It comes along every year, without fail. The mid-August slump. That point when I can’t be bothered to write reviews, don’t like the look of the three books I have left to read in my challenge, am not keeping up with reading everyone’s blogs and just want the autumn to hurry up and arrive!
I certainly feel like I’ve taken my foot off the pedal in terms of my 20 Books of Summer reading, even though I’m not doing too badly on that score. So, to ease myself back in to the swing of things, I’m going to talk about three books I’ve read for August’s Women in Translation Month, one of which goes towards my 20 books tally.
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
The Queue is set in an unnamed country which is ruled by the ‘Gate’ a physical structure which has been erected following the quelling of a popular uprising called the ‘Disgraceful Events’. Now, all of society revolves around the Gate as citizens must queue until it opens to get any kind of paperwork processed. The problem is, it never opens. As the novel progresses, the queue grows to gigantic proportions, creating its own micro-society, as everyone waits and waits, stuck in a bizarre bureaucratic limbo where life cannot progress until their business is done with the Gate. As the government controls the people through the system of the queue, other even more sinister methods of dominance are at play. All media is replaced with one single paper called The Truth. A telecommunications company gives away free phones, only for users to discover that their conversations are being listened to. Those who question the system lose their jobs, or even worse, their place in the queue.
The queue was like a magnet. It drew people towards it, then held them captive as individuals and in their little groups, and it stripped them of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.
The book centres on Yehya, a man who has been shot during the Disgraceful Events. Although tended to at a hospital, a bullet remains lodged in his stomach and he is queueing to get the paperwork required to have the bullet removed. But given that the government are saying that no one was shot during the uprising, therefore there should be no bullets needing removed, he is stuck in an impossible situation. As he grows weaker and weaker, he faces a race to try and prove the bullet is there and find a doctor who will remove it.
There are echoes of other books in The Queue – Kafka’s The Trial and Orwell’s 1984 – with its depiction of the creeping banality of bureaucracy as a weapon to control the populace and it works successfully as a critique of authoritarianism. While I admired the message of the book and the device through which that message was conveyed, I did find the narrative a little clunky at times. Despite a life-or-death situation as Yehya and his friends race to try and save him, the novel felt flat and declamatory, which may be an issue with translation, rather than with execution.
Book 17 of 20 Books of Summer
The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century by Olga Ravn, translated by Martin Aitken
The Employees, which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize is a deceptive thing. A slim novella, coming in at only 133 pages, it manages to be a disconcerting slice of science-fiction, a satire on corporate and workplace life and a moving meditation on what it means to be human. The book is set on a space ship – The Six Thousand – which has recently take a number of ‘strange objects’ on board from a planet called New Discovery. The novel takes the form of a series of statements from both the human and humanoid crew given to a bureaucratic committee who are investigating the change in moral since the objects have come on board.
Ostensibly about the futuristic world of work, The Employees is actually more about life itself, and in particular, what it means to be human. The new objects on board (of which we learn little) have affected the mood on board. They have made the humans more homesick for Earth and the life they have left behind, and the humanoids are becoming more questioning of their place in the world and their status in relation to those ‘born’ rather than ‘grown’. In short, the humanoids are starting to feel alive.
Remember bananas with cream topping? Remember being in hospital? Remember fresh strawberries? And concerts? Remember such and such TV show? We talk a lot about the weather. All of us miss the weather, which surprised us. It’s as if the only thing we can bear to have in common is weather conditions on a lost planet. I don’t think I’ve got a heart anymore.
The statements are presented out of order and with no context, so the reader needs to gather details and build up a sense of life on board. Ravn succeeds in building impressive tension as life on board becomes more chaotic and despite the cold and sterile prose, the book is suffused with organic imagery and sensory metaphor, adding to its emotional depth. I found this to be technically accomplished and surprisingly moving for such a slim book.
Eventide by Therese Bohman, translated by Marlaine Delargy
In Eventide, Bohman explores the life and loves of Karolina Andersson, a successful art professor at the University of Stockholm who specialises in the portrayal of women at the turn of the 20th century. Her life seems to be successful but she is in her early 40s and has just left a long-term relationship and the fact of being single again and without a family is denting her confidence. As she muses on the choices she has made to bring her to this point, she reconnects with old lovers, visits her hometown and becomes interested in Anton, one of her PhD students who has brought some interesting research to her. He has discovered an unknown Swedish artist and a batch of letters which link her to a famous German artist. It is a great story and Karolina knows this could be an important find in the art world, but an ill-advised sexual encounter with him makes her question the very basis of his research, and Anton’s motives for seducing her.
While the plot of Eventide is interesting and propulsive, that is not really what the book is about. Instead, it reads like a complex character study of an intelligent, restless and interesting woman who questions everything in a psychologically rich and rewarding way. Karolina’s life may embody the benefits of feminism as a highly educated, successful woman in a male-dominated field, but constantly questions the choices she has made. She wonders if it is still too late to have children, asking ‘Surely biology couldn’t get the better of her, when she had read so many books?’
She is both determined and uncertain, picking apart her past relationships to find clues to what she needs to make her happy. She makes bad choices, drinks too much, wastes too much time on the internet and has inappropriate sexual encounters, but all of this makes her come across as reliably human. Bohman is skilled at presenting an older woman, who is at a turning point in her life, who tries to deal with that as best she can.
What had actually made her happy about the life she had made for herself? Self-realization might seem desirable in comparison to its opposite, but as the only alternative it wasn’t especially attractive … a life should contain more than there is space for on a nameplate.
There are no earth-shattering resolutions or realisations here, just a woman’s life portrayed without resorting to dramatic life choices or changes of heart.
Some readers may find Eventide frustrating as it depicts this intellectual mid-life crisis, but I found it to be an immersive and complex look at art, life and relationships.
Have you read any good books for Women in Translation Month? Recommendations welcome in the comments!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!