The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán

And Other Stories, October 2018, 193 pp

And Other Stories, October 2018, 193 pp

The premise of Chilean author Alia Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel The Remainder, translated into English by Sophie Hughes, feels similar to other Latin American novels I’ve read recently, as it follows the aftermath of tumultuous political events through the experiences of a younger generation. Resistance by Julián Fuks comes to my mind first, a beautifully written novel set in Argentina and Brazil. The Remainder, on the other hand, is set in Santiago, Chile, covered in a layer of gray volcanic ash. The story follows a trio of characters, Felipe, Iquela, and Paloma, driving a hearse to Argentina in order to recover the body of Paloma’s mother, who is to be buried (“repatriated”) in Chile. The plane carrying the mother’s body from Germany to Chile had never made it to the destination, the volcanic ash having disrupted the flight and hence landing in Argentina. Solution: a road trip through the cordillera in search of the mother’s lost remains.

It’s a rather impressive novel that has that ‘something’ in it that makes me want to revisit scenes in order to make sense of the finely structured whole, as well as to appreciate the language in Hughes’ great translation. The chapters alternate between two narrators: Felipe’s chapters are numbered in decreasing order, beginning with chapter 11 and ending with chapter 0, which simply reflects his increasingly psychotic tendency to subtract all the dead bodies he sees around him (real or not). Iquela’s chapters are named “( )”, referring to her disposition to use brackets in the narration, where, ostensibly, we hear her innermost thoughts. I also saw an interpretation on GR (I think Paul said it) according to which the brackets represent the absence in her life after the traumatic events experienced by her parents who were militants during the Pinochet regime.

And trauma is definitely something these characters share. Felipe narrates in continuous sentences with full stops only at the end of each chapter, creating a sense of urgency and restlessness. I couldn’t help thinking about one of the most famous characters in English literature suffering from PTSD: Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, who similarly maintains deluded and increasingly dangerous notions about the reality around him, albeit in central London. 

It’s a very fine read altogether, and I’m happy to see it shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019. It’s a novel I could envision myself reading again at some point: it’s full-fledged and subtly layered. I find it somewhat similar to Valeria Luiselli’s recent novel Lost Children Archive, which I admittedly liked even more.

Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue

Yale University Press, November 2018, 264 pp

Yale University Press, November 2018, 264 pp

A surreal challenge of a book, Can Xue’s Love in the New Millennium, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, kept me entranced much longer than an average novel. The book is only 264 pages long (in Yale University Press’ gorgeous edition) but I often couldn’t read more than 20–30 pages a day because if you miss a sentence, you might have no idea where you are anymore.

Had I been too busy lately, had I slept badly et cetera, this could have been a 2-star read, but the spring sun is finally out in Finland and I’m feeling great so I could approach Can Xue’s bizarre novel with renewed mental and physical strength, and greatly enjoyed the cerebral fun. If that makes sense.

I should note that I approach the novel from a very limited perspective as a Westerner with a negligible knowledge of Chinese culture, so I may have perceived the text as more difficult than it actually is for anyone with a better grounding in China and its culture. Funnily enough, I recently read the first book The Golden Days of Cao Xuegin’s 18th-century classic of Chinese literature The Story of the Stone or The Dream of the Red Chamber, and found it similar to Xue’s novel in terms of (1) a large-ish cast of characters between whom the perspective shifts often, (2) humor in everyday situations, and (3) magical realism.

The third similarity is in a huge role in Xue’s novel. Love in the New Millennium is closer to a dream narrative because of its surrealist nature. (It reminded me of Sjón’s CoDex 1962, which I read recently. Coincidentally, there’s a reference to Iceland on the penultimate page of Love). But I would say it’s just about enough stable: it has a fixed cast of characters and locations.

In the spirit of the ancient Romance tradition (dating back at least to early Greek fiction like Daphnis and Chloe), these locations could roughly be divided into city and country. City is where the novel starts, depicting the cruel working conditions in a factory from which some of the female characters escape to work in a brothel. (That’s a better choice at least in Xue’s wildly imaginative storyworld.) There is a lot of surveillance in the city: men often lurk in some crevices waiting for a chance to get to talk to women. Near the middle of the novel, we approach the natural environment mainly in the form of Nest County, a mystical, magical place where some of the characters find a piece of mind by listening to the sounds of the earth, and one becomes a geography teacher.

And it’s earth that seems to be one of the main elements of the book. In Nest County, Dr. Liu would “sometimes spent the night in the mountains, sleeping in the thick grass with an ear pressed to the ground” in search of some sort of new natural medicine: “He had always felt that there was an undeveloped new world within herbal medicine, a world that grew alongside the human body, with reciprocal, invisible connections between them.” Throughout the book, there are multiple references to caves, muddy earth, sewers, all things underground or terrestrial basically. Additionally, there are many references to “ancient city walls” from which “small animals” appear in the outside world. In a nutshell, there seems to be a yearning toward some ancient interior (a nest?) as many of the characters are looking for their ultimate “hometown.” Places tend to have an ephemeral quality in the novel, often disappearing after visits or drastically changing in appearance so that they’re unrecognizable.

Love is a very heteronormative concept in Xue’s storyworld. I guess one could frown upon the old-fashioned (and very not 21st-century) idea of love in the book, but I’m rather awed by Xue’s strong and very peculiar aesthetic vision: the story has a very distinctive timelessness to it. Love seems to function as a dyadic and inescapable concept here: women yearn for men and vice versa but always find it hard to find a suitable partner. This yearning seems to tie in with fears of confinement, and closer to the end of the novel there is some sort of a liberating fire – liberation from love? Or a fire the liberates the character from the fear of confinement?

Outside there were explosions of thunder, then lightning ignited the giant pile of wastepaper at the doorway. A huge fire sealed off the door, expelling thick billows of smoke into the room. Everyone started coughing, A Si was also coughing. Suffocating, she tried to rush out, but these people would not let her go. … Suddenly a light shone in A Si’s mind, and she shouted, “This is the free port!”

I’m obviously pouring my own interpretations into the novel, but its indecipherable nature seems to call for it. Like Eileen Myles notes in the introduction, Love in the New Millennium is more of a vase that the reader fills by reading. And I like that in books. I typed this review in one go in 30 minutes or so, and it’s not often I’m this enthused to share as much about a book after finishing. I think it attests to the novel’s greatness. Thank you, MBI 2019, for introducing me to this fantastic author!

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa

Scribe, January 2019, 102 pp

Scribe, January 2019, 102 pp

It’s safe to say without spoiling the plot that Tommy Wieringa’s very short novel The Death of Murat Idrissi, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, is built around a striking image of a dead boy. It’s one that I will probably remember for some time. Besides that and the fine prologue, however, I found this a rather insubstantial novel/la that in my humble opinion has similar problems as Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, which I briefly reviewed recently: somewhat two-dimensional characters and an underdeveloped plot (and I’m a fan of short novels). Wieringa also tends toward using a lot of em dashes and semicolons, which to me felt a little too forced.

Perhaps my negative feelings stem from the fact that Mathias Énard’s Street of Thieves, my favorite novel of his, offers a fascinating portrait of the relations between Morocco and Europe. The underworld, the sexual frustration of men, Islam, and the astounding ending of that novel… Whereas here I feel there’s not much to take away with me after finishing.

I might come across as quite pessimistic in terms of this year’s MBI longlist, but I’ve read several from the list (which I haven’t reviewed or even marked yet on Goodreads), and fortunately know that there are books like Can Xue’s Love in the New Millennium, which I have recently finished in awe!

These brief thoughts on the book, along with other Man Booker International 2019 related posts, originally appeared on Goodreads.

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli

Portobello Books, October 2018, 155 pp

Portobello Books, October 2018, 155 pp

Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, is a small-scale homosocial drama set during the Russian Civil War in 1919. What could be a savage war novel turns into a rather gentle depiction of soldiers having a moment of respite. As the first chapter ends, the present-day narrator reminisces about a day during the war when they built a hut for rest: “We walked all around [the hut], congratulating one another, and then all four of us went inside and I thought to myself: That’s it, I’m not alone in the world any more. And I was right.”

I like this premise, and I’m much more keen to read a war novel that deals with the human relationships rather than one focusing on the brutality of war. A slight tangent, but I find myself zoning out whenever there are scenes of shooting, chasing, dueling or whatever in movies, so in that respect I was in safe hands with Mingarelli’s short novel.

But in terms of characters, it feels to me that Mingarelli is relying a little too heavily on stereotypes. The Uzbeki soldier is obviously the strongest of the four, and of course there has to be an annoying yet confused young officer who shoots a mule right in the beginning: “He was a young sub-lieutenant and he looked on the verge of tears.” The problem here is that I automatically visualize it all in terms of some big-budget movie I would rather not watch.

In total, I find Four Soldiers a little lacking in substance and nuance, and I’m afraid I won’t remember it for long. I enjoyed the reading process for the most part, but there wasn’t much to take away in the end.

These brief thoughts on the book, along with other Man Booker International 2019 related posts, originally appeared on Goodreads.

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

Penguin Books, 268 pp, 2014

Penguin Books, 268 pp, 2014

A fascinating foray into the spatial quality of the human imagination. Renowned French philosopher abandons strictly critical thought in order to pursue a phenomenology of the intimate spaces we live in. This is accomplished mainly through examples from poetry, the corpus consisting primarily of French poets I have never read before. A sense of joy exudes from the text, as Bachelard examines cellars and attics (ch 1–2), drawers, chests and wardrobes (ch 3), nests (ch 4), shells (ch 5), corners (ch 6) and so on.

Being a study of intimate spaces, Bachelard clearly focuses on the positive aspects of inhabiting interior spaces. He briefly touches upon the ways that humans shield themselves against the dangerous outside (e.g. storms) but ultimately this is a rather anthropocentric account and would benefit from an update. I’m a few hundred pages into Peter Sloterdijk’s massive 2500-page trilogy Spheres (reading the first part Bubbles: Spheres I very slowly) and I think he dives into this subject from a more modern perspective. Moreover, Bachelard comes across a little outdated in some of his remarks regarding domestic space (e.g. housekeeping), traditionally considered to be a woman’s place. But it’s still a great read, and I’m lucky I can spend my research time reading something as literary as this, not only academic theory and criticism.

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2nd review)

Fitzcarraldo Editions, September 2018, 272 pp

Fitzcarraldo Editions, September 2018, 272 pp

Revisits continue, as do high ratings. Olga Tokarczuk’s magnificent Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (translated by found its way to the Man Booker International 2019 longlist, even though the author won the prize last year with Flights, a much wider book in its scope compared to the more focused follow-up. I read Drive Your Plow in September last year amid the hassle of a new job and never got around to thinking about it in detail. I did write a short review of it, but in the spirit of MBI longlist completion, here are some updated thoughts.

The arguably ecofeminist motive behind Tokarczuk’s novel clearly affects my own view of it, as I’m intrigued by stories that probe the dichotomy of human and animal, and stories that epitomize the largely male phenomenon of denigrating women and nature. Tokarczuk taps into this through her peculiar narrator, a valerian-infused elderly woman taking care of people’s summer houses over the winter in Poland somewhere near the Czech border. The setup reminds me of the cover of a fine article collection I’ve been reading recently. The narrator is more likely to perceive people through astronomical alignments than giving them even real names:

What a lack of imagination it is to have official first names and surnames. No one ever remembers them, they’re so divorced from the Person, and so banal that they don’t remind us of them at all. […] That’s why I try my best never to use first names and surnames, but prefer epithets that come to mind of their own accord the first time I see a Person. I’m sure this is the right way to use language, rather than tossing about words stripped of all meaning.

Hence, animals are Animals (“Hares, Badgers, and Deer”) and the narrator’s main human companion is called Oddball. And an oddball novel it is, crooked in every respect, and it is lovely precisely because of that. On one level, the book is a murder mystery, nothing out of the ordinary really, but the crime aspect is subordinate to what I deem is much more important in the novel: the brilliant ways that Tokarzcuk depicts the struggle of being different in a community where the rules are set by rather run-of-the-mill, heteronormative men. The author illustrates this through various bureaucratic male characters with whom the narrator interacts and who frown upon her time and again. This is not to imply that Tokarczuk is being misandrist either, she’s too clever for that. I think she balances carefully in her depiction of the narrator, who is indeed a bit contentious, but essentially she just prefers the company of Animals over humans, and what’s wrong with that?

Tokarczuk may have remarked that Drive Your Plow is a filler book written between two big projects – Flights and The Books of Jacob to be published next year – but, all authorial intent aside, this is by no means your average murder mystery. It was among my favorite books of 2018, and I’m glad it’s longlisted for the MBI, even though I would rather see a different author win the prize this year. It doesn’t quite reach the epic heights (hah) of Flights, but other than that, I don’t find much fault in here.

The Years by Annie Ernaux

Fitzcarraldo Editions, June 2018, 232 pp

Fitzcarraldo Editions, June 2018, 232 pp

Having originally read the book in January this year, I revisited Annie Ernaux’s The Years (translated by Alison L. Strayer) due to its inclusion on the Man Booker International 2019 longlist. This collective autobiography “at the confluence of autofiction and sociology,” as the cover blurbs it, was certainly worth revisiting. It’s an impressive perusal of French culture and society as viewed through the lens of one writer, written in a memorable and inventive way.

What ultimately makes this flout the nonfiction category – and therefore making it eligible for fiction awards which it has already won in France – is the humble fact that, of course, Ernaux is unable to write in a completely truthful manner about France in, say, the 1940s. In terms of the autobiography genre, how could she write factually about a period of time when she was less than ten years old? I like this approach because it reminds me of how all that’s categorizable as nonfiction is based on interpretation. Text analysis 101. It’s something that Rachel Cusk addresses magnificently in her Faye trilogy.

So what we have in The Years are impressions, fleeting moments from one woman’s history captured in ephemeral language. There’s anxiety about memories soon vanishing – Ernaux was nearing her seventies when the book was first published in 2008:

Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it. Nothing will come out of the open mouth, neither I nor me. Language will continue to put the world into words. In conversation around a holiday table, we will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.

From this vantage point, Ernaux sets out to chronologically chart a cultural history of France from her birth in early 1940s to 2006, but this history is evidently partial. She employs a plural voice – a we-narrator, which raises questions of translation that I won’t touch upon here more than to say that in the French original the word used is the more complex ‘on’ and not ‘nous’ – which suggests that these events have happened not only to her but basically to every woman in France. But I don’t think that’s what Ernaux is trying to convey; I think she’s more nuanced than that. Near the beginning of the book, in the context of war-ravaged France, the narrator remarks:

From a common ground of hunger and fear, everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone was equally affected by events.

Perhaps that’s what evokes the more passive ‘on’ narration for the rest of the book. And it’s a beautiful read. Through glimpses of seemingly unimportant details such as advertisements, Ernaux evokes a compelling picture of life lived in a certain time and of the changes that society goes through over the course of decades. It decentres narratives of war and politics by highlighting the personal and collective spaces of women. It’s saturated with references to 20th-century French culture, which is the only pitfall of the book for a reader like me with negligible knowledge of the subject matter, but I think Ernaux succeeds nonetheless in telling a deeply affecting story, one that I will remember.

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Oneworld Publications, February 2019, 228 pp

Oneworld Publications, February 2019, 228 pp

First, a confession: I have not read Samanta Schweblin’s Man Booker International shortlisted and Tournament of Books winner Fever Dream. I have not read the book, not even though I had the privilege to hear Schweblin speak at a local literary event last summer. She was wonderful, and rather surprisingly I can still recall bits and pieces of the discussion. For one, she talked about the ways that each reader constructs different mental images of a sentence as simple as, say, “there were shoes on the bed.” So, while I still haven’t read the novel, at least I came to Mouthful of Birds, a collection of her short stories newly translated by Megan McDowell, with an impression of a very skilled author who can conjure vivid images in few words. I wasn’t let down.

Reading the collection was a rather immersive experience, in good and bad. It’s been a few weeks since I finished it and, having today reread a selection of the stories, I’ve concluded that it’s an exceptionally absorbing book at the moment of reading but not necessarily one with a long afterlife. Partly it might be because there’s no room to develop memorable settings or characters since these stories are not interrelated. They are more like images in the sense that they elicit strong reactions but the narrative arc – as much as I vomit when I hear those two words put together – is limited due to the format. It’s also possible that I’m the limited one, as I still struggle with short story collections in general.

Considering that I’m not a huge fan of the format, Mouthful of Birds was a remarkably great reading experience. In fact, it’s one of my favorites of the year so far. This could end up on a personal top 10 list of books come the end of the year. I was rather surprised that there were no misses in this collection like there usually are. I enjoyed every one of them, with minor reservations toward one that I will touch upon below.

These twenty stories are varied in length: “Butterflies” is barely two pages long, but it is the sort of a story that you need to digest slowly and reread to appreciate what is perhaps more of a sensation than a story. “Toward Happy Civilization,” on the other hand, takes nearly twenty pages to develop its evidently Kafkaesque narrative of a man’s excruciating wait for a train that never arrives because he doesn’t have the exact change. Short or long, all of these narratives arrest attention by tweaking the real world with bits of magic. This enables Schweblin to speculate what could be possible in the real world, often with societal implications. There’s a husband who abandons his wife by the edge of a field where she can hear ghostly echoes of all the other women abandoned at the side of the road. There’s a “cure” for pregnancy, a four-month process that plays on the stereotypes of expecting. 

One specific issue I have with the collection is the way that animal violence is handled in “The Test.” I read Schweblin’s collection alongside with Rodrigo Fuentes’ Trout, Belly Up (another short story collection by a Latin American author published in English the same week), and the latter has a similar kind of a scene where I questioned the necessity of violence. Perhaps in Fuentes’ book it drives home a point about the cruel sociopolitical conditions in rural Guatemala, but in Schweblin’s hallucinogenic, wondrous storyworlds I found it an unnecessary addition. She has such a repertoire of nightmarish elements to work with that the story could do, in my opinion, without the violence. But it’s possible that Schweblin addresses a real-life issue here too since she gives a specific location, Buenos Aires.

As said, I really like Mouthful of Birds. I rate it highly but want to note that several people who have read Fever Dream have been less enthusiastic about it. In fact, as I’ve understood, most of these stories predate the novel, so the publication of Mouthful of Birds might have been decided on the grounds that Fever Dream got longlisted for prizes such as the Man Booker International last year. This year, Schweblin is on the list again, so let’s see whether she makes the cut this time.

Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes

Charco Press, January 2019, 97 pp

Charco Press, January 2019, 97 pp

Trout are delicate creatures and can’t handle temperatures over thirteen degrees. That’s why Don Henrik bought his land right at the top of the mountain, because he wanted ice cold spring water.

Against the backdrop of agricultural Guatemala, Rodrigo Fuentes presents seven interconnected scenes of danger in this fine although short collection of stories. Trout, Belly Up, a title piquing curiosity in itself, starts by depicting Henrik’s troubles of setting up a trout hatchery on the top of a mountain – which ostensibly has its equivalent in real Northwestern Guatemala – and the image of trout dying (belly up) is carried through the other stories that more or less involve death. The trout’s lack of oxygen is repeated in “Dive” where Henrik and Mati go diving with a fatal outcome, to name one example. In what I would consider the best story in the collection, “Out of the Blue, Perla,” set amidst a revolt triggered by the laying off of farmworkers, a cow named Perla stands up against a bunch of gunmen with such self-assurance that it simultaneously baffled, amused, and worried me:

A few feet away she stopped. A couple of the gunmen came over and looked at her. Perla lowed at the sky and started to circle them familiarly, the cheeky thing. One of the men said something, his words harsh, but the rest were quiet, as curious as I was. Because Perla was giving them a look that was entirely human. And it wasn’t the sort of look just anybody could give: it was the look a woman gives when she knows she’s being looked at by a man. One of those women who snatches your gaze and slaps it right back at you. That’s the look Perla was giving them.

I am yet unsure what exactly Trout, Belly Up is, but at least on one level it probes the barrier between the human and the animal and especially so in the context of poor Guatemalan countryside. I must have missed details as my knowledge of the country is limited to a few negligible Google searches while reading, and therefore, in my shameful ignorance, I offer what Henrik himself says in the concluding story, perhaps applicable to Fuentes himself:

He spoke of vague, sometimes dark characters, contacts in the countryside, individuals who came and went from his story with no clear purpose, and he also spoke of La Corregidora, seized by the bank and taken over by the farmhands.

Charco Press has become known for their clear and effortlessly read translations, and the same is true here: Ellen Jones’ translation into English reads so smoothly that, combined with the overall short length, Trout, Belly Up is the sort of a book one can devour in one sitting while being entertained by Fuentes’ curious stories but also moved by the country’s troubled state of affairs.

Mothlight by Adam Scovell

Influx Press, February 2019

Influx Press, February 2019

Thomas, the narrator of Adam Scovell’s quiet new novel Mothlight, is deeply affected by two things: moths, which he studies as a researcher, and the life of Phyllis Ewans, a family acquaintance who, likewise, is a researcher in Lepidoptera. Over the years, Thomas has formed a close relationship with her: “My visits were no longer those of a curious friend desiring the secrets of her past life, but those of a caring relative.” Phyllis is a taciturn, solitary woman whose past life remains a mystery even for Thomas. To fill the gaps, he sets out to learn about her history via photographs, which are abundantly presented on the pages of the novel. (There are some thirty photographs included).

Like with any preoccupation, there is the danger of overdoing it, and the hunt for more information begins to have an effect on Thomas’ psychological wellbeing. There are hues of a looming mental illness when, for instance, he starts to hear the wingbeats of moths in unlikely places, like here during the funeral of Phyllis’ sister:

The thought of such a skein of moths took a great hold over my senses at the funeral, and I remember imagining that same flock constantly and chaotically flying close behind my shoulders. This would be the first of many such occasions when what can only be described as an attack took hold of my senses and rendered me useless. The priest conducting the service spoke slowly and hypnotically as the coffin was lowered into the arid grave. My grandmother cried and I could hear her sobbing behind the fluttering, a cacophony gradually drowning out all the priest’s words, lost in the endless wingbeat of a thousand moths.

What I’m most impressed about in this novel is Scovell’s language. His sentences tend to be long, associative, attempting verbally to catch sensations as precisely as possible. To me, there is something very non-British about it, and as much as I detest making comparisons to one particular author, I’m reminded of Marcel Proust. This is not only because of the winding sentences but also because there is something refreshingly non-masculine about Thomas, who in “moments of synchronicity” begins to associate himself with the woman, believing they are one and same person. He remarks of his body: “My hands had never been especially masculine, my whole body in fact never really seeming either male or female apart from in the most basic of ways.” An inevitable comparison to W. G. Sebald could also be made in regard to the photos included.

But, in the end, we get to know relatively little about Thomas and his life, so engrossed he is with making sense of Phyllis. It is rare of me to wish that a novel was longer, but in this case I could easily have devoured another 150 pages or so. This is, however, more of a compliment than criticism, and a sign of an author who can write very captivatingly. Mothlight is a great example of a very focused and non-tangential novel. Moths, memory, and identity all blur together here beautifully, and I was happy to learn that this won’t be the last time we hear from Scovell, who already has a new title lined up for next year via Influx Press. 

The act of remembering, so I thought, is the parasite of our hopes. It is parasitic. It lives and thrives upon us, whilst we live with the delusion that we define it, when it really defines us. It hatches, it devours and it destroys us from the inside out, until it is done and moves on to annihilate another life. I decided there and then that I was not going to let this parasite devour me, considering further that this was not even the parasite of my own memory, but doubly parasitic because it was the plague of someone else’s memory.

Shitstorm by Fernando Sdrigotti

Open Pen, November 2018, 86 pp

Open Pen, November 2018, 86 pp

In this short but ferocious novelette written by London-based Fernando Sdrigotti, a wealthy American dentist is on a hunting trip in Zimbabwe and shoots down a lion, not forgetting to take a couple of selfies with the carcass as a trophy. He doesn’t get caught and leaves Africa:

It looks as if no culprit will ever be found and the news won’t make it out of Zimbabwe, as is usually the case. But a journalist from National Geographic, coincidentally in the area for an orientalist documentary, picks up the scoop and the killing achieves international status quite quickly. Danny Gervais, Maria Farrow and Shane Osbourne find out about the murder of their exotic pet and tweet about it and their outrage and their sadness and their pain and their their their their. … And like this another shitstorm is born.

The poaching of Cyril the lion, clearly a variation of Cecil the lion, causes a media scandal, and from this premise Sdrigotti ventures into an overall exploration of the forms that mainstream media hysteria can take, or, has indeed already taken. (All the proper names in the book are modified names of real-life figures who have been subjects of such scandals, including the POTUS.) Shitstorm is bookended by the story of the poacher, while the main chunk in the middle could be considered an extended, sarcastic essay on the titular phenomenon, a fast-paced and oftentimes funny analysis written in feverish present tense.

On one hand, reading Shitstorm is masochistic: we all know the pain of reading through the comment section of our favorite newspaper while facepalming at every other comment, and we are also very well aware of the ever-lurking presence of nuclear weapons and terrorism – all of which the novelette deals with – and we might not want to go there when reading fiction. Our days are filled with this reportage already. On the other hand, it’s hard to put down Sdrigotti’s slim volume once you begin reading it, and it does offer interesting commentary on the said subjects. What I enjoyed the most here was how Sdrigotti aims for an objective view (which is impossible to achieve, of course), not blatantly taking sides but bashing the left and the right in an equal and humorous manner. This does lead into a rather pessimistic whole in the end, as quite nothing presents a good solution to the problems pervading our dark world, but surely Sdrigotti is not trying to achieve world peace here anyway. Instead, Shitstorm demonstrates in clear, sharp language some of the fundamental issues of life lived in our current era saturated with social media.

Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei

Europa Editions, November 2018, 135 pp

Europa Editions, November 2018, 135 pp

Being a novel by a Japan-born author who writes about a Nigerian woman living in Australia, Iwaki Kei’s Farewell, My Orange certainly has an interesting premise, and not the least because the absence of Europe and Northern America is itself something you don’t, after all, see that often in novels in English. (Stories of, say, immigration tend to have either of them as the destination.) But the English language is at the center of this book, as Salimah, arrived from Nigeria, and Sayuri, from Japan, attend an English class in Australia, and navigate their new reality on a new continent. The language barrier does not prevent them from slowly forming a friendship, and there is something very heartwarming in the story that is hard to pinpoint exactly.

Yet I’m not saying that this is necessarily the typical sort of a “feel-good” or “uplit” novel. It contains, for instance, quite a lot of serious commentary on living as a foreigner in a new place, and it ends with a fantastic, slightly metatextual trick (which I shall not spoil in this review – just wait for it), which raises questions of cultural appropriation. There’s plenty of coping with loss, too. But the novel’s title itself signals a theme of universality, referring to the way that – excuse my Shakespeare – “the self-same sun that shines upon his court / Hides not his visage from our cottage but / Looks on alike.” Orange prevails through the novel as a color of comfort for Salimah, for whom one of the only pleasures in her new situation is the fact that the sun sets similarly no matter where you are:

Watching the sun slowly rising into the ultramarine sky, its orange tinge spreading, the trapped, despairing feeling that had been haunting her suddenly lifted. […] The orange seemed almost to drip fresh and sweet from deep within the slightly oval disc of the sun, to comfort her.

Interspersed with the narrative of Salimah and Sayuri we find an email exchange between a student and a teacher, seemingly unrelated to the main narrative, but which by the end makes much more sense in terms of the whole.

A slight tangent, but, as a northern European, I couldn’t help paying closer attention when Salimah ruminates on some of the female students from her class. I found the perspective simultaneously interesting, sad, and funny:

The nymphs had come to Australia as tourists, and they were due to go home again come summer. Those northern European countries looked after their citizens well, and they had an affluent air about them. Their happy future seemed to become tiny particles that imbued their golden hair; it was as if transparent light poured from their bodies, thought Salimah as she looked at them. The delicate wings of light at their backs seemed to unfold, and they were fairies flitting from flower to flower. Just to see them made Salimah’s heart swell gently. And then, too, their English was so good.

Farewell, My Orange is an unexpected gem of a book, one that is easy to recommend to just about anybody. It won the Ōe Kenzaburō Prize in Japan in 2014, but the English translation, from the pen of Meredith McKinney, has not received the attention it arguably deserves. Here’s to hoping that it will get a nudge from the Man Booker International Prize in a few months.