Guest Review | Sharif Gemie | The Dawn of Language: Axes, lies, midwifery and how we came to talk – Sverker Johansson | MacLehose Press

Sverker Johansson’s The Dawn of Language, adroitly translated by Frank Perry, weighs in at over 400 pages. We’re in the age of Great Simplifiers: each month produces a new crop of hefty volumes.

The Great Simplifiers
Each new volume aims to survey and simplify complex, important scientific arguments for a fairly well-educated reading public. These tomes resemble each other in their ambitions: they review tons of recent research; they give their readers an impression of the intensity and importance of debates; they’re stuffed with colourful examples to hold their reader’s attention; and
– usually – they conclude on a vaguely re-assuring, half-optimistic note. As you look closer, differences become apparent.
Continue reading Guest Review | Sharif Gemie | The Dawn of Language: Axes, lies, midwifery and how we came to talk – Sverker Johansson | MacLehose Press

Guest Review | Sharif Gemie | Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal – Charif Majdalani | Mountain Leopard Press

Remember the Great Fear of March 2020? Remember the empty supermarket shelves, stripped bare of pasta, loo-rolls and flour? Many Brits feared that this was the End of Civilization as We Know It, like in a horror film.

Charif Majdalani’s book is a useful corrective to such needless panics. Last year, people living in Beirut really did see the collapse of a civilization, and Beirut 2020 is a gripping, perceptive account of the process. Continue reading Guest Review | Sharif Gemie | Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal – Charif Majdalani | Mountain Leopard Press

Guest Review | Andrew McDougall | The Others, Raül Garrigasait (trs. Tiago Miller) | Fum d’Estampa Press

The Others is an irreverent yet poignant novel by Raül Garrigasait, excellently translated from the Catalan by Tiago Miller. Its central character is a young Prussian man who crosses Europe to fight for the Carlists in Spain. Though set largely during a war in the early nineteenth century, The Others shines in its ruminations on humanity which echo as true today as ever.

Wielemann threw himself head first into the pandemonium once again.” (p.99)

Although he is pushed towards the Iberian Peninsula by his family’s expectations, Rudolf von Wielemann believes in the Carlist cause, or at least in what he believes it represents. Over the course of his adventures in Catalonia, his preconceptions and principles will be challenged, and so, too, perhaps, will the reader’s.

carlist army 1833-1840When the serendipities of war send him to the small town of Solsona, his war experience turns out to have little to with principles or, indeed, war. Sidelined from the action, Wielemann finds himself a foreigner in a strange land filled with eccentric characters, most of whom he struggles to communicate with. It is no coincidence that the author himself is a translator, something mentioned in the book, with themes of identity, language and belonging explored.

When the wind blows, I think about all the grains of sand it’s carrying from the deserts of Africa and the steppes of Russia, and about all the creatures that have seen those grains and ingested and excreted them.” (p.98)

In the commotion of chance and happenstance, infused with the monotony of war away from the frontline, the Prussian’s experience is often like he has stepped into a delirious nightmare where things happen to him, if they happen at all, and his agency is stripped of him, along with the lifeline of a letter from his uncle.

Wielemann went to Catalonia to fight for the ‘Order’, for the supremacy of Catholic doctrine and an absolute monarchy. This novel is set in the midst of the First Carlist War, when conservative Carlists fought for the right of Charles Maria Isidre de Borbó to the throne, while the more progressive Liberals fought for the regent Maria Christina, who acted for the deceased king’s daughter, Isabella II.

map of spain first carlist war 1833-1840

In Solsona, however, these divisions and the very foundations of the war become blurred for Wielemann and perhaps the only person he can relate to in the town is Miquel Foraster, a Liberal doctor. Despite diverging on certain nuances of ideology or theology, the doctor is someone Wielemann can have a conversation with in this strange land he has ended up in by the whims of fate, and his company is a refuge.

Why, saints carved out of wood have done more in this world than any real-life saint ever has. And tell me, why shouldn’t we find that marvellous?” (p.79)

Mother of God of the Cloister 12th century Patron of Solsona SpainThe dialogues that Wielemann and Foraster share are some of the book’s best moments and highlight the stupidity of man, the futility of war and just how little humans have really changed in almost two centuries.

While Foraster is an intellectual equal, many of the others Wielemann encounters on his travels are not and translator Tiago Miller handles these shifts in register, while conveying the linguistic barriers the protagonist faces, with aplomb.
More so than being a war novel, for Wielemann sees little fighting for much of the book, this work speaks to travel, the condition of being an outsider, the nature of conflict and the root of ideologies and power.

Sometimes I think that’s all the Carlists were: a group of friends defending their collective memories through the use of arms.” (p.49)

The Spanish Inquisition also makes a sneaky appearance or two in the book as we see characters wrestle with the malleable concepts of faith, cynicism, tradition and modernity.

Once more, the triumph of Garrigasait’s novel is in making nineteenth century material feel so relevant. Many of the debates of the day, with words changed here and there, are not so different from the questions society still faces.

The narrative is also pulled back to the modern day in the short auto-fictional chapters inserted here and there detailing Garrigasait’s experiences researching the source material, which he came upon by chance, which seems appropriate given Wielemann’s tale.

The students standing at the back stifled yawns, as impervious to the rhetoric of angels as to that of the devil.”(p.107)

The Others is a witty, pensive novel that finds sincerity in absurdity and vice versa. It evokes a time and a place that is oddly relatable, at once lost and still all around us.

Interview with the author and translator

Translator Tiago Miller reading an excerpt from The Others by Raül Garrigasait

The Others by Raül Garrigasait| Translated by Tiago Miller | Fum d’Estampa Press PB  200 pages 15 May 2021 ISBN 978-1913744007

ANDREW MCDOUGALL was born in Glasgow and studied Portuguese and English literature at the University of Edinburgh. He has also lived in Sussex, Lisbon, Coimbra, Logroño, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Norwich, where he completed an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. His work has included co-translating a book by José Eduardo Agualusa and translating a chapter by Ana Cristina Silva as part of the Escape Goat project, on which he also collaborated as an editor. Other published translations include short fiction by Clodie Vasli, Decio Zylbersztajn and Gabriela Ruivo Trindade. He translates from Portuguese and Spanish.

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Review | Monkey King: Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en (Trs. Julia Lovell) | Penguin Classics

Views of China in the West have grown increasingly negative, with tensions heating up over the crushing of human rights in Hong Kong, the Uighur genocide and the activities of technology companies like Huawei. Violent attacks on Asian Americans have gone up since the start of the pandemic a year ago. Public officials representing the United States and China squabbled openly at official talks held this month in Alaska.

According to The Palgrave Handbook of Ethnicity, more than 40 million people of Chinese origin live outside mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau forming one of the biggest diasporic populations in the world. Cultural understanding is preferable to culture wars . . . It’s better to be enriched than impoverished, right? Continue reading Review | Monkey King: Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en (Trs. Julia Lovell) | Penguin Classics

Guest Review | Andrew McDougall | Kokoschka’s Doll, Afonso Cruz (trs. Rahul Bery) | MacLehose Press

Kokoschka’s Doll is a surreal, poignant and sometimes dizzying reflection on the nature of the universe, life’s coincidences and, of course, the human condition.

“I’m writing a new book.”

“What’s it about?” Isaac Dresner asked.

“Who knows. About love or hate, the human condition, that sort of thing. What is any book about?” (pp. 99-100)

The narrative contains stories within stories within stories and different timelines shift and align and become revealed to us as the book progresses. There are frequent philosophical musings and many tales so unlikely they simply must be true. Chance, fate, destiny, divine intervention, call it how you will, weaves together an improbable cast across decades and continents to deliver us this Russian doll of a novel. Continue reading Guest Review | Andrew McDougall | Kokoschka’s Doll, Afonso Cruz (trs. Rahul Bery) | MacLehose Press