TO CONNECT WITH ALL THEIR HEART: Isabela Torezan reviews two new translations: The Dear Ones by Berta Dávila & Love Novel by Ivana Sajko

The Dear Ones (trans. by Jacob Rogers)

The moment I got hold of The Dear Ones, written by Berta Dávila and translated from Galician by Jacob Rogers, was strangely meaningful, almost mystic. I started reading a day after returning from a trip to France where I had met my mother. We had not seen each other for nine months (the period of a complete gestation, we joked) and were reunited on my 26th birthday. Saying goodbye again was hard and I was deeply immersed in my reflections about being a daughter.

When I saw that this book is about a mother, and also about deciding not to be a mother, I heard it speaking to me even before I read it. The first pages are set at an airport and I was at one a few hours before. I might be accused of being too sensitive to things that are probably just coincidences, but I decided it was exactly the right book to be reading at that moment.

And so, I started. I was curious to read a translation into English from Galician, a language that I know to be very close to my own mother tongue, Portuguese. I am not sure of how much this influenced the feeling of familiarity that Dávila’s prose gave me, because I rarely feel this specific connection with a text.

The feeling of familiarity I am talking about is one that makes me think that “I could have written that myself”, with the exact same words, and be sure that I was telling the truth.

It was a strong and surprising feeling, in this case, because the character is talking about lived experiences which I could not relate to any less: getting pregnant, giving birth, raising a child, and deciding to have an abortion when she falls pregnant a second time. I believe this is a kind of power that some writers possess, of writing in a way that strikes the reader as so sincere and natural and human that they cannot help but believe and connect to the story with all their heart.

The Dear Ones is not a long book, at just 150 pages, and though I had recently been short of free time in which to read, I was able to finish it in three or four sessions. It is not a story with a gripping plot, the kind that makes people say “I couldn’t stop reading, I couldn’t close the book!”. No, it could actually provoke the opposite reaction. It deals so sincerely with death, birth and suffering; I would understand if someone needed several weeks to finish it, and some more days to recover from it.

But I painfully enjoyed the way Dávila connects the two ends of the string that is life, narrating grandmother María’s final years side to side with memories from the character’s childhood, and the way she contrasts the first years of her son‘s life with the story about her abortion appointment. Giving birth and terminating a pregnancy are shown to be shockingly (for me anyway, inexperienced as I am in both) similar in Dávila’s story.

If I had to choose a feeling to summarise my experience in reading The Dear Ones’, I think I would pick up gratitude, with a hint of relief. I can explain. I feel that one cannot help but feel grateful to Dávila, for having approached a subject so frequently avoided, hidden or silenced. And she does so with the grace of a lack of all the guilt, remorse and prejudicial judgement that haunts so many conversations about motherhood in our (still) very patriarchal society.

Not being a mother is as much a complete and valid experience as being one is. Both experiences come with a great deal of loss and gain, and no woman can tell what the other has lost or gained, these are highly subjective and individual realities. That is the message we get from this book. Well, one of them.

“I’ve never felt motherly love because I don’t love my son because I’m his mother, I love him because of who he is; because he doesn’t belong to me, he belongs to the world; because I don’t instruct him or direct him, I only accompany him, the way he accompanies me”

This passage impacted my reflections about being a daughter in a way I suspect Berta Dávila did not predict. This is what a good book is to me, the “messages” it carries are not obvious statements dictated by the author, but surprising and personal revelations that might be different to each reader. It takes a great amount of talent to write from one place of experience and still  welcome in readers from everywhere else.

Being someone who sees books as relationships, I feel almost indebted to Berta Dávila for having put this book into the world for us to find, and for Jacob Rogers for having translated it. It is now one of my dear ones.

Love Novel (trans. by Mima Simić)

I showed my therapist the book I was reading, Love Novel by Ivana Sajko and translator Mima Simić. “Oh, and what is it about?”, she asked. I then realized how hard answering that question was. I guess I did not instinctively expect it to be so hard because the book has such a straightforward, minimalist title: a love novel should be [. . . ] well, a novel about love.

But, of course, it is not. And I love that. Good book titles are the opposite of good food labels. They should never tell you exactly what is inside. Otherwise, the magic is gone, the mystery evaporates on contact with the air.

Love Novel is a good book title and so, it does not tell you what you will find inside. I think it is, actually, that sort of book that will give the readers something completely different depending on when they are reading it and who they are. That kind of book that is capable of creating heated discussions among friends that usually have the same literary taste.

I say that because the first answer I gave to my therapist was, “It is a story about failure, about general human failure”. Later, I read the back cover, which says:

“Love in late capitalism: Ivana Sajko takes us into a war between kitchen and bedroom [. . . ] With the rent overdue and violence looming on all sides, the two of them circle one another in a dizzying dance towards the abyss”.

The “two of them” are the couple at the centre of the story. The person who wrote this synopsis apparently thought that the relationship was the main thing being discussed. I disagree, I do not think they are circling one another. Instead, I see each of them spiral into a personal vortex that would eventually bump into the other’s vortex on purpose – because it is only human to try to share the guilt for our failure with someone else. But the pain is solitary, most of the time.

Or we think it is. Because for me, these two human beings are bonded, yes, but not by love, or not just by love. They both feel this same oppressing feeling of having tried and failed, and of not knowing when and how it happened, exactly. He, a failed writer, she, a failed actress.

Perhaps it is because this is a feeling that I have been dealing with, that it shows itself for me as the focal centre of the novel, while someone else could relate more to the relationship tale.

Ivana Sajko’s long and breathless sentences do not really give us time to think too much while reading, this is a ‘feel it’ book and that is what I felt while reading. As Mima Simić says in her translator’s note, the “avalanche of images and emotions” carries the reader to the end and we barely notice any words.

Mima Simić also tells us in her notes that the experience of translating this novel was impacted by how much she could relate to the context, how Love Novel’s world is her world. She recalls her childhood of deprivation in the country formerly known as Yugoslavia. A third interpretation is offered here: that the novel is not about one relationship, nor about a general human condition, but about surviving together a difficult time in history.

Maybe the book is about all those things, it is and it is not a love story. The difficulty of defining “love” would allow this myriad of interpretations. But, for me, the most important question is not what this book is about. It is how it makes us feel. As I said, this is the kind of text that does not give us time to think, so occupied that we are with the “avalanche of emotions”.

Many writers have made use of the scarcity of punctuation and infinite sentences building long paragraphs to try to create this kind of text that carries the reader as if they are swimming in a big wave, a tsunami of words that do not allow you to think, only notice emotions and survive them. But the form is not everything, just piling up sentences and refraining to use a full stop will not create this effect.

Sajko knows that. If, after finishing one of her long sentences, you read it again, this time paying attention to the careful choice of words, you understand why this is a novel that works because it makes us feel so much.

It is just so pleasant to notice the thread that links one word to the other (not forgetting that they were translated) and realise how different they sound just because they are put together. Ultimately, this is indeed a love novel, if the definition of love we take is a very emotionally charged and strong relationship: the words in this book are connected in this way.

I believe the best way to demonstrate what I am expressing would be to let the text speak for itself, and finish this review with one of my favourite passages:

“These things happen: women walk a mile between walls, lose a whole night over some bullshit, put superhuman effort into it, and then, instead of breaking down, surrendering and finally resting, they stay bolt upright, as if they’d swallowed a broom or simply turned to stone. They even manage to wear clean clothes.”

About our contributor

Isabela Torezan is a Brazilian writer and translator who sincerely believes that literature is the meaning of life. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and her dissertation was about book reviews. She is currently studying for a master’s degree in Literary Translation at Trinity College, Dublin, and is writing her dissertation about the representation of indirect translations.

She writes short stories, essays and book reviews regularly on her blog (in Portuguese) and has also written a book of short stories, O Bibliófago, which was published in 2018.

Leave a Reply


The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

Find us on: