Review-A Whole Life: A Novel by Robert Seethaler

I received a review copy of this title from Farrar, Straus & Giroux via Netgalley. The book was published in the original German in 2014 and this English version has been translated by Charlotte Collins.

My Review:
a-whole-lifeWe are first introduced to Andres Egger in 1933 when he has had an unexplained instinct to pay a visit to his elderly neighbor, Horned Hannes.  Hannes is a reclusive goatherd who lives in the same Austrian mountain village as Egger and when Egger finds the old man he is barely alive.  Egger attempts to carry the goatherd on his back down the mountain but in a fit of madness due to his fever the goatherd runs off into the snow never to be seen again.  Between the time that Egger loses the goatherd while carrying him down the mountain and the goatherd’s petrified body is found forty years later on a mountain ledge, we are told the story of Egger’s whole life.

From the beginning of the book there is a sense of foreboding and ill omen.  As Egger is struggling down the mountain side with the goatherd strapped to his back they engage in an eerie conversation about death.  Horned Hannes tells Egger:  “People say death brings forth new life, but people are stupider than the stupidest nanny goat.  I say death brings forth nothing at all!  Death is the Cold Lady.”  This discussion of death hangs over the entire story like a dark storm cloud.  Egger’s tragic beginnings as an orphaned child further serve to set the tone as one of tragedy and misfortune.

Egger is orphaned as a small boy of four when his mother dies of consumption and he is sent to live with a distant relative.  The relative, a farmer named Hubert Kranzstocker, took pleasure in beating the small boy with a hazel rod for the slightest indiscretions like spilling his dinner.  Kranzstocker is so brutal in his beatings that he breaks the boy’s leg and causes Egger to have a limp for the rest of his life.  The author builds sympathy for this boy throughout the first part of the narrative: “To all intents and purposes he was not seen as a child.  He was a creature whose function was to work, pray, and bare his bottom for the hazel rod.”  To an outsider looking in, this wretched boy who is given no love and no warm place to call his own is deserving of the utmost pity;  but Egger himself would never think to waste a single moment on self-pity.  He stoically accepts what fate has to offer him and he does the best he can given his awful fate.

When Egger finally breaks free of his abusive relative at the age of eighteen he supports himself by taking on odd jobs and he saves up to buy himself a small piece of land on the mountain.  His earthly possessions are meager but they are his pride and joy because he bought them with his own earnings and he can make what he wants out of them.  The most sentimental thing that he owns is the gate that leads onto his property; one day he hopes to open the gate to a real visitor so he can show someone what he has made of the place.  This is a subtle hint that although Egger doesn’t complain about his isolation from the rest of the village, he still experiences loneliness and longs for some human contact and intimacy.  His visitor finally does come, in the form of a woman as gentle and brave as Egger himself.  But once again, cruel fate has other circumstances in store for Egger.

Egger eventually gets a regular job helping to build cable cars that will ferry tourists up to the top of the mountain.  He has conflicting emotions about his job because although it does provide him with a steady and respectable income, he doesn’t like cutting down trees and disturbing the natural landscape of his beloved mountain.  Egger recognizes the tension that his mountain must feel as each piece of rock is blasted from her façade and each precious tree is felled from her forest.  There is a hint in the text that the destruction caused by avalanches that occasionally happen on the mountain are mother nature’s way of exacting her revenge.

Through the years Egger continues to work hard and survive the best way that he knows how.  He has an adventure during World War II when, after fighting for only a couple of months, he is captured by the Russians and lives for years in a prison camp.  Even while he is in the camp Egger never complains about his fate.  As long as there is enough work in the camp to keep him busy then his mind is able to endure much more hardship than most.  And looking back on his life, perhaps it is the misery of Egger’s early years that have helped him to become strong and to even survive the hunger, disease and cold of a Russian prison camp.

The author’s simple prose is fitting for the life of this simple man; Egger’s story is emotionally jarring yet uplifting at the same time.  When the book comes to its end Egger has lived to be almost eighty years old and he has no regrets in his whole life:  “He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death.  He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go.  But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.”

About the Author and Translator:
r-seethalerRobert Seethaler was born in Vienna in 1966 and is the author of four previous novels. He also works as an actor, most recently in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. He lives in Berlin.

 

Charlotte Collins studied English at Cambridge University. She worked as an actor and radio journalist in both Germany and the U.K. before becoming a literary translator. She previously translated Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist.

 

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Review: Landing by Laia Fàbregas

I received a review copy of this title from Hispabooks Publishing via Edelweiss.  The book was originally written in Spanish and this English version has been translated by Samantha Schnee.

My Review:
landingWhat would you do if the man sitting next to you on a plane flight died during landing?  When this story begins, a young Dutch woman and an elderly Spanish man are sitting side by side on a plane flight from Barcelona to Holland.  The kind and gentle man begins to tell the woman the story of his life and how he ended up on this plane to visit his eldest son.  The Dutch woman nods off for a while and upon waking she discovers that the flight has landed and the nice Spanish gentleman has died.

My instinct in this situation would have been to immediately call for help and get the attention of the flight attendants and staff, but the unnamed female narrator acts very strangely and sits with the man until the plane has been completely emptied of passengers.  Before she is discovered by the flight attendants, she takes a small wooden box that the man was holding and secretly puts it in her own bag.  The box doesn’t seem to be anything of value but is a keepsake or a memento from the elderly man’s previous life.

The narrative is told in alternating voices between the Dutch woman, simply referred to as “Her,” and the elderly man also simply referred to as “Him.”  Fabregas’s choice to not name her characters is part of an interesting pattern I have noticed in literature in translation, especially from European countries.  Although both characters in this book have experienced loss and loneliness, the juxtaposition of the “him” versus “her” dialogue serves to highlight and bring to the forefront the profound differences between these two strangers.

The Spanish gentleman grew up in Extremadura with a large immediate family.  He is in love with a woman named Mariana, but this beautiful woman whom he idolizes has chosen his brother Pedro over him.  The narrator knows that he cannot stay in this town if he is to heal his wounds and make a life for himself.  When the opportunity arises for him to move to Holland and work in a Philips lightbulb factory he enthusiastically embraces this fortuitous change in his life.  As different obstacles are thrown in his way he always feels that his only choice is to move forward.  His natural reaction to coping with tragedies and sorrows in life is to make connections with other human beings and this always pulls him out of his strenuous circumstances.  When his future in-laws oppose his marriage, he reaches out to a local priest to intervene; when his beloved wife Willemien becomes sick, he reaches out to his neighbors for comfort and succor; when his wife dies and he is profoundly lonely he reaches out to old friends and his family for support.

The Dutch woman, by contrast, suffers some kind of traumatic experience in her life, the details of which are not fully revealed until later in the story.  This event has had such a profound impact on her that she is stuck, she cannot move forward and is an empty shell going through the motions of her lonely life.  She doesn’t have many friends and keeps her only family, a loving aunt and uncle, at a distance.  Although she technically performs her job well in a government tax office, she is oftentimes scolded at work because she does not engage socially with her colleagues and is not viewed as a “team player.”

The only activity that keeps this woman going is a list of names of one-hundred people that she is searching for and interviewing one-by-one.  This list is somehow connected to the tragedy she suffered early in her life and she feels that someone on this list will give her the answers she needs.  The author gives us the names of several people on the list but, by contrast, she never names the narrator herself.  She still simply remains “Her” all the way through to the conclusion of the book.  This literary device seems appropriate for this character since she has never been able to forge a fulfilling life for herself or make deeper emotional connections to any other person.  But it seemed more unsettling to me that the unnamed male narrator was never given a first name.  He was more jovial, outgoing and optimistic and it would have felt more natural for someone to have called him by his name at least once in the story.  At the very end he is given a surname, but we still never find out what his closest friends and family called him.

Fàbregas has written an absorbing book that explores themes of identity, human connections, art and language.  This is one of those books that perfectly lends itself to a deep and interesting discussion with other bibliophiles and is deserving of multiple reads.  This book has also inspired me to think more about books with unnamed narrators and perhaps  write a longer essay about this topic.

What other books have you read lately that do not give a name to the main character(s)?

About the Author:
l-fabregasLaia Fàbregas (Barcelona, 1973) has a degree in Fine Arts from the Universitat de Barcelona.

Between 1997 and 2010 she lived in the Netherlands, where she worked as a secretary in a bank, graphic designer in a company of industrial pumps, accounting assistant in an art festival and assistant in an art gallery. She also got the Certificate Arts and Culture management from the Erasmus University Rotterdam.

In 2003, she was working as a consultant while she enrolled at the Gerrit Rietveld art school in Amsterdam to study a new speciality of art and text. That year she regained some stories she had written in Catalan when she was nineteen, about a girl who only had nine fingers. She translated several paragraphs into Dutch, and continued writing.

In January 2008 the Dutch publishing house Anthos published Het meisje met de negen vingers. The book received praise from critics in the Netherlands and has been translated into Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian, Danish, Norwegian and Turkish.

In 2010 Landen was published, in Dutch, Spanish, Catalan and French, and in 2013 Gele Dagen came out, published in Catalan and Dutch.

Since February 2012, she teaches creative writing at the writing school Laboratori de Lletres in Barcelona. Since February 2014 she is also partner and co-director of the school with founder Laia Terrón.  For more information about the author please visit her website: http://www.laia.nl/en/. 

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Review: Motherland Hotel by Yusuf Atilgan

I received an advance review copy of this title from  City Lights Publishing.  The book was published in the original Turkish in 1973 and this English version has been translated by Fred Stark.

My Review:
motherland-hotelZeberjet, the middle-aged man who is the main character of this novel, says a few times throughout his story that he is “neither dead nor alive.”  Zeberjet works in the same hotel in which he was born and he rarely ventures outside of its walls.  It’s not that he hasn’t wanted to go outside, but it seems more the case that he just hasn’t been interested in the outside world.  His hotel, handed down to him through generations of his maternal family, provides him all of the social outlet that he needs.

Zeberjet’s hotel is in the Turkish town of Izmir near the railroad tracks and is not the highest end establishment in town.  As a result he gets a wide array of guests that include visitors to the town, lovers having illicit affairs and prostitutes servicing their customers.  During the period of time during which the book is set he describes a myriad of  characters who all book a room at The Motherland Hotel.  A married couple, who are local teachers, are staying at the hotel while they are looking for a permanent residence; a retired officer also stays for a week and sits in the hotel lobby reading for most of the day.  But the most intriguing guest, from Zeberjet’s point-of-view, is a beautiful woman who arrives on the train from Ankara and is visiting relatives in the local town.  There is an aura about this woman that absolutely captivates Zeberjet and he becomes obsessed with thoughts of her.  She has promised to return in a week for another stay and he waits every day in eager anticipation of her return.

Zeberjet’s days at the hotel are very routine: he wakes up at the same time, he eats his breakfast and wakes up the charwoman who cleans the hotel.  He sits at the front desk most of the day waiting for guests to check in and in the evening he pays a little visit to the charwoman for some sexual pleasure.  Zeberjet is a man who adheres to the rigid schedule around which he has built his life but the appearance of the woman from Ankara completely throws him off balance.  The author slowly builds suspense in the narrative by making Zeberjet’s existential crisis begin in small and subtle ways.  He stops his nocturnal visits to the charwoman and he ventures out of the hotel to visit the local tailor where he buys a new outfit.

The tension builds further in the narrative when Zeberjet starts spending hours away from the hotel which he closes for long periods of time.  It is as if he discovers that closing himself up in that hotel for all of those years has not allowed him to live his life to the fullest and he is trying to make up for it.  He eats meals out, starts drinking, goes to a cock fight, and meets a young man with whom he sees a movie.  The contact that he has with the woman from Ankara, even though it was the briefest of encounters, is the catalyst that pushes him out into the world where he seeks out a different life that is far removed from his usual routines.

But Zeberjet doesn’t just look for new adventures when he leave the hotel, he also slowly begins to destroy his previous way of life.  He begins dismantling his former self at first by no longer accepting guests at the hotel.  The culminating and disturbing scene in which he further attempts to separate himself from his life is destructive and violent.  As Zeberjet descends into madness, he narrates the stories of his family which reach back a few generations.  His family history, which includes the hotel, has a deep and strong hold on him and in the end he feels he can only take desperate measures to finally free himself from his past.

The setting of a hotel is a favorite of authors and Baum’s Grand Hotel comes to mind.  But Atilgan uses this setting in an unusual way and makes the proprietor the focus of the narrative instead of the guests.  Although this book was first published in 1973 it is still relevant as a chilling psychological study of one man whose existential crisis brings him to the point of violence and madness.

 

About the Author:
atilganYusuf Atılgan (27 June 1921, Manisa – 9 October 1989, İstanbul) was a Turkish novelist and dramatist, who is best known for his novels Aylak Adam (The Loiterer) and Anayurt Oteli (Motherland Hotel). He is one of the pioneers of the modern Turkish novel.  Atılgan is considered as one of the pioneers of the modern Turkish novel. His novels had a psychological style, digging into themes such as loneliness, questioning, meaning of life.

Atılgan finished middle school in Manisa, then high school in Balıkesir. He graduated in Turkish language and literature from İstanbul University. He finished his thesis titled Tokatlı Kani: Sanat, şahsiyet ve psikoloji under supervision of Nihat Tarlan. Atılgan then began teaching literature at Maltepe Askeri Lisesi in Akşehir. In 1946, he settled down at a village named Hacırahmanlı near Manisa where he took up writing. His novel Aylak Adam was published in 1959 which dealt with psychological themes such as loneliness, scope and possibility of love, meaning of life, seeking and obsession. This was followed in 1973 by Anayurt Oteli, which narrated the life of a hotel doorkeeper (named Zebercet) in an Anatolian town, with deep psychological examinations and touching themes such as sexuality and obsession. It gained further fame with a film based on the novel. In 1976, he began working in İstanbul as an editor and translator. With his wife Serpil he had a son in 1979 named Mehmet.

Atılgan died of a heart attack in 1989 while in the middle of writing a novel titled Canistan.

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Review: Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Jacqui over at JacquiWine’s Journal is hosting the event “Jean Rhys Reading Week.”  Please visit Jacqui’s site for a listing of the many great reviews of Jean Rhys’s books.  I am a little late in posting my Jean Rhys review, but better late than never.

My Review:
good-morning-midnightThe title itself intrigued me when I was trying to decide which Rhys book to read for this event.  The oxymoron “Good Morning, Midnight” comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Good Morning—Midnight—
I’m coming Home—
Day—got tired of Me—
How could I—of Him?

Sunshine was a sweet place—
I liked to stay—
But Morn—didn’t want me—now—
So—Goodnight—Day!

I can look—can’t I—
When the East is Red?
The Hills—have a way—then—
That puts the Heart—abroad—

You—are not so fair—Midnight—
I chose—Day—
But—please take a little Girl—
He turned away!

The tone of this poem, like the book, is one of loneliness and melancholy.  The narrator of the story, named Sasha, has come to Paris and is living in a depressing hotel and we get the feeling that she is just marking time.  She struggles to get out of bed in the morning and forces herself to fill the day with mundane tasks.  She often repeats the line, “Eat, drink, walk, sleep.”  She lives on a fixed income from a small inheritance so she has borrowed some money from a friend back in England in order to take this trip to Paris.   The narrative is a disjointed account of her time in this city as she wanders from place to place and meets various men.

But this isn’t the first time that Sasha has spent time in Paris.  She recounts another period of her time, when she was much younger, when she lived n Paris.  She was always worried about money and as a single woman who had to make her own way in life, she had a series of depressing jobs that she is unable to keep for very long.  She worked as a tour guide, a saleswoman in a shop, and even an English tutor.  As the narrative moves forward, her memories of her previous visit reach farther and farther back.  We eventually learn that it is because of a man  she met in her youth that she landed in Paris in the first place.  When he essentially abandons her, she if forced to make her own way in this foreign city.

Even though she is older during her current visit, Sasha does not seemnto have learned many lessons from her previous mistakes.  She drinks too much, is still worried about money, and has encounters with questionable men.  But the reflective nature of her narrative and her constant tendency to burst into tears leads us to believe that she recognizes her shortcomings and knows her life has not worked out the way she wanted.  She meets a Russian man who is kind to her and understands that she is lonely.  She visits a friend with him, an artist, and she buys one of his paintings for 600 francs.  The purchase made me cringe because she was trying to support this artist but was, once again, spending money unnecessarily.

This book is loosely autobiographical which fact I find lends even more sadness to the narrative.  Rhys, like Emily Dickinson, fought bravely against her depression and used her writing as an outlet for her emotional turmoil.  The one element that is distinctly missing in Rhys’s writing is self-pity; she knows what she has done to get to this point in her life and the only choice she has is to move forward.   I am so glad that Jacqui come up with the idea of a Rhys event or I might not have discovered her wonderful British classics.

About the Author:
rhysJean Rhys, originally Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was a Caribbean novelist who wrote in the mid 20th century. Her first four novels were published during the 1920s and 1930s, but it was not until the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 that she emerged as a significant literary figure. A “prequel” to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea won a prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967.

Rhys was born in Dominica (a formerly British island in the Caribbean) to a Welsh father and Scottish mother. She moved to England at the age of sixteen, where she worked unsuccessfully as a chorus girl. In the 1920s, she relocated to Europe, traveling as a Bohemian artist and taking up residence sporadically in Paris. During this period, Rhys lived in near poverty, while familiarising herself with modern art and literature, and acquiring the alcoholism that would persist through the rest of her life. Her experience of a patriarchal society and feelings of displacement during this period would form some of the most important themes in her work.

reading-rhys

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Review: The Brother by Rein Raud

I received a review copy of this title from Open Letter  Books via Edelweiss.  The book was first published in the original Estonian in 2008 and this English version has been translated by Adam Cullen.

My Review:
the-brotherKarma, comeuppance, what comes around goes around.  There are many terms and phrases for the universal of idea of cause and affect.  The Brother is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world.   The author himself has described the book as “a spaghetti western told in poetic prose, simultaneously paying tribute to both Clint Eastwood and Alessandro Baricco.”  The plot of this book is a clever structure for the philosophical and existential ideas that the author explores.  When a mysterious man, simply known as Brother, arrives in the unnamed town it is a dark and stormy day and the weather reflects the turmoil that three shady and crooked men have caused for the townspeople.

Brother finds Laila, his long-lost sister and explains why they have never met.  Brother simply states that his sudden appearance is caused by his desire to fulfill the dying wish of their father by helping Laila out of a tough time.  How Brother became privy to this information no one knows but the men who have swindled Laila out of her home and her inheritance are very nervous at Brother’s mysterious presence.  Brother’s imposing figure, with his large boots and long, black overcoat certainly cause these three men a fair amount of consternation, but it is also evident that their own guilty consciences are driving their actions.

Laila appears, at first, to be a sad and lonely woman whose entire life has revolved around an ancient family villa where she lived with her mother.  She describes her childhood as one in which she spend trying to be invisible.  At school she realized very quickly that she was much smarter than the other students but feigned stupidity so that she would not stand out among the others.  She felt that being an honors student and winning awards would draw negative attention to her in the form of jealousy so she maintained average grades and a low profile.  Laila seems to have been the perfect victim of the notary, the banker and the lawyer.

But Laila doesn’t act the part of a downtrodden victim; she enjoys her new life working in an antique shop and losing the villa allows her to break free and escape from her past.  As Laila’s life gets better and becomes happier with a newfound brother, a new job and eventually a new place to live, the three crooks in town experience a significant decline in their own fortunes.  These three men all blame Brother for their streak of bad luck even though Brother has in no way tried to exact any vengeance for the crimes against Laila.  Brother becomes the symbol for the forces in the universe that divvy out proper fate and just punishments.

But just like in life, people are not always so easily placed in a good guy or bad guy category and there is some gray area.  Willem, the banker’s assistant, is tasked with finding out who Brother is and if, in fact, he is Laila’s biological brother.  All of the evil characters in the story are known simply by their profession, such as the notary, the banker and the lawyer.  The good people or the victims, like Laila, are given real names.  It appears that Willem, as the banker’s henchman would fit into the evil category.  But in the end he does have more of a conscience than the other villains and finds some redemption.  In westerns the bad guys wear black hats and the good guys wear white hats and I think Raud’s use of names or occupations in place of names is a subtle way of using the same type of imagery to point us to the heroes and the villains.

And the title “Brother” is neither a true name or an occupation but, to me, it seemed more of a term of endearment.  Raud doesn’t even use an article and write “The Brother” but simply calls his hero “Brother.”  My twin nephews who are eight years-old oftentimes call each other or refer to each other as “Brother”;  I have always found it so sweet because they especially use it when they are helping each other or are being protective of one another.  Similarly, Raud’s uses “Brother” as a title to set the same tone of kind helper and hero for Laila’s long-lost sibling.

This appears to be the first book of Raud’s translated into English and I was so thoroughly impressed with his language, imagery and characters.  I hope more of his works will be translated into English and published in the U.S.

About the Author:
r-raudRein Raud is the author of four books of poetry, six novels, and several collections of short fiction. He’s also a scholar in Japanese studies and has translated several works of Japanese into Estonian. One of his short pieces appeared in Best European Fiction 2015.

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