The sea’s only sentence

The scalpel and the metronome on my father’s piano kept a silence between them, when I was a child. Only now, with time, have I begun to hear, understand their strange stories. They hone time to transparency. (Source: Shape of Time, by Doris Kareva, tr. Tiina Aleman (2010. Original: Aja kuju, 2005) When the fear of death…

The milk of incomprehension

Dear Nora, Soviet Milk, tr. Margita Gailitis (2018. Original: Mātes piens, 2015) was this odd thing: a butterfly that, going in reverse, moults back into a chrysalis. What had started as a nuanced, enraged depiction of life under Soviet rule, gradually turned into a black and white, poor reproduction of what the book might have been….

Hardness was probably his most distinctive quality

Dear Laura, Reading your novel Breathing into Marble, tr. Marija Marcinkute (2016. Original: Kvėpavimas į marmurą, 2006) feels like being trapped in a room of glass: it’s cold and solid, and we can see everything from a great distance; however, if we try to come near the glass to see more clearly, it gets misty,…

Every abyss has its lullabies

Dear Julián, Tomb Song, tr. Christina MacSweeney (2018. Original: Canción de tumba, 2011) is an elegiac account of a writer who tries to reconcile himself both with a troubled past and with a present marked by imminent loss. We follow a mourning trajectory that begins with the narrator’s personal crisis – triggered by his mother’s illness – and…

Every traveller’s time is a lot of times in one

Dear Olga, Flights, tr. Jennifer Croft (2017. Original: Bieguni, 2007) reads very much like one of the cabinets of curiosities it alludes to: each story is like a small drawer we are eager to open; in each drawer, we find an odd, mythical-sounding anecdote, or a slightly distorted idea. The strangest thing, however, is that…

The first tear opened up that day

Dear Victor, ‘The Love of Singular Men‘ (2016. Original: O amor dos homens avulsos, not translated yet) reads like a delicate web, a coming-of-age tale of affection, woven in different forms of violence. Camilo, the narrator, is a disabled, middle-aged white man, living alone in a small apartment in the fictional Queím neighbourhood, in the…

A strange carousel from which there was no getting off

Dear Daniela, In your novel A Kingdom of Souls translated by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol (2015. Original: Podobojí, 1991), we have magical realism with an edge: the dead exist alongside the living, wandering across space and time, always in the brink of turning into an allegory, a symbol, a pervading longing. The novel centres…

Beautiful flying things

Dear Carole, In Ava (1993), you throw us inside the mind of a dying woman. We are there, minute by minute, while it all happens. However, we cannot see anything very clearly – we can only follow its rhythm. Rather than a linear collection of images flashing before our eyes, the novel reads more like…

Trust is fine, but control is better

Dear Elfriede, Your novel The Piano Teacher, tr. Joachim Neugroschel (1988. Die Klavierspielerin, 1983) is vile and uncompromising: it dwells on the grotesque, crossed by an undercurrent of violence that, by striping everything of fineries and superficial niceties, almost acts as a cleansing element. The novel centres around Erika Kohut (Erika K.), a piano teacher…

The various crimes of sadness

Dear Fleur, Most of the twenty-one stories in your collection I Am the Brother of XX, tr. Gini Alhadeff (2017. Original: Sono il fratello di XX, 2014) have a claustrophobic feel to them: like when we are aware that we are dreaming, but we cannot wake up, no matter how much we try. The stories are set…

To disentangle true from false

Dear Delphine, Based on a True Story (2017, tr. George Miller. Original: D’aprés une histoire vraie, 2015) is an atmospheric book that revolves around a woman who may or may not have been taken hostage by another – and by her readers. The narrator is a middle-aged woman who lives in Paris with her two…

Memories lie slumbering within us

Dear Winfried, The Rings of Saturn (tr. Michael Hulse, 1998. Original: Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt, 1995) is beautiful, and melancholy, and strange. It is this paradox: a journey that can only be made in solitude; but, at the same time, one that can only happen in a relation between author and reader. The…

All we see is a haze

Dear Carol, As if under the muffled atmosphere of a tense game, the storyline of Sinuca embaixo d’água (2009, ‘Underwater snooker’, not translated yet) circumscribes an absence: the white ball that moves the others and drives the game forward. Antonia, the main character, is at the heart of the story but never directly shows up…

I was giving the glad-eye like blazes

Dear Connie, The Laws (1993, tr. Richard Huijing. De Wetten, 1991) reads like a draft of a draft: the shadow of an idea, hovering over the page without ever really taking off. The novel is set in the 1980’s and centres around Marie Deniet, an Amsterdam-based student who sets out in search of ‘the laws’…

One gets the criminals one deserves

Dear Amélie, The Enemy’s Cosmetique (Cosmétique de l’ennemi, 2001, not translated into English yet) reads like an ouroboros, a snail swallowing its own tail: in a sequence of increasing macabre tales, the two characters are brought into their innermost self, caught in a sadistic kind of seduction game: the interplay between guilt and punishment. The story…

You know I was not born to tread in the beaten track

Dear infamous Mary, I had never read a book about you, and I confess I wasn’t even planning to. But, last month, a hefty tome came my way: somewhat unexpectedly, the blank was to be filled with Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon (2015). Gordon’s dual…

A small tear in the fabric of reality

Dear Nicole, Most of the time, we tend to think of fiction as a mirror held up, facing reality. Never mind if this is a clear mirror, a cloudy or an openly distorted one – our gaze rarely changes direction. Some books, however, attempt to cross through the looking-glass: they direct our gaze away from…

The point is not to negate reality, but to peel back its scrim,

Dear Chloe, Your novel The Immortalists (2018) seems to be cursed by the very premise it seeks to explore: the interplay between chance and destiny is not an easy subject to tackle. Your somewhat tamed approach to it, however, is a bad omen. The book is a decades-spanning story of a Jewish immigrant family. It…