Vita Nostra

book-review-2One thing I’ve really enjoyed so far about Women in Translation month is that I’ve expanded my reading horizons. Not only that, but I’ve been able to find new books to love in genres I already enjoy. Vita Nostra has been on my shelf for a while and it was wonderful to finally start reading it. It’s a book written by a husband and wife team who have more than 30 published works – only a few of which have been translated into English so far.

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This was the most wildly bizarre fantasy novel I’ve ever read and I absolutely loved it. I devoured it whole, racing through pages deep into the night as if my life depended on it. As I came to the end of the novel, I breathed a sigh of relief, heart racing even as it shuddered for the end of such a brilliant experience.

This is the kind of book that you love or you hate.

It follows a young woman, Sasha Samokhina, as she meets a frightening stranger and is compelled to perform tasks that he requests of her. Even as she is rewarded for her efforts she loathes and fears what she doesn’t yet understand. Who is this man? Why does he ask these things of her? This is somewhat answered upon Sasha’s admittance to the Institute of Special Technologies in Torpa, but things remain shrouded in mystery and uncertainty for a large part of the novel.

I saw another reviewer refer to this book as ‘phantasy’ – as in ‘philosophical fantasy’ and I really can’t disagree. If you enjoyed slogging through assigned novels in philosophy classes and trying to derive some sort of meaning from often repetitive and contradictory statements, this is the book for you. This is a repetitive novel that it would be easy to find pointless and boring if you’re not utterly fascinated by philosophy (or pseudo-philosophy). Beautiful prose often melts into scenes with strange interpersonal relationships and small epiphanies from the main character. Still, the bulk of the book is Sasha desperately studying incomprehensible concepts that hold no meaning for her at the beginning of her school career.

I enjoyed the glimpses into the lives of Sasha’s fellows and love interests as you could tell they had their own lives and concerns happening beyond what Sasha was aware of. The glimpses into Sasha’s mother’s life help to keep things as grounded as they could be within this story. The Dyachenkos clearly have a solid grasp of the joys and struggles of personal relationships, and all of the dialogue between characters was solidly believable to me – even when they were discussing impossible metaphysical concepts.

If you’re looking for a strange read to lose yourself in, something more bleak than joyful but still engrossing – this is the book for you. If vague concepts with the promise of some deeper meaning not yet meant to be understood doesn’t sound good, maybe give this one a miss for now.

As far as the translation goes, I thought that Julia Meitov Hersey did a wonderful job. This was honestly the most readable Russian translation I’ve ever encountered. I know that she and the authors did have to compromise for the English version and change most (all?) of the quoted text. Not knowing what the originals were I can’t say if this was better or worse, only that I enjoyed it without reservation.

This is the first of “an associative cycle of novels about people finding their life and understanding of the World had to be changed,” according to the authors’ English website. Although the books in the ‘Metamorphosis Cycle’ aren’t connected by characters or plot I’m eager to see just what the next one holds! Unfortunately for readers there aren’t any announced plans to translate the next two from Russian just yet.

Have you read Vita Nostra of any of the Dyachenkos other works? Do you have any other bizarre fantasy or ‘phantasy’ to recommend? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

The Door

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I generally avoid classics of all kinds as I often feel as I’m reading or after I’ve finished them that I’ve somehow missed the point of the story or the reason the book is a classic. Still, one of the Women in Translation bingo card categories I was to read was a classic. I picked up The Door by Madga Szabo, Hungary’s most translated author, to round out my reading list and to expand my literary horizons.

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This was utterly captivating and also rather emotionally exhausting. It follows a writer (who is named only once in the book but shares her first name with the author) in her fraught and complex relationship with her elderly housekeeper, Emerence. The time frame of the book spans decades and is focused fully on Magda and Emerence’s relationship, every action and thought leading invariably back to it. If you’re looking for something plot-driven, this is not the read for you.

For those interested in checking out the NYRB edition as I did, I recommend skipping Ali Smith’s introduction and saving it until after you’ve read the book. I prefer to go into books with fresh, unbiased thoughts if possible, and the introduction doesn’t allow for that. It quotes from the text and reveals some of the events that you may not want to know of going in.

While I usually enjoy an interesting plot, it was completely unnecessary for this book. The beautiful prose and complex nature of Magda and Emerence’s interactions had me glued to every page. I can only assume that Len Rix’s translation does the original justice, for if the writing in Hungarian is somehow more lovely, I weep that I couldn’t read it’s true form. From the opening, in which Magda makes a dire confession, to the last page, I was hooked. Not knowing anything about Hungary (either in the past or present) I admit to being a bit lost when politics of any kind were mentioned. It took only some quick googling to brush up enough that I could follow along more readily. In doing so, I did wonder how much of this book (if any) was autobiographical, as Szabo and her Magda seem to share in a career, spouse, and a few seminal life events.

Setting aside any parallels to the author’s own life, I found Magda’s character to be almost unbelievably self-absorbed. Though this would generally be to a book’s detriment, instead the story works precisely because of this selfishness. All of the characters, from our two lady protagonists, to Magda’s husband, to the surrounding cast of friends and distant relatives are written to be flawed and to demonstrate the absolute cruelty and misunderstanding that we often extend to our loved ones. This is a novel that understands that every person has a private life, and that our thoughts often turn to our own lives rather than to those that surround us.

Emerence is a difficult character to like, often rude, always anti-intellectual, beating her dog, and flying into rages or cold silences when someone displeases her. For all that, every tidbit you learn of her life is enthralling. The reader can absolutely understand Magda’s obsession with her, and the love that her neighbors hold for her. She is a human puzzle, and the tragedy is that so could we all be to those who know nothing of us. What lies beyond Emerence’s front door is certainly a literal mystery, but it isn’t difficult to consider it a metaphorical one as well.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you think about topics you may not usually consider, this is a good pick. It speaks of emotions, relationships, morality, and religion, and it does so without fumbling or feeling forced in any way.

Len Rix is translating another of Magda Szabo’s works, Abigail, which will be released by NYRB in January 2020 and I’ll be pre-ordering my own copy soon. I can’t recommend trying this author enough.

Have you read The Door or any of Szabo’s other work? Do you have any other works to recommend for Women in Translation month? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

 

Moshi Moshi

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August has arrived, and with it Women in Translation month. While there are several different events this month, I’m participating in Tamsien’s (Babbling Books) photography and reading challenge which you can find on her instagram.

I went through my bookshelves to find translated titles, but didn’t turn up many as I generally avoid translated works on purpose. (More on that in a later post.) I headed to my local library branch to browse and turned up quite a few likely titles. The first one I’ve finished is Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from Japanese to English by Asa Yoneda.

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Moshi Moshi follows main character Yoshie as she moves into a new apartment and forges a life for herself in the wake of her father’s death. Her father was killed in a suicide-pact with an unknown woman, and Yoshie and her mother are left to come to terms with not only his loss but also the manner of his death.

This meandering novel was easy to sink into, the narration clear, and the dialogue clean (if a bit dense at times). The characters often monologue aloud to each other in a way I haven’t encountered before, expressing thoughts and feelings that can range from nebulously philosophical, to intellectual, to seemingly inconsequential.

Small every day actions and moments make up the bulk of the narrative, to it’s benefit. As I was reading I thought rather fondly back to more melancholy times in my own life and how much things have changed for me. Though the focus is on normal life, things often seemed very dreamlike as they occurred, the passage of time taking center stage in a way that worked well to highlight Yoshie’s emotions and mental state.

I really enjoyed Yoshie’s mother as a character. She’s also trying to deal with her grief in the best way she can, and it was interesting to see how her process differed from her daughter’s. The side characters throughout the book were never delved into deeply but despite that it was clear that they had their own lives and motives beyond those known to Yoshie. Their interactions with her (and her mother) really furthered the narrative.

While the loss of Yoshie’s father is the main ‘conflict’ of this book, it also focuses well on other types of grief and the changeable nature of life itself. While this book wasn’t plot-driven, I enjoyed it all the same.

If you’re going through a life change filled with uncertainty, or are in need of some kind of literary catharsis, you need look no further than this lovely little novel.

Have you read any of  Yoshimoto’s work? Are you participating in Women in Translation month? If you have any thoughts to share, let me know in the comments below!