April 29, 2012
The Bahamas were looking difficult. As recommendations poured in for many other Anglophone countries, the list entry for this small but wealthy collection of more than 3,000 islands and islets remained blank.
Even when I started making inquiries, Bahamian books proved difficult to unearth. In fact, the first title recommended to me by one cultural organisation was a guidebook to the country. Close, but no cigar (although I was very tempted to take the hint and get on a plane…).
Then I stumbled across a blog post by Valentine Logar. A longstanding fan of all things Bahamian, she was on one of her regular family holidays in the country and wrote enthusiastically about the climate, culture, food and fun she was having there. I thought I could do worse than ask for her advice, so I left a comment and was delighted when she came back with several recommendations. Garth Buckner’s Thine is the Kingdom, published by small indie house Ravenna Press, was one of them.
Contrary to what the title might lead you to expect, this novel has nothing to do with religion. Rather, it chronicles the attempts of white Bahamian Gavin Blake to carve out a life for himself in the country of his birth after years of travelling round the world. Hampered by a legal technicality which dictates that Bahamian-born children take their fathers’ nationalities, penniless Blake, whose father was American, goes to work for rich yacht-owner Thesinger while he tries to apply for citizenship. But as he witnesses the rise of violent crime and social unrest on the island firsthand, he comes to realise that he is not the only one struggling to hold on to his stake in this millionaire’s playground.
Buckner writes passionately about the desire to belong and the things that put people in or out of the gang. Exploring class markers, educational background, race and linguistic habits, he reveals Gavin’s frustration and wistfulness as he tries to find acceptance from both the wealthy landowners and the feisty street traders in the country he calls home:
‘I was delivered right here in Nassau and this is the only home I knew as a boy coming up. My umbilical cord is buried in this sand. There should be something inalienable in that. But they never call me Bahamian and mean it; the word is always couched in inverted commas.’
Buckner sets this yearning against the rich backdrop of the island life he is so adept at evoking. In tough, muscular language, which breaks at times to admit moments of beauty, he conjures tropical harbour life and the perpetual influence of the weather and tides on those who live surrounded by the ocean.
The writer couples this with a talent for getting inside the minds of his characters and revealing the gusts of emotion that blow them off the course of logic into troubled waters. Whether it’s Blake’s insecurity as he struggles to remember how to clean an engine filter under the gaze of his boss’s wealthy friends or Thesinger’s anger at failing to catch any crayfish on his much-vaunted fishing trip, he excels at showing the limitations that force people to do unwise and dangerous things rather than own up to their own weaknesses.
His skill for scene-painting and empathy mean that Buckner is able to evoke a huge amount of menace as Blake struggles to defend Thesinger’s property from the tide of hostility swelling outside his gates. The scenes with various intruders and the stand-offs with the sinister Caleb and his cronies at the illegal fish market are gripping and thrilling.
If Buckner labours his message about double standards and the wealthy landowners being every bit as corrupt as the criminals they confront towards the end of the book, it feels like a small price to pay for this compelling insight into a privileged and turbulent corner of the world. I was hooked. Thanks for the tip, Valentine.
Thine is the Kingdom by Garth Buckner (Ravenna Press 2008)
April 28, 2012
A frequent dilemma when you’re trying to read a book from every country in the world is deciding which of the many perspectives in each nation to choose literature from. This is particularly tricky in the case of states that ban books on certain topics or viewpoints and so have two literatures: the official stories and the books released underground or outside, away from the reach of the law enforcers.
The journalist in me tends to be drawn to the illicit, banned books, partly because they’re more intriguing but also because I tend to assume that they will somehow be more authentic and truthful. However, as I found with my North Korean book (My Life and Faith by ardent patriot Ri In Mo), this tendency to favour marginalised voices over the official line can have the paradoxical effect of excluding the authorized stories and making them the ostracized, radical accounts on the world literature stage.
But what about a book written with a view to mainstream publication in the author’s home country but banned at the last minute? That was the situation Hamid Ismailov faced when the Uzbek translation of his Russian-language novel The Railway was due to be published in Tashkent. The first half of the novel had already appeared in a journal in 1997 when the Uzbek government, jumpy about the work’s irreverent attitude to authority, pulled the plug.
The book spans the first 80 years of the 20th century and is set in the small town of Gilas, a settlement on the old Silk Route and now a stop on the railway line ploughing its way across Central Asia. Presenting a portrait of the myriad narratives woven through this remote backwater, which has seen Uzbeks, Russians, Persians, Jews, Koreans, Tartars, gypsies, mullahs and Bolsheviks pass through and make their marks, it bombards the reader with a host of extraordinary, grotesque and often hilarious tales. There are the pregnant twins in a race to give birth after a town official promises to marry the first-born’s mother, the landowner bankrupted by paying off his pugnacious son’s blood debts, the Kirghiz teacher driven to absurdity by his desire to fit in and the orphaned boys who assume prominent positions in the town’s music scene despite one of them being deaf.
Translator Robert Chandler describes his work on the book as being like ‘restoring a precious carpet’ in his excellent preface and it’s easy to see why. Not only is the book structurally elaborate with a cast of more than 100 named characters, but it is linguistically and culturally complex too. Labyrinthine sentences thread themselves through clause after clause, teasing the reader with puns, digressions and asides, and the narrative bristles with references to events, ceremonies, bureaucratic formalities and rites of passage that will be unknown to most Western readers.
At its best, the humour and brilliance of this chronicle of ‘the inhabitants of Gilas: that lost and ill-assorted tribe of the debauched and depraved’ shines through. The puns are witty and the narrative glitters with insights – in particular it presents us with a ruddier and much more jovial face of Islam than we are used to seeing in the West.
Chandler manages to smuggle a lot of the linguistic jokes across in one guise or another. The scene early on in the book, for example, where Ivan the train driver misunderstands Umarali’s prison Russian and gives him fuel instead of alcohol is great.
However, there’s no denying the fact that this book is hard work. Even with the list of characters and Chandler’s end notes, it’s impossible to keep track of everything and everyone, at least on a first attempt. At times reading it felt like being at a lively party where people batted around in-jokes I could only half understand.
The narrative expresses this sense of being on the outside looking in too. One of the most striking moments in the book, where a nameless boy blows a kiss to an unknown girl on a passing train, evokes a sense of extreme wistfulness. For this book, shut out from the readers who would appreciate its subtleties without referring to the footnotes, it seems a powerful metaphor: a connection attempted but somehow missed.
The Railway by Hamid Ismailov, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler (Vintage, 2007)
April 26, 2012
The maxim goes that we’re all six degrees of separation away from everyone else on the planet. From what I’ve discovered so far during this project to read a book from every sovereign state in the world, I’d say it’s less than that. Although I’m still lacking suggestions for several countries (see the list for any gaps you can help fill in, or any nations you can add more suggestions to), I’ve been amazed by the number of connections to far-flung places that have emerged in my own network of friends.
In the case of the small South American country of Suriname, the lead came through one of my boyfriend’s friends, who studied with him at film school. His family is Surinamese and so getting a recommendation for a book from there was simply a matter of a quick Facebook message across the Atlantic.
As it turned out, there was one author and one novel that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Published in 1987, Cynthia McLeod’s The Cost of Sugar is still the country’s bestselling book both at home and abroad. It sold 100,000 copies when it first came out – no mean feat in Suriname where, as McLeod explains in her introduction, any title selling more than 5,000 copies is considered a hit. Clearly, I had to see what all the fuss was about.
Spanning 14 years in the 18th century, the novel explores life in the former Dutch colony in the days when sugar and slavery were the nation’s driving forces. The story is told through the eyes of half-sisters Elza and Sarith, daughters of wealthy Jewish plantation owners who live through a period of extreme personal and political turbulence as tumbling markets and the growing band of escaped slaves, or ‘bush-negroes’, hiding in the jungle begin to challenge the status quo.
Discrimination is a key theme and the spark that ignites many of the most explosive episodes in the plot. In addition to highlighting the extreme racial prejudices – both between masters and slaves and between gentiles and the Jewish community that originally settled the colony – McLeod reflects the rife misogyny of the period, with many of her bright female characters confined to frivolous, ineffectual lives because of their sex. Her particular talent is showing the blind spots that exist in otherwise decent characters – Rutger, Elza’s husband, for example, is progressive when it comes to racial issues but sees no problem with exacting a promise from his intended that she ‘will not be a jealous wife’ and will turn a blind eye to his infidelities.
Inevitably, the most extreme instances of injustice and discrimination concern the black slaves. Pulling no punches when it comes to descriptions of the barbaric punishments devised to keep them in check – punishments which increase in cruelty and frequency as insurrection grows – McLeod conjures a memorable picture of the atrocities of the slave trade. She brings this home through a series of personal stories, many of which are extremely gripping and moving – the death of elderly Ashana after Sarith orders her to be flogged in a fit of pique even had me blinking back the tears.
Now and then, the shifts in perspective between the wide cast of characters feel a little abrupt. In addition, McCleod’s understandable sympathy for the plight of the slaves occasionally leads to some questionable statements about the uniformly moral and good nature of the bush-negroes living in the jungle.
All in all, though, this is a powerful evocation of key moment in South America’s history. Tracing the chain of guilt that leads from the slaves on the plantation right to the luxury mansions along the canals in Amsterdam, McLeod emphasises the ties that link us across the world. We are all much closer than we think.
The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod, translated from the Dutch by Gerald R Mettam (HopeRoad, 2011)
April 24, 2012
This was one of the books picked out for me by Rafidah and the bookseller at Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur. Part of the Quintessential Asia series published by Singporean company SNP, it’s the sort of thing I would have been very unlikely to have found sitting in my south London flat googling ‘Singapore+writer’ (even though it won the Singapore Literature Prize in 1992).
The novel follows art teacher Suwen as she struggles to break out of the bland routine into which her life has settled since she returned home from studying in the UK. Eager to create something significant, she embarks on a project to ‘marry history and art’ in one ambitious installation that will capture the character of her complex and multifaceted homeland. But as Suwen researches ‘the strands of different histories and cultures woven into [Singapore's] modern fabric of many hues and textures’, she finds that the conflicts and contradictions in society are sewn into her own personality too, and is forced to confront the reasons for her withdrawal from the world.
Suchen Christine Lim’s great talents are her abilities to evoke experiences, conjure voices and tells stories from a wide variety of perspectives. Whether she’s describing the crushing hardships endured by Singapore’s rickshaw coolies 100 years ago or the existential crises of art students, she has the knack of making the reader live and breathe the narrative with her.
This large empathy enables her to enter into complex cultural issues more fully than many other writers manage to do. And in Singapore, a land jostling with Eurasians and Chindians where Singlish is the most common language, the search for identity and common ground is a particularly rich seam.
As a British reader, I was especially interested by the presentation of the UK and its colonial legacy in the book. While some of it, such as references to ‘those patronising asses from the British Council’, made me smile, there was a lot to ponder and be challenged by and I was intrigued by the difference in thinking Suwen identifies between people who studied in the Eastern education system and ‘English-educated malcontents’ like her. Perhaps most thought-provoking of all was her angry accusation to Scottish colleague Mark, the man she secretly loves:
‘You British always pride yourselves as playing cricket and being fair. But deep down, you’re all racists to the bone.’
The British nationality is by no means the only one to be dissected in the novel. Malaysians, Indians and Chinese, among others, all have their turn in relation to the no-man’s-land of mid-20th-century Singapore and are all shown to be riddled with conflicts and compromises.
Shifting between so many perspectives, timeframes and stories – not to mention Suwen’s own personal history – requires some fancy footwork on Lim’s part. This is usually well-handled, although the scenery for the next act does occasionally come crashing down abruptly before the characters have quite left the stage.
Similarly, while the many complex discussions of nationality, identity, art and history succeed in feeling natural nearly all the time, people do once or twice step away from the action to deliver a Brechtian monologue.
Overall, though, this is a fearless and engrossing book that goes to the heart of human fears and insecurities. While presenting a picture of a specific place in a particularly rich and turbulent period of its history, it throws the door open to shed light on humanity all over the world. I loved it.
Thanks Rafidah and Silverfish Books. If I’m ever in Kuala Lumpur, I’ll definitely be stopping by.
Fistful of Colours by Suchen Christine Lim (SNP Editions, 2003)
April 22, 2012
Deciding which book to read from a particular country can be tricky. However, as I work my way around the world with the help of readers across the globe, I’m finding that some titles choose themselves.
That’s certainly what happened with my Samoan novel. In fact, everyone whose been in touch with me about Samoan literature – from the Auckland Libraries Service to the Director for Economic Governance of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat – mentioned the same book among their recommendations, saying it had caused a sensation in the region. One person even stopped by the blog to tip me off when it was on sale for download.
With such widespread enthusiasm for this particular title, it would have been perverse not to choose it. And so Lani Wendt Young‘s Young Adult fantasy novel Telesa: The Covenant Keeper joined the other titles jostling in my virtual library.
From the little I know of the YA fantasy fiction genre – gleaned mostly from sharing a flat with a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan in my early twenties – Wendt Young’s book conforms to a tried and tested formula: misfit teen with supernatural powers is forced to make difficult choices and sacrifices in order to save the world.
In this case, 18-year-old American-Samoan Leila returns to her dead mother’s homeland, Samoa, in search of her roots. But as the secrets about her past begin to come out, Leila discovers that she is not as helpless as she first thought and that the very things that made her feel like an outsider at her Washington high school could be the source of extraordinary power, whether she likes it or not.
So far, so Sarah Michelle Gellar. What lifts the story out of the familiar mould, however, is Wendt Young’s use of Polynesian myths and culture as the framework within which Leila’s supernatural powers exist. Discovering that she is Telesa (a kind of spirit woman with powers connected to Mother Earth), Leila is forced to inhabit the mythology of her island heritage to gain control of her gifts and head off disaster.
Samoan culture plays a fascinating role in other aspects of the novel too. From siva songs and dances to malu tattoos, Wendt Young has the knack of weaving traditions into the narrative without making their inclusion and explanation feel worthy or forced. Her bold choice of making one of Leila’s best friends, Simone, a fa’afafine (one of Samoa’s ‘third gender’, as Leila’s uncle explains) is particularly intriguing – I suspect there aren’t many other YA novels that feature a transvestite teenage boy without making that the main subject of the book.
This cross-cultural element adds another layer to the novel’s discussion of identity. As Leila confronts her own fears about being an ‘in-between nothing’, she is given a powerful insight into the blind spots and failings of the Western culture she grew up with, not least the limitations of po-faced political correctness. ‘You Americans are so easily offended by our Samoan indecency’, teases Daniel, the boy Leila has a crush on.
The editing could have been tighter. There were a few too many will-they-won’t-they moments between Daniel and Leila and, as I followed Leila from Geography to Maths, to English class and back again, I found myself wishing with her that I could have cut school.
Overall, though, this is an enjoyable and engrossing book with a gripping story that whips the reader along. Its depiction of Leila’s struggles with identity, sexuality and society’s expectations will resonate with teens and ex-teens all over the world, while its warm portrayal of Samoan culture gives it a character all its own. No wonder it’s already found so many fans.
Telesa: The Covenant Keeper by Lani Wendt Young (Lani Wendt Young, 2011)
PACIFIC APPEAL: do you know any good novels, short stories or memoirs from other Pacific nations? What about people who tell stories in other ways – through poetry or song? Do you have friends or relatives in the region who might be able to suggest stories? Leave a comment or email ann’at’annmorgan.me and let me know.
April 21, 2012
I’m not the only one trying to read the world. Since I launched this project to explore a novel, short story collection or memoir from every UN-recognised country in 2012, I’ve heard from people engaged in a whole range of international literary quests.
One of the latest ventures I’ve come across is by Swedish blogger Fredrika, who stopped by this blog ten days ago to tell me about a project she started in November to read a book from every country. Much more organised than me, she got a pretty comprehensive list together before she started and is working her way through it over the course of the next few years. Her criteria are different to mine, in that she is taking on some historical and anthropological books too, however there are also some fascinating fiction and biography choices on her list.
Fredrika has clearly done a massive amount of thinking about world literature, so when she recommended a Swedish title for me, I decided I’d be mad not to give it a try.
The book was Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, an award-winning novel exploring the experience of immigrants in Sweden. Told through a correspondence between one Jonas Khemiri and Kadir, who claims to be an old family friend, the book is a daring, powerful and often hilarious attempt to unfold the story of the struggle of Dads, Jonas’s estranged father, to make a life for himself in Scandinavia after he left Tunisia as a young man.
The novel is rich with comedy as the overbearing Kadir wrestles with the author in an attempt to guide and direct the narrative as he sees fit. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, from Kadir’s ‘glissades of truth’ to his patronising asides to the author about writing techniques and instructions for how he should handle particular events – ‘this scene must be filled with great dramatic gunpowder and symphonic basses’, he writes at one point.
Best of all are Kadir’s odd expressions and similes, which had me laughing on nearly every page of the first half of the book. Among the most sparkling examples are his descriptions of Jonas’s paternal grandmother as ‘a powerfully strong woman who grappled with her context like the wrestler and actor Hulk Hogan’, his confession of his suspicion ‘that [Jonas's father] had become infected with homosex’ at one point and his later remark that ‘the tooth of time had munched a festive breakfast on his exterior’.
That translator Rachel Willson-Broyles is able to convey the linguistic quirks of Kadir’s Arabicised Swedish is testament to her great skill. This skill is essential to getting the subtleties of the book across as the narrative delves deeper into Dads’s battle to shrug off the label of ‘immigrant’ and establish himself in a society that becomes ever more hostile to outsiders or ‘blatte’ as Jonas grows up.
This battle, which sees Dads reject his origins in an effort not to ‘infect [his] son with being an outsider’, takes place as much on the linguistic as on the physical level and leaves deep scars. For much of the book, Jonas writes about himself in the second person, as though cut off from his identity, and his consciousness of the losing linguistic battle his father had to fight is acute:
‘One single wrong preposition is all it takes. A single en word that should be an ett. Then their second-long pause, the pause they love, the pause that shows that no matter how much you try, we will always, ALWAYS see through you. They enjoy taking the power and waiting waiting waiting until just when Dads think they are defeated. Then they point out the right way with vowels that are quadrupled as if they were talking with a deaf imbecile. STRAAAAAIGHT AHEEEEAD, then to the LEEEEEEEEEEEFT, okay, then RIIIIIIGHT. You’re welcome. And Dads say thanks politely and bow and you’re standing alongside and feeling how something is bubbling inside.’
Even with Willson-Broyles’s superlative translation, I can only imagine the effect of reading the book’s moving dissection of the politics of the Swedish language in the non-standard Swedish of the original. In English it is riveting, wise and sad. A towering achievement of a book. Thank you, Fredrika.
Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Knopf, 2011)
April 19, 2012
When Cherie Elston, arts editor of Latin American literature ezine Palabras Errantes, suggested Gioconda Belli as my Nicaraguan author, I knew exactly which one of the writer’s novels I would choose. After all, it’s not every day you come across an award-winning reworking of the Genesis story following the lives of Adam and Eve through and after the Fall. Infinity in the Palm of her Hand it would be.
Inspired by a book of apocryphal versions of Bible stories she found in her father-in-law’s library, the book is Belli’s attempt to ‘imagine the first man and the first woman discovering themselves and discovering life around them, to wonder what they would feel, think and experience’. As such, it charts the coming to consciousness of Adam and Eve, their experience and loss of paradise and the struggles they endure adapting to mortality, parenthood and the realities of an imperfect world.
The rich subject matter provides Belli with some great descriptive possibilities. From the ‘cataclysms… distant darkness and intermittent eruptions’ the characters glimpse beyond the boundaries of the Garden of Eden to the complicated business of growing into and using a body for the very first time, the book is full of deft touches that show how thoroughly the author has inhabited her creation.
The dramatisation of some of the theological problems thrown up by the story of the Fall is particularly good. Positing a thoughtless, deist God, who dashes off his creations before getting bored and wandering off, Belli puts most of the meatiest points in the mouth of the female serpent Satan. A scathing critic of the Almighty’s obsession with his ‘futile exercise not entirely devoid of arrogance’, she at times even assumes the tone of the world-weary spouse whose partner persists in tinkering in the garden shed when there are better things to be doing:
‘Today he is resting. Eventually he will be bored. He will not know what to do, and again I will be the one who has to soothe him. That is how it has been through Eternity. Constellation after constellation. He conceives and then forgets his creations.’
Now and then, the chronology is a little wonky, with day and night coming into being after the Fall rather than on the fourth day of creation. This may be because Belli is working from an apocryphal text rather than from the Bible, but it does get the inner pedant ranting over the narrative now and then.
Similarly, there are several awkward compromises that risk breaking faith with the reader by bending the rules of the harsh ‘reality’ Adam and Eve are forced to endure post-Fall. Animal skins just happen to be lying around on rocks and fig trees spring up overnight to give them food, so that it sometimes feel as though Belli is as impatient as her characters with the rules of the new universe and anxious to wriggle around them to get on with the aspects of the story that really interest her.
Taken as whole, though, this ambitious and poetic book, which won the Biblioteca Breve and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz prizes in 2008, is an impressive exploration of one of the central stories threaded through the culture of much of the world. Belli takes a tale that has been worn and faded by time and familiarity and weaves it afresh in bright colours. She makes us see things differently. Few human creators could hope for more.
Infinity in the Palm of her Hand by Gioconda Belli, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden (Harper, 2010)
April 16, 2012
If British writers had to translate their work into another language in order to get a publisher to consider it, I doubt many would make it into print. But that was the situation 25-year-old Rwandan author Barassa faced when she submitted the French manuscript of the first of her three novels to Real Africa Books. They responded that they didn’t publish books in languages other than English. Nothing daunted, as she and Swedish-born publisher Bjorn Lunden explained in an interview on Burundian blog Ikirundi, Barassa took just a week to convert the narrative into English so that Lunden could launch her work through his new firm.
All the same, despite Barassa’s efforts, the book is still not very easy for English-language readers to find. In fact if it weren’t for friend and fellow journalist Antonia Windsor picking it up in a Kigali bookshop while she was on assignment in Rwanda last year, I doubt I would ever have heard of Teta:a story of a young girl.
As the title suggests, the novel follows the fortunes of a young Rwandan woman, Teta. Prevented from marrying the man she loves by poverty, she becomes the envy of her friends when one of the region’s richest men, Boniface, asks her father for her hand. But the loveless marriage quickly becomes a hollow sham and, as genocide and AIDS sweep the country, Teta is forced to rely on her own resourcefulness to survive.
The book is at its best when it discusses fate or ‘the law of the stronger and the richer’ as it is more commonly described. At odds with the romantic Western perception of destiny, the driving forces in this novel are stripped back to their components: want, sickness and fear.
In a society where there are no welfare departments, insurance companies, emergency services or safety nets to soften the blows of chance, people are left with no option but enduring the hardships meted out to them. ‘Life itself had decided on my behalf, no one could change the decision,’ shrugs Teta when her father’s cattle die and it is left to her to save the family through her prospective suitor’s wealth.
As in several other African women’s novels I’ve read this year, the skewed power dynamics of relations between the sexes and traditional marriage form the subject of much of the book. Obliged to leave her family and forgo the rituals that give her a sense of identity, Teta finds herself helpless in the face of Boniface’s infidelity. And when the tension between the Hutus and the Tutsis flares up and neighbour turns against neighbour she finds the predatory attitudes of the men around her create an additional threat:
‘Faustin[...] was participating in preparations of the genocide. He was also one of the men that in vain had asked me to become his mistress. The last time I saw him he had told me that I would regret my decision. He might already then have known the power he would gain within some days.’
The language is rough round the edges, with several malapropisms creeping in. Now and then the narrative veers between registers like a van on a potholed road and there is a perfunctory feel to the scene-setting that sees minor characters created and killed off sometimes within the space of two full stops.
However, given the DIY job Barassa had to do on the translation, most of these bumps are hardly surprising. Every jolt is a reminder of the lengths the author was prepared to go to to tell her urgent, angry and touching stories in a country where few writers manage to publish their works even today. Surely reading them is the least we can do?
Teta: a story of a young girl by Barassa (Real Africa Books, 2010)
April 15, 2012
I will always be grateful to Cairo-based book blogger M Lynx Qualey. Shortly after I launched this project to try to read a book from every country in the world, she wrote a post giving me her tips on the top Arab books available in English from the last five years. It was the first of many instances of kindness from people all over the world whose support and interest are making it possible for me to access literature from every sovereign state.
It will probably take me several years to try everything on Qualey’s list. However when I revisited the post recently and saw Hanan al-Shaykh’s retelling of the classic One Thousand and One Nights among the suggestions for Lebanon, I knew I would have to give it a go. After all, its heroine Shahrazad (or Scheherazade as she is more commonly known) is the most referenced figure in all the world literature I’ve read so far this year.
The premise is audacious: when cuckolded King Shahrayar vows to marry a different virgin every night and have her killed the following morning, the vizier’s daughter Shahrazad takes it upon herself to protect her countrywomen by wedding the king and then distracting him from his murderous plans by telling stories so engrossing that he is forced to keep her alive to hear the next instalments.
Facing a level of pressure to perform that not even JK Rowling can have experienced in the run up to the publication of the last Harry Potter novel, Shahrazad has no option but to deliver. Ingenious and playful, she weaves a web of tales bristling with intrigue, erotica and inventiveness. Lovers turn into birds, decapitated heads talk, people are buried alive, and curses and sorcery abound. And as each story draws to a close, it spawns another calculated to keep the King and the reader hooked.
As in Ajit Baral’s The Lazy Conman and Other Stories and Rafik Schami’s Damascus Nights, cunning is prized above honesty, with many of the characters rewarded for using their guile to achieve their ambitions, often at great cost to their slower counterparts.
Shahrazad seems to enjoy sailing close to the wind herself, with many of her stories featuring people who need to save their lives by spinning yarns. ‘I must use my cunning to defeat his demonic wiles and barbarism,’ she has the fisherman say of the jinni in her very first story, as though winking at the reader over the listening king’s head.
The tales become a platform for Shahrazad to air other themes close to her heart too, chief among them the role of women. Her stories feature many strong female characters, among them Zumurrud who cross-dresses to become the wisest king her nation has ever seen, and five sisters who ‘regard men as a deadly disease’ and present a compelling defence of their lives as single women.
Not being familiar with other versions, I can’t tell how much of this comes from the original work and how much Al-Shaykh has reimagined (any insights from other readers would be much appreciated). There’s no doubt however that her narrative (written in English) is lively and approachable, as well as brimming with descriptive delights. The poet Abu Nuwas’s description of women as being ‘capable of sewing knickers for a flea’, for example, is just one of a myriad of memorable images that leap off the page. The only sticking point is the repeated misuse of ‘mortified’ to mean ‘horrified’ – a small niggle, but an irritating one in a novel in which the choice of words has the power to kill or cure.
All in all, though, this book is a delight. Featuring criticism at its most raw, it lays bare the mechanics of great storytelling and throws down the gauntlet for all would-be wordsmiths in the millennia to come. No wonder everyone’s still writing about it.
One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh (Bloomsbury, 2011)
April 13, 2012
I was concerned when Happy Weekend arrived. The cover looked uninspiring with its stock image of a coffee-shop cappuccino and the write-up on the back from one Stanley Borg seemed to have lost something in translation: ‘To act or not to act. That is the question. But anyway, what was the question?’
The signs weren’t good. Luckily – perhaps because of the lack of other books in translation from Maltese on my radar – they weren’t bad enough to stop me giving it a try.
Focusing on characters who deviate in one way or another from the paths society expects them to follow, Immanuel Mifsud’s collection of short stories puts everyday life under the microscope and shows up the bugs and gremlins squirming out of sight. From divorcees and dropouts to runaways and even psychopaths, it unfolds the lonely paranoias that form the background noise to much of daily existence and traces the threads that bind us.
Often, the writing has a wistful quality. ‘I see someone I knew who has become today what he was destined to be and I have remained what I was and have become nothing,’ laments the protagonist in ‘Violins’, one of the most haunting stories in the book, in which a young man eventually gives up drifting around Europe with his busker girlfriend only to find himself mired in hollow respectability.
Characterisation is Mifsud’s biggest strength, along with an ability to show how preoccupations thread themselves into mundane activities. Reflections on an aunt’s chastity and the desire to kill someone jostle with observations on the flavour of margarine and radio announcements. Sometimes Mifsud deliberately exploits the poignancy and comedy of apparently random juxtapositions, as in ‘I’d Thought the Flowers had All Died’, which follows a character trying to make a connection with someone amid the bluster of an internet chatroom.
This sharp contrast between surface meaning and deeper significance can have a powerful effect. In ‘Zerafa’, for example, a story that depicts the adolescence of a sadistic rapist, the gulf between the abuse the protagonist suffers and will later mete out, and the well-meaning but bumbling attempts of outsiders to help him is painfully clear – even if the heaping of atrocity upon atrocity veers towards the gratuitous at the end.
Mifsud is fond of weaving time into his stories and uses some form of deadline or time passing to focus each of the opening three stories. As you get deeper into the collection, the reasons for this become clear: while the author may shine at characterisation, his sense of structure and pacing is less secure. Several of the stories ramble on longer than they should or peter out apologetically. The result is that the work in the latter half of the book cannot compete with the opening pieces, and readers may find their fingers itching to flick.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt Mifsud has talent. I’d be interested to see how this collection compares to his other work, particularly his 2011 European Prize for Literature-winning book Fl-Isem tal-Missier (u tal-Iben).
If you know of other Maltese literature that deserves a mention, it would be great to hear about it. Leave a comment and let me know.
Happy Weekend by Immanuel Mifsud, translated from the Maltese by Rose Marie Caruana, Mary Darmanin, Albert Gatt and Maria Grech Ganado (Midsea Books, 2006)