‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ by Erwin Mortier and translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent tells the story of Helena Demont, a very elderly woman approaching her hundredth birthday who is reflecting on her experiences as a young woman living in Belgium at the start of the First World War. The story explores Helena’s relationships with her French mother, Belgian father, brother Edgard and her British husband Matthew with whom she has a daughter.
Originally published in Belgium in 2008, ‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ is one of the more literary books I have come across on the longlist so far and the prose is very rich and dense. Consequently, the pace is very slow, particularly for the first hundred pages or so, with the narrative tending to get bogged down in Helena’s reflections for several pages before finally moving on with the actual story. There is also a lot of jumping around between events in the past and her life in the present as Helena attempts to organise and make sense of her memories. Thanks to her privileged family background, Helena is largely protected from the immediate horrors of the war although she is not completely unaffected by tragedy and chaos in her life.
‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ is Mortier’s third novel to be translated into English although I don’t think I would have come across it had it not been longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize this year. I think it has the potential to reach the shortlist based on the strength of the writing although the density of the prose certainly doesn’t make it an easy read. Mortier’s latest novel ‘The Reflections‘ published last year in Belgium is a companion novel to ‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ and is told from the point of view of Helena’s brother Edgard which I might read in the future.
I have also read about 90 pages of ‘The Last Lover’ by Can Xue and translated from the Chinese by Annelise Wasmoen so far but I am struggling with it. I am inclined to agree with David Evans’ review in The Financial Times where he describes the book as “Kafkaesque”, “rather unusual” and “exhausting”. It isn’t quite as mindboggling as ‘V.‘ by Thomas Pynchon which I tried and failed to finish a few weeks ago but it is not far off. Set in an unspecified Western nation known as Country A, a series of weird and wonderful characters have been introduced so far including Joe, the manager of the Rose Clothing Company, and his wife Maria who, according to the blurb “conducts mystical experiments with the household’s cats and rosebushes”. While a number of other books on the longlist have lacked a linear narrative or much of a plot – ‘By Night the Mountain Burns‘ and ‘The Giraffe’s Neck‘ both spring to mind here – ‘The Last Lover’ is the least coherent by far and even more surreal than ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage‘ by Haruki Murakami.
If ‘The Last Lover’ is shortlisted for the Prize next week then I will pick it up again, but for now I will be concentrating on the other novels I haven’t read yet ahead of the announcement of the shortlist this Thursday. It has also been one of the least popular books based on reviews by the other members of the IFFP shadow jury so far. If I do revisit it, I strongly suspect that not remembering very much about the first few chapters won’t make any difference whatsoever and that the story is only going to become progressively more surreal rather than less.