Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘contemporary European fiction’

The second writer on the panel for BIBLIOTOPIA was Gazmend Kapllani, with his three novels A Short Border Handbook, Je m’appelle Europe (My name is Europe), and Le Dernier Page (The Last Page). Kapllani was born in and grew up in Albania, and then immigrated to Greece where he lived for something like twenty years. He writes, for now, in Greek. He currently lives and teaches in the US, however, and will probably be published directly in English at some point.

All three of his novels deal with immigration – the first, A Short Border Handbook, is told through the eyes of a migrant escaping Albania for Greece, and the difficulties of that journey. It also includes a kind of manual – the handbook in the title – for the illegal immigrant experience. It is funny at times, but the humor is sharp and pointed, as it should be, for a book describing the absurd cruelty of the modern migrant experience. It is also a poetic book, looking philosophically at the relationship between language and identity, between language and memory.

I think the tone of that book can be picked up from one of it’s opening lines:

My difficult relationship with borders goes back a very long way, back to my childhood, because whether or not you end up with border syndrome is largely a matter of luck: it depends where you’re born.

I was born in Albania.

The quote of the title of the post is also from A Short Border Handbook.

In one of his panels, Kapllani asked why there wasn’t a museum of immigration in Europe. Europe has museums for the smallest, most specific things, museums for the great wars, and yet nothing for immigration – arguably the longest “event” in Europe’s history. That last bit is my own paraphrasing, as his question and the point he was making really struck me.

In Je m’appelle Europe, an Albanian immigrant falls in love with a Greek woman name Europe. I loved the symbolic meaning of the premise of this book—that two people meet, an immigrant and a native, simply because a woman named Europe loses the key to her home. Their relationship is fraught with questions of the effect of language—occupying a new language, inhabiting a mother tongue—on relationships. Of the power dynamics of language – and these endless distinctions of migrant and immigrant and native as fixed entities that end up shredding our notions of a shared humanity.

Je suis convaincu qu’une langue n’a pas de frontière. A y regarder de près, dire « ma » langue représente un abus de langage. On peut dire « mon » portefeuille, « ma » voiture, « mon » parti politique, « mon » champ. Mais on ne peut s’approprier une langue. On peut la cultiver, la transmettre et accomplir de grandes choses grâce à elle. Mais une langue n’appartient à personne.

(I believe that a language doesn’t have a border. Considered carefully, to say “my” language is really an abuse of language. You can say “my” wallet, “my” car, “my” political party, “my” field. But you cannot appropriate a language for yourself. You can cultivate it, transmit it, you can accomplish great things because of it. But a language doesn’t belong to anyone.)

Je m’appelle Europe has two neat tricks in it as well. First, it is set in a near-future – where Europe, the country, has been transformed. Having the narrator look back, retrospectively on his love affair with Europe and his early life in Albania, but from the context of this new strange place, was really interesting – the juxtapositions, the sneaky predictions. Also, book is threaded with immigrant narratives, with chapters that rest alongside the main story, documenting the experiences of others as they have moved or fled their homes, as they have tried to establish lives in their new homes.

And finally, in Le Dernier Page (The Last Page), the reader follows a man named Melsi, an Albanian who has spent his life in Greece, a writer, who must return to Albania to bury his father who has passed away unexpectedly in China. This book goes backward, however, to the previous generation, to the story of Melsi’s parents and their own European migration experience. It’s the story of Albania in many ways, and its transformation and historical relationship to Italy and to Greece.

All of Kapllani’s books deal with the world of writing, of translation, migration, historical connections, and political oppression. As someone who has been and continues to exist within this wave of movement (in a different way, obviously) – from Japan to the US, raised by an immigrant father, and now to Europe, as an immigrant myself, but a “welcome” one, for now anyway – and as a translator who is deeply interested in how language affects memory, how language shapes and controls identity, watching my own daughter grow up bilingual, with a deep love of several other languages that she uses with relative ease, these three books were a fantastic study for me, posing questions and settling over many of my own preoccupations. I look forward to Kapllani’s future work.

From The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, Dubravka Ugrešić

On the third day, we, actors in a silent film, got up and went outside. The sun glared like a spotlight, we walked through Marienplatz dragging with us a heavy burden of unspoken words. The air smelled of hot wine, cloves and cinnamon, it was Carnival time, the middle of February. We were like actors in a cheap operetta, again surrounded by the requisite stage set. The white sun, like a magnifying glass, revealed every little line on our faces, and we instinctively sought the protection of the icy shadows.


From N’avez vous pas froid, Hélène Bessette

Le même jour. Minuit.

As-tu pensé ?

As-tu pensé que certains gens vivent entre le manger et le dormir. Le travail qui permet le dormir et le manger.

As-tu pensé ?

Que certains gens croient ce qui est admis ?

Vivant de la grammaire habituelle.

Sont satisfaits des mots.

Ne posent pas de question. Sont sans question.

Ne répondent pas.

Ne savent ni rire ni pleurer.

A peine rire.

A peine pleurer.

Through a friend, I recently discovered the Scottish writer Janice Galloway and her first novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989). Sometimes books make their way into your brain at exactly the right time. I had my copy for a few weeks but happened to start reading it on a day when I needed something completely distracting, something that would absorb me fully for a few solid hours. As luck would have it, this was the perfect book for that.

This is one of those books I love writing about because it falls outside of “conventional” writing and so I find it harder to describe, harder to pull apart. The Trick is to Keep Breathing has very little story, its timeline jumps and twists and inverts, it introduces characters at random and with no explanation, and even the formatting runs askew all over the page. All of this makes for concentrated reading. The overall effect is very intense. Since some of those descriptions could sound negative, let me say how much I loved the book.

It is a grief story and it’s also very much an internal monologue/dialogue. I say dialogue because a lot of the book works as a conversation that a woman is having with herself and with the universe. The kind of conversation a person finds herself holding in a moment of pure panic. Except this is panic that lasts, that just goes on and on. And effectively, the narrator, Joy, is writing from a place of deep trauma. I won’t give any details about the root of her trauma because one aspect of the book’s interest is seeing how this is revealed.

Galloway sets up the book to look at this trauma in a unique way. Joy writes:

I can’t remember the last week with any clarity.

I want to be able to remember it because it was the last time anything was in any way unremarkable. Eating and drinking routinely, sleeping when I wanted to. It would be nice to remember but I don’t.

Now I remember everything all the time.

There are two things about these deceptively simple lines. The first is the word “unremarkable” – such an easy word, but in the context of the novel practically shouts. Because of what has happened, life’s easy bits now take up too much space. Eating, drinking, sleeping. These are no longer a given. These actions are now remarkable. And then that last line is, to me, where the book’s entire premise lies. It signals that Joy’s world has lost its sense of order. She states this quite calmly, Now I remember everything all the time. But just imagine the force of this kind of constant remembering. What this really means is that Joy cannot get beyond that “everything” (which is both one single moment and her entire lifetime of memories) and so the next 230 pages take up the task of showing exactly what this actually feels like.

Much of what I’ve read about the book deals with Joy’s experience in clinical terms—this is what depression looks like, for example. The book certainly does do this, and there is a quite eviscerating criticism of health care practices surrounding mental illness to be found in these pages, but I couldn’t help thinking more how The Trick is to Keep Breathing does something much simpler and more profound at the same time. I most admired the novel because it does not shy away from depicting the messiness of strong emotion. And in particular a woman’s strong emotions. There are so many people throughout the book who want Joy to pretend to be handling things better. Who don’t want her emotional overflow. She wants this too, at times. But the depth of her feeling is just too strong. This is highly inconvenient to everyone about her. Especially as she does awkward, dangerous, discomfort-producing things. She puts people off, because she just feels too much. And ultimately she isn’t fit for “society” and must “go away” for a time in the hopes of finding her way back.

Finally, the oddness of the prose suited me immensely. I love this kind of close interior narration, even when the subject is dark and sometimes difficult, and especially because Galloway does such a good job of showing Joy’s erratic movement through thought and feeling. It’s all very raw, and confusing in the best of ways. To finish, here is just a small sample, from one of the novel’s most important scenes:

The first symptom of non-existence is weightlessness.

            The second is singing in the ears, a quiet acceptance of the unreality of all things. Then the third takes over in earnest. The third is shaking.


            I knew it couldn’t be me.

            I didn’t exist.

           The miracle had wiped me out.


My last review of 2012 over at Necessary Fiction is an appropriate one as I take a look at the most recent edition of Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction project:

One of the defining elements of Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction project is the impossibility of gathering these assorted fictions under a single stylistic or thematic roof. And the most recent offering—the fourth of the series and the last edited by Aleksandar Hemon—is no different; the Best European Fiction 2013 is a mix of aesthetics and styles, a jumble of voices and settings and genres and perspectives, the stories as different from each other as are the 32 different countries and 28 different languages that this lengthy collection includes.

Anyone interested in translated literature, in voices that are almost never represented in traditional American publishing—at least not in such diversity or sheer number—will really enjoy this anthology. It’s a collection to take slowly—a story a week, a story a day. Whatever your pace. But these are unique little fictions and a glimpse at how contemporary literature is evolving on the European end of things.

You can read the entire review here.

Difficult, difficult. How to write about this book without giving anything away? This is one of those frustrating books that wants to be discussed, but yet I’m glad I knew nothing of the story or the book’s project before turning to page one. It was a slow revelation, and very effective because of that. I want all its new readers to have a similar experience.

Well, alright, I can tell you one thing: this is a story about twin brothers who are brought to live with their grandmother in a small village in Hungary during WWII. That’s it. If I go further than that, I think it will spoil everything.

So let’s talk about the writer. Anyone heard of Agota Kristof? I hadn’t until a week ago when a friend of mine from my French book club emailed me and said she’d just been introduced to this writer, had ordered her books, had started the first and was now unable to put it down. I followed suit and had a similar experience.

Kristof is a Hungarian writer who lives in Switzerland and writes in French. Her most well-known work, a trilogy, is composed of Le grand cahier (The Notebook), La Preuve (The Proof), and Le Troisième Mensonge (The Third Lie). These are all available from Grove Press in English translation.

As I said, I had a similar experience as my friend in that I literally tore through Le Grand Cahier. Such a deceptively simple little novel. An easy story – two boys must leave the city to live in the safer countryside during the war. Yet, the novel quite simply explodes with little horrors. I tried to find another word to describe it, something other than horror, but I can’t. The book is horrifying.

This whole trick about not knowing what the book is about is key. Of course the book is about WWII, about the separation of families, about violence, about neighbors helping neighbors and neighbors hurting neighbors. It’s a classic war story. But it’s also wholly unique.

Part of what makes Le Grand Cahier so unique (and compelling, if I’m allowed this reviewer cliché) is the perspective, the way it pretends to be written by the boys themselves. They are telling their story as one of a series of imposed exercises, recording events in their notebook. They’ve promised the reader to give nothing but the facts, no interpretation, no emotion. It’s an effective way of giving the reader the “story” but their very lack of emotion or explanation creates this effect where the reader begins to see too much in the boys’ silences, begins to understand what Kristof is actually getting at. And it isn’t nice.

In any case, I’ve got the second book on its way and I’m very curious to see if Kristof will maintain the perspective she established with Le Grand Cahier and I’m doubly curious to see what she’s going to do with Klaus and Lucas as they get older…

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