Her Mother’s Hands & A Glass Eye: Basque Women in Translation

Our intern Ann D. Bjerregaard reviews two newly translated Basque titles and comments on the importance of reading women in translation.

Looking at the shelves in bookstores in the UK, it’s tempting to ask where all the female writers in translation are. Indeed, the blogger Meytal Radzinski as biblibio asked exactly that question in response to a report by University of Rochester which stated that in 2016 only 33.8 % of works that are translated into English were written by female authors. With translated works being comparatively rare in the English-speaking world, this gross gender imbalance should have people worrying.

Translated works from other parts of the world, other cultures, other places and perspectives have the potential to expand our knowledge of the world, to open our eyes to different lives and ways of living, and to give us a glimpse into the world of our fellow humans across the border. Of course, it is a matter of opinion whether you think insight into other cultures, literatures, and experiences is worth having, but if you do, you should be concerned about the representativeness of the works that are translated.

Radzinski is, and in 2014 she decided to dub August ‘Women in Translation Month’ (#WITMonth) to bring awareness to the discrepancy. During this month, readers from all over the world pledge on social media to read at least one work by a woman in translation, and to share book recommendations with each other, as these titles are so few and far between. They often receive very little publicity and so they usually fly well under the literary radar.

To honour Women in Translation Month, here’s my contribution. I have read the two new novels Her Mother’s Hands by Karmele Jaio (translated by Kristin Addis) and A Glass Eye by Miren Agur Meabe (translated by Amaia Gabantxo). Both novels have been translated from Basque and published this year by Parthian Books.

A Glass Eye & Her Mother's Hands
A Glass Eye & Her Mother’s Hands

In Her Mother’s Hands, we follow the journalist Nerea as she struggles to balance her time between a demanding newspaper job – and an even more demanding chauvinist boss – and her work-from-home husband and young daughter whom she barely ever sees. When her mother, Luisa, is hospitalised with total amnesia, Nerea’s life gets even more complicated. Through the novel, we see Nerea battle stress and neurosis, but also work with her elderly aunt to rekindle her mother’s memory; to make Luisa recognise her daughter again.

This is very much a character driven story, and thankfully all three women are very interesting and intriguing characters each with their own distinct personalities, strengths, and secrets. This is a story in which the women are really allowed to come to the fore, out of the kitchens and backrooms. I especially loved how the novel refrained from a classical chick-lit ending. Without spoiling too much, I can say that, uncharacteristically, this is a novel about women that is not centred on getting or saving a love relationship. Her Mother’s Hands could have been so trivial, but thankfully, it had some delightful twists and turns.

I found myself identifying deeply with Nerea in her tautness, her tightrope run to do everything; be a good journalist, a good wife, mother, daughter. She is so plagued with guilt – towards her mother for not having recognised the symptoms of her illness, towards her husband for never being at home and towards her daughter for never being there for her. Jaio’s depiction of Nerea is very believable. Nerea isn’t some superwoman, but neither is she a complete neurotic wreck. She struggles through, combating her self-critical inner demons without letting them paralyse her.

‘Her mother’s hands rest on top of the sheet […] Her hands cover the name of the hospital, as if she wanted to hide where she is. As if even in her sleep, she were trying not to worry anyone.’ (2)
Though it is similar in some ways, A Glass Eye is a very different novel. First of all, it’s autobiographical and very aware of this. The novel is full of meta-comments, self-ironies and reflections on the writing process. It centres on a woman who is a fictionalised version of Miren Agur Meabe as she struggles to fill with writing the hole left by her former lover.

“inevitably, I have become a character on these pages: even though this is me, it also isn’t exactly me (accidentally and on purpose). Such are the advantages and limitations of self-imitation. Another has emerged here, a slightly indomitable one that saw fit to escape my orders and shape into something of her own choosing […] which I allowed” (Meabe 124)

What struck me the most about this book was how it made me realise that I have read very few novels in which the main character is a middle-aged woman, and in which her middle age is allowed to fill so much. I wonder if this is a short coming of my own or of the book market in general. They represent a sort of invisible minority, middle-aged women – in fiction women of their age are often consigned to the roles of mother or wife. Here’s a story about a menopausal woman who swears, has sex, is divorced, refuses to care for her ailing father, and doesn’t worry about her son. It is such a refreshingly honest portrait, and though Meabe sometimes comes off as whiny, she does so with a distanced, self-deprecating irony that makes it a surprisingly entertaining read.

With a first-person narrator who is also a writer and poet, it is only natural that the language of A Glass Eye floats poetically off the page and playfully entangles action and introspection. The descriptions of the landscape and surroundings are deeply sensual, as are those of her glass eye and the slightly gross surgical procedures involved in fitting it.

As you may have guessed, loss is one of the most important themes in the novel. Loss of a lover, loss of youth. Meabe constantly circles around the loss of her eye – the window to her soul, her bridge to other people’s minds. This prothesis becomes an important metaphor in her writing, which gives the story an unusual and intriguing edge.

A Glass Eye has a lot to say, and though it does so in a sometimes poetically roundabout manner, it has an aching resonance that is difficult to escape.

‘My left eye is made of glass. […] When they told me they had to remove my eye I was terrified: it’s not an easy exercise to put aside something you always had and to imagine your face with a fake eye on it, like a scream.’ (3)
Having never read any Basque literature before, I found it very interesting how the setting was both unobtrusive and slightly jolting. Contemporary Basque social issues lurk just beneath the surface of the narratives. Most of the time, the novels could be set almost anywhere that has both city and rural areas, but here and there the reader is offered glimpses of a completely different world, such as when the translators include Basque words, or when characters casually mention war and liberation-struggles.

“They speak as if about something inevitable, as if what happened [a car bombing] were a natural phenomenon, like an earthquake, for example. They speak the same way when something like that happens. As if it were something that had always existed. And it is like that, because for both Nerea and Maite it has always existed. Those of her generation know no other reality.” (Jaio 72)

Karmele Jaio - Event banner - 3rd draft