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I had never actually heard of this novella until I saw a review of this most recent translation by Bryan Kartenyk. Russian literature has always been something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed — thanks in no small part to a wonderful professor in college (William Mills Todd) — but known only partially. My primary academic focus is British literature, along with some elements of French and Spanish literature and a tiny dash of American literature, so reading Russian literature has only ever been a for-pleasure activity, easily squeezed out of my busy work and academic life.
I always meant to watch the 2009 film of this (details on IMDB), but came across Lindqvist‘s Let the Right One In in the Kindle store and thought that I would buy it to save for a moment of boredom when I wanted to read something on my phone/iPad (I use the app and don’t have an actual Kindle). That moment came on a plane recently, when I’d read most of Rayner’s A Greedy Man in a Hungry World (review) and wanted something new to help keep me awake!
I would highly recommend this book, as it’s a gripping read.
Although told mainly through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, Oskar, the book tackles a wide range of seriously ‘grown-up’ issues, including child abuse and neglect, ‘broken homes’ and absent parents, alcoholism, paedophilia, and chronic bullying. It can be hard to judge when reading in translation, but I found Lindqvist’s style wonderfully clear and lucid. I enjoyed the story’s focus on two core groups that parallel one other: Oskar and his classmates, and Lacke and his friends (and fellow alcoholics).
The growing relationship between Oskar and new arrival, Eli, is a joy. There is something very understated in the way that each and every momentous discovery in their relationship — She’s a vampire? She’s a boy? — is handled lightly but not flippantly. Oskar’s growing detachment from his parents and isolation from his schoolmates, most of whom either actively bully him or passively ostracise him, leaves his hopes of having his emotional needs met pinned exclusively on Eli. The coming-of-age story, Oskar beginning to stand up for himself and pursue physical fitness as a means of taking control of his life, is blended with the horror story of a vampire slipping into the midst of the small community and decimating it. Bodies stack up quickly, and Eli is both monstrous and fascinating. Eli’s story, told mainly in flashbacks, has echoes of Anne Rice’s Armand, but isn’t Lindqvist’s focus, and it lurks in the background as a dark echo of the suffering of the modern-day children in the book.
Many of the most heartrending moments come from these ‘minor’ characters, particularly from Tommy, an older teen, sliding into drug use and petty crime, whose mother is on the verge of marrying a police officer who will inevitably hate his stepson (the suggestion is he’s a likely abuser); and from Jonny, Oskar’s nemesis, whose tangled family situation and struggle with his emotions about his absent father, hint at sad roots to his behaviour.
The book manages to produce moments of real menace, and surprisingly, none of them were incited by Eli. I felt real terror for Tommy, locked in with a brain-damaged, priapic, vampire-Hakan; for Oskar as Jonny and his brother and friends begin to descend upon him, apparently intent on murder or maiming; and for Eli when being attacked by paedophile Hakan, and when Lacke plans to murder Eli for killing his friend Jocke and his some-time girlfriend, Virginia. Although only a small element in the novel, I also felt real concern for Tommy’s mother, so wishing to be loved that she is willing to shrink herself — and probably put herself in physical danger — in order to be in a relationship with police officer Steffan.
This is a story where the weak, generally children, but also vulnerable adults, are threatened and imperilled by the strong; where those who are abused turn on those below them in turn; and where a darker threat is in fact a possible saviour. It is sensitive and well done, except for the very ending of the book, when Eli murders Jonny and his brother in order to rescue Oskar. The violence between Oskar and his bullies had been slowly escalating, through physical wounds and arson to their attempted murder, but I wonder whether its culmination had to be so flippant. Eli whips off their heads and, whilst flying, deposits them in the swimming pool. Was the sadism in Eli’s revenge really needed? Perhaps it was, as the ultimate escalation of the whole novel’s violence, but it didn’t quite ring true for me.
Having abandoned one of my ‘chunksters’ (Stendhal’s The Red and The Black), I thought I’d better start on another. I bought Carlos Gamerro‘s The Islands (English translation by Ian Barnett, in collaboration with Gamerro) about two years ago when I saw him speak at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference. I hadn’t really heard of him before, but he impressed me so much in the conference — clear, precise, not backwards about coming forwards — that I thought I’d like his writing, and the blurb of this book persuaded me: “A detective novel, a cyber-thriller, an inner-city road trip and a war memoir”.
Whilst the blurb trots through a range of genres, this book is, at root, a novel about homo argentinus, about his drives and delusions and sense of lack. The Falklands/Malvinas war is a convenient hook on which to hang this meditation, but the guerra sucia and Argentina’s connection with fleeing Nazis post-WWII both inform the novel as much as the 1982 conflict.
I read Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite ages ago as part of my Classics Club reading challenge, but I’ve been exceptionally tardy in writing it up. In fact, since then, I’ve read and written about Eugenides’ Middlesex, which was in part ‘inspired by’ this book and a sense of disappointment with the text. As a consequence, the short review below relates heavily to my review of Middlesex.
The memoirs are genuine, and I quite enjoyed reading HB, although of course it is far less salacious than some people might be expecting. HB’s love affair with fellow teacher Sara is touching, and it is the obvious (and superior) precursor to Eugenides’ depicted relationship between Cal and a schoolmate. I find HB far more relatable than Eugenides’ Cal, perhaps because the latter has a slightly patronising “I must be a bit shocking to you” air, whilst HB’s narrative feels more on the level with the reader. This is perhaps what Foucault responds to in HB, using the narrative to talk about sociocultural circumstances wherein a “true” sex is less insisted upon.
Alongside the edited memoirs, Foucault brings together a number of other documents relating to HB’s life and the reporting of HB’s condition, as well as Oskar Panizza‘s ‘Scandal at the Convent’, a late-nineteenth-century story based on HB’s life. These framing materials, and their juxtaposition with the memoirs, are really the most interesting part of the text. These perhaps frustrated Eugenides and his desire to dissect and lay out the inner narrative of someone with a particular intersex condition, but to me they are the most interesting part.
The obsession with “true” sex — in turn becoming an obsession with genitalia and reproductive organs, redefining “true” as “bodily” — becomes for Eugenides character-driven, a bildungsroman, a journey for Cal towards a “true” and chosen sex that nevertheless has genitalia as a sign of falsity, rendering Cal unable to perform PIV intercourse in the male role, and thus, apparently, unable to live fully (at least until Eugenides’ love-conquers-all ending). What HB’s memoirs and Foucault’s framing text(s) question is why “true” =/= “as currently is”. This is a question that Eugenides does not really tackle, although it can be asked of the novel, and should be, I think, in conjunction with HB.
This post is labelled as a book review, but it is not in the strictest sense. I have had this book on my shelves for a while, and I recall starting it once before (or at least had a lot of déjà vu whilst reading the first few chapters!).
This book is on my Classics Club list, but I bought it quite a long time ago. I really enjoyed Bernardo Atxaga‘s Seven Houses in France, and I was struck when I saw him speak at the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival about self-translating and, more broadly, the impact of translation. Obabakoak is a seminal work, despite the brevity of the English Wikipedia entry.
Obabakoak, meaning ‘the things and people of Obaba’, is somewhere between a short-story collection and a novel. The book’s focus is on the (imaginary but representative) place, the Basque country and its effects on the people and lives occupying that space, but the technique is circuitous, resembling negative drawing. The book is separated into two large sections — Childhoods and the longer In Search of the Last Word — with an intervening section meditating on the location: Nine Words in Honour of the Village of Villamediana. To me, the structure reflects the book’s focus on understanding and perceiving something in the round by looking at it from multiple viewpoints.
The first story, Esteban Werfell, plays with this idea of coming to a fuller understanding of one’s reality through partial revelations. Esteban writes of a teenage experience of a ‘religious’ hallucination; although raised by an anti-religious father, he is persuaded into the church by school friends, and there he has a vision of a young woman who asks him to love her and find her, giving him her address. The young Esteban enters into a correspondence wholeheartedly, which sees him through his studies and keeps him on the straight and narrow until the correspondence is coldly broken off by her. Only many years later does Esteban learn that his hallucination was the product of unconscious memories of things he had heard his father speaking of, and that his correspondent was in fact his father.
This story sets the tone for the rest of the book: the possible darkness of religion and its effects, echoed again in An Exposition of Canon Lizardi’s letter; the manipulation of children echoed in Albania’s predatory (perhaps?) school-teacher in Post Tenebras Spero Lucem; the exclusion of outsiders, so often moralising, seen in many of the stories; and the preoccupation with the idea of attempting the futile exercise of fixing memories and understanding fully the interconnections between one person or event and many others.
The whole book is atmospheric, offering a visceral sense of life in communities like Obaba. Atxaga is by turns, and occasionally simultaneously, melancholic, joyful and wry. How to Write a Story in Five Minutes, which flawlessly gives the impression of being self-referential, is a wonderful example of all three at once. This is a great book to dip in and out of compulsively until the whole thing is finished, and then start it again because, of course, your understanding of it the second time around will be different — maybe better, maybe worse — than on first reading.