Month: August 2018

The Door by Magda Szabó

Posted August 28, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

The Door by Magda SzabóTitle: The Door (Goodreads)
Author: Magda Szabó
Translator: Len Rix
Published: NYRB Classics, 1987
Pages: 262
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Audiobook

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Magda Szabó is one of those authors I have wanted to read for a very long time; her novel The Door seemed like the perfect place to start. This Hungarian modern classic explores the relationship between two very different women. Our narrator Magda is a writer and intellectual who is constantly in and out of favour with the government, while Emerence is her strong and opinionated house keeper. The novel starts with Magda waking up from a dream to face a haunting fact, that she killed Emerence.

The first thing that sticks out to me in this novel is the relationship between Magda and Emerence. I am drawn to the raw approach Magda Szabó took to explore this relationship. There are times where there was heat and toxicity between the two but then there were other times of affection and love. It is rare to read a relationship written so well. I often feel like the nuances of a relationship are never explored to any satisfactory level. In The Door we get to experience the ups and downs of this relationship. There are many times I felt frustrated by their actions but that ends up just being their different personalities butting heads.

Throughout the novel, a door is used as a metaphor to give the reader a more in depth look at these two characters. At times the door is a symbol of secretiveness, especially when it comes to Emerence. However there are times that it is used to symbolise the current state of their friendship. Whether they were actively distancing themselves from each other or they were close enough to share in a secret. The effect of the door becomes an important symbol of understanding Emerence. The fact that she would greet her guests outside and never let them inside shows just how close the two have become when she lets Magda inside.

Set between 1960 and 1980 in Hungary, it is important to know that this was when the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party was in control. If you explore this relationship of Magda and Emerence under a Marxist lens you will see where I am going here. We have Magda representing the intelligentsia and Emerence is a symbol of the working class. The idea behind the Bolshevik Revolution was to make sure people were treated the same. Without the working class, the October Revolution would have never happened. However it was the intelligentsia that took leadership, essentially creating a new social class system, thus negating their whole revolution.

In the end of The Door we are left we are left with the emptiness of losing Emerence. This woman seemed to possess inhuman strength and drive and her death left such a big hole not only Magda’s life but the whole community. If I was to compare Emerence death with the state of Hungary at the time of writing this novel. I would say that this is a reflection of the Hungarian economic and political reforms which let the country into mounting foreign debts. The cause of this points to Hungary’s outdated manufacturing facilities the inability to produce goods that were saleable on world markets.

It might be my love for Soviet literature, but my approach to this was very much a Marxist approach. Like many books in the Soviet era, I think The Door explored so many interesting elements of the country’s political and social issues. From religion to the class struggle and then the death of the working class. Analysing a novel and looking at the historical context really opens up the book for me. I know some people do not appreciate literary theories but for me it is a way to bring the text to life. Marxism and psychoanalysis are the two methods I seem to use the most, but I do not think I am equipped to fulling analyse Emerence. Although Magda might be easier, same name as the author, a writer, an enemy to the Communist Party, sounds autobiographical to me. Which makes me wonder, what was she trying to say with the death of Emerence?

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Posted August 24, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 4 Comments

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka MurataTitle: Convenience Store Woman (Goodreads)
Author: Sayaka Murata
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Published: Portobello Books, 2016
Pages: 176
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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Longlisted for the BTBA 2019

The latest literary sensation seems to be Convenience Store Woman, this book is everywhere but maybe because it is currently WITMonth (Women in Translation Month). This is a dark comedy that explores the life of Keiko, who never felt like she fit in with society. She took a job in a convenience store and now eighteen years later she feels like this is where she belongs. Thanks to the convenience store manual she knows exactly how she is meant to act and behave.

Convenience Store Woman dives into society and starts questioning what we consider social norms. For Keiko she feels comfortable working in a convenience store. However for everyone else, they think something is wrong with her. To them, she should have moved on to a better job, gotten married and had kids. This is a brutal look at how damaging social norms can be as the reader follows Keiko dealing with these outside pressures that society have put on her.

The novel is constantly questioning this idea of what people call ‘normal’ and wants us to consider why it is so important. Keiko seemed like a happy person, she liked the structure and the routine of being a convenience store worker. She may be socially awkward or odd but why would that matter to everyone else in the world? We see the damage social pressure puts on this woman.

I loved this novel because it explored this important social issue so flawlessly. There is constant pressure put on people that is so unnecessary. For example, I have been married for almost nine years now and the question of children is always being asked. What if we do not want children? Or what if we cannot have children? I have witnessed this pressure and how damaging it can be. You are basically saying, ‘this person is not human because they will not conform to my expectations of what makes a person normal’. That whole attitude makes me so angry. People should be able to live their own lives the way that choose to do so.

As you can see, Convenience Store Woman has had an effect on me. It was such a pleasure to read this dark and humorous book but the feeling of anger still runs strong within me. I am pleased to see this novel getting so much attention, and I hope this is another small step towards allowing others to live their own true self.

Unrelated but I need to memorialise this event, when telling my wife that I had finished reading Convenience Store Woman, she thought I said I inconvenienced all women.

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

Posted August 21, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

The True Deceiver by Tove JanssonTitle: The True Deceiver (Goodreads)
Author: Tove Jansson
Translator: Thomas Teal
Published: Sort Of Books, 1982
Pages: 201
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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My first experience with Tove Jansson was reading Fair Play last year, but for some reason I never wrote a review. I enjoyed the book thoroughly, particularly the relationship between Mari and Jonna. I believe that the novel was autobiographical as it share similarities with the life she shared with Tuulikki Pietilä. I mention Fair Play because The True Deceiver shares similarities but portrays a vastly different relationship between the two women. In the deep winter snow, a young woman fakes a break-in of an elderly artist in order to persuade her that she needs companionship. A novel of both deception and friendship, The True Deceiver is a chilling tale of an unorthodox friendship.

This is a quiet little novel of two social outcasts who develop a relationship in the most unconventional way. The book explores the idea of finding truth behind deception. Katri convinces the rich illustrator Anna to take her and her brother in so they could care for the house. While the plot is not that interesting in the grand scheme of things, it is the character development that makes this a brilliant book. There are similarities between Katri and Anna, both social outcasts, both lonelier than they would want people to believe and it is their relationship that drives this novel.

I admit that Katri’s deception made me dislike her, but it was hard to keep that attitude towards her. Katri was witty and sharp tongued, and I quickly fell in love with her for those qualities. I admit I love characters that rail against social norms and once I got past her deception to Anna, I appreciated her brutal honest attitude. Then there is Anna, who I identified with as an eccentric recluse. The chilliness of the weather and the coldness of the deception combined with the relationship between Katri and Anna brought everything together wonderfully.

It is often hard to review a novel like The True Deceiver or even Fair Play. I feel like these types of novels need to be experienced firsthand. It is a character driven novel that will stay with you for a long time. As much as I enjoyed Fair Play, I do think The True Deceiver is a stronger book, and I would recommend starting with it, if you have never tried Tove Jansson’s adult novels. The next Jansson pick would have to be The Summer Book, it seems to be the one everyone talks about.

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani

Posted August 17, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 2 Comments

Lullaby by Leïla SlimaniTitle: Lullaby (Goodreads)
Author: Leïla Slimani
Translator: Sam Taylor
Published: Faber & Faber, 2016
Pages: 224
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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At the beginning of the year Lullaby by Leïla Slimani (The Perfect Nanny in North America) was getting a lot of attention. It tells the story of Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer who is anxious to get back to work after giving birth to her second child. Before doing so, they must find the perfect nanny to take care of their children. Louise is a polite and quiet woman who goes above and beyond looking after the two children but is she really the perfect nanny?

Leïla Slimani is a French-Moroccan journalist who lives in Paris with her two young children. My interpretation of this novel is that Leïla Slimani let all her insecurities about leaving her children with a nanny play out on the page. There is a constant feeling of fear and jealousy that it explored inside Myriam’s mind. It is this realism that makes Lullaby a novel worth reading.

Lullaby won the Prix Goncourt in 2016 which is one of France’s most prestigious literary awards. Winners of this prize include Marcel Proust for In Search of Lost Time, Simone de Beauvoir (The Mandarins), and Marguerite Duras with her amazing novel The Lover. With this type of prestige behind the prize, it is not surprising that Leïla Slimani’s Chanson douce was translated so quickly.

The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.

This is a dark glimpse into the mind of motherhood, something I would pair with Die, My Love. It must have been very therapeutic for Leïla Slimani to write out this novel and explore the feeling of returning to the work force. I do not know if this is autobiographical in any way, I just base my assumption on the similarities of Myriam and Leïla. I understand why North America called this novel The Perfect Nanny but honestly the French title Chanson douce translates to soft song. Sam Taylor is the translator for both, I am just a little wary about the accuracy of the text when the title is vastly different from the original. Lullaby is a quick and thrilling read that will make you feel uncomfortable. This is not for everyone but for fans of dark fiction, it is worth checking out.

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

Posted August 14, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 2 Comments

Soviet Milk by Nora IkstenaTitle: Soviet Milk (Goodreads)
Author: Nora Ikstena
Translator: Margita Gailitis
Published: Peirene Press, 2015
Pages: 192
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Most people are aware that I am a fan of Soviet literature, reading about people living through political turmoil fascinates me. So I knew I had to pick up Soviet Milk. This novel explores the effects of Soviet rule on one person. This nameless woman attempts to live her life in Soviet Latvia and pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor. However the state has other plans for her. Soviet Milk chronicles her journey as the state deprives her of her profession, her identity, and her family.

This is my first Latvian novel, and I will admit to having a very limited understanding of the Baltics. However I have read my fair share of Soviet literature so I was prepared. While this is a novel very focused on one individual, it does spend a lot of time exploring the mother/daughter relationship. This nameless woman has to struggle through so much, due to an unfortunate incident with a soldier in St. Petersburg. Reflective in tone, the novel is constantly searching for the answers. Switching between the bitter tone of the mother to a more curious tone with her daughter. It is a constant struggle between trying to hide the suffering from her daughter and her daughter trying to understand the depression of her mother.

Motherhood and milk are a constant theme throughout this novel. As a reader we are in this constant fragile state as we witness attempts of protection, anger, curiosity and sadness between the two women. This is a complex look into a mother/daughter relationship that says far more about Soviet and Latvian life that we might realise. Having conversations about this novel with Latvian blogger Agnese from Beyond the Epilogue, I know there is so much more to explore with Soviet Milk. I hope with many re-reads that I am able to start to understand more and more.

I believe this is autobiographical in many ways, giving us a little insight into Nora Ikstena’s own life. Margita Gailitis did a brilliant job translating this complex novel into English. I read this during a particularly stressful time at work and this lead me to struggle through this novel. I have a great appreciation for Soviet Milk but I review this knowing full well that I need to revisit this novel. I think it is worth checking out and I have continually been thinking about what Nora Ikstena was trying to do with Soviet Milk but I had to add a disclaimer as I struggled through the reading of this one. Not the book’s fault, just picked up at the wrong time.

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

Posted August 10, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 2 Comments

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea ObonoTitle: La Bastarda (Goodreads)
Author: Trifonia Melibea Obono
Translator: Lawrence Schimel
Published: Feminist Press, 2018
Pages: 120
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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Going into La Bastarda, I did not know what to expect. I picked it up on a whim; a coming of age story about a teenage girl rebelling against the norms of Fang culture sounds too good to pass up. This is the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman to be translated into English and, let’s be honest, I need to read more books from Africa. One of the reasons I read books in translations is to explore cultures I have never experienced. La Bastarda did give me the opportunity to both learn about Equatorial Guinea and experience what it must be like as a queer person.

There is a lot to say about the Fang culture and I will try to include that along the way but I feel that looking at this novel from a western perspective gives us a lot to talk about. Mainly the fact that tribal culture and our own are very similar. La Bastarda follows an orphaned teen named Okomo who is under the care of her grandmother. Okomo dreams of finding her father but it is forbidden by the elders, particularly her grandfather. It is Fang custom to obey your elders. However with the help of her uncle Marcelo and a group known as the indecency girls, we follow Okomo on her journey of self-discovery.

Okomo is a bastarda, the daughter of no man. Her mother was unwed when she got pregnant. Because Okomo’s biological father did not pay the dowry to marry her mother, he holds no right to be known as a father. Okomo was an outcast, she was looked down on because she was a bastarda but she feels different in another way. According to the Fang customs, once a girl has her period she is old enough for marriage. She has constant pressure to find a husband and bring in a dowry so she can get married and start producing an heir.

There is a great exploration into masculinity within La Bastarda, Okomo wonders what makes someone a man. At first she thought a penis makes someone a man but her grandparents constantly tell her that her uncle is not a man. He is often referred to as a ‘man-woman’ and has to live in the forest away from the tribe. Okomo’s grandfather wants her uncle to do his duty and get his brother’s wife pregnant in order to hide the family’s shame. Fertility plays a great role among the Fang and if you are not fulfilling your role to the tribe you are considered subhuman. To the tribe, Marcelo is a ‘man-woman’ because he is neither married nor producing offspring. His sexuality does not matter. The teenage girls Okomo befriends are known as the indecency (later referred to as ‘woman-man’) because they have not found husbands yet.

There is a lot of sexual violence within La Bastarda, which is very important to discuss. I acknowledge that as a straight white man, that my opinion on this topic is less than ideal but I feel this needs to be discussed. It was not until Okomo was raped by the three women, that we even see Okomo considering herself a lesbian. Not to take anything away from the fact that this is rape, it reads like she only discovers her sexuality by force. Which lead to me thinking just how many people are pushed into self-discovery or are completely unware. I know my own experiences make me ignorant of this journey of discovery, so I have to turn to novels like this.

The forest became a place of freedom for Okomo who quickly fell in love. When their secrets are eventually discovered by the tribe, the punishment was that the girls are forced into marriages, as a form of corrective rape. It is sad to think that the importance of reproduction is considered more important that the wellbeing of a person but it does get you to think about western culture and just how much this is still a problem here as well. Within La Bastarda the only place of freedom is in the forest, which is interesting, considering that African mythology and our own fairy tales depict the forest of a place of evil and witchcraft. In these stories the hero journeys into the forest on a quest, in La Bastarda that quest is one of self-discovery.

Since finishing this short novel I have not been able to stop reflecting on it. La Bastarda has a lot to say, and while it will make you unconformable, it is an important message. While I viewed a lot of this novel in relation to gay and lesbian culture here in the Western world, I cannot begin to imagine the struggle for LGBTQI rights in Africa. I struggle to put into words the feelings I have here, because it is not my journey nor is it a culture I understand. I hope I was able to articulate my thoughts without offending. I believe the importance of equality and I think La Bastarda was able to highlight the struggles people face from another part of the world.

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet

Posted August 5, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 5 Comments

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent BinetTitle: The 7th Function of Language (Goodreads)
Author: Laurent Binet
Translator: Sam Taylor
Published: Harvill Secker, 2015
Pages: 400
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindleWordery (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018

Every now and then you find a premise that sounds perfect. For me, The 7th Function of Language was just that novel. For a long time I have been struggling to review this book, it felt tailor-made for me but I wanted to do something more than gush. Centred around the death of literary critic Roland Barthes who was struck down by a laundry van. But was it an accident? The 7th Function of Language dives into the world of the French intelligentsia, as police detective Jacques Bayard tries to navigate the world of linguistics and literary theory in order to understand what really happened.

The way this novel works famous literary theorists like Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Julia Kristeva into the plot is entertainingly comical without detracting from the importance of these people. The novel essentially needs to give a brief introduction to everyone and their theories and does so by deploying a detective unfamiliar with their world that requires explanations. Which allowed me to grasp a little more about people like Derrida and Foucault. It also made me want to pull out my copy of A Lover’s Discourse.

“As Umberto Eco might say: for communicating, language is perfect; there could be nothing better. And yet, language doesn’t say everything. The body speaks, objects speak, history speaks, individual or collective destinies speak, life and death speak to us constantly in a thousand different ways. Man is an interpreting machine and, with a little imagination, he sees signs everywhere”

When this was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, I saw a few people calling this novel pretentious, while others were comparing it to Dan Brown. A contradiction that never seemed to sit right with me. I never found it to be either, I would prefer to compare the novel with something like Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, which is a novel about three members of the press that decided to make up their own conspiracy theories. This allowed Eco to teach the reader about secret societies and conspiracies all within the plot. Laurent Binet takes a similar approach in exploring literary theories within the confines of the plot without it feeling like non-fiction or making the novel clunky.

This is a perfect blend of a satirical novel and a thriller. These are the types of books I love, I learn something while reading a fast paced crime novel. I normally pick up a crime novel as palette cleanser but if it is able to teach me something, I love them more. This is why I enjoy the writing of Umberto Eco and now I think Laurent Binet will make this list, once I read HHhH. I wish this was available as an audiobook because I think it would work really well in that medium. This never felt like a hard read, there was plenty of comedic moments and the literary references scattered throughout were a pure delight to discover.

“Eco listens with interest to the story of a lost manuscript for which people are being killed. He sees a man walk past holding a bouquet of roses. His mind wanders for a second, and a vision of a poisoned monk flashes through it.”

If you are a fan of literary theory or philosophy, then this is the book for you. This is a new favourite and next time I read this, I will have to read A Lover’s Discourse simultaneously. I am the kind of person that is slowly trying to read through The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, so this quickly became a new favourite. It is hard to be critical about a novel that I enjoyed so much, I loved this book, but I understand it is not for everyone.

Distracted by Other Books

Posted August 2, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Monthly Reading / 7 Comments

My Thoughts and Reading in July 2018

I do not know if it is just a mid-year thing, or just a feeling but I have been feeling highly critical of my blogging lately. For the past month I have been plagued with the thought of deleting everything and starting fresh. Rebranding and focusing on my passion for translated literature. Ironically this is the month I celebrate nine years blogging as Knowledge Lost. There was a time where I had two blogs, the other was a dedicated book blog called Literary Exploration but I merged them into one a few years ago. Now I just want to dump all my writing and start fresh. Knowing full well that if I did take such an extreme action that I would regret it. Part of me loves that I can view my old writing and see how much I have improved, and the other just wants to make it disappear.

If I was to start fresh I would focus a hundred percent on translated literature, and look for ways to promote them. I would probably make it an extension of Lost in Translations. There is also a part of me that would love to see something collaborative dedicated to promoting translations, but past experiences make me wary of collaborations. I know something like this would be awesome but I know how quickly people lost their passion for a project like this.  These feelings are disconcerting because all I want to do is promote literature, particularly books in translation but I feel like no one is listening.

Knowledge Lost has always been a place to store all my writing and even if I feel shame towards most of it, I know I would regret losing it. I have to work past my feelings of angst towards past me but I do not know the best way forward. I do think this is just a feeling that will pass but it is taking far too long. I feel plagued and my mind is going around in circles. If this is the biggest life problem I have, I should be thankful. I am curious to see if I will come up with a satisfactory solution or if the feeling will just fade away.

A slow reading month might be the effects of these feeling but it has not caused me to slow down in writing. In fact I have set aside an hour every week day after work to just focus on blogging. This has helped me increase my output on posts. I participated in the Spanish and Portuguese reading month hosted by Winstonsdad’s Blog and Caravana de Recuerdos, mainly because I had a few books I needed to review from Latin America. I do think that being a part of a community helps push me to be more active and I really appreciate that. I need the motivation and if I end up not blogging, I normally get annoyed with myself.

The first book I finished in July was The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa, which was translated by legendary translator Edith Grossman. I enjoyed so much about this novel but the sex scenes really ruined the experience for me. I have already posted a review on this one and I do not think there is anything else to say about The Neighborhood. They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen, (translated by Kristian London) was the biggest let down of my month and might have contributed to a slow reading month. It was marketed as a psychological satire and the back says it is the book for fans of Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers. My experience was just a five hundred page generic thriller. While I can see how it might compare to something like Dave Eggers The Circle, I was far from impressed. I love a good satirical novel but I think there are two types, the one that thinks it is clever but is just exploring the same ideas repeatedly because it cares more about the plot or the one that subtly works in some ideas that will leave the reader thinking. Or to put is simply, the ones that tells you what to think and the ones that make you think. They Know Not What They Do very much had its own ideas and you can get that information by reading the synopsis.

Luckily the two other books I read this month were both amazing, one being The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal) and the other was La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, (translated by Lawrence Schimel). I want to talk about both in greater detail, so you might have to wait for the reviews. The True Deceiver is the second Tove Jansson novel I have read (Fair Play was the other) and I really appreciate the character studies she does in her books. Both feature two women and their relationship with each other and both are well worth reading. La Bastarda is the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman to be translated into English, which in itself is pretty exciting. I have so much I want to say, in regards to Fang culture and how this novel relates to Western culture but you will have to wait for the review. All I can say for now is that it is well worth reading.

I was distracted all month long with my thoughts on blogging but that did not stop me from being distracted by other books. I have currently three books on the go now and am eagerly awaiting August. Not because it is Women in Translations month but also because I will have some much needed vacation time, where I get to travel to Tasmania and then I will be attending the Melbourne Writers Festival. I bought two new books which might be read in August but surprisingly I did not add any new books to my wishlist. I know I have thought about all the other books I want to be reading but they were mostly other books I own. I hope August is a better month for me.

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