Can you help me read the world?

October 24, 2011

In 2012, the world is coming to London for the Olympics and I’m going out to meet it. I’m planning to read my way around as many of the globe’s 196 countries (yes, I count Taiwan) as I can, sampling one book from every nation.

I want to read a story from Swaziland, a novel from Nepal, a book from Bolivia, a… well, you get the picture.

It’s going to be tough — according to the Society of Authors, only 3 per cent of the books published in the UK each year are translations. There are plenty of languages that have next to nothing translated into English. Then there are all the tiny tucked away places like Nauru and Tavalu (I know, I hadn’t either), where there may not be much written down at all.

Some countries have a culture of almost exclusively oral storytelling (alright, get your giggles over with now). Others have governments that don’t like to let works of art leak out to corrupt westerners.

And that’s not to mention the whole issue of what constitutes a national literature in the first place. Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in the country? Can it be about another nation state?

Frankly I don’t know. I’m hoping I’ll figure out the answers (or at least my answers) to some of these questions en route.

What I do know is I can’t do it by myself. As anyone who’s dropped in on my A year of reading women blog will realise, I tend to stick mostly to British and North American writers, with the occasional South African, Australian and Indian thrown in. My knowledge of world literature is shamefully anglocentric.

So I need your help. I need you to tell me what’s hot in Russia, what’s cool in Malawi, and what’s downright smoking in Iceland. I hope to get as good a list together as possible in advance so I can hit the ground sprinting come New Year’s Day.

The books can be classics or current favourites. They can be obscure folk tales or commercial triumphs. All I ask is that they capture something of the character of a country somewhere in the world — oh, and that they’re good.

With thanks to Jason Cooper for the idea.

Picture by Steve Lennon

45 Responses to “Can you help me read the world?”

  1. J said

    Ireland is tricky, since there are a lot of well known classics (Joyce, Shaw, Yeates), but Ireland, I would recommend The Van by Roddy Doyle. It’s a very funny book – captures the Irish humour! It’s also quiet topical, as it’s about how a man deals with being laid off (which has obviously been happening a lot in the past few years).

    • Thanks Jessica. Great suggestion. I’m a big Roddy Doyle fan and love The Van. Am trying to stick to writers I haven’t read for this, otherwise I’d definitely add it to the list.

      You’re right: Ireland is tricky. Russia is a similar worry…

  2. Nick Harrop said

    Hi Ann, what a brilliant idea! Looking forward to hearing how it goes…

  3. Awesome project! A suggestion for Mexico: Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, published by And Other Stories. On the Guardian First Book Award longlist…

    I have so many suggestions for German-speaking countries I don’t even know where to start – perhaps with Duerrenmatt’s The Pledge for Switzerland? One of Elias Canetti’s memoirs, particularly the second (The Torch in My Ear) which covers 1921-1931, for Austria? He knew everyone who was anyone in that period, and although it’s not strictly a novel, the writing is wonderfully literary and he does ‘embellish’ the truth a little. And for Germany, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation – it tells the story of a house and its occupants over the whole of the 20th century.

    Hope that’s helpful!

  4. Rafidah said

    What an excellent project! Just to help you out, I can mail you a book (or two) from Malaysia. Are you looking specifically for novels? Would memoirs be of interest? (Not MY memoirs, don’t worry!) Ooh, this gives me an excuse to go to the bookshop!

    – Rafidah

    • Thanks Rafidah – that would be very kind of you. It would be great to see what you recommend. I’m sure the selection of Malaysian books in English is much better where you are than over here!

  5. Nikolai said

    Great project! A little scandinavian input:

    – From Norway you should wait until May when Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is being published in English. But beware if you like it..it’s 6 volumes.

    – From Denmark you should read The African Trilogy by Jacob Ejersbo. The first book is called Exile. Ejersbo was diagnosed with cancer an rushed to finish the trilogy before he died – the fast pace of writing became a quality in the trilogy.

    Nikolai

    • Thanks Nikolai – both sound like excellent suggestions. I’ll add them to the list. I’m working up to a bit of Norwegian literature for my year of reading women blog at the moment – someone recommended Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset – it’s huge!

  6. Richard Lea said

    Hi Ann,
    Looks like you may already be set for Argentina – though if you’re still havering, I’ll put in another pitch for Martin Kohan’s Seconds Out. It’ll come as no surprise to any World literature tour veterans to find me suggesting Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis for Spain. And then there’s Alain Mabanckou’s African Psycho for Congo-Brazzaville, Charlotte Grimshaw’s Singularity for New Zealand, Zhu Wen’s I Love Dollars for China … I’ll stop now …

    • Thanks Richard – brilliant stuff. Proud to say I have read the Mabanckou (still get flashbacks), but the others are all virgin territory. On the list they go. Will keep an eye on your blog posts for more inspiration too…

      • Richard Lea said

        Flashbacks in a good way, right? Looking forward to hearing how you get on

      • Oh yes – incredibly vivid flashbacks. Particularly the scene with the stepbrother and the stick. And I read it years ago when Serpents Tail first published it. Sign of a great writer. Cheers – will keep you posted.

  7. neer said

    I love this project of yours. You have mentioned reading Indian literature. If this is just Indian literature in English, than may i recommend a Hindi/ Urdu writer? Premchand is a brilliant writer whose stories about the common’ people dwelling in the villages of India ring true till date.

    Oxford has published the translations. Do have a look.

  8. cassfox said

    Oooh, Great project and a dangerous one to ask me about. Here are some possibilities:

    – Under the Frog – Tibor Fischer – Hungary
    – Blindness – Jose Saramago – Portugal (I could recommend a number of his titles)
    – Master and the Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov – Russia
    – Haruki Murakami – anything but Norwegian Wood is quick. His new book 1Q84 is excellent – Japan
    – Snow – Orhan Pamuk – Turkey
    – Waiting for the Barbarians – JM Coetze – South Africa
    – Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset – Norway (it is a series if you get sucked in)
    – Henning Mankell – Sweden – wrote many mysteries but has several stand alone novels
    – Running in the Family – Michael Ondaatje – he was born and briefly raised in Sri Lanka. This is a memoir about that time
    – A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry – India (Indian authors aren’t hard to find, but this is one of my favorites of all time. It did make me cry)
    – Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino – Italy
    – Lucy – Jamaica Kincaid – Antigua (Carribbean)
    Book Thief – Mark Zusak – Australian (another one to make you cry)
    – Atom Station – Halldor Laxness – Iceland
    – Tin Drum – Gunter Grass – Germany (a bit ponderous)
    – Stanislaw Lem (Polish Science Fiction writer)
    – Alain Fournier – The Wanderer – France
    – Midaq Alley (or others) – Naguid Mahfouz – Egypt
    – Season of My Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih – Sudan

    Okay, that was probably way too much for one go, and I’ll probably remember others.

  9. litlove said

    I’ve been having a think and here are a few suggestions. I thought I’d go Francophone for you, so you can read in French if you can’t find the translations:

    So Long a Letter, Maryama Ba (Senegal)
    Assia Djebar, So Vast The Prison (Algeria)
    Maryse Conde, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (Guadeloupe)
    Tahar Ben Jelloun, This Blinding Absence of Light or The Sacred Night (the first is quite harrowing) (Morocco)

    I think my favourite French writers from the contemporary scene are Marie NDiaye (Rosie Carpe is odd and amazing) or Marie Darrieussecq (My Phantom Husband, again, odd but so good). But you might like to try something more classic, like Albert Camus (The Plague or The Fall), or Colette (Cheri). As for German lit, I like Christa Wolf. But there’s always lovely Kafka, or Heinrich Boll (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum still packs a punch).

    I may think of others! Good luck – you are getting loads of great suggestions.

  10. Lisa Hill said

    For Australian literature, visit here http://anzlitlovers.com/2011/01/26/the-anz-litlovers-list-of-best-australian-books/ and there are also links to New Zealand reviews in the categories list (in the RHS menu under Australasia) as well as reviews of other books (classics & contemporary) from all over the world listed by country of origin.
    Good luck!
    Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers

  11. Lisa Hill said

    PS, Reading 196 countries in a year means you need to stick to shorter books, maybe even novellas or short stories? (I mean, you’ll need to read 4 titles per week, more or less!) So maybe visit here, http://anzlitlovers.com/category/short-stories/ where there’s are links to some (available from Amazon or free online) that might help: Katherine Mansfield (New Zealand); William Trevor (Ireland); Isaac Neequaye (Ghana) and The Boat by Nam Le (Australia). Oh, and almost anything by Balzac (France) will be short e.g. Facino Cane and you can find heaps of his short stories at ManyBooks.net See http://balzacbooks.wordpress.com/
    Cheers
    Lisa

    • Thanks Lisa – useful suggestions. Yes, the length issue has been on my mind, so I’m always grateful when someone recommends a short book. That said, I don’t want length to restrict what people suggest or what I take on. Louche who writes Basil Exposition, for example, has recommended Ulysses and the challenge of thinking about how to tackle that adds another layer to the project…

      • Lisa Hill said

        Ah well, if I were you I would ditch everything else and just read Ulysses! It is such a wonderful book, and everybody’s scared of it, but really, it’s a book that you can read on your own terms. the first time I read it I didn’t understand half of it but I didn’t care, the second time and third times I understood a lot more, and (as you can see from my Disordered Thoughts http://tinyurl.com/7oanrxl) the last time I read it with the help of all sorts of useful stuff online, I had a wonderful time.)
        Whatever you do, enjoy it, that’s what matters most:)

  12. mlynxqualey said

    Please let me know if you want suggestions from Arabic-writing nations. I could never narrow Egypt (or Lebanon, or Iraq, or Sudan, or Saudi, or Libya, etc. etc.) down to a single novel…but I could give you several and have you roll the dice.

    M. Lynx Qualey, http://arablit.wordpress.com.

    • Hi mlynxqualey. Absolutely – I’d love whatever suggestions you can make, particularly for Iraq and Lebanon as I don’t have anything for those countries yet. More ideas for the others would be much appreciated too. I look forward to hearing your thoughts

  13. Karen said

    Hello, Yes this is indeed a worthwhiel and meaningful project. In considering boks to recommend, I also took into consideration the ease of availability, so I checked that they were all available, for a modest price on amazon. So, here are my suggestions:
    Japan: All of Natsume Soseki’s books, especially I am a Cat, but since it’s long, I’ll recommend, The Miner.
    Nepal: Samrat Upadhyay, Buddha’s Orphans
    China: Ma Jian, Stick out your tongue (this is the book, banned in China, that led the author to seek exile.)
    S Africa: Damon Galgut, The Quarry
    Norway: Per Petterson, To Siberia

    Enjoy your read.

  14. Emily F said

    For Uganda, you could try ‘Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol’ by Okot p’Bitek. It is a narrative poem about a husband and wife who are constantly arguing – good fun, and should be a relatively short read… I think it is a great idea – good luck!

  15. Emily F said

    Oh – and Adhaf Soueif for Egypt. ‘In the Eye of the Sun’ is great – almsot like a Victorian novel in scope and breadth – but LONG! :)

    • Thanks Emily – two intriguing suggestions. Love the sound of the Okot p’Bitek

    • kboehnlein said

      I really like Adhaf Soueif as a writer. I would recommend “I Think of You: Stories” which is a shorter work and “Map of Love,” a longer novel

      • Hi – thanks very much for your suggestions. I actually have Map of Love in my bag ready to get started on soon! The definition of what makes a national literature is slippery, isn’t it, but generally I’m going with writers who are either from a particular place or have a very strong connection with it. This means that Gerald Durell would count as he lived in Corfu for so long, although as I am only reading writers that I’ve never read before, I’ll have to leave him out this time. The same goes for Chimamanda Adichie, who is great.

  16. Emily F said

    I keep thinking of more… Try Ama Ata Aidoo for Ghana – she writes a good short story, and a female writer for you as well! Emily

  17. Emily F said

    A few more African writers. Studied these at university and they are coming back to me…

    ‘A Grain of Wheat’ by N’gugi wa Thiong’o – Kenya – focusses on the struggle for independence from England – very sad from what I remember.

    ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe – Nigeria – a classic of African literature.

    ‘A Question of Power’ – a disturbing novel about mental illness by Bessie Head – Botswana. Technically she was born in South Africa though…

    I really do think this is a great idea and will follow your progress with interest! May even try it myself…

    Emily

  18. lisa mok said

    china -“Red Mansion” (or something like that), there are english translations you can buy there, but i think they are volumes, or Journey to the West

  19. kboehnlein said

    What a wonderful blog you have/had! I like the idea of reading goals, it really motivates you to read if you have a theme or goal in mind. I’ve read some good world literature. I took an African literature class and read “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Adichie, a contemporary woman author from Nigeria. Another inspiring female author from Africa is Wangari Maathai from Kenya, a woman who started the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya. She has an autobiography/memoir among other writings. I also recently read “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” by Salman Rushdie. Technically, he’s British, but writes about the Indian subcontinent so I don’t know if you’re counting the country by the setting of the book, the characters, or the nationality of the author. If you’re doing your project by country, I would recommend “My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell, set on the Greek island of Corfu. Ok, I think that’s enough suggestions for now, but I’m looking forward to following your project’s progress!

  20. gnovember said

    What a lovely blog.

    For Uganda, I’d also recommend any of the two books by Okot p’Bitek. For something slightly longer, “Abyssinian Chronicles” by Moses Isegawa.

    For Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has a long novel called “Wizard of the Crow” but if you are looking for a shorter work by him, maybe “Decolonising the Mind”.

    From Nigeria, maybe “The Secret lives of Baba Segi’s Wives” by Lola Shoneyin.

    From Somalia, try “Sweet and sour milk” by Nurrudin Farrah.

    From Zimbabwe, try ” An Elegy for Easterly” by Petina Gappah.

    • Thanks Gnovember – you read my mind with Nigeria. I’ve just finished the Shoneyin. It’s great isn’t it? The other suggestions sound good too – am plannnig to do a bit of list curation this weekend, so will check them out then.

  21. Wow, great story and a great idea!

  22. Funny how things turn up through the years! I’d love to get a copy of your book. What an idea.

    Although not anymore relevant, I’d like to suggest “Bamboo in the wind” by Azucena Grajo Uranza for Philippines. It’s kind of a radical book, explaining the last desperate efforts of the Filipinos to prevent the country from falling under the martial law.

    I’d say it’s the new age “Noli Me Tangere”

    Hope to see your book on the shelves next year!

    Cheers,
    Gaby

    http://plaincutouts.wordpress.com

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