Friday, 30 January 2009


Reading a recent interview with George Szirtes at Hungarian Literature Online reminds me of all those unsung heroes that give us a window into the world's literature, showing us its culture, mind and soul. Sarah Weinman talking about the death of Bernard Scudder (translator of the Icelandic crime writers Indridason & Sigudardottir) calls them the "neglected stepchildren of literature".

The writer and translator David Albahari in an interview says "When you translate, you have to transform yourself. You have to become the writer whose work you are translating in order to find the best solution in your own language. You have to understand how his mind worked, how he dealt with the problem of structure, how he chose his words,...When you translate, you simply become more aware of the power of language to create, and sometimes to destroy, the world"

Of course it can go slightly wrong, the last book I read (the Murakami of the previous post) was translated by Alfred Birnbaum and his choice of English words was grating in parts. The writer Grigory Chkhartishvili, better know by his pseudonym Boris Akunin insists on approving his translators and Andrew Bromfield has translated all the English versions of the Erast Fandorin series of novels.

I think that translators who are poets seem to be the more successful, possibly because they are alive to the slippery nature of words. Possibly the reason the Japanes Zen Buddhist poet Ryokan is one of my favourites is because I read the beautiful translations by John Stevens in the book 'One Robe, One Bowl'. His understanding captures the essence of this poet.

As an example in the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse there is a poem translated by Bownas & Thwaite as:

The wind is gentle,
The moon is bright.
Come then, together
We'll dance the night out
As a token of old age

Stevens renders this as:

The wind is fresh, the moon bright,
Let us spend the evening dancing
As a farewell to old age.

As George Szirtes says "There is no such thing as a perfect literary translation and such judgements are inevitably coloured not only by personal but cultural circumstance" Translations "inhabit the air between two cultures".

So lastly I give thanks to those gifted translators through who we can read the Russian Classics, journey through books to all parts of the earth and sail with Odysseus to Troy.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Hard-boild Wonderland & The End of the World

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Quotes from the book:=
"Stealing memories is stealing time"
"But on the phenomenological level, this world is only one out of countless possibilities. As you create memories you're creatin' a parallel world"

We are in a future Japan where information is a commodity highly prized and the Calculecs work for The System whose competitors are the Semiotecs of The Factory but maybe these two organisations are one and the same or maybe not.

Two parallel story lines start with our narrator travelling in a hermetically sealed lift which he is not sure if it is going up or down. To calm himself he counts his loose change in both pockets simultaneously. A neat trick but simple for a Calcutec whose core consciousness has been altered so he can run information through one hemisphere of his brain, encrypt and scramble it.

He is met by a "chubby girl" in pink who leads him through labyrinthine passages to meet her grandfather, an eccentric professor who, amongst other things, can turn off sound. He is given information to scramble and told that the world depends on him carrying out his task.

The concurrent storyline is 'The End of the World" which is a walled town with few inhabitants and a herd of golden unicorns. Our narrator has just arrived but he has no memory of how he got there or memory of his past life. On entering the town he has to give up his shadow and becomes the towns dream reader. The shadow will not last long without him so they make a pact that he will map out the town for escape and they will leave. (This map appears in the frontispiece of the book).

Tokyo is the setting of the "Hard boiled Wonderland" which is full of hazard with a nod to Raymond Chandler we have two heavies in pursuit of our hero. There are strange watery underground places where dangerous creatures called INKlings roam. The End of the World is full of warnings, whirlpools and dark forests.

We inhabit both these strange places through Murakami's vivid descriptions and journey with our hero and supporting characters as the plot unfolds.

Murakami has a light touch and the theme of memory, consciousness and self is explored in an imaginative and entertaining way with a touch of dry wit.

Verdict - Recommended Read

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Edgars & In Bruges

The Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award Nominees have been announced in this year of the 200th anniversary of Edgar Alan Poe's birth.

I love a list but with this on top of the Guardian's "1000 novels everyone must read" series also coming out this week, I suspect, I may be tempted into more book buying.

What I like about the Edgars is the all encompassing nature of the awards within the genre. As the name mimics it is indeed like the Oscars although I don't know if they have a red carpet, maybe just a Masque of the Red Death with dripping blood.

I must admit that I have not read any of the books mentioned, yet, but Book Club Buzz has the full list and some links to his reviews.

I have seen one of the films that is up for Best Motion Picture Screenplay which is 'In Bruges' written and directed by the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. It is the story of two Irish hit men who have been sent away to a wintry Bruges at Christmas after one of their jobs goes wrong. Ray (Colin Farrell) hates Bruges and is haunted by the fact that he killed a little boy by mistake on this last assignment but Ken (Brendan Gleeson) loves the city and tries to enthuse Ray about medieval sites. The plot is clever and the dialog sparkles, there's a girl, a dwarf, Bruges itself and some black comedy plus a cameo appearance by Ralph Fiennes as the cockney boss. The two leads inhabit the parts and are wonderfully acted. A marvelous two hander as Brendan Gleeson's world weary part allows Colin Farrell to really shine on screen.

Verdict - Unpredictable Thriller. Recommended

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Kate Atkinson

'When Will There Be Good News' by Kate Atkinson

Quotes from the Book:- "A coincidence is just an explanation just waiting to happen" Jackson Brodie
"The best days of her life had been when she was pregnant and the baby was still safe inside her. Once you were out in the world, then the rain fell on your face and the wind lifted your hair and the sun beat down on you and the path stretched ahead of you and evil walked on it" Joanna Hunter

'When Will There Be Good News' opens with a slaying of a family by a stranger but the 6 year old Joanna runs and hides in the long grass. This section is marked 'In the Past'

We then move to 'Today' which is 30 years later and now Joanna is a GP in Edinburgh with a baby and married to Neil , a businessman who may be a bit dodgy. Her nanny is a precocious 16 year old called Reggie whose mother has drowned on holiday.

Other characters are introduced, Jackson Brodie, an ex army and police, currently a private detective, is in Yorkshire stealing hair from a boy who may be his son. DCI Louise Monroe, who is not sure where her own life is going, is about to alert Dr Hunter that her family's murdered has been released from prison.

Reaching one of the sections marked 'Tomorrow' (and there is more than one):

Suddenly Joanne Hunter disappears but DCI Munroe does not believe Reggie when she says something is wrong and has not, as Neil Hunter says, gone to visit her sick aunt. Brodie meanwhile is boarding a train he thinks is going to London, but he is wrong and it is heading in the opposite direction, to Edinburgh but he will not quite make it to the station as the train crashes.

Our protagonists are hurtling towards each other and now everybody believes that Joanna is missing. The plot gallops away taking more twists and turns to its eventual end.

This is a beautifully constructed novel, as you would expect from the author of 'Behind the Scenes of the Museum', although of a very different genre, but still full of dry wit, full drawn characters and a pacey plot.

Verdict: Rattling Good Read

Kate Atkinson's website here

Friday, 16 January 2009


The recent discovery of methane on Mars put me in mind of the novel 'The Martian Race' by Gregory Benford which is set in 2015 when the US government has abandoned the space programme when one of its rockets explodes killing all on board.

A $30 billion Mars prize is offered and a private consortium is formed to get to the planet and of course there also appears a rival group who aim to get there and back sooner and collect the prize.

The opening chapters where it is setting up the history I found a bit predictable and was considering not going any further but I am glad I persevered as once we get to the planet the book 'takes off'. Not to give too much away but things do not go smoothly, they discover something they name 'marsmat' which may be something more than it appears. The will they, wont they get off, who will survive and the resolution is effective, as well as the mysteries on the planet left a lot of questions to be answered. (There is a new release following the story of astronauts Viktor & Julia called 'The Sunborn' but don't know much about it yet).

The book raises the question of whether the exploration of the red planet will be a race for money or a hope of co-operation in space. Wonder which one will happen. I suppose we all live in hope that we do better in space than we have on this planet. I depends on whether I am having a pessimistic or optimistic day on what I think.

I loved Benford's descriptions of Mars and a lot of what he was writing about, in this 1999 novel, NASA have recently discovered (toxicity of soil etc). Of course he is an astrophysicist and a Professor of Physics with an imagination so I will have to keep reading.

Verdict: Ripping Yarn

Link to Gregory Benford's website here contains info on his fiction and non-fiction.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009


When a country takes over as the 6 month head of Europe a piece of art is produced, who knew that, well we do now due to the stir that David Cerny's 8 tonne 'airfix' type mosaic, of the EU countries, art installation outside the European Commission building in Brussels. It has amused me and has made me smile. Art that satirizes, questions, engages and makes one think while it gives you a playful dig.

All the EU countries stereotypes are represented; well apart from the UK which is missing as our politicians, media do not want to engage with Europe so are somewhat offshore.

Some of the other countries are:-

Romania - a Dracula theme park
Netherlands - minarets submerged by a flood
Germany - network of motorways (some have seen a vague swastika)
Bulgaria - squat toilet
France - a 'Greve' (strike) sign
Luxembourg - lump of gold
Finland - wooden floor with animals on it
Sweden - flat pack furniture
Italy - football pitch with goalposts at either end
Poland - priests waving a rainbow flag (symbol of inclusiveness, diversity & gay pride)
Spain - building site
Cyprus - two parts not joined together
Lithuania - row of soldiers pissing into Russia
Belgium - chocolate
Portugal - colonial countries

If you want to see the rest go to Harry's Place which has a link to the BBC pictures and also Cerny's brochure. The brochure lists all the countries and there are biographies and statements from the fictional artists who have supposed to have created each country which are amusing, especially the one he has done for his own country, the Czech Republic. The UK imaginary person is called 'Khalid Asad' and amongst the places he has exhibited is 'The Beer Mat Show' in Alicante. What is more British than that.

The installation apparently will go 'live' later this week when certain countries will start to move and make noises. For example Germany's cars and Italy's footie players. Wonder if there is a web cam nearby?

See the David Cerny site for more of his art. I like the babies climbing the Prague TV tower.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Dai Sijie

Just read that Dai Sijie's 2007 novel 'Par une nuit ou la lune ne s'est pas levee' has been translated (Once Upon a Moonlit Night) and published this year. It is set in the 1970s when Bertolucci is filming 'The Last Emperor'. One for my wish list.

I read his first novel 'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress' which was set in 1971 (the middle of Mao's Cultural Revolution). Two boys, sons of doctors, are sent to be 're-educated' by the peasants in the countryside (just like Dai Sijie himself was for four years). They discover and steal,, a hidden suitcase full of 19th Century Western novels, which they, and the Seamstress of the title devour with a fervour and as the months go by good and bad things happen to our trio.

This was a delightful read about love, literature and ideas and how stories have a power of their own that cross time and cultures which ultimately change all their lives. No wonder that dictatorships try to control books - they can be dangerous...

Recommended read.

Monday, 12 January 2009


Yesterday - a stormy day the wind and rain gusting and swirling, the waves foamed up the estuary. The sight in the afternoon of hundreds of geese filling the sky, flying in ever changing groups was spectacular. Whenever I see those distinctive V formations as they move from feeding site to their roosts it gives me a lightness of heart.

Geese often appear in Japanese Haiku. Here are two. The first is by Basho (b1644) and the other is by Issa (1763-1827)

Friends part
forever - wild geese
lost in cloud

Geese, fresh greens
wait for you
in that field

Saturday, 10 January 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

An alternative history of the world where the jews have temporarily settled in Sitka, Alaska as the state of Israel was destroyed in 1948 but the settlement is about to revert back to the USA and only a few will be allowed to stay. This is what turns the intriguing plot.

Meyer Landsman our anti-hero and hard boiled detective's life is falling apart and he is living in a dive called the Zamenhof Hotel when a man is discovered murdered with a half finished chess game on the table in his room. Landsman takes this as a personal insult that it could have happened in the place he is staying and starts to investigate with the help of his half Tingit and half Jewish partner Berko Shemets. They discover a whole lot more than they bargain for and the identity of the murdered man has more than local implications.

Michael Chabon writes in a vivid 'noir' syle and riffs with the similes, drawing a picture of the settlement with its fisures and crime masters. Landsman the detective tries to bring justice to the world in common with those other detectives of the genre brought to life by Dasheill Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

I would recommend 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union' by Michael Chabon and think it would be enjoyed by both Crime and SF fans although I think it is a book that transcends genre while also celebrating it. You'll also learn a smattering of Yiddish on the way.
Keep in the heart the journal nature keeps
From 'Preludes for Memnon'
by Conrad Aiken

Keep in the heart the journal nature keeps;
Mark down the limp nasturtium leaf with frost;
See that hawthorn bough is ice-embossed,
And that the snail, in season, has his grief;
Design the winter on the window pane,
Admit pale sun though cobwebs left from autumn;
Remember summer when the flies are stilled;
Remember spring, when the cold spider sleeps.

Such diary, too, set down as this: the heart
Beat twice or thrice this day for no good reason;
For friends and sweathearts dead before their season;
For wisdom comes too late, and come to naught.
Put down 'the hand that shakes', 'the eye that glazes';
The 'step that falters betwixt thence and hence';
Obseerve that hips and haws burn brightest red
When the North Pole and sun are most apart.

The winter treats us to cold bright blue days. A photograph taken at mid-day of a frosty boardwalk crossing part of the Duddon Mosses ( a system of raised mires on the Duddon estuary consisting of wet peat with a sphagnum moss surface). No fear of miry mud on this day as the pools of water were frozen and the footpaths iron hard.