Luke Leafgren, the translator of Muhsin al-Ramli’s The President’s Gardens (MacLehose Press) will receive the 2018 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation on Wednesday 13 February. The awards and the ceremony are administered, organised and hosted by the Society of Authors.
As small-island mentality tightens its hold on the UK, and the dark forces of obsessive fear-mongering and prejudice fuel discontent and discord, historical precedents are vivid reminders of what the future could hold. To be slavishly obedient to authority sets the stage for horrific acts to happen.
The leaders of Nazi Germany were driven by ideological goals. They formed policies and implemented measures which culminated in mass murder and genocide – aided and abetted by the passive indifference, apathy and denial of ordinary people who continued to go about their daily business tolerating the intolerable. The writing of five very different notable European authors recently published by MacLehose Press drive home this message in myriad ways – in stark, beautiful, literary prose.
“I use fiction and faction – transcripts, photographs, documents and I twist them. I enjoy myself, twisting these realities.” — Daša Drndić
The Croatian writer, Daša Drndić (1946-2018), studied English language and literature at the University of Belgrade and received an MA in Theatre and Communication as part of the Fulbright Programme. Her award-winning novel Sonnenschein, or Trieste, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013. Her novel Doppelgänger (Istros Books, 2018) was featured in the BookBlast 10×10 Tour last Autumn.
Daša Drndić — E.E.G., translated by Celia Hawkesworth (fiction 416 pages £14.99 January 2019)
“Much-vaunted writers can write truly worthless texts, but since they are purported to be great, and some of them are unbelievably boring and old-fashioned writers, they are not only untouched by critics, but praised to the skies, so they grow and grow, they pump themselves up, but they will get their come-uppance when they are no longer here, just as some who have been dead for twenty or so years already have. It happens the other way around as well. Which is no comfort, but rather a source of sadness or mild exasperation.”
E.E.G., published posthumously in English, deserves to win a prize. Andreas Ban is a retired psychologist who returns to Rijeka after a failed suicide attempt. His sister Ada – “puffed out, opaque and unilluminated” – still lives in the small Mediterranean town. The family terraced home has long gone and the cobbled streets of the old town are invaded by greedy tourists in the summer. He recalls writers and philosophers, among them Bora Ćosić and the artist Zora Matić, and describes Rijeka as it was before the tour operators landed.
(Such is the story of coastal Mediterranean: in the 1950s – writers and artists moved to these small towns where living was easy. They fitted right in and were accepted by the local community. I have photos of Ibiza in the 1950s taken by my mother, and of Roquebrune in the 1940s taken by my godmother: both places have become playgrounds for the bling-bling crowd.)
“Wars are an orgy of forgetting.”
For the past 45 years, Andres Ban has lived in Canada, with chunks of time spent in Fiume, Brussels, Berlin and Paris. He is also the narrator of Drndić’s earlier novel, Belladonna. His inner monologue is a pot-pourri of intensely personal random musings of an ageing intellectual looking back, interwoven with memories of the dark history of Fascist Europe. To what extent can individuals live with the memory of enormous suffering (without going crazy) . . . and yet how can an entire nation – or nations – forget so quickly?
“In 2007 it was believed that there were around a thousand war criminals living in Sweden.”
Ban’s grandmother sewed dresses for opera singers, artists and high ranking dignitaries, so despite their poverty, his mother was always beautifully dressed. His parents met in Paris. Their celebratory dinner in Split was memorable for the joyful singing and music entertaining their guests, before the lights went out all over Europe.
“Where books are burned, in the end they will burn people.” — Heine (1821).
In 1933 around 80-90,000 books were publicly burned . . . massacres and internment in Dachau and the other death camps followed. The Fascism of the 1930s is refracted through the fate of chess players and the international champions who go crazy, or leap to their deaths, or else fall victim to the Nazis and the Soviet NKVD. They are inventoried: a person is not a statistic.
Ban tells the story of Alfred Rosenberg, one of the most influential Nazi intellectuals and Hitler’s ideologue . . . Lists the names of camp commandants and other murderous “human dross” . . . Writes about the Ustasha (the Croatian fascist, racist, ultra-nationalist organisation) . . . Details photos of SS collaborators . . . Records the “plunder, pillage and villainy” of the time by itemising twenty pages of stock lists of books taken from prisoners sent to Drancy transit camp in a north-eastern suburb of Paris . . . Remembers the USSR’s occupation of Latvia and the Baltic States in 1940 . . . Describes key liquidation sites in Latvia . . . For decades after World War Two ended, the CIA welcomed Nazis and other notorious war criminals, “believing that it was protecting (saving) the world from future (communist) evil.”
He visits Sarajevo. “Wherever I went in Sarajevo I came across new graveyards, and the names of those who, in the course of the four-year siege, were killed by members of the Army of Republika Srpska, the Yugoslav National Army and paramilitary formations. The graveyards are in parks, right beside houses, on former children’s playgrounds or in stadia, and there are lists of names on squares, on shops, on memorials, on wall plaques, in broad streets and in alley ways in which there are no crowds.”
His portraits of former patients – traumatised men and women in psychiatric clinics – include Irena Becker, Rafaela Arendt, Barbara Buss and Margareta Lopek who “sought help complaining that she could not feel her body.” Patients indulge in sexual self-harm. Lonely old women feed the pigeons in parks.
“Didn’t Pliny write somewhere that nothing about us is as fragile as memory, that dubious ability that a person constructs and deconstructs?” Half a century on, it is all too easy to forget that the European Union was set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the Second World War.
Drndić’s acerbic, challenging and disturbingly beautiful writing is outstanding. Her cosmic pessimism reminds me of Thomas Bernhard and E. M. Cioran, two other great and strangely uplifting European masters of suicidal despair.
The Hungarian novelist, Magda Szabó (1917–2007), also wrote dramas, essays, memoirs and poetry, and is the most translated Hungarian author. In 2006, Len Rix’s English translation of The Door was awarded the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2006.
Magda Szabó — Katalin Street, translated by Len Rix (fiction 272 pages £12.99 January 2019). Winner of the 2007 Prix Cévennes for Best European novel.
“The old houses of Katalin Street had vanished. Everyone who had known us as we were had taken refuge in illness, like Mrs Temes, or disappeared to some distant island, like Blanka, or been killed like the Major and the Helds.”
In 1934, Henriette Held’s family moves to Katalin Street in Budapest. The little girl befriends Irén and Blanka Elekes whose father Abel is a teacher. Bálint, the promising son of a Major, is smitten with Irén after they perform together in a school play. The lives of the Elekes, Held and Temes families are knitted together.
“When they were still children they had played a great many games – their parents thought it would be good for them, at least those that could be confined to a garden or an enclosed yard.”
The arrival of the Nazis in 1944 leads to the deportation of the Helds on the day of Bálint and Irén’s engagement party. Henriette is goes into hiding but ends up being killed in her garden by a soldier – she had been left in the protection of the Elekes family. The Major dies in the war and his house is taken over by the state. Those who survive lead confused, broken down lives. Coping with social and political change, personal loss, and suppressed guilt is a struggle. Bálint is taken prisoner in 1952. The Elekes family is relocated to a cramped Soviet-style apartment on the left bank of the Danube.
The past haunts the present. Henriette reappears in the streets of Budapest in ghostly form at key moments when past events are conjured. Katalin Street is a strangely surreal yet very real dreamlike novel underpinned by trauma, shame and silence. This novel is an absorbing and compelling exploration of moral failure, loss and denial.
George Szirtes (b. 1948) is a British poet and translator from Hungarian into English. He has lived in the UK for most of his life after coming to the country as a refugee at the age of eight. Szirtes was a judge for the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize.
George Szirtes — The Photographer at Sixteen (memoir 206 pages £14.99 January 2019)
“Displacement hits you later than you expect, just when you think you have settled down and become part of the world all over again. That is when it begins to ache, when a certain inarticulable desolation creeps in. Your body is not where your body ought to be: it shouldn’t be behind that table, between those wooden panels, with those gingham drawers and that Le Creuset pan. It is as if you had ghosted in but left your soul behind.”
The author’s mother dies in the ambulance on the way to hospital one hot summer’s day in 1975 after a failed suicide attempt. “The blankness I felt was tinged with guilt . . . They were my parents. They did not speak. I did not ask. What was it I was supposed to feel, after all . . . ?” He considers himself to be a disappointment since his mother had grand ambitions for him, but from being an art student at Leeds, he had simply gone on to teach.
The author pieces together the jigsaw puzzle of his parents’ lives thanks to a series of photographs, documents and fragmented memories. At his birth, his mother, Magda, was a photographer for a popular newspaper (but refused to be a propagandist) and his father, László, worked in a ministry. The couple left Hungary in 1956 in search of peace after great instability. They were fearful of national moral and social decline. His father’s family had gone to Australia, but asylum was refused, so the small family ended up in England – settling in a small house in comfortable suburbia. Magda is often ill . . . despondent . . . hospitalised: living in the present is difficult for her.
Szirtes discovers that his mother had been interned in Ravensbrück, the last concentration camp to be relieved (by the Red Army). Transferred to Penig to work in an aeroplane factory, she survived thanks to her heart condition since she was left behind in the sick bay with 80 other women while all the other inmates were marched off to Theresienstadt, and thousands died. Magda first met László when he was home from leave from a labour camp and was living in District VII ghetto.
The Photographer at Sixteen occupies Sebald territory: a place where men and women in the twilight of their lives can find no peace with the past, no happiness in the present. A personal narrative with black-and-white photos embedded throughout, the rhythmical prose tells a powerful and poignant story. The author skillfully builds anticipation, and blends emotional honesty with unsentimental clear-eyed objectivity thereby rousing the reader’s empathy – which is no mean feat. The Photographer at Sixteen is a memoir that everyone should read.
The Swedish novelist Caterina Pascual Söderbaum, (1962-2015), lived between Sweden and Spain and translated Swedish literature into Spanish. Her first work, a collection of short stories, won Sweden’s Catapult Prize for best first fiction. The Oblique Place was her last novel, and received the Sveriges Radios Novel Prize posthumously.
Caterina Pascual Söderbaum — The Oblique Place, translated by Frank Perry (fiction 432 pages £14.99 September 2018)
“Ostmark (Austria during the Annexation),
Schloss Hartheim Psychiatric Hospital Staff Outing,
“‘If everyone could look this way,’ Bruno Bruckner, head of the hospital’s photographic laboratory, is not laughing though perhaps he should be, almost all the others are, laughing as they shiver in the raw March cold, laughing because the outing in the hospital coach brings out something childish and high-spirited in them, laughing out of habit, there is usually a lot of laughter in the workplace, laughter is so much more than it is thought to be, he thinks and swears at the flat light lying like a lid above the heads of his colleagues, at the crust like cracked nails at the edge of the road that is forcing him to hold the camera a little unsteadily; from beneath his remarkably heavy brows he observes the restless group standing in unruly fashion in front of the coach. He has another go.”
Caterina finds a series of photographs of her Spanish grandfather who joined Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and her father in the uniform of Franco’s army, in an album. In doing so she ends up unburying her family’s intense and unwavering involvement in Nazism.
Gertrud Söderbaum, the author’s Swedish mother, was related to the actress Kristina Söderbau, who was revered by Hitler and Goebbels. She played the leading role in the anti-semitic propaganda film Jud Süss. The author’s handsome Spanish father, Salvador (“Sal”) Pascual Pascó, was a Falangist who always had a framed photo of Hitler on his wall. The pair met in 1959 on a ship sailing from Barcelona to Tenerife. Their daughter, Caterina, was born three years later.
The semi-fictionalised family memoir opens with Caterina travelling with her husband and little daughter in 2006 to the shores of Lake Attersee in Austria, where the officers of the extermination camps had enjoyed their holidays. The Schloss Hartheim psychiatric hospital is just 80 km away. It had been a euthanasia clinic, also known as Action T4, where the Nazi euthanasia programme was implemented by poison gas from 1940 onward. Mentally handicapped and autistic people, Jews, gypsies, political dissidents and Catholic clergymen were all murdered there.
The narrative moves back and forth between Spain, Sweden, Austria, occupied Poland and Stalingrad . . . Between personal scenes from Caterina’s childhood and that of her own little daughter; and historical scenes from internment camps in France as well as the death camp Treblinka and others.
Blending fact (photographs, witness testimonies, diaries and other documents) with her vivid imagination, Caterina Pascual Söderbaum creates an extraordinary and compelling narrative. The dreamlike intense stream-of-consciousness style of prose brings alive in distressing counterpoint extreme cruelty and evil, and tender, lyrical, glittering beauty.The Oblique Place, published posthumously in English, is an unputdownable and mesmerising read. The English translation by Frank Perry is superb.
The Ukrainian-born Polish novelist and journalist, Żanna Słoniowska (b. 1978), was the first winner of the Znak literary prize for her novel The House with the Stained-Glass Window, and a Conrad Prize winner.
Żanna Sloniowska — The House with the Stained-Glass Window, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (fiction 240 pages £8.99 September 2017)
“Mama used to undress in front of a tall mirror, never making me feel in the least embarrassed, and then she’d stand there naked, examining herself, often singing as she did so. I would sit nearby, visually stroking her white freckles, skin, her small, firm breasts, and her longlegs coated in little red hairs. She was my own personal Snow Queen, as well as all the naked Venuses and clothed Madonnas rolled into one from the albums on the bookshelves.”
In 1989, Marianna, the beautiful star soprano at the Lviv opera, is shot dead in the street as she leads the Ukrainian citizens in their protest against Soviet power. Only eleven years old at the time, her daughter tells the story of their family before and after that critical moment – including her own passionate affair with an older, married artist, ten years later.
Just like their home city of Lviv which stands at the crossroads of nations and cultures, the four generations of women in this family have led turbulent lives, scarred by war and political turmoil, but also by their own inability to show each other their feelings. Lyrically told, this is the story of a young girl’s emotional, sexual, artistic and political awakening as she matures under the influence of her relatives, her mother’s former lover, her city and its fortunes.
Over the last 40+ years, Christopher MacLehose has introduced numerous prizewinning authors and translators to British readers, including Virginie Despentes, Maylis de Kerangal, Elias Khoury, Stieg Larsson, Javier Marías, Lars Mytting, Patrick Modiano, Haruki Murakami, Georges Perec, José Saramago, Roberto Saviano and WG Sebald.
To mark the 2018 milestone of MacLehose Press as it approaches its tenth anniversary, a new international library has been created for its finest writers of literature in translation: The MacLehose Press Editions.
On 25 January, 30 international writers, several Nobel Prize winners among them, answered Bernard-Henri Lévy’s call to ring the alarm and raise awareness about the rise of fanatical populist movements which threaten Europe and our freedom. Read their manifesto published exclusively in Libération HERE
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