Tag Archives: Literature in Translation

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: 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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Review: The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendariz

I received a review copy of this title from Hispabooks via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original Spanish in 2015 and this English version has been translated by Jonathan Dunne.  Hispabooks specializes in publishing contemporary Spanish books into English translation.  For more information about their titles please visit their website: http://hispabooks.com/

My Review:
Plimsoll LineThe author explains to us in the introduction of the book that the Plimsoll Line is a mark on a ship’s hull that indicates the maximum depth a vessel can be immersed into the water when it is loaded with cargo without being sunk.  In the 18th century, British merchants would overload their cargo, knowing full well that the ships would sink and then they would collect the insurance money on them.  The Plimsoll Line was then marked on all ships to prevent shipwrecks and save lives.  The main character in this book bears so much cargo in the form of tragedy that he wonders if he has overstepped his personal Plimsoll Line and will sink into oblivion.

Gabriel Ariz is a university professor and an art critic who loves working and his job even though he doesn’t have to work for a living.  His wife’s inheritance would allow them to live quite comfortably with a nice custom-built home in the forest and luxury vacations.  Gabriel and his wife’s comfortable world is shattered by the death of their only child, their daughter, who dies at the tender age of twenty in a tragic car accident on Christmas Eve.  This event marks the beginning of a series of misfortunes that weigh heavily on Gabriel.

Before their daughter died, Gabriel and his wife seemed to be drifting further and further apart and this tragedy precipitated the end of their marriage.   When Gabriel’s wife, Ana,  announces that she is leaving he is neither surprised or terribly upset.  But the constant loneliness in his big house with no one but his cat Polanski for company starts to wear on him.  To top it all off, he doesn’t feel well and his doctor diagnoses him with kidney failure.  Because of his illness he is forced to quit his beloved job and go to dialysis three times a week for five hours at a time.  Is this what will sink him below his Plimsoll Line?

One of the hardest parts of the book to read are the very detailed descriptions of Gabriel’s dialysis treatments.  He talks about insertion of tubes and machines and the cleansing of his blood through this process.  I was so uncomfortable when I was reading these passages that I almost skipped over them to spare myself from these graphic scenes.  But then I realized that Armendariz is providing for us the a realistic view of what it means to lose one’s precious grasp on health.  Our health and our well-being is never something we should take for granted.

In addition to Gabriel, the author also gives us different points-of-view throughout the story.  For instance, in order to describe Gabriel and his home the author puts us in the place of an invisible observer whom only the cat can see.  We walk through Gabriel’s house as  if we are getting a private tour of it’s décor, pictures and personal touches.  We are also given the point-of-view of the cat who knows that there is something not-quite-right about his owner who sleeps at strange hours and wanders around the house in his tattered bathrobe.  Polanski’s favorite pastime is keeping Gabriel’s garden free of mole’s.

The most intriguing and the lengthiest point-of-view we are given is Gabriel’s daughter who has been deceased for three years when the story begins.  Gabriel finds a diary that was hidden in the garden and was dug up when there was a tangle between Polanski and a mole.  A large part of the second half of the book includes these diary entries written by Laura.  As Gabriel reads her entries, which were recorded during the last few years of her life, he realizes that he didn’t know his daughter very well at all.  She had struggles, worries and concerns that were typical of a young woman on the verge of adulthood but his relationship with her only existed on the surface.  Laura’s diary also reveals a very shocking detail about her life about which Gabriel and his wife were completely unaware.  I haven’t read a book in a long time with such a shocking twist or revelation in the plot.

Finally, I would like to make one  more comment about the author’s writing style.  I’ve already mentioned the details he gives about Gabriel’s medical treatments, but this style of providing information about minutiae pervades the book.  At times the details seem cumbersome and make the narrative feel as though the author has strayed too far from his plotline.  For example, towards the end of the book Gabriel makes a decision not to commit suicide because he enjoys light too much.  The author goes on for several paragraphs about different types of light we experience.  I think he could have made the same point with fewer examples.

Overall, this is a great book for Spanish Lit month and I would recommend it just for the plot twist revealed in the diary entries.  But the remarkable resilience and strength of character we encounter in Gabriel makes it well-worth the read.

How is everyone else doing with the Spanish Lit month reading?

About the Author:
ArmendarizJuan Gracia Armendáriz (Pamplona, 1965) is a Spanish fiction writer and contributor to many Spanish newspapers. He has also been part-time professor at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, and has many works of literary and documentary research. As a writer, he has published a book of poems, short stories, nonfiction books—biographical sketches and a historical story—and several novels. The Plimsoll Line is part of the “Trilogy of Illness”, formed by three separate books that reflect his experience as a person with kidney trouble. The novel was awarded the X Premio Tiflos de Novela 2008.

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Review: The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist

My Review:
The Parable BookThis is the story of an author who is looking back and assessing his life through a series of lesson, or parables, he has learned which have particularly shaped his spiritual life.  The author’s name is Perola and his life appears to have an uncanny resemblance to that of Enquist’s himself.  When the book begins Perola is lamenting the speech he delivered at his mother’s funeral and decides he wants to write a better one to hand out to his relatives.  He reminisces about his childhood with his mother who was his only parent for most of his life.

One of the few possessions Perola has left of his father is a notebook full of poetry and personal reflections.  But the notebook was half-burned because his mother threw it into the fire and decided to save it at the last minute.   This notebook is also missing nine pages which his mother tore out.  The author spends a great part of the book comtemplating why his other decided to save the notebook at the last minute and what might have been contained in those missing nine pages.

Perola is brought up in a very religious environment and he is even on track to study religion and become a reverend.  Since Perola is now an old man who is sick with a bad stomach and heart, he contemplates the parables he learned that changed the course of his life.  One of his earliest memories is of a sickly Aunt Valborg who is asked by an uncle why she doesn’t pray or go to church anymore.  Aunt Valborg’s answer is simple yet has a profound effect on Perola’s life and is something he remembers until his dying days.  She says, ” I know for certain there is nothing there.”  Aunt Valborg had prayed to The Saviour and her only answer was a resounding silence and at that point she no longer regarded herself a believer.  This simple statement that he overhears his aunt say is the first crack in the surface a foundation of religion that Perola’s mother tried to establish.  It shocks him because he never realized that not to believe was even an option.

The pivotal point of the book during which time Perola knows that a devout, religions life is not the correct path for him is when he has his first sexual encounter with a much older woman.  Perola is fifteen and he visits a fifty-one year old woman who is renting a cottage in the village.  Perola is at first nervous to be around her but he is put at ease when they discuss books and have lemonade.  And she very slowly and tenderly introduces him to the world of sexual intimacy.

This scene in the book is not salacious or inappropriate; the woman and Perola both serve a need for each other and this experience further shapes his non-religious awakening.  Perola describes this sexual experience in religious terms during which he has a epiphany.  But this moment of clarity actually turns him away from religion instead of driving him toward it.  According to the beliefs he is taught, he should feel guilty about what has happened between himself and the woman on the knot free pine floor.  But instead he feels like his experience has invited him to step inside what he calls “the innermost room” and begin to experience the meaning of life.

This is a truly literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable.  Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book.  Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side.

For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read.  So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K.  I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

About the Author:
P EnquistPer Olov Enquist, better known as P. O. Enquist is one of Sweden’s internationally best known authors. He has worked as a journalist, playwright, and novelist. In the nineties, he gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of The Royal Physician.

After a degree in History of literature at Uppsala University he worked as a newspaper columnist and TV debate moderator from 1965 to 1976. Because of his work he soon became an influential figure on the Swedish literary scene. From 1970 to 1971 Enquist lived in Berlin on a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service and in 1973 he was a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has been working as an independent writer since 1977.

Enquist’s works are characterized by a chronic pessimistic view of the world. They always describe the restrictions imposed by the pietistical way of living, especially in March of the Musicians (1978) and Lewi’s Journey (2001). He gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of The Royal Physician (1999) where he tells the story of Struensee, the personal physician of the Danish King Christian VII. Many of Enquist’s works have been translated into English by Tiina Nunnally.

 

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Review: Mona Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press.  The book was originally published in German in 1937 and this English version has been translated by Ignat Avsey

My Review:
Mona LisaThis book is a very slim volume and can be read in an hour or so.  It attempts to answer the question that has been nagging historians and artists for centuries: Who, exactly, was the woman Mona Lisa that Da Vinci made so famous in his painting?  In this plot it is a French aristocrat that becomes obsessed with the mysterious woman in Da Vinci’s painting.

In 1502, King Louis XII of France has dispatched his Marshal Louis de La Trémouille and a small army of men to Florence in order to acquire fine art.  They, of course, stop at Leonardo’s famous home and workshop on their artistic quest.  Leonardo is a humorous figure in the brief plot as he is portrayed as a man with a very short attention span.  He goes from one project to the next without ever completely finishing anything.   As Trémouille and his men are wandering around Leonardo’s home, one of them discovers a painting of a woman behind a curtain.  Leonardo assures the young nobleman,  Bougainville, that the painting is unfinished and not worth so  much attention.  But Bougainville is instantly obsessed with the woman in the painting and has convinced himself that he is desperately in love with her.

The only facts about Mona Lisa that Bougainville can get out of Leonardo is that she was the wife of a man named Giocondo and died a couple of years ago when there was an outbreak of plague in the city.  Bougainville cannot believe that this amazing woman is dead so he goes to visit her grave at Santa Croce.  The small size of the space in which she is supposed to be buried convinces him that she could not possibly be buried in this tomb.  He gathers together a few of his men and comes back to the church under the cover of darkness and digs up Mona Lisa’s grave.

When Bougainville finds that her tomb is in fact empty he is determined to figure out this mystery and is convinced that she is still alive.  His efforts to find her cause mayhem and fighting between the Florentines and the French.  Bougainville believes that Giocondo, Mona Lisa’s husband, is holding her hostage somewhere in the city and the French nobleman does some rash and brazen things to find her.  He is certain beyond a doubt that she will be his lover either in this life or the next.

I thoroughly enjoyed this short book because of the characterization of Da Vinci and the little mystery surrounding the empty tomb of Mona Lisa.  When written records and archaeological evidence are scarce it is amusing to project our own stories onto the lives of famous men from generations past.

About the Author:
A LernetAlexander Lernet-Holenia was an Austrian poet, novelist, dramaturgist and writer of screenplays and historical studies who produced a heterogeneous literary opus that included poesy, psychological novels describing the intrusion of otherworldly or unreal experiences into reality, and recreational films.

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