I sat down to write this post last Tuesday, planning to write on The Book of Anna, but then we got a tornado warning and lost power, and here I am, four days later, with the power back only just this morning. It’s been a good week for reading, but everything else has been complicated and unpleasant.
Still, I now have three books to write about for Women in Translation month instead of one! Here are some brief thoughts:
The Book of Anna by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee, is weird, experimental, and meta while also being very readable and a lot of fun, a favorite combination of literary qualities. It’s sort of based on Anna Karenina, or maybe more like a spin-off of the novel. It takes place in 1905 and Anna’s two children, Sergei and Anya, are main characters, both of them dealing in different ways with the legacy of Anna’s death. There are also working-class characters caring for the Karenins as well as protesters and activists trying to get the Tsar to improve their lives. The country is on the brink of revolution.
Sergei and Anna are both characters from a novel and real people living in real life (or at least the “real life” of Boullosa’s novel). They struggle with what their existence means. Tolstoy appears in their dreams, disapproving of their decisions. Later in the book, we get some of Anna Karenina’s own writing, a work that’s briefly alluded to in Tolstoy’s novel. It’s all very fun: he mixing of fiction and “reality,” the glimpses into the beginnings of revolution, and the plot that involves the fate of Anna’s portrait, a plot that brings the novel to a satisfying close.
The Years by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison Strayer, was my next book. (The cover here is from the U.S. edition but I actually read the British Fitzcarraldo version, which I bought in Rome a year ago…sad sigh of regret since I was supposed to go to Rome again this year but couldn’t.) This is my second Ernaux novel this year, after reading A Girl’s Story this spring. I love her writing! The Years is a sort of autobiography, except that Ernaux never uses “I,” but instead tells the story using “we” and “us,” as though speaking for her generation. She starts with her earliest years as a child in World War II, moves through her schooling in the 50s and 60s, into married life, raising children, getting divorced, figuring out new ways to live. All along, she writes political and cultural history, bringing in elections, protests, technology, music, television. She uses photographs as starting points to remember who she was and what she experienced at different points along the way. She writes about memory and writing itself, interrogating the very project she’s undertaken. The book isn’t that long, but Ernaux manages to tell her own story and the story of her world in a way that feels full and rich, capturing the vast changes that took place over 60+ years.
A Girl’s Story, if you’re interested in reading more Ernaux, focuses on the summer of 1958 when Ernaux was 18 and left home to become a sort of camp counselor. It’s similar to The Years in tone and style, but focuses on a shorter period and looks closely at her early sexual experiences. It, also, is about time, writing, and memory, and is perhaps even more meditative and philosophical than The Years.
Lastly, I read Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn booth. This won the Man Booker International Prize last year. It’s the first novel written in Arabic to win this prize and the first book by a female Omani writer to be translated into English. It’s a family saga, complete with a family tree in the beginning. There are lots of characters, and I found the family tree useful, but it’s not a long book (a long family saga is not really my thing) and it’s not hard to keep track of everyone. It’s set in the small Omani village of al-Awafi and tells the story of three sisters and their fates, bringing in stories of their extended families and their slaves/servants. The sisters’ lives are defined by marriage, two of them following social expectations placed on them, and one rebelling. Each of them tries in their different ways to reconcile their own desires with the roles given to them. Also important is Abdallah, husband of one of the sisters. Most of the novel is in third person, switching from perspective to perspective, but his sections are told in the first person. They describe a life shaped by a cruel father and thwarted love.
The characters around the main ones — their parents, grandparents, in-laws, children, servants — are given their own stories, their moments in the spotlight, so we get a full picture of village life. This is another story of cultural change, as the generations approach love, marriage, and village vs. city life in different ways. Slave families are freed. Children move to the city. Couples divorce. So much changes, but each generation is defined by its struggle to shape their lives around love. It’s an absorbing novel as well as, for international readers, a valuable glimpse into Omani life.
I’m not sure what I’ll read next for Women in Translation Month; at the moment I’m reading Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know because it’s exactly what I’m in the mood for, but after that I think I’ll return to a work in translation. Which one it will be, who knows!