Monthly Archives: October 2016

Review: The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press.  The book was published in the original German in 2007 and this English version has been translated by Jamie Bulloch.

My Review:
the-empress-and-the-cakeThis psychological thriller starts innocently enough with a kind old woman offering to split a cake with a young woman she meets outside of a bakery in Vienna.  But Stift’s novella becomes gruesome, disturbing and haunting very quickly.

The old woman, whose name is Frau Hohenembs, is oddly dressed in all black and the young woman discovers that the old woman’s apartment is even stranger.  Frau Hohenembs has an extensive collection of pictures and mementos of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria or Empress Sissi as many referred to her.  The apartment is also packed with furniture, two caged parrots, an enormous dog and a portly servant named Ida. The young woman patiently observes these strange women while she has tea and eats her share of Gugelhupf.  The first shocking twist in the book happens when the young woman returns home to her own flat, finishes the rest of her Gugelhupf as well as everything else in her refrigerator and forces herself to throw up the entire contents of her stomach.

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        Gugelhopf Photo by Dirk Vorderstraße

There are two eerie and gruesome threads that run throughout the story, the first of which is an obsession with food, weight and vomiting. Stift vividl describes the narrator’s grisly decent into the full grip of bulimia and her constant obsession with the cycle of binging and purging:

I was learning a new vomiting technique and was eating by colours.  I started with chemical sweets such as bright-green gummy frogs or pink foam bacon bits or claret so-called laces and snakes.  These took time to mix with the mush of food that followed, which meant that my vomiting could be monitored.  I would puke until I’d arrived at this tough, lurid mass, so I could be sure I’d got everything out.

The narrator also weighs herself incessantly every few minutes on a pair of scales she purchases.  She becomes obsessive about her weight and the size of her stomach.  She is so consumed with food and vomiting that she stops working and only goes out of her flat every few days to go on a grocery shopping binge.  She reveals throughout the course of the story that her mother and maternal grandfather also had an unnatural preoccupation with being thin and this fixation on weight affected her from a  very early age.  Her deep-seated psychological issues make her easy prey for the manipulative and controlling Frau Hohenembs.

Empress Sissi 1862 by Ludwig Angerer

       Empress Sissi 1862 by Ludwig Angerer

The second theme that is woven throughout the narrative is that of control, both losing it and gaining it over others.  Frau Hohenembs has an obsession with the Empress Sissi and pulls the young narrator into her plots to steal relics and artifacts that once belonged to the Empress.  Frau Hohenembs first invites the narrator to a picnic after which they take a bizarre tour through a sex museum.  Stift is a master at slowly developing the ways in which the older woman gains control over the younger woman’s life.  At first she can’t say no to innocent outings that involve picnics and museums.  The next significant turning point in this disturbing relationship is when Frau Hohenembs uses the young woman to steal a duck press from another museum in Vienna.  This rather macabre kitchen instrument is used to squeeze the blood, bone marrow and other juices out of duck carcasses. Frau Hohenembs loves to drink the meat juices extracted from the press and throughout the novel she has Ida use the press so that she can always have her favorite drink on hand.

Frau Hohenembs uses this theft of the duck press to gain more control over the narrator’s life.  She tells the young woman that if she doesn’t go on outings with her or help her out on her secret missions then she will report her to the police.  Frau Hohenembs becomes progressively sinister and appears to have connections around Vienna that would help her to have the young woman prosecuted.  The final, and most disturbing, theft that the trio carry out is stealing a cocaine syringe that belonged to the Empress Sissi from a pathology museum in Vienna.  Frau Hohenembs then instructs the young woman on how to use it properly to inject the old woman with daily doses of cocaine.

By the end of the novella, the young narrator is trapped and completely controlled, not only by her eating disorder but also by this strange old woman and her maid.  Straft is a master at building suspense and presenting an unexpected and frightening conclusion to her psychological thriller.

This is the third and final installment in the Peirene Fairy Tale series.  All three books in the collection are very different but are all excellent.  I don’t think I can choose a favorite from the series.  I have also reviewed the other two Fairy Tale books:

https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2016/06/13/review-her-fathers-daughter-by-marie-sizun/

https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2016/02/21/review-the-man-i-became-by-peter-verhelst/

About the Author:
l-stiftLinda Stift in an Austrian writer. She was born in 1969 and studied Philosophy and German literature. She lives in Vienna. Her first novel, Kingpeng, was published in 2005. She has won numerous awards and was nominated for the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2009.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas

I received a review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original Spanish in 1890 and this English version has been translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

My Review:
his-only-sonBonifacio Reyes has spent his whole life carrying out the commands that others have bestowed on him.  When he is a young man he is coaxed into eloping with Emma Valcárcel , the spoiled only child of Don Diego Valcárcel, a prominent lawyer in what Alas describes as a “third-rate provincial capital.”  When the couple’s plans are thwarted and they are captured , Emma is confined to a convent and Bonifacio is banished to Mexico where he will live a sad and lonely existence for the rest of his life.  Or so he thought.

When Emma’s father dies she is finally released from the convent and as her father’s sole heir, she lives a comfortable and pampered life.  Despite the time that has passed, Emma continues to pine away for her beloved Bonifacio but in order to avoid a town scandal, she wants a different husband first before she marries Bonifacio.  Emma manages to capture a sickly husband who doesn’t last very long, and once she is done playing the role of mournful widow, she has her family track Bonifacio down in Mexico where he is working for a newspaper.  Bonifacio is easily lured back to Spain where, within three months, he becomes the kept husband of Emma.

Alas slowly unravels Emma’s dark side throughout the novel.  Emma declares very early on that the honeymoon is over but she keeps her handsome Bonifacio around her, dressed in the finest clothes, to show him off to the rest of the provincial town whenever it is convenient.  Bonifacio spends most of the day playing a flute which he finds among his deceased father-in-law’s old papers.  The couple appears to settle into a comfortable, yet affectionless, existence together:

Emma never asked him about his interests nor about the time they filled, which was most of the day. She demanded only that he be smartly dressed when they went out walking or visiting. “Her” Bonifacio was merely an adornment, entirely hollow and empty inside, but useful as a way of provoking the envy of many of the town’s society ladies. She showed off her husband, for whom she bought fine clothes, which he wore well, and reserved the right to present him as a good, simple soul.

The turning point that really sours their marriage is a miscarriage that Emma suffers which affects her health and prematurely ages her.  After this distressful brush with death, Emma becomes an unbearable tyrant and unleashes all of her frustrations and abuses on Bonifacio.  Alas’ story reads like a tragicomedy in which neither partner in the marriage is happy but neither party can be without the other.  Bonifacio is on call in the evenings so that he can rub unguents and lotions on his wife’s sickly body and while he does these and other demeaning tasks for her she hurls abuses and insults at him.  The most awful part of this for Bonifacio is not the name-calling or even the completion of these tasks, but the sheer noise that Emma raises when Bonifacio is carrying out his duties.  Bonifacio craves, more than anything in life, to have peace and quiet in his house.  Whenever Emma calls his name, the poor man shutters:

Telling Bonifacio off became her one consolation; she could not do without his attentions nor, equally, without rewarding him with shrill, rough words.  What doubt could there be that her Bonifacio was born to put up with and to care for her.

Bonifacio, who prides himself on his appreciation for music and the arts, finds a second home at the local theater where a troupe of second rate opera singers have temporarily set up shop. Bonifacio finds the peace and quiet he so craves among the opera singers who view him, at first, as a cash cow and as a sucker that will pay for their expensive dinners.  Bonifacio gets into a couple of touch spots trying to get money out of his wife’s uncle, who serves as the family accountant.  Bonifacio quickly realizes that the best way to get into the heart and the bed of Serafina is to give her partner Mochi money whenever he asks.  Bonifacio engages in a passionate and sensual love affair with Serafina and he carefully keeps his musician friends away from his home and his wife.

At this point in the story Alas ramps up the comedy as Bonifacio and Emma engage in an elaborate game of cat and mouse.  Emma has gradually been recovering her health and is only pretending to be an invalid.  One night when Bonifacio comes home from the theater smelling of rice powder, Emma suspects that he is having an affair.  But instead of screaming and yelling at her husband, she seduces him and for the first time in years they start having sex again.  The sex, though, becomes, like Emma’s character, a bit crazy and depraved.   Emma admits that she has been hatching a maniacal plan to bring down both her adulterous husband and her accountant uncle who she believes is stealing from her:.

The first part of her plan is carried out when Emma insists on going to the theater and meeting Bonifacio’s music friends with whom he has been spending so much time.   But while at the theater, Emma is herself smitten with one of the opera singers, a baritone named Minghetti.  Emma and Minghetti flirt shamelessly with one another and arrange to see each other on a regular basis when Minghetti offers piano lessons to Emma.  This is where the story reaches its pinnacle of farce as Emma and her lover carry on right under Bonifacio’s nose.

It is also at this point that Emma finds out that she is pregnant.  Bonifacio becomes maudlin and sentimental over the fact that he will now have a son and promises to changes his ways.  He swears he will take more financial responsibility for his family and he gives up Serafina as his lover.  Bonifacio’s final act of absurdity is his refusal to believe that anyone besides himself is the father of Emma’s baby.  The novel concludes with this one statement that Alas puts in the mouth of his unheroic hero which deftly mixes the tragic and the comic: “Bonifacio Reyes believes absolutely that Antonio Reyes y Valcarcel is his son.  His only son, you understand, his only son!”

 

About the Author:
LEOPOLDO ALAS (1852–1901) was the son of a government official, born in Zamora, Spain. He attended the University of Oviedo and the University of Madrid, receiving a doctorate in law. A novelist and writer of short stories who adopted the pseudonym Clarín (Bugle), Alas was one of Spain’s most influential literary critics. He became a professor of law at the University of Oviedo in 1883 and published his first and best-known novel, La Regenta, in 1884; his second novel, Suúnico hijo (His Only Son), was published in 1890. He died in Oviedo at the age of forty-nine.

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Spanish Literature

Two Reviews: Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi and A Greater Music by Bae Suah

I am very pleased to announce that I have two reviews in the November/December issue of World Literature Today.  This literary magazine, which has been in continuous print for 90 years, is dedicated to bringing a wide range of literature in translation to the English speaking world.  Each issue contains fiction, poetry, essays and book reviews from writers around the world.  The magazine is available in both print and digital subscriptions.  I feel very honored to have reviewed two excellent books for this issue which is dedicated to women writers.

My first review is Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi.  This title was published in the original French in 2006.  This English edition has been translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman and published by Deep Vellum.

Click this link to read my review:  http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2016/november/eve-out-her-ruins-ananda-devi

eve-out-of-her-ruins

 

My second review is A Greater Music by Bae Suah.  This title was published in the original Korean in 2003.  This English edition has been translated by Deborah Smith and published by Open Letter Books.

Click this link to read my review:  http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2016/november/greater-music-bae-suah

a-greater-music

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Review: Trysting by Emmanuelle Pagano

I received a review copy of this title from Two Lines Press. This book is also being published in the U.K. by And Other Stories. The book was written and published in the original French in 2013 and this English version has been translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis.

My Review:
trystingTrysting is one of those rare books that defy description it in any sort of a review.  At its core, Pagano’s book presents us with a series of writings in various lengths that deal with the human experience of love.   Her musings in this book range from short, one line epigrams to longer two page narratives that read like flash fiction.  Pagano attempts to capture all of the stages that being in love and having a lover encompass—meeting someone special for the first time, spending time together, learning the habits of another person, breaking up, getting over a lover.  She intersperses within these events things that lovers leave behind like feathers, rubber bands, a bicycle.  Some of the vignettes are shocking, some are tender and sweet.  But at their core, they all try to delineate the mysterious and illusive sensation of love.  Senses—touch, site, smell, sound, taste are all described within the context of love.

The shorter pieces, which are only a line or two, read like epigrams and feel as though Pagano is trying to capture a moment in time between lovers.  They read like a caption on a photograph:

“He sprays a mist of water onto his newspaper to stop the pages rustling as he reads next to me while I sleep.”

“His breathing, even during the day, even when he’s busy doing something, is like that of a person asleep.  Regular and calm.  I like this peace.”

“No one sees what I see when I look at her.”

“He has a serene way of being in silent moments.  I was never afraid of having nothing to say to him.”

The longer pieces, which range from two to three pages in length, read like flash fiction stories and provide a frame for which the reader can fill in the rest of the picture.  In one story, for instance, a couple moves from apartment to apartment, like vagabonds constantly on the move living in different places.  The couple pretends to be interested in renting an apartment and gets the key from the estate agent and spends as much time as they can get away with at each rental: “The estate agents never notice a thing, nor do the landlords.  We make love in their apartments, we sleep in them, we live our shared life in them and it’s as good a life as any.  We change location, move to a different town, everyday.”

In another story, a musician who plays the saxophone is always annoying his upstairs neighbor even though he uses a mute for his instrument.  She leaves him terse little notes and knocks on his door whenever he is practicing.  The only noise he ever hears from her apartment is the dull sound of her squeaking bed when her boyfriend stays over:  “They always screw to the same rhythm, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s definitely screwing, not making love, because it’s always the same dogged, dreary, binary rhythm.”  The musician wants to invite the woman to his apartment and get to know her and introduce her to a whole new world of rhythm: “I’ll tell her to let herself go, be carried by my breath, by my sax, my mouth, my lips, my melody.”

One final aspect I want to mention that is integral to the writings in this collection is their sensual nature.  Pagano manages to represent all the senses and put them in the context of lovers:

Touch: “It was very cold.  I hadn’t put gloves on.  I defrosted my fingers between my thighs before letting them touch her.”

Sound: “I met him when I called a wrong number.  His voice was so lovely, saying I must have made a mistake, that I couldn’t bring myself to hang up.”

Smell: “I used to sniff her all the time.  Odours are always stronger when they’re damp.  Perfumers dampen thin strips of paper to sample their scents.  Dampening an area, an object, or a body helps us to smell it and get to know it fully.  I moistened her all over with saliva to get to know her off by heart.”

Hearing: “The things I miss most are the sounds, the sounds of our love, the noises of lovemaking and sleeping together, the noises of waking up.”

Sight:  “We are getting old.  I like the signs of ageing on him, the wrinkles and folds, the emergence of moles and liver spots.  I wonder if these marks appear all of a sudden or little by little.  I look out for signs of these blossomings.  Tine is pollinating his skin with flowers, with speckles with stars.”

This book is a truly unique literary experience that can be read like a collection of poetry, slowly, a little bit at a time when one has quiet and the mood strikes.

About the Author:
paganoEmmanuelle Pagano has published over a dozen works of fiction, which have been translated into German, Hungarian, Italian and Spanish. She has won the EU Prize for Literature among other prizes and lives in the Ardèche region with her family.

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Review: 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara

My Review:
33-revolutionsI first became interested in the tumultuous history of the small island of Cuba when I took a Caribbean politics course in college.  It fascinated me that an island which is so geographically close to the United States could be so very different in its political system.  33 Revolutions captures life under the Castro regime from the point-of-view of an ordinary citizen who has become disillusioned from promises of change and is trying to scratch out a bare existence.

This book is more of an ode to a an island that has been betrayed by promises of revolution than a novella.  In order to capture the atmosphere is his life the author’s constant refrain throughout the writing is “like a scratched record.”  His monotonous job is like a scratched record;  the small and nondescript apartment he lives in alone is like a scratched record;  the monotonous routine of his office where he performs minimal tasks for a government agency is like a scratched record.  Guevara’s prose is lyrical and captures the frustration of citizens like this unnamed author who feel stuck and trapped:

The whole country is a scratched record (everything repeats itself: every day is a repetition of the day before, every week, month, year; and from repetition to repetitions, the sound deteriorates until all that is left is a vague, unrecognizable recollection of the original recording—the music disappears, to be replaced by an incomprehensible, gravelly murmur.)

The narrator tells us about the beginnings of the revolution in Cuba and as a result of which upheavel his well-bred mother and his ignorant peasant of a father were able to connect:

They met—or rather, bumped into each other— at one of those huge meetings where anger and fervor fused, and further encounters in various associations and assemblies ended up giving rise to an awareness that they were equal, that they had the same dreams, were part of a project that included them and made demands on them equally.

The narrator spends the rest of the novella explaining the countless ways in which this revolution failed its people and took away any spark of fervor that they once had to make their lives better. The narrator himself is brought up fully indoctrinated into the ideals of the revolution and the regime.  He was the model citizen until one day when he started reading and a whole new world, one outside of Cuban Communism, opened up to him.

One of the most interesting and enlightening descriptions in the book is that of Cuban citizens using makeshift rafts and boats to try and escape the Communist regime.  The author comments that boats full of people used to attempt to escape under the clandestine cover of night, but now people are brazen and openly board their skiffs in public during the day.  It is an incident with a large group of young people who try to hijack a government boat in the harbor that serves as the narrator’s breaking point.  He decides he can’t take the scratching of that broken record any longer and declares, “I’m not going to suppress anybody.”  And with these simple words, he declares his own minor revolution and never looks back.

About the Author:
canek-sanchez-guevaraCanek Sanchez Guevara, grandson of Che Guevara, left Cuba for Mexico in 1996. He worked for many of Mexico’s most important newspapers as a columnist and correspondent, and he wrote a regular newspaper column called “Motorcycleless Diaries.” He was a measured and informed critic of the Castro regime. He died in January 2015 at the age of forty.

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