Category Archives: Translated books

Rendezvous – Esther Verhoef

It was the cover of Rendezvous that attracted me to it even though I read it on kindle in the end. I really like the cover, a reflection I think of a woman stripped bare in every sense of the word.

The story is told in the first person by Simone who has moved from a fast paced life in Holland to a remote area in France with her husband and two children. They have bought a very run down old house and plan on renovating it and turning it into chambre d’hotes, a bed and breakfast. The house is in much worse condition than they orginally thought and a team of local workmen arrive to help. With them they bring temptation and danger and before long Simone’s life begins to unravel.

We know at the beginning of the story that Simone has been detained by the police for questioning. She is desperate. It takes a while before the nature of the crime is revealed.

The book is very readable, it would make a great holiday read and I know if I had been lying by a pool reading it I wouldn’t have been wanting to stop until it was finished. The story isn’t complicated, but has an element of suspense that reminded me a bit of the writing of Nicci French whose books I really like.

Translated from the Dutch by Alexander Smith.

336 pages, 2010


Purge – Sofi Oksanen

I picked up Purge afer reading several glowing reviews and I remember one of the reviewers urging everyone to read this book. I also enjoy books set in Eastern Europe – Purge is set in Estonia, a country I know little about but Tallin has been on my travel wish list for a while. Then I saw it come into the bookshops here in the UK and thought it was time to try it. I’m glad I did, it’s not a light read and takes a while to get going but is worth it.

The year is 1992 and Aliide Truu is an old woman living in the family home she has been in for over 40 years on the edge of a forest in an Estonian village. Her husband is dead and her daughter is far away in Finland. Daily life for Aliide is a battle with the flies over her food and dealing with the local boys throwing rocks at her house – a reminder of times gone by and the decisions she made and has had to live with since. Aliide is a suspicious woman, and becomes even more so when a young woman Zara, on the run from something, turns up in a dishevelled heap in her front garden. It becomes apparent that this arrival is no accident and kicks off a game of cat and mouse between the two women, each with secrets and devastating histories.

Most of Aliide’s story takes place during the Soviet occupation of Estonia during and following WII and all the horrors that came with that for Aliide as a young woman, for her family, for a people and a nation. The fact that Purge is a work of fiction offers little comfort for the reader, Sofi Oksanen has Estonian ancestory and has a dedication at the beginning of the book to the real men and women who lived during this time. Fear, violation and loss of freedom permeate this story but more than that it is about trust and betrayal and ultimately survival.

I wondered at first if I was going to enjoy this book. It seemed a bit stilted and I wondered if perhaps it suffered in translation. As Aliide’s story was slowly revealed though, I become engrossed with it and that part of the book was amazing. Without wanting to give any more of the plot away, I can understand why the two women’s stories were told together but I struggled to really feel the link between the two.

Translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers

400 pages, 2009

Shadow – Karin Alvtegen

A fun thing first, Karin Alvtegen is the grand niece of the Pipi Longstocking author, Astrid Lindgren. I haven’t read Pipi Longstocking in so many years and can’t remember much about the books at all but think I will track them down for a nostalgic re read.

On to Shadow – part thriller, part delving into a family history and secrets, I thought this was a clever book with all the pieces coming together near the end in an unpredictable way. The tenseness of the writing kept it at the top of of my reading pile this week – It covers all sorts of things, exploring the motivation behind human behaviour, the lengths a person will go to to protect what they value most -It is a dark book with plenty going on – I liked it a lot.

The story starts with a young boy abandoned in a park in Stockholm. Many years later a 92 year old woman Gerda dies and lies unfound in her flat for three days. With no apparent family, the funeral arrangements are being made by a social services officer. Wanting the funeral to be as personal as possible, she conscientously looks for information on Gerda’s background, even a photo or someone who may want to attend the funeral. All seems unremarkable until she makes a suprising find -all the novels of Sweden’s most famous, humanitarian, nobel prize winning author Alex Ragnerfeldt. The books have personal notes to Gerda in each but are all in disturbing condition. They have also been found in her freezer. A starting point has been established.

This is the second book of Karin Alvtegen’s I have read along with Betrayal which I also really liked – from memory it was tense and more than a little creepy. I’d like to read more of her novels – Missing looks especially good.

Translated from the Swedish by McKinley Burnett
2009, 320 pages

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

This is the third book of Haruki Murakami’s I have read, along with South of the Border, West of the Sun and After Dark. This is perhaps his most well known book? One that catapulted him to reluctant fame in Japan. I enjoyed this story even though I didn’t find it as enchanting as I was expecting; that surreal element wasn’t as noticeable and suprisingly I missed it. Suprisingly because I found the lack of answers a little frustrating in his other books but obviously appreciated the mystery and stretching of boundaries more than I realised. Having said that, death, mental illness, a cult like institution and unattainable women were hopefully not the norm in a teenagers life in that era or any era so it isn’t really that ordinary. And it is a story that grows on you.

Norwegian Wood is a student story set in 1960s Tokyo. Murakami’s love of music and the Beatles in particular and western literature is apparent. The story begins with 37 year old Toru Watanabe hearing the song Norwegian Wood which takes him back to his student years and the two women in his life. Mysterious women seem to be a theme in Murakami’s books. Toru is torn between Naoko, the ex girlfriend of his late best friend who is mentally scarred and for now, unattainable; and Midori, the vibrant, risk taking opposite of Naoko but with problems of her own.

I love Murakami’s male narrators – they have an elegance and candour about them. Toru Watanabe is especially laid back. He can lie on a roof top and talk and listen all night but doesn’t need to use any unnecessary words. He may feel confused and lost and out of his depth but in his actions he is true to himself even if he doesn’t have the answers. He is a person trying to do the right thing so it is easy to respect him. Perhaps that is why so many peole love this book, he can be looked upon as a role model.

This is an an adolescent story and there is plenty of romping around with thoughts and talk about sex- I wonder how the film will deal with that, hopefully in the skillful way Murakami has written it, acknowledging it’s importance but the reader always knows it is not the centrepiece of the story.

While Murakami’s other two books had an immediate impact on me, this one was more of a slow burner coming together beautifully towards the end, yet still leaving questions to ponder and allowing room for the reader’s own interpretation. My doubts about it melted away and I’m already looking forward to the next one – not sure what that will be and I also know it won’t be for a while – I’d like to leave some space for this one to settle first.

Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin
400 pages, 1987, 2001 (English).

The Assistant – Robert Walser

I have read two excellent books in the past week. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (I’m still gathering my thoughts on this one) and The Assistant by the Swiss author Robert Walser. I picked up The Assistant thinking I recognised it from the Guardian newspaper’s 1000 novels everybody should read list. As it turns out it doesn’t feature on that list although another of Walser’s books Institute Benjamenta does.

The assistant is Joseph Marti, a 24 year old assigned by the employment bureau to work as clerk to the inventor Carl Tobler. The book opens as Marti arrives at the Evening Star, the apparently grand house of his new employer to take up his live in post. It is the early 1900’s in Switzerland.

The story focuses on Marti’s position within the Tobler household and his assessment of that position. A sensitive and introspective character, Marti is compared to his predecessor and feels he comes up short. It is important to him to provide value, he doesn’t feel worthy of the roof over his head, the abundant food and unlimited supply of cigars. He has come from a background of lack and the threat of having to return to that way of life lurks constantly throughout the book. His employer is unpredictable and a rather harsh task master. As it becomes apparent that his numerous inventions are not going to secure financial backing, denial sets in and disaster looms.

I found Joseph to be an honest and endearing character. His musings, his desire to find the good in every situation, his lack of confidence on the one hand and his boldness on the other and his ability to find the beauty in simple things I found appealing.

If I had been reading this as a pure piece of fiction I think the narrative style could have been quite offputting especially at the beginning.The writing is formal and the authors voice through his character and sometimes directly is prominent. There is some humour to lighten the tone though and taking into consideration the time period it was written in and knowing it has a strong autobiographical content, it for me was a fascinating insight into a different era and an author I would like to read more of and about.

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

304 pages, 1908 (Penguin modern classic 2008)

This Blinding Absence of Light – Tahar Ben Jelloun

I read once that the actress Winona Ryder carried a copy of Catcher in the Rye around with her for inspiration. I can imagine doing the same thing with this incredible novel, This Blinding Absence of Light.

It is a novel that reads as non fiction and was based on the testimony of an actual inmate of Tazmamart Prison. It is horrific, heartbreaking and humbling.

In 1971, the narrator, a junior soldier was barely involved in a failed coup against King Hassan II of Morocco. He ended up in Tazmamart, a prison that officially didn’t exist, an underground dungeon with no light, no protection against the extreme heat and cold, just enough air to breathe, minimal water and starches to be kept alive. Locked in his pitch black cell 24hrs a day, with scorpions and roaches – able to hear his fellow prisoners but not see or touch them. On top of this his cell was too low to ever stand up straight.

You know, more than anything else, a palace is a place where you feel a sense of well being, where your body and soul are in harmony, where the real treasure is serenity. The rest is just decoration, space furnished according to your personal idea of contentment. Obviously, there’s considerable comfort, but tell yourself one thing: real comfort comes from inner peace

Realising that he can do nothing for his body, he decides to save his mind.  The first thing is to forget the person he was. That person is no longer alive. He must let go of his memories. To remember is to die. He forgets his family; his father who disowned him, his mother, his fiance. He forces himself to let go of the attachment and imagines over and over his fiance with a new husband. Through prayer, meditation and sheer determination he stays positive. He helps to keep morale of the inmates up by reciting verses from the Koran, and remembering stories from his fathers library; Tenesee Williams’ A Streetcar named Desire to The Stranger by Albert Camus. And when he can concentrate long enough to null the pain of his rotting body, he imagines he is outside in the light, in his own paradise:

My garden is humble. A few orange trees, one or two lemon trees, a well of cool water in the center, lush grass and a room in which to sleep when it’s cold or rainy. In this room there is nothing, just a mat, a pillow, a blanket. The walls have been limewashed in blue. When the daylight fades, I light two candles and read. In the evening, I eat vegetables from the garden. An old peasant woman who lives in the area brings me bread every day at the same hour. That is my secret, my dream life, the place where I like to go to meditate. To pray and think about those who are no longer here. I do not need anything else. Above all, one must possess nothing, acquire nothing, be light, in good spirits, ready to walk off and leave everything behind wearing only a simple djellaba to cover the body..

I loved this book. It reminded me of what is really important and I wish everybody could have the opportunity to read it.

Winner of the 2004 Impac Award
Translated from the French by by Linda Coverdale

Read for the Book Awards 4, 2010 Global challenge and Support your local library challenge

In The Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami

The first thought I have when writing about this book is that it was almost impossible to put down, especially the first half where I resorted to walking and reading at the same time to squeeze a few more pages in.

Kenji operates a type of one on one tour guide business, showing tourists the unseen sex sights of Tokyo. He is hired by an American businessman, Frank, for three days leading up to and including new year. This immediately creates a problem for Kenji who had promised his girlfriend he would spend new years eve with her. Frank however is persuasive and it turns out that annoying his girlfriend is the least of Kenji’s worries.

There is something odd about Frank. He looks unnatural, never feels the biting cold and tells blatant lies. Kenji feels uncomfortable, then frightened, then powerless. Frank knows all about him, where he lives, where his girlfriend lives..

While Kenji introduces Frank to the seedy side of Tokyo’s nightlife, Ryu Murakmai does a brilliant job of slowly building the tension. Frank is weaving his web and Kenji is being lured into it. The reader is trying to figure out, along with Kenji, if Frank is just short of friends and a bit wierd or a complete psychopath.

The main theme of the book is one of lonlieness and lack of cultural identity. According to Kenji many Japanese high school girls “sell it” and his own girlfriend was involved in “compensated dating” when they met. Then there is Frank who is a sad portrait of a lonely and disturbed man.

There is a section about half way through which is very violent in a graphic and humiliating way. After this scene. for me the story lost its way. The reaction of the main characters and the tone of the remainder of it didn’t really fit and while I could see the reason for the ending, I didn’t find it very convincing.

A gripping read but I was left wondering what the point of it was.

Read for the Japanese Literature 3 and Decades 2010 challenges

Translated from the Japanese by Ralph McCarthy