The Written World


The Years by Annie Ernaux Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions £12.99)

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions £12.99)

Last year, Knightsbridge-based Fitzcarraldo Editions, publishers of cerebral contemporary fiction, walked off with the Booker International prize 2018 for their submission, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk.

This year they hedge their bets with two titles in the shortlist, a pensive novel by the brilliant Annie Ernaux, and another subversive stunner by Olga Tokarczuk. (Remember, the 2015 Nobel Literature Laureate was also from the Fitzcarraldo stable, Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich).

Just as a bit of unnecessary information, Fitzcarraldo is one of the few publishing companies apart from The Times to use their own custom-designed typeface, a very distinctive serif style.

Ernaux’s The Years is a memoir, spanning events in France over the last century, written in highly stylised prose of delicate beauty. Imagine looking closely at a pointillist painting—you see a collection of what appear to be randomly placed dots in varying colours. Step back gradually and the vari-coloured dots merge revealing a subtle and meaningful picture. Ernaux is a pointillist of the word, her memoir a Gallic perspective on Europe in the twentieth century, a pure, personal commentary on the times.

We are familiar with the arresting prose style of Polish Olga Tokarczuk—-her new novel Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead is set in a remote hamlet somewhere on the Czech/Polish border where the elderly protagonist Janina Duszejko acts as caretaker for private holiday homes. We follow her daily routine, as she drags her diseased old body in her Samurai SUV around the sites of her route, a steely eye open for the evil doings of poachers and hunters.

This novel has been condemned by the Polish authorities, Tokarczuk herself accused of promoting eco-terrorism. And there is no doubt that the series of deaths in Janina’s supervisory circuit escalate in an alarming manner, and the truth emerges with all the unexpectedness of the most accomplished crime thriller. Can Fitzcarraldo pull off a hat-trick with Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead?

Can Olga Tokarczuk win again? Look out for the announcement of the Booker International 2019 winner on 24th May.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press £8.99)

The literature of the Arabic-speaking world is not as familiar to readers in the UK as it should be — one of the great benefits of the Booker International award is the access we are granted to works in foreign languages that would otherwise have been missed.

Selected for the Booker International 2019 shortlist, and a strong contender for the prize is Omani novelist Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, a novel that illustrates how platitudes about the universality of the human condition actually do resonate with the life experiences of every family the world over. This premise is the starting point for Jokha Alharthi’s utterly absorbing saga of contemporary family life in a village in Oman. Celestial Bodies is a warm and affectionate port-rayal of three generations of a well-to-do Arab community—full of youthful turbulence and strong family loyalties, describing their loves and their marriages, their hopes and their limitations. The milieu is unfamiliar, the characters recognisable anywhere.

Alharthi has a strong narrative gift, transporting the reader into all the intimacies of a close-knit family group, providing a useful family tree to help the reader to keep up with the convolutions of the intriguing plot and to experience a startling recognition of the similarities our societies embrace as well as the differences.

Jokes For The Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Granta £10.99)

Examining the anatomy of life in a war zone through the eyes of a young unnamed schoolboy, is Lebanese writer Mazen Maarouf’s portrayal, in the twelve short episodes of her Booker submis-sion Jokes For The Gunmen, of the frightening, sometimes bizarre happenings as the boy and his parents struggle to ride out the miseries of working, studying and growing up in embattled streets and neighbourhoods. Their lives are governed by the whims of the occupying soldiers — who enjoy the boy’s jokes and will let them pass unharmed if the joke is good.

In the course of a day we experience a bomb blast in which the father loses his arms; a boy survives a shelling by ducking into a cinema sharing his trauma with a large lost cow; and our protagonist attempts to peddle his twin brother’s body parts to organ smugglers.

The utterly bizarre and the most unthinkable are the norm as Mazen Maarouf evokes the fear, pain and terror of a modern tragedy in her deeply moving narrative. This title is from the Booker Inter-national longlist and was not selected for the shortlist.

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann Translated from the German by Jen Calleja (Serpents Tail £12.99)

On The Haiku Trail….

The haiku, a rather esoteric 17th century Japanese verse-form consisting of seventeen syllables, has been popularised by frequent exposure, used as clues on the daily BBC gameshow ‘Pointless’. This might indicate a cosy public familiarity with the artform that is not strictly accurate: Pointless omits to mention that in addition to the seventeen-syllable format, the haiku must also contain a reference to the season/nature and have emotional content—which makes it rather more complex than portrayed on the show.

Two of the haiku writers best known to classical aficionados are the Zen Monk Ryokan and his predecessor Matsuo Basho, the inventor of the haiku. If you would like to know more, have a look on Sky Channel 507 NHK World — this Japanese channel features haiku specials in English frequently.

When emotionally bankrupt German academic Gilbert Silvester flees a miserable marriage, he finds himself flying impulsively to Japan, where, at an airport bookshop, he picks up a translation of the works of the great Haiku master Matsuo Basho and embarks on a pilgrimage across Japan, following the travels of the 17th century poet.

En route he is joined by the suicidal Japanese student Yosa, and they set forth to see the moon rise over Basho’s legendary pine islands of Matsushima.  Internationally celebrated German novelist Marion Poschmann gives life to this surreal journey in a delicious narrative, full of self-deprecation, Weltschmerz and irony, leavened by passages of pure playfulness and whimsy.

Does Gilbert achieve a rapprochement with his wife? Will Yosa achieve his quest without more bneurotic episodes? Marion Poschmann is a storyteller of great skill and originality; The Pine Islands is a serious contender for the Booker International prize.

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli Translated from the  French by Sam Taylor (Granta £12.99)

A Soldier’s Idyll

A company of soldiers engaged in the Russian Civil War bed down to wait out the winter, building themselves an encampment in the forest—ready to go back into battle once spring arrives.

Our protagonists, Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra create an idyllic interbellum life for themselves. Their tent is as comfortable as possible within the military constraints, they discover a pile of wooden sleepers which they ‘liberate’ to use as a makeshift table for their games of dice—and most serendipitous of all, they find an isolated pond, allowing them the luxury of clean bodies, clothes and blankets.

The three are joined by a young recruit, Evdokim, who can read and write, and who maintains a diary of their sylvan sojourn including an attempt at fishing in the pond, a nervous friendship with a magnificent white horse and memorable meals when an ‘expedition’ to a farm yielded a fine fat pig.

But battle erupts again and the idyll is shattered as our four friends are thrust into military action.

Four Soldiers is an extraordinarily gentle and beautiful insight into comradeship among the young participants in a brutal war. Celebrated French novelist Hubert Mingarelli is a master of the sort of bleak and sparse style that makes a narrative so powerful. This submission has not been included in the shortlist, but is easily among the best under consideration.


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