by Rubén Palma
Larissa Kyzer wrote me about a collection of short stories that she thinks is phenomenal, written by a Chilean-born Danish author.
After she finishes her Master’s in Library Science, Larissa wants to move to Copenhagen to learn Danish. Her ultimate plan is to be a middle/high school librarian who spends those long summer vacations translating wonderful books into English.
She has her own blog, The Afterword, which includes an archive of her book reviews on literature in translation, crime fiction, young adult literature, and other articles and bits of interest. The address is http://larissakyzer.wordpress.com/.
Here’s what she says:
Guest Blog by Larissa Kyzer
About five years ago, through a convoluted and fortuitous series of book recommendations and discoveries, I discovered Scandinavian literature. (And although I am an emphatic fan of Nordic crime fiction, I’m not just referring to Henning Mankell or Helen Tursten or Arnaldur Indridason or many, many others.) Reading everything from lovely modernist short stories by out-of-print Nobel Prize winners (“The Polar Bear” by Henrik Pontoppidan) to hilarious existential novels about unfortunate house guests (The Pets by Braggi Olafsson) to harrowing explorations of the sex trade in Finland and life in Estonia during the soviet occupation (Purge by Sofi Oksanen), I fell into this world of rich, evocative literature that felt as if it had been waiting for me all these years.
It’s rare—not unprecedented, but rare—that I read a Scandinavian novel or short story collection that doesn’t appeal to me; but occasionally, I’m lucky enough to run across a really exemplary title—something that especially resonates. Earlier this year, I had just such an experience when reading The Trail We Leave, a short story collection written by RubénPalma, and translated from Danish into English in 2005. Jumping between empathetic observation and a sense of humor which delights in the enduring absurdity of personal relationships, this is, hands down, one of the best short story collections I’ve read in a long time. (The last really wonderful collection being Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, for what it’s worth.) Most of the stories deal with the experiences of usually Chilean immigrants in Denmark, which no doubt draw inspiration from Palma’s own life. According to his bio in the back of the book, he grew up in Santiago, Chile, graduated from high school in 1971, and, after dabbling in “esoteric and eastern philosophies” he “participated actively in what he believed was a libertarian, leftist movement,” which he eventually left because of its “authoritarian nature.” Palma deserted the army after the coup in 1973 and became a refugee with the United Nations’ protection shortly after. The next year, at the age of 19, he moved to Denmark. After 25 years in his adoptive country, Palma started writing in Danish, the product being The Trail We Leave.
Within these stories we meet a Chilean man whose relationship with his longtime Danish girlfriend is completely upended when his language instructor sends an amorous postcard to his home. Another character flees to Finland over New Year’s after some particularly complicated relationship issues, where he meets a man from Bangladesh who is futilely trying to win the affections of a foreign aid worker he met while she was volunteering in his hometown. A little girl practicing her lines in Danish for a school play remembers her hometown of Playa Verde.
The thread that runs through each of the stories is one of disjuncture and alienation, the turbulent negotiation of learning to integrate in a society so entirely different from one’s own, of wanting to become something and someone new, while still desperately hanging on to what one once was. And while the experiences of the characters are all exquisitely unique and completely specific to them, Palma not only captures the “borderland,” or the “strange places between a country forever lost and a new one,” (as the translator writes in his notes), but also the very sticky process of identity creation and revision that everyone goes through at some point in their lives. As our own national debate about immigration rages on, The Trail We Leave humanizes the vast range of emotions and circumstances experienced by those struggling to make a new home in a foreign place. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and frequently insightful, it’s a wonderful collection. We’d be lucky to have more of Palma’s work in English in the future.