Tag Archives: Novella

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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Filed under Novella, Spanish Literature

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.



Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella

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.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Novella

Review-Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Farrar, Straus and Giroux via Netgalley.  The original novella was published in Icelandic in 2013 and this English version has been translated by Victoria Cribb.

My Review:
moonstoneMáni Steinn lives on the fringes of society in 1918 in the city of Reykjavik; he has no family except for a great aunt who has taken him in, he has no friends and he is homosexual.  It is very dangerous for him to be gay and if he is caught in any type of sexual act with another man he could be arrested and severely punished.

It is mentioned in passing in the story that the fighting in Europe has recently ended and Iceland has been largely spared the destruction that ravaged Europe.  The Spanish Influenza, however, quickly spreads through and devastates this small island nation.  One of the ways that Máni passes his time is by seeing films that are shown in the two movie theaters in the city.  When the flu hits Iceland it is speculated that public places like this were responsible for its rapid spread and the theaters are shut down for months.

Máni himself is also struck down by the flu and in the state of mental delirium caused by his fever he has vivid and gruesome nightmares.  Through these scenes Sjon showcases his diverse talents as a writer.  He also copies at poignant moments throughout the text newspaper articles that were published in Reykjavik at the time.  In sum, Sjon perfectly captures s a realistic snapshot of this short timespan in Icelandic history when people are not only suffering from this horrible pandemic, but are also watching the local volcano erupt, reading the papers for news of war in Europe and dealing with their own shortages of necessities like coal.

I was captivated by the character of Máni who doesn’t seem bitter or resentful that at the age of sixteen his only living relative is a great aunt whom he calls “the old lady.”  She is just as surprised as he is when Máni is dropped off at her front door.  She is kind to him and provides him food and shelter, but she does not offer the kind of guidance and discipline that a sixteen-year-old boy ought to have.   Máni has regular men around the city with whom he engages in sex for money.  He doesn’t seem to have a particular fondness for any of these men but he does get a certain amount of enjoyment out of these furtive and illicit sexual encounters.  The person that Máni shows an interest in is, rather surprisingly, a teenage girl named Sola.  Sola drives around on her Indian motorcycle, makes her own clothing, and lives in a nice home with her family.  Mani’s fascination with her is never fully explained and the author leaves us to speculate whether or not Mani’s attraction is sexual or just an innocent curiosity.

The only complaint that I have about this book is that it left me wanting to know more about the rest of Máni’s life.  At a very slim 160 pages I read the book in a couple of hours and was disappointed when Mani’s story came to an end.  I don’t want to give away the plot but it is Máni’s “aberrant” behavior as a homosexual that ironically is the catalyst for his escape out of the city and away from his lonely life.  I wanted to know more about Mani’s thoughts in retrospect as an adult and how his time in Iceland helped to shape the rest of his life.

About the Author:
sjonSjón (Sigurjón B. Sigurðsson) was born in Reykjavik on the 27th of August, 1962. He started his writing career early, publishing his first book of poetry, Sýnir (Visions), in 1978. Sjón was a founding member of the surrealist group, Medúsa, and soon became significant in Reykjavik’s cultural landscape.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: Grief is a Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

My Review:
Grief is a thing with feathersAll of us deal with grief in different ways and in this short book Max Porter presents us with grief in the form of a crow.  It is not a mystery why the crow is the perfect symbol of grief.  Crows are oftentimes associated with bad luck or evil omens, which is appropriate this book in which the Mum dies from a strange accident.  Crows are also birds of carrion which swoop down and eat the remains of decaying animals.  But crows are also know for their intelligence and resilience, so what better animal to use than this bird to personify grief.

When the book begins the character who is simply called “Dad,” is wandering around in his flat only five days after his wife has died.  At this point all of the mourners have departed and the children are asleep and the doorbell rings.  When he answers, Dad is accosted by feathers and describes his strange experience, “There was a rich smell of decay, and moss, and leather, and yeast.”  A crow appears and tells Dad, “I won’t leave until you need me anymore.”

The rest of this short book alternates between Dad, Crow and the Children narrating the story.  The Crow is there to easy the grief for Dad and the children.  But he also gives advice, babysits and entertains.  When Crow speaks the story takes on a poetic tone.  When he enters the home he notices that “The whole place was heaving mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief.” Crow notices that there is not an inch of the home that is unaffected by the Mum’s sudden death.

I love that the author includes the point-of-view of the children since grief affects them very differently than adults.  The children, who are two small boys, and whom the author simply calls “Boys,” say that they first can’t get a straight answer about where Mum is.  It is natural that adults want to protect children from misfortune but Dad can only keep the truth from the Boys for so long.  Children oftentimes understand serious things more than we give them credit.  They say about the Mum’s death: “We guessed and understood that this was a new life and Dad was a different type of Dad now and we were different boys, brave new boys without a mum.”  Throughout the book the boys are not only brave, but astute at analyzing their feelings as well as their Dad’s.

There are some truly exceptional, short passages that beautifully capture the grief of Dad who loved his wife dearly and was very close to her.  For example, the Dad gets very upset when he starts to forget everyday, mundane things about his wife.  So to assuage his grief he tells the boys what a wonderful Mum they had.  The Boys grieve for the Mum in their own unique ways.  One of my favorite passages written from the point-of-view of the boys is when they describe how they used to be scolded for spattering the mirror with toothpaste, leaving the toilet seat up and for not shutting drawers.  The Boys now do these things because they miss their Mum and doing these same things now reminds them of her.

This short, powerful book poetically describes the gaping hole that the absence of a loved one leaves in our life.  We are all affected by grief in different ways, we all have that crow that hangs around us as a reminder of what we have lost.  But in the end everything does get a little better and a little easier and the crow eventually flies away.

About the Author:
M PorterMax Porter works in publishing. He lives in South London with his wife and children.


Filed under British Literature, Novella