style to light, humorous phrasings we find everything in the book, except badly written prose. The book might be overwritten in parts, but it’s never underwritten, never sloppy. The author’s attention is always with us. Which makes two odd artifacts more interesting. They concern translation. One is a stylistic quirk that the adept reader of literature written in- and translated into- German will recognize: the typical translation choices of translators to render certain Russian phrases into German. That’s one of the reasons that some reviewers contextualized this novel not with the Romanian culture of its setting, but with the Russian culture of some of its phrases. It’s am intriguing choice which also fits the Baba Rada / Baba Jaga correspondence, and one wonders whether it might not have been intentional. This muddying of the Romanian context is made even stronger by the author’s decision to employ a very strict idea of translation throughout the book. There are not “ethnic” phrases in the book, no token Romanian phrases, titles or terms. If not for the proper names, one would be excused for being confused about its setting. Instead of “mămăligă” (which is a kind of basic Romanian national dish), for example, the book uses “Maisbrei” throughout, which is actually slightly less exact, since Mămăligă is a kind of Maisbrei. The word “Mămăligă” however, literally translates to “Maisbrei”. The author translates everything like this, with imprecise results like this one and some downright strange ones. At one point, Baba Rada mentions her father, “the singer Romeo Fantastisch” – for a German audience, it’s just a name. But in Romania, there’s a exceptionally popular singer called Romeo Fantastik (click here if you dare). Speaking of music, there is the “popular song” that gives the book its subtitle. As far as I can tell, the song (unless it’s an invention by the author) is “Aşa-i viaţa, trecătoare” by Maria Ciobanu (click on this link at your own risk), and if that’s true, the author has intentionally stylized its refrain to be more artificial German. I could probably write another 1000 words on the utterly fascinating way Grigorcea obscures and toys with the Romanian contexts of her story (to give just one more example: at one point she refers to the daughter Ileana as having a “fairy tale princess name”, an odd claim for a German (or English) audience. For Romanians, however, this makes a ton of sense, because it feels like all Romanian fairy tale princesses are called Ileana). The book sometimes reads like translated from Romanian, sometimes it reads like written by a German who has never been to Romania. Linguistically, it’s genuinely exciting.

In a way, it’s fitting that German critics have read this book not just in Russian contexts, but also in German literary traditions. Every single review I found referred to Baba Rada as a “Mother Courage” type character, referring to Bertold Brecht’s epochal play. But it really goes beyond that. Brecht’s play, set in the 30 years’ war, is the story of a female merchant who travels through war ravaged Europe, trying to make her way by hook or by crook. In the process she loses all of her children, but survives herself. The parallels are clear. Like Mother Courage, Baba Rada is a survivor, and like Mother Courage, she sometimes plays fast and loose with her own offspring. But Brecht’s play is intensely didactic, intensely moral, really quite dour, to be honest. The vibrant, evocative novel that Grigorcea wrote seems hard to reconcile with that. Those critics where, not, however, far from the truth. Brecht’s play is in turn based on a classic baroque novel with the (very long) title Trutz Simplex oder Lebensbeschreibung der Ertzbetrügerin und Landstörtzerin Courasche, commonly known just by the name of its protagonist Courasche. It’s a much more intense, much less openly didactic episodic baroque masterpiece. The fitful nature of Grigorcea’s style makes much more sense if compared to the vibrant baroque picarescque novel. And it explains other things as well. Grigorcea’s novel is also, in a subdued but clear way, a criticism of the masculine ways of writing and conducting history. The cipher-like “terrorist”, and the unfulfilling, brutal and strange heterosexual affairs of the book contribute to this. Similarly, Courasche is a picaresque novel that was conceived by its author as a counterweight to his first novel, the more widely known Simplicissimus, a picaresque novel set in the same period, but narrated and led by a male character.

polaIts use of feminity as structuring the narrative, and frequently undercutting the male authority figures like cops is something that turns up in German emigré literature again and again. It’s so common that it now turns up in a reasonably executed by flat way in the books of deeply mediocre novelists like Katerina Poladjan’s disappointing debut novel In einer Nacht, woanders. Poladjan was born in Russia, and wrote a novel about the tension of living in Germany with roots in Russia. As the book progresses, we find ourselves in a dark swamp of sex, rape, jealousy and incest. Poladjan does not have the literary skill to moderate, to adapt and elevate these topics into a coherently written novel. We are left with the intention and the raw tropes of feminity, loss and sexuality. Grigorcea, by contrast, has created a book that, despite its rookie mistakes and the overdetermined writing, has still room for subtle discussions of politics and alterity. Behind her story is the question of American torture and secret CIA prisons (Romania housed some of them) and how they link up to Romania’s own totalitarian past. It employs the unnamed, dark figure of the terrorist as a figure of alterity that only functions if we read it in extratextual contexts. There are allusions that we don’t understand if we don’t know where he’s likely from, that he’s likely Muslim etc. As for Grigorcea’s use of death, religion and sexuality, I would not be surprised to learn that she has read or studied the work of Michael Taussig, especially Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. The way death and religion are used to destabilize easy signification, the way sacred spaces and discourses of healing, dying and resurrection keep coming up in the narrow frame of the book, it reminds me of Taussig’s powerful classic study. Everything is somehow connected in the book, which would have been a significantly better book if the author had had more patience, given herself more space, more words instead of piling interpretations one on top of the other.

Look. Baba Rada is a dense novel by a clever, talented and erudite author. It’s easy to read too much into these kinds of books, but it’s to this novel’s credit that there’s enough substance for me to make these readings. Overall, there’s just too much in this book. Too many odd characters, too much “poetic” phrasing, just too much that doesn’t get room to breathe. But this is a singular talent and a very good book despite all. Her new novel will be published in August. I, for one, can’t wait.


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