This year, I’m going for it as far as reading from my own shelves is concerned, continuing to read more from small presses, and more in translation. Of the latter, that’s 13/30 books read so far – ten languages from twelve countries. I’m pleased with that. If I can add more books from Africa into the mix as the most underrepresented continent, I’ll be doubly delighted.
Yuri Herrera – Signs Preceding the End of the World
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
Published by And Other Stories in 2015, I’d heard great things about this novella, and I wasn’t disappointed. The plot has some similarities with recent read A Long Way From Douala by Max Lobe in that it involves a journey to find an older brother determined to escape to a better life in another country – From Cameroon into Nigeria and thence to Europe. In Signs… the escape is from Mexico to the USA, a journey even more to the forefront of our minds after T***p’s wall these days.
Makina’s mother asks her to take a message to her brother. That means an illegal journey crossing over the border. Cora tells her:
Go to the Little Town, talk to the top dogs, make nice and they’ll lend a hand with the trip.
Makina does as she is told, visiting Mr Double-U, Mr Aitch and Mr Q in turn. All agree to help, but it’s Mr Aitch who demands a favour in return:
Here came the hustle Mr. Aitch was the type who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride. Mr. Aitch smiled and smiled, but he was still a reptile in pants. […] Someone had spread that he and Cora were related, someone else that they had a hatchet to bury, though she’d never asked, because if Cora hadn’t told her it was for a reason. But Makina could smell the evil in the air. Here came the hustle.
All I ask is that you deliver something for me, an itty bitty little thing, you just give it to a compadre and he’ll be the one who tells you how to find your kin.
So Makina, we’re not told her age but assume she’s probably still a teenager, sets off on her dangerous journey north. It’ll involve meeting a contact who’ll take her across the river on an inflated inner tyre, running up the ravine under fire from the border patrol, then delivering the package and tracing her brother.
This novella is full of incident – on the first page, Makina nearly dies as a sinkhole opens up in the road, which is undermined by tunnels. She steps back just in time. I loved the way she ‘verses’ around the place – an interesting choice of word for expressing movement, which Dillman discusses in her excellent translator’s note at the end of the story. I particularly loved Herrera’s chapter titles: ‘The place where people’s hearts are eaten’, ‘The snake that lies in wait’ and ‘The obsidian place with no windows or holes for the smoke’.
For a novella of just over 100 pages, Herrera manages to distill all the issues you can imagine relating to the immigrant experience into the nine short chapters. How he manages to combine the danger of Makina’s journey and situation with observations on the life of immigrants and also find time for contemplation – sometimes on the end of the world too, is amazing. It’s beautifully done, and there’s a speech that Makina makes in a unique way near the end that will make you gasp in its eloquence. Loved it! (10/10)
Source: Own copy. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson
Translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah
‘A postmodern Victorian novel about faith, knowledge and our inner needs’ set in a village in Kent in the 1870s may seem an odd topic for a Finnish author, but Charles Darwin, who lived in said village is of world-renown of course. That said, he doesn’t actually appear in the book; his gardener does though, observed by one of the villagers at the book’s beginning:
Thomas Davies strides along the road. I feel sorry for him because his wife died and the children are not quite right. I can guess what he is mulling over. You can see the heaviness of his head in the way he carries himself.
He is thinking of death.
Perhaps he plans to take the children with him. Then there would be no one left behind to grieve.
Thomas, unlike the others isn’t going to church this morning, he’s going to work at Down House just like any other day. Work keeps his grief stricken mind occupied. Another neighbour sees him plodding along as she irons her sheets before setting off to the service.
The hot iron hisses on the white fabric. Godlessness does not evaporate in a church; rather, it thickens when there is a crowd.
This novella crept up on me, at first I found its many multiple narrators giving their views on behalf of the village slightly difficult with the point of view jumping every few paragraphs. As the story progresses the vignettes tend to lengthen and may become conversations. As the publisher’s blurb, (Peirene), suggests, it stylistically echoes Dylan Thomas’ village of Llareggub in Under Milkwood with the chorus of individual voices coming together to make a whole village.
If Charles Darwin was the talk of the village with his views challenging the creation myth of the church, Thomas Davies has taken over for now since his wife died. We read on to find out what is ailing his children, apart from missing their mother, a discovery made by science. And for that Thomas is able to be thankful and have his spirit somewhat restored.
This is a slow burn novella in which not a lot happens, but much is considered. It’s both languid and bustling, and throughout, the chickens keep clucking away. This was Peirene’s 11th novella, the middle of their fourth annual trio of books, this set on the theme of Turning Points. Not my favourite of theirs, but if the style appeals to you, I’d recommend it. (8/10)
This novella also ticks another European country on my list for the European Reading Challenge 2021 hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader.
Source: This may have been a review copy – in which case, thank you belatedly!
BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
Can you recommend any other Mexican or Finnish novels?