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Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Translated Fiction

Time for Reader in the Wilderness’s meme again.

These shelves contain my paperbacks of fiction translated from languages other than English. Evidence here of my usual suspects – Bohumil Hrabal, Mario Vargas Llosa, Naguib Mahfouz, Diego Marani, Gabriel García Márquez, Irène Némirovsky, Orhan Pamuk, but nearly all of these have been worth reading. In fact I would say there are no real duds here. The English language books on the lower shelf belong to the good lady and are shelved there because they fit into the space:-

Translated Fiction Bookshelves 1

Several really large hardbacks are too big to sit on the above shelves so have to be kept separately. These are not all translations but there is more Orhan Pamuk, more Naguib Mahfouz, more Irène Némirovsky, and then the English language Salman Rushdie. The John Updike omnibus is the good lady’s:-

Large Books Shelf

Best of 2019

These are the books that stood out from my reading this year – in order of when I read them. 7 by men, 6 by women. 3 were SF or Fantasy.

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley
Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone
Shiloh by Shelby Foote
A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk
The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame
Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Exhalation by Ted Chiang

A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2015, 613 p including v p Contents, ii p Aktaş and Karataş family tree, v p Index of characters and vii p Chronology. Translated from the Turkish Kafamda bir tuhaflik by Ekin Orlap.

 A Strangeness in my Mind cover

This is the story of Mevlut Karataş who wanders the streets of Istanbul at night selling boza – a kind of fermented drink concocted so as Turks could believe they were not actually drinking alcohol even though they were – from the panniers hung from the pole across his shoulders. While the narrative is mainly carried by a third person account of Mevlut’s life and thoughts, the viewpoints of many of the individuals connected to Mevlut are interpolated into the text. All of these are written in the first person and introduced by that narrator’s name. Though all the details of Mevlut’s life from his arrival in Istanbul to help his father on his boza rounds, through his prolonged and ultimately unfruitful sojourn at the Atatürk Secondary School for Boys, his years conscripted in the army, the attempts to sell yoghurt, ice cream and cooked rice, the other ventures into employment, cashier in a café, car park guard, electricity inspector – residents of Istanbul seem to have been very creative in the ways they could steal electricity from the supply company – it is his love life which provides the book’s main thrust.

The first chapter depicts the defining incident in Mevlut’s life, and it is as magic realist as you could wish – only not magical at all. For three years Mevlut had been writing letters to Rayiha, a girl whose eyes he had stared into at the wedding of his cousin Korkut. Korkut’s brother Süleyman agrees to help Mevlut elope with Rayiha and arranges the deed. When Mevlut glimpses the girl in the back of Süleyman’s van that night he is bewildered to discover she is not the one he thought he had been writing to. Nevertheless, he marries her, comes to love her and have two daughters with her. Süleyman’s deception, of course, (he had designs on the girl with the eyes, Rayiha’s sister, Sadiha, himself,) has ramifications throughout the book.

Many observations about love are made within the text. Hadji Hamit Vural avows, “‘if you’re going to love a girl as deeply as your brother here … you’ve got to make sure to start loving her after you’re married …… but if you fall in love before that .. and you sit down to discuss the bride price with the girl’s father, then those cunning, crafty fathers will ask you for the moon … Most couples would not fall in love if they got to know each other even just a little bit before getting married …. There is also the kind that happens when two people get married and fall in love after that … and that can only happen when you marry someone you don’t know.’” Süleyman’s later lover Melahat (a stage performer under the name Mahinur Mehrem) lets us know that, “‘I could write a book about all the men I’ve known, and then I would also end up on trial for insulting Turkishness.’”

The changing face of the city into whose nooks and crannies Mevlut wanders plying his wares and the evolution of Turkish life become major themes, with the political ups and downs a background never fully occupying Mevlut’s mind; but a sense of the role played by emphasising the nation is never far away, “in this night, pure and everlasting, like an old fairy tale, being Turkish felt infinitely better than being poor.”

The more you read Pamuk the more it becomes clear that his real subject, his true love, is Istanbul; though Turkishness in the wider sense is also important and affairs of the heart never far away. Here Mevlut’s friend Ferhat tells us that, “What makes city life so meaningful is the things we hide.” Pamuk’s œuvre has probed into those hidden places – more so in A Strangeness in my Mind as his previous books have tended to concentrate more on middle class Istanbul, whereas here our hero (as Pamuk refers to Mevlut several times, this is a knowing type of narration) is one of those for whom getting on in the world has always been difficult, he does not know enough of the right people, never accumulates sufficient capital to become affluent.

Again in a Pamuk novel set in modern times there is an acute consciousness of football, but here no hint of anyone called Orhan Pamuk. If Istanbul itself were not enough, allusions to a journalist character from The Black Book would tie this novel in with previous works.

Through all his modern novels – and arguably in those set in historical times – Pamuk has been picking away at the threads of Turkish life, the tensions between religion and the secular sphere, the restrictions set on the people by political, societal and religious dictats. It is almost possible having read enough Pamuk to feel you know something about Turkey, and especially about Istanbul. This may be a delusion but it’s closer to the truth than those without that experience can ever have.

Pedant’s corner:- no start quotation mark when a chapter begins with a piece of dialogue, shopwindows (shop windows. Is it one word in Turkish?) “enormous billboards that look up one whole side of a six- or seven story [sic] building” (took up makes more sense,) “thirty two liras” (isn’t the plural of lira just ‘lira’? Many instances of liras,) “he would open at random to a page” (‘he would open a page at random’ sounds a more natural construction,) the text refers to Argentina and England being at war, and to ‘English’ ships (that of course should be Britain and British respectively,) occasional omitted commas before and after direct speech, “provide the overhead” (in British English it’s ‘overheads’,) “the lay of all the neighbourhoods” (the lie.)

The Museum of Innocence Museum

I thought I had posted about this shortly after I published my review of Orhan Pamuk’s book The Museum of Innocence, to which I alluded two posts ago.

However, I have searched for such a post on the blog and can’t find it, so it seems I did not.

What there is, though, is an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.

It was set up by Orhan Pamuk at the same time as he was writing the novel, to reflect upper-middle class life in Istanbul from the 70s to the 2000s.

The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2006, 476 p, including iv p Translator’s Afterword.
Translated from the Turkish Kara Kitap (published by Can Yayinlavi Ltd, 1990) by Maureen Freely.

 The Black Book cover

Galip comes home to find his wife Rüya (with whom he has been besotted since childhood and who is also his cousin – apparently this last is a custom widespread in Turkey) has left him. He spends the rest of the novel trying to find out where she has gone. Back to her first husband, once a left-wing firebrand? Or to live with her half-brother Celâl, a famous columnist for the newspaper Milliyet, who has also disappeared?

The chapters written from Galip’s point of view alternate with those in which Celâl’s columns are reproduced, a device which allows Pamuk to ruminate on Turkish and Istanbul history, customs and predilections. It is slightly more complicated than that as just over halfway through, with Celâl’s stock of columns and reprints beginning to run out, Galip takes to writing them himself and presenting them as Celâl’s, so it is possible that all such extracts may in fact be Galip’s thoughts. Indeed one telephone caller to Galip in the guise of Celâl asks if these columns contain the signs that would lead to life’s secret meaning -even if that secret meant nothing. He adds his insight that, “‘No one in this country can ever be himself.’”

In search of Rüya, Galip wanders the streets of Istanbul, especially at night. (A habit also attributed to Ibn Rashid, Sultan Selim, and Mehmet the Conqueror.) This is “the endless fascination afforded to those who wander a city in disguise.” In this novel the presence of the city as in effect a character in its own right – as are all big cities to be fair – is extremely pronounced. After reading the book it’s as if I could walk the place blindfolded. Istanbul also loomed large in the author’s later novel, The Museum of Innocence, and that book’s preoccupation with mementos of a life is prefigured here in The Black Book. What Rüya has left behind, Galip’s memories of Rüya and the remnants of Celâl’s existence are described in loving detail. Again prevalent is the habit of smoking. Everyone in this seems surrounded by clouds of blue tobacco smoke. Once more football as an important factor in Turkish life makes its appearance. (Imagine the reception a British “literary” novel would receive if it mentioned the game at all.)

Rüya was an avid reader of detective novels (which is to say Western detective novels, as the Turkish variant barely existed at the time of writing) and The Black Book has been described as a detective, or at least a mystery, novel. There is a mystery, the disappearances, but the usual preoccupations of a detective novel are absent and, as a detective, Galip is spectacularly ineffective even if, ‘murders that explain books and books that explain murders have a universal appeal, because it is only when a man believes himself to be someone else that he can bring the cudgel down on the victim’s head….. We learn all the rituals and telling details of murder from others, in other words, from legends, stories, reminiscences, and newspapers. In short, we learn about murder from literature….. Even the simplest murder … is an imitation, a literary imitation, even if its perpetrator doesn’t know it.’

Rather than a mystery The Black Book is more an examination of Turkey/Istanbul as seen through the apparently random reflections of Galip on his travels through the city or Celâl in his columns. To an outsider at least, Pamuk appears to have captured his city and culture in the round by focusing on the particular. It is also a rumination on the nature of life and story (or stories within stories inside stories.) “Each story led to another story in an infinite chain,” and, “no matter where they were set …. the love stories were sad and moving.”

In one of these a character pleads, “If people would only just be themselves. If only they would stop telling stories!” In another an heir apparent comes to believe, ‘A sultan’s duty is not to be happy – it is to be himself… it is everyone’s duty – everyone’s.’

The novel is a thinking writer’s work. Galip ponders on the second meanings that might be lurking inside pieces of writing – inviting us to speculate on what he might be hiding in plain sight. As the novel progresses so too does Galip develop a belief about the letters of the alphabet to be discerned on people’s faces and that everything that had ever been written, even the greatest and most authoritative texts in the world, were [sic] about dreams, not real life, dreams conjured up by words. That a text provides insights about its author is suggested by the thought, “What did it mean to read a text if it did not mean entering into the garden of its author’s memory?”

Galip (who, a very short passage intimates, may be Pamuk himself, an intimation which might itself constitute a misdirection) comes to the notion that nothing is as surprising as life. Except for writing, the only consolation.

Pedant’s corner:- Unfortunately the translation is into USian so that we get “soccer” (it’s football,) “a corner shot” (a corner,) “a head shot” (a header,) and “soccer uniform” (a football kit is called a strip.) One actual phrase used was, “after countering a corner shot with a head shot”. This may be how it’s expressed in Turkish but the English term would be “after heading a corner”. Otherwise: dilipidated (dilapidated – used later!) syphillis (syphilis,) “true to our ourselves” (an extraneous “our”,) Trabizon (now more usually rendered Trabzon,) caravansaries/caravansary (caravanserais/caravanserai,) “that I was on to something” (onto.) “Everything that had ever been written, even the greatest and most authoritative texts in the world, were about dreams,” (everything was about dreams,) “whenever writing about about real life” (remove one of those “about”s,) “it is is located” (ditto one “is”,) Averroes’ (Averroes’s – this was in a chapter epigraph so may be original to that.) “He up and left me” (upped and left me,) cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac,) a lightbulb (light bulb,) “illumination than never came” (that never came,) imposter (impostor – used once, though imposter appeared several times,) “who it was who had beat him” (beaten him – it was a game of chess,) “left- and ring-wing splinter groups” (left- and right-wing,) reptutation (reputation,) “‘He asked me come here’” (to come here,) telerium (tellurium,) sawed-off (sawn-off,) “both staring Bruce Lee” (starring.) “‘These amusing little signs you sent out to your poor deceived readers’” (the rest of this tirade is in present tense so, send,) pedestrals (pedestals.) “The only sound to be heard in the hunting lodge were the cries of the crows” (the only sounds were the cries, or, the only sound was the cries,) “because the city could not afford to keep their generators running” (its generators,) ““destabilize”” (destabilize, preferably destabilise; however, the word is in inverted commas so may be a representation of an original deliberate misspelling in the Turkish.)

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

Vintage International, 1998? 176 p. Translated from the Turkish, Beyaz Kale, by Victoria Holbrook.

The White Castle cover

Apart from a present day introduction which frames the tale within as a found manuscript, The White Castle, Pamuk’s first novel, is set in the 17th century, narrated by an educated man from Empoli who is captured by the Turks and taken to Istanbul where he is given into the care of someone called Hoja (‘master’) who could be his double. The intention is that his learning will help Hoja in his efforts to produce better fireworks. Hoja also uses his captive’s knowledge to impress the Sultan, eventually gaining the post of royal astrologer. The two become involved in the question of why they are the way they are, the narrator confessing his past faults (which Hoja cannot.) In the process Hoja learns all about the narrator’s past. This makes the narrator increasingly uneasy, imagining Hoja, armed with this knowledge, being able to travel to Italy and take his place there, though of course in the meantime also learning about Hoja. They work for years on an “incredible” weapon – a wheeled, armoured contraption that gets bogged down when attacking the white castle of the title. This failure leads to Hoja vanishing (to Italy?) and the narrator taking his place as court astrologer, even marrying and having children. The subtlety of this is that it is possible that it is either of them who is actually narrating the story, the Italian – or Hoja. Have they really swapped places, or merely pretended to? If someone can give a realistic, convincing, appearance of being someone else, living as that person, do they actually become so? And does it matter if they are not?

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Faber and Faber, 2002, 508 p. Translated from the Turkish Benim Adim Kirmizi by Erdağ M Göknar.

My Name is Red cover

Well, this is an interesting concoction. The events take place in Istanbul in the time of Sultan Murat III. The first chapter is entitled I am a Corpse and is narrated by a murder victim. This sets up the novel as a whodunnit but Pamuk is far too subtle a writer for that to be his sole concern. The remainder of the book is narrated from a wide variety of viewpoints; several manuscript illustrators, the effectively widowed daughter of one of them, her son, her suitor, their go-between, the corpse, a dog, a tree, a counterfeit gold coin, death, the colour red, a horse, Satan – and two dervishes. In various of these the reader is occasionally addressed directly. The non-human narrators turn out to be parts of a manuscript illustration designed to show the splendour, magnificence and power of the Sultan, to impress Westerners, especially Venetians. Not a simple read then, by any means. Add to this the fact that three corpses undertake narration duties since during two of the relevant chapters the particular narrator is also killed – and describes the experience – and the artistry becomes evident.

In ways this reminded me of The Name of the Rose as it is the manuscript that is at the heart of things. So we have passages dealing with the philosophy of illustration and miniaturism, its place in the Islamic traditions, on whether or not it is blasphemy to ape the Venetian/Frankish form of realistic painting and use perspective, to show Allah’s view of the world, or the world as it is. The murders are direct consequences of this conflict. Plus there is a meditation on the acceptance of blindness as Allah’s reward to the miniaturist for his years of devotion to his art and frequent references to the Persian tales of Hüsrev and Shirin, and of Sohrab and Rüstem. There are, too, several instances of characters telling stories from the perspectives of folk named Alif, Ba and Djim. Some of these interpolations verge on the tedious but perhaps to Turkish readers they have more resonance.

The above may make it sound as if the book is difficult, but it isn’t if you are prepared to go with the flow as I was. I certainly will be reading more Pamuk, who clearly has considerable self-confidence. In what has been a feature of all his novels I have read so far there is a character named Orhan. This time it is not “Orhan Pamuk” though, but the Orhan within is eventually revealed to be the overall “author” of the book we are reading.

In the background but providing some impetus to the plot at times a preacher from Erzurum is blaming apostates and infidels for the supposed catastrophes of the last ten years and stirring up the mob. Casting blame on the other. Does this sound familiar to anybody?

Among Pamuk’s bon mots here are, “Only imbeciles are innocent,” “A letter doesn’t communicate by words alone. A letter, just like a book, can be read by smelling it, touching it and fondling it” and “Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight.” He has the old miniaturist Osman say, “Painting is the act of seeking out Allah’s memories and seeing the world as He sees the world.” The book’s main love interest, the illustrator’s daughter, Shekure, tells us, “Marriage douses love’s flame, leaving nothing but a barren and melancholy blackness,” but, “The truth is contentment. Love and marriage are but a means to attaining it,” and that painters “substitute the joy of seeing for the joy of life.”

The translation is into USian and there were several curiosities or infelicities within it. Iron smiths may be a direct translation from Turkish but the English word is blacksmiths. Then we had, “your sympathy and understanding are much obliged,” “the both of you,” “artists who are discontent with,” “a superior element as all of you are familiar,” “would’ve hid that picture,” a use of “plenty” where “greatly” made more sense plus the misspellings “guilded,” “descendents,” “practice” as a verb, the “pitfulls” of love and women, “imposter,” “quandries.”

Best of the Year

It’s traditional at this season of the year to list what has most impressed over the past twelve or so months. Except I’ve only done it once before. Twelve months ago.

Once again I find ten books stood out over the year.

In order of reading they were:-

Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Empty Space by M John Harrison
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Spin by Nina Allan
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
Girl Reading by Katie Ward
Planesrunner by Ian McDonald
Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

4 are translations, 4 are SF*, 3 are by women. Make of that what you will.

*If you count the last section of Girl Reading, that would be 4 and a bit.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

Translated from the Spanish El amor en los tiempos del cólera by Edith Grossman.
Penguin, 2007, 348 p. First published by Editorial Oveja Nregra Ltda, Bogota, 1985.

The opening sentence, “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love,” hits us immediately with two of the great triumvirate of literary preoccupations; love and death. (Bitter almonds is the smell of cyanide.) The only one remaining is sex. Sex does come later but not till well into the book.

By this gambit we are invited to believe that the story is to be that of Dr Juliano Urbino de la Calle, who has been called in to certify the death (by suicide) of his friend and chess opponent Jeremiah de Saint-Amour. The main focus of the novel is, however, on Florentino Ariza, who conceived a passion for Dr Urbino’s wife, Fermana Daza, in both their youths, and has maintained it ever since. In some respects this aspect of the novel has echoes in Orhan Pamuk’s similarly obsessed protagonist in The Museum of Innocence.

The action of Love in the Time of Cholera mainly takes place in an unnamed city somewhere on the delta of the River Magdalena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, though there is a late voyage up and down the river.

The narrative flows between the three main agonists, detailing aspects of their lives in the decades over which the story rummages back and forward. Marquez does nothing so crude as to devote sections to one character, he weaves in and out of the three’s concerns without a break. In the background are other colourful characters but the lives of these people are well-to-do, we see little, if any, of more impoverished inhabitants. Flashes of the history of the country, which has seen several civil wars which were really all one war, appear only in passing, which is, of course, how the well-to-do would have experienced them. Only by inference is the possibility of atrocities hinted at, for example, “For as long as I can remember, they have killed us in the cities with decrees, not with bullets.”

Joseph Conrad (in his pre-novelist incarnation as Joseph T K Korzeniowski) gains a brief mention as being involved in some sort of arms deal.

Interspersed through the novel Marquez gives us some acute aperçus.
“The toilet must have been invented by someone who knew nothing about men.”
“If he had told the truth not … anybody in this whole town would have loved him as much as they did.”
“… too young to know the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good,”
“… nothing in this world was more difficult than love.”
“Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.”
“It is incredible how one can be happy for so many years in the midst of so many squabbles, so many problems, damn it, and not really know if it was love or not.”
“But when a woman decides to sleep with a man, there is no wall she will not scale, no fortress she will not destroy, no moral consideration she will not ignore at its very root.”

There was an instance of odd wording in the translation, “for he did compete not out of ambition for the prize, but” surely ought to be either, “for he competed not out of ambition, but…” or “for he did not compete out of ambition, but…”

Love in the Time of Cholera bears the stamp of a novelist who knows the inner workings of the human heart, its constancies (and inconstancies.)

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