Two 5-star Novellas for #ReadIndies – Kerangal and Herrera

Eastbound by Maylis de Kerangal

Translated by Jessica Moore

Having read two other novels by de Kerangal (Mend the Living and Painting Time) both translated by Jessica Moore, now that I’ve read a third, I can aver that they are indeed a dream team. Moore just totally gets her author’s writing, which often has complex sentences, and technical vocabulary to boot. They come together in Eastbound to create one of those perfect novellas that I so adore.

The premise is simple. Two passengers on the Trans-Siberian Railway are fugitives from their lives. One, a young conscript, just can’t face his future in a brutal training camp in Siberia. The other, an older French woman, has followed her husband back from France to his new job as manager of a dam in Russia, but can’t cope with the loneliness there, so escapes to breathe – taking the first train that stops at the station.

Right up until the last, Aliocha had believed he wouldn’t have to go. Right up until April 1st, the traditional day of the Spring Draft, he thought he would manage to avoid military service, to fake out the system and be exempted – to tell the truth, there’s not a single guy in Moscow between eighteen and twenty-seven years old who hasn’t tried to do the same. It’s the young men of means who tend to be favoured at this game; the others do what they can…

Aliocha has no girlfriend to get pregnant, no mother to argue for him now either, and no money. He couldn’t escape the draft and is now on the overcrowded train to Siberia,

Runaway. The idea suddenly goes through the boy, a flash of lightning-like certainty tangible as a stone, and at this exact moment the Trans-Siberian rushes into a tunnel, run away, get out as fast as possible, defect, jump.

His mind made up, he begins to scheme – but getting off to buy smokes at one of their stops isn’t going to work. He’s working his way up the train, and spying Letchov, the officer in charge of the conscripts dives into a compartment, entered a short while later by Hélène. Rather than be scared by the young man in her compartment, and although she speaks very little Russian, she will help him, beginning a complicated relationship for the duration of their journey together which is not all plain sailing, she will come to regret helping Aliocha when he gets agitated and angry. She will, however, will be aided in hiding Aliocha by the provodnitsa, the female train attendant, who has no love for the soldiers.

This story has a timeless feel. Timeless in the sense that it could have been set in any period of the last century – it’s only the messages on her phone from Hélène’s husband, who clearly loves her, but is also letting her have her adventure, that jerk us into the here and now. It’s also timeless in that the journey goes on forever, with boring countryside only enlivened by the section where the train skirts the beautiful Lake Baikal. It feels longer than its 110 pages, but in a good way, thanks to Kerangal’s intensity and investment in her two protagonists.

Eastbound was published in French back in 2012, and the Russian draft is still happening – indeed Putin has raised the top age to 30 now and made evasion near-impossible!

This is the first book I’ve read from indie publisher Les Fugitives, (I love the way the dot on the second i is escaping in their logo – you can just see it on the cover above). It won’t be the last.

See also Lizzy’s review here, Marina Sofia’s here, and Tony’s here.

Source: Own copy. Les Fugitives, paperback original, 110 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera

Translated by Lisa Dillman

I read Herrera’s previous novella, Signs Preceding the End of the World, back in 2021. The story of a sister looking for her brother who has crossed the border from Mexico into the USA was a masterpiece of how to distill the immigrant experience, yet still find time for eschatological contemplation, into 100 pages. His next novel published a year later (2013 in Spanish, 2016 in translation) does the same for a plague-ridden city with feuding gang families, a tragedy with a definite nod to Romeo and Juliet.

Our narrator wakes up to a world gone quiet, only the mosquitoes are busy outside. The government had finally admitted the epidemic that was killing people was more aggressive than they’d thought, and not just carried by the ‘EGYPTIAN mosquitoes’. They didn’t go as far as calling a curfew, but the streets are empty. However, he thinks he’ll go out, when his neighbour ‘Three Times Blonde’ appears at her door and invites him in for a drink. A few drinks later, and they’re finally about to get it on (something he has dreamed about for ages), and she said ‘Where’s the condom?’ She discourages him from leaving to go to the pharmacy, ‘It’s not like we’re that desperate.’ A hand job and a few earthy pages later and his phone goes, and a transformation comes over him.

He picks up and said Yeah. No one spoke but he knew the half-lung wheezy sonofabitch on the other end of the line, and knew if he was calling now, with the city shut down the way it was, that he was needed and couldn’t say no.
Who’s this? the man asked, like he didn’t know what number he’d just dialled.
Who do you think, replied the Redeemer. It’s me.

For our gangly hero is a fixer, a negotiator, a go-between. Someone has taken Dolphin’s son Romeo at Lover’s Lane last night. He needs the Redeemer to do a swap, which implies he has something or someone to exchange him for… Óscar at one of Lover’s Lane’s many bordellos directs him to Dolphin’s daughter The Unruly, who tells him they have Baby Girl.

Baby Girl. The Redeemer recalled the first time he’d met Baby Girl on a job he did for her did: itty-bitty thing, quiet, long hair always carefully brushed, pretty face but eyes so sad. The kind of girl you wanted to love, really truly, but then the urge passed kind of fast. Even for her family. The Redeemer had seen it, at a big blowout after that job, seen the way they treated her like a piece of furniture from another era, one you hold onto even tho it’s uncomfortable. The Castros had been putting on airs for years and Baby Girl cramped their style. Now the Fonsecas, too, had struck it rich, but about style they couldn’t care less. So different and so the same, the Castros and the Fonsecas. Poor as dirt a couple decades ago, now too big for their boots, and neither had moved out of the barrio. […] If he thought about it, in all these years he’d never once seen them cross each other. Until now.

The Redeemer will have his work cut out to uncover where each of the families is keeping their hostage and negotiating the swap, enlisting the help of The Neanderthal as muscle and Vicky, a nurse to check the hostages. Remember there’s an epidemic going down, people will get ill.

Herrera’s world is bleak, dark and dangerous, earthy too. Nearly everyone lives under an alternate moniker, adding much atmosphere to the plot and meaning Herrera doesn’t need to waste words on describing them! He eschews speech punctuation too, but everything is perfectly clear.

Filled with unforgettable characters, this noirish tragedy is another superb novella from the Herrera / Dillman combo. I have his debut, Kingdom Cons, and book of short stories Ten Planets on the shelves, both also translated by Dillman, all from And Other Stories, with a new novel due in November. I can’t wait!

Source: Own copy. And Other Stories paperback original, 101 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

8 thoughts on “Two 5-star Novellas for #ReadIndies – Kerangal and Herrera

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I just found your review – going to add a link. Eastbound has such depth in so few pages. Both Herreras I’ve read are brilliant too and have a similar intensity plus that earthiness!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      They’ve been around for a few years now, specialising in French to English translations, although they’re now expanding to English originals. I must explore their catalogue.

Leave a Reply