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I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé, a writer of African-Caribbean heritage, expands on the story of Tituba, the black slave from Barbados accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In an interview printed at the back of the book, Condé reveals that she learned about Tituba by accident when she got lost in a library. She became curious, and sought more facts about her life. Finding very little, Condé says “I decided I was going to write her story out of my own dreams” (p. 199).

Originally written in French, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem imagines the entire life of Tituba, from her conception on a ship to Barbados, to her move to Massachusetts, and to her death and beyond, within the space of 179 pages. It is unusual for a short novel to cover such a broad span of time and multiple settings. In addition, the book includes fantastical elements. After Tituba’s mother dies, she is raised by a woman versed in healing and magic, who teaches her to communicate with the dead, among other skills. As a result, Tituba’s dead relatives are frequent visitors.

Tituba tells her own story in first person in a fast-paced, sometimes mocking way: she can see the humor of her often tragic situations from beyond the curtain of death. If you’re looking for a novel that reveals Tituba as a misunderstood victim, this is not the book. Tituba is compassionate when it suits her, but she is also at times vengeful, and sometimes makes bad decisions despite the advice of her relatives from the beyond. Condé also plays with the idea of a “historical” novel by including a fictional character, Hester Prynne, in the middle, and by making Tituba aware of how she is portrayed (or ignored) in history and how she is remembered by future generations.

Given what I knew of the Salem witch trials, I expected a realistic, heavy, long novel. What I got was a dash through the life of an extraordinary woman who is determined not to be forgotten.

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Purge was written by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen, and translated from Finnish into English. It has also been translated into 49 other languages, and is billed as an international bestseller. The picture above is from the Finnish paperback.

The novel takes place in Estonia, and alternates between chapters in the 1990’s, and chapters from the 1930’s to 1950’s. The story begins with an elderly woman, Aliide, finding an injured young woman in her yard. Against her better judgment Aliide invites the young woman (Zara) into the house and takes care of her. We soon realize that Zara knows who Aliide is and has been looking for her, although Aliide does not know who Zara is.

What is the connection between Zara and Aliide? Why is Zara looking for her? These are just the first of many mysteries which the author develops as the novel progresses. While the story focuses on human relationships and personalities, it is based on historical events, so it is helpful to know some basic Estonian history (which I looked up in an encyclopedia). Here is what you need to know: Estonia was independent from 1918 to 1940, when it was taken over (against the will of most Estonians) by the Soviet Union. From 1941 to 1944, Germany occupied Estonia, and in 1944 the Soviet Union took over again. Estonia gained independence in 1991.

Knowing this history makes clear the significance of the novel’s dates. The modern sections take place in 1991 and 1992, shortly after Estonia’s independence, and the historical sections takes place from 1936 to 1951, shortly before and during the Soviet takeover of Estonia. Two maps in the book are helpful, and show that Estonia borders Russia and is separated by a narrow gulf from Finland. Zara’s home, Vladivostok, is a city at the other end of Russia, past Siberia, on the border with China.

I don’t want to give too much away about this gripping novel, but it is clear at the beginning that some of the characters fought for Estonian independence, while others worked for the Soviets. The novel prompts readers to consider issues of motivation, fear, and love. Aliide, in particular, is a fascinating character. Be warned that some parts of the novel are unsettling to read because of the abuse suffered by the characters. This is an unusual, complex, and discussion-worthy novel.

The Lost Daughter of Happiness, by Geling Yan

The Lost Daughter of Happiness, by Geling Yan

I’m not sure how to describe this beautiful novel. On one level, it is a mysterious love story between a Chinese prostitute, Fusang, in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1860’s and 1870’s and a white boy of German heritage, Chris. On another level it is an exploration of a Chinese immigrant woman at the beginning of the 21st century attempting to research Fusang as a way of understanding the history of Chinese people in San Francisco, as well as the relationship between Chinese and white people.

The Lost Daughter of Happiness  begins with the modern-day Chinese immigrant writer addressing Fusang. Here is a passage from page 2:

I know who you were: a twenty-year-old prostitute, one of a succession of three thousand prostitutes from China. When you stepped upon these golden shores, you were a fully grown woman. You had no skills, no seductive charm, not a trace of lust in your eyes. People could sense your distinctive simplicity the moment they met you.

Parts of the novel are told in a conventional narrative in third person. In other parts, the narrator speaks in first person, addressing Fusang as “you,” or relating information from the 160 books she has been reading on the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown, or even talking about her own relationship with her white husband.

I found the story to be compelling and suspenseful, especially as Fusang finds herself in dangerous situations, and as Chris, who is only 12 when he first sees Fusang, attempts to get to know her. However, the novel is not always told in chronological order. Flashbacks and flash forwards force the reader to piece together the narrative, which can sometimes be confusing, but can also reveal surprises. Ultimately, I found the structure of the novel intriguing and thought-provoking.

Fusang and the other characters often function more as symbols than as fully developed characters. Sometimes Fusang can be a puzzling mystery who seems almost unreal to Chris and to the reader. Yet she is also a flesh-and-blood woman who experiences pain, sadness, and joy.

Although the author, Geling Yan, lives in the United States, she writes most of her books in Chinese. This book was first published in Taiwan and translated into English by Cathy Silber. I suspect that American readers might miss some symbolic references that would be apparent to a Chinese reader. For example, several times Fusang plays a haunting tune on her flute, a song called “Shepherd Su Wu.” I looked this up and found out that the song is a reference to a Chinese hero lauded for his faith and loyalty despite extreme stress. In case you’re curious, here is a performance of the Shepherd Su Wu song on flute.

If you are looking for a story with a linear plot and easy-to-understand characters, this is not the book for you. But if you enjoy magical realism and are intrigued by multiple layers of meaning, you might treasure this book.

For more information about Geling Yan, please see her web site.

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath, by Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath, by Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian writer who lived during the first part of the 20th century, was fascinated by medieval Norway, where she set many of her novels. The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, perhaps her most famous work, takes place in the first part of the 1300s and follows a Norwegian woman from young childhood to death. Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath is about Kristin’s life until her marriage at the age of about 20.

From reading the back of the book, readers get the impression that The Wreath is a love story, but while the romance between Kristin and Erlend is a big part of the novel, the novel is more of a coming-of-age story, following Kristin’s developing consciousness of concepts such as Christianity vs. pagan beliefs, love vs. sin, and duty vs. passion.

There are two English translations of this book: one by Charles Archer from the 1920s, and another by Tiina Nunnally, published in 1997, which is the one I read. Apparently the Nunnally translation is more faithful to the original.

Kristin is raised Catholic, and the church remains important to her throughout the book. As a child she adores her father. At the age of 15 she accepts her father’s arrangements for a betrothal to a neighboring young man. However, after a traumatic experience she decides she is not yet ready for marriage, and asks to be sent to a convent for a year. There, her life changes when she meets Erlend Nikulausson, a handsome man whose passions are often stronger than his judgment. She insists on marrying Erlend despite her father’s disapproval.

The historical setting is richly detailed. The clothing, tools, food, customs, and political situation are smoothly integrated into the story, but never overwhelm the focus on Kristin’s life. The descriptions of the natural world are just one of the pleasures of this book. As a seven-year-old child, Kristin is excited to travel with her father to the mountain pastures. After eating lunch in a pasture, everyone takes a nap. Kristin wakes up before anyone else.

It must have been late in the day, for the sunshine was a gleaming yellow and the shadows had lengthened and now fell toward the southeast. There was no longer even a breath of wind, and mosquitoes and flies were buzzing and humming around the sleeping group of people. Kristin sat quite still, scratching the mosquito bites on her hands, and looked around. The mountain dome above them shone white with moss and gold from the lichen in the sunshine. (p. 15)

As much as I love this novel, I am still puzzled about why Kristin is so enamored of Erlend. Is it just his good looks? Is it that she encounters his attention just as she is healing from trauma? Whatever the reason, she is desperate to marry him, yet is also tormented by the idea that she has sinned against the teachings of her church.

A Norwegian movie based on this book, made in 1995 and directed by Liv Ullman, helped me learn how to pronounce the Norwegian names in the book, and to picture what the houses looked like. Kristin’s story continues in two more books: The Wife and The Cross.

Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. She donated the prize money, including the gold medal, to help needy children.