Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘Portobello Books’

Book Review – Swallowing Mercury

Posted by lucypopescu on July 15, 2017

In Swallowing Mercury, longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, Wioletta Greg explores the rite of passage of a young girl growing up in in communist Poland during the 1980s. Partly autobiographical, it is set in the Jurassic Upland, in the small fictional village of Hektary.

Wiola’s childhood experiences are related through a series of vignettes creating a vivid portrait of a rural community. Daily routines are punctuated by extraordinary events. When a rumour spreads that the Pope will drive past their village, the local women gather in Wiola’s home to make pennants for bunting from scraps of material, and toast the Holy Father’s health with homemade egg liqueur. Later, the bunting is destroyed by “the men whose task it was to destroy the decorations” (Wiola describes this matter-of-factly, not yet understanding the tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the communist state). While Wiola waited in the rain, the Pope flew elsewhere.

The villagers are as superstitious as they are religious. A red ribbon is tied around Wiola’s wrist as soon as she is born, “to ward off evil spells” and later, when Wiola faints in church, a red ribbon is tied in her hair “to break the spell.” Her mother tells her spiders are “sacred” and forbids her from killing them: “When the Holy family was fleeing from Jerusalem, spiders wove such a thick web around the road, that the swords of Herod’s soldiers couldn’t pierce it.”

The shadow of communism is ever present in the “piles of Breeze blocks” that lie beside “haystacks, apple and cherry trees” and the state-owned farms that blight the natural landscape. But government repression is brought home most forcefully when a local official interrogates Wiola at school, about her painting in a competition entitled Moscow in Your Eyes. Her ink pen had leaked over the painting, ruining it with “a viscous ocean of indigo.” The officer tries to bribe her with chocolate to tell him who had put her up to this: “Was it your parents? Or maybe the teacher who runs the art club?” Wiola, whether in fear or weary of the questions, vomits, and is finally left alone.

Greg is a poet, and there is a lyrical quality to her writing. She draws on all the senses, rendered in simple, childlike prose and deftly translated by Eliza Marciniak. Early on, Wiola describes the sun as “white and spotted like a goose egg.” As she gets older, her language and sensibility become more complex: “The air smelled of metal. An inaudible blues hummed in the web of the telegraph wires taut from frost.” The smells and taste of childhood are also brilliantly evoked though food, ranging from buckwheat blood pudding and beef roulade with cabbage to fried doughnuts and sour cherries.

The book’s anecdotal tone draws the reader in, but it is also deceptive. Take Wiola’s description of swallowing mercury, after a doctor had attempted to sexually molest her: “I put an immersion heater in a metal mug, boiled some water and dipped a thermometer into the liquid. The mercury container burst. Silver beads spilled onto the bedding. I gathered them up. I hesitated for an instant, but when I remembered Kwiecien’s face, I swallowed the balls like caplets and fell asleep.” It is an act of defiance that nearly kills her.

Swallowing Mercury is a multi-layered, prose poem of Poland’s chequered past, and Greg is unflinching in her gaze: Whether it is the family’s fortitude, the clash of church and state, or the beauty and brutality of rural life.

Originally published by


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Summer reading – literary fiction in translation

Posted by lucypopescu on August 7, 2015


If you love literary fiction in translation, travelling to different times and other worlds, three must reads for late summer include One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck and The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. All three embrace big themes – existentialism, identity, love, loss and grief – cover huge swathes of 20th century history and interweave the personal and political to great effect.
the end of daysIn Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (deftly translated by Susan Bernofsky) we follow the fortunes of a Jewish family, in particular one woman who manages to keep escaping death. We travel with Erpenbeck’s character from her birth in a small Galician town in the early 1900s, through Vienna and Moscow to East Berlin and finally a reunified Germany. As a baby she is rescued from a cot death by a handful of snow; as a young woman she is saved from suicide by taking a different route home; later she is spared Stalin’s gulags by a propitious act of fate. She survives various horrors of the last century and becomes a successful writer. Her numerous possible deaths reflect the transitory nature of life and the fragility of the human condition. At the end of the novel, her weeping son wonders ‘whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with.’ This slim novel, winner of this year’s Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize, packs a mighty punch and richly deserves its numerous accolades.

TheMeursaultInvestigationAnother prizewinner, Kamel Daoud’s debut The Meursault Investigation (in a limber translation by John Cullen) re-examines Albert Camus’s The Outsider from an Arab perspective. Harun resides in Oran and drinks every night in his local bar. He regales a literature student with his version of Meursault’s murder of a nameless Arab on a hot summer’s day in Algiers in 1942. The victim was Harun’s older brother, who he names Musa.  Harun describes the impact Musa’s death had on his family and just as Meursault struggles with feelings of indifference after his random act of violence, Harun confronts his own lack of faith: ‘As far as I am concerned, religion is public transportation I never use.’ During his trial, Meursault is effectively condemned for not mourning his mother’s death. By contrast, Harun’s murder of a Frenchman, twenty years later, is deplored by the Algerian authorities because it happens after Independence and had not been a deliberate act of resistance. Daoud has created his own memorable fiction in which he brilliantly exposes the rise of Islamism in Algeria and his nation’s failures post-independence. At the end of the novel Harun describes an overwhelming desire to climb up his local ‘prayer tower’ in order ‘to cry out that I’m free, and that God is a question, not an answer and that I wanted to meet him alone, at my death as at my birth.’ Chillingly, Daoud’s indictment of religious authoritarianism has led one cleric to call for his death.

One Night MarkovitchAyelet Gundar-Goshen’s accomplished debut, One Night, Markovitch, opens in the British mandate of Palestine on the eve of the Second World War, and spans many years in the lives of two friends Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg. They could not be more dissimilar. Zeev is a fearless fighter and womaniser whose mustache ‘was famous in the entire area and, some said in the entire country’. Yaacov is immediately forgettable – the sort of man who is ‘gloriously average’, his face ‘remarkably free of distinguishing features.’ They forge an unlikely alliance after Yaacov saves Zeev’s life. The pair join a group of men en route to Europe to rescue Jewish women. They marry them so that they will be allowed into Palestine, on the understanding that once there they will divorce. But Yaacov’s partner is Bella, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and he refuses to give her up on their return. Their loveless marriage, Yaacov’s obsession, Bella’s cold distain, is in sharp contrast to the devotion and passion enjoyed by Zeev and his one love, Sonya, a lioness of a women who smells of oranges. Yaacov and Zeev’s friendship endures through war and peacetime. They bring up children, suffer pain and loss, and grow old together. Expertly translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston this is an unforgettable tale of love, hope, desire and friendship.

Originally published in

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Book review – The Devil’s Workshop

Posted by lucypopescu on September 22, 2013

devil's workshopIn his latest novel to be translated into English, Jáchym Topol, hailed as one of the leading lights in Czech literature, explores two historical sites of genocide and asks the question: how should one commemorate past atrocities?

The first part of The Devil’s Workshop is set in Czechoslovakia. Topol’s unnamed narrator grows up in the small fortress town of Terezín, famous for housing a Nazi prison during the Second World War. It also served as a ghetto and many of its inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. The protagonist’s mother, rescued from a typhus pit at the end of the war, never fully recovered from her experiences and dies in tragic circumstances.

The narrator is an unlikely hero; a country lad, happiest when herding his goats. After his father’s fatal fall from the town’s ramparts, he is sent to prison accused of his father’s murder. Here he becomes an executioner’s assistant until capital punishment is abolished. When he is finally released it is into an unfamiliar country, the Czech Republic, free from communist rule and now a part of Europe.

On the narrator’s return to Terezín, Uncle Lebo, a charismatic figure from his childhood, enlists him to help save the town from being demolished by turning it into a memorial. Lebo was born during the war under a bunk in the ghetto. Travellers, known as “bunk seekers”, begin to pour into the town and celebrities start pledging money to Lebo’s cause. Then two Belarusians arrive, Alex and Maruška, and persuade the narrator to leave Terezín and help them fundraise for their own monument to the dead.

As Alex tells the narrator: “It’s going to be the most famous memorial site in the world. The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them.”  At the heart of The Devil’s Workshop lies a horrific act of genocide. The massacre of non-Jewish Belarusians in Khatyn, a village on the outskirts of Minsk, was carried out by Nazi officers, Ukrainians and Soviet army deserters and was certainly not an isolated incident. The villagers were herded into a barn which was then barricaded and set on fire. Those who managed to escape through the burning doors were gunned down.

On arriving in Minsk, the protagonist’s encounters become more macabre. Belarus is, after all, renowned as Europe’s last dictatorship and Topol exploits this to great effect with savage humour. He recalls the tent camp set up by the opposition to protest against the outcome of the presidential election, parodies Aliaksandr Lukashenko’s declaration of martial law and provides a vivid snapshot of a country where the predominant art forms are guerrilla theatre and underground poetry. As tanks parade down the wide boulevards, students work in a deep cavern unearthing and organising the bones of those massacred during the Holocaust. The president and the opposition are apparently united in their desire to utilise burial sites in order to develop tourism. The narrator’s eyes are finally opened when he discovers that Alex’s vision for a memorial includes the murder of elderly citizens, embalmed and transformed into talking corpses who describe how they were murdered in Khatyn.

It is fitting that a poet and novelist prominent in his youth in the Czech underground should continue to tackle the sort of subjects that many would prefer to be left alone. Blending fact and fiction, Topol’s darkly comic novel, lucidly translated by Alex Zucker, is a hard-hitting exploration of two nations bedevilled by the horrors of their past.

A shorter version of this review appeared in The Independent




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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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Impunity in Mexico – Lydia Cacho

Posted by lucypopescu on August 29, 2012

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist – since 2006, 67 journalists have been killed and 14 have disappeared in the country.

Lydia Cacho, an author and women’s rights activist, has faced intimidation, abduction and imprisonment because of her investigative journalism. In 2005, she published Los demonios del Eden: El poder que protege a la pornografía infantil (‘The demons of Eden: the power that protects child pornography’), exposing a Mexican child pornography ring in the popular resort of Cancún. A businessman, José Kamel Nacif Borge, known as the King of Denim, because of his jeans factories in Puebla, accused Cacho of libel. He is cited in the book as having ties with Jean Succar Kuri, the owner of a hotel in Cancún who, at the time, had already been detained and charged with heading the child pornography and prostitution network. Kamel Nacif did not deny that he knew him but denied any involvementand claimed that his reputation had suffered as a result of Cacho’s book.

On 16 December 2005, Cacho was arrested at gunpoint by Puebla state officials. She endured a twenty-hour car journey from her home in Cancún to Puebla, where she was physically threatened. Upon arrival she was charged with defamation and faced up to four years in prison if found guilty.

In February 2006, taped telephone conversations between Kamel Nacif and the governor of Puebal, Mario Marín, were released to the local media. They revealed the extent to which Marín had been involved in Cacho’s arrest and detention. Kamel Nacif offered “two beautiful bottles of cognac” as a token of appreciation for the governor’s part in the arrest of Cacho. Following a year-long battle, during which she suffered repeated death threats, the defamation charges were dismissed. However, her acquittal was only the result of her case being transferred to another state where defamation is no longer considered a criminal offence.

After the tapes came to light, Cacho filed a countersuit for corruption and violation of her human rights. Disappointingly, the court in Cacho’s home state of Quintana Roo ruled that although there was evidence of arbitrary detention and torture it could not accept her case for jurisdictional reasons (it recommended that she take the case to Puebla) and closed the investigation.

In 2010, Cacho published Esclavas del poder, in which she revealed the names of people in Mexico she alleges are involved in the trafficking of women and girls. The English translation, Slavery Inc. The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking, is published at the beginning of September by Portobello Books.

In June last year, shortly after taking part in an event in Chihuahua, northern Mexico, Cacho received further death threats by phone and email which made direct reference to her journalism. She believes that they were issued in retaliation for her having revealed the names of alleged traffickers.

More worryingly, on 29 July of this year, Cacho received a call on her handheld transceiver, used only for emergencies. An unknown a male voice referred to her by name and said: “We have already warned you, bitch, don’t mess with us. It is clear you didn’t learn with the small trip you were given. What is coming next for you will be in pieces, that is how we will send you home, you idiot.”  Concerned by this breach of her security system, Cacho has since fled Mexico. Article 19 reported that she will remain out of the country while its Protection Programme for Journalists develops a strategy to provide her with adequate protection.

This courageous author will be in conversation with Helen Bamber OBE, who works with victims of trafficking, in London on 29 August

You can also send messages of support c/o: Fundación Lydia Cacho. Email:

Originaly published by the Independent online

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Book review – Caesarion

Posted by lucypopescu on August 29, 2011

Portobello Books £12.99

Ludwig is born in Alexandria. When his Austrian father, a failed artist, does not return from a trip abroad, his Dutch mother Marthe is forced to bring him up alone. He is nicknamed Caesarion – Little Caesar – in reference to another child abandoned by his father.

Following an abortive attempt to return to Holland, the two end up living on a clifftop in Suffolk, in an area threatened by erosion from the North Sea. Marthe, having failed to live up to her own promise as a classical singer, encourages the young Ludwig to take up piano lessons.

But when they lose their house, Marthe disappears – supposedly in search of a new home. Ludwig, now a young man, embarks on his own journey – an odyssey that takes him around the world, using his skills as a pianist to pay his way.

Tommy Wieringa’s ambitious novel, translated by Sam Garrett, is a brilliant exploration of the uneasy transition from adolescence into adulthood – the restlessness, yearning for stability, irrational decisions and erotic obsessions. Ludwig’s emotional rites of passage lie in his attempt to understand his mother: his shame at her profession in the porn industry, his feelings of resentment and his filial love. Along the way, he rejects the possibility of romantic love with Sarah, an environmental activist, opting instead to accompany Marthe on her next journey, convinced he can “save” her. He tells himself, “although I had lost her any number of times, she was indeed the only one I had. There couldn’t be anyone else, we were the sole witnesses to each others’ lives.” A large part of the novel is about the unspoken bond between mother and son.

Ludwig does not remember his father, but his “absence” affects him profoundly. When he finally finds the elusive Schultz, deep in the Panama jungle, the similarities with Conrad’s Kurtz are obvious. Both deserted women, both have stared into the abyss, both are lost in a nihilistic world of their own making. For Schultz, “Only destruction has a permanent character”. In a neat twist, Ludwig suggests his mother’s last thoughts were for Schultz, “to burden whatever remained of his conscience, to force him to remember”. It is only after the death of his mother and symbolic rejection of his father that Ludwig returns to the Suffolk coast, the only home he has ever really known, and realises that he has his own life to lead, “that everything was beginning.”

Originally published in the Independent on 23 August 2011

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Book review – The Rest Is Silence, By Carla Guelfenbein

Posted by lucypopescu on June 19, 2011

Portobello Books

Tommy acts like any other young boy with a vivid imagination and youthful curiosity.

He lives in Santiago, Chile, with his father Juan and stepmother Alma, a pet stag beetle and an imaginary friend called Kájef. As well as having a keen interest in astronomy, he follows the blog of ethnologist Mr Thomas Bridge, and enjoys drawing and making-up stories.

But 12-year-old Tommy has a rare heart condition. Bullied at school, he spends his time alone, secretly recording conversations of the adults that surround him. When he overhears some gossip about his mother’s suicide, he tries to uncover the truth about her death, setting off a train of events over which he has no control. Carla Guelfenbein has created a powerfully authentic voice in Tommy. His observations reflect his own inner state, as well as illuminating the moral quandaries of the adults around him. As he pieces together the facts behind his mother’s death, his narrative also reveals the feelings of guilt that constrain his father.

Underpinning Tommy’s story is that of Juan and Alma, who have been married for eight years. After the death of Tommy’s mother, Juan throws himself into his work as a heart surgeon, until he meets Alma in Barcelona. They enjoy a brief affair and later, when she finishes her studies, Alma returns to Santiago and marries Juan. She brings her young daughter Lola with her.

Knitting together the voices of the three central characters, Guelfenbein skilfully highlights the different perspectives of gender and age. It is Juan’s apparent indifference that prompts the passionate Alma to rekindle a relationship with her former sweetheart Leo.

In Guelfenbein’s tender story, the unravelling of memories and how they impact on the present is a potent force. For Alma, “images get delicately pieced together, then deposit themselves in memory, but they don’t remain stable there; they continue to change along with the feelings that accompany them”. Tommy’s lack of memories fuels his obsession with his mother’s past. For all of them, memories shape a reality that is constantly shifting. Tommy’s search for the truth ends in tragedy, but as well as examining the role of memory in dealing with loss, The Rest is Silence is also about the redemptive power of love. It is their mutual love for Tommy that helps Juan and Alma to reconnect and come to terms with their pasts.

Originally published in the Independent Monday, 13 June 2011



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Book review – Circus Bulgaria

Posted by lucypopescu on October 26, 2010

Circus Bulgaria By Deyan Enev

Trs: Kapka Kassabova

Portobello Books: £10.99

Despite being peopled by pimps, whores, tramps, hoodlums and inmates of the local mental asylum, this strange and marvellous collection of short stories from Bulgarian master, Deyan Enev, is curiously uplifting.

Enev’s particular skill as a storyteller lies in his ability to convey various harsh truths about his native country through a combination of Balkan folklore and vivid flights of imagination. Fifty stories in all, they are like the tiny fragments of a puzzle that, once fitted together, create a detailed portrait of a country.

Tales of princesses, handsome goat-herds and hidden pots of gold provide a welcome antidote to the themes of bitter hardship and regret that are threaded through Circus Bulgaria.

Through these stories, Enev traces the subtle arc of his country’s transformation from brutal communist regime to a free market economy today. Sadly, the poverty remains but it is the gangsters who now wield the power.

A sense that something has been lost in the name of progress is summed up perfectly in Casablanca. An old couple refuse to leave their one-storey house in the suburbs. All around them dozens of tower blocks have sprung up and the developers are waiting for them to die. They had originally met at a high-school screening of Casablanca. Now romantic young couples use the name as a code and are invited into the couple’s home “whenever they wanted a bit of privacy. One morning the pair are found murdered in their bed. The following day their house is bulldozed and “in its place there is a gigantic nightclub. Impressive, blood-red neon letters spell out its name on the façade: CASABLANCA.”

Animals also feature in the collection; more often than not they are debased or killed. One boy’s attachment to a pig is brought to a poignant conclusion in Koko. In the title story an impoverished lion tamer is forced into selling his beloved pet to “two men with slow moving eyes”.

Enev’s descriptions of animal cruelty often highlight the degradation of ordinary people who are living barely above the level of beasts. He describes pockets of poverty so abject that for one gypsy family living under a bridge, a discarded pot and a reed whistle become treasured possessions.

The mental asylum is the one constant in the stories and the experiences of a night orderly provide some black humour. Enev himself once worked the night-shifts as a hospital attendant and evidently likes to explore the blurred boundaries between truth and delusion.

You get the sense that there are parts of Bulgaria that time just forgot. Family farmers work the land in the same way they’ve done for centuries and horse and cart remains their favoured mode of transport. But organised crime and corruption are very real problems and, as Enev illustrates, the new kingpins are the men in Mercedes who thrive on the violence, neon lights and squalor of the cities.

An edited version of this review was originally published in the Independent on 26 October 2010



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