Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘Paulette Jonguitud’ category

For the second half of the month, I made the following casual recommendations to family and friends:

TO HELL WITH CRONJE by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke.

I’ll put this simply: if you are a fan of Cormac McCarthy-style writing, if you like gripping historical fiction that doesn’t feel in any real way historical, if you like intensely beautiful descriptions of the natural world, if you enjoy challenging questions of politics and racial issues, if you enjoy friendship narratives… then you will love this book. I wrote more about it when I read it.

PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM by Kyung-sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Chi-young Kim.

Today’s book is one I meant to mention much earlier in the month but forgot about, which is ironic because it is about an elderly woman with dementia who gets separated from her family in a subway station. There is a fascinating diversity of narrative perspectives in this book – you learn about what happens to the mother from several different voices. And at the same time you learn so much about contemporary South Korea. The family theme of the book made it completely relatable on a purely human level. I absolutely loved this book.

INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS by Nancy Huston, translated by Nancy Huston.

If you asked me what superpower I might want, I would consider invisibility for a short while but then I’d say – the ability to write in two languages. I don’t just mean the practical way I have to use French and English for work, I mean great sweeping complicated novels in two languages. Huston was not raised bilingual – she’s English-speaking originally but moved to France in her twenties and found her literary voice in French. She writes incredibly rich, complex novels in French and then does the translation herself into English. I wrote about the book years ago.

MILDEW by Paulette Jonguitud, translated from Spanish by Paulette Jonguitud

I discovered this fantastic novella among CB Editions marvelous catalogue some time last year. The story is about a woman who discovers a spot of mildew growing on her leg just 24 hours before her daughter’s wedding. Weird, yes. Excellent, yes. A little bit magical realism, a little bit family drama, Mildew is strange and dark and filled with surprises. I wrote a longer review for Mildew in 2015.

IT DOES NOT DIE by Maitreyi Devi, translated from the Bengali by Maitreyi Devi

This book was an incredible find a year or so ago in my book group. We first read a novel called BENGAL NIGHTS by Mircea Eliade (which was about a man who falls in love with a young woman in the 1930s India – it was a beautiful book, and quite provocative – and based on Eliade’s own travels as a young man), but it turns out that the woman in question was Maitreyi Devi and she wrote her own version of events – extremely different – from the original book. Her story is fascinating, as are the cultural elements behind both books – and reading the two books in tandem was excellent. This essay gives more background on the two novels.

THE WAITING YEARS by Enchi Fumiko, translated by John Bester

Originally published in Japanese in 1957, The Waiting Years is about Tomo, a wife in a “good family” in Tokyo. Enchi is exploding stereotypes in this book, and uncovering ugly hidden realities as the reader watches Tomo suffer within the bounds of her perfectly “good” marriage. The book is really gripping and Enchi’s writing is so lovely. I wrote about this one in more detail a few years ago.

THE TALE OF GENJI by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by various translators over time.

My favorite translation is now Royall Tyler’s amazing, footnoted, heavily researched absolute work-of-art, that came out in 2001. It’s stunning. Also, what other book may have taken a translator as much time as the Genji?

CHASING THE KING OF HEARTS by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm.

Here is part of what I had to say about the book when I reviewed it for Necessary Fiction a few years ago.

This premise—that something as intangible and fragile as the connection and love between Shayek and Izolda should trump all impossible distances and insane governmental decrees and genocidal rules—is where the novella hinges. It is not so much that Izolda believes that within the context of the war she still deserves the success of her life and love, but rather despite it. On a purely psychological level, Izolda operates as if the war simply does not touch her. While her actions and movements are all prescribed and countered by what is happening in the Polish ghetto, in various prison camps, in Vienna, even in the Guben labor camp, her mindset remains firmly beyond these prescriptions. And this is this novella’s most remarkable offering.

You can read the entire review here.

COMMENTARY by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis

This very slim novella, originally published in 1933, is actually a series of fierce and powerful letters, written by a young woman to her former lover, written from the sanatorium in which she would die a year later from tuberculosis at the age of 34. It’s an incredibly feminist text for its time, it’s also angry, sad, poetic, and complicated. The kind of short book you can read again and again, understanding different parts of it each time. The notes in the back of my edition discussing the various writers and critics who were impressed or affected by Commentary is also worth devouring.

JULETANE by Myriam Warner-Vieyra, translated from the French by Betty Wilson.

Warner Vieyra is a Guadeloupean writer who now lives in Senegal, and JULETANE gracefully brings together three very different places that Warner must know very well: the Caribbean, Paris, and Senegal. The book is a framework story, and the reader follows Hélène in Paris (an independent and wealthy woman about to be married) as she finds a diary while packing up her apartment. The diary belongs to Juletane, a young West Indian woman who met and married a man from Senegal while living in Paris but then followed him to his home in Africa, where she cannot manage to find her place. The two women’s stories contrast beautifully and reveal all the complexities of both.

THE TRUE DECEIVER by Tove Janssen, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

Very different in tone from Jansson’s The Summer Book, which I mentioned earlier this month, The True Deceiver is darker and a bit more complicated. I wrote about the book here.

THE NOTEBOOK, THE PROOF, THE THIRD LIE by Agota Kristof, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, David Watson, & Marc Romano.

If you’ve been reading my site for any length of time, you’ll know how much this trilogy affected me. Written by a Hungarian-Swiss writer and it is not an easy one to read, but is one of the most thought-provoking series of books I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting lost in. The trilogy follows the lives of a set of young twins as they deal with WWII and its aftermath. The books deal with abandonment, with war, with identity, with authoritarian regimes. The stories are grim in many ways, but Kristof also has a keen eye for the humane where it honestly resides. I wrote about each book here, so if you’re interested you can have a look at “Agota Kristof” and it will all come up.

THE BRIEFCASE by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.

On the surface this a book about a woman in her late thirties and a man in his seventies and the strange romance in which they find themselves engaged. That word romance is a little misleading, because what happens between Tsukiko and Sensei is far more serious than what that simple word might lead one to believe. The Briefcase is less a study of an unconventional relationship and more a query of what happens when two resolutely lonely individuals find that when they are together, their loneliness is eased.

My full review at Necessary Fiction is here.

THE CRUEL WAY by Ella Maillart (I can’t find a reference to who did this translation, so perhaps it was actually Maillart?)

Adventurer, travel writer and sportswoman, Ella Maillart is an incredible figure. She traveled alone in 1932 in Turkestan and wrote the book TURKESTAN SOLO. In 1939 she traveled with a friend (the famous Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach) from Europe through Istanbul, Kabul and Teheren, and wrote THE CRUEL WAY. Those are the two of her books that I know, but please see this site for more information about her. She was a fascinating and brave woman and her work deserves to be more widely known.

ALL THE ROADS ARE OPEN by Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole

This is a memoir of the same journey taken by Ella Maillart, written from the other traveler.

From Seagull’s page for the book:

In June 1939, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and fellow writer Ella Maillart set out from Geneva in a Ford, heading for Afghanistan. The first women to travel Afghanistan’s Northern Road, they fled the storm brewing in Europe to seek a place untouched by what they considered to be Western neuroses. The Afghan journey documented in All the Roads Are Open is one of the most important episodes of Schwarzenbach’s turbulent life.

THE MAN WHO SNAPPED HIS FINGERS by Fariba Hachtroudi, translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

My last book for the month is one I read in the last week, and it was quite a book. It’s about the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and an incredibly brave female prisoner, and about a colonel in charge of the prison and his wife —another fascinating female figure. I found it a very difficult read in the sense that it was disturbing and violent. I could not read it at night, but the questions it asks are tremendous and I am still thinking about it and planning to write about it properly in a few days.


Well! After all this recommending, I would love to hear what your favorite books by women in translation are. I know I missed so many wonderful books, and I’d love to add to my own lists – so please do leave a comment with a book title.

August is Women in Translation month – which was originally started by Meytal Radzinski and a fantastic initiative to highlight the issue of how few books by women authors are translated into English. This is something close to my heart, as both a devoted reader of ‘foreign fiction’ and as a translator.

I’m happy to finally report that a Swiss writer I’ve been championing for some time (and having a hard time placing anywhere) will see a first English translation publication later this fall. The writer is Clarisse Francillon – whom, for reasons of expediency, I tend to describe as the Mavis Gallant of Switzerland — and my translation of one of her short stories will be published in Mayday Magazine in a few months. I’ll be shouting about it when it comes out.

I have a very busy month of reading for Le Livre sur les Quais – a Swiss literary festival that takes place each September. This year the country of honor will be Ireland and a great number of interesting writers will be here. I’ll be moderating several panels for the English-speaking authors program, so most of my month has an imposed and diverse reading list: Ruth Ware, Kevin Barry, Emanuel Bergmann, Claire Vaye Watkins and Rachel Joyce. The small “in English” part of the festival has a healthy-sized list, not to mention the full French-speaking program! If you’re interested you can see more here.

Nonetheless, I’d still like to read a selection of women in translation this month and here is a small stack from my shelves, books I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to yet. I am only picking four – but this seems ambitious enough with everything else going on. Here they are, and I’d love to hear if you’ve read any of these…

  • Stone in a Landslide, Maria Barbal, translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell (Peirene, 2010)
  • Sun Alley, Cecilia Ştefănescu, translated from the Romanian by Alexandra Coliban & Andreea Höfer (Istros Books, 2013)
  • Baba Dunja’s Last Love, Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr (Europa Editions, 2016)
  • Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin Press, 2017)

Because I feel that list is woefully short, I’ll include here a list of some of my very favorite books by non-Anglophone women writers, available in English translation. Many of these books I’ve written about here or elsewhere, I’ll include a link if I have one:

  • The Wall, Marlen Haushofer, tr. Shaun Whiteside
  • Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector, tr. Giovanni Pontiero
  • Agua Viva, Clarice Lispector, tr. Stefan Tobler
  • Juletane, Myriam Warner-Vieyra, tr. Betty Wilson
  • Building Waves, Taeko Tomioka, tr. Louise Heal Kawai
  • The Summer Book, Tove Janssen, tr. Thomas Teal
  • Mildew, Paulette Jonguitud, tr. by the author
  • Farewell, Cowboy, Olja Savičević, tr. Celia Hawkesworth
  • Masks, Enchi Fumiko, tr. Juliet Winters Carpentr
  • The Waiting Years, Enchi Fumiko, tr. John Bester
  • Trilogy, Agota Kristof, tr. Alan Sheridan, David Watson, Marc Romano
  • Commentary, Marcelle Sauvageot, tr. Christine Schwartz Hartley, Anna Moschovakis

Just making this list, I can see so many of my blind spots. I feel decently well-read in Japanese and Francophone women’s fiction, but I’ve been meaning to search out and make a list of more diverse women’s voices: Asian and African writing, and Spanish-language writers, for example, that I know I’ve overlooked. Suggestions are always welcome…

To finish I’ll mention one book that I think SHOULD BE translated into English. Douchinka by the Swiss writer Dominique de Rivaz. This is a tiny little book set in a dystopian Russian future. It involves dubious art practices and institutionalized murder, and it is also one of the strangest love stories I’ve ever read. I read the book a few months ago and cannot stop thinking about it.





The opening paragraph of Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew* involves a clever repetition:

Never forgive, I said that morning just as I do every morning, by the window, waiting for dawn. Never forgive. Whom? Constanza? Which one of them? Never forgive her, the young Constanza, or myself, the old one? I did not know, all I knew was: I was never to forgive.

‘It hasn’t been that long, mother, it’s normal you feel lonely,’ my daughter Agustina had said a few days before. I don’t feel lonely, it’s this house that suddenly has an echo.

First is the mention of two women sharing the same first name, a young and an old Constanza, something which creates an immediate doubling. Two women, both needing forgiveness. Second is that last word echo and how it so casually evokes an emptiness that both contains and repeats itself. More doubling. There is also the subtle image of a figure at a window; a pre-dawn moment that most likely involves a reflection as well as the implied experience of looking out while looking in. And, finally, there is the actual printed repetition of the word forgive—four times in five lines!—along with a single repetition of the word lonely.

This idea of doubling and echo winds its way throughout the entire novel, because even the premise of Mildew is dual. There are two stories running alongside one another—the story of a woman whose husband has fallen in love with their niece, and the story of a woman who finds a green spot on her body. And not just anywhere.

I went into the bathroom and undressed in front of the mirror. I did not find in my reflection the young woman I had been just seconds ago. I examined my body, a personal audition that I fail every morning. Big feet, varicose ankles, wide thighs.

A slight prickling in the pubis made me look down and I found a green spot, half hidden by pubic hair. It looked like a mole, irregular in form and velvety to the touch. It seemed to be covered by grey powder. I scratched but it did not go away. If anything the spot looked even larger.

Within a few lines, Jonguitud confirms what is first here only an allusion to Macbeth. Constanza is a costume designer for a local theatre group and six months before the novel opens, she made the costumes for this very play. References to theatre abound and this again reinforces the idea of doubling: scenes on stage within the scenes of the novel that give the reader two “stages” of action, careful insinuations that characters might be playing “roles,” specific theatrical movements within a longer story, even the growing spot of mildew on Constanza’s body is discussed in terms of costume. And the first person direct-to-reader narrative perspective plays right into this; it isn’t too much of a stretch to consider Mildew a form of or even an homage to Shakespearean soliloquy. With these careful allusions and parallels, Jonguitud enriches a short text with great depth and complexity.

Alongside this intertextual depth, there is a tremendous amount of story packed into these 91 beautifully printed pages. An entire history condensed into a single day, an entire family and their respective pasts brought out in quick but vivid portraits. Constanza tells of her childhood, her parents and siblings, and eventually explains how she came to raise her sister’s child, the younger Constanza, and what that experience was like—not just for her but for the rest of the family. If we believe Constanza, it was not a pleasant experience and the younger Constanza was a source of constant tension and family crisis.

Mildew is an unsettling and uncomfortable text. Not just because it moves through a variety of dark questions – including difficult questions of female desire – but from a structural and narrative perspective as well. Extending the idea of the novel as an echo of Shakespearean soliloquy, it stretches out the very strengths of that form—the way it builds tension through abrupt movements of thought, how it integrates past/present reflections, allusions to action that has occurred “off-scene.” And like many of the best soliloquies, there is a rising sense of madness as Constanza vents her thoughts and emotions.

The marvelous parallel to her increasing unsteadiness (and perhaps increasing untrustworthiness as narrator) is the mildew growing down the trunk of her body. By the middle of the book, Constanza’s leg is nearly completely covered:

I sat on the floor, among the plants. My green leg smelled like a dark basement, an old closet, it smelled forgotten. I saw then that the mildew had extended beyond my toes and had wide filaments, long like pine needles. From one of my toes a branch was now growing.

From this point on, the narrative (which was not particularly linear in the first place) begins to fragment even further. Each short chapter is somehow more jarring than the one preceding it, and the scenes become difficult to puzzle out in terms of timeline. There is a sense—fantastically carried off by Jonguitud—that the story is both building toward a big event and racing as quickly as possible away from a different big event. This, again, is another kind of doubling and it makes for great tension within the novel’s structure.

At only 91 pages, Mildew is a deceptively simple book. Its brevity and relatively unadorned prose belie what is more layered and difficult. This is a novel with a psychological and emotional intensity that invites careful reading and re-reading, and resists immediate interpretation.

*Mildew is translated into English (from Spanish) by the author and published by the marvelous CB Editions.