If it had not been for Women in Translation month I might never have got to these books, so it’s been a valuable lesson for me. I’m still waiting for my copy of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Meanwhile, here are two more books from Indie presses: a translation from the French of Virginie Despentes’ book, King Kong Theory and a translation from the Spanish by Selva Almada’s The Wind that Lays Waste.
Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory. Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated by Frank Wynne.
This book is a guided tour around the cultural realities which underlie society’s attitude to rape, prostitution, pornography and violence to women. These are subjects on which Despentes is more than qualified to write, having worked as a prostitute, made porn films and been raped herself. She is also a highly articulate writer whose book Vernon Subutex 1 was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2018.
While men use the services of prostitutes with impunity, Despentes writes, the girls who undertake the work are castigated and criminalised. Even if they voluntary do this work for good money, the girls will still be subject a wall of do-goodery telling them to turn back while yet they may, to undertake something more valuable and worthwhile (like working in a supermarket for the minimum wage).
Motherhood is still touted as ‘the quintessential female experience’. Why? This seems archaic if not ridiculous given climate change and global economic collapse. You may not have a job, or a job that pays very well, even if you do have those things there is no guarantee that you will keep it – especially not if you are a woman with a child to care for – but hey have a baby! Preferably two or three. Never mind that in 2020, 30% of all children in the UK are living below the poverty line.
“It’s not about pitting the miserable gains of women against the miserable gains of men. It’s about blowing the whole fucking thing sky high.”
Quite. But what whole thing? According to the author, what women have internalised over the centuries is less about our own inferiority – although that is of course a given – but that our burgeoning independence is dangerous in and of itself. Women are the threat.
Since we women managed to unshackle ourselves from the kitchen sink (although most of us haven’t, we just do everything) we are always off somewhere frightening men, making them behave in ways they never would have done if we had simply stepped out of the way a bit quicker, been less provocative, shut up a bit more, dressed more modestly, been prettier, uglier, more silent, fatter, thinner.
Feminism takes many guises. Some campaign for more girls of school age to take science and maths courses, some to close the gender pay gap, some like to analyse the glass ceiling. But the fact that girls are less like to join science courses, less likely to earn a decent wage or even the same as a man in the same job, less likely to break that glass ceiling, are symptoms of a deeper malaise around attitudes to women that should have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but somehow haven’t.
This book was originally published in 2006. The fight it seems goes on. Written in a ferocious style and with an abundance of sexual swear words, this is not a book for the squeamish. It would be wonderful if we could read King Kong Theory as a history book and say, what a struggle that all was but it’s over now.
Sadly it isn’t and we can’t.
Selva Almada, The Wind that Lays Waste. Translated by Chris Andrews, Charco Press.
Originally published in Spanish, the story concerns an itinerant preacher, Reverend Pearson and his daughter Leni as they travel to visit a friend of her father’s, Pastor Zack, in Northern Argentina. We learn that this is the only life Leni knows, travelling and staying in run down hotels ‘near the old bus terminal – overlooking the red light district’ with her evangelist father. The only memory she has of her mother is one of the mother being left on a road somewhere with a suitcase and the Reverend driving away with young Leni in the back watching.
“The boss comes and speaks to you with strong dependable words, making promises for the future. He speaks like a father. After hearing him you say to each other: How well he spoke; his words are simple and true; he speaks to us as if we were his children… But I say to you, beware of strong words, beautiful words…”
This extract is from one of Reverend Pearson’s sermons, ironically those who are persuaded by him might equally beware in his strong words… beautiful words.
Leni is now 16 years old. On this particular journey, their car breaks down and so begins a powerful story of belief, guilt, sacrifice and manipulation worthy of the best work of Carson McCullers and Alice Munro. You think you are reading a book in which nothing happens except a car breaks down on a boiling hot day, but then you realise the car’s engine is the the least of what needs fixing among the lives of the characters.
4 out of 4 WIT month
14/20 Books of Summer