Women Having to Huddle Under Kiosk Roofs

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated by Jen Calleja: Peirene Press, 2017
Dance by the Canal, or Tanz am Kanal, as Peirene promises, can be read in a single two-hour sitting. The category of the ‘single-sitting’ novel is one Dance by the Canal fulfils in all aspects; engaging, complicated and addictive. This novel in translation is a haunting reminder of German history and of the all too familiar challenges unresolved in our current world. Kerstin Hensel, born in Karl-Marx Stadt in the German Democratic Republic, is a prize-winning poet. She also studied in Leipzig, the basis for the fictional industrial town of Leibnitz in East Germany, where the bulk of the story occurs. This is probably why the sense of place that surrounds the novel is so strong and not at all lost in the translation:

‘Katka knew a place under the Green Bridge for forbidden things and other thrills.
Goldenrod and something that looked like giant rhubarb grew on the embankment.’

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The story begins in 1994 with the protagonist and narrator, Gabriela von Haßlau, feeling joy for the first time in years because she has decided to write a book, an autobiography on whatever blank scraps, she can find to write on. The reasons she has not felt joy for so long soon become abundantly clear, starting with the fact revealed on page one that she lives under a canal bridge, which is very definitively her bridge, with only the comfort of a thin, grey blanket (two in the winter months) from the homeless shelter to keep her warm. From then on, we are flung into two narratives, the one of her writing, living under her bridge, and the one of what she has already written, and how she ended up there. The switch in time flows beautifully, answering questions from the present through the past with just enough room for the reader to speculate.

Her memories begin with five-year old Gabriela being presented with a violin, ‘-Repeat after me! Vi-o- lin! Vi-o- lin!’ Her father, a successful vascular surgeon, tells her. Because language and words, words which belong to certain people, are so important to this story. A particular focus throughout being the ffffon in Gabriel von Haßlau that every character besides her mother and father take note of. They take note because von is a symbol of wealth; something which Gabriela, along with the rest of Eastern Germany in the 1960s, do not have. The von Haßlaus are living under communist rule and there is no place for their von any longer. Combined with the ‘I’ marked next to Gabriela’s name on the register for Intelligent it would appear she would be at an advantage, but her von and her ‘I’ are only the beginning of her downfall.
Being unfamiliar with the history of the GDR, there were observations, I am sure, that
were lost on me. The general consensus seems to be that us younger Brits do not
have enough knowledge of this particular period of German history to fully grasp the
extent of the truth underlying this story. It would possibly be helpful to read up on the subject before embarking on this book, for example knowing more about the huge
social, economic and political differences between East and West Germany, and
how they became unified, what the longer term consequences were for people living
in the East. However, not knowing the history does not impinge on the overall impact of the novel. Since the number of people sleeping rough in Britain has more than doubled in the last two years, and has risen by 134% since 2010, this is a novel not only about the past, but about the present, and how it doesn’t take much change for someone to lose everything. In the brief foreword that founder of Peirene, Meike Ziervogal, writes in every Peirene novel, she states “This book will make you think.” It certainly has.

Click here to order Dance by the Canal from Peirene Press.
About the publisher:
Peirene Press is a boutique small press publishing house, specializing in contemporary
European novellas and short novels in English translation. Peirene Press publishes its
translated European novellas in trios and Dance by the Canal is the final instalment of the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series.
Review Laurie Robertson
Laurie Robertson is a recent Literature and Creative Writing graduate from the University of Westminster, currently working at Penguin, DK in non-fiction works, craving the kind of fiction that the Contemporary Small Press reviews!

Divided We Fall

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright: Peirene Press, 2017

‘He spoke of the weight of the past on the present, a sense of betrayal, of something undone, of retribution on some grand, futile scale.’

Just over a year ago, the UK awoke to the cataclysmic news that by a very narrow margin, the nation had voted to leave the EU. Released on the first anniversary of the Brexit referendum, The Cut by Anthony Cartwright was specially commissioned to tackle the deep divisions at the heart of British society today.

The town of Dudley in the Black Country forms the backdrop of the story. A former powerhouse of the industrial revolution, it is painted bleakly, with a depressing sense of lost identity amidst relentless modernisation. The ruins of a castle and engine house are the only reminders of its proud history, when people worked for the steel and coal industries with a sense of purpose that has gradually been eroded.

Documentary maker Grace Trevithick, an academic’s daughter from Hampstead, visits Dudley shortly before the referendum. She wants to interview ordinary people, ‘conscious of saying ordinary people and all that might mean,’ to find out why they are considering voting Leave. The reality, she discovers, is complex. She tries to be open-minded but her innate condescension proves difficult to shake off.

‘She saw them as a bobbing, swaggering whole. She was struck by the state of their work clothes, ragged and dirty like something from an engraving of Victorian squalor.’

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Grace’s confidence and sense of entitlement sharply contrast with local man Cairo Jukes, an ageing boxer struggling to make ends meet. He works clearing old industrial sites to be replaced by new entertainment complexes, facing financial uncertainty on a zero-hours contract. Cairo is a deep thinker who doesn’t easily fit into any convenient box. Grace is surprised by his eloquence and the two attempt to communicate without prejudice, forming an unexpected romantic bond.

The Cut highlights the different experiences of British citizens, offering an insight into alienated communities. There is a claustrophobic sense of being in the thick of the action, a tense immediacy heightened by the close third person narrative. A key scene involving UKIP members having a fight in a curry house certainly grabs the attention. The focus shifts frequently between different points of view, providing a glimpse inside the minds of the main characters.

Although they have things in common, the relationship between Cairo and Grace feels a little contrived. Brexit is too complex an issue to condense into a love story between two white English people on opposite sides. The referendum created a distorted sense of polarisation but how people voted was not simply dependent on privilege.

However, as a comment on the British class system, it is an insightful and revealing short novel, exposing prejudice so ingrained it is rarely confronted or discussed. Class is the elephant in the room in the UK. People are casually judged based on their accent or the way they dress. Carefully laid out definitions aiming to protect people from discrimination do not extend to class. Victims are effectively silenced and powerless to defend themselves without the necessary vocabulary.

‘All you people want to say is that it’s about immigration. That we’m all racist. That we’m all stupid. You doh wanna hear that it’s more complicated than that. It lets all of you lot off the hook. Never considered the problem might be you.’

Cairo is a particularly well drawn character, his intelligence and sensitivity proving attractive to Grace. He is deeply insulted when his interview on the news is subtitled, translating his accent into his own language, as if he is somehow ‘foreign’ in the country of his birth. Cairo fears that despite his keen insight, his opinion somehow doesn’t really matter. He and his family are looked down upon, but worse is the sense that they may simply be ignored. ‘If they talked about them at all’ is a phrase that appears frequently in this story.

‘And this is how it began, she supposed, prejudice on a scale of a whole country.’    

At this year’s National Writers’ Conference, poet and academic Andrew McMillan of Liverpool John Moores University emphasised the need to focus more positively on the underrepresented in society. He believes that ‘there must be an urgency, now, to help disenfranchised communities of all different types express their identity, to celebrate their history, to see themselves as belonging to part of a bigger picture, and this must include a refocusing on the working classes.’

The narrative of The Cut is sympathetic without being patronising. It is a book advocating dialogue with a message to look beyond the stereotypes and actually listen to people. This is a timely, challenging story exploring not just how Brexit came about but the social gulf it represents. Like the canal system referred to in the title that links Dudley to the rest of the UK, ‘we are all connected’, a theme of hope on which to build. This compelling and thought-provoking novel is essential reading for anyone wishing to better understand modern Britain.

Click here to buy The Cut by Anthony Cartwright directly from Peirene Press.

About the Publisher

Peirene Press is an award-winning boutique publishing house based in London,  specialising in contemporary European novellas and short novels in English translation.  The Peirene Now! series enables the press to work closely with writers and commission new British fiction on current political topics.

Review by Becky Danks

Becky Danks is a creative writer, poet, book reviewer and dog lover. She recently won the City Writes competition for her short story The Anniversary. She is a judge of flash fiction for the Hysteria Writing Competition. She voted Remain. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123. Website: www.beckydanks.com

 

 

A Spoonful of Sinister

A Spoonful of Sinister

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift. Translated into English from the German by Jamie Bulloch: Peirene Press, 2016 – Republic of Consciousness Prize Long List*

‘It could never just be one more time.’

A seemingly innocent slice of cake lures a vulnerable young woman into a downward spiral of crime and enslavement. Bewildered at first, she cannot say no and succumbs disturbingly easily to the takeover of her life. Prepare to be held captive by the nightmarish unfolding of this lavish, Kafkaesque psychological thriller.

Set in present-day Vienna, the story opens with an invitation to a stranger’s apartment to share a dessert. The unnamed young woman, who is both the story’s heroine and narrator, feels compelled by social niceties to submit to this apparent act of kindness. Her older hostess, Frau Hohenembs, is a powerful social butterfly with a penchant for theft and cocaine. As she uses her status and connections to gain the young woman’s trust, the tension mounts into an unsettling sense of impending doom.

Joined by the downtrodden Ida, Frau H’s servant whose unconventional daily chores include polishing a pickled human head in a jar, they embark on a precarious law-breaking spree. Blowing up statues and stealing priceless objects from museums, their actions all play a part in the orchestration of the heroine’s inevitable ruin.

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A parallel story about Empress Elizabeth of Austria runs alongside the main drama. This celebrated nineteenth century monarch felt stifled by the unrelenting etiquette of stately life. Craving admiration achievable only by obsessively watching her weight, she maintained her tiny figure through rumoured binge eating and fasting. Part contemporary suspense, part historical memoir, this riveting read reveals the pressure on women throughout history to conform to impossible ideals of beauty.

‘As decades passed the women got thinner and fitter.’

The distorted image the characters have of themselves is explored in fascinating detail. Trapped in a situation over which she has no power, the contemporary narrator finds solace in old habits, making herself sick using ostrich feathers in an ancient ritual copied from the Romans. This eating disorder, from whose grip she thought she had escaped fifteen years earlier, resurfaces as a sort of comfort blanket to cling to as she loses her job, her apartment and eventually her only friend.

Frau H eats little to remain impossibly slim while the overweight Ida somewhat inevitably stuffs herself with sugary treats at every opportunity, comfort eating to numb the misery of her circumstances. The twisted relationship between the three starkly different women is unified only by a mutual obsession with food as they struggle to satisfy their appetites amidst an oppressive atmosphere of guilt and punishment.

‘The grotesque face of my abnormality, which had lain dormant within me, resurfaced.’

Although mostly set in the present day, the story feels timeless, featuring extravagantly ornate settings and opulent lifestyles. Like the sumptuous cakes that appear throughout, this book is a thrilling treat to be devoured within a short space of time. A claustrophobic and gripping page-turner, it is an easy-to-read, scintillating little gem.

About the Publisher:

Peirene Press publishes contemporary European literature in translation. Great care is taken when choosing unique new works with the focus firmly on the merit of each book and the talent of the writer.

Review by Becky Danks:

Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, poet, and reviewer of books. Amongst other things! She was recently shortlisted for the Verve Poetry Festival Prize. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123

 

*The Contemporary Small Press is celebrating the first ever Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses by reviewing a range of titles from the long- and short-lists throughout early 2017.  The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by writer Neil Griffiths to support and reward adventurous new fiction published by small presses in the UK and Ireland.  The judges have selected some of the most exciting and innovative new fiction to highlight through their long- and short-lists, demonstrating the breadth and depth of high-quality literary fiction currently being published by small and independent presses.  The winner will be announced at an award-ceremony held in conjunction with the Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster in March.

 

 

 

Famine and the Frozen North: Reading White Hunger

Famine and the Frozen North: Reading White Hunger

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen: Peirene Press, February 2015  

The English are somewhat redeemed of their monolingualism on account of that great American standard for foreign language apathy. Rather like the getaway-driver of a bank heist, or the receptionist at a financial institution, culpability is attenuated by way of comparison to the main offenders. But to critique our national character for what amounts merely to a crime of compliance, is likely to leave us, the accused, squirming in search of an adequate response. That isn’t my intention; the underlying point, however, is an important one: Language, like any other asset or means of exchange, is tethered to, and tailored by, the monetary system – a system inching inexorably toward monopoly and centralization, rather than panoply and devolution. So for those of us who languish with the West’s lingua franca at our convenience, it is worth reminding ourselves of the disparity, especially when thanking Emily and Fleur Jeremiah for their excellent Finnish-to-English translation of White Hunger (Peirene Press, 2015).

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The bulk of my appreciation to them, however, has little to do with the novella’s high repute (International Booker shortlist, Best Finnish Debut Novel, Bestselling Debut Novel, and so on); nor is it down to the publisher’s own slightly trite blandishments (e.g. ‘taken the Nordic literary scene by storm’); it is because White Hunger takes as its muse one of the most desperate catastrophes in the history of northern Europe (a catastrophe of which I and those around me were completely unaware). Known to the Fins as ‘The Great Famine’ and to the Swedes as the somewhat self-berating ‘Great Weakness’, Ali Ollikainen’s novella chronicles events taking place in Finland and Sweden between 1866 and 1868. During this brief period, the central Nordic countries were befallen by an acute meteorological anomaly (the previous year’s abnormally high rainfall gave way to an interminable winter), which, in turn, catalyzed what became Europe’s last naturally caused famine. Crop failures and food shortages, magnified by economic frailty and the hardheartedness of the political class, resulted in a death toll of approximately three hundred thousand. And it is into this horror that Ollikainen pitches his reader.

Embarking somewhere in 1866, with the land and forests already ravaged by frost, the reader comes upon a meagre homestead, occupied by a husband and wife and their two children. With the father, Juhani, bed-ridden and clasping at the last dregs of life, Marja, his partner, gathers her young and abandons her husband in search of food. With Juhani’s grim, tubercular condition forcing her hand, Marja consigns herself and her children– Mataleena and Juho –to a beggarly trek through biting wind and waist-deep snow. Their destination: St. Petersburg. Though it is not long before the severity of their plight comes into unpitying focus. With penury, superstition and death never far from the travellers’ path, their subsistence becomes entirely reliant upon infrequent handouts of lichen bread and watery gruel from begrudging strangers. Yet, from hereon in, the novella begins to develop with the addition of characters far more fortunate than Marja.

In an abrupt juxtaposition, the reader is introduced to Teo, a doctor and paid-up member of the elite.

Rather than reckoning with his own mortality, as Marja must, Teo frets over high-minded moral and philosophical quandaries from a position of cloistered prosperity. Through this perspectival dichotomy, of the beggar and the bourgeoisie, White Hunger’s social and theological tensions begin to unveil themselves. With the addition of the Senator, the narrative starts to shuttle and vacillate between three drastically divergent class-experiences of the famine. Rather aptly, however, this is not to imply that there is some level of parity between these characters. In fact, while the Senator receives a fraction of available page-time, Marja, Mataleena and Juho are each bestowed with eponymous chapters– e.g. The Book of Juho –, a form of apotheosis that lionizes the bedraggled trio and couches the novella’s theological bent in no uncertain terms. For without reference to the divine, without allusion to the virtually atmospheric prevalence of the word of God, White Hunger would have committed an injustice not against those in holy orders but against those who value historical veracity.

Having said that, while the hegemonic power play of the diktats and the deists is fulfilling, far more nourishing is the way in which Ollikainen conveys the surreal undertows of Marja’s dream-life. For weary, emaciated Marja, consciousness is a gatekeeper defending against a battalion of unconscious conflicts, traumas and truths too inflammatory to bear in waking life. But in the dream-space, in the subterranean theatre of the psyche, all physical laws become subject to revision. In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud tells us that a dream is like a picture, a screen concealing a deeper, more dangerous mental composition. Thus, when the figures of Marja’s waking life – of her children, of animals and strangers, of her deceased husband – are reanimated in dreams as radical and malevolent distortions of the real, they do so as feeble instruments of both self-deception and self-revelation. For my money, Marja’s dreams are to be interpreted as the traumatic reimagining of her confrontation with anthropocentrism. Simply put, they display her realization of her own animality. Thus collapses the bulwark between the human and the non-human animal. Case in point: Ollikainen compares Juhani to a loon, Marja is haunted by the spirit of a snake, and Mataleena’s hunger is described as a kitten clawing at her insides. After all, it is only through the Catastrophe, the eschatological event, that the precariousness of man’s place in the animal hierarchy is rendered truly conscionable. The nightmare for Marja, then, is not the animal’s failed dream of immortality; it is her acquiescence to the truth that humanity is at the mercy of forces indifferent to the scheming and ministering of any one species.

Leaving aside the pearlescent sentences, and forgetting, for a moment, the urgent and emotive clout of the well-drawn characters, Ollikainen’s prime achievement is to have crafted a wonder of form. The tale’s nexus of signs and symbols co-facilitate and complement one another in order to evoke a study of real poetic power. Or to inhabit the utilitarian musings of his Senator: ‘The most important thing […] is to see the whole; only the big picture gives the details their significance.’ And isn’t this the supreme secret of the codex itself, its capacity to occasion an experience of a world in toto? As a notable author once opined: The novelist’s attempt to be the everyman would make a poet recoil. The message being that while poetry and prose are both choreographed conceits, where the poet hopes to give a gift to language, the writer of prose gifts himself the power to move between class, consciousness, culture and so on. For all intents and purposes, then, Teo is the hearthstone of White Hunger. In literary terms, Teo is the Trickster, the one who loafs with the unwashed in a raucous tavern before retreating to the dark-wooded finery of mansions or civil institutions.

As a project that tenders the gruesome realities of forced migrancy, White Hunger delivers a timely and striking analogue to the turbulence plaguing our neighbouring continent. Indeed, the biblical pairing of Marja and Juho, of mother and child in search of respite, calls on us to consider our own moral courage in regard to our reception to, and treatment of, our fellow creatures. Which leads me to ask: if just one language can reveal the private pathologies of characters in print, what hidden histories do we forego by failing to learn others?

Click here to find White Hunger at Peirene Press

About the Publisher:

Peirene Press is an award-winning boutique publishing house based in London and committed to first class European literature in high-quality translation.  Peirene specialises in publishing contemporary European novellas and short novels in English translation, all of which have been award-winners in their country of origin.  All of Peirene’s published books are less than 200 pages and can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD.  Peirene Press holds a wide range of regular salons and literary events in London.

 

Review by Thomas Paton

A graduate of Sussex University’s Critical & Creative writing MA, Thomas writes reviews, short stories and critical essays, and expects to continue on to doctoral study in 2017.