Three strong women by Marie NDiaye

Three strong women by Marie NDiaye

French fiction

Prix Goncourt winner 2009

Translator – John Flethcer

SOURCE – review copy

Marie Ndiaye is one of the most exciting voices in french literature in recent years .She grew up in france with her french mother ,her father is from Senegal ,she meet him a few times in her teens and traveled to Senegal but didn’t get a real connection to africa  .Her brother is a well-known french historian .When this won the Prix Goncourt in 2009 according to a french website she was the most read french writer that year .

I ve been looking forward to this book since it won the prix Goncourt three years ago ,I looked at a few french reviews translated into in english and thought this is an important book .So when MacLehose said they had the rights I was waiting eagerly ,but such is my backlog of books to be reviewed I read this in june and now in august getting to it .So Three stong women is what it says on the cover the story of three women .This is Marie Ndiaye as the voice of multicultural france telling the story of three women at different stages and places but all with connections to Africa .Norah is the first story a working women in france she is raised by her mother and then gets a call to visit her father in africa in Senegal (it is easy to see this first story as having quite autobiographical overtones ).Norah finds a different man and situation from what she expect ,her african family is in chaos and at each other  .The second story is a wife coming from Senegal to france and adjusting to french life ,Rudy the husband is an ex teacher that you feel is on a downward spiral he is now a kitchen fitter but not a very good one .The marriage is doomed but then something from Rudy’s past crops up just as the wife Fanta seeks a way out .The tone in this story is of forbidding doom rather like some of those great american suburban short story writers that show men on the edge of the abyss and Rudy is one of them  .

Just as earlier that morning when Fanta had defied him by something she said (or perhaps by her silence ,he could no longer remember which ) he could feel welling up inside him again that hot ,almost gentle .almost cordial anger which he knew he should resist but which ,too , it felt so nice ,so good ,so comforting not to impede in any way

Rudy is a lonely man who gets a wife he wants to be quiet and proper , but then she stands up for herself a bit

But for me it was the third story that struck me hardest ,a heartbreaking story of Khady a young women forced to leave her native Senegal to travel illegally to france ,this is the start of her troubles as she gets caught up in the sex trade by mistaking a man for being helpful when he wanted her for something else ,she worked for Norah’s uncle in France and her cousin is Fanta the young women that travelled to marry Rudy in the second story .

She remembered her three years of marriage not as a time of serenity ,because the longing ,the terrible desire for a child ,had made each month a frantic climb towards a possible benediction then ,when her period came ,a collapse followed by gloomy despondency before hope returned

Khady remember her brief marriage that forced her to leave her homeland .

Marie Ndiaye has tried to show the varied outcomes for French Africans in france ,It is easy to read in to the first story being her own in some ways ,she  did struggle when she returned to Senegal  for a visit ,the second story could have parts of her parents story thrown in her mother is a teacher and her parents did meet in France .Now comparing this books to similar English fiction would be something like White teeth or Brick lane that had portrayed asian experience in Britain and how families work there is a lot about family ties in this book and men weak men dominant men and yes these women have to be strong in there own ways .You could also look at books  By Andrea Levy about the Caribbean experience in Britain .But none of these books has gone  as far as NDiaye ,has in this books description of young women caught up in the sex trade ,This does happen in the UK to people coming to Britain  .This book would be worth it just for Khady’s story which I feel is one of the most heart rendering piece of writing I ve ever read ,but to have Norah and Fanta’s stories as well is a true bonus .

Have you read this book ?

Do you have a favourite french female writer ?


Nobel literature prize 2012 who’s going to win ?

Nobel literature prize 2012 who’s going to win ?

Well its that time of year again when people start asking who is going to win the Nobel prize for literature .In the last two days there has been posts on Complete review  where Michael discusses the betting . I must admit in recent years the winner has jumped in the betting last day .The Guardian also picked up on the betting and the fact that Haurki Murkami is favourite at the moment .So who do I think they’ll pick well it is like shooting fish in a barrel there are maybe 50 plus writers that could be in a position to win the prize .I always feel the prize is like a golden gong to say well done on being a great writer ,so the writers in the mix tend to be middle to end of their  writing life writers .Well I ll throw a few names in the mix as I have done previous years I ll go round the continents and say a few names and briefly why my feeling is it may be a Asian or African writer this year but I think I said that last year  –

Asia –

Haruki Murkami – ok 1q84 wasn’t quite the masterpiece we had all hoped it would be but has any writer such a good collection of novel,short stories and non fiction  ?

Salman Rushdie – counting that his best books are set in India and he grew up there I putting him down as Indian for this lots of good books and one great book midnight’s children is wonderful insight into India after british rule .(you could also include Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth both great writers .

Mo Yan – I don’t know a lot about but is called the chinese Franz Kafka ,but is only 57 .I think Chinese writers will win the Nobel but the problem is they have only in the last 15 -20 years grown in popularity in the west .But their time is coming .

Middle east –

Adonis – the Syrian poet is a Nobel speculation favourite he has been mention for years and years .I had him as one of my favourites last year with the Arab spring and with recent events in his homeland maybe this year is his .

Amos Oz – the voice of Israeli in many ways Oz has chronicle his homeland for more than 50 years ,he has won every major prize round the world bar this one .

Aharon Appelfeld – another Israeli writer Appelfeld has kept the horrors of the second world war alive in his fiction and made people think of what happened ?



Peter Nadas /Lazslo Krasznahorkai – I ve read books by both these Hungarian modernist in the last year they are shoulder to shoulder in my mind and the last Hungarian Nobel winner was ten years ago but for a country with such a rich heritage I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of these two win .

Juan Goytisolo – the Spaniard has long experimented with his fiction recent talk of english fiction being experimental makes me laugh Goytisolo has been doing it for decades .(Enrique Vila-Matas may also be a contender from spain )

Ulrich Holbein another writer that is always in the betting and one I ve mention a lot of times here on winstonsdad as one that needs to be translated into english .If he won how long would it take not long I ‘d say !!

Cees Nooteboom – I had an interview with Cees on the blog last year ,he is such a  talent writer poet ,novelist and travel writer  .He is too  many the voice of holland .Another writer I d like to win

Africa –

Ngugi wa thong – the Kenyan is another name that has been mention in recent years .He also recently published his first novel for twenty years the wizard which I ve on my tbr pile .

Chinua Achebe – Nigeria’s most famous writer best known for things fall apart one of the first modern african novels .

Assia Dejbar – rose high on  last year betting ,the Algerian is a member of the French academy and she is one of the  most respected writers from north Africa

Americas –

Philip Roth – I ll say same as I did last year neither Mailer or Updike won the nobel so maybe Roth should ,only concern for me is the recent books not been his best.

Alice Munro /Lorrie Moore – two great short story writers ,both have chronicle contemporary america life in their own ways .

Isabel Allende – She has long been the best female writer in latin america and not enough women from latin america have won .

Cesar Aira – The  major writer I ve missed covering and reading from Argentina ,but he has written over thirty novels .

So who do you think ?

here is the latest betting  

Madame Mephisto by A M Bakalar

Madame Mephisto by A M Bakalar

Polish fiction / British polish fiction

A M Bakalar or Asia Monika Bakalar was born and raised in Poland ,spend summers in a small town .She has studied English at university , worked as an English to polish translator  .Since  2004 she has lived in the UK  after a number of years in the US and Germany ,this is here début Novel that she has written in her second language English .

Madame Mephisto is the story of Magda ,who is Magda  ? Well she is a Pole that came to Britain ,like many of her fellow country folk ,after Poland joined the EU to find a new future in Britain .Her story is a story that could happen to any one of them  .Especially as we all take wrong turns .So Magda arrives in the UK starts and finds herself drawn into a world of importing drugs from abroad .As she does this she finds she actually is rather good at it and becomes more and more involved and climbs the ladder in the drug underworld .Then a family incident draws her back to her homeland and maybe some how facing who she has become .

“There was a complaint against you” Jantjes told me two weeks later at his place .He was my first link to the cannabis business I was  yet to establish in London .

I took a spliff from his hands “it’s good”

“Swazi gold ”

Magda has her first taste of drugs in London

Magda as the lead character is a prefect example of the good girl gone bad ,some one who due to one turn in their life has gone down the wrong path in life rather like the title suggest Madame Mephisto ,even thou the devil isn’t the Magda is a bit like Faust that has sold here life to the devil .Like the polish folklore character Pan Twardowski ,Has Magda sold her self to gain greater power in the drug trade .Is the trip back home a glimpse into the past ,who is Magda the girl who came to England or the girl who is leaving England ? Bakalar talks about the masks people wear in an interview about the book .(it is worth checking stork press you tube feed they have a great collection of videos with the writer )

Now as you see at the top I had trouble placing this I m divide is this a great piece of polish literature that has been written in English  the great polish writer Witold Gombrowicz often talked about in his diaries about how  the best Polish fiction was written outside Poland in the 20th century  by Poles in exile  .But part of me thinks it maybe the  first in a new line of literature to be written in English by Polish people , rather like the windrush literature from the likes of Sam Selvon did in the fifties with his book The lonely Londoners, is A M Bakalar here in turn  giving rise to a new line of fiction like windrush is this a book that in ten years time maybe seen as a trailblazer  .The voice of Magda even thou written in English has a very polish feel to it ,I do wonder if this is why some publisher weren’t so keen on this book .As for me it gives it a real fee,l Bakalar said her choice to write in english was because her Polish writing had been seen as tinged by English due to her extensive work translating  and I may say the opposite is true her writing in English has a polish feel with out the reader getting bogged down in polish words .Madame Mephisto is one of the first books from a new publisher called stork press 

Do you have a favourite book written by a writer in a second language ?

Where tigers are at home by Jean-Marie Blas De Robles

Where tigers are at home by Jean-Marie Blas De Robles

French fiction

Translated by Mike Mitchell

Source – review copy

When this fell on my doorstep from the publisher I was a bit daunted ,but managed over ten days or so , earlier this year to read this complexed novel .Then I’ve spent a few months sitting on reviewing it I get so stuck with large books on how to cover them well .So This book is by the French writer Jean-Marie Blas de Robles ,he is French writer who was  born in Algeria , but moved to France in his youth ,he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne ,then spent many years travelling around the world .But since the 1990 has split his time between joining in archaeological digs and writing this was his third novel and took many years to write this epic book 700 plus pages  and when it was originally published in France won the big French lit prizes and was shortlisted for both the Goncourt and European book award .

Once more Elezard leafed through the first chapter of the life of Athanasius Kircher,rereading his footnotes and certain passages as he did so .God .wasn’t the opening terrible! nothing more irritating than the stilted tone

Elezard near the start on his book


Any way too” where the tigers are at home “,now this book is split into thirty-two chapter and then between each chapter is an extract of a book been worked on by the main character Eleazard Von Wogau a french foreign correspondent ,he is living in a distant town in North east Brazil drinking in the bars and getting very friendly with some of the locals  ,meanwhile his ex-wife and some of her students  are in the middle of jungle on an expedition with his daughter in tow  she  has a drug problem .So the book unfolds between these main characters and there friends and enemies  this interwoven with Von Wogau biography he is writing on the 17th century scholar Athanasius Kircher the Jesuit priest and scientist ,he wrote on varied subject such as science ,the bible ,technology and medicine ,he has been called Borges before Borges for the breadth of his interests (this adds to my feeling that anything worthwhile is some how touched by or connected to Borges ) .Umberto Eco has also written about Kircher .So through the extracts of Von Wogau’s book  ,we find a lot out as we get the snippets of the life of Kircher and some how they echo what happens in the present .This is a place full  of corrupt officials and ex pats , I felt a lot of the people we meet there where the sort of people who where trying to escape there lives elsewhere or have got caught in this places . We also capture Von Wogau in his  thought as we see the notes he has scribble to himself in his notebooks .

Kircher fascinates me Because he’s a crank,a veritable artist at failure,at sham .His curiosity was exemplary but it took him to the very edge of fraud … how could peirsec continue to trust him ? (write to Malbois to check details on Mersenne etc.)

A bit from Von Wogau notebook

This book is truly epic in scale and is one that probably will never be read by the majority of people in English ,which is a great shame,as  its complex ideas and narrative threads make it a rewarding read up there with the most challenging writers in English or any language  .This would have  made a great film in the series of films Werner  Herzog made in Latin america in the seventies ,I somehow had that image in my head as I read of a wild place full of life and dangers at the same time  .I think it is shame this was largely uncover in the national papers when it came out and just a few weeks ago in the TLS .This is probably one of the most French feeling books  I’ve read even though it is set in Brazil .

Have you read this book ?

Hansens’s Children by Ognjen Spahic

Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic

Montenegrin fiction

Translator Will Firth

source – review copy

Ognjen Saphic is another from the wonderful new publisher Istros books .He is another young Montenegrin writer only 35  ,he has two collections of short stories and a this was his début novel .It won the Ovid prize in Romania (a prize for emerging talent ).He is currently writer in residence at university of Iowa for there international writer programm.This book has already been translated into another of othee languages .

Hnasens children is a clever slice of communism falling apart  in the late 80’s ,the title comes from the name for Leprosy  by some people  call it Hansen’s disease ,Hansen was a scientist in Norway that discovered  Mycobacterium leprae that causes leprosy .Anyway we are in Romania the totalitarian regime of Nicholae Ceausecu and to the very south-east of that country is a house and in that house is the last leper colony in europe .So we meet the house via the narrator of book who we are never told who he is only that he shares a room with an america with the condition called Duncan and another patient called zoltan that has been there for a very long time .But we just see the events in the house and in the greater Romania as a whole unfold and the very Stalinist regime in place was toppled  .A country is falling apart and there is a feeling of the people in the house maybe having a chance of a new way of life  .But as these glimpse of what might be happening the future , the outside world comes to them as violence and ultimately murder happens in the house .

In Centuries past we were blasted by all manner of christian anathemas ,which overlooked the fact that christianity itself was the main culprit for us rotting away in agony .It was none other than the crusaders ,returning from their campaigns at the beginning of the second millennium who introduced the disease to Europe

a historic insight in the book .


This is classic Balkan writing ,where everything is there in one book wit ,sadness,surrealism , friendship  and horror .I saw a brief clip here on you tube where Spahic says his literary heirs are people like the great Ivo Andric .

I reminded of people like Conrad at times in this book  this place is almost like heart of darkness in europe at times a world in chaos as the sane and insane struggle with reality as the rule of law goes when the regime falls chaos follows and we see how the people round the narrator cope with this sea change .And others the Hungarian writer like Krasznahoraki and Nadas ,as like them we see the communist world unfolding and the chaos of that ,but in this case  all through the eyes of one man in a small leper colony  by a toxic factory in a corner of Romania .The third part Spahic bring is leprosy itself we get little bits of the history of leprosy  the colony itself and the man Hansen that discovered the cause of it all those years ago .Even now this is greatly misunderstood condition that cause it users to be hidden by regimes like the Romanian one ,in a way I was reminded of the scenes in Walter Salles film the motorcycle diaries where we see Che Guevara in a leper colony in south america .That is all squeezed somehow into 151 pages giving a book that seems longer to the reader and lasts in your head for a long time after you have finished .Will firth and Istros have brought another gem to the english speaking world .




The whispering muse by Sjon

The whispering muse by Sjon

Icelandic fiction

Translator Victoria Cribb

Now I mention a lot of Sjon past in my review of from the mouth of the whale earlier in the year and had a great interview with him on the blog yesterday .So I dispense with usual bio start today .

So whispering muse ,follows quick on the heels of From the mouth I can’t blame Telegram ,There has already been five of his books translated to English by Victoria Cribb ,I met her briefly at the Iffp prize giving and she said she had done five of his books already ready for sales here but also to show the books to publishers around the world .Right this book centres on Valdimar Haraldson ,he is an oddball Icelander that has spent his life writing a seventeen volume book on the connection between fish consumption and the greatness of the Nordic people .Fisk og Kulture ,came with this on every title page .

Its our belief that the nordic race ,which has fished off the maritime coast for countless generations and thus enjoyed a staple diet of seafood ,owes its physical and intellectual prowess above all to this type of nutrition,and that the Nordic race is for this reason superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean .

As you see our Valdimar is a first class bore in a lot of ways ,any way that was in the inter war years also with so far out ideas about where the nordic folk came from ,but it’s now 1949 and he has been invited to spend some time on a Danish merchant ship by a former fan of his books .Well that is half the story and  he arrives on the ship and on the end of the first evening they all gather like you do round the ships table and start telling tales of the seafaring days ,one of this crew says he is Caneus one of argo crew from Jason Argonauts from the Greek myth ,Now I know very little on Greek myth in fact my earliest memories of Greek myths are of two things from tv the first is a French Japanese cartoon series called Ulysses 31 ,which moved greek myths to outer space .as we follow Ulysses in his quest to find his way home after he fell out with the gods for killing the Cyclops (rather like bloom in the pub with the one-eyed Irish patriot  oh wonder where Joyce got that idea from )

The other is the film Jason and the Argonauts that was often shown over holidays as I Grew up so I was vaguely aware of the character Caeneus although not in the actual film ,but if you’ ve not seen the film it is well worth seeing as it features some wonderful stop animation from Ray Harryhausen and great intro into the greek myths for people like me that maybe find the idea rather scary .

But it did lead me to read some of the myths around Jason after seeing the film .Caenus was born a women and then became a man and survived on the argo it is these tales he recalls the crew with every evening .So we see  Valdimar who is maybe in some ways the human incarnation of Douglas adams Vogon’s and one does imagine that his books fish and culture are maybe the equivalent of the Vogon poetry .So we see the bore ,start to open his eyes as he is let into the world of Greek myth but also as always with Sjon it is the fact that this is going on and it is just after the war that maybe shows the changing world around them they have cargo from the soviet bloc ,This remind me of a former colleague when I worked in Northumberland that had  been a merchant seaman and his first run after qualifying as a petty officer was to go to the north of Russia and pick some cargo of course being young and not prepared he said he end up wearing margarine to stop frost bite and in a way Valdimar is a man who is unprepared properly for life maybe a Nordic forest Gump ,no that is a bit  unfair he has intelligence is  just focused in the wrong direction ,you may say he even has a mild form of asperegers  where one is so focused on a subject it hard to pull the blinkers down some time due to the nature of aspergers   ,although this isn’t mention in the book it is just a feeling I got from the nature of my work and people I ve meet over the years  .Know from yesterday we know that Sjon was listening to Thelonious monk and rather like monk who I know very little about other than he was rather good at impro piece of jazz that where  rifts on well-known bits of music that spread out and rather like that this book is a rift on Greek myth and how travel can change people. I know  picture old Sjon with a pot full of ideas for books at home picking a few out  and sticking them in his blender of a  mind and coming out with rather wonderful cocktails or in his case novels  .It’s easy to mix genres and ideas up like a cocktail barman might but it takes skill to make the end product work so well like Sjon seems to every time  .So what is The whispering muse well its part travelogue ,part myth ,part odd couple drama with a large twist of dry humour over the top of it .I leave you with Valdimar

My neighbour says I have changed since I came home from my voyage .And I respond with the following question :

“What is the point of travelling if not to broaden your mind ?

Valdimar on his arrival home is he a new man after meeting Caeneus .


So do you have a favourite myth or character from myth ?


An Interview with the shadow IFFP winner Sjon

1. In both From the Mouth of the Whale and The Whispering Muse there is a seafaring feel do you sail or have a connection to the sea ?

Being born on island means that from an early age you are very aware of the sea. Throughout history things and people have come floating to your shores and the only way out was over the sea. So, I think sailing, swimming, and sinking will always be a part of the stories told on an island. As well as the great depths teeming with strange beings and everything the sea has swallowed.

2. Myth plays a big part in your fiction. What is your favourite myth ?

In general, I like the mischievous gods: the tricksters. So, Loki’s stories are a favourite: especially the one where he helps the Aesir (the principle members of the pantheon of Norse gods) to get out of the deal they made with a giant about building the fortress walls around Asgard. The gods promise the giant the Sun, the Moon and the hand of the fertility goddess Freyja as a reward if he finishes the job in time. When they realize too late that the giant will be able to do it they look to Loki for help. So, Loki transforms himself into a gray mare and lures the giant’s work horse away. Without his horse the giant can’t finish the walls. Later Loki has an affair with the horse, which results in the birth of Odin’s eight legged horse Sleipnir. Sleipnir, is the Nordic Pegasus, who can easily transport us across the borders of the many worlds that make up our universe …

3 .You’ve been connected to music. As I’ve read your books I feel a rhythm. Do you listen to music as you write? If so, what music?

Each of my novels has a special form and style, a new challenge for me to meet, so I listen to different kinds of music while writing them. I usually try to find something that in one way or another fits the theme or the mood of the novel, either by contrasting with it or by complementing it. With From the Mouth of the Whale it was two particular pieces by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt: Alina and Spiegel am Spiegel; with The Blue Fox it was Schubert’s string quartets and with The Whispering Muse it was Theolonius Monk.

4. We all loved Victoria’s translations. How closely did you work with her ?

And I love them as well! How close she wants me to be depends on the work. Sometimes I get many emails with questions about my intention with this phrase or that, or what outside source I am alluding to in one scene or another. Then sometimes she just asks me to read it over when the work is done. I trust her 100% and am always at her service if needed.

5. Which writers have influenced you ?

Samuel Beckett, Karen Blixen, Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bulgakov, André Breton, Leonora Carrington … To name some of Bs and one of the Cs …

6. As much as your books are historic, are we meant to read a modern context into them ?

Yes, you are!

7 .Which of your books are not yet translated. Should we keep an eye out for any when they come out ?

This year I am finishing the third volume of a trilogy I have been working on since the early 90s. It tells the story of a man in Reykjavik who is telling an eager but sceptical listener the story of how he came into being as the result of the rendez-vous between a Jewish man fleeing the concentration camps and a chamber maid in a guesthouse in northern Germany in the middle of WWII. That he believes himself to have been fashioned from a lump of clay taken from the remains of the Golem of Prague is just one of the threads in the novel. There is also a corrupt stamp-collector, a gender confused archangel, a self-mutilating swimming pool attendant, a government official who believes half of the Icelandic population are descended from werewolves, a girl with four fathers, and many more characters with their own stories and occupations. Yes, I hope you will be on the lookout for those three …

8. For the person that has not read you, can tell them what to expect from you in one sentence ?

The smell of a puffin stew cooking over camp fire flickering in the shadows of gallows built on the ruins of a great library.

9. What’s the literary scene like at home and are there any writers from your
country we should read?

It is quite robust, thank you. Of our contemporary authors, I recommend Kristín Ómarsdóttir. Her novel Children in Reindeer Woods has just been published by Open Letter Books in the US. And for the deceased ones, I recommend our Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness. I am especially fond of his turn of the 20th century novel The Fish Can Sing.

August 2012


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