WINTER IN SOKCHO by Élisa Shua Dusapin (Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Winter in Sokcho
By Élisa Shua Dusapin
(Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)
Open Letter Books — April 2021
ISBN: 9781948830416
— Paperback — 160 pp.


Sokcho: A bustling warm-weather tourist destination of South Korean lakes and beaches. In the winter, Sokcho lies dormant, almost as quiet and isolated as the demilitarized zone that lies mere minutes away, separating life there from North Korea beyond. A young woman in her mid-twenties works at a guest house as a receptionist, having returned home to the town after her studies in Seoul. Her Korean mother works in a town fish market, and her French father is long gone. Though she has a boyfriend, she remains uncertain of his place in her life. Even more, she hasn’t quite figure out who she is, let alone who she should be.

The arrival of a curious guest disrupts the slow and detached days of the unnamed protagonist’s stagnant contemplation as she works reception. The guest is a middle-aged Frenchman named Yan Kerrand, a writer and illustrator of graphic novels who has sought out the cold, barren Sokcho and its environs for inspiration in finishing the final volume of his series. He feels lost of how his character’s story should proceed, and looks to the landscape and conversation for revelation.

The protagonist begins by speaking with him in hesitant English, uncertain to reveal that she is half French, and has learned the language at school, but transfixed by the window that Kerrand might supply to the unknown half of her cultural heritage. Kerrand asks her to serve as a guide of the town for him, explaining his desire to see the ‘real’ Korea, not the tourist trappings.

What follows is a growing friendship and non-sexual intimacy between the two, a discovery between two souls adrift, individuals riddled by doubts who are searching for connections and being seen. Both by others, and by themselves. Coupled to this humanity of characters is the exploration of the Korean landscape at that harsh, scar-like DMZ divide between South and North: two nations with shared heritages, but who have become separated too long to know one another. And as a result, also have lost some conception or understanding of themselves.

Winter in Sokcho is as sparse and desolate of a novel as its setting, but it is not nearly as cold. Dusapin’s writing (and Higgins’ translation) are brimming underneath the glacial, calm plot with powerful emotion, a building, suspenseful atmosphere that something will apocalyptically surge from these characters in a clarity of self-comprehension. Self appreciation is another theme. Both characters, each in their own way, suffer from deficits in self-appreciation and self-confidence. For Kerrand this most overtly exists in his struggles to find appropriate closure to his art, and acceptance that he will reach that based on past successes. For the protagonist it manifests in self-perceived body dysmorphia, her persistent feelings of repulsion to aspects of her physical form, even when realizing unwarranted cause for feeling so.

Though the character’s each come to personal revelations, not all is resolved, no more than the political divide between North and South of the Korean core heritage has resolved back into wholeness.

The strengths of Winter in Sokcho sit in the rich beauty of its language and atmosphere. Both the narrative passages and the dialogue resonate deeply and can be savored. Frequently, that richness tickles multiple senses with descriptions of food. I’ve struggled to come to some sort of conclusion or interpretation of why food figures so predominantly in the novel. How does that relate to the themes? I don’t have a good answer for myself, yet. But, at least on the level of structure the additions work beautifully to render detailed emotional, sense-inducing atmosphere to the novel.

Winter in Sokcho won the Swiss Prix Robert Walser, as well as the French Prix Régine-Deforges. Its translation into English by Higgins recently won the National Book Award for Translated Literature. This is not a novel for readers who demand exciting, intricately designed plots or explosive finales. However, if you enjoy literature of rich atmosphere and language, literature that is simple to read, but complex and evocative when digesting, then this novel is a book you should search out. Support publishers like Open Letter Books for helping bring amazing texts like this to the English-speaking world.


THE BONE FIRE by György Dragomán (Translated by Paul Olchváry)

… a brilliant novel about self-discovery, a coming-of-age within those shadows of the teen years before the Spring of adulthood. It’s a parallel for the self-discovery of a nation, or a people, formed through many past traumas and facing uncertain future. To make it through requires ritual, a bone fire cleaning of house that acknowledges those lost, the souls and sins of the past, a rite that strengthens the ties between the community of individuals who have survived to hang on to each other even amid failings.

Read my latest review of The Bone Fire at Speculative Fiction in Translation

Mariner Books – February 2021 – Paperback – 480 pp.

VOROSHILOVGRAD by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler

Voroshilovgrad
By Serhiy Zhadan
Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler
Deep Vellum Publishing — April 2016
ISBN: 9781941920305
— Paperback — 445 pp.


A review from the backlist. I’ve had a copy of Voroshilovgrad in my to-read pile for years now, and I’ve picked it up to start numerous times only to put it aside to get to an immediate priority in my reading triage. With the horrific escalation in conflict and Russian aggression that has gone on in Ukraine since then, I finally decided I needed to get to this, to help balance the despair I would get from reading the current news.

Zhadan’s voice, and this novel, was just what I needed to be reminded of the humanity behind the politics going on in this region, and of the hope that still remains possible even amid the destruction of place and life. Well-respected as a talented and vital voice in contemporary Ukrainian literature, Zhadan is equally (if not more?) known for his poetry as his prose. Poetry is not my bag, but the poetics of his fiction resonate strongly.

Voroshilovgrad takes its name from the Russian name for the current Ukrainian city of Luhansk, and it is the original home of the novel’s protagonist Herman. Herman now lives in another city, where he holds an ‘executive’ business position with responsibilities as ill-defined as his aspirations and engagement in life. But, he is content and happy, abiding with his friends.

Until Herman receives a call telling him that his brother Yura has mysteriously left the country, seemingly abandoning the gas station that he ran for good. Herman decides to return to his hometown to find out more; to temporarily help its remaining employees, Injured and Kocha, take care of the business. Herman arrives to find that Injured and Kocha, while dedicated, are like fish-out-of-water in running things, uncertain of how their boss managed the business, or how he had dealt with a gang of local business leaders who had been pressuring him to sell the station.

Intending to stay only a day – or a few – Herman finds his loyalty and pride pulling him into staying in Luhansk, taking over the responsibilities, and the stresses, that his brother Yura has apparently fled. In addition to his two new friends/coworkers and the politically-tied thugs, Herman meets some of the local women, illegal migrants, wistful travelers, Romani families (referred to as Gypsies in the text), and ghosts of the past. Though he stays in one relative place (Luhansk and its environs) for the majority of the novel, Herman’s story is one of a journey, often traversing the wasted landscape on foot, by bus, or by rail. The landscape is almost like a character, but also a means for his encounters with the varied human characters along a personal journey of his soul, in this vibe of magic realism that even directly references The Wizard of Oz.

The environments and physical objects of Voroshilovgrad are barren and bleak, worn-out and used, abused. Including the people. But only in the physical sense. Zhadan imbues the souls of his characters, and their mind, with refreshing joy, camaraderie, optimism. As beaten as they all are, as decrepit as their city and possessions seem to be, they are fiercely loyal and hopeful. This resounds in the text, and the characters even help the environment display a simplicity of uncomplicated beauty without things like the latest fashions or technology.

Zhadan’s prose is also as comical as it is serious. The humor in the character’s lives, and even their most mundane interactions shines through, almost absurdly against that dark, bleak backdrop of a setting. This appeared most obviously to me in a section that features a football match (and its aftermath) among Herman and his coworkers, and the ghosts of players Herman knew in his past. Literally haunting, yet also absurdly comical and jubilant amid their rough-and-tumble personalities. Dead, but full of life.

Other reviews of the novel I have come across mention one downside to the novel being the female characters, who are all written distinctly from the male point-of-view and are not given much depth beyond serving the needs of Herman (both physically and metaphorically in terms of the journey of his spirit and life). I would agree with this, but also feel this applies equally to all of the male characters. Herman is the heart of the novel and all others really exist more in relation to his growth than any of their own.

Voroshilovgrad is a monumental work of beauty and passionate feeling, rendered all the more bittersweet by the current realities facing Ukraine. I look forward to reading more of Zhadan’s fiction, and I hope that more authors will exist there in the future to continue writing so truthfully. In terms of the plot of the novel, the threats to Herman and his friends (while serious) ultimately give way to hope of a better future, and reduced threats. I pray the same goes for reality.


ELEMENTAL (Calico Series)

Elemental
(Calico Series)
Two Lines Press — 9th March 2021
ISBN: 9781949641110
— Paperback — 240 pp.
Cover Design: Crisis


The eight stories of this anthology span the globe and language, but also span a wide range of approaches to the Elemental theme. Most approach the term from in the classical sense of the Four Elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, but others also incorporate actual physical elements from the Periodic Table. Though not ever speculative, the literary tales frequently incorporate magical realism into the plots, with nods to mythology. Some of the authors chose to make the elements into something akin to characters themselves. Many place the elemental theme into the central turning point of the plot or character development. Others treat the theme of elemental more subtly, and some also approach it in broad terms of how humanity is impacted as a part of nature – even when humanity tries to bend nature to its will.

In this sense Elemental is very much an ecological anthology, a look at how humans impact the abiotic environment and vice versa. Like all literature, it’s also at heart an investigation of humans, their interactions and foibles. More particularly to the anthology’s theme, it’s often about humans trying to find connection and freedom in the natural world.

The stories span vastly different styles, but all appear beautifully rendered into English. Each story begins with a title page, featuring a duo-toned photo and a quote from the story that both connect to the Elemental theme. Most enjoyably, the quote is rendered not just in the English translation, but in the original language script as well.

I enjoyed and appreciated some stories more than others, of course, but I would not say there’s a bad story in this bunch. For most it’s their first appearance in English, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, many are actually excerpts from novel-length works. In retrospect after reading, this isn’t surprising, as many of these worked for me as themed mood pieces, but the ‘plots’ often felt unresolved, fragmentary. I dislike excerpts for precisely this reason. On the other hand, I can give a pass to excerpting in this case of literature in translation, given the full texts are otherwise just not accessible to me. This has given me a chance to discover several new voices. However, now let’s get the actual full works published. I wish the editors (who are the editors by the way? – it’s not actually credited anywhere) had indicated when works were excerpts or not. An appendix does provide nice biographies on the authors and their translators.

On to thoughts on the individual selections:

“Precious Stones” by Erika Kobayashi, translated from the Japanese by Brian Bergstrom — The anthology starts with the longest work, one of the best, and one representative of the varied styles and approaches to the elemental theme. Its length is particularly well used to explore a varied complexity beyond what the other shorter works here have room to offer. It’s a hard one to summarize. A woman experiences vivid dreams of her deceased grandmother, who simultaneously in those past moments has visions of a future granddaughter there regarding her. The two seem linked by an inherited jewel, the last real remnant of a jeweler family that previously lost all. With her family beset with cancer across generations, the woman, her mother, and her sisters visit a spa/shrine with a radium pool that is fabled to cure all sorts of ailments. But the sisters also trade urban legend tails of an ageless man who wanders a housing development near their home and tunnels being drilled into the Earth. A man who it is said can also help cure diseases through sex. How does this all come together? You’ll have to read; it is fantastic. The theme tackles themes of family, illness, and inheritance in a cultural context that references a famous, mythical poet who is linked to the shrine. It introduces elements that crop up in other stories in the collection: the magical realism, nods to mythology, and of course approaches to the theme of elements earth and water.

“Dog Rose in the Wind, the Rain, the Earth” by Farkhondeh Aghaei, translated from the Persian by Michelle Quay — After meeting an Iranian man while abroad, a woman returns home to familial expectations that she will marry him. The parents of the couple arrange her to visit the home of his parents and make a good impression, despite her lack of enthusiasm. During a visit, a sudden storm and flash flood sweep her away to the banks of a river, where other moss-covered women have been deposited. What begins as a very conventional story goes into fantastical, symbolic directions with a feminist viewpoint. A later story uses a similar idea of natural climatic elements sweeping someone away.

“Ankomst” by Gøhril Gabrielsen, translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin — A touching fragment featuring a woman who has been deposited at the Northern edges of the world, 100s of kilometers from any other human contact, to study birds and climatic patterns. Despite this isolation, she keeps contact with her partner who is scheduled to soon join her there, but she also uses this isolation to become reawakened by the natural world and its staggering power and beauty.

“We Have Lived Here Since We Were Born” by Andreas Moster, translated from the German by Rachel Farmer — A man visits a mining operation to oversee/check up on their status/progress. This is another example of a story that starts somewhat conventionally, but proceeds into directions increasingly surreal and perhaps magical. It also is one heavily influenced by mythology. The man arrives accompanied by a group of women who hold much of his attention, but then as he sees more of the mining operation, his focus turns to a ferryman there on the site. The story climaxes with a scheduled blasting at the mine that wrecks havoc and a howling (an element in common here with the final story in the collection). In the final pages the mountain itself becomes personified as a character. It’s a strange story, and I wish I got the mythological references more, but it also serves well for the themes of humanity trying to plunder the Earth and the effects.

“Lalana” by Michèle Rakotoson, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette — One of at least two stories in the collection particularly tied to location in a way that stresses how much a local landscape can change over time. Yet, some things never change. This story, set in the author’s native Madagascar, touches (among other things) on AIDS and its effects on society and individuals there. The native location (earth) and how it affects people touches the Elemental theme here, but in a way so to does HIV as a natural element of ecology.

“Jamshid Khan” by Bakhtiyar Ali, translated from the Kurdish by Basir Borhani and Shirzad Alipour — A second story with a prcharacter being swept away. In this case a man, a political prisoner and uncle of the story’s narrator, who escapes prison and subsequent troubles by simply catching his emaciated frame up in the wind like a kite to blow away. Similar to Aghaei’s prior story, it’s a story of politically symbolic magical realism.

“Place Memory” by Dorota Brauntsch, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye — Like “Lalana” this story also has a strong sense of place. Brauntsch touches more firmly and simply on the concept that humans can alter landscapes into things unrecognizable. It’s a melancholy story on things that can be lost, but also sweet in terms of memory that can still be held and ways that environment can still persist despite alteration. More of a mood piece than any other in the collection, but one of my favorite offerings.

“The Weather Woman” by Tamar Weiss-Gabbay, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen — A story that again touches on the theme of how the natural world resists human attempts at taming. In this case it revolves around the concept of a weather forecaster, how meteorologists can understandably get things wrong. But the general population refuses to accept the unpredictable nature of … well, nature … and demands our advanced civilization should bend things to 100% accurate foresight if not absolute control. A town facing flooding installs a pipeline to help prevent disasters, and the meteorologist becomes involved more in this when the engineering infrastructure ends up producing an annoying howling they want gone.

This is the first offering from the Calico Series put out by Two Lines Press and the NEA that I’ve read, but it is the third to be published in their roughly year-old, biannual series.

“While each Calico book will zoom in on specific styles, topics, and regions, the series will build into a composite portrait of today’s vast and rich literary landscape. What’s more, Calico books explore aspects of the present moment without the usual limitations of book publishing: genre, form, style, or a single author. We asked ourselves: What would we like to read that’s not being published? The result is Calico. We hope you enjoy it too.”

—Sarah Coolidge, Associate Editor

I’ll have to go back and read the first (Chinese speculative fiction), and though I’m uninterested in the second, poetry fans should appreciate its new Arabic poetry selections. The fourth volume, due out in September 2021 is Cuíer, a collection of Queer Brazil writing (fiction, poetry, and nonfiction alike). It can be preordered here, and I’ll look forward to checking the fiction and nonfiction in it out at least.


LOVE. AN ARCHAEOLOGY by Fábio Fernandes

Love. An Archaeology
By Fábio Fernandes
Luna Press Publishing — 26th March 2021
ISBN: 9781913387426
— Paperback — 164 pp.
Cover: Francesca T Barbini


What exactly is a translation? For a multilingual writer, does every piece become a sort of translation within the creator’s mind, or is each story pre-filtered though one linguistic route of the brain?

These question came to mind as I read Love. An Archaeology, the first collection of short fiction from Brazilian writer Fábio Fernandes, just released from Luna Press as part of their “Harvester Series.” The books in this series intentionally gather a collection of old and new works from a writer, along with authorial reflections as an appendix. For Fernandes’ stories, language becomes another layer to that harvest of past and new works.

Two of the stories in Love. An Archaeology were originally written in Portuguese and translated into English by Fernandes for the collection. One of those two was translated into Spanish for its original publication. One, Fernandes wrote in English for submission to an anthology. When it didn’t make the cut, he then translated into Portuguese and published that. Though the majority of the stories in the collection were written and published originally in English, they still exude an aura of being cultural hybrids. While the characters and plot do contribute, Fernandes’ English also adds to that flavor. Though technically correct, he often turns his phrasing in a way that feels slightly off from that of a native speaker. And that is absolutely wonderful, fitting perfectly with the unexpected turns of his stories, and those moments of surreal wonder particularly found in his forays into New Weird.

But as Paul Jessup notes in his introduction to the collection, the stories here are more than a literature of atmosphere. They are “an exploration of idea with depth. Each story is poetic, at times spiritual and transcendent.” That depth permeates into realms both emotional and intellectual. Love. An Archaeology will make you think. Though pointing out the uniqueness of Fernandes, Jessup also compares his writing to that of Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugène Ionesco, Jeffery Ford, and Ted Chiang.

The name that pops to my mind first, however, is Samuel R. Delany. In part that’s because I first encountered Fernandes with “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell. Reading Love. An Archaeology I increasingly noticed the shared fundamental elements between Delany and Fernandes: the intensity, the intellect, the curiosity, the subtle complexity exploring a basic idea. Both can leave readers disoriented one moment, only to lead them to startling revelation the next. Throughout that all, a love for – and power over – language.

I didn’t appreciate all this when reading “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip. I ended up relatively ambivalent to the story then, certainly not disliking it, but not enjoying either. Starting Love. An Archaeology I at first felt similarly. The opening story “Seven Horrors” revolves around a fascinating premise taking the idea of time travel in truly unique and mind-bending directions. A man simply called the Time Traveller and a woman known as the Assassin hop across the eons of time, locked together in an immortal struggle for/against death and love for one another. In this tale Fernandes takes the contradictions inherent to time travel stories and simply runs with the trope’s bewildering anti-logic. The framework becomes an opportunity to meditate on themes of spirituality, love, and persistence.

On the one hand, I loved the concepts of the story and its gentle luscious prose, which contras with the apocalyptic settings and chaos through time. On the other hand, I found it dense to get into with a formality to its tone that almost clashes with the personal nature of the character interactions at its heart. A lot of the references were lost on me. (The first section of the collection contains four stories ‘to the memory of Harlan Ellison’ and this must be Ellisonesque in some way I wouldn’t be able to grasp.) It’s a hard story to start things off with, yet appropriate and easier to appreciate as one digs deeper into the collection and becomes familiar with what Fernandes is doing.

Aside from showing how he approaches classic speculative fiction themes, “Seven Horrors” introduces readers to the themes of metaphysics/spirituality that Fernandes draws upon, especially Buddhism. Both “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip and “Seven Horrors” that opens Love. An Archaeology represent titles that invite speculation for numerical symbolism. Fernandes uses this type of title in additional stories in this collection, and dates. These numbers are yet another example of the cultural depths that he digs for details in his stories. Numbers mean something equally as much as words, and they are in some ways the purest form of science fiction, even more so than physics as they underlie the language of the universe and the sciences.

By the second story of Love. An Archaeology, I became hooked. Its plot is more conventional, yet still contains the elements that Fernandes plays with so effectively. It’s also a fantasy/horror as opposed to a science fiction, and I feel they are so much easier for me to get into. “The Emptiness in the Heart of All Things” may be my favorite story of the collection. It draws from the Matinta Pereira folklore of the Brazilian ‘northern wilderness’, but Fernandes works with political and feminist themes inspired by the legend of this witch-like creature, and he casts it into a crime plot. Though it contains elements of Weird, the linear narrative gives the early reader a bit more stability in navigating Fernandes’ references and themes. I wish he wrote more in this genre, because this is exceptional.

Though still in the section dedicated to Ellison, “The Remaker” is a meta-tribute to Borges, a near-future remake of Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The original apparently being a story about a fellow (Menard) who recreates (not copies) Cervantes’ classic. So this is a remake of a remake concept, and we are several recursive layers deep here. Again the concept is intriguing, and now a few stories in, I had begun warming to Ferndandes’ style. As the backdrop to that, Fernandes gives his “Pierre Menard” lovers, allowing rich character development while also tapping into diversity of sex and gender. Originally published in a collection titled Outlaw Bodies, the rawness of biology, love, and sex in the story again recalls Delany. Such a wonderful ending for this story as well, and though the title has no numbers, the numerical fascination continues within chapter headings and the remade books of the plot.

A cyber-punk story that mashes up 3D printing technology with dreamscape exploration follows in “WiFi Dreams” to conclude the first section of the collection. It’s another trippy one, where I had a hard time seeing how the 3D printing idea actually integrates in.

The next two sections of stories in the collection consist of relatively shorter works. The first, dedicated to Cordwainer Smith, includes “Tales of the Obliterati”, a series of connected stories Fernandes writes about ‘lost discoveries’ and future eras where humanity faces annihilation. “Nothing Happened in 1999” is a piece of solid, if not remarkable, flash fiction. My interest really picked up for “Mycelium”, a story set in a hidden enclave of surviving humanity where a fungal symbiosis might be the key to save the human remnant. “Nine Paths to Destruction” approaches spiritual, existential matters of an individual and a species facing extinction. Beautifully and emotionally resonant.

The second of short fiction sections bears dedication to Fredric Brown and presents “Three Snapshots”, further flash fiction. Fernandes comments in the appendix that he feels very short fiction is one of his strengths, and with these I’d largely conclude. “Other Metamorphoses” is great and “Who Mourns for Washington?” is a profound take on the persistence and loss of memory.

“Archaeologies” the fourth and final section of Love. An Archaeology contains additional stories on love and includes the short story that gives the collection its title. “A Lover’s Discourse: Five Fragments and a Memory of War” returns to surreal New Weird tones, with a plot that’s hard to peg into any particular sub-genre. “The Unexpected Geographies” is notable in that it is another fantasy, darker than the prior one and more firmly in the realm of horror. Though I liked the story overall, I felt this was the most uneven and in need of further editing to make it cut more effectively.

The concluding story “Love. An Archaeology” ends things with another high point. Sisters use a new device that allows experience of alternate history timelines to discover what may have happened between their father and mother. But alternate, after all, is a relative term. The story reinforces what Fernandes excels at: taking well-worn SF ideas for a ride in new and fascinating directions. Some of those may verge into confusing dream-like realms, and others – like this one may be more standard. But they all use that platform to delve into base human relationships/emotions, like family, partner, love to see both the ecstasy and the cracks.

Fernandes is both a graduate of the prestigious Clarion West course, and a former slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine. His appreciation for classics of the SF genre and of literature, mythology, and philosophy in general should be obvious. This is a debut collection that literary speculative fiction fans should not pass up, and I believe they will look forward to seeing more from him in the future as much as I do.


CREATIVE SURGERY by Clelia Farris (Translated by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)

Creative Surgery
By Clelia Farris
(Translated from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)
Rosarium Publishing — September 2020
ISBN: 9781732638839
— Paperback — 172 pp.


Last night I started reading a new ~250 page novel. Even with Food Network on in the background, I plowed through and enjoyed half of it with no challenge. It’s conventional literature with a contemporary setting, straight-forward plot, and an unadorned, conversational voice. What a drastic shift from what I just read prior. Creative Surgery by Clelia Farris may be a slim volume, but the collection of seven short stories packs a density and intensity that demands vigilant attention and careful reading. But, that requirement for focus will be greatly rewarded: with profound and provocative insights into her characters, wonderment at the speculatively imaginative worlds she paints, and dazzlement at the literary finesse she employs to accomplish it all.

The title Creative Surgery comes from the final tale printed in this collection (reflected in the cover art), but it can also be taken to apply to what Farris does with genre literature through her writing. She does not settle for one speculative item to focus on, but creates multiple layers of details to combine into one adhesive whole. The opening story of the collection “A Day to Remember” illustrates this in ways better than any generalized attempt could: The story is set in climate change dystopia, where floods have inundated a city and created a patchwork of humanity separated on small makeshift islands of detritus or remnants of buildings still high enough for now to clear the water’s reach. Grafted to this setting is the protagonist Olì, a woman who is an artist with the technology to work on the personal canvas of memory. But she also uses other media for more public display of her art. Already enough in theory to feature in a short story. But not for Farris. Albeit a short story on the longer novelette size, she is able to put a ton more into this one tale: water-bound marauders geared up like sharks, family strifes, class divisions, experimental cooking recipes (cakes with candied clams in the middle – yum!), food-based bartering systems, deadly shifts in temperatures from the climate crisis, orphaned children… Where one might expect these disparate bits to clash like a cat’s head on a tortoise, Farris somehow makes it – the weird absurdities of it all – seem completely natural, surgically placed together into a brief work of literature delving into the theme of human commitments to one another, and the memories we choose to keep or lose of those connections.

Each story within the collection needs to be approached completely anew, readers need to get their bearings on what kind of world they now find themselves thrust into. At times, the answer to this is not fully clear, perhaps, until the end has been reached, meaning that several of the stories benefit from rereading and thought based on the first impressions. There are some small flourishes that Farris returns to within each story to give the reader some soupçon of familiarity, often humorous eccentricities of character’s personalities. One of these is mention of food that the character’s mentioning enjoying (or using as currency), particularly fish and shellfish; not a surprise given Farris’ native Sardinia. Another is misanthropic secondary characters that complain about their no good, bastard, cheat relatives, business partners, or neighbors. The de Sade company shows up mentioned in at least two stories. Though really small details, they nonetheless serve to help anchor the reading experience as something unified between the seven very unique stories.

“Gabola” features a man of that name, who specializes in recreating objects from the ruins of the hills where he lives on the edge of the city. The antiquity thieves that end up unwittingly taking his relatively worthless recreations don’t care for that much. But, what is most concerning for Gabola is that plunder is the only attention that the ruins, and the priceless history contained within them are getting from the community at large. Now, plans to raze the ruins to make room for new buildings are proposed, with only Gabola seeming to care to prevent it. The name Gabola is also a slang term, that from context one gathers means something worthless – junk. Both what Gabola produces, and what he himself represents in the eyes of others that look to progress and not the past. Like the protagonist of the previous story, and many others in this collection, Gabola exists as an outsider, doing his own thing.

Of all the stories, “Gabola”, is perhaps the most difficult to first get one’s bearings. It begins with a third-person passage from the point of view of a thief, and then introduces Gabola in the third person before abruptly switching to first-person. Thereafter first- and third-person portions appear, with occasional second-person declarations from Gabola. It makes for jarring transitions, but I can imagine how this is symbolically consistent with the theme of the story that contrasts Gabola’s point of view of the ruins and history with that of his contemporaries. As much as I found the story interesting, I did feel this one could have been abbreviated while achieving the same impact.

“Secret Enemy” and “Rebecca” both feature characters who are kept prisoner in one way or another. The first of these is the one story I want to go back and read again, as I’m still trying to make sense of it all. In it, a man is kept behind a bathroom mirror (in another room?) to serve as a sort of physician/nutritionist for his captor. Through first person narration he details the interactions with his captor, observations of guests to the house, and the Japanese flower art arrangements he does to pass time. Despite being a prisoner, he comes to realize (and act upon) the power he has over his captor’s health. Whether this man is actually a separate entity or a part of the captor I am still uncertain of, and there are worlds of analysis that still could be done with the brief story.

“Rebecca” is one of my favorite selections from the collection – probably along with the first one “A Day to Remember”. I love the Du Maurier novel, and the Hitchcock adaptation. that form the inspiration for this tale. But I adore Farris’ story not just for drawing from those classics, but making a fabulous story from the characters and themes of Rebecca that works in its own speculative right. This is one where the progression of it – and its ending – really reveal the clever idea behind it all, so I don’t want to spoil that. But it again involves that ‘creative literary’ surgery of Farris’: physics and feminism stitched onto the gothic framework.

Each of the proceeding stories mentioned, along with “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas”, are translated for this collection from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco. I don’t know Italian to be able to technically comment on the translation details, but the English presented here flows beautifully, even with those jarring moments of shifting voice or perspective in some of Farris’ more complex writing. I should also mention that Rachel is a dear colleague and friend whose Speculative Fiction in Translation site I contribute to. So I probably am biased. Nonetheless, I’ll be honest and say that my one critique with this is that I’d wish for footnotes explaining more about certain passages or translations. “Gabola” is one example that could have benefited. On the other hand, I imagine some readers might find footnotes obtrusively annoying.

I already reviewed both “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas” on Speculative Fiction in Translation when they were published in short fiction outlets last year. If interested, you could click to read those reviews there and find links to the stories. A new read through them actually led to new insights and appreciations of the stories, again verifying just how well these stories hold up to multiple reads.

Jennifer Delare translated the final story of the collection, the eponymous “Creative Surgery” features a pair of outsider artist-type characters: in this case a creator of animal hybrids or chimeras who can cut, and her assistant, who can join. The story stands apart as going from the speculative edge toward horror, like the Mary Shelley story it uses at least in part as inspiration. It is used though to examine the central themes that pervade several of Farris’ other stories: human interactions and creations of beauty even amid exploitation.

The blurb quote on the cover of Creative Surgery by Cat Rambo is very apt. Firstly in the adjectives she uses to describe the writing. But also apt in that it’s Rambo providing it. The complex, detailed speculative creativity and style of Farris and the voice of her characters actually does remind me of what I’ve read from Rambo. Worlds seeming so bizarre, yet wholly believable. Creative Surgery has already gotten great reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine as well. My voice may not ring as far as those get, but if you happen to hear it, do give this a look. It deserves attention from the SF genre world, as well as any who appreciate literary short fiction in general.


OF DARKNESS by Josefine Klougart (Translated by Martin Aitken)

Of Darkness (Om mörker)
By Josefine Klougart
(Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)
Deep Vellum Publishing — January 2017
ISBN: 9781941920503
— Papberback — 322 pp.


Today I have a review from the backlist of copies received: the second novel by Josefine Klougart translated into English by Martin Aitken: Of Darkness, published by Deep Vellum. A critically acclaimed young voice in current Scandanavian Literature, Klougart has five novels and additional works of prose published in her native Danish.

Several additional backlist titles from Deep Vellum are planned for review here in the near future, and as I try to bring more attention to translated fiction on Reading 1000 Lives, I hope to feature some of their current, new releases as well. Deep Vellum has an impressive catalog and their endeavor deserves support and readership. I’ve discovered several authors through them that I otherwise would have never read. Their prices are also great deals given the quality they put out.

Of Darkness represents a rare case of a book from Deep Vellum that I didn’t really like. Nonetheless, as I try to do here, let me provide a review that could show potential readers out there why it might be the perfect book for them.

Klougart writes beautifully, and I would give another of her novels a try, if it were more conventional, and at least had some skeleton of plot to support the atmosphere of its words. Of Darkness might be labelled as experimental in multiple regards. It lacks narrative or character development in the usual senses of a novel, with unnamed personages flowing through the scenes of its pages, starting with a particular ‘she’ and ‘he’. Although composed of prose, as novels typically are, the text most often veers closer to poetry, and also includes sketch illustrations and, at one point, turns briefly into the format of a script.

Poetry is not for me, as much as I’ve tried to read it. However, I can fall in love with poetic prose, as long as it has other aspects of story to anchor me. Even without such an anchor, I can still appreciate it in small doses, just not within a work that is over 300 pages.

Everything is shifting and merging in Of Darkness time, space, perception, revelation, relationships with the shifting styles of its experimental writing to mirror the nature of its themes. One moment Klougart gives us musical text like:

“January. Bells of frost beneath the horses’ hooves, compact snow wedged to the iron shoe, the frog of the hoof blued and fraying in the freeze.

High walls balanced on the branches here. 

It snowed, the way it had snowed for days, weeks soon.

Feet kicking up their fans of powdery snow with each step.
The darkness unrevealing of such detonations of crystal.

The crystal shares much with literature. Material held together in a particular pattern,
determined by particular rules. Structures repeating everywhere.

He can see that, he says. It makes sense.

She remembers the snow consumed her tracks and that she was unable to find her way home again.

Trudging, then to pause and listen to the sound of her breath, which in turn startled her. No way forward, no way back.

Like a year suddenly past. Or just a summer.

She remembers she gave up and thought of a farewell scene, a parting from her family and lover. She recalls being surprised at who turned up in her mind.

How many were present, and the way the snow settled in her hair.”  

Another moment, and Klougart writes in a different fashion, more akin to typical prose of a novel:

“There’s something satisfying about hearing a pop song’s reiteration of a simple truth, for instance the banality of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. You lose someone but at the same time gain a more complete picture of the love you nonetheless felt for that person. That’s one way of putting it. But one might also consider that time changes everything; that the next day will always be new; that in a way it’s too late to learn what you had to lose after you’ve already lost it—the glancing back over your shoulder, or the longer look, reveals the land you’ve covered to be different from the land in which you lived. The fields you left behind, the distance measured out in units of assumptions and kilometers. She stands with her hands on her midriff, concentrating on listening. But the light has the same effect as water, distorting all sounds. And yet she is certain, he is downstairs shaving with the electric shaver. The door is closed, she lies down and turns on her side. Lying there on the bed she can look down between the beams and see the door, which indeed is closed. 

She gets to her feet. The pane is steamed up, a drop of condensation travels down the middle. 

The sky is not blue but white; the light is the voice of the sun, unready as yet, though sleep-drenched it muscles in. The pane is soaking wet. She descends the loft ladder and cautiously opens the door of the bathroom. 

He is facing away, quite apathetic.” 

These two evocative passages represent brief sips that impress and astound me, and the novel may have succeeded for me in its entirety if I hadn’t gulped it in a few sittings, but rather just as sips every once in a while, across a span of months.

Klougart’s Of Darkness is a mediative look at loss, love, pain, living, and mortality. Even with its shifting styles it can become repetitive if forced and not given time to process its details. I would vastly prefer these themes to be covered in a narrative story, with occasions of poetic interlude. But that is not what Klougart has done, and that is valid.

Though not really for me, the evident high quality of this particular work by Klougart is equally the product of its translator into English, Martin Aitken. A sparse, atmospheric, poetic novel such as this demands remarkable and delicate precision in words. I cannot speak to the precision of the translation, but Atiken keeps all of the affect that appears intended by Klougart. Aitken has also contributed to the translation of the final volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic My Struggle, which may be familiar to many readers. There is enough interest for me still in Klougart to give his translation of her novel One of Us Is Sleeping a try one day, which seems to be more appropriate for my tastes.


NEXHUMAN by Francesco Verso

Nexhuman
By Francesco Verso
Translated by Sally McCorry
Apex Book Company — August 2018
ISBN: 9781937009656
228 Pages — Paperback


The discarded detritus of human civilization has overwhelmed the near future Earth, submerging society in kipple junk that many turn to scavenging for survival. This dystopic landscape of garbage has triggered further ecological misbalance, cultivating new endemic pathogens to menace humanity. Coupled with technological advances in bodily transformation and the expansion of immersive artificial realities, people are left disconnected from the natural world, and emotionally from one another.

Teenage Peter Payne lives with his mother and elder brother Charlie, but spends his time out working for Charlie by scavenging among the kipple, and running with The Dead Bones, a gang led by Charlie. Although his elder brother’s presence dominates his life, Peter doesn’t look up to Charlie with much respect. Sibling rivalry and Charlie’s abuse of Peter for personal gain span years, back to a horrific accident that left Peter with artificial limbs.

Whereas Charlie and other members of The Dead Bones look to the broken world and respond with further cruelty, Peter’s temperament eyes the world seeing the flashes of beauty that still remain, including a young woman, named Alba, who treats Peter with smiles, conversation, and a yearned-for general kindness that is otherwise absent from his existence.

However, one day that small spot of beauty in Peter’s life is savagely torn apart when Peter witnesses The Dead Bones take Alva and rip her into pieces. Peter realizes that Alba is a nexhuman, an advanced artificial human body that has had a human consciousness uploaded. Charlie and his gang have taken the one spot of beauty in Peter’s life to use for violent, carnal thrills, and ultimately profit from the sale of Alba’s parts. Society doesn’t consider nexhumans as really alive, and thus there is no murder, but Peter cannot see how this brutality could be any less heinous.

Peter sets out to recover Alba’s parts with the dream of restoring her to consciousness and life, to then profess his love and devotion to her. However this obsession places him squarely against his brother, alienates him from his mother and friends, and puts him at risk of more bodily harm.

Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman is thus a melange of Frankenstein and transhumanist cyberpunk, adopting the term kipple from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The plot is relatively straightforward, but the short length of the novel is packed with grand ideas of biology, transhumanism, consummerism, and human interactions. Sally McCorry’s translation of Verso’s Italian into English flows lyrically and brightly even through passages of dark violence to contrast with the dim, dank rubbish of the novel’s setting.

As a piece of speculative fiction set in the near future, Nexhuman contains both scientific and technological details to enrich the story. As a microbiologist I was ecstatic to see microbes mentioned repeatedly, where changes in the microbial communities that form the base of all life end up effecting the human characters in significant ways. While praising this inclusion I have to also criticize the errors in some of those details though. The text sadly conflates different groups of microbes: protists, bacteria, viruses, etc. To what degree the confusion between a bacteria and a virus here (for example) is due to translation or in the original I’m uncertain. But even with those errors I’m glad the subject is there, with changes in other organisms highlighted alongside the changes in human biology that the Nexhuman setting provides.

The overarching theme of transcendence amidst global ecological changes sits central to all aspects of Nexhuman. The increasing separation of humanity from the natural world and traditional human relationships drives people further into existences of distance and artifice. The ultimate expression of this is, of course, the uploading of a mind into the nexhuman form to live past death. To overcome that defining natural relationship of mortal fate. How diverged from the human body can one be while remaining ‘human’? Can virtual relationships supplant the absence of physical ones? Can existence in the world still proceed when no longer balanced with the rest of ecology? Can we transcend the biological when that foundational ecology it is built upon breaks apart under the weight of human impact?

Verso writes his characters dealing with these questions in largely non-judgmental strokes, leaving it up to the reader to see a mixture of both the promisingly good and disturbingly bad in Peter, secondary characters, or the world of the novel in general. There is much nobility in Peter, yet his obsession over Alba is also disturbingly intense and possessive, bearing little consideration over whether she would actually be grateful for his help, have any romantic feelings for him, etc.

Peter’s relationship (or really non-relationship) with Alba thereby illustrates the separation that has occurred between people in Nexhuman. Individuals have a harder time understanding both the nature of themselves, and of the Other. Peter defines Alba solely through his own emotions and desires. A nexhuman woman who simply smiled and is kindly polite to him is now an object of sexual obsession, someone who he imagines with be beholden to him when he ‘saves’ her. The lack of emotional interaction between people has left everyone, even Peter, with an ability to look past selfish considerations. Though he occasionally wonders if Alba would stay with him or reject him were he able to restore her body to life, Peter never fully seems capable of looking at her realistically as someone apart from his desires.

The thematic depth and elegant prose of Nexhuman make it a powerful and throught-provoking read that will also entertain without requiring a large time commitment. I originally picked up a copy of this on Rachel Cordasco’s recommendation (Speculative Fiction in Translation), as a possible text to use in a Biology in Fiction course I teach. With all the discussion this book could provoke, I certainly intend to use it. I hope you’ll check it out too if you’re intrigued.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019. Look for one more review of an Apex title here later this month.

In the meantime, they are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.

TARGET IN THE NIGHT by Ricardo Piglia (Translated by Sergio Waisman)

27847216
Target in the Night
(Emilio Renzi #2)
By Ricardo Piglia
(Translated from Blanco nocturno by Sergio Waisman)
Deep Vellum Publishing — October 2015
ISBN 9781941920169 — 288 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


As unique a piece of crime/detective fiction that one will likely come across, Target in the Night is an acknowledged literary masterpiece, winner of the 2011 Premio internacional de novela Rómulo Gallegos and other prestigious prizes for Spanish language literature. In the few years since its translation into English by Deep Vellum Press, it has gotten even further positive reviews in multiple outlets. However, I found the novel to be a nigh impenetrable puzzle that I could never quite capture in the cross-hairs of my focus or enjoyment.
Set in a small, insular Argentinian town, the novel begins when Puerto Rican visitor Tony Durán is found murdered in his hotel room after flamboyantly arriving in town and sleeping with the twin Belladonna sisters, members of a powerful family that gained its wealth in the crooked industry of horse racing. Authorities make an arrest, but Police Inspector Croce remains unsatisfied, convinced there is something buried and committed to discover the truth behind Durán’s murder, no matter the cost. Emilio Renzi, a reporter who appears as a character in other novels by Piglia joins Croce in the investigation, and in this way Renzi serves as the point-of-view narrator of events, recounting them years after their completion in a nonlinear pattern.
While the plot of Target in the Night seems rather straight-forward and conventional for a crime thriller, it’s style is decidedly the opposite, from the aforementioned nonlinear structure to an unconventional focus away from details of the crime, or its resolution, themselves to a postmodern meditation on the politics of an intricate web of characters, on seeking interpretations of truth in a corrupt society where nebulous, authoritarian forces spin individuals into intractable realities.

There is nothing inherently problematic with this unconventional approach. Were I to have read up a bit more on the novel prior to my starting reading, it may have lessened my frustrations with finding its rhythm, because all my expectations of a ‘detective novel’ would have been shed. But even so there remain some significant potential impediments for readers. One is an ignorance of its historical context. Target in the Night is rife with not just abstract philosophical strains, but also with specific metaphor and commentary on Argentinian political unrest. The Spanish language here may be translated with fidelity, but I have no basis for making the full cultural connections the novel paints. The slow paced building of Piglia’s ideas through novel combined with a cold, almost emotionally distant personality of his characters exacerbates this inability to connect. Given the large number of eccentricities that Piglia gives his characters, I was surprised how hard it became for me to get into them, and the text.

Piglia, who sadly passed away in January of last year achieves some staggeringly impressive writing, that while not easily approachable is evocative and at times poetic. Despite that, this particular novel simply did not work for me. Readers who appreciate intellectual literature still might want to check Target in the Night out, particularly if more familiar with the history of Argentina than I. The mystery and detective aspects of the novel provide an adequate backdrop of plot for Piglia’s craft, just don’t expect that plot to become more than a means to an end.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

BEFORE by Carmen Boullosa

27135622
Before
By Carmen Boullosa
(Translated by Peter Bush)
Deep Vellum Press — June 2016
ISBN 9781941920282 — 120 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


Before is a perfect example of what makes Deep Vellum Press so invaluable in providing access to English translations of modern world writers. Boullosa’s published works spans from poetry through plays to novels, generally focusing on themes of gender and feminism. This novella provides a finely distilled entry into her themes for those who can’t fluently read Spanish and/or are hesitant to commit to any one of her seventeen novels published in Mexico (with some translated and at least once in print in the US).
Billed as “part bildungsroman, part ghost story, part revenge novel,” Before is told by a woman who may — or may not — be dead, in an uncanny narration that disjointedly recollects her past, the relationships that kept her in fear while young through that uncertain journey to adulthood. Like Modiano, Boullosa’s seems particularly focused here on the theme of memory. Whereas the French novelist has often explored this on the collective cultural/national level, Boullosa’s prose dredges through the personal and familial.
   “(I feel surrounded on all sides by loose ends of memories I’ve invoked when telling you my story. They all rush up, want my hand, as if they were children, shouting ‘me first,’ and I don’t know which to take first, for fear that one will rush out, decide not to come back in a fit of pique. I lecture them: ‘Memories, be patient, let me take you one at a time to consider you more favorably, please understand that if you come at the right moment you’ll shine better in my eyes, you’ll burst and liberate all the treasures hiding on the backs of your roan mares…’ If only I could write what I relate and devote eternity to reading it…)” — pp. 43 – 44.
Before captures and celebrates the contradictions inherent in these relationships and their associated memories:
“My grandmother looked at me disappointedly because I wasn’t the boy she would have liked. My dad…he didn’t look at me that day or any subsequent day, till I lost count. Then, when I stopped noticing he wasn’t looking at me, he did look and did play with me. He was fantastic to play games with.” — p. 11.
Alongside her family, fear lurks as embodiment of the factor that has most influenced the narrator’s memories and development.
“Afterwards I fell asleep and the [terrifying sounds] that woke up…the ones that woke me up! I was in holy fear of them, a nameless tasteless fear, a fear outside of me, that went beyond me…” — p. 27.
Boullosa paints this fear as as a force that parallels the narrator’s sense of isolation from the universe around her, strengthening the forces of patriarchy that stifle her budding individualism and any self-confidence she might discover.
The melancholy tone of Before and its soupçon of the supernatural make it into an eerie auto-bereavement of how a woman began and how the power of others molded her into something else, an entity distinct from what she could have been.
“Because I’m not what I was like as a child. I am who I was, that’s true, I am or think I have been the same from the day I was born to today, but my eyes are not the same.” — p. 65.
The disjointed, fragmented nature of Before, characteristics inherent in memory, should not dissuade readers. Within the novella length this type of construction is palatable and apt. Those who appreciate intelligent, atmospheric meditations on these themes of womanhood, family, memory, and mortality shouldn’t hesitate to allow Before to speak to them.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.