Monday, 4 November 2013

Guest Book Review - Raptors by Toon Tellegen (Translated by Judith Wilkinson)

Each year I have the pleasure of working with a group of readers to collectively select the books that will feature in a reading programme, Summer Reads. Between August 2013 and January 2014, the Readers' Circle will work through a longlist of more than 150 books to find the 6 titles that we fall in love with and want to recommend to other readers. And throughout that period I'll be posting some of the reviews here on Books, Time and Silence. 
*Thanks to the publisher for providing review copies of this book.

Guest review by Julia Webb

Raptors is the work of Dutch author Toon Tellegen. Tellegen is one of Holland’s most well-loved authors and has written a series of award winning children’s novels, as well as adult fiction, plays, and over twenty collections of poetry, although Raptors is only the second collection that has been translated into English. Until recently he was also a GP. 

I read this book earlier this year after it was recommended to me by a friend who had heard the translator read from it at Poetry-next-the-sea festival in Wells. I knew I would love it as soon as I read the author’s preface – it is without doubt one of the best prefaces that I have ever read. It begins:

'Years ago I invented someone whom I called my father.
    It was morning, very early, I couldn’t sleep any more, I remember it quite clearly.
My father didn’t seem surprised at having suddenly appeared out of nowhere and, in his turn, invented my mother, my brothers and myself. He even, that very same morning, invented the life we should lead…'

With an opening like that I knew I was in for something unusual and special and I was not disappointed. 

Raptors is one long poem made up of a sequence of poems, each of which can also stand alone. Each poem begins with the words “my father" and each poem also starts off with a statement – like a small proverb, about the father, often using common sayings from popular culture: e.g. “My father did not let sleeping dogs lie…” Each poem is like a miniature portrait or a small scene in which the father is the pivotal character. It quickly becomes clear that this fictional father is a tyrant, but that he is also a complex and multi-faceted character. Individually the poems might be short but each has many layers, and as a whole they build into a kind of verbal crescendo. I found I needed to read just a few of them at a time, and then digest them for a little while before coming back for more. 

Tellegen is a master of language and plays with the reader in a very clever way. The poems work on our psyche on many levels. Tellegen uses the idea of the family as a framework and constructs and deconstructs it. He tells us stories, and those stories often conflict with one another. In effect each poem in the sequence is recreating the family stories of the narrator in the same way that we recreate stories of our own families in real life. Speak to ten members of any family and they will all have different memories and opinions of particular family events, or of family members − and who can say which, if any, version is true?  Perhaps there is an element of truth and fiction in all of them. Or like with most families there might be different layers of truth. Tellegen uses this premise to take us on an exciting and surreal journey, and one that often left me, the reader, with conflicting emotions. Sometimes I detested the Father, but at other times I felt sorry for him. It certainly made me think a lot about family dynamics – and, coming from a somewhat dysfunctional family myself, I could definitely relate to some of it. 

Tellegen has managed to make the language both emotionally loaded and playful, which is quite a feat to pull off. He also juxtaposes the everyday with the surreal to marvellous effect:

'My father,
there was a gaping hole in him
in which my mother and my brothers
entertained themselves

they sat at a table,
they laughed, played dice
and cheated

and the hole in my father grew bigger
and bigger,
and shots were fired in my father,
people screamed
and were arrested

a car stopped on the edge 
of my father,
my mother and brothers got in…'

The playfulness and surrealism of the imagery put me a little in mind of poems in Homage to the Lame Wolf  by Serbian poet Vasko Popa or the work of Charles Simic, but there is something almost Biblical about this collection too. This is also a very masterly translation. I imagine it would not have been an easy book to translate and Judith Wilkinson has done a great job. I found this book moving, disturbing and inspiring all at once. It was a joy to read and it reconnected me with my love for language. Reviewer George Messo said “It takes a book like this, seemingly hurled through the ether, to crack us on the head and wake us.” I couldn’t agree more − I imagine this is a book I will come back to again and again.

Raptors was first published in the UK by Carcanet in 2011. ISBN: 9781847770837; 96pp

Julia Webb is graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at The University of East Anglia. She is a poetry editor for Lighthouse literary journal, has had poetry and reviews published in journals and online, and in 2011 she won the Poetry Socity's Stanza competition. She lives in Norwich and teaches creative writing.

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