Homeland by Walter Kempowski translated
by Charlotte Collins
Of course he goes on the trip, and comes face-to-face with the beauty, poverty and painful history of that long-contested land. While there isn’t a great deal of tension in the plot, there’s a wonderful dry humour in his observations, and those of his two travel companions, and of the larger group of elderly Germans whose tour Jonathan and his colleagues inadvertently tail. Anguish and guilt fester beneath the surface, both on account of historical wounds and the current discrepancy in wealth. Although Jonathan tries, particularly when he agrees to a woman’s request he send medicine for her daughter with serious mental health problems, even without the language difficulties, the differences between the two cultures and countries are too wide to bridge.
Unable to relate on an equal footing, the travellers alternate between gushing delight in the simplicity and fierce criticism of whatever interferes with the smoothness of their path, familiar to anyone who’s journeyed from a First World country to the Third. But even before Jonathan leaves Germany, there’s an undercurrent of collusion with violence, especially in girlfriend Ulla’s professional obsession with depictions of cruelty and torture, and in the imagery, such as on a visit to a Turkish restaurant (p31):
Do we need to know where we’ve come from in order to know who we are?
a current preoccupation of mine with the publication my forthcoming short story collection, Becoming Someone. I’m not sure if I was supposed to be more moved by Jonathan’s new connection to his origins but I’d rephrase the novel’s theme as
Do we need to know about our dark side in order to know who we are?
explored, as referenced in my recent post on concepts of identity in classic novels, in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Homeland was first published in German in 1992; Charlotte Collins’ translation is fresh this month from Granta books who provided my review copy. They also published All for Nothing, perhaps a greater work, but, much as I appreciated that novel, I enjoyed the clash of light and dark in Homeland more.
Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei translated
by Meredith McKinney
Both women are lonely, with language differences and racism setting them apart from the communities in which they live. Both are abandoned by their husbands: Salimah literally through desertion; Sayuri psychologically through the demands of his job. Both will experience further loss. But when the women find themselves working side-by-side on the predawn shift packing meat in the back room of a supermarket, their support for each other enables them to forge stronger self-identities in an alien culture.
Making new friends can be difficult; how much harder that must be when the only way to connect is through a language alien to both. I found this aspect of Iwaki Kei’s debut novel intellectually moving but emotionally I struggled to connect and found the overall tone too flat. But you might enjoy it: the original Japanese version, published in 2013, was awarded a prestigious prize. I received a copy of the English translation from the publishers, Europa editions. See my post Concepts of identity in 9 classic novels for more on how looking or sounding different can impact on identity.
Publishing a book is often very much like being put on trial, for some offence which is quite other than the one you know in your heart you’ve committed.
Pity I didn’t read this BEFORE writing all those guest posts on the writer’s identity.