Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Since reading Yuri’s Signs Preceding the End of the World last summer, and then meeting the author and hearing him read, I’ve been looking forward to finding the time for more of this trilogy. As I left this summer’s residency, I should of course have been starting on the semester’s reading, but in transit I only had the books in my bag. Happily, this one.

Kingdom Cons was the first of the three books to be published in Spanish, and the third in English. These titles (second comes The Transmigration of Bodies, followed by Signs) form what Yuri Herrera calls a “loose” trilogy, so I’m not supposed to feel too bad about going out of order. They are so short, though, I’ll probably reread Signs in its proper position when the time comes.

Kingdom Cons is set in a similar world to that later novel, but without any overlapping characters, according to my memory. This one stars a man we first meet as Lobo (wolf), but who quickly takes on another name. The canine implication stays, though: he is repeatedly referred to as a stray. Lobo was a poor child whose parents (also strays) sent him out to earn a few coins as a street musician; he sings and plays the accordion, and most importantly, he writes lyrics. After his parents abandon him to this life, he develops his skills: music, writing, and the art of invisibility, of ingratiating himself to the right people. In the opening scene, Lobo performs in a bar while watching–admiring–a group of powerful men. It is clear to him who’s in charge.

He knew blood, and could see this man’s was different. Could see it in the way he filled the space, with no urgency and an all-knowing air, as though made of finer threads. Other blood.

…Then he saw the jewels that graced him and knew: he was a King.

Two observations from these first lines will be central: one, Lobo’s interest in and feeling for blood. And two, the epithets that identify all characters from here on out. The head man Lobo follows hereafter (a drug lord, a mobster, a leader) is the King. He employs men known as the Jeweler, the Journalist, the Heir, the Manager, the Traitor. Lobo will be known from here until nearly the end of the book by the title given to him by the King: the Artist. He moves into the King’s palatial compound, fulfilling a new role as court balladeer. He writes songs in praise of the King’s heroics. Completely uncynically, he feels lucky to be a part of something so good, and honestly worships the man in charge. But of course, the King’s rule will eventually be challenged.

The Artist did not do well in school, but his passion and gift for words in the form of song have served him well. At the King’s Court, the Journalist sees his need and gives him books to study. The Doctor gives him spectacles, so that he can see what he’s never seen before. He finds his first romantic and sexual experiences there, but the Girl did not choose this life for herself. In a way, the Court is a microcosm of the world; but in other ways, it is exactly what it seems on its face: a violent, greedy underworld in which girls are sold for a used car, and the King has no true friends really, except perhaps the Artist himself.

That makes it sound more heroic than it is. In the end, the Artists becomes just Lobo again, although he has learned to recognize his own blood.

I missed Lisa Dillman’s Translator’s Note in this book, but I remain pleased with her work; having read the Note in Signs I trust that the idiosyncrasies of her language here are faithful to Herrera’s. That is, the use of those epithets, the running pun of calling Lobo a stray, and the consistent spelling of ‘though’ as ‘tho.’ I marked many memorable lines. Lobo “thought that from now on there was a new reason why calendars were senseless: no date meant a thing besides this one.” Later, “endings and eccentricities were the most notable way to order time.” “People already knew the story, but no one had ever sung it.” “Maybe God put the needle on the record and then went off to nurse a hangover.”

Although more subtly than in Signs, I think one of the central themes in this book, again, is borders. Liminal spaces: not just the obvious border between the unstated country where this story is set and its neighbor to the norte, but the fragile transitional space Lobo hopes to cross between his street-hustling and the finer, deceptively safer, life in the Court; and the equally delicate lines walked by other characters in these spaces. Also like Signs, Kingdom Cons retains a slightly dreamy, mystic quality, as if this were a fable, or a myth to build a culture around. Again at less than 100 pages, what a world opens up. I can’t wait to get to The Transmigration of Bodies.


Rating: 8 sombreros.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori

A quirky novel about a convenience-store clerk who seems to be the ideal employee.

In the opening pages of Convenience Store Woman, Keiko Furukura is in her element, at work in the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart. She knows what the displays need, how properly to promote the day’s featured item, when the cold drinks need replenishing; she reads her customers expertly: “Instantly I deduce that he will use electronic money.” She is a valued employee and good at her job. The mingled beeps, dings, rustles and clacks of the convenience store form a “sound that ceaselessly caresses [her] eardrums.”

Few situations in Keiko’s life have been so easy. In primary school, she often responded to the world in ways others thought wrong: offering to cook and eat a dead bird on the playground, applying a shovel to the skull of a classmate in order to break up a fight. She wasn’t a violent child; these just seemed like practical strategies. She couldn’t understand why the teachers at school got upset. Life presented a series of puzzles she could not decipher, until the day she went to work at the Smile Mart. The convenience store offers Keiko a uniform, a series of set lines to be spoken to customers and a manual for staff behavior. She copies her coworkers’ choices in clothing and cosmetics, mimics their speech patterns and facial movements, and learns to play the part. She’s never felt so successful: no one notices that she’s different anymore. “Here in the convenience store we’re not men and women. We’re all store workers.” And so she has been a store worker for 18 years.

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata’s English-language debut, is a compelling novel about conformity in society, and the baffling rules applied in work and life. Murata’s protagonist is likable, if a bit baffling herself. Ginny Tapley Takemori’s translation feels just right for the slightly off-kilter reality of this thought-provoking story: Keiko’s first-person narrative is earnest, if continually challenged, in attempting to decode the world around her.

Keiko is attuned to the ways people act, speak and move; she suspects they are all imitating each other, just as she is imitating them. She studies these behaviors to lower her own profile, but remains honestly unclear why careers, marriage and children are desirable goals. When a new employee comes along who also has trouble fitting in–but who hasn’t mastered the act as much as Keiko has–she is intrigued. Tired of everyone questioning her lack of a husband or a “real job,” Keiko takes a risk. But it may cost her the carefully constructed mask she’s learned to wear.

This brief, brisk novel is an engrossing adventure into an unusual mind. Is it a subversive, satiric criticism of societal norms? Is it a surrealist take on extreme workplace culture? Or simply the perspective of a woman wired a little bit differently? Murata holds the reader rapt, wondering what Keiko will do next. Convenience Store Woman is for all kinds of readers, for anyone who’s ever questioned the status quo.


This review originally ran in the May 21, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 rice balls.

The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke, trans. by Carlos Rojas

Two novellas translated from the Chinese offer plucky characters in terrible situations, simply but poetically portrayed.

The Years, Months, Days contains two novellas by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas. The title story, featuring just two characters, opens: “In the year of the great drought, time was baked to ash; and if you tried to grab the sun, it would stick to your palm like charcoal.” All the other residents of a tiny mountain village have fled, but an old man known only as the Elder does not think he’d survive the trip. He stays behind, with a blind dog for companion, to tend a single stalk of corn, in the hopes that when the villagers return, the kernels he nurtures will restart their community. In this stark tale, he speaks to the corn and the dog and his departed neighbors, alternately cursing and hopeful, and does battle with rats, wolves and the sun itself. As the food and water available to man and dog dwindle, every day becomes a fight for life.

The second novella, “Marrow,” is also about a grim struggle for existence. The father of four disabled children, out of guilt for his heredity, kills himself, leaving his wife to raise them alone. His ghost remains to accompany his wife and converse with her, in a twist that could be magical or merely her fantasy. When their children grow up, she works to find them marriages and homes of their own, despite their problems and the ill will of the villagers. Finally she discovers that there is a cure for their poor health and bad luck–but it involves the bones of direct relatives. When only her youngest is left at home, she devises a way to reinterpret his disturbing appetites for the better.

The common themes of these bleak stories are clear: hunger, solitude, the searing strain of existence. In a brief, insightful translator’s note, Rojas observes that Lianke’s work often transforms such abstract needs into literal ones. Indeed, the author’s descriptions are synesthetic: smells “roll noisily”; gazes produce a “crackling sound”; and a wolf’s roar is purplish-red. In a spare but artful style, Lianke presents the sun’s rays as physical realities, which have measurable mass and can be cut or shattered. His characters inhabit a bleak, harsh world. In bitterly hard circumstances, they show courage and ingenuity, defiance and grace. His renderings of real-world desolations are imaginative and wondrous; these austere fables are minimal, but beautifully composed. The Years, Months, Days is for readers who appreciate grim lessons, magical realism and lovely, lyric prose.


This review originally ran in the November 17, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 yelps like blades of green grass.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

This is an astonishing novel that I’m so glad I learned about from my MFA program director, Jessie Van Eerden.

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a very short novel, at under 100 pages. Herrera wastes no space on setting or set-up, but puts his reader directly into the action, leaving her to figure out when and where we are. Without taking too much of that experience away from you, I will say that our narrator, Makina, is preparing to leave her hometown (“the Village”) and head north, looking for her brother who left before her. She is a remarkable young woman, nearly fearless, and comfortable with a variety of underworld characters in the Village, whose connections will help her in her travels.

This is a book about boundaries, borders; change, movement, travel, transition; and about translation, language. All of these subjects have multiple meanings, so that a so-brief little book with actions just sketched in, and no background, works on an enormous number of levels. I dearly love this layered style, where one border stands in for all borders, and every detail can be mined for implications. I always think that a book like this has something to offer for everyone: for the surface-only reader, all the way through the dissertation-seeking academic. Not to mention that this book has been translated from the Spanish (and to a few other languages as well as English), so the question of translation within its story is continued outside of Herrera’s own work.

[This is the place to mention that Lisa Dillman’s Translator’s Note is perhaps the best I’ve ever read (though likewise brief). She goes directly to the question that made me turn to the Translator’s Note when I was on page 16 of the novel, which is always nice! and explores the beauty of the book as well as discusses her own process. For readers interested in the puzzle of translation, this novel would be worth reading just for this question, even if it were not an extraordinary read in itself.]

The work of Signs is emphasized by its brevity, I think. Makina’s journey and challenges are archetypal, and I mean by that that she must stand in for a huge swath of our world’s population, as well as that Signs hearkens to mythology, and any number of archetypal journey-stories. The quick-sketch nature of the book helps to demonstrate or play out these facts. It’s not that there aren’t details:

Rucksacks. What do people whose life stops here take with them? Makina could see their rucksacks crammed with time. Amulets, letters, sometimes a huapango violin, sometimes a jaranera harp. Jackets. People who left took jackets because they’d been told that if there was one thing they could be sure of over there, it was the freezing cold, even if it was desert all the way. They hid what little money they had in their underwear and stuck a knife in their back pocket. Photos, photos, photos. They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.

(I love the ambiguous pronoun ‘they’ in that final phrase. Were the people in tatters, or the photos? or the promises?)

Although I can sense the fable/archetypal nature of this story, my background in those areas, particularly in Mexican culture, is not strong enough to see all the connections. So, that’s a level on which I have more to study about this lovely little book. Easy to read, but will continue to yield meaning on multiple readings, I can tell (and as Jessie says).

Yuri Herrera is a talent, and Lisa Dillman as well. I am looking forward to meeting Yuri at this summer’s residency in West Virginia, where he’ll be a guest writer. Wish I could meet Lisa, too.


Rating: 8 jackets.

Human Acts by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

South Koreans struggle to comprehend a 1980 uprising and the violence that follows.

human-acts

Human Acts is the second novel by Han Kang (The Vegetarian) to be translated into English. An introduction by translator Deborah Smith provides valuable context for this meandering book, which uses a dreamy atmosphere to explore the violence of a 1980 student uprising in South Korea.

Kang approaches the horrifying events of the Gwangju uprising obliquely. She doesn’t shy away from the shocking details–indeed, the novel opens with a young boy taking a brief respite from his work cleaning and caring for an overflow of unidentified dead bodies in a converted government office. But instead of spotlighting this violence, Kang focuses on the lives of individuals, beginning with Dong-ho, the boy caring for the dead, and then rotating through the views of those around him. First-, second- and third-person perspectives reinforce the feeling of circling the center of this event. After Dong-ho, the reader meets his best friend, shot dead in the streets; the two young women he works with; and his grieving mother. In a state of massive unrest, violence and terror, these characters appear dazed. Others look back over the decades that follow, including an editor wearily battling censorship and former prisoners struggling with old trauma. This range of voices, their sense of shock and unreality, along with the title, explore the possibilities of humanity: human acts can be variously brave, selfish, gentle and cruel.

Human Acts is a remarkable novel, at once lyrical, dreamlike and horrific. Smith’s succinct introduction is an excellent aid in understanding both Kang’s message and her artistry.


This review originally ran in the February 3, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 bodies.

Turkish Delight by Jan Wolkers, trans. by Sam Garrett

This Dutch novel of 1969 still titillates with its sexual content, but deserves serious consideration for style and themes, too.

turkish delight

Jan Wolkers’s 1969 novel Turks Fruit was translated from the Dutch into many languages and adapted into a highly regarded 1973 film. Sam Garrett’s English translation is not the first of this work, but reflects its continuing appeal.

Turkish Delight opens with the unnamed narrator, a sculptor, lamenting and railing against his lost love. He describes in great detail a surfeit of sexual affairs undertaken after she departed, then flashes back to describe their first encounter: Olga picked him up as a hitchhiker, then pulled over the car for the first of their sexual enthusiasms. Olga is the heart and life of this novel and of the narrator’s existence: he obsessively recites and reviews her body, her sex, her red hair, her love for animals, her jokes and delights. The lengthy flashback sees their relationship and, later, marriage run its course (his evil mother-in-law plays a heavy role), and returns again to the sculptor’s tortured single life. His love for Olga does not flag, even as she degrades herself (in his eyes) with subsequent marriages and physical decline. The novel ends at Olga’s deathbed, where the former lover feeds her the soft candy Turkish delight, as her teeth fail her.

Not for the faint of heart, Turkish Delight was immediately notorious upon its original publication for its graphic sexual content, and decades later remains a frank, granular portrayal of sex, bodily fluids and coarse language. It has much to offer beyond shock effect, however. The narrator’s tone is unapologetic, and if he is fixated on Olga’s body and its pleasures (and equally detailed in describing his later lovers), his message is as much romantic as it is sexual. On the one hand, he worships Olga as a romantic ideal, and on the other, speaks in a recognizable, colloquial, even familiar voice. It is easy to see how shocking, even revolutionary Wolkers’s writing appeared in 1969, and it holds the power to provoke today. But it is also an honest view of a sticky love affair, one made of sweets, devotion and passion, as well as cruelty and obsession. Fittingly, Olga and the sculptor welcomed a menagerie of animals into their home together, and in a way their relationship ends as violently as a pet destroyed with an accidental crunch, “as though the little bird was built around a wooden frame.”

Garrett’s translation of Wolkers’s prose is often lyrical and always heartfelt; the juxtaposition of poetry with crude language echoes the narrator’s passionate love and enormous lust. Turkish Delight is a serious and artistic literary work, but only appropriate for readers fully tolerant of graphic sex.


This review originally ran in the January 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 positions.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, trans. by Megan McDowell

A woman and a boy sit in the dark, probing a shared story of love, danger and “the invisible thread that ties us together.”

fever-dream

Samanta Schweblin’s first novel, Fever Dream, is part contemplation, part living nightmare. Amanda lies in a dark hospital room, accompanied by a boy who is not her son. David walks her through the story of their meeting, as two very different mothers care for their two children in a dusty small town. Amanda worries over what she calls the “rescue distance”: “that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.” He presses her for details, because the two have an unnamed riddle to solve, but at the same time repeatedly chides her, “that’s not important.” This paradoxical sense of urgency combined with immobility evokes a classic bad dream. With relentless tension and steady pacing, the mystery of what has happened to Amanda, and to David, unfolds. This is a story about a parent’s need to protect her child; unnatural elements cannot obscure a cautionary tale about the pressures of parental love.

Fever Dream may be contagious: the reader should beware the compulsion to read it in a single sitting, pulled helplessly along by the power of the story. Though brief, its stream-of-consciousness style and absence of chapters emphasize a sense of inexorable forward momentum. Megan McDowell’s translation from the Spanish expertly delivers every atmospheric moment and line of near-panicked dialogue. A sense of foreboding hangs over this story that is at once a dark fairy tale and a realistic expression of everyday danger.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the January 20, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 details that do not matter.
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