I finally finished reading this fabulous book. Most of the essays in award-winning Chilean writer, Benjamin Labatut’s incredible book, When We Cease to Understand the World ( Pushkin Press) are fantastic; all except the title essay — it left me unmoved. It was slipping and sliding into spaces that were unwieldy. Nevertheless, I can understand why this slim book, translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, made it to the shortlist of the 2021 International Booker Prize. This is powerful writing. It is telling stories of the past, with acute attention to historical detail and with immense confidence. Almost as if the author witnessed the events he recounts. Interesting style, worth emulating perhaps by other writers. But the danger will always exist in such writing — where do facts end, and fiction begins? What is the truth? Can even those who witness events ever know what is the truth? Much to think about.
Frankly, I am glad I finally read this book. I will be mulling over it for a long time to come.
Manon Uphoff’s Falling is like Flying is her first book translated from Dutch into English and published by Pushkin Press. The translator is Sam Garrett. This book of hers is autobiographical to the extent that she documents her childhood, the trauma she and her other twelve siblings faced with the Minotaur ( her father), her resilience and the magnificent ending in a gathering of the sisters ( “the witches’ sabbath”) reminiscing before they returned to their respective homes:
“Then it’s home again, home again astride the broom-mobile where we put on our disguises of writer, artist, housewife, single parent, senior citizen of independent means.”
It is a powerful account of a violent and abusive home. Uphoff began recalling details on the day her eldest sister died. It was an upwelling of painful memories that could not be suppressed any more. Her story had to be told.
“Excuse me for going on about myself for so long. I feel as though I need to tell you what I was and what I wanted to be, before descending step by step to the first place I ever lived. Of which I was reminded in those cheerless days when the beat of an old, familiar drum grew louder and louder.
Yes, turmoil, and alarum. . . . and then ignition.”
In the book, the most horrific incidents are never explicitly described but there are references made to them. Also, Uphoff relies extensively on literary references, including in the naming of some of her siblings, almost as if she is distancing herself to a few degrees from her memories. It may be a literary device that she uses to her advantage in telling her story but this act of the narrator distancing themselves at the precise moment of recounting a traumatic incident is a defense mechanism found often in survivor’s testimonies. They usually speak on the third person but Uphoff chooses to speak via a range of literary frameworks. Even so, the power of the storytelling or the incidents she narrates are not diminished. Parts of the book are vile and nauseating to read. At times, I had to put the book down as it was becoming difficult to read and I would discover that I was holding my breath. So much violence perpetrated constantly within the “safe” confines of a family home are despicable. Even offering the rationale at the beginning of the book that Uphoff’s father had been born in 1914 and grew to adulthood during the two world wars, is insufficient reason for the abuse he perpetrated upon his young family. The only time Manon Uphoff confronted her mother about the truth regarding the Minotaur especially since she had been plagued by terrifying nightmares; her mother’s response was to collapse on tears and never again was the topic ever broached.
Uphoff asks the reader helplessly,
“So tell me. What’s a girl got to do?”
In Uphoff’s case, she writes. She wrote this book. There is so much to unpack in “Falling is Like Flying”. A memoir. A devastating story about child abuse. Patriarchy at its worst on display. A dysfunctional family where some of the children went on to replicate some of it in their lives as well. The fact that Uphoff has the insight and literary knowhow to tell an extremely personal and difficult story makes this book an absorbing read. The triumphant ending where she upturns many of the preconceived notions about women using terminology such as witches that are usually hurled as slurs by society ( and was often used to describe her eldest sister), Uphoff reclaims for herself and her sisters a space and identity. The siblings speak frankly about the abuse they faced and agree to gather every year for a meal on their father’s death anniversary. It is a very liberating act to break these shackles. Life will never repair the physical and mental trauma that this family has to live with, but they can certainly begin to heal.
This is an unforgettable book. Slim. Excruciatingly painful to read in parts.
On 3 Sept 2021, I moderated a conversation with the 2021 International Booker winners David Diop and his translator from French to English, Anna Moschovakis for the book At Night All Blood is Black. It was conducted in two languages — French and English. This was organised in collaboration with the French Embassy in India/ French Book Office and UPES University. It was the inaugural event for Espace France at UPES. It was also an exclusive as this was the first ( and so far the only) event that had been organised in India/South Asia with David Diop and Anna Moschovakis. This event assumed significance for another special reason: France is the Guest of Honour at the New Delhi World Book Fair, Jan 2022 and India at the Paris Book Fair, April 2022.
The International Booker Prize is one of the most prestigious and richest literary prizes in the world @ US$ 50,000. It is meant exclusively for literature in translation/world literature. The author and the translator share the prize equally.
David Diop is a French-Senegalese writer who spent most of his childhood in Senegal before returning to France for his studies. In 1998, he became a professor of literature at the Université de Pau et des pays de l’Adour. In 2018, he won the prestigious French literary award, Prix Goncourt des lycéens, for his first novel, Frère d’ame. It was published by the renowned French publishing firm, Éditions du Seuil. In 2021, he won the International Booker Prize. The English translation, At Night All Blood Is Black. has been published by the fabulous independent press Pushkin Press, UK.
Anna Moschovakis is a Greek American poet, author, and translator. She divides her time between the USA and Greece. Moschovakis is a founding member of Bushel Collective and the publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse. She is a faculty member of Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, as well as an adjunct associate professor in the Writing MFA program at Pratt Institute. Her writing has appeared in eminent literary journals such as The Paris Review, The Believer and The Iowa Review. Moschovakis’ book of poetry, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, won the James Laughlin Award in 2011. Her first novel, Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love, was published in 2018.
It turned out to be a phenomenal success! We had over 500+ registerations on Zoom for the event. As happens with these events, ultimately only a smaller proportion sign in and attend the event. So approximately 150+ people logged in to watch the conversation in real time. Interestingly enough we discovered that except for about 5 or 6 people, everyone stayed glued to their screens for the entire duration of the discussion. This is unusual given that internet fatigue has set in during the pandemic. We had participants joining across time zones in real time —Canada, USA, UK, France, Germany, Nepal, India and Australia. For the next few days, the organisers were getting correspondence from a wide range of people lauding them. The impact factor was fantastic as the remarks were coming in from academics, institution heads, students, translators, journalists, readers, publishers etc. It was cutting across communities. In fact, while we were on air, the French Institute in India received a request to translate the novel into Hindi! This, after it was announced at the event that under the Publication Assistance Programme (PAP Tagore) of the IFI, the novel is already being translated into Malayalam ( DC Books) and Tamil ( Kalachuvadu)
Here are some comments:
Vidya Vencatesan à Conférenciers et participants (6:31 PM) M. Diop vous êtes au programme de maîtrise depuis deux ans, succès inouï Excellante initiative par IFI. FELICITATIONS!! Sukrita Paul Kumar à Conférenciers (6:52 PM) Very perceptive questions, Jaya Jyotsna Paliwal à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM) émerveillant, Merci bcp! Carol Barreto Miranda à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM) Superbe!!! Extraordinaire!! Jayanti Pandey à Conférenciers (7:07 PM) Merci beaucoup Prof. Dipa Chakrabarti à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM) Super David et Anna!!! Preeti Bhutani à Conférenciers (7:07 PM) très intense. Super! Rohit Kumar à Conférenciers et participants (7:08 PM)
it’s the best catchy Title I ever encountered!! HARSHALI Harshali à Conférenciers et participants (7:09 PM) Bravo!! émerveillant Dhritiman Das à Conférenciers (7:09 PM) Thank you for this extraordinary opportunity to get introduced to the stream of consciousness method. Gaurav Arya à Conférenciers (7:14 PM) Fabulously put together panel, with so many varied perspectives are threading so seamlessly Surely the experiences of men and women for WW I will be different, since women were not recruited as soldiers then. Women were left behind, caring for the sick and wounded, or grieving for loved ones lost. Aslam Khan à Conférenciers et participants (7:23 PM) what a wonderful discussion, thanks to the writer, translator and specially the organisers ❤ Shauna Singh Baldwin à Conférenciers (7:25 PM) The senegalese soldiers were going into a battle for their colonial masters — this has not been documented before. Did you know the major differences between the Senegalese soldiers feelings in contrast to their French masters before or was that revealed by your research? Mandira Sen à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM) Fascinating, much to learn and think about Thanks for organizing this. Mandira Sen Anaheeta Irani à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM) Merci.C’etait excellent Chandan Kumar à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM) Very informative session ..Merci de vous Maitrayi Nag à Conférenciers (7:35 PM) Oui, j’ai beaucoup aimé. Nidhi Singh à Conférenciers (7:35 PM) excellent session.. thankyou to organisers Kamala Narasimhan à Conférenciers et participants (7:36 PM) Thanks to David and Anna for their interaction and also to Jaya for moderating brilliantly. A special thanks to Uma for interpreting so wonderfully David! And thanks also to IFI for organising this! Namrata Singhvi à Conférenciers et participants (7:37 PM) Merci beaucoup ! Une discussion très intéressante ! Carol Barreto Miranda à Conférenciers et participants (7:37 PM) Recit bouleversant! Grande impatience de lire le roman prochainement. Chris Raja à Conférenciers et participants (7:38 PM) Thank you very much David and Jaya. Best wishes from Melbourne My Anglo Indian grandfather was involved in WW1 Elsa mathews à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM) beautiful discussion! lot to learn Ena Panda à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM) Very interesting discussion since we got to explore the book through the writer and the translator! Thank you Insititut Français Prof. Dipa Chakrabarti à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM) Merci Christine pour avoir organise cet evenement!!
Some messages that came in separately:
Very interesting discussion since we got to explore the book through the writer and the translator! Thank you Insititut Français!
Good morning. It was a wonderful conversation last evening. You steered it along very well. I really enjoyed it. ?
I enjoyed this conversation. I wish it could have gone on for another hour!
fantastic event it was. and was so accomodating for a naive like me. simple english. understandable; felt the connect wth author/ Translator and more with the audience. swift as breeze. i many time dont get converstaions but this was so easy and right from the heart. bulls eye it was.
More power to you and such wonderful lectures. God knows the poor students need such knowledge that frees them and gives them joy. I also liked Anna and her candid unaffected responses. So lovely! A five-star event overall, in my most humble opinion!! ??
Watch the conversation on Facebook. The panelists include David Diop, Anna Moschokovis, Uma Sridhar (translator), Dr. Christine Cornet, Attachée Livre et débat d’idées, Institut français India/Embassy of France and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, co-founder, ACE Literary Consulting and Associate Professor, School of Modern Media Studies, UPES University.
This was a tremendous event as we spoke in two languages, it moved seamlessly between the languages even though I do not speak French but we had Uma Sridhar translating for us brilliantly. It seemed as if we were having an excellent in-depth conversation about war literature, the canon of war literature, whether the gender of the writer makes a difference to the style of storytelling, translations, working with nonfiction material and converting it into fiction, use of folklore and magic realism etc. I am not listing the questions here but it is best that you hear the recording on Facebook. We covered a fair bit of ground and if time had permitted us, we would have spoken longer. Alas, it was not to be! Perhaps another time.
Award-winning French cartoonist, graphic novelist, and film director of Franco-Syrian origin, Riad Sattouf’s cartoon strips revolving around a chatty little girl called Esther’s Notebooks have won him acclaim far and wide. Originally published in French, these cartoon strips were based on the cartoonist’s weekly conversations with the daughter of his friends. The stories revolve around the little girl’s day at school and the zillion questions that she has to ask of people around her. Every episode is short and told in first person. Sattouf began these cartoons in 2014-15. Subsequently, they were collected into five volumes. The first volume has now been translated from the French into English by Sam Taylor and published by Pushkin Press. An animation series based on the books has also been launched.
In the first volume, Esther’s Notebooks: Tales from my ten-year-old life, Sattouf captures the child-like sentence constructs beautifully. He also manages to capture the wide-eyed wonder of children about the world around them and their propensity for asking the most uncomfortable questions. The language used in the cartoon strips is abrupt, at times lacks prepositions, but is pitch perfect as regards a ten-year-old’s speech. It is impossible to tell if this is a characteristic of the English translation or was it like this in the original English. The stories capture the child’s growing awareness of her environment including cultural details. Each cartoon strip is a chapter in the book and has a descriptive title exactly as children would introduce a story — relying upon the core words and no more. For instance, “Gunfire”, “Mums and Dads”, “The Charlie”, “The Gym”, “Breasts” and so on. A range of topics are covered in the stories. These range from racism ( Rebeus and Renois), religion, politics, separated families, grief, social divisions, gaming addiction, pornography etc. It is curious and yet it is perfect as to how many of the strips are set in the playground. It is true that children acquire much of their “knowledge” through their peers and through play. But in this book it works beautifully as the playground offers the lanscape for maximum number of stories and scenarios to swirl around the protagonist. The deadpan delivery of the little girl while narrating incidents is extraordinarily well done. It is almost as if the cartoonist is channeling the little girl and presenting to the readers her descriptions as is. The biggest gift that Sattouf bestows upon this form of storytelling is that he conveys without judgement all that the little girl tells him including the confused sidestepping of her teacher with regard to the Hundred Years War.
Esther’s Notebooks lays bare how much the children are acutely aware of or know about. Sometimes out of sheer ignorance and innocence they mouth words, behaviour and attitudes. But the dumbing down of children or shutting them down completely as the teacher did when asked but the Hundred Years War or when the little girl asks very loudly at the family dinner table about the website “Youpaurne” ( she had overheard referenecs to “youporn” in school), her family can only sputter in embarassment. It is probably an age-old tactic to shut kids down in this manner or choose to ignore them but in today’s day and age, it is a dangerous precedence to set of misinformation. More so as kids of today have multiple ways of accessing information. Apart from of course not recognising the child as an individual in their own right. It does not matter if they are young in years. They are bright eyed and bushy tailed, eager to make sense of this crazy world. This is where the talent of Sattouf lies to convey as precisely and unfiltered as possible what the little girl utters.
The popularity of these comic strips in French and now in English are a testament to how kids want their reality reflected. Adult readers of these comic strips also enjoy the sharpness with which the stories are told, not mincing words on various issues. Perhaps Sattouf’s stint as a cartoonist for the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo helped polish his skills at storytelling. The child may speak innocently or out of sheer ignorance but the rapidity with which the adult storyteller hones in upon precisely those scenarios that may startle adult readers comes with years of practice. Otherwise it is impossible to pick out that which is necessary from the conversaton that children make as they tend to prattle on endlessly.
Esther’s Notebooks ( Vol 1) is utterly fantastic. It is worth buying and spreading the joy with others too.
This book arrived today — Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby. My daughter immediately picked it up and was glued to it. Refused to budge. Ever so often one heard snorts of laughter and giggles. Or she would turn up with eyes shining and read out snippets from the book and repeat to say how much she was loving it. Made no difference to her whether I had understood the snippet or not, she was just very delighted with the story. It had magic, goblins, an invisible dog, children and the pace was just right.
Now I have been instructed to read it. You must.
Oh, BTW, David Ashby wrote this book to disprove a fortune teller who had predicted that David would never write a book. Well, now he has and if kid is to be believed, it is an “AWESOME BOOK!”
Cover illustration is by Jen Khatun and cover design by Anna Morrison.
25 Jan 2021
Update: On Instagram, David Ashby spotted the post and has been delighted with my daughter’s response. This is what he wrote: I am so happy to hear that Sarah enjoyed reading #Gribblebob – and especially that she read bits of it out loud to you! When I wrote it I read each new chapter out loud to my children as a bedtime story and so it’s lovely to know that it still works that way. Please tell her that I think she’s an AWESOME READER!!
Those Who Forget by Geraldine Schwarz, published by Pushkin Press. It has been translated from French into English by Laura Marris. It is about Schwarz discovering that her paternal grandparents were Nazis but more than that she meticulously puts together sufficient evidence to show how Nazi sympathisers continues to exist in society and have ultimately contributed to the rise of the modern right wing movements.
This memoir is about the rize of Nazis, end of WWII, denazification by the Allied forces, the new Chancellor of Germany while agreeing to pay “blood money” to the newly formed country Israel also gave prominent positions in his cabinet to former Nazis. Schwarz’s argument is that the rise of the alt-Right in Europe should be no surprise as the sentiments that ruled Nazi supporters were allowed to exist in societies even after the war. All this despite efforts like the Nuremberg trials or tribunals set up by the Allied forces to weed out Nazi supporters and sympathisers. She interviews people who lived through Nazi Germany and are now in their 90s. Jews who fled but also Germans who continue to believe in their Fuhrer. She talks about the collective and personal memories and the tangle of guilt, denial and confession that has characterized Germany since the Second World War. She talks about the impact of right wing forces on a nation and then the politics of memory, remembrance culture, work of memory vs tyranny of memory etc.
It is an absorbing read albeit chilling at times for the historical details she documents have parallels in modern politics. Stunning book.
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.
In today’s Book Post 20 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.
My review of Michael Orthofer’s wonderful book The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction has been published in the award-winning website, Scroll, on 26 June 2016. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/810332/no-book-can-tell-you-about-all-books-but-this-one-comes-close . I am c&p the text below.
The Complete Reviewwebsite was established in 1999 by founder and managing editor Michael Orthofer. He has so far reviewed a staggering 3,760 books on that site. His goal is to read a book a day, but he averages about 260 a year. In a profile written for The New Yorker by novelist Karan Mahajan, Orthofer says, “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.”
The Complete Review is a literary salon, gathering reviews and essays about books and literature from all over the world in a short, curated format. Orthofer launched the website after spending more than five months writing the code for it. His rationale for this website was to take advantage of the tremendous reach and connectivity of the internet. His manifesto is laid out in the book of his website:
Suddenly, book reviews from print publications, new online resources, and individual readers from across the world were just a link away. Beyond reviews, an enormous amount of literary coverage, in both local languages and English, has been made available, from traditional newspaper stories to discussions in online forums to blogs devoted to every imaginable facet of reading. Professional websites – publishers’ foreign rights pages, the sites of national organisations promoting local literature abroad such as the French Publishers’ Agency or the Finnish Literature Exchange, and the sites of international literature agencies – provide additional up-to-date information and insights into contemporary fiction from many nations. The Complete Review is designed to help connect readers to much of this information.
Ironically, though, this wide-ranging coverage, because it’s organised chronologically and minutely, does not offer a countrywise bird’s-eye view of the literary landscape. Hence The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction. It’s Orthofer’s attempt to provide an entry point as well as a foundation to help readers navigate the literatures of the world.
American readers, one might add, who live in a country where English is the super-dominant language of available books, and translated titles amount to the now legendary three per cent of all titles. One of Orthofer’s attempts in this extraordinary compendium of modern and contemporary fiction is to make these readers aware of what is being written right now in languages other than English.
Sensibly, therefore, Orthofer – who is an immigrant in the US of Austrian origin – has chosen to classify his encyclopaedic knowledge of literature geographically, with the books and authors arranged by nation and region. The sections are broadly divided into Europe; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa, Middle East, and Turkey; Asia; Oceania; Latin America and North America. “Because writers and their fiction move across many borders and languages, national origin, domicile, and language are only rudimentary categories by which to arrange writers,” he writes.
What is very obvious is that Orthofer’s intimate engagement with books has resulted in this crystal clear understanding of the manner in which literature may be mapped. His organisation underlines the close proximity between literature and socio-political factors, a link which is often denied by many.
Talking of books available across geographies makes this a reader’s guide for an English-speaking audience. Orthofer astutely observes that a major drawback of looking only at literature available in English is that it can distort the view of national literatures, as there are many languages from which only a limited number of texts have been translated. “Many nations’ fiction is highly evolved, but because only a tiny amount of it is available in English, it may seem underdeveloped,” he observes.
Orthofer admits that though he has tried to map literature mostly after 1945, there are historical gaps primarily due to some older literature being inaccessible in English. He also rues his inability to list all the translators of all the editions of world literature he has referred to, but he makes up for it by offering resource tools in the appendices.
The view from America
Obviously, the perspective on world literature is an American one. So his fascinating commentary on books and authors focusses on what he is accessible in the US. Despite this constraint, he is able to weave a magical literary web that impressively contextualises authors.
So, given this point of view, can Indian readers trust Orthofer’s pronouncement on the literatures of the world and his assessments of individual writers? One way of judging this is to examine his observations on Indian writers, with whom readers in the country are already familiar.
This is where Orthofer proves how perceptive his readings are. For instance, he says that Amitav Ghosh’s first novel The Circle of Reason embodies the restless ambition that has come to define his work. That Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction is evocative, focusing on expression rather than invention. That Arundhati Roy’s colourful The God of Small Things is undeniably affecting, but Roy has a few too many tricks up her sleeves. One cannot but agree.
What does Orthofer have to say about literature from India’s neighbours? He points out that Pakistan’s Uzma Aslam Khan paints broad portraits of life that are personal and family-oriented, but she also mixes political and social commentary into her fiction. Tahmima Anam from Bangladesh uses the experiences and attitudes of her characters to reflect on Bangladesh’s post-war transition, without reducing them to simplistic types.
Of course, you might wonder at the rationale for inclusion or omission – but that will only occur to those already familiar with the literature of a region. Thus, while prominent authors of south Asian origin but living in the West, like Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam and Manjushree Thapa, are mentioned, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni or the multiple-award-winning Akhil Sharma are not.
Orthofer’s insights make for rewarding reading. For instance, that the lack of translations from Ethiopia may be due to political factors such as never having being colonised or the long spell of dictatorial rule. He observes the rise of the cell-phone novel (keitai shosetsu) in Japan, the setbacks to Russian-language fiction after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the limited exposure to contemporary fiction written in other Indian languages. Orthofer also points out, perceptively, that Indian authors living outside India continue to situate their fiction in their homeland. In his survey of Arabic literature, Othofer focusses on the recent increase in fiction titles despite political censorship, an underdeveloped and fragmented market, and a small book-buying public.
The appendices are gloriously packed with information regarding translations into English and with supplemental resources. The latter includes lists of periodical and online resources, many of which are dedicated to cross-cultural exchange. He also lists publishers who have carved out niches for themselves with translations, among them AmazonCrossing, And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, Europa Editions, Hispabooks, Open Letter Books, Pushkin Press and Seagull Books.
The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is that very rare thing: an extraordinarily detailed book where the information is easily accessed and understood. It is a splendid reference, a dependable guide, and a rich map of the world through its books.
M. A. Orthofer The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction Columbia University Press, New York, 2016. Pb. pp. 486 $27.95