Morocco: feminine endings

September 28, 2012

Shafiqah1 put a comment on the blog earlier this week. ‘Please read Tahar Ben Jelloun, any of his works, if you are enjoying Francophone Literature, I promise you won’t regret it!’ she wrote.

It was as if she’d read my mind. In fact, I’d just finished Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child and was preparing to post on it when her comment came in.

Shafiqah1 wasn’t the only Ben Jelloun fan to have visited the blog. Back when I first asked the world’s book lovers to tell me what I should be reading late last year, litlove also put in a vote for the writer.

However, what finally made me pick The Sand Child from the cluster of fascinating-sounding Moroccan titles on the list was a recommendation of a very different kind, from a person who doesn’t technically exist.

The Sand Child is the novel Doria, the gutsy teenage heroine of my French choice Just Like Tomorrow, is reading when we first stumble into her tough life on the Paradise Estate in a part of Paris the guidebooks never mention. As I liked Doria, I thought I would probably get on well with a book she enjoys. I also loved the idea of books talking to and about one another, signposting me from one to the next like clues on a massive literary treasure hunt.

And if I needed anything else to persuade me, Doria’s pithy précis of the book was more than enough to make me want to read it:

‘It’s about a little girl who got brought up as a boy because she was the eighth daughter in the family and her father wanted a son. Plus, at the time when it was set, you didn’t have ultrasound or contraception. No kids on sale or return, you get me.’

As Doria suggests, gender issues are at the heart of the novel. Like several other stories I’ve read from relatively conservative Islamic countries, the book is startling in its explicitness and the fearless way it tackles taboos. Focusing on the lonely and troubled Ahmed, who was raised to despise femaleness as a ‘natural infirmity’ that threatens the family’s future because women are forbidden by law to inherit more than a third of their father’s wealth, the narrative presents a complex picture of gender dysphoria that reveals the narrowness of society’s definitions. As Ahmed him/herself explains, ‘the huge ordeal through which I am passing has meaning only outside those petty, psychological schemata that claim to know and explain why a woman is a woman and a man a man’.

Even more engrossing, however, is the picking apart of storytelling that Ben Jelloun weaves through the text. Frequently interrupted by a tour guide-cum-storyteller and various listeners, characters and even literary figures from other tales, the narrative becomes a battleground of interpretations, speculation and suspicion. Just as Ahmed is both male and female, victim and aggressor, transgressor and conformist, so the story veers between truth and falsehood as a range of would-be narrators squabble over its meaning, providing alternative endings and even, at one stage, burning the original text. It is as though plurality and ambiguity are the only things of which we readers can be sure, a sentiment explored by the Blind Troubadour, who weighs in towards the end:

‘Besides, a book – at least that’s how I see it – is a labyrinth created on purpose to confuse men, with the intention of ruining them and bringing them back to the narrow limits of their ambitions.’

Such elusiveness might be maddening in the hands of another writer, but in Ben Jelloun’s it is intriguing, amusing and even beautiful. In fact certain images, such as the description of adopting another identity being like putting on ‘a wonderful magic jellaba, a cloak cut out of the sky and studded with stars’, reach out from the hubbub of the novel’s voices to stop you in your tracks, like rare treasures mixed in among the knick-knacks at a bustling bazaar.

The overall effect is rich, engrossing and challenging. Readers wanting a quiet meander along well-trodden paths are probably best advised to steer clear. But if you don’t mind being pushed, jostled, pulled in all directions, spun round and tumbled into the odd ditch, then this is the book for you.

The Sand Child (L’enfant du sable) by Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (Quartet Books, 1988)

Brunei was looking tricky. Try what combination of search terms I would, there seemed to be no literature in translation from this small, oil-rich nation on Borneo in the South China Sea. The only suggestion I heard of came in the shape of a collection of Dusun folk tales compiled and translated by UK academic Eva Maria Kershaw. It was recommended by Canadian blogger Paul, who said it was the only Bruneian work he had been able to find for his own global literary quest.

I was on the point of buying the book, but something held me back. Nagging away at me was the thought that there must be someone out there who could help me find a written work by a Bruneian author that I could read in English. It was just a question of tracking them down. What I needed was a group of enthusiastic, English-speaking Bruneians who were passionate about promoting their culture and would have the time to circulate my query and, if I was lucky, do a bit of research on my behalf.

The solution came in a flash: students. A quick bit of googling revealed a surprisingly large number of Bruneian students’ associations dotted around the world’s Anglophone countries. I fired off emails to several of them, hunted down a couple of others through Facebook, and sat back to wait.

It didn’t take long. The very next day I got a message from Zuliza, media communications officer at the Bruneian Students’ Association, New Zealand. She wanted to help and asked for more details about the sort of book I was looking for. I answered as best I could.

The weeks went by. I found myself keying ‘Dusun folk tale collection’ into Google in idle moments. Then, at the beginning of August, Zuliza got back to me. She had some good news: she had found a story in the Brunei Times about a Bruneian author who had taken the step of publishing a novel in English in an effort to attract a wider readership for his work. It was available to buy on Amazon. Would it do?

One air punch and a vigorous Highland jig of delight later, I downloaded the novel on to my Kindle and began to read.

Set in France, Four Kings by Christopher Sun (aka Sun Tze Yun) follows American archaeology professor James Hale as he sets out to solve the murder of his best friend. Accompanied by his friend’s distraught and yet disturbingly attractive daughter, the academic plunges into the dizzying world of fine-art investment in an effort to track down a killer with a penchant for priceless artefacts and a habit of leaving playing cards next to each of his victims. But as riots grip the country and the president is forced to consider extreme measures to prevent anarchy, it becomes clear that the deaths may be part of a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.

This is a book with a clear idea of what it wants to be. From the sensationalist, blood-smattered cover picture, right through to the vital clue that drops out of a copy of The Da Vinci Code halfway through the novel, Sun makes no secret of the fact that he is out to take on the global blockbusters with this, the first in a pentalogy following the adventures of James Hale. There is even a wry dig at the bestselling US author when, picking up the novel with a laugh, detective Darley remarks: ‘It’s nice to know that even sociopathic killers don’t mind reading trash now and then.’

Sadly, though, I don’t think Dan Brown has much to worry about. Although Sun may have big ambitions, his execution is lacking. The plotting is loose, improbable and heavily derivative, with unlikely religious relics such as ‘Jesus’s denarius’ and ‘the Spear of Longinus’ passed around between shadowy figures who materialise and disappear almost randomly. At times, even the characters themselves seem to feel that there is a ludicrous air to events, as when Hale grumbles to himself: ‘This is crazy […]. Why the hell am I the one finding all the damned bodies around here?’

As in QuixotiQ, my Bahraini pick, the Western setting is problematic. Although Sun has made an effort to ground the novel in France, unlike the mid-Atlantic no-man’s-land of QuixotiQ, the context lacks authenticity. Characters with names like Bruno Culruthers, Hugh Jetter and the unfortunately spelled Rouseeau strut around a faceless world that feels more like an airport terminal than a French city.

As with QuixotiQ, however, there is a serious point here. For the second time this year, I have found that the only work I am able to read from a nation with a written tradition is one by a writer who feels he has no option but to try and write a Western novel in English if he is to reach an audience outside his country. According to his Brunei Times interview, Sun has written and published books, cerpen (short stories) and sajak (poems) in his first language, Bahasa Melayu. Now those I really would like to read.

Four Kings by Christopher Sun and Jimmy Chan (CreateSpace, 2011)

Mali: truth to tell

September 25, 2012

This book has been on the list since I started preparing for this project. First published in 1973, Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s The Fortunes of Wangrin won the 1974 Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire and has long been hailed as one of the classics of Francophone African literature. Nearly 40 years later – as far as I can make out – it is still one of the few Malian prose works available in English translation (although I’d love to hear about others if you know of more books that should be added to the list).

The narrative purports to be an account of the life and times of teacher-turned-civil servant and all-round hustler Wangrin, as told to Bâ by the man himself shortly before his death. Working in Mali during the first half of the 20th century – when the country was under French rule – Wangrin quickly learns to play his peers and colonial employers off against one another for his own ends. Deft, resourceful and at times maddeningly slick, Wangrin rises to prominence and prosperity, until at last his ambition, enemies and the prophecy of ruin spoken on his birth conspire to bring him low once more.

Wangrin is an extraordinary creation. Presented as an almost mythic figure in the way his birth is portrayed and declaimed, this ‘profoundly strange human being with so great a mixture of good qualities and faults that, at a mere glance, it was impossible to describe him’, as Bâ writes in his Foreword, fascinates and bewilders his contemporaries and the reader alike. Whether he is undercutting the European millet trade, capitalising on the guilt of two brothers eager to give their relative a proper burial, outsmarting a corrupt official in the courtroom, or beating thugs in a fight, Wangrin is mesmerising. Indeed, his influence extends even to his author, who, whenever Wangrin’s antics teeter on the callous, is quick to leap to his protagonist’s defence, reminding us of his humanity to the poor and weak and the fact that in the Mali of the time ‘it was either destroy or perish, play tricks on others or be their helpless victim’.

The narrative’s colonial setting bears this assertion out. Ranging from wry jabs at the French administration, such as the list of ‘mannerisms that adorn French utterances’ and must be learnt by Malians if they are to converse with ‘white-Whites’, through to scathing portraits of cruelty and prejudice – among them the official who ‘would have been a blessing if he hadn’t had the unfortunate habit of cracking his whip across the backs of a couple of people and taking two or three others to jail who were guilty of the terrible crime of not having saluted their Commandant from twenty-five yards’ – Bâ’s criticism of the regime is unrelenting. Small wonder that in this compromised society, where educated Malians like Wangrin are recruited to spy on and cheat their peers for their European masters, canny citizens play the French at their own game and put their personal interests first.

Yet perhaps the biggest conflict of all lies not within the narrative itself, but on its margins. Sniping at each other across the body of the text are Bâ’s dogged insistence on the veracity of the account and the prevailing critical opinion that the work is largely fictional, embodied in my edition in Abiola Irele’s Introduction, which argues that ‘the essential consideration here must surely be not the exactitude of the recollection but the evocative power of the account’.

That would just about stand had Bâ not been needled into writing an impassioned Afterword in response to his book’s initial reception, in which he insists on the truth of what he has written:

‘Although the existence of the man who chose to call himself Wangrin is generally accepted as a historical fact, they [critics] think I “romanticized” his life somewhat and even added a subtle sprinkling of oral tradition and supernatural events of my own making in order to flesh out the story and give it a patina of symbolical significance.

‘I’ll repeat once more, then, for anyone who still might be in doubt, that I heard everything relating to the life of the hero […] from Wangrin himself, in a Bambara often poetic, full of verve, humor, and vigor, to the soft musical accompaniment of his griot Dieli Maadi. To this very day I recall with emotion Wangrin’s voice against the background of a guitar.’

There may very well be more to this than meets the eye. If I had more knowledge of the context of the work and Bâ’s writing, I might discover that, far from the impassioned appeal it appears, this is yet another turn of the screw on the part of a witty author who is every bit as ingenious as the character he describes.

As it stands, though, for the reader coming to the text with no prior knowledge as I did, the clash between the Introduction and the Afterword is deeply uncomfortable. It was enough to make me refrain from using the word ‘novel’ when talking about the book. To do so felt as though I would be favouring an imposed and largely Western reading of the work at the expense of its author’s intentions. It left me troubled. But perhaps that’s precisely what Bâ set out to do.

The Fortunes of Wangrin (L’Etrange destin de Wangrin) by Amadou Hampâté Bâ, translated from the French by Aina Pavolini Taylor (Indiana University Press, 1999)

Eritrea: heart and home

September 23, 2012

This was a recommendation from an Eritrean friend of mine. She had read Sulaiman Addonia’s The Consequences of Love not long after it came out in 2008 and enjoyed it. If I was looking for Eritrean literature in English, this was her top tip.

I had my reservations: a brief scan of Addonia’s biography revealed that, although he was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother, he has spent very little of his life there, having fled to Sudan and subsequently Saudi Arabia as a young child. He now lives and writes in London – could his work really be counted as Eritrean?

Then I thought about my friend’s own story. Like Addonia, she was driven from Eritrea, which has long been in the grip of a regime so oppressive that Reporters Without Borders ranks the country below North Korea for press freedom. The danger is such that my friend has been unable to visit her family there since she left, and her mother has never met her son-in-law and grandchild as a result. I began to wonder if such stories of separation and displacement were not as much a part of Eritrean life as the experiences of those who’ve stayed put.

Exile is also central to Addonia’s novel, which is set in the late 1980s, towards the end of Eritrea’s bitter 30-year war with Ethiopia. Like its author, the central character, 20-year-old Naser, has spent his teenage years in Saudi Arabia. Yet, although he has escaped the perils of conflict, he finds himself hemmed in by a whole range of other restrictions in Jeddah, where religious police scour the streets for people who break the strict behaviour codes, lovers are flogged and executed in Punishment Square and the vitriolic sermons of the blind imam blare through the city.

Lonely and anxious for the mother he left behind in Eritrea, Naser faces a life of isolation, until a mysterious, veiled woman drops a love letter at his feet one day. But in a society where communication between unmarried men and women is banned, it will take all Naser and his secret admirer Fiore’s courage and ingenuity if they are to give their happiness a chance.

Naser’s world is one where direct emotional expression is outlawed. Whether they are yearning for their homelands or pining for lovers, he and his cronies must shroud and sublimate their feelings so as to avoid chastisement at the hands of the ever-watchful authorities.

Such repression in this ‘world of black and white’ can have surprising results as blocked emotions and impulses play out through other means. There is Jasim’s café – where wealthy older men coerce the waiters, including Naser, into being their sexual partners until they get married and have a legitimate outlet for their libido – and there is the thriving trade in banned books, including Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (my Sudanese pick), through which the characters live vicariously from inside the country Jasim describes as ‘the biggest prison in the world’. In addition, creativity blossoms, in the shape of Fiore’s drawings, the lovers’ impassioned letters, and the inventive means by which they get messages to one another. As Naser puts it, ‘caged emotions make poets out of all of us, even the illiterate’.

Caged emotions also make for a compelling story. In this tale of ‘love before sight’, the scene where Fiore is finally able to remove her hijab and the lovers come face to face after months is very moving. The sky-high stakes also make for a nail-biting conclusion, although, for my money, the final unravelling is too heavily foreshadowed to come as a surprise. However other readers may feel the dramatic irony creates a tension all its own.

Taken as a whole, though, this is a thoroughly engrossing and often beautifully written portrayal of what happens when regimes and laws run counter to human needs and emotions. As Naser puts it, it is the story of an individual’s struggle to ‘do what it takes to get a life that is rightfully [his]’ – a struggle that, by the sound of it, many Eritreans know all too well.

The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia (Vintage Digital, 2008)

Somalia: digging deep

September 22, 2012

This novel has been sitting on my to-read pile since January. It was one of the books that Steve and I picked out on a frenzied afternoon in New York City when the reality of what this project would involve was just sinking in. That day, we descended on indie bookshop McNally Jackson and, under the bewildered gaze of the staff, spent several hours rifling through the world-literature section and building big piles of possible prose works I could read from some of the most far-flung destinations on the map.

Several of the books I bought that holiday became blog posts earlier in the year, others were shuffled on to my ‘2013-and-beyond’ pile when more intriguing recommendations came in, and yet others still sit biding their time on one of the many heaps of undecided books dotted around our living room as I write. In fact, when I picked up Nuruddin Farah’s Secrets the other week, I couldn’t remember anything about it. It was only when I cast an eye over the blurb that the reason the book appealed to me that blundering January day came flooding back.

Having been exiled from Somalia since the 1970s, multi-award-winning author Farah was finally able to return to his homeland in 1996. Secrets, which came out the year its author won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, is his first novel since that trip.

The book tells the story of Kalaman, a self-made computer company owner in Mogadiscio, who is forced to confront some devastating home truths when his childhood sweetheart Sholoongo returns from America and elbows her way back into his life. Outside Somali society is crumbling as the civil war takes hold, but inside the tried and tested structures of family and friendship are cracking too, as Kalaman, Sholoongo, his mother and grandfather dredge up recollections and revelations that will shake his sense of identity to the core.

Right from the very first sentence, which is hurled out with the flair of a master magician adept at winning the attention of the crowd – ‘One corpse, three secrets!’ – we know we are in the hands of a great storyteller. Yet, as the novel unfolds and the narrators cut in, querying, contradicting and rubbishing one another’s words, Farah reveals himself as not simply a conjuror, but an alchemist, aware of the conditions that transform the essence of stories and truth into startlingly different forms.

Whether ‘shapeshifter’ Sholoongo is picking Kalaman up on his account of their relationship, which he presents as being dominated by her but she portrays quite differently, or Nonno is unmaking and remaking his grandson’s recollections of his childhood, there are always conflicting and often diametrically opposed versions of events that must be assimilated. Secularism jostles with spiritualism; Islamic teachings rub shoulders with folklore; and the contemporary, naturalist novel finds itself hijacked by superstition, sorcery and a woman with the power to will herself into people’s dreams. As Kalaman reflects, ‘truth, after all, has its dynamism, and memory its momentary lapses’. It is up to each person to ‘inquire into the meaning of truth, and how to distinguish our find from other categories of truth’.

In the face of such multivalency, there is no place for trite simplifications. The inadequacy of the assumptions by which we all too often navigate our way through the world is perhaps most keenly shown in Kalaman’s reflection on common perceptions of the Somali conflict:

‘I let it go as I often have let go foreigners’ throwaway remarks spoken in ignorance, foreigners who held the view that “Somali politics is clan politics”. It would take me years to convince them otherwise.’

The novel does come with a health warning, though: its continual deconstruction of truth and reality can be tiring. Occasionally in the ‘Interlude’ chapters, which feature some of the book’s densest and most opaque writing, I found myself feeling as though I were waiting by the door at a party where an intense philosophical debate had erupted late in the evening, when I was ready to get my coat.

But this probably says more about me than it does about the novel. Overall, this is a rigorous, gripping and intriguing work. It challenges, shocks, delights and entertains in equal measure. An excellent find.

Secrets by Nuruddin Farah (Penguin, 1999)

I’ve written before about how globally renowned literary figures from small countries can often overshadow their compatriots on the world stage, becoming the go-to writer for literature from or about their homeland while their peers struggle to achieve any kind of audience beyond the nation’s borders. But what about when you grow up with an international literary giant in your own family?

This was a challenge Vahni Capildeo, a Trinidadian poet with whom I got in touch through the London-based writers group Exiled Writers Ink, had to face. A mine of global literature information, Capildeo kindly gave me loads of book suggestions and contacts for people who might be able to help me track down work from some of the harder to reach places on the list. Then, a few emails into our exchange, she let slip that she had a manuscript of her unpublished memoirs that she could email to me if I was interested.

Normally when a writer suggests I read a book they’ve written, particularly an unpublished book, the alarm bells go off in my head. After all, such recommendations can hardly be considered impartial and, in my experience, there can often be an unfortunate inversely proportional relationship between the enthusiasm with which an author pushes their book at you and the quality of the work.

However, there were a few things that made me hesitate: firstly, Capildeo wasn’t exactly giving me the hard sell. In fact, after the first shy mention it took several months of wheedling and cajoling from me before she could be persuaded to send me the document, out of which she’d excised several sections that she did not think were ready to read. Secondly, Capildeo had published a number of poetry collections and, although the entire memoir had not made it into print, extracts of it had come out in Ian Sinclair’s London: City of Disappearances. And thirdly, there was the fact that she introduced the book by saying that, among other things, it was about ‘the difficulty of being a cousin of VS Naipaul but wanting to write poetry’.

Now that was something I was intrigued to know about. And so, with an apologetic glance at the Naipaul novel waiting above my desk – not to mention the burgeoning list of young Trinidadian writers gaining international recognition thanks to initiatives such as the Bocas Lit Fest – I passed over the great man in favour of his young relative, downloaded Capildeo’s pdf on to my Kindle and began to read.

As it turned out, the Naipaul connection was only a small part of this rich and complex book. Tracing Capildeo’s childhood in Trinidad and migration to the UK in her late teens, the narrative reflects on issues as diverse as the link between creativity and mental illness – Capildeo’s father suffered from schizophrenia – attitudes to homosexuality in the Caribbean and culture shock. There are thought-provoking evocations of both Trinidad, ‘a colonial land of Ozymandias’, and the UK, where the term ‘Western’ has ‘nothing to do with physical geography’ and people marvel at Capildeo’s perfect English, oblivious to the fact that she has spoken the language all her life.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her background, Capildeo sees the world through books and it is this that brings out her best writing. Whether she is discussing Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear or Victorian novels, Capildeo can be relied upon to bring fresh and often startling insights to her interpretations, reminding the reader again and again that the secret of great writing and great reading is bound up with recognition. But it is when cultural barriers and laziness stymie this recognition during a discussion of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea in the UK that the full force of Capildeo’s passion for what books can do if only we will take the trouble to let them becomes clear:

‘The other readers thought “flamboyant” was a simple adjective. They did not know, and had not looked up, that it was a tree name. So for them it was just a showy tree that Jean Rhys’s Antoinette wanted to be buried under, this desire perhaps a characteristic manifestation of Creole arrogance and gaudy tropical bad taste? So people could read this passage, even read the whole book, maybe read every book about – us – and not feel, or see – My imagination filled and shook with the flamboyant’s smooth-grained rind and fiery plumage.’

The Naipaul references when they come are disarmingly frank. Capildeo makes no secret of the dislike that exists between the branches of the family and the shadow the writer’s success cast over her father as he reeled from breakdown to breakdown. However, the fact of Naipaul’s international recognition, and his publication of works that ‘looked like real books […]: austere, with few colours, unlike “West Indian novels” marketed as such’ also proved a secret spur to the young writer: ‘(So it was possible? But I put that thought away; it was too big).’

Inevitably for an unedited manuscript written some years ago at an early stage in Capildeo’s career, the work is somewhat patchy. We get the sense at points of a young author still mapping the geography of her emotions and coming suddenly and breathlessly upon peaks and ravines that she will get the measure of more precisely as her writing develops. In addition, although often vivid, the imagery occasionally staggers under the weight of one too many adjectives.

But this is nothing that a second pass through with the benefit of a few years’ distance can’t fix. And in fact Capildeo tells me she is thinking of doing this, with a view to trying to publish the work. I hope she does: there is too much richness here to be consigned forever to the bottom drawer. The book deserves far more readers than just me.

One Scattered Skeleton by Vahni Capildeo – extracts published in London: City of Disappearances ed. Iain Sinclair (Penguin, 2006)

Slovakia: the other side

September 17, 2012

Mona responded to my Halfway Appeal for countries I have yet to find books from with several interesting ideas. When it came to Slovakia, she suggested Peter Pišťánek’s Rivers of Babylon. There was a good interview with him, in which he talked about the reasons not many Slovak writers have been translated into English, on Three Percent, she said.

This grabbed my attention because I had been puzzling for some time over the scarcity of Slovak writers with work available in English, as compared to the relative plethora of Czech authors who have been translated. Given the disparity, an English-language reader might be forgiven for thinking that nearly all the writers ran east when Czechoslovakia split at the end of 1992.

Personally I’m not sure I buy Peter Pišťánek’s theory that the lack of Slovak literature in translation is down to a perception that the nation is ‘not as exotic. Not “Eastern” enough’. Still, I was intrigued to find the problem that I’d run up against acknowledged by this leading Slovak man of letters, widely claimed as the nation’s most flamboyant and fearless writer. His first work to have made it into English would do nicely for me.

Much like my Czech book, Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, the 1991 novel Rivers of Babylon begins with an institutionalised old man, Donath, who has spent his life slaving away in a punishing and solitary physical job until his very thought processes have become warped and shaped by the machines he serves. There, however, the similarities end. Because, unlike Hrabal’s paper compacter Hanta, who is ultimately destroyed by his work, the young man Racz who comes to take over from Donath in the boiler room of the Hotel Ambassador is not easily crushed. Instead of regarding his work heating the building and surrounding businesses through the cruel winter as a moral duty, Racz recognises it as a lever that he can use to raise his own position. Before long, he is holding the luxury hotel and the town around it to ransom, with hilarious, outrageous and deeply disturbing results.

Pišťánek is a master of manipulation. Whether he is describing the embarrassment of international guests who allow themselves to be extorted by the stoker out of fear of committing a cultural faux pas, the preening of the prostitute who falls for a hustler’s story that he is a wealthy doctor, or Racz’s wilful self-delusion that he is working hard for the good of all, the writer reveals how perception is the key to control.

He combines this insight with sharp wit that enables him to deliver killer one-liners and farcical set pieces beneath which sinister currents twist and drag. There is the car-park attendant whose trailer is towed to the middle of nowhere while he sleeps inside it by gypsies bent on fleecing him, the deranged manager forced to camp out in his freezing office and survive on dead dogs, and the former secret policeman who blacks up as part of an attempt to infiltrate Racz’s operation but ends up leaving dirty finger marks everywhere. And every so often there is a line or an image that takes your breath away with its inventiveness – I particularly like the early description of Racz’s thoughts being ‘scattered all over the place like an egg smashed against a wall’, after he has suffered the humiliation that sparks his takeover bid.

But it doesn’t stop there. There is an anarchic side to Pišťánek’s writing that makes it overflow the boundaries of conventional storytelling and flood beyond the limits of the book. This is a story that is undaunted in its ambition to take on and pull apart the corrupt structures of the new Slovak democracy for which the vice-riddled Hotel Ambassador is often only a thinly veiled metaphor – as the tongue-in-cheek quote on the cover suggests:

‘[Expletives deleted] Prime Minister Mečiar of Slovakia

And if we non-Slovaks think we can sit back comfortably and enjoy the ride, we’ve got another thing coming. In the personage of the slimy Swedish sex tourist Gunnar Hurensson, we are forced to confront all the common Western prejudices about eastern and central Europeans that are too often allowed to slip by unchallenged.

The result is a furious, hilarious and important book that is among one of the most engrossing things I’ve read all year. Three cheers for Garnett Press for publishing this, the first part of a trilogy. I look forward to reading the rest.

Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťánek, translated from the Slovak by Peter Petro (Garnett Press, 2007)

Sudan: the outsider

September 16, 2012

There were several great contenders in translation for Sudan. What swung it for Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North was the fact that it was named the most important Arab novel of the 20th century by a panel of Arab writers and critics in 2001.

My curiosity was further piqued by the author’s introduction in my Penguin Modern Classics edition. Far from the usual mixture of modest thank yous and self-deprecation, his discussion of ‘this onerous and not entirely felicitious [sic] pursuit of novel writing’ was more than a little disgruntled in tone.

Salih had good cause for feeling peeved: despite the recognition his novel has received in recent years, its journey into the world-literature canon was by no means straightforward. Banned in many Arab countries because of its graphic scenes, the 1966 book got a patchy reception – the Times Literary Supplement ‘haughtily dismissed the novel as “episodic” which the reviewer said was a common weakness in all Arab writing’. Worse still for Salih’s purposes, the book was published in many countries without a single royalty being paid to the author. A million copies were printed in Russia, for example, but, because the country was not a signatory to the Berne convention at the time, the writer did not see a single rouble of the profits.

Not surprisingly, such injustice left Salih with a rather ambivalent attitude to the experience of being published:

‘And so the book went on its way, as books do, almost separate from me. It gets banned from time to time in this country or that and then it is unbanned; it is permanently banned in all the Gulf States. It is loved and hated and attacked and praised. It is taught in universities and doctoral and masters theses are written on it. That ought to make me happy and so it does in a way.’

Beginning with the return home of a young Sudanese man after seven years studying English literature in Europe, the novel tells the story of Mustafa Sa’eed, a strangely charismatic figure who has moved into the village while the narrator was away. Claiming to come from humble beginnings somewhere near Khartoum, Mustafa displays unusual astuteness in village affairs. But it isn’t until the narrator hears him let slip a line of English poetry late one night that he begins to uncover Mustafa’s mysterious past, unfolding a tale of murder, passion, alienation and rootlessness that will consume him and shake the village to its core.

Salih is one of those rare writers who can combine the specific and the universal in a single, compelling whole. Whether he is sending up the villagers’ naive questions about the cultural quirks of Europeans or capturing the arrogance of the young narrator, convinced that ‘the 10 million inhabitants of the country had all heard of [his academic] achievement’, he constructs characters and situations that are at once individual and yet recognisable to readers everywhere.

This comes to a head in Mustafa Sa’eed, an extraordinary creation who is at once a product of his time and influences and a unique person, moving through the world and making his own sometimes brutal and perverse choices. Indeed, the narrative is careful to resist any pat generalisations the reader may be tempted to draw from the story about the interaction of Arab and Western culture. ‘Whatever my life has been it contains no warning or lesson for anyone,’ says Mustafa, recalling how he wanted to jump up to contradict his advocate’s conclusion at his Old Bailey murder trial that he was ‘a noble person whose mind was able to absorb Western civilization but it broke his heart’.

In fact this human tendency to read people of other cultures too simplistically is something Mustafa boasts of having exploited during his many liaisons with women in London. He reveals that he encouraged them to think of him as Othello and related ‘fabricated stories about deserts of golden sands and jungles where non-existent animals called out to one another’. ‘My store of hackneyed phrases is inexhaustible,’ he tells the narrator.

Ironically, of course, while pulling the stuffing out of the quest for the essence of a culture, the novel is hugely evocative of both 20th century Britain and Sudan. Whether he is describing a student party in Chelsea or an impromptu desert feast on the road to Khartoum, Salih’s writing is arresting, inventive and rich. In addition, the insights the book provides into issues such as female circumcision, delivered during an earthy discussion with the fearless village gossip Bint Majzoub, and the legacy of colonialism which has turned the population into ‘lies of [their] own making’, are fascinating.

Occasionally the time shifts and narration-within-narration mean that it is hard to locate yourself in the flow of the story. However, far from seeing this as the ‘episodic’ problem that so irritated the TLS reviewer, I found it complemented the sense of rootlessness that colours many of Mustafa’s choices.

Put simply, this is a towering achievement: a mirror-world where lies are truth, destruction is tenderness, and home is alien territory. It’s the sort of book that makes you wish the author were still alive so that you could go and find him and shake his hand. Brilliant.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies (Penguin, 2003)

Bolivia: fresh blood

September 13, 2012

Jimena, who suggested my Dominican Republic book, also had thoughts on Bolivia: Edmundo Paz Soldán was the most celebrated Bolivian writer around, she said. Perhaps if I emailed him and told him about my project he might be able to point me in the direction of a lesser-known Bolivian author whose work had been translated into English.

I had some reservations about this idea. In my experience, asking a writer to recommend other writers can often be the literary equivalent of wandering into McDonald’s and asking the staff if they know of any good fast-food outlets in the area. It’s not calculated to ingratiate you with them, you’re unlikely to get what you’re looking for, and you may very well find yourself asked to leave in no uncertain terms.

Still, if I did want to explore what other literature in translation might be available from South America’s poorest country, there wasn’t much else to go on. And besides, there was a big lot of water between me in London and Paz Soldán in his department at Cornell University. It was probably worth the risk.

Luckily for me, Paz Soldán turned out to be one of those exceptions that prove the rule. He wrote back enthusiastically to say that, while there was very little Bolivian literature available in English, his top recommendation was a short story collection by young writer Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, which had been published in a bilingual edition by Editorial La Hoguera in Bolivia.

When my copy of Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood arrived, the reasons for Paz Soldán’s enthusiasm became doubly clear: he had written the ‘Prologue’, in which he described Rivero as ‘one of the top-ranked young women writers of our time’. I was eager to see how her work stacked up.

Graphic, gripping and strange, Rivero’s stories – published here in an alternating edition where the English translation follows each Spanish piece – explore how power dynamics shift, warp and harden in relationships. Whether they focus on the child scared by a glimpse of her father’s sexuality during a telling of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’, the psychiatric patient obliged to trade physical favours to win the right to shave her armpits, or the dog who eats her puppies while her owners endure the tension of house-to-house searches by the military, the way that people and animals displace and sublimate emotion in extreme circumstances is at the heart of these tales.

Much of the tension in the collection derives from opposition, particularly between the sexes. In ‘Masters of the Sand’, for example, two cousins discover how ‘enmity, love and glory are part of a perverse game’, when a childhood battle between two captive scorpions forges a destructive chain of consequences that wraps itself around both their lives. Similarly, the opening story ‘Final Countdown’, in which Macy and Alfredo battle each other in a series of sadistic sexual games opens up a mingled seam of sex and violence which runs throughout the collection.

For all their directness, though, many of the stories thrive on what Rivero leaves unwritten. The vital key to the characters’ suffering is only hinted at – as in the title story in which we can only guess at the precise nature of the abuse that Silva’s father inflicts on her – or the stories end at the moment before the decisive action takes place.

My favourite piece, ‘An Imperfect Day’, is a great example of this. Here, Rivero swirls together details – Marcelino’s mutilated hand, his loss of his job, the revolver his dad passed down from the Chaco War, his partner’s all-engulfing sexuality – which circle faster and faster, like water spiralling round a plughole, until they disappear into the inevitable conclusion, which happens just after the last line.

This subtlety means that a few of the pieces are a bit opaque. In addition, the leanness of the writing, in which nothing is wasted, requires absolute concentration from the reader to achieve its full effect. I found myself having to go over the opening paragraphs of several stories twice, so immediately did they thrust me into the midst of their action.

Such focus though is no hardship. Indeed, most of the stories are so compelling that they draw you in without you even realising. A word of warning though: commuters should consider saving this one for bedtime reading, otherwise Rivero might well make you miss your stop.

Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, translated from the Spanish by Kathy S Leonard (Editorial La Hoguera, 2006)

Ireland: the big one

September 11, 2012

My heart sank when Irish blogger and literature lover Fionnuala Barrett, whom I’d asked to recommend my book from the Emerald Isle, replied with Ulysses. I should have seen it coming, I suppose. After all, James Joyce is to Ireland what Charles Dickens is to England and knowing Fionnuala’s particular interest in nineteenth and early twentieth century literature, I could probably have predicted Ulysses would make it on to her shortlist.

Fionnuala did give me another option in the shape of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, but I couldn’t help feeling that this would be a bit of a cop-out – fabulous though this neglected classic, which is probably the first Anglo-Irish novel, no doubt is. It was Ulysses or bust as far as I could see.

The stakes were raised by the fact that I had tried and failed to read Ulysses once in the past. I’d had to study the Nighttown chapter during my MA course and had blithely set off to read the rest of the text only to run aground about 300 pages in.

This failed literary expedition – one of the few in my 25 years of reading – and the fact that I’d read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man meant that I would have to introduce a slight kink into the rules of this project: for the one and only time this year I would be taking on an author I had read before.

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to be fascinated with the challenge of taking on this book. Leaving aside my personal struggles with unpicking Joyce’s dense weave, the sheer fact of trying to read a novel that runs to close to 1,000 pages in many editions in a year when I was already reading 195 other books was intriguing. How could I manage it?

I chewed it over for a while and then in December last year, as I was making my final preparations to set off round the reading world, the solution dawned: an audiobook. I would listen to the novel on my weekly drive to my Sunday singing job. Listening one hour a week should enable me to get through the epic comfortably in six or seven months.

And so, in perhaps one of the more unusual requests I’ve made of her, when my mother asked what I might like for Christmas I announced that my gift of choice was an unabridged recording of James Joyce’s Ulysses. This she diligently found in the form of an edition from Naxos, one of the few unabridged audio versions out there. And so, on my first Sunday back in the harness after the New Year festivities I inserted CD number one of 22 into the car stereo and pressed play.

I’m not going to write much about Joyce’s book, which in a nutshell follows ad-man Leopold Bloom and young teacher Stephen Dedalus as their paths cross and recross over 24 hours in Dublin. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s extraordinary and if you do want to read more about it there’s enough criticism out there to sink a fleet of battleships.

In fact, I think that was part of the reason why I failed to finish the book first-time round. While I’m usually a great believer in disregarding introductions and footnotes on a first reading, and diving in blind to see what you make of the text for yourself before consulting anyone else’s opinion, something about the aura and reputation of this work made me feel unable to do that. It was as though I couldn’t trust myself to read it on my own, as Joyce first wrote it, and had to cling to the criticism like a child unable to take the stabilisers off its bike. The result was that I was flicking to the back of my annotated edition every second sentence and the rhythms so essential to the narrative never got a chance to flow.

With audio, this problem is non-existent. There are no annotations to make you worry that you’re not getting every allusion: instead there are just Irish actors Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan’s smooth tones, which they modulate deftly between the characters’ internal monologues, their memories and the moment-by-moment events of the day, as well as the voices of other people, making it instantly easier to locate yourself in the rich swirl of experiences kicked up by the text.

This means that you can relax and give yourself over to the narrative, allowing your own associations and memories to interact with Joyce’s text. Indeed, as I found my thoughts drawn to moments in my childhood and adolescence by the book’s biblical, classical and poetic references, I began to wonder whether all readers of Ulysses shouldn’t create their own personal footnotes to the text, showing the places that have evoked particular ideas or experiences for them.

There are parts of the book that work even better read out loud then they ever could on the page. From comic set pieces such as headmaster My Deasy’s terrible letter to the papers, which Norton delivers with great wit and timing, and aural effects such as the use of sibilance to convey the susurration of the sea, through to the many songs and musical references in the text, the audio version brings the book alive. I particularly liked the way that Joyce’s cannibalised version of the Lord’s Prayer, a text which is, after all, spoken much more than it is read, came across. In addition the production team has chosen to break up the text with snippets of music, much of it contemporaneous with the text, which adds a welcome extra flavour to the sound world – although I occasionally found myself distracted by trying to name the songs as the next instalment of narration began.

Indeed, distraction is the single biggest issue with the audiobook form. Unlike written texts, where you can flick back a page when you realise your eye has been skimming the words without taking them in, audiobooks are harder to navigate, particularly when you’re driving. As I steered my way around the back streets of central London, doing my best not to kill or be killed by map-reading tourists, cyclists, taxis and buses, I found I couldn’t always give the narrative the attention it deserved, with the result that I lost the thread a few times and had to resign myself to missing odd chunks of a minute or two here and there.

Although generally good, one or two directorial choices meant that some of the sections were harder to listen to than they might have been. In particular, I found the decision not to vary the intonation in the penultimate chapter ‘Ithaca’, which consists almost entirely of questions and answers, hard to swallow. While the intention may have been to create a soporific effect, as well as aping the dry rhythms of the catechism, it made for rather monotonous listening.

Nevertheless, the audio version got me through the text and for that I am very grateful. London traffic meant that it was  inevitably a patchy read, but it was a largely enjoyable one. I now feel that I will be able to return to the written text in future with much greater confidence and enthusiasm. And that great volume peering down at me from the bookshelf in the corner of the room holds no terrors anymore.

Ulysses by James Joyce, read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan, directed by Roger Marsh, produced by Nicolas Soames (Naxos, 2004)

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