NARCISSE ON A TIGHTROPE by Olivier Targowla (translated by Paul Curtis Daw)

Narcisse on a Tightrope
By Olivier Targowla
(Translated by Paul Curtis Daw)
Dalkey Archive Press — April 2021
ISBN: 9781628973242
— Paperback — 120 pp.


Resident patient in a psychiatric hospital for the past seventeen years, chronically ill Narcisse Dièze suffers from an undefinable malady: a condition composed from a medley of symptoms, characteristic of a broad phylogeny of illnesses. Now forty years old, he lives content in his peculiar state. He has passively borne the care of a staff of female nurses in perpetual flux, cooperatively taking his prescribed medications (comprising a rainbow of colors), heeding their instructions, and cheerfully accepting their desire to mate.

Through those seventeen years, Narcisse has fathered between thirty-five and one hundred seventy-one children. (An estimate, we are told: No one knows the exact number.) The befuddled Narcisse has no more explanation for his potent sexual attraction than for his ailment. When he enquires, the women invariable explain that it’s not love or infatuation. It’s merely transaction. They want a child, without the commitment to a man in their lives and Narcisse is a specimen who will can provide this. The women seem unworried about any genetic risk related to his mysterious disorder. Soon after one has slept with him, that nurse has left and a new one has arrived.

Abruptly, Narcisse’s doctors call inform him that they have finally reached a diagnosis for his illness: cerebral rheumatism. Moreover, this identification now clearly allows the pursuit of a cure. They explain that Narcisse will soon be able to leave the hospital to reenter the world.

The news renders Narcisse into a state of shock. So long confined to his own universe with its quirky – but predictable – characteristics, the timid and puzzled Narcisse is uncertain if he’s read to make the move, or if he is even really cured. After all, he feels no different. Yet, staying where he is also seems impossible. Beyond the pressure of the physicians for him to move on, the aging Narcisse seems to be is long-held magnetism and charm towards the nurses, and other patients arriving have begun to be competitors for his previously comfortable and predictable life there.

And so, Narcisse bravely chooses to go out in the world, going to meet up and stay with family and attempt a life of newfound independence and possibility, even if naïve of what that might entail. Like navigating a tightrope high above a crowd, Narcisse steps out, wavering, trying to keep balance and forward momentum.

An exemplar of contemporary French minimalist fiction, Narcisse on a Tightrope illustrates just how wonderful and important publishers of literature and translation are, as well as the translators who do the work of bringing new discoveries to English speakers. An obscure title from an author who is not particularly well known in France, Narcisse sur un fil originally published in 1989, the debut novel (novella) by a journalist who had previously published nonfiction titles. Targowla has since published four other novels (from the information I could glean.) This title represents his first work translated into any language, but one hopes that future translations by Paul Curtis Daw or others might be forthcoming, if indeed Targowla’s later work is anything on par with this.

Minimalism invites interpretation. In the absence of grandiose overt plot, flowery prose, or long philosophical text/dialogue, the starkness of a text begs for readers to look at themes more deeply, to synthesize meanings through analysis and consideration. Narcisse on a Tightrope does this, while also playfully entertaining the reader with the quirkiness and elements of absurdity in a narrative that is otherwise a snapshot of mundane existence.

It’s also an exploration of character, and to a small extent that character’s evolution of perception (of self and of the world.) The introduction to the novella by Warren Motte (a professor of French and comparative literature) points out the meaning inherent in the eponymous protagonist’s name. Most readers will probably already pick up on Narcisse, (the French version of Narcissus, of Greek mythology.) Indeed, Narcisse is quite narcissistic. He is defined by self-involved worry both in the hospital and outside. This isn’t to say that he’s utterly unreceptive to, or inconsiderate of, the emotions or needs of others. But he is very much preoccupied with how others view him, and what defines his state of mind – diseased or healthy. His nom de famille, Dièze, invokes the French term dièse, meaning tonally sharp (#): a note slightly off-key, slightly more in intensity. Again, matching the ardency and yearning in the character to move on from the hospital, despite his fears and the discomfort that might initially entail.

Both Motte and the official blurb for the novella characterize Narcisse as “an endearing misfit in the tradition of Walter Mitty and Forrest Gump.” (Which, tells me I should probably read Thurber’s short story.) That description is true. However, Narcisse is more than just a misfit in the roguish sense of a knave, he’s a knave in the sense of a Jack – an average Joe. His story is more than that of an odd, peculiar adventure. It’s one of a universal adventure, prosaic life, the uncertainty of existence. The always slightly confused Narcisse does not view his world (in the hospital, or later beyond) with indifference. He is, after all, very concerned about himself and what defines his state of being. But, he is casual and compliant, accepting the inexplicable things that have befallen him in the past, enjoying the oddities of present, and receptive (even if hesitant and fretful) to the future. Temporal connection happens for all this upon a reunion of Narcisse with one of the former nurses he slept with, whom he discovers indeed had a son fathered by him.

Though relatively short and minimalistic, Narcisse on a Tightrope is a rewarding reading experience of depth and compassion. For all the idiosyncrasies of its protagonist, the novella holds a universality that a broad range of readers can appreciate and dissect.


LIFE CEREMONY: STORIES by Sayaka Murata (Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Life Ceremony: Stories
By Sayaka Murata
(Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Grove Press — 5 July 2022
ISBN: 9780802159588
— Hardcover — 256 pp.


I’m new to Sayaka Murata’s writing, though many English language readers may already be familiar with her work through the prior translations of her novels Convenience Store Woman or Earthlings by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Takemori continues the commendable and celebrated work of translating Murata’s fiction here with a first collection of short stories rendered into English: Life Ceremony.

As with Earthlings, the stories of Life Ceremony fall into that literary category of magical realism. Though they may all be set on a relatively contemporary Earth, they also almost all have some outré element placing them within perhaps some other universe, world, or near-future. Though employing elements appreciated in conventional literary fiction, Murata’s work here also mines the speculative fantasy genre in ways that would make the stories equally recognizable in genre magazines like Uncanny or Asimov’s (to name a pair.)

Specifically Murata uses subtle dark fantasy in this collection of stories to explore the inherent subjectivity and permeability of cultural taboos across places and time: customs that seem fixed at any moment yet shift in the grand scheme of humanity according to societal contexts and individual revelations. The characters populating the stories in Life Ceremony are navigating those conventional literary realms of self discovery, realization, within worlds that seem confusing, without any irresolute compass of tradition to steadfastly rely upon.

Murata expressly voices this theme through the words of her protagonist in the title story of this collection. Here, they may apply to ‘instinct’ and ‘morality’, but ‘custom’ or any other related term remain equally applicable through the swath of stories in Life Ceremony.

I feel like pointing out that until a moment ago they had been talking about a different human instinct. Instinct doesn’t exist. Morals don’t exist. They were just fake sensibilities that came from a world that was constantly transforming.

Now, not every story in Life Ceremony deeply delves into the same echoed theme or dash of weirdness. A few more conventional, and at times bright or sweet, tales are mixed in along those darkly deviant ones. For those interested in some detail on the specific contents, here’s a basic rundown of the twelve stories that make up the collection:

“A First-Rate Material” – A superb start to the collection to set the tone and themes that unite all to follow. A couple debate their comfort with incorporating parts of humans into objects for recycled use. What once was only normal to do with other animals, has now become fashionable and accepted for the human source as well: organs, hair, nails, etc. being used to make everything from bags to furniture to clothes, etc. Taking Victorian mourning jewelry trends and morbid appreciations to logical extensions, this story also uniquely makes readers consider what we consider as perfectly untroubling in our use of fellow animals.

“A Magnificent Spread” – Reading this reminded me of a criticism in the newspaper I came across awhile back regarding viewer objection to a recurring segment on a late-night comedy talk show where the host would have guests eat some sort of ‘disgusting’ food and watch to watch their revulsion and reactions. The issue of course is subjectivity. One culture’s ‘disgusting’ is another’s ‘delicacy’, and branding something of non-European tradition that is respected elsewhere as ‘disgusting’ is fraught with issues. This story delves into that idea over a dinner where a dating couple is about to ‘meet the parents’. It works well with more humor and light-heartedness than some of the other stories contain.

“A Summer Night’s Kiss” – A shorter work approaching alienation/belonging through an elderly character who is a virgin and was herself conceived without sex, through in vitro fertilization.

“Two’s Family” – A tender tale where the outsider aspect of it has already become more accepted in the world: non-traditional families. Two female friends who have decided to platonically live together after each failing to find a romantic partner by the age of thirty look back on their life and family at later age, facing mortality.

“The Time of the Large Star” – Another shorter, and largely atmospheric piece, with the most other-worldy setting within the collection: a land of night where no one sleeps. It’s a story of adapting to a staggeringly unfamiliar world, composed in a haunting, almost dream-like way.

“Poochie” – I actually recently watched a classic Kids in the Hall sketch that shares the basic premise of this amusingly absurd short story: some children adopt a wayward businessman as a pet. Canada or Japan, TV or book, the humor translates just as effectively.

“Life Ceremony” – If the morbidity of human body parts being repurposed doesn’t put one off in grotesque shock from the first story in the collection, this title story may. The society of this story exists comfortably with a tradition of ritualistic cannibalism as a quasi-symbolic practice for libido enhancement and mating rituals. It’s a change brought on by alarming falls in global birth rates. Though the protagonist of the story has great qualms with what was taboo being now so quickly accepted, her journey and interactions lead her to begin reconsidering her visceral response and what meanings the rite might actually hold.

“Body Magic” – I’d consider this the weakest of stories in the collection. Like the previous story this is set in a world where traditions of sexual interaction are different, here told from the perspective of high school girls.

“Lover on the Breeze” – The curtains on the window of a young girl serve here as a very unconventional narrator, in a love-triangle sort of story with the arrival of a boyfriend who begins to visit her room as she grows older.

“Puzzle” – An extremely bizarre story with a woman who seems to actually? be a building, but who is in search of biological fluids of others. I think this is one I’d need to reread to try and grasp further.

“Eating the City” – I loved the ecological concepts in this story, which addresses botanical traditions societies may have over what is considered food or not – if it is grown wild, or not; a weed, or not; grown on a farm versus grown in an urban landscape.

“Hatchling” – With the final story Murata subverts the idea of a world or culture in constant flux into the concept of a person in context flux, a character who has no real personality, but is rather an amalgam of ersatz personas built and arranged in a way to simply fit into society as the situations of life may demand. It’s a nicely philosophical way to end the collection and tie up the overarching theme of the stories herein, full-circle.

The characters within Life Ceremony are riding the waves of transformative societies and self maturation, trying to find compromises – something assured – within the bouleversements of human existence. Murata’s stories demonstrate that moments of stability become possible by learning an openness to curiosity and adaptation, and through celebrations of life and death that define our mortality.

This is a collection that should be picked up by speculative fantasy fans and conventional literary readers alike. The offbeat, sometimes grotesque or shocking nature of some of the stories may cause some members of the latter group to pause. But expanding of horizons and looking at things from a slightly off-kilter perspective is exactly what the appropriately titled Life Ceremony collection is all about.

Thanks to Grove Press and NetGalley alike for the opportunity to discover more fantastic literature in translation.


THE DISAPPEARANCE OF JIM SULLIVAN by Tanguy Viel (Translated by Clayton McGee)

The Disappearance of Jim Sullivan
By Tanguy Viel
(Translated by Clayton McGee)
Dalkey Archive Press — May 2021
ISBN: 9781628973716
— Paperback — 132 pp.


Strip the “Great American novel” down to its essential, deconstructed core. Have the author explain how they’ll reassemble these fragments: stereotypes formed into some characters, tropes threaded together into a plot. Round things out with the overarching theme of the historic disappearance of psychedelic/folk musician Jim Sullivan into the wilds of New Mexico. And somehow, you still end up with a captivating page-turner.

The formulaic nature of popular novel art forms leads to their success. It also allows others to mix things up a bit – to reinvent or subvert. Yet, if everything is so simple as a quick and easy formula, why can’t just anyone pull it all off? The answer of course is that it’s all what the writer does with all those formulaic bits and pieces, from the language to the style to the balances between familiarity and challenging invention.

The Disappearance of Jim Sullivan has a simple meta premise that author Tanguy Viel sets out from the start (or the fictional authorial narrator written by Viel – it’s always a bit unclear in the metaverse.) A French author decides he is tired of writing French novels. He wants to write something with international attraction, broad success. This, of course means, making it set in the American midwest of the ‘everyman’. The author creates a protagonist, Dwayne Koster, and sets things in the heart of the Iron Belt, Detroit. But being French and never having been to Detroit, the author has to make the setting a very barebones, Wikipedia-factoid sort of Detroit. He stylizes Koster as middle-aged, recently divorced, a budding alcoholic, and a man fascinated with Jim Sullivan’s music and mysterious vanishing into the desert night.

Viel then builds up the layers to this Great American Novel, interworking details from Koster’s past with the path he now finds himself on, and the routes open to him. Laying all of these basic conventions of a novel out before the reader, Viel then concocts them into an engaging narrative amid the parodic, meta exercise. And he pulls it off because of his inherent talent for the writing craft.

I read through the novel while listening to Jim Sullivan’s albums, starting with his most famous UFO. It’s an accompaniment I’d recommend. By the end of the novel, Viel takes his story of Dwayne Koster and merges it with Sullivan’s style and the history of Sullivan’s disappearance, paralleling the existential nature of Koster’s journey with the unanswered questions of Sullivan’s.

A big thanks to Dalkey Archive Press and translator Clayton McGee for getting this slice of Americana by way of France to English-speaking audiences. A true international novel achieved.


MALPERTUIS by Jean Ray (Translated by Iain White, Edited by Scott Nicolay)

“…The combination of classic Gothic Horror with the Weird subgenre, in a unique form of the haunted house novel, sounded perfectly tuned to my interests. Even with a foundation of mythological familiarity that was largely lost on me, Malpertuis succeeded wildly in entertaining and impressing…”

Read my entire review of Malpertuis HERE at Speculative Fiction in Translation.

Wakefield Press – May 2021 – Paperback – 256 pp.

OUT OF THE CAGE by Fernanda García Lao (Translated by Will Vanderhyden)

“… Out of the Cage is a grim tragicomedy, a family saga that parallels the absurdities of political upheavals. Related with a short crispness that makes the novel fly by even without much action, it contains a wealth of subtext for continued analysis and appreciation.”

Read my entire review of Out of the Cage HERE at Speculative Fiction in Translation.

Deep Vellum Press – March 2021 – Paperback – 168 pp.

RISE OF THE WARRIOR COP: THE MILITARIZATION OF AMERICA’S POLICE FORCE by Radley Balko

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Force
By Radley Balko
PublicAffairs — 2014
ISBN: 9781541774537
— Paperback — 528 pp.


This is a title that went onto my to-read list when it first came out, but it took years and a happenstance coming across the book at Burning Books to get a copy, and then awhile of it sitting in a pile before deciding I really needed to get into it. Despite those 8-or-so years, the relevance of the title has hardly diminished, becoming perhaps more important, focusing on issues that are germane to front page headlines in today’s New York Times.

The title of Balko’s books is somewhat incomplete. Thought he militarization of civilian police serves as a major focus of the book, it’s more broadly a history of, and commentary on the third and fourth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States of America. For those who don’t remember the particulars of this part of the Bill of Rights, these are:

Amendment III: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Balko begins by discussing the colonial and revolutionary context of these amendments, with emphasis on the third that seems so irrelevant to us today at the surface level. He discusses how the amendments both relate to the common law Castle doctrine, and explains why these were considered so fundamentally important both then at the time of the writing of the Constitution, and now.

He then traces the concept of civilian policing through history, quickly getting to its use in the United States and focusing in a series of chapters on the decades from the 1960s to the 2000s. The starting point of the 1960s corresponds to the political introduction of the “War on Drugs” to the nation, as well as violent events that led to the development of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams.

The tie-in of targeted amplification of drug prosecution (particularly minor offenses that have no victims) and SWAT (increased militarization of policing) corresponds to the gradual, systematic erosion of civil liberties related to the Castle doctrine and the pair of Constitutional amendments. With mind-boggling and frightening implication, Balko relates how systems of policing have violated, or circumvented, protections against individuals in their homes, degraded the supposed protections supplied by warrants. Worse, politics have instituted a system whereby police departments are perversely rewarded for feeing this self-perpetuating machine of terror, and have even been penalized for actual fighting of crime with results.

The most obvious injustice that Balko brings up with anecdote again, and again (showing it is an acute symptom of societal, or institutional, disease) is the no-knock warrant that became created and justified to allow police to enter private residences with no warning, with impunity, violence, and little oversight or consequences for their actions. All that was needed became a the mere suspicion that drugs may be present, and that warning of entry to the home could, maybe, result in drugs being disposed of.

Balko shows how often this has been abused with horrendous consequences due to ignorance and errors. Misidentified homes, wrong addresses, poor or dishonest informants and intelligence, etc. I lost count of how many innocent people’s lives ended because their home was suddenly invaded by dark-clad paramilitary forces. And nothing would change, it would only increase.

Alongside this, Balko also addresses how police SWAT teams became increasingly used for situations where they were not required – for example, peaceful protests. Or police departments in areas of the country with no record of violent crime for over a hundred years got themselves a SWAT team and battle tanks. Simply because the money was made available, and this is America.

What may astound many readers of this is how pervasively the political will for this extended through the decades and broadly across party lines. Conservatives who introduced ideas for being tougher on crime were later stunned that their misguided legislation had grown beyond intent, misused to now not target criminals, but attack civil liberties. They recanted, and regretted their initial ideas. But it is too late. Liberals who fought for the rights of poor people don’t want to be painted as being soft on crime. So they support/introduce bills to increase funding or giving authority to police. And it comes back to bite them.

Sadly, the failure of the Supreme Court through the decades in protecting the Constitution equally becomes clear. And, it makes one realize that the recent erosions of Constitutional protection (and future that this current court is likely to take) is not that atypical.

The NYT article I mentioned earlier is actually about how President Biden is issuing an executive order in response to what occurred to George Floyd (and the many, many other similar travesties of justice. This order demands reductions in police use of the ‘choke-hold’ and reductions in the use of ‘no-knock’ warrants. Ironically, Balko reveals that one of the biggest political names in the past decades who has personally driven legislation leading to increased police abuses like the above was Senator Joe Biden.

The birth of SWAT and police excesses were ultimately born from fear of maintaining control of a population that could arm itself with weapons and armor that an ordinary citizen could not take on. Recent events remind us that continued access to such weapons and bodily armor by the general population will only further fuel the fear and the arguments in some eyes that police should do more to protect, and that civil rights should be sacrificed. Balko’s text reminds us just how vigilant we need to be, and perhaps even work more directed and effectively towards reversing the general trends of our democracy.


SLIPPING by Mohamed Kheir (Translated by Robin Moger)

Slipping
By Mohamed Kheir
(Translated by Robin Moger)
Two Lines Press — June 2021
ISBN: 9781949641165
— Paperback — 260 pp.


Struggling journalist Seif decides to pursue a risky, but intoxicating story: a fresh exploration of Egypt that penetrates into the mystical and arcane realms that exist alongside the mundane, echoes from the past and hopeful susurrations of the future, scenes unnoticed and unfurling outside time. He partners with Bahr, an older man who has recently returned to the nation from exile, and carries within him expertise on the location and properties of these ethereal corners of the ancient land, urban and rural.

Along the journey Seif discovers insights into his past: unexpected connections between their fragmented discoveries and his own tumultuous experiences, between the characters they meet and people who have shaped his own life. Most notable is his former girlfriend Alya, a radiant woman with an otherworldly talent for song who disappeared from his life amid the chaos of the Arab Spring, and its revolutionary potential.

Slipping is an apt English title for Kheir’s novel. He constructs it with a fragmented architecture that mimics the parties and voices within the Egyptian state. The characters fluidly slip through time and space, dry reality and seemingly magical realms, memory and aspirations, in fractured revelatory moments. As Kheir steps around the investigatory tourism of Seif and Bahr, he intermixes chapters of other characters in unresolved flashes, people who turn out to be connected to a spot where the pair eventually visit (or visited). By the end all the loose threads and haziness clarify into coherent interconnected fabric of existence. Again, like a national identity composed of individual souls.

This architecture makes Slipping a bit of a challenging read. It’s a novel that’s short enough to easily be worth rereading, and seeing how things are constructed after already knowing how they all fit together. The challenge of Slipping also exists in its nature of magical realism. While technically qualifying as fantasy for some, it’s not always clear what is real, what is imaginary, what is symbolic, etc. But, in the end, I’m not sure if that matters much. Only in the sense that it gives the novel a very surreal kind of feel that celebrates uncertainty and even a bit of confusion.

Kheir (and Moger) temper the relatively heavy demands of following the plot and characters of Slipping by placing a huge portion of its artistic and entertainment value in the melody of its phrases and the richness of its atmosphere. The mysterious vocal talents of Seif’s girlfrind Alya are in part a personification of the musicality of the language in Slipping, a celebration of a culture and a nation though words. Not only written, but in their sound. Many parts of Slipping are outright poetic, demanding not just to be read, but heard. Performed.

This became particularly obvious to me when I had the opportunity to attend a remote online session organized by the publisher of the English translation here in the US, Two Lines Press [It may have also been sponsored by a book store, if memory serves. It’s been awhile now, at the height of the pandemic, so I can’t recall exactly, apologies.] The event featured a discussion between author Kheir and translator Moger, an enlightening bit of insight into the magic that went into making this text available to English language speakers here.

As part of that event, Kheir read a short section in the original Arabic. I cannot speak or decipher Arabic (though some of my current research students are now teaching me a bit :D) But, my goodness was it a beautiful passage to listen to. I followed along with Moger’s translation within my copy of the book. Like when listening to music with no words or lyrics I can’t decipher (hi early REM and Michael Stipe) the sound of the Arabic conveyed the mood, the emotion, set by the text exactly. Not telepathic, it was empathic. Robin Moger then also read from his translation and spoke a bit about the choices he made when working on being faithful to the text and its musicality.

Even without that event, Slipping is a testament to the power and preciousness of literature in translation. Though a challenging novel in many ways, it is easily emotionally resonant. Anyone who is in particular a fan of magical realism would also want to look into this, a gift to unwrap from the complexities of modern Egypt.


LIFE SCIENCES by Joy Sorman (Translated by Lara Vergnaud)

Life Sciences
By Joy Sorman
(Translated by Lara Vergnaud)
Restless Books — October 2021
ISBN: 9781632062956
— Paperback — 272 pp.


On the surface level, Life Sciences is about an individual’s response to inexplicable chronic disease within a modern society that can provide no relief or healing. Seventeen-year-old Ninon Moise wakes one day to discover the skin of her arms burning in pain at the slightest touch. Her doctors are at a loss for how this has come about, they wonder if perhaps she is just even making it up. Or perhaps there is no physical cause to it, but an issue of psychology, a trick of the mind and self perceptions of pain?

The onset and unique specificity of symptoms doesn’t surprise her, she’s expected their arrival, only uncertain in the precise form they’d manifest. Her mother Esther was similarly struck with achromatopsia at a young age, an inability to see colors any longer, with no discernable cause or deficiency behind its revelation. Back through the family line, to the earliest recordings in the Middle Ages, women in their family have been stricken with seemingly random disease. A curse. Or a perverse female birthright claimed.

It’s therefore time for her daughter to stand out, and it’s as though that distinctiveness can only be revealed through her genes, as though uniqueness can only be expressed by a cell line, as though the force of a person’s existence is reabsorbed whole by the transmission of genetic characteristics hoped to be rare and mysterious, as though that force can’t be incarnated, for example, by an act…

Ninon’s physical discomfort, and the complications the condition manifests for her daily activities – like high school – quickly turn her mind from seeing the disease naively as a rite of passage, membership and individuality attained within her family. She rebels against acceptance and accommodation, seeking answers from medicine, and treatment, starting with basic identification of what afflicts her, for “… a sickness without a name isn’t a disease, it’s just shapeless suffering.” The awful chasm of fearful uncertainty becomes alleviated when professionals diagnose her condition: dynamic tactile allodynia.

…what a marvelous, beautiful trio of words! wonderfully pompous and complicated, three words when just one would have sufficed, three words that roll off the tongue, and with the diagnosis pronounced, Ninon could almost dance for joy, she’s finally been deemed sick and therefore innocent, absolved of all suspicion, what a relief to know you have something rather than nothing.

The joy from that first step of answers rapidly vanishes as she realizes the doctors have no clue what to do about this monster they have given a name. They throw any treatment they can think of towards her body. And when that fails, her mind. With modern medicine failing at every turn, she turns to traditional, folk practices. But still the pain in her arms continue with the barest brush of touch. Is it perhaps lessening with time? Or is that just her becoming habituated to the pain?

Sorman’s novel thereby works at this basic level as a fascinating study of an individual human body falling prey to biology that we still do not precisely understand. For as far as we may have come from hundreds of years ago, our science sometimes still fails to provide answers or healing, giving less than even religions or faith may have given to Ninon’s female ancestors through the earlier ages.

Sorman’s language, beautifully translated in flowing prose by Lara Vergnaud, spectacularly conveys the feelings of pain and helplessness, of despair that can happen amid inexplicable disease or disorder. It’s something relatable for any feeling human who has felt desperation for finding answers to one’s health, even if one doesn’t have to live with a chronic condition.

At the metaphorical level, the novel becomes something even more, symbolizing the cultural and societal treatment of women through the ages in the form of these inherited diseases. The women through the ages in her family suffer, and they are asked to just simply bare it. There is no fixing it. There is no reason why. It simply is.

…Ninon thinks that she’d have liked to be a boy but doesn’t mention it, not wanting to upset her mother. And ultimately it’s on that day, when she learns that the men of the family were touched by disgrace too, that she realizes the scope of the curse, that of being born a girl: hormonal chance, genetic injustice.

The disease biology and feminist readings of the novel are not mutually exclusive either, as medicine still routinely ignores issues of female health, of female-specific biology over the male standard. This is evident from issues of reproductive rights, to remaining uncertainties of the hormonal complexities during female development (youth to beyond menopause) and their varied effects on the female body, something society has wanted to simplify and control, not really understand or let flourish. A scene later in the novel where Ninon goes to see a more holistic healer reiterates this traditional view of women being equivalent to a body, to skin:

I am a body above all else, solemnly repeats Dr. Kilfe, I am a body above all else, and nothing pleases ninon more than this affirmation, I am skin above all else, adds the psychiatrist, I am made of all the sensations that emerge on the surface of the body, the surface of the consciousness is homothetic to that of the body, they have the same surface area, the same reach, the mind isn’t buried in the folds and twists of the brain, it appears on the surface, sensitive to wind and sun, to caresses and blows.

Life Sciences is a powerful and artistic novel, pulsing with the life of language, not just human biology and feminism. The first half of the book, and its close are phenomenal, but my one critique would be that most of the second half starts to feel repetitive and needless. Nonetheless, it is a quick, satisfying read and doesn’t feel insurmountably bloated at all.

For those who enjoy the themes of this novel and want something similar – or in a shorter dose, I’d recommend Sarah Tolmie’s short stories in her collection Disease. Tolmie goes more toward the side of absurd comedy, but the general themes are very comparable to those in Life Sciences.


NOVA HELLAS: STORIES FROM FUTURE GREECE edited by Francesca T. Barbini & Francesco Verso

Nova Hellas: Stories From Future Greece
Edited by Francesca T. Barbini & Francesco Verso
Luna Press Publishing — March 2021
ISBN: 9781913387389
— Paperback — 152 pp.


CONTENTS:

Introduction by Dimitra Nikolaidou

“Roseweed” by Vasso Christou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Social Engineering” by Kostas Charitos (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“The Human(c)ity of Athens” by Ionna Bourazopoulou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Baghdad Square” by Michalis Monolios (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“The Bee Problem” by Yiannis Papadopoulos & Stamatis Stamatopoulos (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“T2” by Kelly Theodorakopoulou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Those We Serve” by Eugenia Triantafyllou

“Abacos” by Lina Theodorou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Any Old Disease” by Dimitra Nikolaidou

“Android Whores Can’t Cry” by Natalia Theodoridou

“The Colour that Defines Me” by Stamatis Stamatopoulos (Translated by Stephanie Polakis)

I’d originally meant to review this anthology of Greek science fiction for Speculative Fiction in Translation. However, I became delayed in writing the review and Rachel Cordasco got her own review of it posted onto her site in the meantime. I agree wholeheartedly with her general praise for Nova Hellas, but I had different personal favorites from it. Her review is definitely still worth checking out for comparison.

The collection starts strongly, with a pair of my favorites. “Roseweed” is set in a post-climate change dystopia where divers and engineers explore the lower floors of partially submerged buildings for structural integrity. They are hired as part of a plan to turn these spots into ‘escape rooms’ for rich tourists looking for the thrill of visiting abandoned locations filled with the allure of danger and risk among the decay. The story highlights one of the repeating themes of the anthology: that amid disheartening futures, people find ways to go on and live amid the changes. Even when it is still the rich that are carelessly exploiting environments and the classes beneath them, regular people find some semblance of optimism amid those challenges or frustrations.

The story that follows, “Social Engineering” likewise does a great job establishing one of the unifying features to the anthology, the merging of the Classical Greece with the Modern and the Future. This short story literally overlays the periods in an Athens that is cloaked within artificial, or ‘augmented’ realities. The protagonist of the story has been hired to influence an upcoming city referendum, and the plot delves into how engineering at the level of physical urban planning but also through directed social interaction may create more issues than solutions.

Those themes of society hidden underneath veneers or layers, and the interplay between the architectural hardware of a place (with its loaded history) and the individuals who fit into that system like cogs comes up again in different ways in “The Human(c)ity of Athens”, and then another artificial reality in “Baghdad City”. Interestingly – and I assume intentionally – that specific portmanteau of ‘humancity’ appears in a later story of the anthology as well (T2, if I recall), striking alternate tones to the same theme(s).

Like Rachel, I enjoyed the classic science fiction vibes of “Those We Serve”, with its artificial intelligences that have ‘replaced’ human counterparts, and the mystery of “Any Old Disease” that called to mind questions of what we consider biological versus not. “The Bee Problem” similarly evokes thoughts on the intersections between the biological and the artificial when the performance of drones becomes affected by a return of native bee populations.

Very short, “Abacos” had a transcript format that I didn’t really enjoy, though it is certainly well composed as that. It shares with “Android Whores Can’t Cry” an element of trying to reconstruct a past, the truth, from recording, which is interesting. I remain uncertain over that last story, probably the most challenging in the anthology, and needing a reread.

The story that closes out Nova Hellas was another of my top favorites. “The Colour That Defines You” occurs in a future world where some unexplained event has caused humans to no longer see colors. In general, people are left only seeing shades of gray from black to white… except for one specific color that is unique to each and every person. Pure happenstance leads some to discover the identity of that one color their brain can process. Others haven’t yet found it. Through the story we follow the threads of several intersecting characters and how this unique situation ends up defining their existence. What if the only color one could perceive was that of fresh, scarlet, blood? The set up for this is pure MacGuffin, but Stamatopoulos takes the literal plot, as well as its symbolisms in fascinating directions.

I can’t say as I’ve ever read science fiction – or even any fiction – from Greece before, but I’m glad to have had this opportunity to discover new authors and see their visions of common, but varied, themes in the genre. A huge amount of thanks to Luna Press Publishing for making works such as this available, and as always to my friend and partner in crime Rachel Cordasco of SF in Translation for helping to spread the word. [For legal reasons, Rachel and Daniel do no actually engage in criminal enterprise.]