Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘Peirene Press’

Book review – Shadows on the Tundra

Posted by lucypopescu on May 9, 2018

Shadows on the Tundra

Dalia Grinkevičiūtė

Translated by Delija Valiukenas

In June 1941, Stalin ordered the mass deportation of Lithuanian citizens to remote regions of the Soviet Union. Thousands died in the harsh labour camps, including many women and children. Dalia Grinkevičiūtė was fourteen years old when she was deported with her mother and brother Juozas. They ended up hauling timber in a fish-processing factory on the island of Trofimovsk. In February 1949, Dalia fled with her mother back to Lithuania, where they were forced into hiding.

Throughout these months of relative freedom, Dalia began drafting a memoir detailing the gruelling first year she had spent in exile. She buried her account in a preserving jar in their garden in the city of Kaunas.

Her mother died in May 1950, and Dalia was arrested by the KGB and sent back to Siberia. When she returned to Lithuania six years later, she was unable to find her memoir and later wrote another account that was reproduced and disseminated underground. It wasn’t until 1991, after her own death, that the preserving jar was discovered and the papers were sent to the war museum in Kaunas to be conserved and copied. Delija Valiukenas’s eloquent translation is based on this early memoir written between 1949 and 1950.

Shadows on the Tundra is a remarkable account of one girl’s survival against the odds, the appalling conditions she was forced to endure and the shocking inhumanity she witnessed. Shortly after their arrival, Dalia describes how ‘death, along with famine, typhus, lice, scurvy and frigid temperatures, had wormed its way into our ghastly barracks’. When the polar winter arrives they are trapped inside their wretched dwellings, and Dalia watches as the corpses pile up and are left to lie alongside the living.

Dalia is granted a few months at a rudimentary school but is often late as she has to work in the mornings in order to earn her meagre bread rations. Eventually the teacher tells her not to return. The deportees are treated like animals and Dalia poignantly describes them as ‘fleas in harness’ and ‘emaciated nags … straining at their impossible loads’. They have to haul logs up a hill, which she renames ‘Golgotha, our Calvary’. Despite the hardship, Dalia can still appreciate ‘the imposing backdrop of the softly booming Lena delta’ and ‘the milky period of twilight’. It is this resilience that ultimately saves her.

When spring returns, their conditions improve. Dalia and her mother are moved to Bobrovsk to gut fish. Despite the appalling stench, they can now eat their fill and sleep in yurts. Dalia captures rare moments of joy, such as when she finds ways to cheat their captors – stacking a pile of wood ‘with a hollow centre big enough to hold three people’ or fooling their gullible supervisor by resubmitting yesterday’s stacks.

Shadows on the Tundra is a devastating portrait of human cruelty. Dalia bears witness to the brutality of the labour camps but she also reveals an indomitable spirit that refuses to be crushed. Her searing tale is unexpectedly uplifting.

Originally published by The Baltics Riveter

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Book Review – Her Father’s Daughter

Posted by lucypopescu on July 3, 2016

Her Father's DaughterOur childhood memories do not always tally with real events. Often it is only years later that we realise the true significance of our earliest experiences. This is the premise of Marie Sizun’s brilliant novella (originally published in French in 2005), translated by Adriana Hunter, and available in English for the first time courtesy of Peirene Press.

Founded by Meike Ziervogel in 2008, Peirene’s books are all award-winners or best-sellers in their countries of origin and have enjoyed success over here too. Almost all their titles have featured on Books of the Year lists or have been longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Most recently, White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. Every year, Ziervogel curates three novellas according to specific themes. Her Father’s Daughter is the second book in Peirene’s 2016 ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’ series.

Set during the dying days of the Second World War, four-year-old France (a namechosen, duty-bound by the war”) lives with her mother in Paris. Her father, whom she has never met, is incarcerated in a German prison camp. France’s carefree existence is thrown into disarray when her father returns, emaciated and irritable. Suddenly, she does not have the undivided attention of her adored mother, Li. Her father thinks she is spoilt and accuses Li of over- indulging their child. He tries to instil some discipline and flies into inexplicable rages when France refuses to eat, draws on the walls or belts out at the top of her lungs her “warlike songs”. He often metes out cruel punishments – slapping France or making her sit in the hall outside their apartment.

France is baffled by her parents’ volatile relationship – by turn loving and argumentative. Sizun perfectly captures France’s initial jealousy over their closeness, their whispered confidences and silent embraces, in beautifully controlled, simple prose: “The child can see she’s no longer the object of her mother’s adoration. The loved one is her father. He’s called ‘darling’ now, not her. He’s looked at, as she was before, with that tender, slightly anxious expression, not her. He’s admired. Not her. Not any more.”

France recalls a scene from the past, a trip to Normandy with Li and her grandmother, but resents the women’s assurance that she must have been dreaming. Distressed by the realisation that her beloved mother is lying she hardens her heart towards her. Increasingly, lonely she retreats under the table where she talks to her tattered doll: “commenting on her grievances, going over her resentments. She thinks about everything new in her mother’s behaviour, everything new about her disenchantment… mulls over things she keeps to herself: memories, old problems, unsolved questions. In her head she tries to establish the boundaries between dreams and reality, and explores, yet again, the dishonesty displayed by adults.” Gradually, France shifts her affections and attempts to win over her father. She decides to tell him what she witnessed in Normandy with devastating and unexpected consequences.

This is a terrific evocation of a young child’s early rejection of her mother and her attempts to connect with her father. France’s jealousy is superseded by bafflement, an irrational hope” and inexplicable fury as she tries to make sense of the breakdown of her parents’ relationship and to understand their moments of “terrifying silence”. She tries to ignore Li’s tears, disdains her puffy face and is wary of her detachment. She no longer understands her actions: “The mother, still in her dressing gown, an old pink dressing gown that the child doesn’t like, drifts about the place, puts a few things away. The child notices that the apartment’s very untidy, with clothes on the furniture, the kitchen in a mess, full of dirty dishes.” She is alarmed by her mother’s face, “her pallor, her mess of hair…She doesn’t want her mother to touch her. To kiss her.” Finally, France has to decide which parent to side with.

What are our earliest memories of our fathers? France recalls her father’s distinctive smell of tobacco and eau de cologne, his large hands covered by freckles which, from a child’s perspective, resemble “giraffe’s skin”. She grows to adore him, like she once had her mother, but has to endure the painful childhood experience of “separation” from them both. She forgives her father his ill temper and resents her mother’s increasing neediness as he withdraws from her. Her Father’s Daughter is a poignant, psychologically complex and quietly devastating study of a child blossoming into awareness and her subsequent alienation from her parents.

A prize-winning French author based in Paris, Sizun has published seven novels and a memoir. Her Father’s Daughter was her remarkable debut, written at the age of sixty-five, and longlisted for the Prix Femina. It is flawlessly translated by Adriana Hunter, who has translated three previous titles for Peirene: Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, for which she won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize, Under The Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda, and Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean. Adriana Hunter has been short-listed twice for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Originally published by

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Book review – The Blue Room

Posted by lucypopescu on September 23, 2014

the blue room“I was never going to get out on my own,” says the narrator in Hanne Ørstavik’s searing portrait of a young woman’s sexual awakening, “someone was going to have to help me.” Given her dependence on and inability to separate from her mother, this is something of an understatement.

Johanne, a psychology student at Oslo University, wakes up to find herself locked in her bedroom. Through flashbacks we learn of her sheltered upbringing with her overbearing mother, Unni. They are both churchgoers and Johanne often sleeps with the Bible under her pillow. Two weeks earlier, she had met Ivar, a warm, laid-back musician who works in the university canteen, and experienced a dramatic transformation.

Ørstavik explores Johanne’s masochistic response to feelings of guilt. Because of her passive disposition, her attempts to be “good” and refrain from sin, Johanne is unnerved by the ferocity of her sexual desire. She feels God is forever “watching”, together with her mother, and the two become fused in her mind as she tries to please them both. Her repressed emotion manifests itself in intense back pain while her erotic fantasies of masculine domination become increasingly violent.

There are hints of domestic abuse in the family’s past and Unni is vociferously dismissive of men – a cutting pinned up in their apartment reads: “The Woman most in need of liberation is the woman that each man holds prisoner in his soul.” But this rings hollow. Unni is in a relationship with Svenn, a married man and, confident in her sexuality, often dresses provocatively. By contrast, Johanne wears long skirts and baggy tops that conceal her figure.

At first we see Unni as just a caring, over-protective mother worried about her daughter finding the right man. Using taut, spare prose, Ørstavik gradually reveals Unni’s controlling nature – through her sly comments about Johanne’s hair and weight, the plate of food she drops on learning about Ivar and the textbook she casually removes from her daughter’s bag. Johanne is strangely complicit in Unni’s behaviour; naively attempting to relate her academic studies to insights about herself and others, she remains blind to her mother’s oppression. Things come to a head when Ivar asks Johanne to join him in America for six weeks and she is forced to make the hardest decision of her life.

Ørstavik is well known in her native Norway. Thanks to Peirene Press she is published in English for the first time. Psychologically astute and deftly translated by Deborah Dawkin, The Blue Room is a brilliant examination of a young woman struggling to own her sexuality, to break free from guilt and forge her own identity.

Originally published by The Tablet

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A passion for literary fiction in translation

Posted by lucypopescu on July 11, 2013

During the fifteen years I worked for English PEN’s Writers in Prison committee, we campaigned on behalf of many writers whose work was not translated into English. We knew that they had written something to anger or intimidate the authorities but PEN would usually have only the relevant extracts translated. Of course, I always wanted to read more. One of the strangest cases was that of Elif Shafaq (who recently judged the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize). Shafak was charged with ‘insulting Turkishness’ in her novel Baba ve Piç (which had been originally published in English as The Bastard of Istanbul). One of her characters referred to the 1915 Armenian deportations and massacres – a sensitive subject in Turkey. Shafak and her publisher argued that the book was a work of fiction and therefore not appropriate for prosecution. Shafaq was acquitted in September 2006.

Almost seventy years earlier, in 1937, PEN had campaigned on behalf of Arthur Koestler who had been arrested by Franco’s forces while reporting on the Spanish Civil War and was threatened with execution. A petition was sent to General Franco appealing for Koestler’s release, signed by forty PEN members including EM Forster and Aldous Huxley. This early campaign for a writer in prison proved successful and Koestler was released. Later he wrote to PEN:  ‘I am fully aware that it was no personal merit of my own, but in the deeper interests of freedom of expression of opinion, which is the life-blood of democracy and humanity that this help is given. That a free public opinion should have thus proved so strong, is as much to me as my own personal liberty.’ Later, in Paris, Koestler was arrested again, and lost the German manuscript of his novel, Darkness at Noon. Fortunately, an English translation had been mailed to London a few days before, which literally saved the book from being lost forever. The English version was published in December 1940.[1]

The PEN charter proclaims: literature knows no frontiers’. In 2007, I had the pleasure of editing the PEN anthology, Another Sky, which covered forty years of our work with persecuted writers. We commissioned a number of new translations including, from Spanish, two Cuban poets Angel Cuadra and Yndamiro Restano, Peruvian journalist Augusto Ernesto Llosa Giraldo and the Mexican novelist and human rights activist Jose Revueltas.

My time at PEN made me curious about foreign writers and in particular, literary fiction in translation. I was hungry to read and discover more. Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish traveller-reporter, neatly sums up my own feelings about why foreign fiction is important when he writes of travel: ‘these other worlds, these other cultures, are mirrors on which we can see ourselves, thanks to which we understand ourselves better – for we cannot define our own identity until having confronted that of others, as comparison’. [2]

Shortly after I left PEN, I lived briefly in Mexico from 2009 to 2010. I began reading voraciously about the country and immersed myself in the work of classic Mexican authors such as Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz and Juan Rulfo and contemporary authors published in English translation such as Enrique Serna, Eloy Urroz and Jorge Volpi. The latter is a leading light in his own country and to my mind is as thrilling a discovery as Chilean Roberto Bolaño. Born in 1968, Volpi is a founding member of the Crack Movement – a literary group that endorses the complexity of plot and style employed by Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. Volpi is a master of the historical thriller and effortlessly blends an acute analysis of political events into his fiction. It’s hard to believe that Volpi has had only one novel, In Search of Klingsor (translated by Kristina Cordero) published in the UK (Fourth Estate, 2003).

In fact, relatively few contemporary Mexican authors are known in the UK. Laura Esquivel’s homage to Mexican cooking, Like Water for Chocolate, (translated by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) became a bestseller only after it was made into a successful film in 1992 by Alfonso Arau. Thankfully, this looks set to change. Fernando del Paso’s mammoth News from the Empire (translated by Stella T. Clark, Alfonso González) about the French conquest of Mexico and Emperor Maximilian’ s troubled reign was published by Dalkey Archive in 2009. More recently, And Other Stories saw their English language version of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole (translated by Rosalind Harvey), a nightmarish inversion of Alice in Wonderland – where absurd wishes are granted, giant cats are fed human corpses, and corrupt politicians come to lunch – nominated for the Guardian First Book Award 2011.

When I returned to England, I become acquainted with Peirene Press who publish European literature of distinction in English translation. Their books are beautifully designed paperbacks and are always less than 200 pages “so you can read them in the same time it takes to watch a movie”. The first title I read was Maria Barbal’s poignant novella, Stone in a Landslide, about rural hardship in Catalonia at the beginning of the 20th century. It is considered a Catalan classic but before it was translated into English, by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell, Barbal was unknown over here.

Granta Magazine gave younger writers a huge boost in 2010 when it published its wonderful anthology The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists. Apart from the mainstream publishers of prominent authors such as Javier Cercas, Javier Marías and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, it is mainly the smaller, independent presses who are introducing Spanish language authors to these shores. Thanks to them, in recent years I have become acquainted with many new Spanish language novelists whose books have been translated into English for the fist time. The most memorable include Peruvian Santiago Roncagliolo who, together with his English translator, Edith Grossman, won the 2010 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) for his political thriller Red April published by Atlantic Books; Chilean Carla Guelfenbein and her tender love story, The Rest is Silence, translated by Katherine Silver and published by Portobello Books; Horacio Castellanos Moya’s meditation on post-civil-war San Salvador, The She-Devil in the Mirror, translated by Katherine Silver and published by Alma Books; and Colombian Evelio Rosero, whose novel The Armies (translated by Anne McLean and published by Maclehose Press) won the 2009 IFFP.

There have been a spate of Argentinean writers published over here in the past two years alone: Marcelo Figueras and his brilliant coming of age novel set during Argentina’s Dirty War, Kamchatka, translated by Frank Wynne and published by Atlantic Books;  Carlos Gamerro, also writes poignantly about Argentina’s brutal past in An Open Secret, translated by Ian Barnett and published by Pushkin Books; Matías Néspolo’s assured debut novel, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat, set against Argentina’s financial collapse of 2001, translated by Frank Wynne and published by Harvill Secker; Iosi Havilio and his beguiling debut novel, Open Door, about an open-door institution for the mentally ill, translated by Beth Fowler and published by And Other Stories; and Andres Neuman’s magnificent Traveller of the Century (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia and published by Pushkin Books), this year’s joint runners-up at the IFFP.

Why these books remain uppermost in my mind is because so few foreign writers are being translated into English. At International Translation Day 2012, Alexandra Buchler from Literature Across Frontiers, announced that translation makes up only 4.5% of fiction sales in the UK, compared with 24% in Spain and 15% in France. This is slighter better than the 3% generally cited for the US but is still woefully low. However, many consider this small increase an indicator of change and some credit for this must go to initiatives like New Spanish Books.

I was delighted to be invited to be part of New Spanish Books’ 2013 panel of literary professionals and trade experts. We met only twice but whittled down over 120 fiction titles to just seventeen and then chose a final eight. Most of these were clear shortlist material and there were few disagreements. We tried to include a range of subjects from Betina González’s coming of age novel, Las poseídas and Isabel Camblor’s psychologically complex Memoria de la inocente niña homicidato to Alan Pauls’ topical Historia del dinero about an Argentinean family’s relationship to money as well as a mix of genres from Catalan master Pere Calders’ short stories Croniques de la veritat oculta to Felix G Modrono’s historical drama, La ciudad de los ojos grises. We also considered whether the works bring something different to what is being published here already.

Hopefully, these titles will be snapped up by UK publishers. Given the globalised society in which we now live, there are ever more pressing reasons to read literary fiction in translation, in order to explore and better understand “these other worlds, these other cultures”.

[1] Scammell, M. ‘Dialogue with Darkness’ from Index on Censorship, Beyond Bars: 50 Years of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee, Vol 39, No 4. 2010

[2]  Kapuściński, R. Travels with Herodotus, Penguin Books, 2007

Originally published by New Spanish Books


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Book Review – Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Posted by lucypopescu on May 24, 2013

MagdaThe debut novel of the founder of Peirene Press, Meike Ziervogel, carries many of the hallmarks of her publishing ethos. It’s short, beautifully packaged by Salt Publishing, and the themes are hard hitting and distinctly European.

Joseph and Magda Goebbels arrive in Hitler’s bunker with their children aware that the end of war is nigh. We already know their fates: Hitler’s propaganda minister and his wife commited suicide after killing their six children, although accounts differ as to who feeds them the cyanide capsules. Ziervogel suggests Magda murders the children alone and focuses on what leads her to this final brutal act.

Combining fact and fiction and knitting together the perspectives of Magda’s embittered mother and her eldest daughter, Helga, Ziervogel creates a multi-layered portrait. Magda’s mother, a former maidservant, reveals how her estranged husband insisted that his daughter receive a convent education. Its harsh environment hardens Magda from a tender age. She is rescued by her mother’s second husband, a kindly Jewish shopkeeper, who brings up Magda like his own and encourages her to pursue an education rather than follow her mother into domestic service.

After meeting Goebbels, Magda realises that her destiny is to serve the Party and dedicates herself to Hitler as though “He” was God, confiding in him her fears and desires. At one point she bemoans her husband’s frequent infidelities and Hitler flatters her into believing that she is an “icon” for the German people and counsels her to “forgive Joseph his trespasses and live like a saint.”

In her afterword, Ziervogel suggests that her intention was “to capture the psychology…of a destructive mother-daughter relationship over three generations.”  Rather than presenting Magda as a monster, Ziervogel gives her a human face. She comes to represent all the ordinary German women who were swept up by Hitler’s abominable vision, refusing to recognise its horrors and absolving themselves with state propaganda.

Helga’s diary entries suggest that her mother is already distancing herself from her children, perhaps preparing herself for the inevitable. Ziervogel dedicates one chapter to Magda’s vision of what might happen should she and her children live under “enemy” occupation. Helga would have to prostitute herself while Magda would have to watch helplessly, terminally afflicted by her migraines. It is too hard for Magda to contemplate this possibility and so she chooses the only alternative left open to her. Even in that, she is deluded; seeing her act of prolicide as heroic rather than cold-blooded murder.

A shorter version was published in Tablet


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Book Review- The Mussel Feast

Posted by lucypopescu on February 14, 2013

the mussel feastPeirene publish distinctive European literary fiction in translation, by authors who are award-winners or best-sellers in their countries of origin. Birgit Vanderbeke is no exception. Her debut novel The Mussel Feast, originally published in 1990, won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and is on the school curriculum in Germany. She wrote it just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, so it is the perfect opening title in Peirene’s “Revolutionary Moments” series.

The Mussel Feast is narrated by a nameless teenage girl. Together with her mother and younger brother, she awaits the return of her father. Her mother has prepared a huge pot of mussels because they are her husband’s favourite meal. The narrator ponders the cruelty involved in boiling the mussels alive and how they make a peculiar sound as they cook “which made me feel creepy … and the hair on my arms stood on end”.

What makes our flesh creep as we too anticipate the father’s return is the gradual realisation that he is a serial abuser. The daughter’s narrative appears chaotic and unreliable, but she is actually restrained in her revelations. At first there are only hints of the man’s controlling nature: he likes to eat at 6pm on the dot; on Sundays he always listens to Verdi; and “there was always a certain tension” when waiting for him.

There are various references to the family’s exodus from East to West Germany, and some amusing anecdotes that illustrate the father’s newly acquired snobbery and pettiness. Coming from an impoverished background, he is obsessed with status. Despising “the smell of poor people”, he likes to splash out on sharp suits, drives a fast car, and tips generously. However, he derides his wife, who worries about getting into debt and buys only bargain clothes for herself and her children.

Then the daughter’s observations become more chilling. Her wry comment “he could be extremely sensitive and unpleasant” proves something of an understatement. She makes the point that it is often a “random event” that provides the catalyst for radical change, and it is the father’s break from routine, his absence, that allows them to question his peculiar notions of what makes “a proper family”.

There is a political edge to Vanderbeke’s provocative examination of patriarchal violence, and part of the power of this darkly comic tale is how well it succeeds as an allegory for political tyranny. The father’s tactics for exerting control in the familial home are similar to those an authoritarian regime exercises to keep the people cowed. His frequent interrogations and brutal punishments have instilled fear and paranoia. The family are provided for, but denied the opportunity to make their own choices; and creativity is suppressed: the daughter’s daily piano practice is restricted to an hour and her mother’s violin lies broken in a wardrobe because the father deems music “pure excess”.

When the mother finally takes a stand, her act of feminist self-assertion is as revolutionary as Nora’s slamming of the door in Ibsen’s 1879 play The Doll’s House. It makes you wonder, how far have we really come? Given the current obsession with traditional family values, Jamie Bulloch’s flawless translation is timely. The Mussel Feast will make uncomfortable reading for those who aspire to the ideal of the perfect nuclear family.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday

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Supporting Independent Publishers

Posted by lucypopescu on December 16, 2012

Since the announcement in October that Random House and Penguin Publishers would merge there have been further rumours of other major publishers joining forces. Bucking this trend, are the smaller, independent presses who continue to publish exciting new authors or established names that the bigger conglomerates think are no longer financially viable. But publishing quality literature and non-fiction is an expensive venture and these smaller presses have had to think creatively and find innovative ways to survive.

ThefallofthehouseofMurdochUnbound Books offer readers the opportunity to participate in the publishing process. Authors pitch their book ideas on Unbound’s website. Readers can then pledge an amount in order to support the book’s publication. Effectively you become a patron of the book/s of your choice. If you back a project before it reaches its funding target, you get your name printed in the back of every copy and immediate behind-the-scenes access to the author’s “shed” (This means you can read draft chapters and join discussions with the author. Essentially you get to comment on and contribute to a work in progress). If any project fails to reach its funding target, you are refunded in full. The higher your pledge, the greater the benefits including, in some cases, lunch with the author. If you introduce your friends to the site you earn “credits” when they support a project. Unbound has some big names on their list such as ex-Python Terry Jones and Peter Jukes’, whose book The Fall of the House of Murdoch is particularly timely in the wake of Lord Leveson’s report.

downtherabbitholeI am always amazed that we do not publish more literary fiction in translation in the UK. According to Literature Across Frontiers, translation makes up 2.5% of all publications; only 4.5% of fiction sales in the UK, compared with 30-40% in France or Spain. Publishing collective And Other Stories  is subscription-based and most of its books so far have been translations. They publish four books a year and these are recommended by their network of readers, writers and translators. They have a diverse community of supporters and through online discussion subscribers can sway the choice of titles. Subscribers receive a limited-edition numbered copy and could find themselves backing a winner. In just two years, And Other Stories have seen Mexican Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole – a nightmarish inversion of Alice in Wonderland – where absurd wishes are granted, giant cats are fed human corpses, and corrupt politicians come to lunch – nominated for the Guardian First Book Award 2011 and Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home – a gem of a novel that confounds all expectations – shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

next world novellaThen there is the wonderful Peirene Press who publish European literature of distinction in English translation. Their books are beautifully designed paperbacks and are always less than 200 pages “so you can read them in the same time it takes to watch a movie”. Their books are all award-winners or best-sellers in their countries of origin and have enjoyed success over here too. Matthias Politicki’s Next World Novella, an absorbing portrait of a marriage breakdown, made various literary editors’ books of the year list and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012. Peirene curate their books according to themes and next year’s series is entitled “Revolutionary Moments”. In addition, they host a wide range of literary events for subscribers from informal coffee mornings to launches and literary salons.

FreshtaFinally, another publisher of merit is Stork Press who specialise in translating exceptional new writing from Central and Eastern Europe. They are celebrating their first year of publishing this month. I was impressed with the two titles I’ve read: A.M. Bakalar’s Madame Mephisto, a darkly-comic account of a Polish immigrant’s experiences in London and Petra Procházková’s assured debut, Freshta, a bitter-sweet hymn to Afghanistan told from an outsider’s perspective.

Christmas is fast approaching and what better present could there be for book lovers than a subscription to one of these courageous publishing outfits or the gift of a pledge that helps get a book published? You’ll be in for a treat and helping to support independent publishing. What’s not to like?

Originally published by

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Book review – The Brothers

Posted by lucypopescu on April 10, 2012

Short fiction can still tackle weighty subjects as Peirene Press prove with this dark tale from Finland. Peirene, set up by Meike Ziervogel in 2010, specialise in publishing European novellas in translation. Its books are always under 200 pages, “so you can read them in the same time it takes to watch a movie”. They also follow specific themes and this year’s series is grouped under the umbrella “The Small Epic”.

Set in 19th century Finland, Asko Sahlberg’s atmospheric novel pits two brothers against one another and deals with themes of alienation, love, loss and betrayal. Henrik and Erik fought on opposing sides of the war that in 1809 left Finland under the rule of the Russian Empire. At the novel’s start, Henrik’s unexpected return to the farm, now run by his brother, causes unspoken resentments and sibling rivalries to be reignited. Confrontation becomes inevitable.

The story unfolds through multiple perspectives, reminiscent of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. All the characters fail to communicate directly with one another leading to misunderstandings and distrust. It is through their inner monologues or others’ observations that we learn of their secret passions and bitter resentments. The boys’ mother, the Old Mistress, presides over everything with sardonic humour and wrestles with her own demons.

The most authoritative voice is that of the elderly farmhand who has watched the two brothers mature and grow apart. As he wryly observes: “You say something when you mean something completely different, or at least more.” The farmhand recalls how Henrik, on the cusp of adulthood, had set his heart on winning a neighbour’s horse. This quickly turned to obsession and Henrik’s desire to own the black stallion becomes emblematic of his need to break free and assert his independence. For the farmhand, the horse represents something far more sinister – “the beast smelt of war”. When Henrik is denied the horse and discovers that Anna, the woman he had set his heart on, prefers his brother Erik, he leaves the farm travelling to Stockholm, before settling in St Petersburg.

Penniless and lonely, he joins the army unaware that war is looming: “It never occurred to me that this godforsaken land would drive great rulers mad.” Now Henrik is back, his love for Anna undiminished, and events come to a head when the brothers learn that their wily cousin, Mauri, whom the family took in when he was orphaned, has acquired the deeds to the farm.

Sahlberg demonstrates an impressive eye for detail. However minor his characters, from the housemaid to the Crown Bailiff, they all have a distinctive voice and their role to play in the brothers’ story. Sahlberg is also adept at building emotional intensity with just a few brushstrokes. Despite its short length, The Brothers is a powerful piece of prose lucidly translated by mother-and-daughter team, Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.

Originally published in The Tablet



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Book Review – Maybe this Time

Posted by lucypopescu on October 26, 2011

by Alois Hotschnig

Translated by Tess Lewis

Peirene Press, £8.99

Alois Hotschnig’s sombre yet quirky tales are not easy to define. They deal with slippery subjects such as memories and memory loss, alienation and the uncanny.

The collection is peopled by various misfits who may have lost their minds or just their way. The opening story, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’, focuses on a man obsessed with watching the rituals of the couple next door, an unnerving sensation he describes as a “craving to creep under my neighbours’ skin”.  This sense of dislocation recurs throughout the collection.

In ‘The Beginning of Something’, a character can’t remember who or where he is and finds himself troubled by the “unintelligible paragraphs” of a letter: “No one can escape themselves, I read, there is no escape from one’s self.”

Some form of mental disturbance is at the heart of many of the stories. ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’ has a man struggling with his jumbled recollections: “On one and the same day he married and stood, an old man, at his wife’s grave only to find himself the next moment in the divorce court believing he had got off lightly. Hours later he found himself unable to cope with the loss. He became a happy father and could not bear the thought of having children. He was a student attending the school in which he taught…”

Many of Hotschnig’s characters are looking for something or someone to fill their emptiness. The title story, with echoes of Beckett, is about a family forever waiting for the elusive Uncle Walter to appear (the only thing for certain is that he will not come). In another tale, a grieving father refuses to leave the lake where he lost his son.

There’s a nod to Kafka in ‘Encounter’, in which the destruction of a small creature, armed with pincers and a carapace (eaten by ants) is rendered in careful, detailed prose. Equally surreal is ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’ where a man is drawn to the home of a strange old woman who keeps dolls, some of which look just like him.

Hotschnig’s repetition of themes and the crossover of imagery allow the nine stories to reflect one another. He delights in making unexpected connections between objects, events and sensations that help to illuminate the isolating effects of confused minds, strange fixations and the certainty of uncertainty.

What one takes away from these delicately written, almost dreamlike snapshots, lucidly translated from Austrian German by Tess Lewis, is a vivid sense of life’s fragility.

Originally published in Tribune Magazine 21  October 2011





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Book review – Tomorrow Pamplona, By Jan van Mersbergen

Posted by lucypopescu on June 16, 2011

Peirene Press, trs Laura Watkinson


Short fiction can still pack a punch, as demonstrated by the latest offering from Peirene Press, which specialises in publishing European short novels in translation. Its theme for 2011 is the “year of the man”, and there is a focus on stories with male protagonists. You can’t get two more macho subjects than boxing and bull running, and both are at the heart of Jan van Mersbergen’s homage to Ernest Hemingway.

En route to Pamplona’s bull run, Robert picks up fellow Dutchman Danny, a young boxer fleeing a betrayal and an act of violence. Robert gently probes his travelling companion, but Danny barely speaks. Instead, he mulls over the recent events that have led to his flight: the months of training for the legendary boxing promoter Gerard Varon, his passionate affair with Varon’s glamorous assistant, Ragna, and the moment when he brutally severed himself from them.

Robert is a family man who works in insurance, but once a year he can forget both by participating in the thrill of the run. As he tells Danny, some treat the annual fiesta as a pilgrimage, an opportunity to wash away their sins, but for Robert, bull running is everything his life is not: “It’s a celebration. It’s danger. It’s real life.” When Robert describes the emotional release (“You run because you’ll die if you don’t … that’ll clear your mind in an instant.”), Danny decides to accompany him. Because clarity is just what he needs.

It is tempting to pin the label of “road novella” on to Tomorrow Pamplona, since so much of it takes place on the long highways between Amsterdam and Pamplona. But the essential drama of the story lies in the boxing school where Danny trains, and during the adrenaline high of the bull run.

Tomorrow Pamplona deliberately echoes Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Van Mersbergen explores similar themes of alienation, and his spare prose succinctly expresses the angst of his two male protagonists – caused for Robert by the banality of his life, and for Danny by a lost love. Both men are wounded – either physically or emotionally. Once in Pamplona, you know that their stories will become irretrievably entwined, when a stranger remarks that Danny has the same look in his eye as the bulls.

As he tracks back and forth between the dual narratives, moving inexorably to the double climax, van Mersbergen skilfully builds emotional intensity until the point when the boxer and bulls’ fury are finally unleashed.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday, 12 June 2011

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