Friday, 27 March 2015

Portable Magic: the *Spanish* books I've been disappearing into.

Thank you for the warm welcome many of extended to this series after the first post last month and thanks for all chiming in with your bookmark confessions in our chat about folding down corners.

My eyes and hands may be occupied by crafty scraps much of the time but writing is what keeps my head and heart satisfied.  So it made sense to recognise that by introducing these new book-loving 'wordy' posts to my blog this year. So let's get on with today's chapter shall we?

Last month I talked about The Infatuations by Javier Marias - a book translated from Spanish and, at that time, I hadn't planned for it to kick-start a veritable Spanish literature festival on my bookshelf ... but, somehow the next two novels I read were also translated from Spanish.

So today I'll share with you the two novels which completed my Spanish literature hat-trick [or should that be my tres tantos de la literatura española? ]

I know some of you are taking part in a reading challenge this year which involves reading one translated book ... so maybe there'll be something for you here to look out for ...

Traveller of the Century :: Andres Neuman
This is a big book. In lots of ways.

For a start it's close to 600 pages. Which is fine by me. I enjoy a big book. I like the immersive feeling you get when you invest in reading something that long. Like I'm moving into another town, another era, another life for the duration.

And then there's the fact that it's so full of everything that it's very hard to describe in a short summary. The topics covered include everything from: European history, politics and the social conventions of the early 19th Century [in which the novel is set] - to love, sex, culture, the art of translating texts [the protagonist Hans is a travelling translator] and there's even a murder mystery plot thrown in for good luck.

So why did I pick it up from the library shelf? What drew me to it?

Well what caught my eye in the 'blurb' was the description of the [fictional, German/Prussian border] town of Wandernburg as having 'shifting geography' and I liked that idea. It sounded like it would, and indeed it does, give the book a slight air of magical realism.

In fact I thought it might remind me of Mark Z Danielewski's House of Leaves - where the house is creepily larger on the inside [and no, it's not a TARDIS.]

But it turns out that while the layout of the town does indeed keep changing [streets, building and landmarks never quite keep themselves in one fixed spot], baffling those who are unfamiliar with it, it strangely doesn't play a great part in the plot ... it just serves to keep the whole book in a slightly off-kilter, unreal, category, marking it out as being about 19th Century ... but which is happy to use more modern experimental narrative techniques.

Here are a few of my favourite quotes to give you a flavour of the prose.
"An hour later the cold was so severe that the fire no longer warmed them. [...] The wind entered the mouth of the cave and seeped into the cracks, through the gaps in their clothing, and under their nails".

I love the image of the wind being so persistent that it even makes its way under their nails!

And how about another delightfully clever visual:
"For the first time Lamberg let out a long guffaw, then seemed amazed at himself and sucked his laugh up again like a noodle".
Now then - it's time to put your hands over Granny's ears - because I want to talk about sex.

OK, I'm not actually going to talk about it [let alone quote from those scenes. Oh my!] but let me try to talk around it because as one review [from the Telegraph via the Amazon page] describes Traveller of the Century: [it's] "a big, utterly captivating murder mystery and love story, full of history and politics and the hottest sex in contemporary fiction."

To be honest I don't generally stumble across much sex [now there's a image you might not get out of your head for a while] ... I mean in the in the fiction I read so whether it's the hottest .. I don't know. But the relationship between Hans and Sophie - who wants more for her life than the stifling social codes of the day afford her - is both undeniably hot and, for me at least, an entirely unexpected interlude in the middle of this vast book about all kinds of other things!

The blurb said there was a 'love' story so I wasn't exactly prepared for any of the more ... let's call them 'energetic' scenes ...  let alone what Sophie did with those soap suds ...

But for the record, like the rest of the text, all those scenes are very well crafted and not at all cliché or exploitative. But they are graphic - so consider yourself forewarned.

Me? I'm not especially shockable so I didn't mind in the slightest except ... there was just one issue I had with those scenes ... none of which is the fault of author Andres Neuman:

I wandered into the majority of those scenes while at work.

When my student is busy working, and doesn't need any assistance, I can occupy myself with a book. Which is fine and dandy ... until you find yourself in a room full of students learning how to search the library catalogue ... and suddenly you find yourself thrust into a carriage with someone wearing tight breeches ... and then you're in a bedroom when whoops! there go the breeches ...

I was completely paranoid that everyone would know what I was reading. As if there might be a large speech bubble above my head displaying the words as I read them! And, blimey ... did I make doubly sure that no one was reading over my shoulder!

So, how can I round this review up? Well, not wishing to reduce this vast multi-layered intellectual novel down to level of discussion my sister and I tend to have over wine and Pinterest - but ...

... if there's anything that will get you through the story it'll be leading man Hans. You'll love him so much you really won't mind spending 600 pages with him.

He's intelligent, forthright, decent [he looks after an ailing old organ grinder and his dog for goodness sake] and not to mention dashing [wild hair and big white shirts, it's all there]... in fact ...

... if Aiden Turner's got time on his hands after Poldark I could happily see him in the role of our traveller Hans anyone cares to turn this into a mini-series!

Further reading:

Inferno :: Benito Perez Galdos
Like the Traveller of the Century Benito Perez Galdos's Inferno is also set in the 19th Century.
But, unlike the Neuman's novel which was published in 2012 ... this one was written and published in the century it was set [1884 to be exact] and it shows.  
Sophie in Traveller of the Century [the one enjoying herself with Hans] is a woman fighting against the social constraints of her time and making an attempt to live within the patriarchal oppression while trying to push at its boundaries. 
Meanwhile, Amparo, the protagonist in Benito Perez Galdos's Inferno is just as stifled ... but don't expect any forthright speeches on how and why things must change from her. And the relationship she develops with her leading man couldn't be more different to that of Hans and Sophie.
And that's the thing about reading something set when it was written ... it's more closely aligned to the attitudes of the day. Which is not to say that Perez Galdos is entirely unsympathetic to Amparo's plight [whose only options for a stable future are given as marriage or the nunnery!]. It's just that he's reflecting what was. Not what we - in our enlightened vantage point 130 years later - would prefer it to be.
This book contains some achingly frustrating scenes where you just want to shake the characters and tell them to get over it. To just be together. To stop caring what polite society will and won't allow.
And even more disturbingly there's a whole section of the book containing scenes of what we'd now term 'domestic violence' which I found desperately claustrophobic and uncomfortable. But then ... they were no doubt intended to be. That kind of character exploration shouldn't be easy to read. But, in a book I was already struggling to like ... this really asked a lot.
Have you ever read something set in the past but written recently and found yourself  pointing out its anachronistically feisty female characters saying "Oh that would never have happened? She would never really have been so bold, so outspoken, so emancipated" etc etc ... and you roll your eyes at the author for putting 21st Century words into 18th Century mouths? Well ..
... what reading Inferno has taught me is: when you find yourself inside a book which shows how some women really couldn't escape oppressive social conventions ... you'd really give anything for one wonderfully freeing unrealistic moment of defiance!  
Further reading: this was tricky to find, there's not a great deal out there - not that's been translated into English at least. Plus the book seems a little tricky to get hold of - I came across my copy randomly in a charity shop.
So, that's my journey into Spanish fiction over for now. Since then I've visited Nigeria, America and Sweden ... maybe I'll give you a tour of those books another time.
Until then I'll welcome your thoughts on:
  • reading translated fiction
  • reading any of the novels or themes I've mentioned
  • or even ...
  • how you've perfected your poker-face while reading sex scenes in public ... 
 I await your comments ...


  1. I got sidetracked by the bookmark debate on the linked post (to which I have now added my pennyworth) and now have to come and answer your sex question... isn't it amazing that you always feel everyone knows what's happening on the page when you're reading a raunchy sex scene! Not sure I've perfected my poker face...

  2. Ooh, I absolutely loved "Traveller of the Century" totally lost in it and loved every minute of it (another one where I walked around feeling lost for months afterwards - yes, I'm still missing Boris)....adored this post of yours (my heart now gives a little leap and my fingers can't click through fast enough when I see 'Portable' in the title of your blog posts!).....thank you xxxx

  3. I've felt suitably moritified this month after the bookmark fiasco so I've been using one just in the book police come and visit lol. I've a fair bit of translated fiction as I read the Girl with the dragon tattoo series, I've also read Les Liaison Dangereuse translated from French which was a brilliant read after having seen the film well worth a dip. I have also read The Shadows of the wind which I believe is a Spanish book translated to English and I'm sure a few more which I've forgotten. Oh yes I've also read and had to translate Chaucer for English A level does that count. It was awful but the stories were hilarious
    Jo xxx

  4. I have just got hold of a copy of The Infatuations - yet to start it. I listened to a play on Radio Four a couple of weeks ago and at the end found out it was by Javier Marias - I enjoyed it very much by the way. I have read lots of Scandinavian fiction that has been translated and have loved them all.

  5. I have much enjoyed your reviews, Julie, and giggled at the thought of the big speech bubble over your head :). Though as to bullet point four, I am not sure I've ever tried. Perhaps I need to visit the library and give it a go! I will definitely look out for your first title - great use of language and well-translated by the sound of it.


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