I’m a girl who likes a challenge. So when Nadine stopped by the blog to share her thoughts on what my NZ choice should be, I couldn’t help but be struck by what she had to say. One comment in particular caught my eye:

‘Of course many might say the New Zealand book to read is “Once Were Warriors” by Alan Duff. It was made into a chilling film in the mid-nineties that had a ripple effect on the country that we still feel today. And for all of that the film wasn’t a patch on the book, written in a kind of vernacular. But if you read Once Were Warriors, you would have to read “Tangi”, by Witi Ihimaera (of Whale Rider fame) lest you be left with a completely skewed impression of our indigenous heritage.’

Nadine’s words made me think of several things: she reminded me of the dilemmas I’ve had choosing books from countries that are home to several cultural communities and what this has taught me about the short-sightedness of thinking that one book can speak for an entire group, let alone a nation. She also made me curious: what was it about Once Were Warriors that might skew my perception of Maori culture? And why had this book and film had such a profound effect on New Zealand society? At the risk of permanently warping my perception of the nation’s heritage, I was going to have to take a look.

Set on the grim council estate of Pine Block, Once Were Warriors follows Beth and Jake Heke and their children as they lurch from crisis to crisis. Alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, unemployment and crime are all facts of life in their urban Maori community, where books are non-existent and most teenage boys’ highest aspirations are to be accepted into the brutal Brown Fists gang. Yet, as Beth discovers when overwhelming catastrophe strikes, the greatest enemy she and her peers are up against could be themselves.

Alan Duff is a master of the thousand ways we humans have of justifying our failings to ourselves. Writing in a roaming monologue, which flows in and out of the thoughts of each of the Heke family, he lays bare the contradictions, self-delusions and false promises by which the characters navigate through their days. We see Beth repeatedly touching her bruised face to reassure herself that she couldn’t have made it to her son’s court hearing and Jake telling himself that he is interested in far more things than sport and violence, ‘though he couldn’t name specifics’, while their eldest son Nig begins to learn the same process of compartmentalising emotions his parents have used for years so as to be able to present the steely front demanded of local gang members.

Each locked in the lonely labyrinth of his or her own narrative, the Heke family members grope desperately for something to allow them to connect with one another and the world. They and their neighbours seek it in the blur of alcohol, the rush of fighting – ‘the only taste of victory they get from life’ – and clumsy physical encounters.

Maori heritage presents a possibility for bonding too. Yet the urban group’s grasp of it is weak and slanted – fixated on the physical prowess of previous generations and devoid of the celebration of legends, rituals and culture that binds the community in the town where Beth grew up. Intimidated by the Maori language that they cannot speak and practices they do not understand, the Pine Blockers are a lost tribe, for whom cultural background is little more than a further justification for the cycle of abuse and disadvantage in which they remain – until Beth is forced to explore what it might take for this to change.

It’s easy to see why this book was made into a film: Duff is great at raising the stakes and racking up the tension, and the episodic style of the narrative already reads like a series of scenes. At times, this cutting in and out of events can feel a little abrupt, with certain key episodes glossed over or skipped out altogether, so that you have the disconcerting feeling of being in a lift whisking past the floor you expected to stop at. I also wasn’t convinced by the star-gazer who appears at a couple of key points in the narrative, presumably to put events into a sort of cosmic context.

But these are little things. On the whole, this is a powerful and thought-provoking book. Far from being a negative account of indigenous New Zealand cultural groups, it is a passionate argument for engaging with and cherishing that heritage. It is essentially a story about identity and the stagnation that sets in when people are cut off from their roots – a theme that resonates all over the world.

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff (Vintage, 1995)

One thing this quest has taught me is that there’s no harm in trying. You can never predict whether someone will help you from reading their biography or studying their tweets. The worst that can happen when you fire off an email asking for suggestions of books from far-flung corners of the planet is that you receive a grumpy message in reply (rare) or you hear nothing back (more common and completely understandable). But every so often, if you type really nicely and wish double hard, you strike gold.

With this in mind, I sent an email to University of Pennsylvania Professor Emeritus of Arabic & Comparative Literature and leading translator Roger Allen back in June this year, asking for advice on some of the Middle Eastern countries I had yet to source books for. As I discovered when I came across an interview with him on the blog Fascinated by the Arab World,  Allen was uniquely placed to help me. Not only does he hold the US’s oldest professorial post for Arabic as a separate language, but he has also translated books by some of Arabic literature’s finest writers, among them Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, whom he met many times.

In spite of his busy schedule, Allen replied with several thoughts. All in all, he confirmed, there was very little available in translation from the Gulf states. However, when it came to the UAE, there was one writer he could recommend with some short story collections in translation: his name was Mohammad Al Murr. I lost no time in looking Al Murr up and within minutes his intriguingly titled The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf was winging its way to me.

Al Murr’s collection spans a cross-section of UAE society. From the businessman flying first-class to the thief rustling camels to please his prostitute girlfriend, Al Murr’s characters are eclectic and often surprising. There is the driving instructor who charms her way into a family circle, the trumpet player with impractical plans for starting a string of businesses, and the middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with owning a talking parrot.

Quirky and intriguing, the stories often deal with the minutiae of existence, showing how a look, a word or even an apparent wink – as in the case of the title work – can change the course of a life. Often these changes centre on small tragedies or victories, as in ‘The Night’s Catch’, in which three boys steal and sell some pigeons from a violent collector in order to pay for a trip to the cinema, but they frequently point to more fundamental shifts. The outstanding ‘Road Accidents’, for example, in which a husband and wife undertake a treacherous drive through fog, testing and exposing the cracks in their relationship along the way, is a masterclass in using small details as chess pieces to play out psychological battles.

In this world where much is left unsaid and people are often at cross purposes to one another – conducting affairs, gossiping about irrelevancies around a sick-bed and, in the case of the children in the collection, bemused by the oddness of the things others take for granted – it is often left to the non-human participants in the stories to act out hidden tensions and desires. While the naughty pet ape Umm Kamil leads her owners a merry dance in ‘Just Standing There, Smiling’, crashing a wedding and at one point even disrupting worship in a mosque, Adoul the monkey becomes the agent of his mistress’s cruel revenge on a servant in ‘The Awesome Lady’.

One or two of the more enigmatic stories, such as ‘The Secret’, in which a boy becomes a mute because of something he witnesses, have an unfinished quality. In addition, the play with dialogue and one-sided conversations, which works brilliantly in stories such as ‘Words, Words, Words’, overwhelms the drive of a few pieces so that occasionally it seems as though Al Murr is more interested in exploring the technical possibilities than developing the action.

Overall, though, this is a fascinating collection. Packed with rich perceptions, it is an intense evocation of people’s lives and concerns. It is also testament to Al Murr’s skill that our faith in the situations he creates does not falter, no matter how bizarre they may be. It will be a long time before I forget the image of Umm Kamil appropriating the bride’s veil during a wedding feast.

The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf by Mohammad Al Murr, translated from the Arabic by Jack Briggs (Motivate Publishing, 1998)

Mongolia: a high point

October 27, 2012

There were two choices in the frame for Mongolia. One was a collection of folk tales picked up at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar by writer friend Emily Bullock. The other was Galsan Tschinag’s The Blue Sky, a book recommended by fellow literary globetrotter Paul.

The folk tales sounded tempting, particularly as, weighing in at just 119 very small pages and with lots of illustrations, they would probably have taken less than an hour to read. However, when I found out more about Galsan Tschinag’s extraordinary life story, my attention was hooked.

Born as Irgit Schynykbajoglu Dshurukuwaa (his name in Tuvan), Tschinag adopted German as his written language during his time studying at the University of Leipzig in the sixties before becoming a singer, storyteller, poet, shaman and Tuvan chief. Angered by the impact of the Communist regime on his people, he led a huge caravan of Tuvans back to their ancestral home in the Altai Mountains and campaigns for the rights of the group to this day. He also apparently managed to cure himself of a life-threatening heart condition using his shamanic powers.

By the time I’d finished reading about him, I couldn’t help feeling that Galsan Tschinag was running Tete-Michel Kpomassie a close second for the title of ‘writer I’d most like to meet’.

Drawing heavily on Tschinag’s childhood, The Blue Sky is the coming of age story of a young shepherd boy in the Altai Mountains. On the face of it, he and his family pursue the nomadic herding ways of life that Tuvans have practised for generations; yet far away in the interior of Mongolia change is afoot with the influence of the Soviet Union prompting seismic shifts that will ripple out to the farthest corners of the country and alter the boy’s life for ever.

Few writers inhabit their characters’ thoughts as convincingly as Tschinag does. Capturing the wonder and weirdness of childhood, he has a gift for bringing us into his protagonist’s hopes and dreams. We share in the boy’s fantasies of becoming a baj by building up a flock of more than 1,000 sheep and his wacky plan to count to that number by assembling 100 people and ticking off their fingers one by one, and they feel real and immediate, and strangely reminiscent of our own childhood imaginings. In addition, we recognise the quirky literalism of childhood – which leaves the boy watching his relatives in bewilderment for signs of their necks twisting after a comment from his mother that their heads have been turned – and the power of make-believe which transforms an eagle sighting into a full-blown attack when the boy tells his parents about his day.

This sense of recognition helps Tschinag bring us close to customs and practices that might otherwise feel irreconcilably alien and strange. Identifying with the boy, we can inhabit his world, where sniffing people is a way of expressing affection, children smoke pipes and urine is a remedy for sore eyes. As Tschinag describes the family’s formal adoption of the mysterious old lady who declares herself the boy’s grandma and the extraordinary rituals carried out to honour and respect animals and nature, it is as though we are sitting round the fire in the yurt with the characters, swapping stories.

As a result it is impossible not to feel connected to and invested in this world – and to bristle like Arsylang the dog at the approach of the outside influences set to destroy it. From very personal instances – such as the return of the boy’s older brother and sister from boarding school for the holidays and the awkwardness that springs up between the once-inseparable siblings – to news that the Mongolian Old White Man of traditional New Year’s celebrations has morphed into the Russian Father Frost, we see everywhere the erosion of this rare way of life. And when his father’s attempt to embrace modern hunting techniques backfires tragically towards the end of the narrative, we feel the full weight of the boy’s grief, not only for his personal loss, but for the passing of belonging, identity and meaning itself.

Achingly sad and yet passionately life-affirming, this book is up there with the very best. It is an extraordinary achievement by a writer skilled at celebrating both the unique and the universal. To read it is to marvel at the variety, beauty and strangeness of the human race – and to feel privileged to be part of it.

The Blue Sky (Der blaue Himmel) by Galsan Tschinag, translated from the German by Katharina Rout (Milkweed Editions, 2006)

Comoros: beyond belief

October 25, 2012

I thought this one might defeat me. As far as I could see, there was not – nor had there ever been – a single novel, short story collection or memoir published in English translation by a writer from the Comoro Islands. No matter who I asked or how charmingly I smiled at the Google homepage, the answer was always the same: nada. It seemed I had come to the end of the road.

In despair, I mentioned the dilemma to my colleague – the same colleague who came up trumps with the Niger book. A few weeks later he was back with, in his words, ‘possible gold’. He’d found a CV online of Anis Memon, a lecturer in French and Italian at the University of Vermont. It stated that in 2005 he’d done a translation of Le Kafir du Karthala by Mohamed Toihiri, the Comoros’ permanent representative to the United Nations and, according to Simon Gikandi’s Encyclopedia of African Literature, the country’s first published novelist. Perhaps if I contacted Memon, he might be able to dig out the manuscript for me?

I fired off an email and received a modest response from Memon. He said he couldn’t vouch for the quality of the translation as it was a personal project he’d undertaken when Mohamed Toihiri was a visiting lecturer one year at Memon’s grad school. The two had spent quite a bit of time together and as a result Memon had decided it would be good practice for him to try and translate one of the writer’s novels. Still, if I wanted to look at the manuscript, he’d see if he could find it for me.

A nail-biting wait ensued. The way I saw it, Memon’s translation was probably my one chance of reading a Comorian novel in English. I just hoped he was better at backing up and archiving his files than I was.

Luckily, that turned out to be the case and when I next checked my emails while on holiday in Spain, the file was waiting for me. The Kaffir of Karthala was mine to read.

Beginning on the day Dr Idi Wa Mazamba discovers he has terminal cancer, the novel tells the story of one man’s struggle to free himself from the conventions, patterns and prejudices that have dogged his life. Liberated by the knowledge that his days are numbered, married Mazamba embarks on an affair with a French woman, Aubéri, and comes to look at the world around him with new eyes. Yet this fresh vision brings with it a heightened awareness of the racism, corruption and contradictions that riddle society. Appalled by the hypocrisy he encounters, Dr Mazamba hatches a plan to challenge the status quo while he still can.

Toihiri is a clear-eyed writer, who excels at presenting complex situations in concise, memorable ways. Whether he is describing the inequality of living conditions in Chitsangani – ‘a neighbourhood where the Middle Ages and the Third Millennium went hand in hand’ and where ‘here one slept on a mat of fleas, there one got ill from hyper-cleanliness’ – or the double standards that see foreign nationals and the ‘generous partner’ donors who pull the political strings behind the scenes receiving top treatment while patients in Mazamba’s hospital can not afford drugs, Toihiri’s descriptions are precise and fearless.

Often, they are very funny too. Ranging from witty anecdotes to satirical attacks, such as the summary of the political career of Marshal Kabaya – ‘at first Minister of Sand in Your Eyes, he was then promoted, following a shuffling of the cabinet, and became the Minister of State in Charge of the Occult Sciences’ – they puncture pomposity and pretence wherever Toihiri sees it. Meanwhile, the writer balances these descriptions with a wry affection for some of the customs on the archipelago that keeps the narrative from becoming overly bitter, as when Mazamba explains the rivalry between the islands to Aubéri:

‘In Ngazija and Mmwali they say that the Anjouanese are poisoners, that they’re skinflints, morbidly jealous, that you mustn’t even look at their women otherwise they’ll arrange to have you thrown off a bridge; we actually say a lot of nonsense about each other.’

Perhaps the most fascinating passages of the book for readers unfamiliar with Comorian culture, like me, are those surrounding marriage traditions in Mazamba’s home village. There, the concept of the ‘great wedding’, a huge celebration which each man is expected to save for and go through once in his life, regardless of whether he is already married to another woman or not, holds sway. And when Issa, Mazamba’s best friend, allows himself to be flattered into going through a great wedding with a canny teenager, the folly of the institution is laid bare.

Occasionally, Toihiri’s desire to encapsulate contradictions and struggles in punchy imagery runs away with the narrative. Muslim Mazamba and Jewish Aubéri’s first physical encounter, for example takes place in a church during a trip they both conveniently have to take to apartheid-riven South Africa. Reading the descriptions of Mazamba breaking his Ramadan fast with Aubéri’s bodily fluids under the shadow of a crucifix, I couldn’t help feeling the author was labouring the point. In addition, the final stages of the plot, during which Mazamba is unexpectedly manoeuvred into a position of influence that enables him to take radical action, rely too much on coincidence and luck to be entirely credible.

But then I’m writing this having just read a translation that until a couple of months ago existed only on the hard drive of an academic I’ve never met more than 3,000 miles away. Hmmn. Perhaps anything is possible after all…

The Kaffir of Karthala  (Le Kafir du Karthala) by Mohamed Toihiri, translated from the French by Anis Memon

Pakistan: the long view

October 24, 2012

There were lots of choices for Pakistan – and lots of visitors to this blog with opinions about which book I should go for. Writers such as Daniyal Mueenuddin, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Bapsi Sidhwa came up several times in discussion and I had plenty of possibilities to check out when it came to choosing the work for this post.

However, when I started to research the suggestions, there was one book with such a fascinating story behind it that, when I discovered how it came to be published, I knew I would have to read it. Recommended by both Waqas and blogger Fay, who kindly shared her personal Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist with me, The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad might never have made it into print. In fact, the first draft of the book, which Ahmad wrote in the early seventies, was locked in a trunk for 30 years and presumed lost by its author after it failed to find a publisher in Pakistan. Luckily, as the novelist told Publisher’s Weekly last year, Ahmad’s wife Helga kept the key, and when Ahmad’s brother heard about a literary competition the work was brought out once more and quickly passed to Penguin.

Framed around the life of Tor Baz, an enigmatic nomad living in the border hills of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet during the mid-20th century, the novel reveals a volatile and fragile world. Orphaned young when his parents are killed by their tribe because of their elopement, Baz passes through a range of groups and guardians, eventually carving out a living by selling information to rival factions in the region. Along the way he crosses paths with lonely soldiers, a mad mullah, people traffickers, prostitutes, a naive European in search of his roots and a wife fleeing the tyranny of travelling with her husband’s performing bear. And, as the British Empire retreats and the borders of the region’s newly declared nations take shape and harden, a desperate struggle emerges between the old ways of life and the modern order.

Ahmad’s depiction of the border region’s landscape is extraordinary. Wild, haunting and treacherous, this ‘tangle of crumbling weather-beaten and broken hills’ and the plains beyond it seem to have as much character and agency as the people who make their lives there. The landscape even moulds their personalities, teaching them ‘to be deliberate in their actions and slow in responding to emotions’ with its silence, harsh beauty, 120-day winds, and wide, open spaces across which pursuers can be spotted from miles away.

Yet for all its magnificence and antiquity, the landscape is in many ways little more than a rumpled blanket that can be shaken by external powers, tumbling those upon it into confusion. As a result of the closing of the borders and the political changes in the region in the late fifties, many of the local tribespeople run up against unfamiliar forces with which they must do battle in order to survive. Sometimes, tradition and ancient wisdom gain the upper hand, as when the nameless foreigner ventures into the off-limits Afridi territory of his father’s youth only to die a bewildered death, or the local official sent to challenge the Bhittani tribe over colluding in a kidnapping finds himself locked in a ‘battle of wits’ with the tribesmen and is obliged to give up because ‘he could offer no story to counter the old man’s logic’.

More often though, the traditional ways and those who practise them are warped and broken by the weight of a modern system that leaves no room for ambiguity. As the nomadic, stateless Kharot people discover when they attempt to cross the border to the pastureland their tribe has used for centuries and which their animals need to survive, ‘the pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life had to die’ – and die in the most brutal of circumstances.

Such tragedies bring out Ahmad’s most passionate and beautiful writing. In these moments, his disarmingly stripped-back style – characterised by insights such as ‘hope does not die like an animal – quick and sudden. It is more like a plant, which slowly withers away’ and the description of a murdered Mengal tribesman sliding ‘down in small jerks like a broken doll from the saddle to the ground’ – concentrates itself into powerful direct appeals. Perhaps the most moving of these concerns the execution of seven Baluch tribesmen, who, when asked to explain the murder of some rivals, find that their lengthy discourse on the history of tribal relations in the region holds no power to impress the court. ‘Fables have no use here. They are not evidence,’ says the judge, going on to sentence them to death and paving the way for Ahmad’s most memorable pronouncement on what such decisions cost:

‘What died with them was a part of the Baluch people themselves. A little of their spontaneity in offering affection, and something of their graciousness and trust. That too was tried, sentenced and died with these seven men.’

This is that rare breed of writing that springs from deep love and knowledge of a place and the people who live there. It is not saccharine, picture-postcard sentimentalism, all rose-tinted nostalgia; nor is it explorer’s obsession, tripping over itself in its eagerness to analyse and explain. No: it is a love that has been forged and tempered by years of living in and absorbing a region in all its beauty, brokenness, brutality and brilliance. Astonishing – and well worth the wait.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Penguin, 2011)

Lesotho: women’s rites

October 22, 2012

The suggestions for the small southern African Kingdom of Lesotho were a bit thin on the ground. The two authors who had been recommended, Thomas Mofolo and AS Mopeli-Paulus, were both long-dead, pre-independence writers whose books came out in the early 20th century.

I was sure there had to be more some more recent Sesotho literature available in English. But it wasn’t until I got talking to people at the recent, excellent International Translation Day event in London, that another lead emerged. There, a world-literature fan told me that her book group had read and enjoyed How We Buried Puso by Morabo Morojele, a contemporary Mosotho author.

Heartened by this news of a recently published book in English by a writer from Lesotho, I returned to my search refreshed. It was then that I stumbled on a surprising statistic: according to the CIA World Factbook, female literacy in Lesotho is unusually high for the region (estimated to be around 95.6 percent in 2010). It’s so widespread in fact that it outstrips male literacy by quite a long way – only 83.3 percent of men in the country can read.

If I found a book by a Mosotho author, then, it might well turn out to be by a woman. And so it proved: a few searches for ‘Lesotho women writers’ later, I was ordering a copy of Basali! – a collection of short stories by Basotho women, edited by K Limakatso Kendall.

The product of her two-year Fulbright Scholarship in Lesotho, the anthology grew out of work Limakatso Kendall did with students at the National University of Lesotho, who gathered, transcribed, translated and even wrote the stories in the book. Many of the tales were told originally in Sesotho and consist largely of episodes from the storytellers’ lives. These range from accounts of what led the narrators into particular vocations, including health work and life in a convent, to stories of overcoming hardships and challenges, such as Tembela Seleke’s memory of her return to South Africa years after the assassination of her husband there and ‘M’amoroosi ‘M’aseele Qacha’s tale of a woman’s reaction to the discovery that her schoolboy son has brought home a wife. There are also celebratory pieces, such as ‘The Universe’ – the only poem in the book – which is a sort of hymn to the beauty of the natural world.

Discrimination underscores many of the stories. Published in 1995, only a few years after the collapse of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa, the collection reveals the legacy of widespread racial persecution in many of the narrator’s lives. We see it in the terror of Usiwe as she contemplates a trip back across the border in ‘The Lost Sheep is Found’, as well as in the first story ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’ by Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya, in which Agnes remembers her family’s mistreatment at the hands of the Boer police.

The gender discrimination that has limited many of the women’s choices also drives a lot of the stories. Although local traditions mean that, in many areas, girls are better educated than boys because boys are taken off to be trained for farming, physical labour and other traditionally masculine pursuits at a young age, the strongly patriarchal structure of society there dictates that decision-making rests entirely with the men, leaving women at the mercy of their male relatives.

This power imbalance manifests itself in many ways, such as the extreme domestic violence depicted in ‘M’atseleng Lentsoenyane’s ‘Why Blame Her?’, in which a wife is beaten because of her inability to bear children. However, it is also a spur to great courage and ingenuity. In Mzamane Nhlapo’s ‘Give Me a Chance’, for example, we hear the story of Mama KaZili, who refuses to let her children starve because of her husband’s irresponsible behaviour and trudges through the snow to confront his indignant relatives with a speech that deserves a place among the great feminist manifestos:

‘”Yes I know the Bible,” she answered. “It says women should keep silent: ‘they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law’. Customary laws also treat women as children who are supposed to be under the man’s guidance and protection. Women are considered weak and naive. They have to seek permission even for little things like visiting friends and parents; in looking for employment; when they want to go to school, or ask for a scholarship or a loan; in applying for a site… Name them all.” [...]

‘”All these forms of gender inequalities and injustices take place in a government that repeatedly points out with pride that it has been elected by women because men, who are predominantly away in the South African mines, are mostly pro-BCP. Society and government don’t want to give women a chance. Women have to seek permission for everything that can improve their lives. Before I pass away in this world I want to have had a chance to improve my life and the lives of my children.”‘

Such words are very inspiring, particularly when accompanied by the celebration of women’s friendships and relationships that runs throughout the book. From the ‘Letter to ‘M’e’, in which a daughter praises her mother, to the intriguing description of the motsoalle (best friend) celebration in ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’, there is a strong sense of camaraderie and sisterhood between Basotho women as they struggle in the face of hardships and discrimination, and seize the chance for education, described by Julia ‘M’amatseliso Khabane as ‘a weapon to fight life’.

The result is a stirring and memorable collection. While the anecdotal quality of the stories can mean that a few of them lack polish and impact, the overall effect is striking. I was inspired and moved. Great stuff.

Basali!: Stories by and about women in Lesotho edited by K Limakatso Kendall (University of Natal Press, 1995)

Armenia: another side

October 20, 2012

It’s rare that a writer advises you against reading his or her work. But that’s what happened when Armand Inezian stopped by this blog back in August. Seeing that his collection of short stories, Bringing Ararat, was listed under Armenia, Inezian very honestly said that he didn’t feel his connection with the country was strong enough as, although he comes from an Armenian family, he grew up in Boston and can’t write in Armenian. He added that his work has not been translated into Armenian either.

It was great to have Inezian’s perspective, as the question of exactly where the boundaries of national literatures lie has been a recurring theme in this project. I’ve encountered people who think hugely differently about this: while some are happy to regard books by an author whose parents come from a country as being part of that nation’s literature, others claim that the writer must be born, raised and still living in that country to qualify. There are even those who insist that a book must also be set in the country in question to count.

Personally, I’ve found my perspective on this issue shifting over the year with each tricky dilemma I’ve encountered and I’m still not entirely sure where I stand on it. Still, if Inezian didn’t feel his book was an Armenian work, perhaps I should listen to him.

Nevertheless, I was keen to involve Inezian in some way. If I wasn’t going to read his book (and let’s face it the choice of Armenian literature available in English is not massive), then perhaps I could pick his brains instead. Were there any Armenian writers whose work he could suggest? The answer came in the form of a link to information about Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian on Goodreads.

I have to confess that my heart sank when my copy arrived. Not only was this, judging by the title and subtitle (A memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918), a very serious book, it was also a very long one. Its 500 or so large pages were covered with dense and relatively small print. The first sentence, too, with its earnest consideration of the political atmosphere of Europe in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, filled me with foreboding. What had Armand Inezian let me in for?

The book records Armenian priest Grigoris Balakian’s experiences during World War I. Having finished his divinity studies at the University of Berlin just as the conflict began, Balakian travelled home to Constantinople in the hope that he could be of service to the Armenian population there. But as the eyes of the world turned to the trenches in Western Europe, Balakian witnessed the Ottoman regime beginning to target the 2 million ethnic Armenians within present-day Turkey’s borders, deporting hundreds of thousands of people to die barbaric deaths along the lonely mountain roads and plains of Asia Minor.

Caught up in this forced exodus, Balakian spent three years travelling and working in constant fear of being executed like the thousands of corpses he encountered en route. With only his ingenuity, determination and faith to guide him, he attempted to shield, hearten and save his Armenian peers, all the while holding on to the hope that he would one day be able to share their story with the rest of the world.

Balakian was an extraordinary individual, whose character shines through on nearly every page. Following the dry political summary of the opening lines, the narrative quickly becomes personal and detailed, bearing witness to its author’s great presence of mind in the face of extreme events. Whether he is using an anti-war rally he attended as an ‘opportunity to study up close the psychology of the organized German working class’, bargaining with the authorities for the lives of his companions, or talking to an official guilty of the deaths of thousands of his countrymen, Balakian displays an uncommon ability to keep his head.

This detachment means that he is able to embark on ‘a process of harrowing mental record-keeping’, remembering and relating details that would be lost to most people and delivering reams of compelling and historically significant descriptions. From his rare, foreigner’s-eye-view  of Berlin in 1914, through to the ‘whirlwind of blood’ he encountered in Asia Minor, Balakian’s accounts are meticulous. He spares nothing in his effort to convey the horrendous sufferings of his friends and compatriots, many of whom he claims were tortured and hacked to death by mobs bearing household and farmyard implements to save the authorities the cost of bullets. ‘If all the seas were ink and all the fields were paper, still it would be impossible to describe, in detail, the reality of the endless tortures of hundreds of thousands of them,’ he writes.

For Balakian, recounting these events is a sacred act. As he explains in his author’s preface, he regards his work as a ‘holy book’ for Armenia, which was first founded in around 600 BC. It is also the fulfilment of a promise made to some of his massacred compatriots and the bedrock of his decision ‘not to die’ during the genocide, which he believes kept him alive.

Inevitably, with so much emotional freight to carry, the narrative occasionally gets bogged down. Some of the writing is overblown and hyperbolic – the author’s repeated laments over the ‘martyrology of Armenian virgins’, for example, stick in the craw. The storytelling also comes second to Balakian’s desire to include everything he remembers, meaning that the latter stages of the book can be hard going and repetitive. In addition, for a reader with no contextual knowledge like me, it’s hard to know how much of the often very anecdotal and partisan accounts to trust.

Nevertheless, this is an important and impressive memoir. It not only opens up a much-neglected chapter in history and challenges Westerners like me to rethink our version of the events of the early 20th century, but it also presents a moving portrait of one man’s survival, patriotism and faith. If you’ve ever questioned the point of storytelling, the answers are in this book.

Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian, translated from the Armenian by Peter Balakian with Aris Sevag (Vintage, 2010)

I stoogled upon Frederick Yamusangie’s website when doing a bit of preliminary research into literature from the DRC earlier this year. Born in what was then Zaire (the country reclaimed its name in 1997 after the ousting of President Mobutu), the Congolese writer studied Communication Engineering at the University of Kent and now lives in the UK, where he has self-published several poetry anthologies and his novel Full Circle. As it turned out, after several more hours of searching and sending out queries, he is one of the very few DRC writers to have work available in English today.

It’s hardly surprising when you consider what the Francophone nation has been through. Home to the planet’s deadliest conflict since World War II, Africa’s second-largest country has seen more than 5.4 million of its people die as a result of the fighting since 1998. Despite being rich in natural resources, DRC is the state with the second-lowest GDP per capita in the world. Small wonder then that promoting a publishing industry does not figure very high in many people’s priorities there.

With so little to go on, it seemed perverse not to give Yamusangie’s novel a try. And so, swallowing those die-hard qualms about self-publishing – which have turned out to be misplaced in several cases this year – I downloaded the book and set to.

Full Circle follows city boy Dada, who is sent to live in the village of Bulungu and learn about his culture when his father leaves the country to take up a diplomatic post in the US. The community seems pleasant enough at first, but as time goes by Dada discovers dark secrets and deep rifts beneath its peaceful surface that threaten to destroy him. Will secular Dada survive this superstitious minefield? Will his peers accept him as one of their own? And will the shapeshifting human-crocodiles in the nearby river get to carry out their wicked plans?

Yamusangie presents a nation divided by money. On one side sits Dada, who, because of his privileged upbringing, has ‘more knowledge of Western Europe than his own country’ and has never travelled in Zaire before. On the other is the rural population with its strong tribal traditions, loyalties and beliefs. At the start of the book, Dada is convinced that he knows enough about his culture and could ‘live in the USA[...] and still know how to relate to [his] own people’. Yet as the book goes on, he discovers he has much to learn.

The customs Dada discovers are eclectic and sometimes surprising. Magic, superstition and animistic beliefs weave through everything and are treated as part of normal life. When Dada goes for lunch at his teacher Mrs Betika’s house, for example, she tells him not to worry about a snake in the henhouse because it is the reincarnation of her auntie. Indeed, enchantments are big business, with many of the local spiritualists jostling to corner each others’ shares of the market and even plotting to murder a newcomer who seems to be too successful for his own good. The discussions of these customs and how they fit with the prevailing religion of Christianity, as well as the pressures on young people to abandon the old ways are fascinating, as are the glimpses into the rites of the secret society that tries to recruit Dada.

At times, however, the author’s sociological and historical insights hi-jack the narrative and send it hurtling off on long detours, sometimes threatening to derail it. This is not helped by an increasingly outlandish plot, which is sometimes held together with rather flimsy logic. For example, the reasons the police give for releasing Dada when he is accused of murdering a friend – that a child would never admit to doing such a thing and that children are incapable of killing anyone – are rather questionable.

It’s a shame, because there are some great moments in the story. The scene where the dead boy’s relatives converge on Dada’s guardian’s house seeking revenge is gripping. And by using a quote from that most famous of Congo-based novels, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Yamusangie makes his ambitions for the book clear.

With some robust editing and another eye on the work, he might have got there. As it stands, though, this is a fascinating and surprising book that opens up a little-known part of the world to English-language readers. It is rough round the edges, as many self-published books can be, but it contains some good things. I’m glad I chose it.

Full Circle by Frederick Yamusangie (iUniverse, 2003)

I emailed a lot of people during the search for this book. Some of the messages bounced. Others disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again. But lots of people did get back to me, usually to tell me one or both of two things: that there was no Kiribatian prose that they could think of and/or that there was someone I should contact at the university/library/community project across the way who might know more.

This impromptu game of e-tag led me through Guam, New Zealand, Kiribati itself, Samoa, Fiji, Hawaii and the States, until at last I emailed Sudesh Mishra, an associate professor in the school of creative and communication arts at Deakin University in Australia. He suggested that I look up Teweiariki Teaero and gave me his email address at the University of the South Pacific. Perhaps the poet would have a prose manuscript I could read.

I dropped Teaero a line. He replied the very next day to say that while no novel, short story collection or memoir by a writer from Kiribati existed, his anthologies On Eitei’s Wings and Waa in Storms contained prose pieces as well as poems. Would I be interested in reading one of those?

Curious to see how this mixing of genres worked, I asked which collection contained the greatest amount of short stories. A few weeks later a copy of Waa in Storms arrived.

Bringing together Teaero’s poetry, prose, drawings and paintings, the anthology comprises work from a particularly dark period in the author’s life, during which his parents fell seriously ill, his youngest daughter was hit by a car, and his home community on the atoll of Tarawa was shaken by a series of vicious child rapes. Melding depictions of particular moments and more general reflections on extreme emotions with anecdotes, satirical sketches and occasional rants about island life, the pieces present a rich and layered picture of Teaero’s year.

The use of language in the book is fascinating. While some pieces, including all the prose work, are written entirely in English, others, such as ‘Te Faika’, mix together verses in the Kiribatese language and verses in English. Yet others are written exclusively in Kiribatese. Teaero explains in his introduction that the reasons for this are tied to his desire ‘to express an idea as vividly as possible… [whether] this comes through the use of English, Kiribatese, visual image or any combination of the three’.

For the author, it seems, the three modes of expression have different strengths when it comes to certain ideas and emotions. Although it’s impossible for an English-language reader like me to tell what the subject matter of most of the Kiribatese work is, a note at the end of ‘E Kaaki Baina Te Ang’ (‘Teaia, Tarawa. 18th August 2000. The day my father passed away’) suggests that some of it at least contains extremely personal reflections on the writer’s emotional and family life, while many of the English pieces are outward-looking, focusing on politics, ecology and the wider community.

The inclusion of background details at the end of most of the pieces adds a fascinating layer of meaning to the collection. While some reveal the inspiration for the work, others such as the note, ‘Composed while sitting on the sand dunes in Sigatoka town. 28th January 2001,’ at the end of ‘Sad Parade’ introduce a powerful sense of immediacy to the act of writing, as though we are reading the story of the composition as much as the pieces themselves. And then there are the quirky observations that raise a smile and introduce a huge amount of warmth into the collection, such as the postscript to ‘Size Unlimited’:

‘Suva. 5th December 2000. Composed in the Botanical Gardens of USP. The frogs were very happy, hopping about and croaking joyously every-merry-where! Perhaps they were having an early Christmas party.’

Teaero’s writing seems, for the most part, disarmingly simple. He uses this to great effect in satirical stories such as ‘Merrily Verily Messing with Missing Milkfish’, where the sing-song, childlike tone of the piece is a great tool for sending up corrupt government officials. It can also pay dividends in poems such as ‘Tab-ulous Reunion’ where the almost banal heaping of platitudes on a former teacher builds in a mysteriously moving way. At times, however, the work does feel a little bald, particularly at the end of some of the prose pieces, where Teaero steps out from behind the narrative to appeal for a range of reforms, from equipping the police with breathalyzers and planting more trees at the local hospital to greater transparency in politics, as though he does not trust the story to speak for itself.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that the distinction between poetry and prose in the collection often seems rather meaningless. Several of the poems read as stories, while prose pieces such as ‘Island Time’ and ‘Crowded Buses’ read more as poems that happen to be written in full sentences that stretch across the page. In addition, much of the work incorporates visual aspects, with font sizes and weights and the shape of the poems on the page adding emphasis. Just as outside events and Teaero’s life experiences bleed into and mingle with the works, so the forms mix with and change each other.

The result is a distinctive and memorable collection. Organised into four ‘Waves’, which loosely chart Teaero’s progress through what he calls his ‘annus horribilis‘ in the introduction, the work pulls together to tell a story of suffering and change. It is in many ways every bit as much a narrative as the novels, short story collections and memoirs I’ve read so far this year – and a striking challenge to the system of categorization I’ve used to talk about literature for much of my life.

Waa in Storms by Teweiariki Teaero (Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 2004)

This book was one of a pile of tempting-looking titles that Richard from now-defunct Aflame Books very kindly gave me earlier this year. I had originally been planning to try to source some other recommendations for Costa Rican literature and had in fact had some leads from Cherie at Palabras Errantes. She suggested Anacristina Rossi and Carmen Naranjo as two respected writers from the country.

However, when I tried to track down their books, there was a problem: translations by these writers are extremely thin on the ground. Only a couple of Carmen Naranjo’s short stories seem to be available in English, while Anacristina Rossi’s work is either untranslated or prohibitively expensive – the English translation of her novel The Madwoman of Gandoca that I finally managed to track down would have cost me more than £100 to buy and ship.

That was a bridge too far for me, particularly when I already had a Costa Rican novel peering down at me from the shelf above my desk. Cadence of the Moon by Óscar Núñez Olivas it would be.

Based on the crimes of Costa Rica’s first recorded, and as yet unidentified, serial killer, the novel follows young journalist Maricruz and jaded, divorced police detective Gustavo as they ply the tools of their respective professions to try to solve the case. The extreme sadism and skill of the murderer and the compromised nature of the organisations in which they work test their ingenuity, endurance and professional ethics to breaking point. With only their intelligence and consciences to guide them, do Gustavo and Maricruz have what it takes to find the killer and see justice done?

Gender politics play a huge part in the book. From the ‘game of Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf’ Maricruz is forced to play to win her male colleagues’ cooperation every day of her working life, through to the gruesome, female-focused mutilation rituals of the murderer, this is a novel about how men and women interact. Some of the observations can feel a little two-dimensional and cliched, as when Maricruz’s gay friend Pedro launches into a lecture about the narrowness of straight men, however there are some nice touches that lift the narrative and the handling of the relationship between the two central characters is generally good.

Olivas also does tension well. While working a series of outlandish elements into the story – among them the occult, an underground political movement, and the symbolic significance of the phases of the moon – he manages to keep the plot moving and make it believable. Nevertheless, readers (at least those who can get hold of a copy of this now out-of-print translation) will probably find the ending surprising, given that here the narrative veers sharply away from the conventions of the murder-mystery form, having adhered to most of them throughout the book.

This is probably due to the fact that the things Olivas seems most interested in as a writer are only tangentially connected to the murder case. In many ways, the real focus of the novel is on the politics and compromises that riddle big organisations, such as Maricruz’s newspaper and the police. During the course of the story, both of these come under pressure from outside influences, ranging from advertisers and funders in the case of the newspaper, through to public opinion and government interests in the case of the police – although it must be said that some of the ethical dilemmas Olivas poses his characters are a little underwhelming. Maricruz’s initial reluctance to cultivate Gustavo as an off-the-record source because she believes she should publish everything she discovers, for example, comes across as more than a little naive.

Interestingly, while Olivas, himself a journalist, is relentlessly scathing about the European publisher Mr Grey – who makes crass pronouncements about the ineffectualness of Costa Ricans and all but strangles the newspaper in his desire to micromanage it – the writer is more chary when it comes to the police. Alongside the FBI expert who sweeps in to draw up a psychological profile of the killer, Gustavo and his colleagues appear bumbling and crude in their methods. Whether this is a reflection of the status quo or not I don’t know, but it seems odd that Olivas does not try to balance the exposure of the Costa Rican police force’s weak points with some observations about how its methods might compare favourably with the clinical, anonymous approach of the US agent.

All in all, however, it was a pleasant surprise to find that this book was more than it was cracked up to be. From the cover picture of a gagged woman on a full-moon night, I assumed I’d be getting a brutal and sensationalist whodunnit. In fact, the contents where a lot more subtle and thought-provoking. Hmmn. What’s that old adage about books and covers again?

Cadence of the Moon (En Clave de Luna) by Óscar Núñez Olivas, translated from the Spanish by Joanna Griffin (Aflame Books, 2007)

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