Dream­ing of home

Emily Rhodes picks three com­pelling works of re­cently trans­lated fic­tion

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

All the Rivers Dorit Rabinyan (Ser­pent’s Tail, £8.99) The Last Bell Jo­hannes Urzidil (Pushkin Press, £12) A Bro­ken Mir­ror Mercè Rodor­eda (Daunt Books, £9.99)

BE­COM­ING an in­stant best­seller in its na­tive Is­rael af­ter the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry con­tro­ver­sially banned it from the school cur­ricu­lum due to its sub­ject mat­ter, All the Rivers cen­tres on a love af­fair be­tween an Is­raeli and a Pales­tinian. Liat and Hilmi’s re­la­tion­ship takes place in New York, where they are brought to­gether by their shared for­eign­ness: ‘In this deep, Arc­tic, North Amer­i­can cold, we are both from the East—pain­fully Le­van­tine.’ Their com­mon ground re­mains di­vided and di­vi­sive, how­ever, as Liat is a pas­sion­ate Zion­ist whereas Hilmi is for a bi­na­tional state.

one night, Hilmi’s sleeptalk­ing in Ara­bic ‘shocked’ Liat awake— ‘it en­tered my ears as some­thing dan­ger­ous’—and she re­alises that ‘even in this huge city… it isn’t just the two of us ly­ing here’. In this po­lit­i­cal, po­etic and finely tuned novel, Dorit Rabinyan shows how her lovers are both brought to­gether and held apart by their home­land.

If only Liat and Hilmi’s love could be truly hin­ter­na­tional, a word coined by Ger­man-czech writer Jo­hannes Urzidil mean­ing lit­er­ally ‘be­hind na­tions’ or ‘beyond na­tions’. Born in Prague in 1896, Urzidil was one of the ‘Prague cir­cle’ of writ­ers and counted Kafka among his friends, but was deemed by the Nazis to be a ‘half­jew’ and fled to Lon­don be­fore set­tling in Amer­ica.

The Last Bell is a neat vol­ume of five un­usual, ar­rest­ing short sto­ries, trans­lated from Ger­man into English for the first time. They tend to be about ec­cen­tric, lonely mis­fits, such as Siegel­mann, a travel agent who tells elab­o­rate trav­ellers’ tales al­though he’s never hol­i­dayed fur­ther afield than the vil­lage of his birth, and Schaschek, who im­pul­sively steals a paint­ing of a Duchess and has long con­ver­sa­tions with it, even ser­e­nad­ing it with his vi­olin. Schaschek’s joy at ac­quir­ing the paint­ing turns to guilt, how­ever, when he dis­cov­ers that his theft ‘ru­ined an en­tire fam­ily and [has] given rise to a Sopho­clean tragedy’.

In the pow­er­ful ti­tle story, a maid is left her em­ploy­ers’ for­tune when they flee the Nazis, but frets about how she can ex­plain her newly ac­quired wealth; the bur­den be­comes lit­eral when her sis­ter comes to stay and she takes to car­ry­ing the money in pouches on her thighs. She asks: ‘How can it be that some­thing com­pletely sick­ens you and still you guard it like a trea­sure?’ Per­haps the am­biva­lence in many of these sto­ries re­flects Urzidil’s sen­ti­ment as a writer-in-ex­ile—cher­ish­ing his free­dom in Amer­ica, but in his writ­ing, time and again, re­vis­it­ing the Prague he was forced to flee.

Mercè Rodor­eda (1908–83) was an­other ex­ile who wrote about her home­land. Her as­ton­ish­ing, genre- de­fy­ing novel A Bro­ken Mir­ror fol­lows a fish­mon­ger’s beau­ti­ful daugh­ter, who mar­ries a wealthy diplo­mat and moves into a grand villa on the out­skirts of Barcelona, the au­thor’s na­tive city, which she fled dur­ing the Span­ish civil War. There, we watch the fam­ily grow over three gen­er­a­tions, as it suf­fers se­crets and dra­mas.

Rodor­eda’s writ­ing al­ters to re­flect time pass­ing, be­gin­ning with a tra­di­tional 19th-cen­tury nar­ra­tive suited to 1870s Barcelona, then frac­tur­ing into Mod­ernist prose to echo the break­ing up of fam­ily and so­ci­ety as we edge to­wards the Span­ish civil War.

It is a multi-faceted novel— play­ful, ex­per­i­men­tal and with bril­liant flashes of wit, but at its heart comes a ter­ri­ble mur­der, so pain-fully af­fect­ing that I could hardly bear to read it.

‘While things are the way they were, I won’t be com­pletely dead’: per­haps this line from A Bro­ken Mir­ror helps to ex­plain why both Rodor­eda and Urzidil used their writ­ing to re­mem­ber the cities they were forced to leave, a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with one’s na­tive land shared by the mod­ern-day ex­iles of All The Rivers. Al­though dif­fer­ing from one an­other in all man­ner of ways, these three books demon­strate how home­lands con­tinue to haunt.

Ex­plore fash­ion­ably eclec­tic East Lon­don (Thames & Hud­son, £19.95) with Charles Sau­marez Smith, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Royal Academy of Arts-turned-flâneur, who guides us through the dis­trict where he has lived since the 1980s, re­veal­ing un­ex­pected ar­chi­tec­tural and sculp­tural de­lights, church­yards and shops, parks and canals—all il­lu­mi­nated with his own pho­to­graphs and en­gag­ing, eru­dite com­men­taries.

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