How’s your reading for Women in Translation Month? I haven’t actually read anything new in translation yet this month, but I can recommend three fantastic memoirs by women in translation that I’ve read recently.
Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany, by Marie Jalowicz Simon, translated from German by Anthea Bell, 2015
Marie Jalowicz Simon, who grew up in a Jewish family in Berlin, looks back late in life at how she survived against the odds by staying in the city during the Second World War. The stories of the few thousand Jewish people who managed this by removing their stars and living in plain sight, called “U-Boats,” fascinates me. It took a lot of moxie and I think no small amount of acceptance of the inherent danger this choice entailed, both for themselves and for those who risked their own lives to help.
There weren’t many successful U-Boat survivors, and her story of some of the particulars of her own survival are incredible, while illustrating how this unusual corner of history worked logistically. I couldn’t believe that one of her tricks was to manipulate a mail forwarding quirk to tell the authorities she’d already been deported. It seemed so simple but was unbelievably bold and daring.
Simon employs a sense of remove, particularly when describing horrific ordeals, like her rapes, which she felt powerless to fight when she was at the mercy of her rapists for help and silence. She’s sarcastic and has a sharp edge, like when refusing to feel sympathy for some people who helped her but expected much in return, or held it over her. She doesn’t allow them to come across as saintly when they were often difficult or prickly, but she fills in what was happening at the time and the fear and pressure they faced, in a time when even a neighbor suspicious of too many footsteps could mean their own lives.
She’s bitingly funny and has an enviable memory, highlighting telling details and with an impressive ability to build a narrative of her movements and those involved along the way. She also employs very dark humor, like in describing a neighbor who was voluptuously beautiful and noting she probably would’ve gained a lot of weight eventually, “but she didn’t live long enough for that.” It reminded me of listening to an elderly person tell you their no-feelings-spared stories and I loved it, even when they make you gasp a bit, like the above.
She blends humor into her brilliant sense of observation, which she was lucky to have and which clearly helped her. My favorite was her description of watching a Russian soldier solemnly “liberate” cages of laboratory mice meant for Berlin’s Charité hospital.
Simon also recognizes fundamental truths about human nature, both the best and worst aspects of it, and how this stark awakening shaped her: “It made me realize that most people were egotistic, concerned only with themselves, and more so than ever in these times. I had to pull myself together to face the outside world and grow up in a hurry.” Ultimately she makes an argument for togetherness and looking past differences even while underscoring how important it is to tap into one’s own wells of strength in life’s darkest moments. It’s an amazing, affirming and page-turning story.
The Little Girl on the Ice Floe: A Memoir, by Adelaide Bon, translated from French by Tina Kover, 2019
She can’t feel the jellyfish twisting inside her on that day; she can’t feel the long, transparent tentacles penetrating her. She doesn’t know that their filaments are going to drag her, little by little, into a story that isn’t her own, that doesn’t concern her. She doesn’t know that they’re going to derail her completely, pull her down to solitary and unwelcoming depths, hobble her every step, make her doubt her own strength, shrink the world around her year by year until it’s nothing but a tiny air pocket with no way out. She doesn’t know that she is at war now, or that the enemy forces are inside her.
No one warns her. No one explains. The world has gone quiet.
This book, a highly recommended Nonfiction November pick, isn’t for everyone, but I promise it’s an exceptional piece of writing and reckoning. As a child, Adelaide Bon was raped by a pedophile in the stairwell of her family’s apartment building in Paris. This event would shape her life for years to come, at first terribly, with the slew of problems that inevitably accompany violation and the confusion of her young age that made it so much worse. Later, she’s able to reclaim herself while demonstrating how she worked through trauma and the pain of memory. It is absolutely extraordinary.
Bon recounts her relationships with family, boyfriends, and her professional life as it develops, everything colored by the rape and her perception of it. This is not always easy reading, yet Bon is such an exceptional writer and infuses so much meaning into her experiences, employs metaphor brilliantly (the jellyfish and tentacles from the quote above), and ends her story with resounding triumph — seeing her rapist brought to trial, the quiet but mighty ability to call a thing by its name, and connection with the more than 70 other women he attacked, who shared the same devastation of their childhood that she did, and are able to support each other, finally, through this thing that no one around them was able to understand.
Everything about this — her descriptions of events both immediate and through the haze and uncertainty of memory, as well as her stylistic choices, like variously using I, she, and you for herself, sometimes within the same sentence, was just so beautifully done. This could’ve been a messy, confusing structure, especially with its narrative back and forth, but it’s always clear and careful, and the power of each stylistic turn is unmistakable. I hope that anyone who can identify with themes here, not only of sexual assault but of childhood trauma and grappling with difficult memories, will read this and find an understanding voice and reaffirming journey towards overcoming.
Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, by Teffi, translated from Russian by Robert Chandler, 2016
From Teffi’s poem, “Before a Map of Russia”:
“In a strange house, in a faraway land,
her portrait hangs on the wall;
she herself is dying like a beggar woman,
lying on straw, in pain that can’t be told.”
Translator Robert Chandler describes Memories as “in essence”: “a series of goodbyes: to Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, and Russia itself; to friends.”
Beloved Russian writer and satirist Teffi fled Moscow to escape the Bolsheviks, landing first in Kiev, which had become a temporary refuge for those fleeing and ersatz Moscow of sorts for the artsy, theatrical set. From there she set off for Paris, where she settled as part of its strong Russian emigre community.
Memories is really her masterpiece, a testament to the world she was leaving behind and the recollections she was bringing with her. Unlike Rasputin And Other Ironies, although it’s populated with any number of colorful, amusing characters, they aren’t celebrities, but rather those Teffi was close to or encountered along her journey. Sometimes she recreates dialogue word for word, elsewhere she relies on impressions and the outline of what it all felt like.
It’s often a collection of images and related stories, like a memory of her sister as a child that came to her one Easter night at sea. Writing with the hindsight of some years after events took place, she can relate that her sister was dying that night. This was what made it haunting to read — she looks back with the melancholy awareness of what’s transpired since she made her life’s biggest journey.
But it’s also surprisingly light and funny, which I didn’t expect for the subject matter despite knowing her reputation for satire. She has a dry, witty tone and hilarious descriptions of people and situations. And she also writes poetically and lyrically about what she saw and how she felt, each moment imbued with the gravity of leaving one’s homeland under terrible circumstances and facing an uncertain future.
Have you read any of these? Tell me what nonfiction by women in translation you’ve found this month!