Tag Archives: Archipelago Press

Review: The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books through Edelweiss.  This was published in the original Norwegian in 1957 and this English version has been translated by Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes.

My Review:
The BirdsThis book was an unexpected surprise that pulled at my heart strings.  Mattis and his sister Hege live in the Norwegian countryside in a simple cottage by a lake.  Mattis is mentally challenged and he is constantly attempting to navigate a world that he doesn’t understand and that doesn’t understand him.  He has the mind of a child; he becomes excited at the simplest things like the woodcock which flies over their cottage.  He has a deep fear of abandonment and is afraid that his sister, who is his only caretaker, can be snatched from him at any moment.  And when he cannot make others understand him he becomes bewildered and frustrated.  I became completely absorbed in Mattis’ simple and constricted world.

The hardest parts of the story to read were those in which Mattis goes out into the surrounding countryside to look for work.  His sister supports them both by knitting sweaters so money is always tight and they live very simply.  Even though Mattis has a hard time doing the simplest tasks, like thinning turnips and stacking hay, his sister still insists on sending him into town to find a way to make some income.  His mind cannot coordinate with his hands and he becomes easily confused and frustrated.  Whenever he goes to beg for work he is humiliated because everyone in town knows who he is and they call him “Simple Simon.”  The people in town, however, are never cruel to him; they came up with what is supposed to be a harmless nickname for Mattis who is a well-known figure in town.  But every time someone calls him Simple Simon he is embarrassed and frustrated because he hates being defined by this phrase which he can never escape.  There is a deeper lesson in this book about being careful with our names or labels for others even when we are not intentionally being hurtful.

One day at the suggestion of Mattis’ sister, he decides that he will use his old, worn out boat to ferry people across the lake.  Rowing is something that he is good at and he loves spending time on the water.  On his first day of work, Mattis is lucky enough to come upon one customer, a lumberjack who has arrived in town looking for work.  Jørgen is the first and only person to take a ride on Mattis’ ferry service.  That fateful ferry ride brings Mattis’ sister Hege joy and companionship while it brings Mattis frustration and loneliness.

Although the story is mostly told from Mattis’ point of view, we do get a glimpse of what Hege’s life has been like trying to take care of Mattis.  Hege is forty years-old, has never married or had a family of her own and she doesn’t seem to have any friends either.    She has pretty much devoted her whole existence to taking care of her brother.  Hege becomes easily agitated with Mattis’ constant questions and emotional neediness. When Hege has the chance to find love and companionship with Jørgen, she begins to act differently towards Mattis because her time and attention are no longer completely devoted to him alone.  One the one hand Hege has the right to her own life and her own happiness, but on the other hand she still has an obligation to care for and protect her brother.

This is a quiet novel that deserves much more attention.  As a teacher I am confronted with students who have a vast array of mental, emotional and physical disabilities.  But seeing the world through the eyes of Mattis has made me even more sensitive and acutely award of what it is like to be labeled as “different” by the rest of the world.

About the Author:
T VessassTarjei Vesaas was a Norwegian poet and novelist. Written in Nynorsk, his work is characterized by simple, terse, and symbolic prose. His stories are often about simple rural people that undergo a severe psychological drama and who according to critics are described with immense psychological insight. Commonly dealing with themes such as death, guilt, angst, and other deep and intractable human emotions, the Norwegian natural landscape is a prevalent feature in his works. His debut was in 1923 with Children of Humans (Menneskebonn), but he had his breakthrough in 1934 with The Great Cycle (Det store spelet). His mastery of the nynorsk language, landsmål (see Norwegian language), has contributed to its acceptance as a medium of world class literature.


Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

Review: This Life by Karel Schoeman

I received and advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books through NetGalley.  It has been translated from Afrikaans by Elise Silke.

My Review:

This LifeThe narrator of this story is an old woman who is lying on her death bed and trying to remember the story of her life which involves growing up in a remote part of South Africa on a farm.  Her life is sad, lonely and pathetic.  As a child she is neglected and forgotten by just about everyone in her family, including her mother.  She never marries and spends her entire life alone and living with family members who oftentimes forget that she even exists.

The narrative is very slow-moving but descriptive.  This old woman describes her parents, her siblings and the servants who all lived together in a crowded house on their farm.  Her mother had a volatile temper and never showed any true affection towards her.  Her father displayed more love for her but his life on the farm kept him very busy.  Her brothers, Pieter and Jakob, have a sibling rivalry that becomes deadly when they both fall in love with the same woman.

Many of the details in the book are vague because the old woman is trying to piece together her memories as her life is slipping away.  As a marginalized member of the family she is never told even the most basic details of their life so she can only put together bits and pieces of her past.  As further evidence of her isolated existence, the narrator’s name is only said a few times in the book and her name seems more like a nickname and not her given name.  No one takes notice of her, no one addresses her, no one acknowledges her place in the family.

Since she never marries, the narrator is dependent on her family for her entire life, being passed down from one generation to the next like some sort of family relic or heirloom.  When her parents die she lives with her nephew and his wife who seem to barely tolerate her presence in their home.  When she is left at home for long stretches of time she finally feels like she has found some independence and  no longer has to follow everyone else’s commands.  Every other female character in the book, from her mother to her sister-in-law, to her wife’s cousin are dependent on men and cater to the whims of their husbands.  But she is able to avoid marriage and attachment to a man for her entire life.  We are left with a sense of ambiguity as to whether or not her life is any better or worse than the other married women in the novel.

THIS LIFE is a sad tale about a woman who lives in the shadows and never finds her own identity.  One should not expect high drama with this novel; it is a disjointed reflection of a long life with much suffering and little joy.


About The Author:

K SchoemanSchoeman is one of a handful of Afrikaans authors who has achieved real greatness in his own lifetime. His prizes include the Hertzog prize for prose three times (1970, 1986, 1995), the CNA prize (1972), the Helgaard Steyn prize (1988), the W.A. Hofmeyr prize and the Old Mutual prize for literature/fiction (1984, 1991). His work investigates the existence of the Afrikaner in Africa, especially those that came from Europe.

After completing his schooling in Paarl, he went on to study a B.A. at the University of the Free State before going to a Catholic Seminary in Pretoria. In 1961 he joined the Franciscan Order in Ireland as a noviciate for priesthood, but then returned to Bloemfontein to continue studying Librarianship. Before returning to South Africa for good in 1983, he was a librarian in Amsterdam as well as a nurse in Glasgow. Back in South Africa he continued writing and working as a librarian in Cape Town. He currently lives in Trompsburg


Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation