August: late summer and officially Women in Translation Month. In honour of that designation, here’s a goodly selection of books written by women: from France, Peru, Italy, South Korea, Catalonia and the Canary Islands.
Elisa Shua Dusapin’s South Korea-set novel, Winter in Sokcho, won the US National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2021. Her second, The Pachinko Parlour (Daunt, £9.99), like its predecessor, elegantly translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins, deals, as did the previous book, with the slippery quest for identity: both that of a country and a person. In present-day Tokyo, protagonist Claire, a postgraduate student, explores the history of her family and her uncertain place within it through her elderly grandparents, who fled Korea for Japan in 1953 following the Civil War, and have never gone back. Visiting them for the summer, Claire is attempting to organise a much-postponed trip to what is now South Korea: but through their reluctance it keeps stalling.
At the centre of the book, and its symbol, is the pachinko parlour of the title, a tiny slot-machine business her grandparents had run since arrival in Japan. For them, increasingly frail, the world has altered gradually, but utterly: the pastime of pachinko evolving into a huge moneymaking enterprise, taking place in major casinos and vast arcades owned by big corporations, “with a reputation for funding the main political parties under the counter”. Dusapin’s beautiful prose, with imagery both metallic and mineral, insinuates its way towards a delicate empathy between the generations, as well as examining the confusion that comes with dual nationality, and the lifetime loss that is exile.
“Isora’s house had two storeys. The top was where they used to live. The bottom was a large room that was turned into a second living space. They only started using the new space after Isora’s mother killed herself.” Andrea Abreu’s first novel Dogs of Summer (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99), a tale of the intense friendship of two young girls one baking hot summer in 1990s Tenerife, is no misty-eyed elegy. Translated with huge force by Julia Sanches, this deceptively slight, inflammatory book is intimate and forceful.
Its narrator, a nine year old uncompromisingly called Shit (her name sets the tone for the entire novel) tells a caustic, claustrophobic story of disturbingly sexualised preadolescent children: bored, traumatised, blistering with a mix of envy, tenderness and viciousness. From confounding gender norms and confronting body shaming, to disobeying adults and the shock of first erotic feelings, Abreu throughout deploys bachata lyrics and a casual, visceral use of dialect and profanities. The result is sensual and dirty, absurdist and tragic. Abreu’s talent is thrilling to witness.
Annie Ernaux, at the age of 82, is at last becoming as revered outside of her native France as she has been for decades within it. Her extraordinary gift of blending auto-fiction and memoir to paint a portrait of French society and human relationships since 1940, the year of her birth, continues to transgress boundaries, with its simultaneous blend of frankness and detachment.
In Getting Lost, Ernaux’s latest book to be translated into English (by Alison L Strayer; Fitzcarraldo, £12.99) the writer uses the diary form (transcribed from a journal kept almost daily at the time) to convey the ardent and necessarily secret love affair she had at the end of the 1980s with a man who was an attaché at the Soviet embassy in Paris. Younger than she, and married (Ernaux was at this point divorced, almost 50, and with two adult sons), “S”, as Ernaux explains in a brief introduction, ”… was thirty-five. His wife worked as his secretary at the embassy. His trajectory, which I pieced together over the course of our meetings, was typical of a young apparatchik…”
The story is specific, yet, in its languor, curiously timeless — obsessive passion, endless waiting for snatched moments: the long, anxious hours of before and after: “3:30 pm. S hasn’t called yet. I’m in exactly the same state I was at twenty or twenty-two after a sleepless night.” Importunate, full of longing yet still itemising the details of her own life, and the life of Paris at that time, Ernaux has once more created a living document of existential terror and hope.
Natalia Ginzburg died in 1991, yet the Jewish-Italian author’s work, championed in reissues by the UK’s Daunt Books Publishing among others, is beginning to find legions of new fans. Among them is Sally Rooney, who has written a very personal foreword to Ginzburg’s All Our Yesterdays (Daunt, £10.99), which first appeared in English translation in 1956. For their new edition, Daunt has retained that translation by Angus Davidson, who died in 1980.
Among the many and variable interpreters of Ginzburg’s work, Davidson’s stands out for its clarity and measured tone. It’s a quality that burnishes the book’s 400 or so pages. Readers of Ginzburg’s thinly veiled memoir Family Lexicon will find something of a parallel in this novel, but it is, with its unobtrusive insights, her masterpiece — an Italy writhing under the early days of fascism and dictatorship but still hopeful, personified by Ippolito, the young, anxious eldest son of a family whose irascible father dies at the beginning of the book, and by his fellow anti-fascist activists in a town in northern Italy.
The book’s main focus comes to be Ippolito’s youngest sister Anna, whose liaison with her childhood companion Guima leads, as war breaks out, to an unplanned pregnancy, marriage to an older friend of her father’s and transplantation — with all its accompanying enmities and complicities — to a small village near Rome. Ginzburg’s matter-of-fact, unsentimental writing evokes much that is not said: the quiet heroism and foolish antics of citizens under occupation are given as much, if not more, attention as the war itself, rumbling away in the background.
Peruvian writer Katya Adaui navigates the often treacherous waters of family in Here Be Icebergs (Charco Press, £9.99), her first collection of stories to appear in English, translated with verve and just the right amount of tension by Rosalind Harvey. Harvey explains in an after note that “the dysfunction in the families who feature here ranges from the relatively unremarkable (two sisters’ starkly different experiences of childhood) to the traumatic (a boy being abused by his cousin in a basement)”.
Many of the 12 stories make for tough reading but their content can also be horribly recognisable: “I never hit you, darling, it was your brother,” a mother says, ambiguously, to her adult daughter in the opening salvo, The Hunger Angel, which consists of 68 micro-aggressions of memory, all counting backwards to the big reveal of the narrator’s earliest recollection. The second story, If Anything Ever Happens to Us, begins with the ironically familiar statement: “Against all odds, we survived Christmas.” We, The Shipwrecked deals with a daughter’s grief for her newly dead father, as does The Waves. “Getting through childhood is to survive the worst of all tsunamis,” a woman recalls her mother as observing, in The Colour of Ice. Brief, incendiary tales, flaring into being.
“I’d always thought of pregnant women as just women with bellies swollen to the size of dwarf planets. Now I know that’s not all it is. A visibly pregnant woman is a woman who’s had experience.” Boulder (And Other Stories, £11.99), Catalonian author Eva Baltasar’s gorgeous novel of queer life and love, is firmly tied to both metaphor and reality. Its eponymous narrator is a cook on a merchant ship off the coast of Chile when she meets Samsa, who bestows the nickname on her (“she says I’m like those large, solitary rocks in southern Patagonia”).
Whereas Boulder is content to remain tethered to her old ways with “lovers as fleeting as shooting stars”, Samsa, with whom she goes to live in Iceland, is nearly 40 and wants a child. The creation of a family unit unsettles and alienates Boulder: this is the second (the highly acclaimed Permafrost was the first) in Baltasar’s trio of works about queer women’s lives. Her prose, exquisitely translated by Julia Sanches, is rich, dark, courtly: her ideas are universal.