2010 Books in Translation Novella

Stone in a Landslide – Maria Barbal


Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell

I loved Beside the Sea, so wondered how the second book from the newly formed Peirene Press could ever live up to its emotional older sister. The two books were very different, but I’m afraid that I didn’t think Stone in a Landslide was in the same league as Beside the Sea.

Stone in a Landslide is set in a small village in the Pyrenees and follows 13-year-old Conxa as she leaves her parental home to live with her childless aunt. The book tells the story of her entire life, showing us how she finds a husband, cares for her children and copes with with the impact of the Spanish Civil War.

The book was very easy to read, but the simplicity of the prose left me cold. The 126 pages flew by, but I felt that it tried to cover too much in a short time and so I ended the book desperate to know more about her life. It is the same feeling I often get when reading a short story – I want more detail, more emotion and more complexity.

The gentle, simple narrative will appeal to a lot of people, but I felt that much of the book, especially scenes of the Spanish Civil War, were rushed.  Coxna led such an interesting life, but I never felt as though I knew her or what she was thinking. Descriptions of her surroundings seemed to be give more prominence than her emotions:

It was a bright day and I felt as if I was looking at everything in a huge mirror. The wind was fresh, you could still make out the snow on the mountain tops, even though the new grass had come up some days before. The birches stretched their arms to the sky waiting for their soft foliage.

Overall it was an interesting glimpse into life in the Pyrenees, but I felt it lacked depth.

Recommended to those who enjoy gentle short stories.

Opinions are divided on this one:

…each individual sentence is very plain, but somehow they combine to make a voice that is startlingly present and human. Stuck in a Book

I read the entire book feeling like an observer, and not a participant. Reading Matters

Stone in a Landslide is beautiful, simple and stark. Yet it is filled with warmth, the smell of grass on the mountains and the sunshine of a late afternoon. Chasing Bawa

2010 Novella

Beatrice and Virgil – Yann Martel

I loved Life of Pi so much that I bought a copy of Beatrice and Virgil from the US, months before it was released in the UK. Unfortunately my enthusiasm failed to pay off as I was very disappointed by it. 

Beatrice and Virgil is a book about the Holocaust, but there are many points when it is almost impossible to see the connection.

The book begins with Henry, a successful author, ranting about a publisher refusing to let him write a book which combines non-fictional accounts of the Holocaust with fictional ones.  One day Henry receives a strange package from a taxidermist, also called Henry, and is so intrigued he heads off to meet him. The taxidermist has written a play about a monkey and a donkey who live on a shirt. This play becomes the focus of the book, as the two Henrys discuss how to improve it.

The play is an allegory for the Holocaust, but the continual use of symbolism drove me mad. I’m afraid that I’m the type of person who prefers to call a spade a spade! I loved The Kindly Ones because it showed the Holocaust in all its horrific rawness, but although Beatrice and Virgil didn’t shy away from graphic violence, I found myself cringing as I read it rather than experiencing the sense of shock and sadness that I should have felt.

Another problem I had with the book was that it felt disjointed. For such a small book there were a lot of random elements thrown together, some so odd that they left me totally baffled. There was one point where they spent 8 pages trying to describe a pear – my eyes were rolling throughout:

BEATRICE: Like an apple?

VIRGIL: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to…kissing.

BEATRICE: Oh, my. It sounds so good.

The end of the book contained a section called Games for Gustav. This is a series of questions about the moral dilemmas faced by those affected by the Holocaust.

Your ten-year-old son is speaking to you. He says he has found a way of obtaining some potatoes to feed your starving family. If he is caught, he will be killed. Do you let him go? 

Each of these would make an interesting premise for a story, but placed together in this way I found them to be manipulative and irritating.

Overall I found that the whole book made my blood boil with rage. It could be said that this is a positive reaction; that it is far better for an author to create a book that is memorable in its dreadfulness than one which is dull and forgettable. I’ll leave you to make up your own minds!

Beatrice and Virgil is the perfect book club choice as I guarantee it will create discussion – people will be arguing about this book for years to come.

What did Yann Martel have to say about his book?


On 3rd June 2010 I went to see Yann Martel talk about his new book at the South Bank Centre in London.  He was an entertaining speaker, willing and eager to answer questions from the public and regularly able to make us all laugh. I tried to make as many notes as possible, but the following is a summary of what he had to say – not direct quotes from him.

Why did you write the book?

I had noticed that there was an absence of fictional books about the Holocaust. People seem to be relaxed writing about wars, but are scared to write about the Holocaust. I wanted to fill this gap, so this book is an attempt to meet the Holocaust without being a witness.

Why did you use animals in the book?

The inspiration for using animals came from The Life of Pi. It is an obvious literary device, but I wanted to select animals that would be guides through the Hell that is the Holocaust. Selecting Dante’s guides seemed like a natural choice.

Why did you spend eight pages describing a pear?

Language trivialises pears. The section shows that no amount of words can adequately describe a pear, so how can we describe something as complex as war if we can’t even describe an object as simple as a pear?

What is the sewing kit about?

The sewing kit contains a lot of random literary elements. I wanted to list them together to see how many people would recognise and how many would “stick”.

Why did you give the central characters the same name?

The two central characters are both called Henry. This is because I didn’t want people to deduce anything about their personality from the name. I wanted to show that a person only lives the way they do by the random lottery of where they are born. We are all essentially the same.

Where is the book set?

The setting of the book is deliberately never mentioned. This is because I wanted the book to be universal – it could equally be set in almost any country of the world.

What is your next book about?

Three chimps in Portugal (note – I couldn’t decide if this is true or just a joke!)

What do you think?

Did you enjoy Beatrice and Virgil?

Is a book a success if it is memorable and provokes discussion?

2010 Books in Translation Novella Recommended books

Beside the Sea – Veronique Olmi

 Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

Beside the Sea is the best book I have read in a long time. It tells the story of a single mother who wants to ensure her two little boys enjoy a holiday by the sea.

Beside the Sea has the most intense narrative I have ever read. The words pull you in, leading you towards an ending that you know will be devastating. A dark sense of foreboding dominates the text, but when I finally reached the conclusion it was far more poignant than I could ever imagine.

Not much happens in this book. Regular readers of my blog will know that this is normally a very bad thing for me, but in the hands of such a fantastic writer this didn’t matter; the ordinary was given an emotional dimension and made to come alive.

In fact, the kids are frightened of other people. I can’t fault them for that. You’re never what they want you to be. You irritate them, disgust them. The whole world’s disappointed by its neighbours. Sometimes, no one knows why, someone exactly matches what everyone expected. And everybody loves them, they cheer them and put them on the telly. It’s very rare. The rest of the human race is all mistrust and hate, what I mean is love’s nothing like as common as hate.

The simple descriptions of taking two little boys to a hotel or out for a hot chocolate were amazingly accurate, perfectly capturing the behaviour of two brothers. I think the fact that I have two little boys meant that this book had a far greater impact on me. I have had similar experinces of loving them, but at the same time being frustrated by their behaviour.

Beside the Sea is just over 100 pages long, but the effects of reading this book will last far longer than the short time it takes to finish. Those little boys touched my heart and just thinking about them brings tears to my eyes. 

I will remember this book for the rest of my life.

Highly recommended to anyone who likes books that provoke an emotional response.

Everyone seems to love this book:

I can’t think of many books where the atmosphere and intensity of the novel come off the page so instantly. Savidge Reads

I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything quite like it… Dove Grey Reader

However, I still found the ending so powerful, so intense and so quietly devastating that I’m still thinking about it a week down the line… Reading Matters

Have I managed to persuade you to read it?

What is the most intense book you have ever read?



1980s Novella Recommended books

When I Was Five I Killed Myself – Howard Buten

When I Was Five I Killed Myself is a fantastic little book! It was first brought to my attention by Scott from Me and My Big Mouth and I’d like to thank him, as I don’t think I’d ever have discovered this little gem without him.

The book has a very interesting history. It was originally published in the US in 1981 under the title Burt, but sadly failed to take off there. It then became hugely popular in France and ended up becoming a classic in the country; it is claimed that 1 in 10 French people have read this book. It is a real shame that When I Was Five I Killed Myself is virtually unknown in the English speaking world, as it is wonderful and deserves to become a classic in all languages.

The book begins with Burt letting us know he is in a Children’s Trust Residence Centre for the terrible thing he did to a girl called Jessica. The centre appears to be a cross between a mental hospital and a children’s home, but it is never made clear exactly what kind of institution it is. The entire book is narrated by 8-year-old Burt, who is clearly troubled and suffering from Asperger’s syndrome (as with the central character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.)  The crime Burt committed is revealed gradually, but we know from the beginning that it was serious enough to leave Jessica in hospital.  

I loved every page of this emotional novella. In many ways the book reminded me of Flowers For Algernon, questioning they way in which we treat those in society who behave differently to everyone else. The child’s point of view was realistic and disturbing. I really empathised with Burt and found his confusion at the outside world insightful and traumatizing.

Dr Nevele shook his head slow, like my dad once did when he had to put our dog to sleep. “Please don’t put me to sleep,” I whispered. I looked at the floor but there weren’t any more buildings on it, just carpet. Dr Nevele shook his head.”Are you talking to me now, Burton?” he said. And I said “I don’t know.” Then I started to cry.

I should mention now that my oldest son is suspected of having Asperger’s Syndrome, so this book had an added depth of meaning for me. I don’t think I have ever found so much emotion in such a short book.

The ending surprised me, but also left me begging for the sequel, which unfortunately doesn’t exist.

I highly recommend you find a copy of this little book.

I’m planning to read Marcelo in the Real World soon. Have you read any other books which contain a character with Asperger’s Syndrome?