BOOK REVIEW / Murmuring after Kafka's ghost: 'The Weeping Woman on The Streets of Prague' - Sylvie Germain trs Judith Landry: Dedalus, pounds 6.99; 'Days of Anger' - Sylvie Germain trs Christine Donougher: Dedalus, 8.99 pounds
Sunday 02 January 1994
The first is an oddity. A limping woman of great bulk and gravitas is sighted in various parts of Prague. At first it does not occur to the narrator that she might be a phantom. On later sightings it is foggy; she looms and vanishes. There is a hint of incorporeality. Sylvie Germain has said that she writes almost exclusively at night, and she is indeed an aficionado of tricks of the light.
When the limper passes there is a noticeable sound of running water, like the murmur of an underground spring. Is this weeping? We learn that the woman is no hallucination but a vision arising from the mysterious condensation of tears and human suffering - like a rainbow born of the refraction of light rays and raindrops.
The motifs gather. As the narrator trails the woman's 'weeping of ink' (it is this book she leaves in her wake), the reading itself becomes like a haunting. The gigantic figure makes 12 appearances around Prague, each heralded by a plaintive snatch of Czech poetry, and in each place she causes a jolt of memory for the narrator, sows a dream or kicks up the dust of pity. These are streets Kafka walked, and his spectre seems as palpaple as the weeper's.
Next, a shift from metropolitan Prague to la France profonde, mired in peasant folklore and rural catholicism. Days of Anger, which was awarded the prestigious Prix Femina, is a tale of lower woodlanders, a handful of characters whose mythic trappings seem to swell their numbers. The novel involves another mountainous and murmuring woman, Fat-Ginnie, who produces nine sons, all on 15 August - otherwise a celebration day of the Virgin Mary - at different hours of the day. Such fairytale telescoping of time and schematic peopling is characteristic of Germain's writing, and the effect is more enchanting and less cloying than you might expect.
There is an ogre here, too, a mean- spirited, blackmailing villain called Ambroise, who has witnessed the murder of a green-eyed beauty who becomes his obsession. These folk are so superstitious that some hastily cross themselves if they meet the gaze of a woman with green eyes: Germain herself grew up in the region of the loup- garou (werewolf) and believes she was unconsciously marked by such legends. Ambroise jealously tries to thwart the passion between his marvellous green- eyed granddaughter and the noon-time son of Fat-Ginnie, but there follow, of course, twists and counter-twists.
Christine Donougher won the Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translation of an earlier Germain book and her English version of Days of Anger is also extremely effective. Judith Landry's rendering of The Weeping Woman contains a few imponderably mixed metaphors, but both books are wonderful to read aloud. This is fertile, unpredictable country, at once ancient and exhilaratingly fresh.
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