Posts Tagged ‘Ian McEwan’

Grand Tour #22 – Lithuania. Breathing into Marble / Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė

September 30, 2017

Ah, Lithuania. The very name evokes memories of wondering where Lithuania was and why I should care about it. I once had some school trousers marked ‘Made in Lithuania’, on the observation of which fact my mother said blithely, ‘Oh, you should tell Mr Roberts, he’d be really interested.’ (Roberts here being the altered name of my geography teacher.) I neglected to take her advice, lacking the nerve, and also thinking perhaps that for proof Mr Roberts might ask to see inside my trousers; sure enough, within a year, he left the school following a misdemeanour (that for the sake of accuracy I should stress was not sexual). Apart from those trousers, which I wore almost every weekday for a period of presumably a couple of years, my experience of Lithuania (was it Lithuania? yes it was) is nonexistent.

Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė! (Bless you.) A Lithuanian writer who has had a novel published in translation, which is what makes her of interest to us (to me, at any rate). Namely her 2006 novel Breathing into Marble (Kvėpavimas į marmurą), which appeared last year in a translation by Marija Marcinkute, published by Noir Press.

I don’t normally shrink from the spoiler, but in this case I think I will, partly because I don’t want to deter future readers of the book, but mainly because the plot elements that might count as spoilers aren’t really the point. I could say, X kills Y at the start of the book, but the interest of the book is primarily psychological, and in places supernatural. So I’ll just write about some of the things I thought while I was reading it.

Breathing into Marble is ostensibly about the relationship between a woman, Isabel, and her wild adopted son, Ilya. Isabel and her husband Liudas have a son already, the precocious Gailius, but on a visit to the orphanage run by her friend Beatrice, Isabel takes a shine to the uncommunicative boy with the piercing brown eyes who refuses to take her hand.

I think about feral children a lot, read books about them, watch films about them. Ilya’s not feral, but he’s an enigma, his pre-orphanage childhood unknown. Perhaps it is the trauma of Isabel’s own childhood, which we do see in flashback, that is the source of her bond with Ilya, that makes her determined to get through to him, even at the expense of the other things she holds dear.

From a distance Ilya’s tiny face was hard and dark, but when Isabel drew closer it stirred like wind-blown blossom.

No, it wasn’t blossom yet – more like a tightly folded bud, the petals of his personality firmly knotted still inside, all his lines shy and inarticulate.

Nobody could tell yet when he would bloom, what he would be like and into what he would mature.

It is hinted occasionally that Ilya shares a kinship with the fox. I don’t know why stories of foxes move me so much, but that is certainly the case. Harriet Graham’s unjustly forgotten children’s novel A Fox Under My Jacket, Fantastic Mr Fox, and so on, but particularly David Garnett’s fable of vulpine metamorphosis Lady into Fox. Ilya spies a fox in its den, and the den becomes a place of pilgrimage to him; an encounter with a deer also has a profound affect on him. A boy closer to animals than to people. A part of the book’s mythology that appealed to me.

Gailius is a sympathetic character, Ilya’s ‘good’ counterpart, a boy wise beyond his years but with a spirituality of his own that upsets Isabel. Perhaps as a result of his occasional epileptic fits he has a morbid streak. He talks matter-of-factly about his own death, and even anticipates it in a section drawn from his notebook, where we briefly hear his own voice, the only part of the novel told in the first person.

When I think about death I can’t picture it. I can only feel it as it approaches – it always comes a bit too early … I know that my death is growing up with me, and that it is sharp and fast, like a stab. It won’t attack me from the back. It will call out with its secret, velvet voice and, when I turn, it will pierce me like a knife. But we will have looked into each other’s eyes. It isn’t sly – it’s just that death is much faster than we are.

I salute Černiauskaitė (and her translator) for their creation of a mood of macabre unease. It reminded me at times of Ian McEwan’s early books, of intelligent horror films like Goodnight Mommy, of the Dardenne brothers’ The Son. If this sounds like your sort of thing, give it a go.


Grand Tour #13 – Slovenia. Games with Greta & Other Stories / Suzana Tratnik

June 17, 2017

I’m now done with the familiar countries until I get to Scandinavia. The Balkans and the Baltic beckon. Slovenia’s uncharted territory. I don’t know the first thing about it; even the football team’s a closed book. And the waters are only going to get murkier: Cyprus, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania…

Still, I thought I’d probably found a winner: a book of short stories by Suzana Tratnik, Games with Greta & Other Stories, translated by ‘Michael Biggins and others’ and published by the brilliant and enterprising Dalkey Archive Press. (The ‘others’ turn out to be the unpronounceables: Tamara Soban, Špela Bibič, Mojca Šoštarko and Elizabeta Žargi.) And Tratnik’s Wikipedia page was most encouraging: she’s translated Judith Butler into Slovene (!) and has been heavily involved in LGBT activism in Slovenia. Onward.

‘Games with Greta’ itself is a good place to start. It takes place at a family gathering, and is told by a girl who is forced together with Greta, the adopted child of relatives who have moved to England. The narrator snobbishly dislikes the parents, and decides to dislike Greta accordingly. Memories came flooding back of my own childhood, and of the handful of occasions when I was thrown together with distant cousins simply because we were roughly the same age. We had different temperaments and different ways of playing. They had a Scalextric (which I dare say I judged them for not being able to pronounce; they even called Tetris ‘Tertis’), and I had a dead tortoiseshell butterfly in a plastic box. (Actually I yearned for a Sega Master System II, but I assumed my parents would never buy it so I didn’t bother to ask.) We compromised on football.

The narrator (apologies for the unwieldiness of repeating this phrase, but Tratnik’s narrators are invariably unnamed; there is one story where she is referred to by her interlocutor as ‘Suzana’, which makes one wonder whether these stories are fictions after all, or rather thinly anonymised episodes from Tratnik’s own life) – where was I? – the narrator finds that Greta isn’t so bad after all, or at any rate that she isn’t an intolerable prospect as a playmate. This said, what evolves between them is a sort of power struggle with elements of the dangerous and the macabre. It can’t be a coincidence that Tratnik has translated Ian McEwan. This story is reminiscent of McEwan’s early writings, hinting at natural but somehow distasteful infantile sex play, and the pushing of boundaries, even the boundaries of some mystical netherworld. I thought it was really something.

More often the focus is adult relationships, particularly romantic relationships between women, and frequently relationships that are going through difficulties, either dying because of them or weathering them, and often because of geography and/or the passage of time. The elegiac ‘Trips Are Cheaper Now, Too’ sees two lovers, Jana and Vivi, reuniting for New Year, one of them still living in Slovenia, the other having moved to the Netherlands, and having problems adjusting to being around one another again. The excellent ‘Letters Without Envelopes’ has one character, living in Slovenia, acting as go-between for two lovers divided by war in Yugoslavia. One of my favourite stories, ‘The Subway’, is about a woman visiting a public model of Ljubljana’s proposed subway system, assembled by her former lover. The two women have contrasting personalities (hence the break-up), and it doesn’t take long for the old animosity to be rekindled.

‘Does this … subway of yours have burek stands?’ I asked Ines, since burek struck me as the only appropriate food for chewing your way through the street scene of Ljubljana.

‘No,’ she came to her project’s defense without batting an eye. There’d be no bureks. ‘No greasy food at all, don’t you see. We won’t be selling any bureks. And at all the larger stations – for instance Bavarian Court, Central Station, Clinical Center, Šiška Cineplex – there’ll only be stands with vegetarian fare. And fitness centers. I wouldn’t even sell Coca-Cola – and I’m not going to allow any Benetton shops or Müller products.’

‘Do you mean those German Müller puddings? Those are the only ones I buy anymore.’

‘Yes, but they support really awful right-wing politics.’

God knows what bureks support.

If a lot of these stories blur into a lesbian miasma (which is hardly a criticism), that has the effect of making the exceptions really stand out. The pick of those, I thought, was ‘Sewing the Princess’, a fable in which a child beaten by bullies enacts a kind of poetical revenge through the creation of a ‘princess dress’. Perhaps the sewing/suturing symbolism is overdone, but I loved the magic of the ending.

The raised roses on my princess dress reflect the light of the blazing sun and the reddish snow simultaneously. They look like streaks of blood on the snowy white dress. I just stand there.

You may be familiar with a Roald Dahl short story about bullying, ‘The Swan’, that is absolutely brutal. It baffles me that it appears in a collection for children, it’s so much more disturbing than his stories for adults. This story is a beautiful counterpoint to that one, and with a happier outcome. And a welcome hint of gender ambiguity at the end, too. I had to read the story twice and I’m still not sure I’ve read it right. It makes me curious about gender in the Slovene language, and of how to translate from non-gendered into gendered languages and vice versa. See posts on any number of linguistics blogs for more on that endlessly fascinating subject.

For a deeper, more perceptive and altogether better review of the book, do read this.