All I knew heading into The Summer Guest was that it was by Alison Anderson, who translated Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog which is such a fantastic book that I hope you have read (or will now go and read!).
Its synopsis begins:
What if Anton Chekhov, undisputed master of the short story, secretly wrote a novel—a manuscript hidden long ago that might have survived?
And that may have plenty of people going ooh. And… here is where I admit to you that I have not read Chekhov’s stories. This probably will appall some of you. You’re wondering, what business do I have reading this book?
antonchekhovBut here’s the thing, it’s not all that important to have read Chekhov’s work to enjoy The Summer Guest. Sure, you may have a better understanding of things but it’s ok. I still really liked reading the book anyway. And it has also made me want to read Chekhov now, whom, you have to admit is quite a dashing man.
The Summer Guest unfolds from three different perspectives.
We have the diary, a newly uncovered diary from the 19th century, written in Russian by Zinaida Mikhailovna, a young woman trained as a doctor but recently blinded by an illness. She keeps the journal to fill her hours, now that she is unable to work. Anton Chekhov and his family rent the guesthouse on her family’s country estate and they become friendly.
Then we have Katya Kendall who runs a small publishing company with her husband Peter in London in 2014. Their business isn’t doing well so they hope that this diary by Zinaida Mikhailovna will help get them back on their feet. Their marriage isn’t doing very well either.
Ana Harding is a translator who lives in France, and who once worked with Katya’s company. Her Russian “was perfectly adequate, but she didn’t go looking for translations from Russian; they found her.” She takes on the project, as she had no reason to refuse, a job is a job, she needs the money. But she soon “befriended the diarist in that odd way translators sometimes have, if they are lucky, of knowing their authors through a text, of inhabiting their identity and seeing through their eyes”.
Anderson, as a translator herself as well as a novelist herself, fully understands the difficulty of being one.
“She had had enough of being invisible, of slipping inconspicuously behind the more glamorous author whose photograph beckoned from the back cover of a book they had both written. As translator, she mused, she was no more than the lining of the dust jacket. This substance she craved – beyond meaningful texts, beyond creativity – should lead to an identity.”
There are long excerpts from the diary, observations about country life, conversations between Anton and Zinaida, Zinaida’s reminisces about her life. But there is also talk about alcoholism, consumption and other problems of 19th century Russia. And of course, the sad fact that Zinaida, the young and intelligent Zinaida, is wasting away from her illness.
In the bed I inhabited a warm, safe place. The sound of my breathing lulled me into memory: childhood. Papa, before. With us still. Outings to the islands on the river. Games in the field. Snowdrifts against the house where we hid. Sleigh rides. The thaw, Easter. The kulich and paskha and brightly colored eggs: the days of feasting and dancing. The priest blessing the house. The visitors, telling us how we’d grown.
The Summer Guest is a quiet novel. It is gentle and feels like it should be read sitting on a riverbank, under the shade of a willow tree, with some cold lemonade swigged from a bottle and strawberry sandwiches wrapped in brown paper. But gentle does not mean easy or simple. It has such beautiful, elegant prose, a well-constructed plot, complex characters and an ending that made me sit up and rethink the whole story. It may not be a book that you race through, but it is a book that stays with you, that makes you consider the importance of translators. And now I am so completely intrigued by Anton Chekhov, who, as Alison Anderson writes in a blog post:
“Chekhov had a very interesting love life, but one which could only be supported by speculation and conjecture, since many of the more explicit letters he wrote were destroyed either by his sister Masha in her task as guardian of his literary estate, or by Soviet academics.”
Originally published at https://reallifereading.com I have so much love for this book that I don’t know how to write about it. Will you just bypass itOriginally published at https://reallifereading.com I have so much love for this book that I don’t know how to write about it. Will you just bypass it because, it’s a book that you haven’t heard of? Or maybe you don’t read memoirs? Or non-fiction? Why am I being so negative? Maybe instead you are excited because it is a book you’ve not heard much of! Maybe it’s interesting because it is memoir! Non-fiction! Hurrah!
Amazingly, I won The Song Poet from a Library Thing giveaway. (I seriously have the worst of luck when it comes to book giveaways). And what is perhaps more amazing is that I picked up the book and read it, within a few weeks of receiving it. I am a bit of a hoarder when it comes to physical books. I buy them and then, save them for the end of the world or something.
Anyway, the book must have called out to me. It was meant to be. And it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. A book that sings and cries, a book that laughs and shudders. A book I brought along on a Bart ride to the city to pick up my passport from the Singapore consulate. It sat with me on the crowded train, it rocketed up many storeys up to the consulate building, then it basked in the sunlight at Ferry Building where I sipped a tiny and expensive mocha and watched the traffic on the Bay Bridge.
This may sound silly but I first learnt of the Hmong on the TV series Grey’s Anatomy. Grey’s Anatomy may be overdramatic and too many ridiculous things happen to one doctor at one hospital (she puts her hand in a body with a bomb, she steps in front of a gunman etc). But it was also one of the very very few popular primetime TV series to have a lead Asian character, and it wasn’t about Christina Yang being Korean. Or Asian. She was just a doctor. A friend. A crazy, intense, very intelligent person. But still. She was a person. But this episode has nothing to do with Yang. An episode in Season Two featured a patient, a young woman, who needed surgery but because she is Hmong, her father refuses. They decide to call in a shaman before surgery. I hadn’t the faintest idea if this was a good portrayal of the Hmong culture or not (the blog Petite Hmong Mommy found it kinda ridiculous) but it made me wonder about the Hmong culture. I later learnt more by reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, published in 1997, a work of non-fiction about a young Hmong girl living in Merced, California, who suffers from epilepsy. It is a moving, tragic book, in case you haven’t yet read it. But it is not by a Hmong so it’s still from the point of view of an outsider looking in.
The Song Poet seemed to me like your typical refugee in America kind of memoir at first. But the prologue opens with ‘Album Notes’, in which Yang writes about calling her father, Bee, a poet.
“I grew up hearing my father digging into words for images that will stretch the limits of life for my siblings and me. In my father’s mouth, bitter, rigid words become sweet and elastic like taffy candy. His poetry shields us from the poverty of our lives.”
His song poetry is hard to explain, and Yang describes it as such:
“The only way I know how to describe it as a form in English is to say: my father raps, jazzes, and sings the blues when he dwells in the landscape of traditional Hmong song poetry.”
It sounds fascinating.
The Song Poet is a story of struggle, of hardship, of determination, and quite simply of back-breaking, hardworking parents trying to make enough money to put a roof over their family’s heads, to put food in their kids’ mouths. This is a story that moves from Laos, to Thailand, to Minneapolis. And it is so very very difficult, to read of all the pain that other people put this family through, because they are different, because they are Hmong. They were driven from the Laos because of war and communism. In Thailand they lived in refugee camps, where the author was born. Then wanting to be more than just refugees, the family traveled to America. But in America, their lives are still difficult – Bee takes on backbreaking, dangerous work at a factory in order to make ends meet. His wife works the morning shift, he works the night shift. Just so that there is a parent around for their children.
Yang’s voice is just beautiful. My favourite part of the book is ‘Side A, Track 4: Love Song’, where she writes from her father’s perspective of his love for his wife Chue Moua, and all the many things that they have gone through, many miscarriages, across countries. I read and reread that chapter, trying to find something to quote here, but it is a chapter to be read as a whole. A few sentences, a paragraph, wouldn’t do justice to this emotional chapter.
Instead, I will leave you here with a quote from another part of the book. Equally unforgettable.
“In America, my voice is only powerful within our home. The moment I exit our front door and enter the paved roads, my deep voice loses its volume and its strength. When I speak English, I become like a leaf in the wind. I cannot control the direction my words will fly in the ear of the other person. I try to soften my landing in the language by leaving pauses between each word. I wrestle my accent until it is a line of breath in the tightness of my throat. I greet people. I ask for directions. I say thank you. I say goodbye. I only speak English at work when it is necessary. I don’t like the weakness of my voice in English, but what I struggle with most is the weakness of my words.”...more