Sara Mesa: Cuatro por cuatro (Four by Four)

The latest addition to my website is Sara Mesa‘s Cuatro por cuatro (Four by Four). This is a somewhat chilling novel. Most of the action takes place in Wybrany College, a mixed-sex boarding school, presumably in Spain. Most of the students come from rich families, though there are some poorer students on scholarships or children of the staff. The college is geographically isolated, as the rest of region seems to be suffering from a breakdown in law and order and environmental problems. Though the school is meant to be a haven, it gradually becomes apparent that something is wrong. Celia, the narrator of the first part of the book, and the assistant headmaster disappear, no-one knows why. In the second part, narrated by a new substitute teacher, Isidro, it gets worse with more disappearances and deaths and strange goings-on and not just in the school. Mesa cleverly builds up the tension, showing a world slowly falling apart but with people unsure of the cause and unable to deal with it.

The Independent Publisher Crisis

I have pointed out several times that the most interesting books being published in translation into English are being published by small, independent publishers. While all parts of the book trade are being hit by Covid-19, the independent publishers, often run on a shoestring with few not very well paid staff, are being particularly hit.

Yesterday’s Bookseller had an article on this topic. The Bookseller did a survey on the topic and it does not make for happy reading.

Two publishers, the excellent Jacaranda, publisher of books by writers of colour and Knights Of, publishers of children’s books, have started a crowdfunder. Please help if you can.

Several of the publishers mentioned in the Bookseller article will sell you their books directly from their website rather than your going to online behemoths (though you can also get the books from your local book shop, many of whom will now deliver). In the US Bookshop uses local bookshops as does Indiebound, while in the UK Hive supports local bookshops.

The publishers mentioned in the Bookseller article who sell on-line include:

Dead Ink Books, the experimental literary publisher
Bluemoose Books, publisher of the legendary Ben Myers, Ronan Hession and Ian MacPherson’s Sloot
Galley Beggar, publisher of Toby Litt, the brilliant Ducks, Newburyport, Eimear McBride, Alex Phleby and Gonzalo Garcia
Pluto Books,a publisher of radical non-fiction
Orenda Books, publishers of literary and crime fiction
September Publishing who publish books in which to lose yourself and find yourself again
Fledgling Press who publish and promote debut authors and new voices who have never been published before
Seren who publish a host of Welsh writers, writing in English, including Caradoc Evans, Clare Morgan, Dannie Abse,Emyr Humphreys, Kate Roberts, Niall Griffiths snd Russell Celyn Jones but also a lot of other interesting authors from other countries.
Firefly Press, the Welsh children’s publisher.
Lilliput Press, the Irish publisher of both fiction and non-fiction, including Sam Coll, James Joyce, Benedict Kiely, Flann O’Brien and Colm Tóibín
Guppy Books, publisher of children’s books

It would not be fair to omit those excellent independent publishers whose books you can buy directly from them but who did not appear in the article. These include but are certainly not limited to the following. Some of them also sell subscriptions, which are usually a good deal. Note that some publishers are not included as they do not sell directly to the public from their website. My apologies to any publisher inadvertently omitted.

404 Ink
And Other Stories
Boiler House Press
Carcanet Press
CB editions
Charco Press
City Lights
Coffee House Press
Comma Press
Dalkey Archive Press
Deep Vellum
Feral House
Fitzcarraldo Editions
Fly on the Wall
House of Anansi
Influx Press
Les Fugitives
Melville House
New Island Press
New Vessel Press
Nightboat Books
Noemi Press
Open Letter
Peter Owen
Peepal Tree Press
Peirene Press
Serpent’s Tail
Soho Press
Tachyon Publications
Tilted Axis Press
Tramp Press
Tupelo Press
Two Lines Press
The Unnamed Press
Vagabond Voices
Valley Press
Wrecking Ball Press

I must also mention the Borderless Book Club, a group of presses who meet online using Zoom to discuss translated literature. Here is their forthcoming programme, which shows you that you get discounts when ordering the books under discussion.

I urge you to support these publishers and initiatives. Without these and other independent publishers, the outlook for quality literary fiction will be grim. Over the past few years, we have enjoyed something of feast of new books in translation, even if, as I frequently remark, there are still far too many worthwhile books that have not been translated into English, though, in many cases, have been translated into other languages. if we lose any of these publishers, it will be a great loss.

Hye Young-Pyun: 선의 법칙 (The Law of Lines)

The latest addition to my website is Hye Young-Pyun‘s 선의 법칙 (The Law of Lines). This is another first-class novel from the South Korean writer. It tells the tales of two young women who both have tragedies. In one case her house burns down and her father is badly burned and later dies. In the other case, a teacher’s half-sister kills herself. Both women feel someone is to blame for what happened and both set out to investigate. Inevitably the two stories intersect. The root cause seems to be poverty and what people do to escape it, not always making wise decisions. Indeed, as well as the two women and the two victims, we see quite a few others who suffer and, in some cases, die because of the poverty trap. It may be grim, as are his other books, but it is a very well-told tale, with twists and unexpected turns.

César Aira: Canto Castrato

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s Canto Castrato. This is by far the longest novel by Aira I have read and by far the most disappointing. It is not an Aira-like novel but a fairly conventional historical novel set in Naples, Vienna, St Petersburg and Rome in the mid-eighteenth century. We follow the story of Micchino, a Neapolitan castrato, his impresario, Augustus Kette, the impresario’s daughter, Amanda and various hangers-on with brief appearances from historical characters such as Pope Clement XII and Catherine the Great. Micchino gets tired of fame and disappears. Kette finds him. Amanda has marital problems. Micchino and Co. help out. That is about it, with a bit of gossip, geopolitics, local colour galore, mild satire and chit-chat thrown in. Aira himself has not been too enthusiastic about this novel and I do not really blame him. It has not made it into English as yet and I cannot see that it will.

Viola Di Grado: Cuore cavo (Hollow Heart)

The latest addition to my website is Viola Di Grado‘s Cuore cavo (Hollow Heart). This s a very clever work about a twenty-five year Italian woman, Dorotea, who kills herself. We follow her story up to her death and the history of depression in her family but, more particularly, we follow her story after her death, how she adapts to being dead, her relationship with her corpse and with other dead people but also with some living people, and how she learns how to be dead. While there is some humour, it is essentially a serious book and works very well, thanks to the skill of Di Grado treating her as a character with her own problems, which are not the same as those she had while alive though, as she says, Life goes on, as people say, and death too goes on and on and on.

Juan Pablo Villalobos: No voy a pedirle a nadie que me crea (I Don’t Expect Anyone To Believe Me)

The latest addition to my website is Juan Pablo Villalobos‘s No voy a pedirle a nadie que me crea (I Don’t Expect Anyone To Believe Me). This is a brilliant novel about corruption and humour, about racism and academia. The main character is Juan Pablo Villalobos, a Mexican doctoral student who goes to Barcelona to study and gets caught up with a bunch of nasty gangsters who require him to change his life for their devious ends, with distinctly unpleasant consequences. Some of it is clearly tongue-in-cheek but much of it is serious, as Juan Pablo (the character) gets dragged more and more into the plot,at the expense of his studies and of his girlfriend, Valentina. It manages to combine much humour with a serious intent and accordingly works very well.

Peadar O’Donnell: Islanders (US: The Way it Was With Them)

The latest addition to my website is Peadar O’Donnell‘s Islanders (US: The Way it Was With Them). The island in question is Inniscara, offshore from Arranmore, which, in turn is offshore from the Donegal mainland. O’Donnell worked on Arranmore as a teacher. It recounts the hard life of the people there, as we follow the story of the Doogan family, Mary, a widow and her ten children (one married, Peggy). They often live on a diet of potatoes and seaweed and try to supplement their income by selling eggs and knitting, and by fishing. Charlie, the eldest boy is courting Susan Manus but both find other partners. Both Mary and Peggy take ill and Charlie has to weather a storm to fetch the doctor. The herring come and go, they help a man on the run from the much-despised police and there is even a bit of violence, though generally the islanders look out for one another. It is a fine story of a hard way of life that has long since disappeared.

Anne Enright: Actress

The latest addition to my website is Anne Enright‘s Actress. Norah FitzMaurice is the daughter of Katherine O’Dell, star of stage and screen. Norah has finally decided to tell the story of her mother, long after her death and we learn about Katherine’s rise and fall, her bad habits (drink, men, poor decisions and, the worst of all in Norah’s eyes, the failure to say who Norah’s father was). Katherine died at fifty-eight, a broken woman after three years in an asylum following her shooting of a producer in the foot. We follow both mother and daughter, the latter becoming a novelist, wife and mother, the former a flamboyant actress who almost made it in Hollywood and was successful on stage till she reached the age where there are fewer parts for women. Sometimes they clashed but Norah loved her mother and misses her but she would like to have known who her father was.

Rafik Schami: Erzähler der Nacht (Damascus Nights)

The latest addition to my website is Rafik Schami‘s Erzähler der Nacht (Damascus Nights). Salim is a great coach driver and a great story-teller. However, he owes his story-telling ability to his good fairy and one day she tells him that she is retiring and he will become dumb. If he gets seven unique gifts from seven people within three months, she will be replaced. His seven friends come up with various ideas but none work, till they realise that each one has to tell a story. We follow each of the stories and something of the man telling the story but this book, is above all, about story-telling, Arabian Nights style and very good stories they are.

Olga Tokarczuk: Czysty kraj [Pure Country]

The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Czysty kraj [Pure Country]. This is the first and longest story in a collection called Ostatnie historie [Recent Stories]. It tells of Ida Marzec, a fifty-four year old divorced Polish tour guide who, when driving a friend’s car during winter, skids off the road. She seems to be unhurt but the car is badly damaged. She finds shelter with a nearby old couple and is examined by their grandson, a vet, and pronounced physically unharmed. She spends the next few days, drifting around, unsure of herself and where she is, reluctant to phone for help and thinking of her past life. Above all, images of death creep in, as she thinks about her mortality and her heart condition (which doctors say is minor but she is not so sure), the dog in the house who is dying of cancer and, eventually, the nature of the place where she is staying which is place that takes in dying animals and eases them to death. Is she one of them? It is another brilliant book by Tokarczuk, sadly available in seven languages but not English.