This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, asks us to reconsider our understanding of how history is constructed. The protagonist, an academic who “leads an almost unpunctuated domestic existence of solitude and paranoia,” makes a shocking discovery about the secret identity of a seventeenth-century writer—and then seems to disprove her own theory. As the protagonist becomes increasingly unstable, her erratic prose leads the reader to reflect on the tenuous boundary between stories and history.
Lytton Smith’s translation of History. A Mess. is the twentieth title selected by the Asymptote Book Club, which brings outstanding translated fiction to readers each month. You can sign up to receive next month’s book on our website or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.
Translator Lytton Smith told Splice that “the Icelandic language doesn’t have two distinct words for story and history. It uses the same word, saga, and so those two ways of writing are more closely connected for Icelanders than they are for us.” As such, they are more concerned with storytelling as a craft, fidelity to emotional truth above accuracy to facts. Yet Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s novel, History. A Mess., seemingly centers around historical fact: a text whose existence could make or break an academic career.
As countries around the world celebrate Pride Month, this week’s Translation Tuesday reminds us of the challenges many members of the LGBTQ+ community still face every day. In this short story by Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa, a gay man agonizes over the death of his mother, with whom he had a fraught relationship, and reflects on the power of both her disapproval and her love.
“My mother has gotten younger. The wrinkles on her face are gone. Look. Look. Her skin is brighter. You can see her veins. They’re blue. You can see the inside of her. Look. Look. It’s red, red. Mother’s younger than us now. She’s sleeping. That’s all. She won’t cry out anymore.”
It’s your daughter Samira who says this about you. And I’m surprised. More than surprised. She’s not afraid of you dead. She’s not gripped by any strange feeling or vertigo. You’re her mother. You’re dead. In an hour she won’t be able to touch you anymore, to physically feel the link to you. She’s not afraid at all. She looks at you. She sees you like she’s never seen you before. She puts her hand on your face. She says “my little mom” and she doesn’t cry. Like the other sisters, she stays focused, she doesn’t want to miss this last real moment with you, she doesn’t want to spoil this ritual. She puts all her heart into it. She forgives you, for absolutely everything. She says it.
The prolific French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras is perhaps best known for her novel The Lover, winner of the 1984 Prix Goncourt, as well as for her 1959 Oscar-nominated screenplay Hiroshima mon amour. In 1987, she published a collection of texts entitled La vie matérielle (Practicalities), in which she relates “everything and nothing” relating to her life, from her work to everyday thoughts. Duras was an avid cook and had intended to include some of her recipes in the collection, too. Ultimately, though, while some recipes made it into La vie matérielle, most did not. After Duras’s death in 1996, her son Jean Mascolo sought to rectify this by publishing the slim volume La Cuisine de Marguerite (Benoît Jacob), a collection of his mother’s recipes as recorded in her handwritten notebook. After a false start in 1999 when Duras’s literary executor blocked its sale, the book was finally republished and circulated in 2014.
The recipes in La Cuisine de Marguerite are a captivating mix of flavors and influences. This can be expected from any collection of recipes curated over a lifetime. However, given her international experiences, Duras’s collection ranges wider than many others. Traditional French fare is sparsely represented in her recipe book, with leek soup, vichyssoise, and chicken liver pâté scattered here and there among the more plentiful offerings of further-off origins: nasi goreng from Indonesia, rougail sauce from Réunion, spare ribs from the U.S. The recipes are mostly brief, though some are characterized by spirited notes, such as her instructions for Dublin coddle (“The Irish will tell you: add more wine […] Don’t listen to them.”) and gazpacho (“The Spanish use broth in the place of water. They’re wrong.”). In the preface to the book, Jean Mascolo writes that the book “has no other pretense than to evoke Marguerite Duras in a daily activity that she did not hesitate, with a smile, to make as creative as her writing.”
Among the most personal recipes in the book are those originating from the place of Duras’s birth in 1914: the Gia Định province in French Indochina, near what is now known as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Duras was the middle child and only daughter of two schoolteachers who had answered the French colonial government’s call for volunteers. Her father died early on, plunging the family into poverty, after which her mother allowed the children near-complete freedom. Unlike the other colonists, the siblings were allowed to play with Vietnamese children, and Duras spoke fluent Vietnamese. She had no taste for French foods—the Normandy apples and the meat that her mother occasionally served the family—preferring rice, soups from street vendors, and fresh fish cooked in nuoc-mâm, Vietnamese fish sauce.