IFFP Round-Up: Look Who’s Back, Tiger Milk, While the Gods Were Sleeping, Bloodlines

Here are some exclamatory sentences:

I was temporarily homeless but have now officially found a new, cat-friendly place to live!

The IFFP Shadow Winner announcement posts are coming soon!!

The official IFFP award is handed out on May 27th!!!

I get to go to the ceremony and meet at least one other IFFP shadow panelist in the flesh!!!! This will be one of those rare and cool incidents in which the Internet coincides with Real Life!!!!!

In honor of these upcoming events, here are the rest of my reviews of the IFFP longlist. I didn’t get to read them all (I ended up not reading three: Boyhood Island, The Giraffe’s Neckand The Investigation, and I’m still have to finish the Shadow Shortlisted Zone–I’m veryveryclose!) but it was without a doubt a highly positive experience. I definitely read a lot of books I’d have otherwise never heard of, and participated in plenty of engaging and thought-provoking discussions with fellow book lovers. This is one of the benefits of reading translated fiction: it exposes you to worlds, regions and opinions you might otherwise never encounter.

Onto the remaining reviews!

Look Who’s Back (Timur Vermes)

This is an amusing book to summarize, as you can maybe guess from the cover. It’s the 21st-century, and Hitler is back, teleported straight from his 1940’s bunker. He still has his mustache, uniform, and unswerving belief in the superiority of the Aryan race, but what he doesn’t have is any kind of understanding of how to deal with the Turkish-filled, YouTube-loving modern Germany. So what does our “hero” end up doing? He becomes a TV star, of course! It’s a brave and risky concept, so kudos to the author for pulling it off.

I found this book to be a bit of a one-trick pony. It’s a zany comedy, I guess, so at a certain point you just have to sort of accept that nobody ever really questions why Hitler stays “in character” all the time. The constant suspension of disbelief the novel asks you to maintain eventually “got” to me, which is the same thing that happens when I watch zany comedies on airplanes. The NY Times review also brings up some interesting points, particularly in regards to how at some point the book falls into a specific danger, in the sense that at a certain point Hitler must, well, become Hitler. It become a bit tedious staying so close to his POV, but again, that’s what makes this book so daring and unique. You are IN HITLER’S HEAD the entire time–unrelentingly, unbearably so.

Ultimately, I can’t help but feel that it’s not fair of me to review this. If I knew more about contemporary/historical Germany I would have probably enjoyed this more and have understood more of the satire. The translator and editors deserve enormous credit for what they’ve done, especially for the extremely helpful appendix. Still, a lot of the time while reading this book I felt confused and bored. I sure thought it was funny when he played Minesweeper, though. Yeah. I am not a huge fan of comic novels so I feel like I am not really the target audience for this…. that’s cool that it’s been popular in Germany, though. I’m sure it says lots of scathingly relevant things; I just didn’t really understand the references most of the time…!

Overall this was probably one of the more mainstream books on the longlist (in the sense that it’s been a German bestseller), but ultimately it wasn’t for me.

Tiger Milk (Stefanie de Velasco)

I enjoyed reading this book a lot even though it wasn’t popular among our shadow panel at ALL. Why did I like it?? As time passed it hasn’t stuck in my memory much, but at the time when I read it I enjoyed the energy and momentum of the young narrator’s voice. I also tend to be drawn towards books with young female narrators–I guess I’ve never truly left my Judy Blume fandom days behind.

Tiger Milk follows two 14-year-old friends, Nini and Jameelah, in modern-day Berlin. Jameelah is an Iraq refugee facing deportation and is DEEPLY TROUBLED to say the least. BOY would these girls make the pair in the movie Thirteen seem like Girl Scouts. Nuns, even.

The book’s title refers to the disgusting nasty drink they make out of brandy, milk and passion fruit juice, hidden in milk cartons, and that’s BY FAR the most innocent thing they do together in this book. If my thirteen-year-old self were to run into these two, they would eat me alive, vomit me up and then eat me again for breakfast, lunch AND dinner.

Reading this book reminded me of the young people I used to spend time with back in the States during my “social work” days, and I wonder if this explains my affection for it. How much does personal experience + interests prevent us from making detached, objective judgements about a work of art? I’m not sure. But I don’t know how to get rid of ‘me’ when I read–my history, my past, my personal biases & preferences. My gut instinct. This is why I don’t think I’d ever be a good book reviewer, in terms of being a professional, coldly-detached critic in a top-ranked publication. No, I think that I will always read as a “reader” than as a critic, with my own inevitable, inexplicably personal likes and dislikes (if that makes any sense).

Anyway, in this book I could have honestly done without the murder plot, and have just followed these girls around Berlin, witnessing their every-day lives. But I guess the point of the murder was to add a traditional plot, which was like okay, fine. The translation was sort of nuts–I think with all the German youth slang, this must have been pretty tough to do. For example, of saying “gross” the characters would say “cross” which made me wonder if this was an error on my kindle or if it was supposed to be slang. Also, apparently “losing your chandor” is the translation for an expression that means “losing your mind,” which is pretty interesting.

Overall, this was a dark read that made me glad not to be a 14-year-old in Berlin. SO. GLAD. Like the similarly powerful but troubling UK film The Fallingthis book is not perfect, but I respect what it sets out to do. I found the unrelentingly too-mature, dark and dirty events engrossing, but this is definitely not for everybody.

While The Gods Were Sleeping (Erwin Mortier)

This is a book that would have benefited from me NOT reading it when I was feeling incredibly rushed for time (I had to read it right before leaving on a trip). It is a book with long sentences, dramatic language, and heavily-layered imagery that did not benefit from being read in a single day.

The main struggle I had while reading this was I found the narrator of this book unbearable. I HATE saying that because normally I am filled with utter disdain and contempt for those who profess that they need to “like” a character in order to enjoy a book. AND NOW I HAVE BECOME ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE, OH THE HORROR AND SHAME. I still wholeheartedly agree with Claire Messud’s proclamation that the question shouldn’t be whether you want to be friends with a character, but whether you think the character is alive.

Did I think the narrator of this book was alive? Yes… and yet, and yet. I still did not like spending time with her, and this made the experience of reading this book very difficult for me. The main reason I did not like her is that anybody who self-knowingly describes themselves as a a poetess is someone I automatically find very suspicious. This is a book that in which the narrator is very self-aware of her own poetic, dramatic, self-reflective style, and reminds you of how much of a poet she is again…. and again…. and again. It was not really my thing, I’m afraid, and even less so when I had to read it in a hurry.

That being said, this book IS very poetically written, and I’m not surprised at all that it ended up on the official IFFP shortlist. It has basically no plot, which will forever be a cool and brave thing to do, especially in this day and age of bullshit superhero stories. There are also lots of good scenes: when she first makes out with her future husband during the shelling, for example, and the bats fly around their heads, or when the little girl is killed by shrapnel in the field, or anything that had to do with the maid early on. I thought the gay older brother was a fascinating character (the fact that she cuts him out so ruthlessly during their old age was something I found quite harsh!). I also thought the fact that she hated her daughter was really interesting, and something I would have liked the novel to have spent a little more time on, as opposed to breathlessly summarizing it at the end–it felt like a missed opportunity. I also loved the last four pages narrated from the perspective of the caretaker–this was definitely my favorite part. What a moving and powerful way to go out with a bang.

I don’t know. I get that there’s this whole theme set up in this book about the in/ability of words and images to capture the horrors of reality (the husband is a photographer, which further adds to the theme). I did end up underlining a lot of sentences that I thought were really beautiful and well written. The translator definitely did an excellent job. Dense poetic writing is fine (I’m a huge Faulkner and Woolf fan), but if the character irritates me due to my own personally subjective, petty reasons, then it’s going be hard for me to stick with it. C’est la vie. But as far as World War I novels go this was an interesting approach–I liked how the war was depicted as this opportunity for freedom for the narrator, as opposed to a more typical approach focusing on the Doom and Gloom and Horror.

Overall this book is very beautifully written even though it ended up not being my cup of tea for purely subjective, highly biased reasons. If I weren’t reading this for the IFFP list, I don’t know I could have finished it. This was the most interesting effect for me in terms of reading books from the IFFP list–normally if I don’t like a book, I just stop reading it. On the Shadow Panel, though, I kept plodding on out of a sense of ‘pride’ and ‘duty’ to read all of the books I could. Will this affect the way that I read books I don’t immediately enjoy in the future? Only time will tell.

Here’s one of the aforementioned passages from this book that I enjoyed:

Books should band together like feral dogs on street corners. They should have to sleep in piles in shop doorways under cardboard covers, beggars without much hope of alms. They should get soaked through with rain on park benches, or be scattered on the floor of the tram, in order to beguile or bore whoever picks them up, leave them indifferent or irritate them so much that they want to write a reply, which would then blow through the world just as namelessly.

Bloodlines (Marcello Fois)

One of the six Shadow Panel-shortlisted books, I ended up enjoying this book far more than I initially thought I would. A cruel, trite and unfair way of summarizing this novel would be that almost everybody in this family DIES AND SUFFERS in a variety of ways. That’s where the “bloodlines” of the title comes from, I suppose–the family line is cursed with blood, pain, madness, bad luck, etc. A better way of summarizing the book would say that in a vague One Hundred Years of Solitude style, it follows a single family in Sardinia through three generations of trials and troubles, beginning in the 19th century and ending during the Second World War. The book is apparently structured in the reverse order of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: we begin with Paradise, continue with Hell and end with Purgatory (quite tellingly, Hell is the biggest section of the book, and Paradise and Purgatory are all too brief).

In the author’s own words, overall the novel is an attempt to “tell an ordinary story in an extraordinary way.” That being said, there is nothing that remarkable, unique or distinctive about the Chironi family other than the fact that the novel focuses on them, and that the fates of many family member’s lives are intertwined with the history of the region.  This was my favorite thing about this novel: the way the national history of Italy (or of Sardinia, rather) was balanced with the history of the family. I especially liked the sections about the town, described as “an intimate world of courtyards and dry-stone walls, which modernity will transform into public life. Like when a gust of wind lifts a young woman’s skirt in the street.” These sections have almost a Faulkneresque, “A Rose for Emily” quality, related to us via an omniscient, all-seeing, all-knowing narrator.

I also liked the way the novel doubled back on itself, referring to an anecdote or incident in passing only to return to it many pages later. It gave the book a looping or circular quality that made me want to keep reading, as I gradually came to look forward to its unexpected twists and surprises. As the book itself says, in a self-aware reflection of its own style, “History can move backwards and forwards, and sometimes in a spiral fashion, or in a circle or in more than one direction, but it never, ever proceeds in a direct line, whistling straight like an arrow…. No, History slithers like a water snake, starting at a certain point, then disappearing as if under a mirror, and there is never any knowing where it will reappear. All we can see are coils ruffling the calm surface of the pond. That is how we become aware of History: from signs.” 

You can maaaaybe tell from that brief excerpt above that the narration throughout this book is quite distant. According to John Gardener’s rules of psychic distance, we spend most of the novel hovering between levels 1 and 2. That is to say, as a reader the psychological distance you have from the characters is quite strong; for the most part you have little access to their interiority, and what interiority you do see tends to be summarized and explained rather than lived and experienced via their immediate consciousness. One of the effects this had on me is that I felt removed from all the characters, and none of them ever quite emerged as interesting or psychologically distinct individuals. Instead they’re more like ‘types’ that are fulfilling a specific role in the story, cogs turning in the machine. In a way, this distant tone makes sense, since one of the main points of the book is about the way history turns individuals into helpless cogs who still need to go on living their everyday lives, irregardless. Despite the distant tone, I still felt involved and invested while reading this book, though not to the same level as when I read Elena Ferrante (books in which you have a LOT of access to character’s inner thoughts and emotions). For the most part I enjoyed reading Bloodlines (except for the melodramatically narrated italicized sections–I could have definitely done without most of these), and despite the psychological distance I still felt emotionally impacted by the upsetting things that consistently happened to the characters.

In the end, though, I don’t quite get what point this book was trying to make. There is nothing that unique or distinctive about the Chironi family that makes them stand out as much as the Buendías in Solitude. What is this book trying to say? That most people’s lives are suffering? But in the end you can, like, endure? There were a lot of blacksmith and metalwork metaphors at the end I probably should have read more carefully–I don’t know. At one point a character claims that the the main problem of the Chironi family has been “living without rules. Without rules you can have no sense of duty and without a sense of duty there can be no spirit of sacrifice.” OK… except I don’t really understand when the Chironis showed themselves to be “living without rules”… Maybe it’s a reference to how the patriarch got super wealthy through his blacksmith profession? But how is this living without rules? Wondering about this makes me feel thick and stupid, like the book was trying to convey a Dramatic Point about the family that I couldn’t quite get.

In terms of the plot, though, it was interesting to me that the book ends abruptly on a very positive note. It’s a risky, dramatic move that I applaud: by being so unconventional and out of the blue, the ending avoids being syrupy or sentimental, and it also enables the book to NOT end on a note of complete and utter despair.

In the end I’m glad I read this, even though it’s not a book I was crazy about–I know absolutely nothing about Sardinia, so it was interesting to read a book focusing on the region. I think I’d even be willing to read another book about the Chironi family, were it to be written/released. Why the heck not?

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