a nutshell: written over 25 years, these dogged short stories of dispossessed individuals are set first on or around the Hacienda Santa Rita (a sugar plantation in the Venezuelan Andes) then in Umbria, Italy – two places where the author chanced to live
a line: “Life took longer to live in the wet weather”
an image: SPOILER | for me, ‘Eladio and the Boy’ was an especially moving story – I found myself genuinely upset by the scene of inexplicable loss when Eladio’s quiet friendship with a pair of eagles is shattered by human intrusion & violence
a thought: I looked up the definition of southpaw: (1) a boxer whose strongest hand is the left (2) a person who uses their left hand to do most things – which I assume alludes to the stories’ contexts of South America and southern Italy, as well as the narratives of eccentricity (since left-handedness was historically perceived as such) and the characters’ ability both to receive and to administer blows
a fact: in the intro, the writer openly labels herself an “alien observer” in these communities; in the absence of anywhere specific to call home, she says she found an “emotional home in other people’s roots”
Navigating life inside and outside East Germany was robust training for becoming an acclaimed novelist. That’s not to say Jenny Erpenbeck, born in East Berlin in 1967, has had a one-dimensional career: from bakery sales to book binding, opera directing to writing, her CV is nothing if not eclectic. “My dad used to say it’s good if one chapter in your life is connected to the next,” she laughs over a pot of earl grey, “but in my life none is connected to any other!”
Yet, on the contrary, traces of Erpenbeck’s early chapters suffuse her fiction. A sense of social angst and upheaval permeates the author’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning novel The End of Days, as well as her latest book: Go, Went, Gone. Depicting a (formerly East) Berliner’s interactions with African asylum seekers in the German capital, Go, Went, Gone humanises the faces behind news stories, giving space to individuals’ memories of what had to be left in their countries of origin. “It was also exploring my own society,” Erpenbeck explains. “The adventure was not so much about the Africans but German society – how they deal with the issue, what reality the refugees face, and how my reality takes on a different look in their lives.”
It’s a multifaceted approach that contrasts sharply with the blanket anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far-right AFD (Alternative für Deutschland), who reap their strongest support from Germany’s east. “Often I’m asked why East Germans are especially against newcomers,” Erpenbeck says, “When I try to make sense of it, I’d say it’s the fear of being put in another situation of instability.” Recalling the West’s reluctance to engage with East Germans in the wake of their society’s collapse, she suggests: “Now by behaving badly, so to say, they’re forcing others to listen. It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke.”
As we touch on the abrupt loss of her childhood setting, the author shares the fears she herself held as her world changed. “I know the feeling of being afraid of not making enough money to pay rent, of being put out on the streets, of having to go somewhere your family can’t stay with you, of being divided,” she admits. “We had never spoken about money, never needed to. It came as a real shock, maybe all the more so because the joy of many in the weeks after the Fall of the Wall was so immense.”
“It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke”
At a point when human rights lawyers are calling for EU member states to face punitive action over migrant deaths, Erpenbeck is likewise sceptical of the West’s approach to immigration. “The discussion now seems to be so short-sighted and the solutions so cruel: building a wall, or letting people drown in the Mediterranean,” she sighs. “I must say, I see some parallels between letting people drown in the Mediterranean and putting them into Auschwitz. It is a principle of selection. Some are worth allowing to survive, and others aren’t.” I ask her what answer she would give to the question that she poses in her novel: has Hitler won the war in some respects? “We will see,” she replies.
Our conversation spills well beyond the hour we set aside, meandering from the philosophical to the literary to the pragmatic. Erpenbeck pauses often before she speaks, and returns variously to the refugee crisis: “If you think in terms of ‘mankind’, it doesn’t make any sense to let even one person die.” She continues to tug at the thought, “Just imagine, as an experimental thing, it wouldn’t make any sense to let one of your companions die.” Erpenbeck maintains a quietly optimistic outlook when it comes to the future of humanity, even so. “There’s a beautiful sentence by the greatest German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin,” she says, and searches for the right words: “‘But where danger is, there arises salvation also’. This is my hope.” She looks at me, then laughs at herself.
“I know the feeling of being afraid”
Erpenbeck’s cautious positivity is perhaps an attitude dredged from her upbringing in East Germany. “If you have experienced life in two different societies, or countries, or cultural environments, then the relativity of it all comes to your mind,” she observes. “There’s hope involved. If you know there’s another world somewhere, you’re not caught in one. There are different solutions, different ideas.”
So too might her unusual life experience have exposed to her the flaws in nationalism. “I never had this idea of a nation,” she says. “Of course I love my language, I know my family, I have some friends – fortunately! This is what I know. But the idea of a nation is very strange to me.” Her curiosity about individuals, groups, dynamics is evident. “German law is very strict on who is a political refugee, and where they came from,” she comments, “But if you fall in love and marry, this border falls. Even in law, which is normally so strict about all things, love is accepted as an erosional thing that changes everything.”
And with that, Erpenbeck has also crystallised the impact of her writing in all its change-making, border-eroding, compassion-inducing powers. As we said our goodbyes, she revealed she is fifteen pages into her next novel. The focus? Ah, only time will give the answer to that one.
Want to read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (tr. Susan Bernofsky)? Visit here
a nutshell: a terrifyingly necessary call to action, this collection of speeches by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (b.2003) – who sparked a global movement via school strikes – should be compulsory reading worldwide, esp. for politicians & businesses
a line: “We children are doing this to wake the adults up. We children are doing this for you to put your differences aside and start acting as you would in a crisis. We children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back.”
an image: Greta repeatedly calls for world leaders to act as if our house is on fire, that is, to respond with the level of panic that this global emergency demands and to drop the business-as-usual complacency
a thought: condemning the UK’s ongoing support for new exploitation of fossil fuels (the shale-gas fracking industry, the expansion of the North Sea oil & gas fields, the expansion of airports, the planning permission for a new coal mine), Greta predicts that this recklessness will be recalled as one of humankind’s greatest failures
a fact: scientists unanimously tell us we have just 11 years before setting off an irreversible chain reaction, way beyond human control, that will probably be the end of our civilisation as we know it – how can we not act on that knowledge?
want to read No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference? visit here
a nutshell: a fragmented but occasionally fascinating insight into Omani culture, zipping back and forth between perspectives from individuals – often women – within a scattered family tree
a line: “How liberated a person feels when it’s finally no longer a question of being just an extension or embodiment of someone else’s fancy” (significantly, this is said by a man referring to his father’s diminishing control; women have no such liberation in the narrative)
an image: a father’s resentment and frustration with a baby boy showing autistic traits struck painful blows for me as the sister of someone with autism – at one point the father expresses a desire for the son to fly out of the window like a bird never to return
a thought: it wasn’t until 1970 that Oman outlawed slavery, and the horrifying ramifications of this are felt throughout the novel
a fact: once again I came to understand more of Britain’s role in historical conflicts – Alharthi writes of how, following the 1920 Sib Treaty, Oman was split between the Government of Muscat (with Britain financing the Sultan) and the Imamate, which turned sour after the Sultan signed an agreement for a British firm to do exploratory oil drilling in a desert that lay well within the Imamate’s territories
One of the earliest novels I picked up for my project, Disoriental had me thoroughly gripped on a long bus journey through Slovenia in July. (I was so invested in what happened to Kimiâ that I didn’t even realise we had arrived at our destination.) Mirroring her main protagonist, the author is likewise the daughter of exiled Iranian intellectuals. The book’s themes in fact echoed through many other women writers’ works I’ve read since – ancestry, authority, liberty, identity – but there was something acutely searing about Kimiâ’s story. 100% recommend.
It was around two hot chocolates in on an overcast August (!) afternoon that I realised how much of a personal connection I’d have with this novel-notes-autofiction-travelogue book (it really is as composite as all that). This came about in (i) the narrator’s recollections of moulding herself to fit with her brother’s autism (ii) her appetite for exploring the unknown (iii) her curiosity about language – Catalan to her felt reminiscent of what my Welsh language is to me. A unique, exquisite book.
I was whisked through this dreamy blur of a novel in the midst of our late summer heatwave in September. So addicted was I that I finished it on just the second day of reading, on a slightly-too-long lunch break, and could hardly wait to flick back through to write my mini-review. I loved how Bandyopadhyay emphasised the tensions of being both mother and writer by playing with the narrative voice, and Sinha’s translation from the original Bengali was genuinely breathtaking at some points.
Shortly after reading this sharp, entertaining story collection in October I had the thrill of meeting the author at the Free Word Centre. Robayo is as insightful (yet self-deprecating!) in person as her writing suggests. Fish Soup probes corners of society that remain largely impenetrable. It’s unapologetic, astute – as well as humorous and devastating in turn.
I knew as I was finishing this idiosyncratic book that I’d have to revisit the author’s writing after my project. I found Flights at times overwhelming (perhaps since I was reading it, unfittingly, on a sizzling beach on the Côte d’Azur) but dazzling in its seesawing between panoramic and microscopic outlooks. The union of Tokarczuk and Croft makes for prose that’s impossible to forget.