I had an email from Andrew in Ireland. Back in 2004, when the European Union expanded from 15 to 25 states, he undertook a project to read a book from each member country. He got round them all, with one exception: when it came to Luxembourg there was nothing he could get hold of to read in English.

It’s not surprising that Andrew found getting literature from the world’s only sovereign grand duchy difficult: with three official languages (French, German and Luxembourgish), there’s enough to do translating documents so that all of the country’s 500,000 or so citizens can read them without looking further afield.

Nevertheless, Andrew did give me something to go on. In the course of his research, he’d heard about a Luxembourgish writer called Claudine Muno who had published a novel in English in 1996, at the age of just 16. By all accounts it was out of print.

I looked Muno up. It turns out she’s continued to be something of a trailblazer and is now frontwoman of the Luxembourgish folk-pop band Claudine Muno and the Luna Boots. Crossing my fingers, I left a message on the group’s Facebook page, asking if Muno could tell me how I could get hold of her book.

Muno replied. She was sorry to say that her novel was completely unavailable – she and her editor only had one copy each left. However, she did have a recent audiobook with young writers reading extracts from their work, some of them in English – would I be interested in that?

And so it was that during a drive down to Cornwall, my long-suffering boyfriend and I listened our way through Write Out Loud, a mixture of Luxembourgish, French, German and English pieces read in the same earnest tones that I remembered members of the Creative Writing Society (many of them dressed in black and sporting berets) adopting at open-mic nights at university.

It would have been tempting to claim this as my Luxembourgish book and leave the quest there. However, given that the prose extracts in English probably only amounted to a total of five minutes’ listening time, this would have felt a bit like cheating. So, taking a deep breath, I sent an email to 19-year-old Joshi Gottlieb, the mastermind of the project and the writer on the CD whose quirky, oddball style I’d most enjoyed.

Gottlieb came back with the manuscript of a book by Robi Gottlieb-Cahen, who did the cover illustration for Write Out Loud. Written throughout in three languages (English, French and German), the book looked set to be published by Éditions Phi  in February 2013. I sighed with relief. I may even have whooped in triumph: at last, I had my Luxembourgish book.

Minute Stories is a collection of micro-tales – many of them no more than a sentence long – each of which has been paired with one of Gottlieb-Cahen’s paintings. As Jean-Marie Schaeffer explains in her introduction, ‘here, one single person holds both the pen and the brush’, creating ‘fundamental indecision in the relation between pictorial and narrative identities’.

In some cases, the link between the two works is clear. There is the visual joke of a picture of a woman with her arm thrown back undercut by a comment about shaving underarm hair and – my personal favourite – a sentence about someone who will not stop talking accompanied by a nightmarish painting of a clownish face, which evokes that feeling of being cornered by someone you’d really rather not speak to perfectly.

Some of the other associations are less obvious. While it is clearly Gottlieb-Cahen’s intention to challenge readers to find their own meaning in the interplay of the words and images, the obscurity of some of the connections can be frustrating. The picture of a naked buxom woman above a sentence about shoelaces, for example, left me scratching my head.

This sense of uncertainty permeates the stories too, many of which deal with loneliness, loss, leaving and ‘the art of not understanding each other’. We are repeatedly invited to question the identity of the narrators – are they Gottlieb-Cahen or someone else altogether?  In addition, the informality of their grammar and punctuation, which gives them the feel of text messages or notes scribbled in someone’s diary, and the occasional bracketed references to the places where the events happened make them seem like moments snatched from everyday life.

There is also the question of the relation of the text’s three languages to each other. Although the English version of the text is printed first on each page, one or too minor syntactical oddities suggest that it is not Gottlieb-Cahen’s first language. This made me wonder how the stories were written. Did Gottlieb-Cahen work in one language and translate into the other two? Or did he generate each version independently?

The web of questions grows as the book progresses, wrapping the reader in a cat’s-cradle of ideas. Gottlieb-Cahen keeps this light and playful with regular bursts of bathos and wit, which challenge the hushed reverence that often seems to be the expected response to art books. The result is a fascinating and exuberant exploration of pictures and words and our relationship to them. Well worth the effort it took to find it.

Minute Stories by Robi Gottlieb-Cahen (slated for publication by Éditions Phi in 2013)

This 2000 novel by Binwell Sinyangwe, another pick from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, promised something I hadn’t come across in any of the books I’ve read so far this year: a story centring on the hardships facing women in rural Africa written by a man.

Its premise is disarmingly simple. At the start, widow Nasula has less than three weeks to find the 100,000 kwacha she needs to pay for the next stage in her only daughter’s education, after more than a year of trying to get the money together. The rest of the narrative portrays the extreme lengths she goes to in an effort to raise the funds that are her daughter’s only hope of escaping a life of poverty.

In many ways, this is a profoundly feminist book. Dedicated to the memory of Sinyangwe’s wife Grace, the narrative reveals ‘the unfairness of the life of a woman’, returning again and again to Nasula’s desire for her daughter to be able to ‘carve a decent living that would make it possible for her not to depend on a man for her existence’. These hopes spring from Nasula’s memories of her own bitter experience of marriage and ill-treatment at the hands of her in-laws, recollections that bring out some of Sinyangwe’s best rhetoric:

‘Nasula had not forgotten. She would not forget. How could she? They had turned her into a servant, a slave in a chief’s palace. They had turned her into a stream in which to wash and kill the stink of their humanity. They had turned her into the hunter’s flat stone on which to sharpen their spears and axes. Into icisongole [a hard-shelled fruit] to play iciyenga [a game like jacks] with during the day, a fruit to be eaten at by the chief during the night. Into a source of laughter.’

Sinyangwe heightens our sense of Nasula’s plight with his repeated references to the common hardships facing many Zambians during the nineties. With the end of government grants, poor rains and the spread of HIV/AIDs, these are ‘the years of havelessness’ for rural and urban workers alike, in which many who previously prospered, and to whom Nasula turns for help, struggle to survive.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this material would be woven into a two-dimensional sob story. Instead, Sinyangwe rises to the challenge, imbuing his narrative with the vigour, vibrancy and ingenuity of his heroine. As we watch Nasula undertake the marathon walk to her in-laws, sleep in the city market to protect her possessions and challenge criminals and corrupt officials single-handedly, it’s impossible not to admire her.

If the narrative is occasionally a little overwritten, with a few too many adjectives fighting for space, the power of the plot more than makes up for it. So much so, in fact, that in the gripping final chapters, it’s easy to forget that what we are reading is not an account of some grand odyssey but the story of one woman’s attempt to secure a basic necessity for her child. It’s humbling to remember this as the narrative draws to its close – and more effective than any sob story could ever be.

A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe (Heinemann, 2000)

Israel: war wounds

June 27, 2012

I have a confession to make: I suffer from World War II novel fatigue. There are so many heart-rending, moving and harrowing books set during the years 1939-45 (as well as plenty of not so heart-rending, moving and harrowing ones) that a story in this category has to promise something out of the ordinary to persuade me to pick it up.

So when I heard that the Israeli novel on the 2012 shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was a war novel, I was pretty uninspired. If it hadn’t been for some very enthusiastic comments by members of the judging panel at the London Book Fair, I wouldn’t have given it a second look.

However the premise of Aharon Appelfeld’s novel, which is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old Jewish boy who seeks refuge in a Ukrainian brothel and enters into a sexual relationship with the prostitute who hides him, sounded intriguing. And when it beat the other contenders to the prize, I decided I had to find out whether this book, written by a Holocaust survivor, had something new to say about the events that ultimately led to Israel’s independence.

This is a novel that jumps in and out of the future tense. Starting on the eve of the boy Hugo’s birthday as his mother anticipates their impending separation, the narrative carries a strong sense of foreboding. This works partly through the dramatic irony that comes from the reader’s knowledge of subsequent historical events. Significantly, however, Appelfeld’s descriptions are so subtle and fresh that, were it not for the novel’s marketing, the reader might not even realise that this is a novel set during the war until several chapters in.

This freshness sets the characters free from the accumulated literary baggage of decades of war literature, giving Appelfeld the leeway to present them as individuals first. He does this by foregrounding details in language that is often disarming in its simplicity – the scene where Hugo says goodbye to his mother while trying to keep her for another minute then another, for example, is very touching.

The power of plain language becomes something of a theme in the book, with the prostitute Mariana telling Hugo at one point that ‘a spare way of speaking can also be colourful’. It’s a shame that Appelfeld doesn’t adhere to this when it comes to Hugo’s letters to his mother, which, full of phrases such as ‘the place is feverish’ and ‘in my heart I know that most of the fears are groundless’, have an odd ring to them. Whether these expressions are attempts on Appelfeld’s part to capture the pomposity of intelligent youth or instances of awkward translation, they jar against the subtle immediacy of the rest of the text.

The setting of the novel is very simple too, with much of the action taking place in Mariana’s room and the small closet in which Hugo sleeps. It’s a tribute to Appelfeld’s skill that he is able to sustain an engaging narrative with such a small array of characters and locations. This makes the final section after Mariana and Hugo leave the brothel all the more powerful for its contrast with what has gone before.

Barring one or two slightly repetitious passages, the intensity of the story builds towards the final chapters as a growing awareness of Jewish identity emerges in Hugo’s mind. This is summed up by a woman he encounters helping displaced people towards the end of the book. Her words suggest something of the sense of shared experience and kinship in the face of adversity that would underpin the formation of the future Jewish state:

‘We have to leave together and watch over one another. Brothers don’t say, I’ve already given. Brothers give more, and we have, thank God, a lot to give. One gives a cup of coffee and the other helps a woman bandage her wounds. One gives a blanket, and the other raises the pillow of a person who’s having trouble breathing. We have a lot to give. We don’t know yet how much we have.’

Without doubt, this is a powerful and striking take on the events that shook the world 70 years ago. Even if it wasn’t the pick of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize judges, it is an accomplished and beautiful work.

Nevertheless, as the novel ended I found myself impatient to see how the story continued after the state of Israel declared its independence. I was curious about books set in the country in recent years and itched to read something like Sara Shilo’s The Falafel King is Dead or David Grossman’s To the End of Land to see how these narratives played out in light of all that has happened in the region since 1948. Ah well, maybe next year.

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld, translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M Green (Alma Books, 2012)

What people don’t tell you when you set out to read the world is that the research can take almost as many hours as the reading. Googling, emailing groups and individuals for recommendations, checking that suggestions meet the criteria, trying to decide which book to go for – it all takes time. So it’s always a joy when an expert on a particular country’s literature helps me out.

Ngawang at the Writers Association of Bhutan is one of these wonderful people. When I contacted the group through its blog, he sent me a list of five writers, together with four suggestions of titles. Of these, I chose The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden, partly because Ngawang described it as ‘one of the best books by a Bhutanese author’, but also because it is the first book by a Bhutanese woman published outside Bhutan, which makes it something of a milestone in South Asian literature. I was very excited when it arrived from India, vacuum-packed in cellophane.

The novel follows the life of Tsomo, a young girl from rural Bhutan who, not content to settle for a life of domestic drudgery, sets out to explore the world. Forced to be an outsider because of a mysterious illness that gives her a permanently distended belly, Tsomo works her way into northern India, drawn by the friendships she makes, a growing fascination with the Buddhist masters and communities that thrive in the Himalayan foothills, and a desire for peace.

The raw deal facing women in rural South Asian society is a major theme. Right from the opening chapters – in which the young Tsomo, unable to convince her father to educate her alongside her brothers, decides that being born a woman must be a punishment for bad karma from previous lives – the book portrays a world in which misogyny, sexual abuse and injustice are daily realities.

Women are by no means passive victims, however. One of the strengths of the book is its portrayal of the series of exuberant and warm friendships Tsomo makes throughout her life with other women. Many of these relationships, such as her bond with Dechen Choki – a young woman Tsomo saves from being raped repeatedly by their supervisor when they are working as manual labourers – are founded on the women’s shared experience of adversity.

This salvaging of positives from suffering is one of the many Buddhist tenets woven through the book. With much of its narrative taking the form of parabolic episodes through which Tsomo learns truths about the world and herself, the novel almost reads like a manual for progression to enlightenment at points.

What makes it work is Choden’s gift for evocation, both of place and of experience. Her descriptions of the rugged spiritual terrain Tsomo covers in her quest for peace and her moments of ecstasy reminded me of other great religious works, such as Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, particularly in the passages concerning Tsomo’s pilgrimages to sacred sites such as Bodhgaya and Kathmandu:

‘Once there they looked for the Boudhanath chorten, the Great Stupa, the starting point for every Bhutanese pilgrim in Nepal. From the moment they arrived at the chorten, Tsomo felt its awesome presence everywhere. The eyes on the chorten seemed to look deep into her soul and she felt humbled and almost afraid. She felt she could not hide anything from those eyes and yet at the same time, she was drawn to them in a strange way.’

Now and then the narrative gets bogged down in explaining the many religious and social customs that fill the book. This no doubt owes something to Choden’s decision to write her novel in English – a sign that she intended her story to be read outside Bhutan by people who may not be familiar with the country’s culture. Occasionally passages on topics such as why formal marriage is not common in rural communities and the ritual of overfeeding guests can read more like anthropological essays than chapters in a novel.

Mostly, though, this is a fascinating and absorbing book. Reading it drew me into this little-known world even more profoundly than I suspect visiting a hundred Buddhist gompas in the Himalayas would. A rare treat.

The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden (Zubaan/Penguin India, 2005)

For so small a country, Iceland is an impressive player on the global literary stage. According to Iceland Pulse, there were 757 books published on the island in 2011, among them 55 new works of fiction by Icelandic authors. Not bad for a nation with a population of less than 320,000.

Many of these authors don’t make it into English, however there has been a recent drive to translate some of the island’s most celebrated and successful writers, with crime authors such as Arnaldur Indriðason doing well overseas. Gyrðir Elíasson caught my eye because he has scooped several of the big national literary prizes. I liked the sound of his work and wanted to take a closer look.

Often centring around people taking a break from normal life to read, write, think, paint or simply be, Elíasson’s very short stories trace the unseen connections that link us to the world around us and reveal how tiny shifts in perspective can change the course of a life. There is the bird painter from Boston who encounters a gull and decides to give up his career, the music college vice principal who ducks out of a meeting to run away to the States, and the holidaymaker who discovers the disintegration of his marriage courtesy of an automated phone service message in a language he does not understand.

Many of the stories are about people struggling with frustrations that they cannot fully articulate. There are writers who go away to write only to spend their days procrastinating and young chess players locked in tournaments they know they cannot win. Perhaps most memorable of all is ‘The Piano’, a story in which a boy is driven to a nighttime orgy of vandalism when his ambitious yet emotionally distant parents force him to learn an instrument he hates.

Other books stalk through the pages of this collection. Whether the pieces focus on two translators living side by side as they render their own versions of different books by John Steinbeck, as in ‘The House of Two Stories’, or on the obsessive bibliophile walled in from normal life by his dependency on books in ‘Book after Book’, reading and writing often form a large part of the action of these tales. Literature also informs Elíasson’s descriptions, with several of his depictions of landscape drawing on associations from the world of books: ‘Saksun [...] would have been the perfect setting if Keats, Shelley and Byron had ever needed a retirement home,’ he writes in ‘Watershed’.

Though many of the stories feature characters grappling with the everyday problems of relationships, careers and meeting the expectations of others, they are by no means realist in style. Elíasson delights in delving into the uncanny, with many of the pieces set in eerie guesthouses and lonely holiday homes that owe more than a little to the Gothic tradition. Some, like ‘The Car Wreck’ and ‘The Silver Nose’, describe ghastly, otherworldly encounters, while others, such as ‘The Dream Glasses’, contain moments of profound beauty, all of which draw on the seductive pull of the mysterious and unexplained.

When it works, this creates extraordinarily powerful and wistful pieces. However, there are several stories that dissolve into nothingness, leaving a flat aftertaste. In addition, the large number of tales in the collection means that reading them back-to-back shows up a few tricks being played several times, necessarily blunting their effect second or third time round.

As a whole, though, this was a beautiful, eerie and evocative collection. The stories, like pieces of driftwood on a remote beach, seem to be fragments of other times and places, worn smooth by the action of Elíasson’s imagination. An intriguing and memorable work.

Stone Tree (Steintre) by Gyrðir Elíasson, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Comma Press, 2008)

Vatican City was always going to be a challenge. With an area of 0.2 sq miles and fewer than 900 citizens, it is the world’s smallest independent state. It’s also one of the most unusual – Vatican City nationals are made, not born (hardly surprising, given that the majority of its residents, barring a few Swiss Guards, are Roman Catholic priests) and the state is thought to be the only country in the world where you can take out money from a cash machine by following instructions in Latin.

All this made getting a novel, short story collection or memoir out of the place look doubtful. I was beginning to think I was going to have to resort to a papal bull just for the sake of having something to read.

Then I google-stumbled (gumbled – I think this should be a word) across an intriguing-sounding book called Gone with the Wind in the Vatican or Shroud of Secrecy, as my edition has it. Claiming to be the first treatise of written protest from within the Church since Martin Luther’s theses in 1517, the book is a sort of collective memoir-cum-exposé published by an anonymous group of Vatican prelates, calling themselves the Millenari, in Italy in 1999.

One of the group, Monsignor Luigi Marinelli (whose anagrammatic last name makes you wonder quite how many other people were in the Millenari), has since acknowledged his involvement in the book’s production. He has been investigated by the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s court, which also sought to recall the book from Italy and restrict its publication in translation – a controversial move, given that Italy is a separate sovereign state. Clearly, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Right from the start (in the subtitle, in fact), the book sets out its mission to tell ‘the story of corruption within the Vatican’ and propose measures to help the secretive and hierarchical institution ‘cleanse what has become a festering wound’. It then proceeds to allege that almost every kind of malpractice and intrigue – blackmail, fraud, sexual favours, masonic links, spying, drug abuse, and even Satanic rituals – is rife among the elite clergy at the top of the Holy See, leaving those who want to advance their careers no option but to play the same game.

Crucially, unlike many works that criticise the Church, the book is written from a standpoint of belief both in Christian theology and in the potential of the institution. In fact, the authors go out of their way to demonstrate their faith, larding the text with quotations from scripture and even likening themselves to biblical prophets. At times, this repeated self-justification takes on a panicky air – although this is perhaps not surprising when you consider the power of the institution they are up against.

The most compelling passages of the book centre on the descriptions of the mechanisms within the ‘dictatorship’ of the Holy See and the way ‘the diplomacy of the Vatican immediately influences any states with which it has diplomatic ties’. At times cynical and sardonic, the narrative voice cites numerous instances of favouritism and petty rivalries advancing the careers of unsuitable (and often unqualified) candidates and blighting the prospects of deserving clergy. Perhaps most chilling of all are the allegations surrounding the way those high up in the hierarchy control and manipulate the Pope for their own ends:

‘To create a power vacuum at the top, they encourage the Pope to immerse himself in apostolic visits. [...] Once back in Rome, bewildered and dazed by the rush of the crowd, ears still ringing with delirious hosannas, it is virtually impossible for the Pope to discover the intrigues of the court. [...] When the Pope returns, steeped in glory, he is too tired and distracted to notice the insidious conspiracies hidden in the documents he signs. Everyone drafting the documents knows that the aging Pope won’t absorb the notes on the report.’

Perhaps because this is ‘a book of many voices’, the tone of much of the work is inconsistent, veering between the declamatory, the technical and the downright sensational. While some of the instances cited involve names and verifiable information, many of the anecdotes included are anonymous, and written more in the tone of salacious gossip than hard fact, so much so that I found myself wondering whether the writers’ assertions about favouritism said more about their frustrated hopes for their own careers than about the mechanisms themselves. There are also numerous references to miracles and revelations that non-Catholics will find hard to credit.

Nevertheless, as a window into a closed and mysterious world, this is a fascinating book. Accurate or not, it is also clearly a very brave work. No doubt it’s one of the more unusual texts I’ll encounter this year.

Shroud of Secrecy: The story of corruption within the Vatican (Via col vento in Vaticano) by The Millenari, translated from the Italian by Ian Martin (Key Porter Books, 2000)

There were quite a lot of contenders available in English for Iraq. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that the country has been in and out of Western headlines for more than the last 20 years. Still, it was good to know that the traumatic occurrences of recent decades had not disrupted storymaking in the region – or so I thought until I read this book.

The Madman of Freedom Square – the first commercially published short story collection by Hassan Blasim, co-editor of Arabic literary website Iraq Story – paints a brutal, yet layered picture of the effects of international events on individual lives in and around post-invasion Iraq. Often starting or ending with a mutilated corpse, the tales trace the connections that bind people to one another and reveal the psychological wounds that result when these ties are ripped apart. There are the refugees reduced to animal cruelty when the truck they are locked in is abandoned, the patriotic songwriter turned atheist who wanders the streets railing against God and existence only to meet a gruesome end, and the underground collective that roams Baghdad making art out of its murder victims.

More than anything, this is a book about the function of storytelling. From the very first tale, ‘The Reality and the Record’, in which a traumatised man tries to tell the right story to secure asylum at a refugee centre, the text interrogates the act of narrating, as though trying to identify its weak points and secret guilt.

Sometimes – as in ‘An Army Newspaper’, an account of an unscrupulous editor who gets trapped in his lies when the dead soldier whose work he has passed off as his own continues to submit reams of manuscripts – storytelling takes on monstrous, nightmarish proportions. At other points, as with the sensational anecdotes spread by gossipmongers in the wake of bomb blasts in ‘The Market of Stories’, it seems a low, self-indulgent exercise, a sort of ‘primitive tribal gibberish which tries to hide behind tasteless and gory laughter’.

That story, however, also holds something of a key to the text’s uneasy relationship with its own function. According to the narrator, it may have its roots in Iraq’s history:

‘Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there have been incessant calls for writing to be intelligible, realistic, factual and pragmatic. [...] They claim that the writers of the past made the readers defect, whereas in fact for hundreds of years there were no readers in the country, in the broad sense of the word. There were only hungry people, killers, illiterates, soldiers, villagers, people who prayed, people who were lost and people who were oppressed. Our writers seem to have grown tired of writing for each other.’

It’s important to note, of course, that these are the narrator’s words rather than Blasim’s own. Nevertheless, the question of who narrates, who listens and the value of telling at all rankles throughout the book, inviting the reader to look beyond it to the man writing in Arabic in Finland – Blasim’s home since 2004 – and wonder who exactly these words are for.

Underpinning this unease are repeated comments on the world-altering properties of perspective, with many of Blasim’s narrators suffering from mental illness, trauma or profound emotions that render their accounts suspect. The most powerful example, however, comes in ‘The Virgin and the Soldier’, an account of two young lovers doomed to a horrific death when they are accidentally locked in at the sewing factory where they work at the start of a holiday:

‘In reality there was nothing in the factory but army uniforms, but the government’s aim was to make the UN inspectors suspect that the factory was used for prohibited military purposes. [...]

On that morning the American satellite pictures could not of course detect the muffled screams on the second floor. The screaming was hardly audible, and desperate. From the end of a world that was dying it reached the sewing room, which was empty and looked like a dreary sunset over an abandoned city.’

Too much distance, Blasim seems to be suggesting, and we become unable to empathise with fellow human beings, like satellites monitoring the Earth from the exosphere. And yet, even as he writes this, the author draws us in to the heart of the events he describes, immersing us in their brutal, bloody and heartbreaking immediacy.

Some of the stories end less successfully than others and there are one or two twists that miss their marks, but overall this is a powerful and thought-provoking work that transports readers to the extremes of human experience – and a mental terrain most of us are lucky enough never to have to  travel through. If Blasim needed proof of the validity of storytelling, he has written it.

The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Comma Press, 2011)

Cuba: stellar work

June 19, 2012

One of the strange things about translated books is that they reach us quite a while after they were written. Sometimes, as in the case of smash hits like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, this might be only a matter of a few months. More often than not it takes several years.

Then there are books like Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales, which was published in Spanish in 1940 and only made it into English 64 years later. These burst into an era very different from the moment in history in which they were created, a bit like light reaching us from extinct stars.

The book was a recommendation from David Iaconangelo, the founder of Zafra Lit, a bilingual blog dedicated to new Cuban short fiction. He described the stories as so well-written and original that they were ‘somewhere between a work of anthropology and fiction’, and said Cabrera’s work documenting the way various African and Cuban cultures fused in the tales she recorded had had a major influence on later writers such as Alejo Carpentier. I was also intrigued to see from Fernando Ortiz’s introduction to the Spanish edition that this is apparently the first book ever published by a Havana-born woman. Clearly, I was going to have to take a look.

Iaconangelo was certainly right about the originality: I’ve never come across stories more extraordinary than these. Operating in a universe of turtle-men, tiger-men and elephant-men, where stags ride horses, fishermen negotiate with their prey and earthworms compete for the hands of beautiful heroines, these tales pull apart the threads of reality’s backdrop and invite the reader to step through to the weird, cruel and magical cosmos beyond.

Language itself buckles, blends and warps in its attempt to contain the vibrant currents that flow through these tales, with the cultural fusion reflected by the inclusion of utterances from the now extinct creolized dialect Bozal, as well as phrases from Lucumi, Congo and Abakua tongues. As one footnote explains, ‘the original meaning of many of the African words in this book has been lost’, giving a lot of them the mysterious quality of magical incantations, for which they were used in some Afro-Cuban circles.

In addition, the stories themselves test the limits of the language in which they are couched: in ‘Bregantino Bregantin’, for example – in which men are banished and women live along with a single male bull – communication changes so that ‘all masculine words not directly related to the bull were eliminated from the language’. The effect of reading this in the original, gendered Spanish must be particularly striking.

For all their strangeness, however, the stories nevertheless manage to comment on the world around them. Indeed, the distance that some of the more surreal episodes create probably grants the narratives more leverage to attack racism and the hypocrisy of institutions like the Church – ‘all of us are children of saints, and all of our meanness and the pleasure we take in sinning comes directly from them,’ begins one particularly mordant tale.

There are also moments of exceptional beauty, as in the opening paragraph of ‘The Mutes’:

‘On the first night, the moon looked like a thin strand of hair. On the next, like the edge of a transparent sickle. Next it looked like a slice of juicy honeydew melon, and then like a round millstone. Finally it dropped off into the night’s deep mouth, where the Eternally Hidden, the person whom no one has ever seen and who lives at the bottom of the bottomless, smashes up all the old moons with a stone to make stars while another moon is on its way.’

Brave, beautiful, weird and maddening, the stories that Lydia Cabrera gathered and filtered through her own writerly imagination are a lesson in how to break the rules and create something astonishing. As a collection, this book shouldn’t work: it’s inconsistent and erratic; characters stroll on half way through narratives and divert them another way; some stories peter out and the voice varies wildly between tales. But then, superficial logic would also tell us we shouldn’t be able to see light from stars that no longer exist.

Afro-Cuban Tales (Cuentos negros de Cuba) by Lydia Cabrera, translated from the Spanish by Alberto Hernandez-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)

This was one of those books that you hear about and want to read. Not only was the premise of the novel – about an obituary writer who shares his flat with a king penguin – intriguing, but the story of Andrey Kurkov’s rise to become one of Ukraine’s most celebrated writers was pretty gripping in its own right: having to deal with more than 500 rejections from publishers, Kurkov self-published his early works and sold them on the streets of Kiev. Clearly, this was one dedicated writer.

The unlikely hero of Kurkov’s most famous work, which bears the Ronseal-style title Death and the Penguin, is Viktor, a novelist manqué who strikes it lucky when a newspaper hires him to write advance obituaries of some of the country’s great, good and not so good. All seems to be going well and Viktor looks set to break out of the lonely, frugal existence he has shared with Misha, a king penguin he adopted when the zoo closed down, until the subjects of his obituaries start to die in suspicious circumstances. As it becomes clear that his ‘vital images of the future departed’ carry more significance than he could ever have imagined, Viktor finds himself embroiled in an increasingly sinister plot, and realises he will need to use all his powers of invention to escape with his life.

Funny, dark and spare, Kurkov’s prose evokes complex situations in a handful of words. The writer does this by using small details to reveal the humanity of his characters: a militiaman’s wish for a quiet shift, a cartoon on TV, a gangster’s pride about his car.

He combines this with razor-sharp perception to produce striking and often touching reflections on death, loneliness, friendship and love. In particular, Viktor’s meditations on the strange alchemy that is the obituary writer’s craft – creating something fixed and definitive out of a mass of memories, half-truths and anecdotes – are fascinating:

‘The past believed in dates. And everyone’s life consisted of dates, giving life a rhythm and sense of gradation, as if from the eminence of a date one could look back and down, and see the past itself. A clear, comprehensible past, divided up into square of events, lines of paths taken.’

Similar to Vatanen’s hare in Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare (my Finnish book), Misha the penguin acts as a kind of barometer for his master, reflecting his mental and emotional state. He also humanises Viktor, giving him the vulnerability necessary to enable Kurkov to steer him through the moral hinterland the plot demands without losing the reader’s sympathy.

The result is that rarest of beasts: a novel that is every bit as gripping as it is well-written. I read it in virtually one sitting – and not merely because I had to keep up with the schedule. Great.

Death and the Penguin (Smert’postoronnego) by Andrey Kurkov, translated from the Russian by George Bird (Melville International Crime, 2011)

This was a recommendation from one of the newest book bloggers on the block. Based in Redeyef, Tunisia, English teacher Ali Znaidi set up Tunisian Literature (in English) in May 2012 to plug a gap in the blogosphere, which seemed to have nothing in English dedicated specifically to Tunisian writing.

Providing news, book reviews and other information, Znaidi aims to raise awareness about his country’s literature. It therefore seemed natural to turn to him for a recommendation for this project – particularly as, from what I could find out, Tunisian literature is relatively rarely translated, compared to literature from many other Arab countries.

Znaidi confirmed what I suspected about the scarcity of Tunisian texts in English, but he came back with several suggestions. Of these, I went with Talismano by French-language writer Abdelwahab Meddeb.

Told by a Tunisian writer living in Paris (much like Meddeb himself), the 1979 novel, which the author reworked in 1987, is built around an imagined return to Tunis, Fez and the other cities of the narrator’s youth. As he wanders for a period of roughly 24 hours through streets built half from memory and half from fantasy, the protagonist tests the boundaries of experience and writing itself, by turns engaging in the sensual, riotous and often shocking events he encounters and stepping back to comment on the world and his place in it.

Culture and identity are central threads. As the writer walks through his ‘maze of discovery’, he records the impact that colonialism and the different communities that migrated to the region have had on the places he sees, mingling aspects of Islamic and Judao-Christian culture with ancient myths and secularism to create a heady, bustling and often bewildering text.

A polymath par excellence, Meddeb reaches for cultural references the way an experienced chef works with rare herbs and spices, adding complex layers of flavour and piquancy to his creation. From Dante, Hesse and Joyce, to the Koran and ancient Egyptian theology, the text is broad and full in its scope – a book more of the world than of any particular time and place.

Some of the references are clearly deliberately obscure, however, the experience of reading the novel as a Brit with very little knowledge of Tunisian culture added another layer of disorientation: there were times when I was not sure whether my missing things was part of the author’s design or a function of my own cultural blind spots.

This becomes clearer as the narrative unfolds, carrying with it a series of knowing commentaries on writing and the author’s craft. Perhaps the most telling of these comes right at the end in the Epilogue:

‘We have confided through writing, but without giving you a foothold, have strained your eyes with our arabesque of words, have recommended the circuits of our journey, have warned you of the fissure in all that meets the eye, have unsettled you on high moral grounds, have ruined you among the most robust constitutions, have dusted myself off, vanished into thin air, have found my way inside you through the least perceptible slit’.

No wonder then that extracting coherent meaning from the narrative sometimes feels like trying to scale a glass wall.

This can make for a frustrating reading experience, particularly in the early stages. However if you allow yourself to surrender to the narrative, and let it flow over you, carrying with it its tide of impenetrable allusions, you may be surprised by the insights and recognitions that flash suddenly from it like gems buried in the shifting sand of the seabed.

Beautiful, maddening, disturbing and strange, this is a book for the intrepid armchair adventurers out there. It is not a comfortable ride, but when you reach the end and look back along the route you’ve travelled, you get one hell of a view.

Talismano by Abdelwahab Meddeb, translated from the French by Jane Kuntz (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)

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