literary fiction · review

The Salt of the Earth, by Józef Wittlin

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a strange creature. It spanned a huge swath of central and eastern Europe. Based in Vienna, it ruled over people who spoke Hungarian, Polish, Czech, and Ukrainian while ordering people around in German. It was bureaucratic and hidebound, as depicted in Józef Wittlin’s The Salt of the Earth (faithfully translated by Patrick Corness). This novel, the first in a planned but unfinished trilogy, gives us two views of the outbreak of World War I. In some chapters, it takes a macro view of the mobilization. In others, it zooms in to follow an illiterate Ukrainian peasant and other Austro-Hungarian citizens who got caught up in the war.

Because The Salt of the Earth is the opening novel in an incomplete trilogy, the pacing feels off. Instead of covering the arc of Piotr’s military experience, this novel is a long build up that takes Piotr from the outbreak of war to the beginning of his training in Hungary. The Salt of the Earth was clearly meant to be a big, sprawling epic of the war from the Austro-Hungarian perspective. But even though The Salt of the Earth is unfinished, it still provides an interesting reading experience. I ended up reading it more like a historical document, as a fictional account of events rather than a fully fledged novel.

Piotr, the protagonist at the heart of this book, is not as hapless or comic as Švejk or as tragic as Paul Bäumer, the protagonists of other iconic World War I novels. He’s an unlikeable man, dismissive of his lover (who loves him and serves essentially as a housekeeper Piotr can have sex with) and casually anti-Semitic. But he is a useful character for exploring the strange relationship people in the outskirts of the empire had with their Austrian rulers. Piotr believes in his government the way others believe in a religion. He has a completely one-sided relationship with his emperor. If he serves faithfully as a low-level railroad worker, he might someday be allowed to rise in the ranks and be awarded with the special cap worn by state employees. Just as he finally gets that special hat, Piotr is drafted and sent to basic training.

As I mentioned before, The Salt of the Earth is not a complete novel. It shouldn’t be read as one because it will only frustrate readers who want a satisfying conclusion. That said, I would only recommend this to readers who are curious about the experience of ordinary Austro-Hungarian men in 1914.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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literary fiction · review

Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge, by Yusuke Kimura

In April of 2011, northern Japan suffered a trio of disasters. A massive offshore earthquake triggered an even bigger tsunami, which immediately caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. These disasters and the long (still partly unfinished) cleanup after are never far in the background in Yusuke Kimura’s two novellas, Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge (translated by Doug Slaymaker).

In Sacred Cesium Ground, our protagonist gives us a front row seat to one of the more gutting consequences of the three disasters. Because of the catastrophic and wide-reaching radiation contamination, people were told to leave their animals behind when they were evacuated. Some animals starved to death before their owners could return for them. Nishino, our narrator, has heard of a farm called the Fortress of Hope, where a rancher is collecting abandoned cattle instead of putting the animals down per government orders. Nishino has left her unsatisfying and abusive life in Tokyo to volunteer at the Fortress. In Isa’s Deluge, a young man named Shōji begins collecting stories about his notoriously violent uncle Isao (called Isa). The stories and the possibility that he might someday publish a slightly fictionalized version of them keep him going even though his life is nearly as depressing and purpose-less as Nishino’s is. Reading Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge reminded me strongly of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata in that all three of these stories are about characters who don’t fit, who don’t have the same reactions as other people. Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge, however, pack a bigger emotional punch.

An interesting wrinkle to these stories is revealed in the translator’s afterword. Slaymaker writes that Kimura’s novellas are based closely on the author’s own experiences. The Fortress of Hope is modeled on an actual farm of rescued cows. The stories about Uncle Isa are based on family stories from the author’s own family. These two novellas, however, didn’t strike me as auto fiction. Described purely in terms of plot, these novellas seem relatively simple. What makes these stories complicated is the emotional depth and their commentary on Japanese society and the official response to the disaster. As I read both of them and followed the action, I could also see Nishino and Shōji winding themselves up in frustration, helplessness, sense of misunderstanding, and anger at everything until they snap. Autofictional stories—at least the ones I’ve read before—are heavier on the plot than they are on the character studies.

A cow walks down a road in April 2011in the evacuation zone after the tsunami. (Image by VOA Herman, via Wikicommons)

Slaymaker writes in that same afterword that he struggled to convey the Northern Japanese dialect the characters speak, but I didn’t notice anything too unnatural with his solution of having the characters talk a bit like lower class New Yorkers. The accent doesn’t detract from the emotional struggles of the characters or the unsettlingly detailed descriptions of the tsunami ravaged landscape. I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed reading these novellas, given the subject matter. (Sacred Cesium Ground is particularly wrenching for me.) But I can say that I appreciated them a lot for the way they grapple with the Japanese psyche and the unhealed wounds of April 2011.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

historical fiction · literary fiction · metafiction · review

The Brahmadells, by Jóanes Nielsen

Imagine a triangle with its points in Iceland, Norway, and Scotland, skewed a little closer to Scotland than the other two countries. That’s roughly were the Faroe Islands at located. The Faroes, a long time colony of Denmark and a place few have heard of, is the setting for Jóanes Nielsen’s The Brahmadells (translated by Kerri A. Pierce), a metafictional family historical saga that runs from the 1840s to the early 1990s. The family stories that make up the bulk of the novel support a variety of tangents that attempt to explicate the Faroese character. The people in this novel eat partially decomposed meat, live dangerous lives, believe strange things, and sometimes fall prey to their worst impulses.

In the 1990s, writer Eigil Tvibur (the descendant of a Norwegian soldier who was garrisoned in Tórshavn before becoming a landowner), feels that his life is falling apart. His lover has definitively left him. His political career has imploded. He is angry all the time. And his house might be haunted. I might have felt more sympathy for him if it hadn’t been for the terrible, violent rage that he inherited from that Norwegian ancestor. Eigil’s anger and sense of entitlement leads him into a series of awful mistakes. Thankfully, only the beginning and end of The Brahmadells focuses on Eigil. The rest is about the twinned history of the Tvibur family and the Brahmadella family. 

I had a lot more sympathy for Tóvó í Giel. Tóvó is a scion of a family nicknamed the Brahamadellas because of their supposedly otherworldly knowledge. We met Tóvó during a terrible measles epidemic when he’s just a boy. Because the boy’s plight (a lot of his family members succumb to the disease), a prominent doctor takes the boy under his wing. Tóvó ends up traveling across a good chunk of the Faroe Islands before heading out to sea to see the world. Eventually, he returns home and inherits a house from the man who turns out to be Eigil’s Norwegian forefather. 

The oldest neighborhood in Tórshavn. (Image by Vincent van Zeijst, via Wikicommons)

Sadly, we don’t stay with Tóvó or even get much inside this character’s head. Instead, we are treated to an often bewildering montage of Faroese history. We are treated to chapters about Danish exploitation and oppression, Faroese literature, weather, cuisine, coal mining, a failed attempt at creating a union, and more. I suspect these tangents are part of the reason why this novel was chosen to be translated into English; it offers a full meal of Faroe-ish fare, rather than just a taste. The tangents definitely explain the novel’s comparisons to Moby-Dick. Unfortunately, the book jumps around so much that it’s hard to tell who we need to focus on, what’s important to remember, and what the point of it all is. The Brahmadells also suffers from what are either typos or translation errors, or possibly both, that just put me off the book even more. This book is a shaggy dog and while I got to mentally travel to a place that fascinates me, I had a tour guide that ruined the experience with his bluster and frightening anger.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

One Part Woman, by Perumal Murugan

For a long time and in many places (and still is in many places) the role of a woman is to produce children, heirs. This is certainly the case in rural Tamil Nadu, some time after 1945, in Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (translated by Aniruddhan Tasedevan). Farmer Kali has been married for twelve years to Ponna, but they don’t have any children. Everyone around them, from relatives to neighbors to priests, has advice, pity, theories, and/or scorn for the childless couple. Kali is content, however, and deeply in love with his wife. Ponna, on the other hand, is tormented by her inability to conceive. 

One Part Woman takes place in the months leading up to the chariot festival. On the 18th day of the festival, women who hope to conceive have the option of having sex with a man not their husband. The man “appears as god” to the woman and everything is religiously and socially sanctioned. Emotionally, however, things are not so permissible for a couple as in love as Kali and Ponna. Part of the novel reveals how Kali and Ponna’s mothers and Ponna’s brothers badger the couple to let Ponna take part in the 18th day festivities (for lack of a better word). Ponna is just willing, but Kali is adamantly against it. 

The rest of the novel drifts back and forth in time. We see the couple’s history and learn that it was love at first sight for Kali. We also see the depths of Ponna’s despair at her possible infertility. In this society, brides are expected to be pregnant within a year. Adoption, we learn, is not an option either due to caste issues, among other prejudices. IVF has either not been invented yet (I think this novel is set in the late 1940s) or, if it has, it’s not available for a farmer in rural southern India. The longer Ponna goes without conceiving, the more harassment she gets from everyone around them. When the couple saves money instead of spending it, everyone asks who they can be saving the money for if they don’t have children. When the couple offers to help on their neighbors’ farms, Ponna is rejected or blamed because of belief that a barren woman’s touch brings blight. Ponna might have been able to weather this as Kali does, except for the fact that she very much wants to have children. Every scene made me feel for Ponna.

Portia trees are frequently mentioned in this novel. (Image by Dinesh Valke, via Wikicommons)

I also felt a growing sympathy for Kali. He just wants his wife to be happy and for people to leave them alone. But it seems, as though the only thing that might make Ponna happy is a child. I suspect, from hints in the novel, that Kali is the infertile one. This realization hit me as particularly ironic given that Kali seems to be able to make anything grow. Early in One Part Woman, Kali talks about a portia tree he managed to grow in the courtyard of his in-laws’ house from a mere stalk. Everything on Kali’s farm thrives. The livestock are fat, healthy, and fertile. The crops are abundant. Kali even managed to grow plants for flowers for Ponna’s hair. He just can’t seem to have a child of his own. 

One Part Woman is a blend of love and sorrow. All of its emotional highs and lows are conveyed in Tasedevan’s almost hypnotic translation of Murugan’s Tamil. The novel reads like a story told by an old relative, with only a few clues as to time and place. This story feels as though it could have taken place anywhere in southern India, at any time in the first half of the twentieth century. The lack of concrete detail is not a problem. Rather, it makes Kali and Ponna’s struggle with expectations and infertility one that could apply to any couple in a society that deeply believes that women should bear children and that women can only be complete if they are mothers.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

White Hunger, by Aki Ollikainen

Trigger warning for rape.

After reading White Hunger, by Aki Ollikainen and translated with only a few vocabulary hiccoughs by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah, I’m not sure if the Russians or the Finns write the most depressing books. This novel is set during a famine in the winter of 1867-1868. Even though it’s a scant 97 pages in the kindle version, it is packed with tragedy, pathos, and unease. I think I can only recommend it to readers who are looking for something that will make them sob. 

The first few chapters are old from the perspective of Teo, a Helsinki doctor who is worried about appearances even as he regularly visits a sex worker and takes “payment” from women who are brought to him to see if they have a sexually transmitted infection. These opening chapters give us a sneak peak at a politician who is determined to take what he thinks is the long view by spending money on trains instead of imported food. The Senator, as he is known, might have been seen as a leading statesman if it weren’t for the fact that Finland is in the middle of a famine. People are starting to leave their farms looking for food and work, desperate for a chance at survival. Parish priests, almoners, and the wealthy (or even slightly better off) refuse to do much more than offer the road people a poor, grudging meal and send them down the road. Some of these people do worse.

Most of the novel, however, is narrated by Marja, a peasant woman from the north of Finland, and her children. Through their eyes, we see Marja, Mataleena, and Juho, leave Marja’s husband in their cabin to die while they go looking for food. (Marja’s husband starved himself so that they could eat. He was too frail to take to the road with them.) First, Mataleena provides a child’s confusion about leaving her father and having no where to go. Like so many of the other people around her, she has no idea why she’s hungry. She has a feeling like she should be provided for, but all she can hope for is a small bowl of gruel. Later down the road, Maria takes up the narrative thread. Marja’s chapters are full of misery. Kindness is harder to find than food. And, because she’s a woman, Marja risks more than just hunger and disease on the road. The last chapter is narrated by through the blended perspective of Teo and Juho, as the famine winter drags on.  

The epilogue, I will warn you, is a punch in the gut.

I suspect that White Hunger has two objectives. First, it succeeds in capturing a small piece of Marja’s hunger and desperation as she tries to find a place for her family. Second, I found that the book created a slow, burning anger at the people in the cities and in the government who whine about appearances or not getting the credit they think they deserve while a humanitarian crisis is in full progress all around them. So many doors are closed in Marja’s face that I grew furious on her behalf at the people who were only looking out for themselves. So many people hoard what they have so that they will be the ones to see the spring, even though there’s no way they can know how long the famine will last. I feel as though some of those privileged folk would be facing a violent revolution if the rest of the population weren’t so very, very hungry.

historical fiction · review

Soviet Milk, by Nora Ikstena

38190974Mother’s milk has such a powerful reputation for nutrition and nurturing that it’s sometimes used as a byword for something that feeds our souls. But in Nora Ikstena’s troubling short novel, Soviet Milk (translated by Margita Gailitis), the withholding of one mother’s milk from her child becomes an unsolvable puzzle for that child as well as a metaphor for the stifling false nurturing of the Soviet Union.

Soviet Milk is narrated by two voices. We only know which first-person narrator is who because of their relationships to each other. One of these voices is a daughter, born in Riga in 1969. The other is her mother, born in 1944 in a small village in the Latvian countryside. There were times when I was confused about who was talking, until something happened that I could assign to one character or the other. I’m not sure if the two women are supposed to sound so similar or if that’s because of the translation. Aside from my occasional confusion, I liked Gailitis’ translation. She left some passages of untranslated Latvian and Russian poetry and songs, which I think added to the sense of place. (Personally, I like to try and work out what words mean even in languages I know nothing about.)

As the two talk about their lives in the last decades of the Soviet Union, we also get hints about the mother’s background. We learn about the mother’s lost father and her own mother’s remarriage. We also see the mother attack the abusive husband of one of her patients, which leads to her exile to a rural Latvian town. As for the daughter, we watch her work up through the ranks in school, but also care for her severely depressed mother. There are times when the daughter acts more like a traditional mother than her actual mother.

While most questions about the two women are addressed in the book, the central question remains unanswered, at least definitively. We don’t know enough about her childhood to psychoanalyze her. We can’t test her brain chemistry. The closest we get to an answer are the references to imprisonment and freedom. Latvians are imprisoned by the Soviets. The mother is exiled from her Rigan family by a Soviet doctor. A pet is incarcerated in a cage. Most of the characters are able to carry on, even though they know they are prisoners. The mother just can’t, no matter how much her family and friends try to talk her out of her depression. She can see the bars and can never forget that she’s not free to go where she wishes.

The less I tried to analyze the mother, the more I could see the characters as responses to repression. On the daughter’s side is a striving to live, to buckle down and make the best of things. On the mother’s is an ineffable longing for a different life, in a different place or time, where she could travel and think and speak as she wanted. While the daughter has a happier ending, I hesitate to say that she’s the one we’re supposed to admire in Soviet Milk. After all, the kinds of freedoms the mother wants are the kinds I was raised to enjoy and fight any encroachments toward. (America.) There aren’t any characters who fall between the two who get as much attention as the mother and daughter. Consequently, we readers are left to wonder what that would look like. We have to, because both of these women’s lives lack important nourishment; they are both stunted by their various hungers.

review · science fiction

City of Ash and Red, by Hye-young Pyun

Trigger warnings for rape and violence to animals.

39331853The beginning of Hye-young Pyun’s novel, City of Ash and Red, (translated by Sora Kim-Russell), terrified me because it presents one of my worst fears. An unnamed man arrives in a foreign city to take up a job, only to end up without his phone, documents, most of his possessions, and eventually the apartment his new employer set up. He doesn’t speak the language well. All the phone numbers he might call were stored in his phone. He’s on his own. Meanwhile, an epidemic and a garbage strike are making conditions in the city district he’s fetched up in downright hellish.

At first, I felt a strong sympathy for our unnamed protagonist. He’s in desperate straights in the first chapters, especially as the epidemic gets worse and he is quarantined to his apartment. But then, I started to learn things about the protagonist that flipped my sympathy on its head. Throughout the first chapters, the protagonist alternately laments and puzzles about his broken marriage and how his wife left him for a man he doesn’t like. But when the protagonist does manage to call home after an arduous phone directory search, we learn that not only is his ex-wife’s dog brutally murdered in the protagonist’s apartment, so his his ex-wife.

The hits keep coming after that. The protagonist is visited by police officers and jumps out a window to escape, becoming homeless. While the protagonist digs through trash for edible food and scraps for a park bench to sleep on, more is revealed about his violent outbursts. The early chapters lead us to think that the protagonist is a put-upon, quietly suffering man. The rest of the book shows us the lie, complete with shocking examples of what happens when he loses his temper.

The wheel of Fortune lifts and drops the protagonist more than once in City of Ash and Red. So much so, that it’s hard to know what to make of the story. On the one hand, it would be easy to read the novel as a version of a man’s justifiable descent into hell for his deeds. On the other, the ending doesn’t make sense in that reading because the protagonist’s luck seems to be on the rise. City of Ash and Red left me feel angry for the way the protagonist repeatedly escapes justice. I suppose that’s the question this book presents for me. Is there an amount of suffering that could make amends? If not, what is a fitting punishment? Can suffering and deprivation even be considered a punishment if the sufferer thinks they’ve escaped justice?

Longtime readers of this blog will know that these are the kinds of questions that fascinate me in literature. It’s entirely possible that other readers will get something completely different from City of Ash and Red. Every reader, I think, will be unsettled by the strange city where the story takes place and the even more unsettling revelations about the protagonist. Kim-Russell, the translator, preserves the way Pyun withholds names and identifying details from us so that this city and this protagonist could be anywhere and anyone. Because this story could take place anywhere with any number of abusive characters standing in for the protagonist, the novel is just that much more chilling.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 6 November 2018.