Tag Archives: Translated Fiction

Hotel Iris, by Yoko Ogawa

3 stars3/5

Hotel Iris both fascinated me, and made me feel a little bit sick. I am not usually put off by books with disturbing themes, rather the opposite in fact – I’m a fan of authors with a dark edge – Natsuo Kirino, Brett Easton Ellis, Daphne DuMaurier to name a few. But something about Hotel Iris really unsettled me and after mulling it over for some time I think I’ve put my finger on it. Let me elaborate…

Hotel Iris Yoko Ogawa

Vintage, 2011 edition, 176 pages - personal library

Yoko Ogawa introduces us to a young girl named Mari. She is seventeen, but her distant feelings towards her mother feel almost as if she is a much younger teenager – somewhat sullen. Her mother’s whole life is bound up in a rather depressing seaside hotel, which is set off too far from the beach to really qualify for the title and attracts an unusual mixture of customers. One night a commotion is made and a prostitute hurtles out of one of the bedrooms, with her underwear flying into the hallway after her. For some reason, Mari has an intense feeling about the voice of the man within the room. When she spots him out shopping and decides to follow him, Mari finds herself drawn into an intense relationship with the mysterious man, who turns out to be a translator and she becomes a submissive sexual partner and he something of a monster albeit with a refined veneer.

Despite Mari being the narrator I felt that I never really got under her skin. There is pain and sexual violence in Hotel Iris and Mari’s descriptions of sensation are vivid – textures, sounds, visual images of beauty – but she never seems to voice an opinion. But she can’t be described as passive because she actively goes looking for the translator. There is frequent reference to how her mother does her hair up in a painfully tight ponytail, meticulously combed and oiled smooth, but instead of looking for gentleness she seeks further constriction.

Even as I write my review, I keep on thinking that Hotel Iris is a very clever book. It doesn’t try to explain motives in an obvious way; the characters’ actions reveal them. The writing style is quite beautiful – Ogawa uses words sparingly managing to create a feeling of intensity and distance at the same time. However, I found Hotel Iris somehow unsatisfying. It was a bit like an S&M Lolita, but with the Humbert personality replaced with a man who had even fewer redeeming features (I found the translator completely repellent) and the girl, I just couldn’t connect with. And maybe (probably) that was intentional, but the end result was that while on an intellectual level I could appreciate Ogawa’s skill, on an emotional level it left me cold – so this is reflected in my star rating for this book. That said, I think Hotel Iris is a book that will stay with me and I wonder if I would find other books by this author interesting.

Sadly I missed the boat for Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 5 (how have I not managed to read any Japanese literature this year?!) but scanned through the site to see others thoughts and found this excellent review by Tony’s Reading List. I’m a little bit scared now that I’m an archetypal Anglophone now! Kim of Reading Matters also enjoyed Hotel Iris (her review is here). Claire of Paperback Reader also posted her thoughts.

Have you read anything by Yoko Ogawa and if so would you recommend I read another by her?

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

5 stars


I planned to spend Sunday reading through extracts from the Waterstone’s Eleven choices, that I picked up on Thursday, but instead gave in to my desire to finish the last 80 pages of the WONDERFUL Eline Vere.

Pushkin Press, 2010 edition (first published in 1889), 540 pages - personal library

Thank you, thank you to my ‘Secret Santa’ Armen (hmm.. not so secret!) who gave me this Pushkin Press translated Dutch classic novel by Louis Couperus at December’s Riverside Readers book group. I have thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in this delicious doorstop of a novel for the past three weeks. Before I continue, I want to do a little plug for Pushkin Press. I’ve only read two novels by this publisher of translated European literature, but this, and Journey by Moonlight have completely won me over as an advocate for their titles – Literary gems, beautifully bound quality paperbacks with yummy illustrated covers in muted tones. (NB neither of these were sent by the publisher – I just really dig this publisher!) Anyhow, to the novel itself…

My experience of reading Eline Vere was a bit like watching a very good period drama series on the television. A sumptuous visual experience conjured up by descriptions of the vivid colours of dress and opulent surroundings of well-to-do members of Dutch society at the close of the 19th century. The narrative is frequently broken up by intimate tête-à- têtes between the different characters, sometimes philosophical, sometimes frivolous, occasionally candid and cutting. This creates the impression of multiple little scenes, so that although this is long book it is broken up into enjoyable and manageable segments.

I haven’t gone straight into describing the plot because although there is a central character and several plot-lines, this book is really driven by a set of circumstances and the relationships between different characters and how they react to each other. There is much discussion of the role of fate in this novel and yet although the main character Eline, comes to believe that her future is pre-destined, what Couperus seems to play with as a device is really the idea of chance – how a word uttered or held back can make a mark on a person’s future, which can be indelible depending on the nature of the person. And this idea of a persons nature is really key to the novel as it centres around a young woman who despite having everything in her favour – riches, beauty, grace and intelligence – is unable to take control of her own will to the extent that she undermines her own chances of happiness.

Eline is an incredibly complex character. A less skilful author would be unable to gain the reader’s empathy for this charming yet doleful figure. How frustrating she should be, but yet I was sympathetic to her because despite orchestrating her own misery she genuinely seemed paralysed by her mental state. Couperus’s subtlety in conveying each characters’ core ‘being’, giving the reader insight into their mind is almost magical and it was a genuine pleasure to be introduced to the contrasting personalities in the novel. I loved the outwardly frivolous yet wilful Frederique (Freddie) and revelled in the descriptions of young Lili Verstraten aware and happy with her own indolence –

“She was never bored, even when she was idle. On the contrary, she would sit back and enjoy the notions drifting through her mind: rose petals wafting on a gentle breeze, soap bubbles, fragile and iridescent.”

But as you have probably determined by my earlier comments Eline Vere is not simply a frothy book. Couperus’ insight into people, and their sense of self-awareness is remarkable. His writing is beautifully descriptive yet well paced. Themes of love, free-will, spirituality and psychology are interwoven deftly into the story. This isn’t a novel to consume in one sitting – as that would be rather too much, like eating a whole pile of profiteroles! When enjoyed at a languid pace however, this is a richly rewarding read.

Has anyone read any of Couperus’ other novels? Can you recommend any translated foreign classics?

Embers, by Sándor Marái

3.5 stars3.5/5

Embers is a novel by Hungarian author Sándor Marái. Set in a castle in the shadow of the Carpathan mountains it is a story of an old man coming to terms with an apparant act of betrayal by an old friend from his youth.

Embers, by Sandor Marai

Penguin, 2003 edition (first published 1942), paperback, 256 pages - personal library

At the beginning of the novel, Henrik – the old General is presented with a letter. He recognises the writing from long ago. It has been exactly 41 years and 43 days since he saw the man  who wrote the letter. Konrad, his old friend, now adversary, is coming to the castle. At dinner the men sit down and by the light of the fire, Henrik confronts Konrad about the day that he believes he was betrayed.

Embers is a beautifully written tale with elegant prose which creates an gothic atmosphere:

“Beyond the cool walls, summer buzzed and hummed and seethed. Like a spy he took note of the boiling restlessness of the light, the rustle of the hot wind in the dessicated leaves, and the noises of the castle.”

Marái’s language imparts a sense of decay and brings the reader into the castle, alongside Henrik.Patience is required of the reader. The old General cannot be rushed. He has waited for this confrontation for four decades and must get satisfaction by putting Konrad on trial.

At times I found the pace of the tale frustrating, at others it drew me in. I enjoyed the way that the actual source of the conflict was revealed bit-by-bit, yet at times found Henrik too ponderous. He is the very illustration of a person whose resentment has eaten them up inside like a disease. At times is somewhat tedious in his obsessive need to bring Konrad to account. Large parts of the novel are soliloquy as Henrik reminisces on their early days with occasional outbursts of anger and resentment at Konrad. One of the thing I found fascinating was the way that Henrik himself revealed his own flaws in his critique of Konrad. Although Henrik was wronged by Konrad, I wondered how he could have been so blind to his friend’s resentment against him. One detail in particular made me believe that he was a terribly controlling person – this was a diary that he gave his wife which she would write in and allow him to read each night. Was Henrik a bitter and insensitive person from the beginning, or did he become so because of they way that he was treated?

One of my pet-hates is misleading book cover commentary, and I felt that the quotation from the Evening Standard about it being “a novel of suspense” potentially sets the wrong expectation for Embers. Yes, there is something a little suspenseful about the way that the subject of the betrayal is revealed, however Embers is not an edge-of-your-seat mystery or thriller. It’s a novel about an old man, facing his adversary, and seeking resolution to the feelings of turmoil and anger that have haunted him over the years. Not much actually happens in Embers, yet everything changes for Henrik. I believe that some readers will find it a frustrating novel at times, as I did, yet if you just let yourself be lulled into the atmosphere of the book you may also discover an elegant and emotive tale.

Have you read any novels by Sándor Marái?

The Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

3.5 stars3.5/5

The Private Lives of Trees, was February’s Riverside Readers choice from Armen, who never fails to choose something different and surprising.

Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

Open Letter, 2010 edition (paperback), 98 pages - book group.

Zambra, a Chilean author, tells the story of a single night in the life of Julian, a young professor of literature. He reads to his step-daughter Daniela, while waiting for his wife Veronica to return from her art class. The later it gets into the night, the more nervous Julian becomes about whether she will return.

The reader is like a fly on the wall watching Julian, the book’s main subject, in three states: In the present – telling stories to his step-daughter Daniela, In the past- remembering his ex-girlfriend Karla and recalling how he met his wife, and in an imagined future where Daniela is in different stages of womanhood. Julian is introspective and uncertain – comparing himself jealously to the Daniela’s father.

The Private Lives of Trees, is a book that feels fleeting. At just under 100 pages it is brief and the spare use language adds to the overall minimalist impression. Recalling the story for my book group was a bit like waking up from a dream and struggling to remember details, but being left with a particular feeling. Many of the descriptions feel fluid and dreamlike:

“The point of the pen draws lines, the ink covers the page with black water.”

There are parts of the book that verge on surreal, and Zambra clearly enjoys experimenting with the idea of what it is to write a novel. Perhaps Julian, an aspiring writer is creating his own reality? At times it feels like a clever work of art and at others, simply the story of a self-consious man and his rather tender relationship with his step-daughter.

The Private Lives of Trees is a book you can pick-up, experience and will leave you thoughtful. For me, it was a bit like the experience of wandering into an art-gallery at whim and following my nose around an exhibition. It was playfully written, but I never found myself lost in the way that I did with Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller or Kafka’s The Trial. One of our book group members said that it was a book that asked nothing of the reader, which is exactly how I felt. It was absorbing when I was reading it, but I left the characters and the moment behind when I turned the final page.

Have you read any books that felt fleeting / self-contained in this way?

Fateless / Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész

4 stars4/5

Fateless is a novel by 2002 Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész.

Fateless, by Imre Kertesz

Vintage Books, 2006 edition (first published 1975), paperback, 262 pages - library copy

I borrowed it from the library in advance of my recent trip to Budapest. It isn’t set in Hungary, but I thought I should sample some writing by local authors. I’m really not a big fan of the cover (left), as I have an aversion to movie-versions of books and if I’d have been buying it for myself would have had to get the 2004 Vintage International, or the 2005 Harvill Press edition which, also incidentally both have the more accurately translated title – Fatelessness.

The story is told by Gyuri, a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew. Gyuri has the day off school so that he can witness his father signing away the family timber business before being sent to a labour camp. Two months later school is closed due to the war (World War II) and Gyuri is placed in a group of boys tasked with physical jobs such as bricklaying. It’s not long before he is unexepectedly pulled off a bus and detained without explanation. This is the beginning of his journey to Auschwitz.

As it is told in the first person, one of the most striking things in the book for me is Gyuri’s voice. When I first began reading Fateless, I couldn’t help but draw parallel’s with John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (read my review here). Although Gyuri is older than Bruno, there are similarities in the way that the author has chosen an innocent-sounding tone for the narrator. This made me wonder, especially because this book in concentration camps, whether Boyne had been inspired at all by Kertész’ novel. Quite honestly, to begin with I thought that Gyuri sounded a bit simple, and then wondered if it was something to do with the translation, but actually as I read on the innocence of his tone felt authentic – especially the teenage-sounding comments such as “as far as I should know” at the end of nearly every sentence!

As the book continues, Gyuri does become less naive. He becomes aware of what is happening in the camp – previously he had just been going along with events, as I suppose a child on a school trip might. His simple reasoning though is actually an effective way of conveying the true horror of the the human decisions behind the circumstances:

“After all, people would have had to meet to discuss this, put their heads together… in all likelihood – gentlemen in in imposing suits…One of them comes up with the gas, another immediately follows with the bathhouse, a third with the soap…”

Through Gyuri, Kertész causes the reader to observe the many ironies of the situation: How a man who previously fought on the side of the Germans in World War I, is now in a concentration camp. How a young man like Gyuri who is actually considered an outsider by other Jews because he isn’t actually religious is singled out purely because of his race. I felt that the discursive quality of the book was very effective. It really drew me in, and while I never felt emotionally attached to Gyuri, the distance made his experiences feel even more chilling.

I interpreted the idea of fatelessness as freedom. Through a series of chance decisions, such as the choice to lie about his age, he survives the camp and also leaves with his sense of self intact, in spite of a gruelling experience. It is by an arbitrary fact of birth that Gyuri is in the camp to begin with but so too are the circumstances by which he makes it through. In this respect, while Fateless is not a cheerful book, it is actually uplifting. It is a provocative book, because the narrator has a unique view on the situation – he is very accepting, and in a way, it is as if this saves him. I wonder how many people who had been in a concentration camp would though, have the same perspective as Gyuri in the following passage;

“…even there, next to the chimneys, in the intervals between the torments, there was something that resembled happiness. Everyone asks only about the hardships and the “atrocities,” whereas for me perhaps it is the experience which will remain the most memorable. Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that,of the happiness of the concentration camps.”

Fateless is a novel that will stay with me, because it is unique in the way that it addresses the experience of concentration camps. The writing is deceptively simple, and peppered with imaginative ideas – for instance the description of the tattooed numbers on prisoners as “celestial phone numbers”. I can’t help but compare it to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and I definitely think it was more hard-hitting. A less ‘enjoyable’ read, but more complex and intense. This would be a brilliant book group choice as there are so many elements to discuss. A fascinating perspective from a character who is neither hero nor victim.

Have you read any books with an unexpected perspective like this?