I missed out on Peirene Press’s 2012 “Small Epic” series, due to one of the blog’s many deaths. It’s a shame, really, since I’d been curious re how neat, little novellas could handle the breadth of the claim. I’ve been a fan of the publisher since their first books—like most of the bookish Internet, I gather—and there’s always one absolute gem for me in each series: Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea was among my best reads in 2010; and Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella remains one of my absolute favorites of the form, and it still pretty much boggles my mind.
But the books of Peirene’s “Turning Point” series made their way to my shelves, and I delved into them, reading them almost one after the other. This was actually the first time that I’d read Peirene books aware of their thematic commonality, as I’d taken the previous books individually, with only the barest thought for its place in a series.* It’s a curious experience—for one, I was suddenly, protractedly immersed in translated literature in a way I’d hardly been, in recent memory.**
My reunion with Peirene and translated literature, thus, began with The Mussel Feast—by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch—whose previous translations that I’ve read are: one other Peirene novella, a contemporary Internet love story, and its sequel. The novella holds one of those seemingly simple stories that eventually hurtles the reader into something nerve-racking—and this turn plays on so many levels. On the surface, it’s a simple stretch of time: A mother and her two teenaged children are waiting for their father to come home; a special dinner is being prepared, the kind of dinner that must welcome home dearest promotion-bearing Father.
But Father is late, and the phone doesn’t ring to offer an explanation—and so the family waits, and the pot of mussels grows cold, and the wine bottle empties ever so slowly. And all this is told in a breathless, frazzled, vivid, but absolutely haranguing monologue from the daughter—and it’s all too familiar. See, Vanderbeke builds a history of a family within that monologue, and beneath the deceptively straightforward narrative of waiting-for-Father’s-homecoming, it’s a story of a tyrant’s hold over his family. The monologue slips and slides over domestic scenes that show just how hard a grip the man has got over his wife and their children—and then it becomes frantic, and then simply matter-of-fact. It’s terrifying—the entire set-up is terrifying. The dread of waiting, the unspoken hope that he won’t come home, the fear that he’ll somehow know you’d hoped he wouldn’t come home.
Mr. Darwin’s Gardener—by Kristina Carlson, and translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah—was, to me, the most demanding of the books. It’s a meandering, reflective narrative of a town—it’s people occasionally distinct, only to swell into the whole—who’ve gathered for church; only one man—Charles Darwin’s gardener, a loner, newly widowed, and a father of two—stays away. Another layer: It’s also an examination of the conflicted cleaving of science and spirituality, pinned down to very human elements and told in such a patient, painstaking manner.
The novella is quieter, existing further within an inner voice (compared to the monologue of Mussel, for example); and since quieter doesn’t always work for me, I had to work rather hard. I had some missteps, several times I’d start the book, then I’d fall off, then I had to start all over again—but I eventually got into the swing of things. Because what’s impressive about Carlson’s novella is its voice, how it tells that town’s story—that was why I kept on pushing forward. It dips in and out of individual people’s minds only to pull back for the collective. It’s a fascinating—albeit not always compelling, true, if your head’s all fluffy like mine—manipulation of conventional we-persona storytelling.
Of the three novellas, though, Chasing the King of Hearts—by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm—is of a different, utterly exceptional caliber. More urgent in tone than Mussel, more mesmerizing a tone than Darwin; and the stakes are likewise higher. It’s absolutely beautiful, this novella, and it rightly asks of everyone to go out and read it right this instant.
It’s larger, too, in scope and in aim: It’s 1942, and Izolda’s husband has been imprisoned; she sets out from the Warsaw ghetto to run after him and free him. She changes her name, her identity, she engages in deals, she slips in and out of life-threatening circumstances, she finds herself in Auschwitz—and she just keeps moving forward, she won’t stop, because Shayek, her King of Hearts, must be found.
It’s a slim book that’s epic in scale—it’s a fairy tale, it’s a quest, it’s a love story, led by a heroine so centered and dogged and willful. It refreshes the Holocaust story because it so matter-of-factly frames it from one person’s perspective; everything is more real, everything is more dire, everything simply matters more—and one must survive, one must move forward, and one must survive and move forward to reunite with the one you love most. And it tells this story in a voice so singular—it’s so detached from the horrors around our intrepid heroine, so nonchalant in dispensing the horrors that’s fallen her, so impervious to the deaths and the torture and the pain and the injustice and the bad luck and the utter wrongness of the circumstances—and it’s almost as if it’s because we exist in Izolda’s mind, moving ever forward, not stopping until her love is regained. It’s chilling how understated the book’s voice is—all the horror is left for the reader to feel, because Izolda cares not for it. Read it.
And the book turns. And, oh, does it turn so skillfully. You’re with Izolda all the way, you marvel at her desire to survive, at the strength of her love—and the reader is left with this discomfiting question about why we do the things—these near-miraculous things!—we do for people we love. And more and more questions about, among them: For whom we get up in the morning, and for whom we go about our day, and for whom we move forward, and for whom we survive. It’s not a novel about happiness but of dimming all one’s feelings so that sheer willfulness shines brightest; it’s not a novel of romance but of pinning one’s reason to keep on living to someone so very far away that he’s nothing but a stalled image in one’s head; it’s not a novel of loss but of an almost-loss that poses a greater sting. Read it.
*To my mind, what connects all three is not so much the theme of being at the cusp of something life-altering but: These three novellas approach craft in their own peculiar ways; that is: In an as unconventional a manner as possible. Each novella is a successful exercise in style and tone and voice and storytelling. Mussel has that breathless and urgent stream-of-consciousness, Darwin was admirably adept at picking out individual voices one moment and pushing forward the collective the next, and Chasing was just exemplary in temperance sharpening scenes into a fine point.
**A thought just occurred to me: I wonder about how conscious I am with reading books in translation. About a quarter of my reads thus far this year have been translated into English—and call it the conceit, the self-entitlement of the English language—but I went into those books rather matter-of-fact about them being in a language I can understand. Later on, of course, it would hit me. Peirene Press books, however, have me understand immediately that these are texts in translation. Right. This is, of course, just a random insight into how I read. Which means I’ve really just nattered on. As you were, loves.