The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting

Translated by Deborah Dawkin.

This is the second book in Norwegian author Lars Mytting’s Sister Bells trilogy. I loved the first, The Bell in the Lake, so was looking forward to visiting the village of Butangen again and finding out how the story would continue.

The Reindeer Hunters begins in 1903, more than twenty years after the events of the first novel. Kai Schweigaard, once a newcomer to Butangen, has settled into his role as village pastor, but is still haunted by memories of Astrid Hekne, the woman he had hoped to marry. He also feels guilt over his involvement in the removal of the two bells which once hung in the bell tower of the local church, commemorating Gunhild and Halfrid Hekne, the conjoined twin sisters who were two of Astrid’s ancestors. When Kai hears about a legendary tapestry woven by the sisters – the Hekne Weave – he sets out to search for it, hoping in some way to make amends for what happened in the past.

In the hills just outside Butangen, Astrid’s son Jehans is leading a lonely life, supporting himself through fishing and hunting, having withdrawn from the rest of the community. One day he finds himself in dispute with another hunter when they both claim to have shot the same reindeer, but this marks a turning point in Jehans’ life as he gets to know the other hunter, an Englishman called Victor Harrison, and an uneasy friendship begins to develop.

This, like the first book, is beautifully written and translated. The setting – a remote Norwegian village steeped in superstition and tradition – is vividly described, making this the kind of historical novel where you can become truly immersed in another time and place. Towards the end of the book, though, we see that scientific progress and new technology are finding their way even to Butangen in the form of electricity, improved travel and advances in dairy farming. Events in the wider world also touch the lives of our characters, including the dissolution of the Norway-Sweden union, the First World War and, finally, the flu pandemic of 1918:

There, on the church steps, Schweigaard had put all his accumulated knowledge into his advice. Mass was cancelled indefinitely. Auctions and public dances were best avoided. Folk ought not to visit other villages. They should maintain a distance from strangers. And always veer on the side of prudence.

I enjoyed reading about Kai Schweigaard’s daily life, his duties as pastor and his relationships with the other villagers and I was completely absorbed in his search for the Hekne Weave and what it might reveal. I was much less interested in the details of Jehans’ hunting and fishing expeditions and, later, Victor’s work as a pioneer of aviation, although other readers will probably find those things more enjoyable than I did! For this reason, I didn’t like this book as much as the first and every time the perspective switched to Jehans or Victor, I found myself wanting to return to the village and continue with Kai’s storyline. I did, however, come to love one of the new characters, Kristine, a young woman who doesn’t have an easy life but displays an inner strength and determination that I really admired.

I’ll be looking out for the final book in this trilogy and will be interested to see where the story will go next.

Thanks to Quercus Books, MacLehose Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 10/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

A Bad Business by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater

This is the second collection of classic short stories I’ve read from the Pushkin Press Essential Stories series. The first was I Would Prefer Not To by Herman Melville, an author I had never tried before, and I found it a good introduction to his work. In the case of Dostoevsky, I have previously read two of his novels (Crime and Punishment and The Idiot) but was curious to see what his shorter fiction would be like. This collection contains six stories, all in new translations by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater. They are all quite different in subject and style and I think they would give new readers a good idea of what his writing is like, while also being of interest to readers like myself who are only familiar with his full-length novels.

I think my favourite of the six stories was The Crocodile (1865), in which a civil servant, Ivan Matveich, is swallowed alive by a crocodile being exhibited in St Petersburg. There’s not much more to the plot than that, as the rest of the story revolves around the conversations Matveich has with various people from inside the crocodile, but I found it entertaining and surprisingly funny, not something I’ve really associated with Dostoevsky’s work before. It also takes a satirical look at the economic situation in Russia at that time – the German owners of the crocodile refuse to have its stomach slit open to free Matveich because they would be losing their investment, particularly as the crocodile has now increased in value due to becoming so famous!

Conversations in a Graveyard (1873), also published as Bobok, is another satire in which the narrator is sitting in a cemetery after attending a funeral and hears the disembodied voices of the recently buried telling each other their stories. The literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin describes this story as “almost a microcosm of Dostoevsky’s entire creative output,” because it involves many of the themes, ideas and character types that appear in his other work. I probably haven’t read enough of Dostoevsky to be able to fully appreciate this, but I did still find the story interesting – and it reminded me very much of Lincoln in the Bardo!

The title story, A Bad Business (1862), follows a general in the civil service who, after discussing his political ideals with friends, decides to test one of his theories by being nice to people from lower social classes. Unfortunately, when he arrives, uninvited and unwelcome, at the wedding feast of one of his subordinates, things quickly begin to go wrong. A very different type of story is A Meek Creature (1876), about the relationship between a pawnbroker and one of his customers, a girl who pawns items to earn money so that she can advertise in the newspaper for work as a governess. This is a darker story than most of the others in the book and not one of my favourites.

The four stories mentioned so far take up more than 90% of the book, which means that the final two are much shorter. One is The Heavenly Christmas Tree (1876), a sentimental and poignant little story with a fairy tale feel, and the other is The Peasant Marey (also 1876), in which the narrator recalls a childhood memory of being comforted by a peasant after convincing himself there was a wolf in the woods. I liked both of these stories but felt that they suffered from being placed at the end of the collection; I would have preferred the shorter stories to alternate with the novella-length ones to provide more variety.

Although I don’t think any of these are stories I would want to read again, apart from maybe The Crocodile, it was good to have the opportunity to explore Dostoevsky further. I’m hoping to read my copy of The Brothers Karamazov soon.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Village of Eight Graves by Seishi Yokomizo – trans. Bryan Karetnyk

Over the last few years I have discovered several Japanese crime authors – including Soji Shimada and Yukito Ayatsuji – thanks to Pushkin Press making them available in English translations, but the one who has impressed me the most is Seishi Yokomizo. I really enjoyed The Honjin Murders, one of his many books to feature the detective Kosuke Kindaichi; I didn’t like The Village of Eight Graves, another from the same series, quite as much, but it’s still an entertaining read.

First published in 1950, the novel is set in the small Japanese village of Eight Graves where, centuries earlier, eight samurai were brutally murdered, bringing down a curse upon the village and giving it its sinister-sounding name. In the 1920s the curse struck again when a village leader went on a violent killing spree. Now, twenty-five years later, our narrator Tatsuya Terada, a young man who has been raised in Kobe by his mother and stepfather, is informed by a lawyer that his real father was the man responsible for those terrible murders. It seems that Tatsuya is now the heir to the family estate and must return to Eight Graves to claim his inheritance – but before he has even left Kobe he receives an anonymous letter warning him to stay away.

On his arrival in Eight Graves, Tatsuya finds that most of the other villagers are hostile and unwelcoming, believing that his presence will bring bad luck and tragedy to the village yet again. And so, when more murders begin to take place, suspicion immediately falls on Tatsuya – but as he is our narrator, we know that he is innocent. Or is he? Kosuke Kindaichi is called in to investigate, but at the same time Tatsuya is carrying out investigations of his own to find the real culprit and clear his own name.

Unlike in The Honjin Murders, where the untidy and unassuming Kindaichi plays a big role in the story, in this book we hardly see him at all. Almost as soon as he arrives in Eight Graves he disappears into the background again. We know that he is working on solving the mystery, but we don’t actually watch him doing it because we stick exclusively with Tatsuya’s narration and he and Kindaichi have very little interaction until nearer the end of the book. This makes this one less of a detective novel and more of a thriller or adventure novel, as Tatsuya explores the village alone looking for clues and stumbling into danger.

Yokomizo creates a wonderful atmosphere in this book with Tatsuya’s investigations leading him into networks of tunnels, caves with stalactites, and underground lakes and caverns. The legend of the eight murdered samurai is also incorporated into the story, along with a search for hidden treasure said to be buried somewhere within the village and a rivalry between two branches of Tatsuya’s family: the ‘House of the East’ and the ‘House of the West’. It’s an entertaining novel and there’s always something happening – but I did think the parts where Tatsuya is wandering around in the caves and tunnels became a little bit tedious. The absence of Kosuke Kindaichi for most of the book was also disappointing and I think I would have preferred a more conventional detective novel with the focus on solving the mystery rather than on treasure hunting.

Still, this book was fun to read and I loved the setting. Now I need to read the other Yokomizo novel currently available in English: The Inugami Curse.

Thanks to Pushkin Vertigo for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada

The war had destroyed everything, and all that was left to him were the ruins and the ugly, incinerated detritus of former memories.

For this year’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, I decided to read a book by one of my favourite German authors, Hans Fallada. Nightmare in Berlin was one of his final novels, written just before his death in 1947, and although I don’t think it’s as good as some of his others – particularly Alone in Berlin and Little Man, What Now? – I did find it an interesting and powerful read. This 2016 translation by Allan Blunden is the first time the book has been made available in English.

Nightmare in Berlin begins in the spring of 1945, just as the war ends and the Red Army march into Berlin. Dr Doll, who had been a successful author before the war, and his much younger wife Alma, live in a small rural town and, unlike most of their neighbours, choose to welcome the Soviet troops into their home. Doll is rewarded by being appointed mayor of the town, but soon finds that he is being viewed with suspicion and resentment by his fellow Germans. Eventually, they decide that it’s time to move back to Berlin, having fled from the city to the countryside during the war. When they arrive in Berlin, however, they discover that someone else has moved into their apartment and that it’s going to be much harder than they’d expected to pick up the threads of their old life.

As Doll sets out to look for help in finding somewhere to live and in getting medical treatment for his wife’s injured leg, he is struck by the greed and selfishness of many of the people he encounters, who think nothing of cheating other Germans to get what they want. Disillusioned and depressed, Doll is overcome with shame and apathy, beginning to despair for Germany’s future.

In this time of the country’s collapse and defeat, no feelings last for long; the hatred passed away, leaving only emptiness, deadness, and indifference behind, and people seemed remote, out of reach.

Although this is obviously quite a bleak novel, it does have its more uplifting moments: there are times when Doll is shown some kindness and compassion, restoring his faith in human nature at least temporarily. The relationship between Doll and Alma is portrayed as a warm and loving one, so that no matter what is going on around them, they know they can always rely on each other. However, the Dolls are also both reliant on drugs, taking morphine and sleeping pills to escape from reality and get through the day, and the middle section of the novel follows their experiences in the hospitals and sanatoriums where they are being treated for their addictions. This part of the book was of much less interest to me (I wanted to see more of post-war Berlin, rather than the inside of a hospital) and I felt that it seemed to come out of nowhere – drugs were never mentioned until the Dolls left their rural town to return to Berlin and yet they had apparently both been addicts for a long time.

Nightmare in Berlin seems to be a very autobiographical novel. Hans Fallada (born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) struggled with morphine addiction himself, as did his younger second wife, Ursula Losch. Like Dr Doll, he was appointed mayor of a small country town shortly after the Soviet invasion and then spent the remainder of his life going in and out of hospital. I think the book might have worked better as non-fiction rather than a novel, but maybe Fallada found it easier to write about his own experiences by disguising them as fiction. Still, this is a fascinating novel and worth reading for the insights it offers into the mood of the German people in the aftermath of the war.

This is book 24/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon

Since enjoying my first Georges Simenon book, The Man from London, last year, I’ve been looking forward to reading more. I had intended to try one of his Maigret books next, but the opportunity to read this one came up first; it’s a new Penguin Classics edition of a novel originally published in 1940, The Strangers in the House, and is translated by Howard Curtis. Unfortunately, at 224 pages in the paperback version, it’s just slightly too long to count towards Novellas in November!

The Strangers in the House is one of the many standalone novels written by Simenon that are described as romans dur, or ‘hard novels’. I’m not entirely sure what that term means, but as far as I can tell, it refers to the dark, noirish atmosphere, and the hard, bleak lives that the characters are leading. And the life of our protagonist, Hector Loursat, is certainly bleak! Once a successful lawyer, he fell into a depression when his wife left him eighteen years earlier and turned to alcohol for comfort. Since then, he has spent his time sitting alone with his books and a constant supply of red wine, living in the same house as his daughter Nicole, but barely aware of her presence.

Loursat’s miserable, solitary existence continues until, one night, he hears a gun being fired inside the house and discovers a dead body in one of the bedrooms. When Nicole and her friends become implicated in the murder investigation, Loursat is forced to acknowledge that his daughter is now a stranger to him…or is it in fact Loursat himself who is the stranger in the house?

There’s a detective fiction element to this novel, as Loursat sets out to uncover the truth behind the murder. When suspicion falls on Nicole’s lover, he agrees to defend the young man in court and finds that getting involved in the legal profession again gives him some purpose in life. However, although we see Loursat speaking to the suspects, getting to know Nicole’s circle of friends and learning all he can about the victim, this is not a conventional mystery novel and not one that the reader has much chance of being able to solve. If you’re expecting a story with clever twists and surprises you’ll be disappointed; even the court scenes which take up about half of the book lack suspense.

The book is much more successful as a psychological study of a lonely, reclusive man who is forced to confront his own behaviour and gradually engage with the people and things he has neglected for years. Watching Loursat’s reawakening as he becomes aware of the things that have been going on in his own house without his knowledge is fascinating. Whether or not he finds redemption and whether it’s too late to repair the damage to his relationship with Nicole I will leave you to discover for yourself, if you read the book. All I will say is that Simenon’s storytelling is realistic, unsentimental and ‘hard’.

Have you read this or any of Georges Simenon’s other books? Which can you recommend?

Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov – Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

When An Evening with Claire was originally published in 1930, Russian author Gaito Gazdanov was living in Paris and hadn’t seen his home country for nearly a decade. This, his first novel, was a success for Gazdanov, bringing him to the attention of other émigré writers, and now that I’ve read it I can understand why. It’s not my usual sort of book but I was drawn to it because I’ve enjoyed other books which have been reissued by Pushkin Press recently and because, apart from Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak, I can’t think of any other 20th century Russian authors that I’ve read. This new edition has an introduction by Bryan Karetnyk, who is also responsible for the excellent English translation, which I found very readable.

The novel opens with our narrator, Kolya, in Paris spending an evening with Claire while her husband is away from home. Although we know very little about Kolya’s relationship with Claire at this stage, we do learn that he first met her ten years ago and has been in love with her ever since. However, they have spent most of that time apart and have only now been reunited. Later that evening, while Claire is asleep, Kolya remembers their first meeting, along with many of the other significant moments in his past. As he continues to remember and reminisce, the story of his life begins to take shape: his childhood, his schooldays, his relationships with family members and his experiences during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed.

We actually see very little of Claire herself and I never really felt that I knew her or understood the sort of person she was, but that didn’t matter too much because the main part of the novel concentrates on Kolya’s own history as it unfolds through a chain of memories. His love for the absent Claire is always there and can be seen as a symbol of hope as he dreams of meeting her again one day. I enjoyed the first half of the novel, which includes anecdotes from Kolya’s childhood and his education at a strict military school and gymnasium, but the second half is more interesting as he begins to remember his time serving with the White Army in the Russian Civil War. It all feels very autobiographical and although I don’t know much about Gaito Gazdanov, I’m sure he must have been drawing on some of his own personal experiences and feelings in the writing of this novel.

At just over 200 pages in this edition, An Evening with Claire is a very short novel, but I thought it was the right length for the story being told. In general, I prefer books with more plot and this one has very little, but while this might have been a problem for me in a longer novel, there was just enough here to interest me and hold my attention throughout those 200 pages. This may sound like a strange comparison, but I was reminded of one of my other recent reads, Goodbye Mr Chips, another short book published in the same decade in which a man is looking back on episodes from earlier in his life. They share a focus on the power of memory, recollections of better days and regret for a disappearing world – which are also the reasons why I think An Evening with Claire would have resonated so much with other Russian émigrés of the 1930s. I would be happy to read more by Gazdanov and I see there are four of his other books available in English from the same publisher.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Historical Musings #68: Historical fiction in translation

Welcome to this month’s post on all things historical fiction.

August was Women in Translation Month, a popular event in the book blogging calendar, and although I was only able to join in with one book – The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani, set in Morocco in the 1940s and 50s – I thought it would be interesting for this month’s Musings to look at some of the other historical fiction novels I have read in translation. I’ve read plenty of older classics, many of which I’ve reviewed on my blog, but sadly very few recent books published within the last ten years or so. Here is everything I could find in my blog archives, although I might have missed one or two (and for the purposes of this list, I am referring to books that have been translated from their original language into English, not from English into other languages):

French to English:

Maurice Druon – The Accursed Kings series (translated by Humphrey Hare)
Alexandre Dumas – The Three Musketeers and sequels (translated by William Barrow); The Black Tulip (Franz Demmler); The Red Sphinx (Lawrence Ellsworth)
Victor Hugo – The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (translated by Isabel F. Hapgood); Les Miserables (Norman Denny)
Madame de Lafayette – The Princess of Cleves (unknown translator)
Robert Merle – The Brethren (translated by T Jefferson Kline)
George Sand – Mauprat (translated by Stanley Young)
Olivier Barde-Cabuçon – Casanova and the Faceless Woman (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie)
Leïla Slimani – The Country of Others (translated by Sam Taylor)

Italian to English:

Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose (translated by William Weaver)
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – The Leopard (translated by Archibald Colquhoun)

German to English:

Oliver Pötzsch – The Beggar King (translated by Lee Chadeayne)

Norwegian to English:

Lars Mytting – The Bell in the Lake (translated by Deborah Dawkin)
Sigrid Undset – Kristin Lavransdatter (translated by Tiina Nunnally)

Catalan to English:

Rafel Nadal Farreras – The Last Son’s Secret (translated by Mara Faye Lethem)

Spanish to English:

Isabel Allende – The Japanese Lover (translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson); A Long Petal of the Sea (Caistor and Hopkinson)

Russian to English:

Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago (translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari)
Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky)

Dutch to English:

Hella S Haasse – In a Dark Wood Wandering (translated by Lewis C Kaplan)
Simone van der Vlugt – Midnight Blue (translated by Jenny Watson)

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Have you read any of these? Can you recommend any other historical fiction novels in translation, particularly anything recent?

There’s a Goodreads list here with 295 books and an interesting article here on the particular challenges of translating historical fiction.

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My current historical reading:

I have just finished two novels, both long ones which have occupied most of my reading time for the last couple of weeks: Katharine Parr, the Sixth Queen by Alison Weir and Daughters of War by Dinah Jefferies. I’m also in the middle of an even longer non-fiction book, Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones, which is fascinating but has a lot of information to take in and absorb. As I wanted something lighter to read alongside this, I have just started The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters, the third book in her Amelia Peabody mystery series featuring a female Victorian Egyptologist. It will count towards the RIP XVI challenge. After this, I have review copies of two new September releases which I would like to read before the end of the month: The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien and A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick.

New to my historical TBR in the last few weeks:

The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret George, the sequel to The Confessions of Young Nero, which I read a few years ago, and Pour the Dark Wine by Deryn Lake, a novel about the Seymour family (the ebook was free on Amazon last week). Also, The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley and Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth, both via NetGalley and due to be published in 2022.

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Have you read any good historical novels lately? And what are your thoughts on historical fiction in translation?