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There are exactly 12 hours until the Rest of the World poll closes and your votes decide the penultimate book of the year. There’s been some passionate campaigning and polling over the past week, but it’s still possible for any one of the contenders to seize the crown.

So what’ll it be? A Kurdish memoir, a Basque tale, a Faroese fishing novel, a Bermudian boxing bout, a Native American prize-winner or a Catalonian short story collection?

Read the list and vote in the poll below to have your say – and if you really want your favourite to win, why not tell your friends to vote too? This is getting exciting…

Shortlist

  • Basque Country Bernardo Atxaga Seven Houses in France – a historical novel (first published in 2009) about a French army captain who sets out to make his fortune in the jungles of Congo
  • Bermuda Brian Burland The Sailor and the Fox – a 1973 novel about the island’s first ever mixed-race prizefight by one of Bermuda’s most notable and controversial writers
  • Catalonia Jaume Cabré Winter Journey – a collection of interlinked short stories (first published in 2001) based on the structure of a Schubert song cycle
  • Faroe Islands Heðin Brú The Old Man and His Sons – a novel depicting the transformation of the fishing industry, voted ‘Book of the 20th Century’ by the Faroese
  • Kurdistan Jalal Barzanji The Man in Blue Pyjamas – a literary memoir by a journalist imprisoned and tortured under Saddam Hussein’s regime
  • Native America Louise Erdrich The Round House – a novel about racial injustice, which won the US National Book Award in November 2012

Poll closes at 23.59 tonight (UK time)

Picture courtesy of the_sprouts.

China: one in 1.3 billion

November 29, 2012

My knowledge of Chinese literature is pretty non-existent, so I was very grateful when translator Nicky Harman offered to talk me through some of the options last month. We met in a coffee shop in Covent Garden, where, sandwiched between groups of students and tourists planning expeditions to Oxford Street, Harman shared some of her insights into books from the world’s most populous country, which is home to a fifth of the planet’s people.

She said that, while a wide range of literature was published in China, a very narrow spectrum of works were available in English. These tended to be rather depressing, violent and, as she put it, ‘masculine’ books, which often made for heavy-going reading. She hoped that Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature this year would start to change this by increasing the appetite for publishing a greater variety of Chinese books around the world.

In the meantime, however, Harman did have some tips for me. If I didn’t mind hard-hitting books, Mian Mian’s Candy was a good bet, while Mo Yan’s short story collection Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh rung the changes, being both comic and tragic. In addition, Yan Ge (not to be confused with Yan Geling), a young, witty, female writer who Harman said was like a modern Jane Austen, was one to watch. Her work was not translated yet, but would hopefully be available in English soon. The same was true of Xu Zechen, whose short story ‘Throwing Out the Baby’ had been published on Words Without Borders.  In terms of non-fiction, the work of Xue Xinran was well worth looking out for.

In amongst Harman’s recommendations, however, one title stood out: Han Dong’s Banished!. Perhaps this wasn’t surprising, given that Harman had translated the novel herself; nevertheless I couldn’t help being intrigued by her description of the book, which, by the sound of it, provided an unusual – even quirky – perspective on the events of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. My interest was also piqued by the translator’s comment that the structure of the book, which reads like a memoir, with each chapter devoted to a different character in the village, reflected a popular tradition in Chinese fiction. I decided it would be the book for me.

Drawing on Han’s personal history, the novel portrays the banishment of the Tao family from the city of Nanjing to the village of Sanyu during the late 1960s. Required to ‘learn from the poorer and lower middle peasants’ as part of Mao Zedong’s attempt to erase capitalism and culture from the country, Grandma and Grandpa Tao, writer Tao and his wife Su Qun, and their son, young Tao, must make new lives for themselves. But, while they try to do the best they can with the meagre resources available to them, they must also take care not to do too well and arouse the jealousy of their impoverished and poorly educated neighbours: as objects of suspicion because of Tao’s intellectual past, their best hope lies in striking root and blending in with their drab, new surroundings.

Sinister undercurrents flow through the novel, bubbling to the surface now and then to flood the characters’ lives. From the bleak prospects Tao foresees for his young son and his fear that his wages might be stopped by the Party, to the investigation that makes Su Qun contemplate suicide and young Tao’s memory of the ransacked buildings he saw in Nanjing, there is an underlying sense of the threat hidden in the smallest and most apparently innocuous of decisions.

Most striking of all, however, is not the precariousness of the Tao’s situation, but its strangeness. Little details, such as the ‘good-news troupe’ marshalled to cheer the banished families on their way and the era’s unfamiliar jargon, reveal the profound oddness of the time, as does six-year-old Tao’s misplaced excitement at the initial hurly-burly of the Revolution and his proud boast that ‘our family’s got a bad egg too, and he’s been struggled against’. Indeed, as the anonymous narrator reminds us, the period is in many ways every bit as strange to contemporary Chinese readers as it is to Westerners:

‘I can only sincerely apologize to my young readers or those from another world. The world I describe here was, after all, a peculiar and transitory one, constructed of language that enshrouded and permeated it with what Buddhists call anitya, a mysterious impermanence.’

In the face of such ephemerality, the Taos ground themselves in the rituals of their new lives, devising strategies for survival. These often involve negotiating their way round the alien traditions of their neighbours – from finding a way to decline a proposal to involve young Tao in a childhood betrothal, to trying to outwit the hungry villagers who want to kidnap and eat their pet dogs. However, there are also moments of joy as we share in young Tao’s adventures in his rural surroundings and the family members’ satisfaction at being able to improve their living conditions through their ingenuity. Indeed, the little domestic triumphs of excluding draughts, drawing water and making adequate sanitary arrangements are so engrossing that we are a long way into the narrative before we realise quite what ‘Mr Tao Peiyi, the professional writer’, now ‘forbidden to write his own books’, has lost in the move to this remote region.

The result is a moving consideration of storytelling and the power of human beings to take charge of their identities in even the bleakest of circumstances. Through watching the Taos carve out a life that allows them to retain something of their sense of dignity and purpose in the face of an attempt to erase individuality, distinctiveness and creativity, we see the marvellous resilience of the human mind. Surprising, and rather wonderful.

Banished! by Han Dong, translated from the Mandarin by Nicky Harman (University of Hawaii Press, 2009)

There is just one day left until the Rest of the World poll closes. Vote now to choose which book I should read!

Benin: knowing your place

November 27, 2012

While it’s hard to find books from some nations, other countries are simply hard to find full stop – at least on the internet. Search for Nigerien literature (ie literature from Niger) and often as not Google will ask you if you meant ‘Nigerian literature’. And when it comes to tracking down information about the West African nation of Benin, you might well find yourself reading about events in Benin City, Nigeria by mistake.

In fact, I very nearly ended up reading a whole book from Benin City in error. The memoir, I Remain, Sir, Your Obedient Servant by Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, was listed on a bookseller’s website as being from Benin. Not having been able to find much other Beninois literature in English, I ordered it a few months ago and added it to the pile of books waiting in the corner of my living room.

It was only last week, when I picked the volume up with the intention of reading it and turned to the back to look at the blurb, that the penny dropped. Instead of perusing the biography of a senior Beninois politician, I was puzzled to find myself confronted with an account of Erediauwa’s education in Benin City and his experiences during the Nigerian Civil War. It took quite a bit of head-scratching to work out what had gone wrong.

This left me in a quandary. I could count the number of weeks left until the end of the year on my fingers and, given how little my preliminary searches had turned up, I was not at all confident that I would be able to find any kind of story from Benin that I could read in English before 2013.

A few hours of frantic googling ensued, during which I entertained all sorts of unlikely possibilities. I was on the point of investigating the cost of flights to Porto-Novo, when I stoogled across Harlem-based writer Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr. Born in Cotonou, Benin, Ismaili came to NYC as a teenager in the late 1950s with the hope of becoming Africa’s first opera singer, according to her profile on the Woyingi Blog. Instead, however, she took up psychology and began to write and has published several collections of poetry.

A number of articles I saw about Ismaili mentioned that she also writes short stories, although I couldn’t find any of her prose collections available to buy. So, with nothing to lose, I decided to contact her to see if she could help me out. Ismaili replied with the news that a collection of her short stories was in the process of being prepared for publication. The book was not ready yet, but she kindly agreed to send me the manuscript so that I could read it. Delighted and more than a little relieved, I downloaded the file onto my Kindle and got stuck in.

Set mostly in West Africa, Stories We Tell Each Other brings together a series of pieces about people coming up against injustice, discrimination and the limits that society puts on them because of their gender, race or age. There is the young girl set on going to university in the face of her male relatives’ scorn for the idea of educating women, the teenager who lives in fear of being forced to undergo female genital mutilation, and the boy who travels to join the People’s Liberation Army in South Africa.

Ismaili’s eye for detail makes these struggles real. The sadness and anger of ‘Into This House We Come’, for example – in which a woman attends the funeral of a friend infected with AIDS because of her husband’s promiscuity – live in the narrator’s memories of the dead woman’s laughter and her love of dancing. Similarly, the writer lays bare the pretensions of Khadiatou’s relatives in ‘Ici On Parle Francais’ with the simple revelation that her aunt changed her name from Salimatou to Sally ‘after having gone to London once’.

For all the problems facing the characters, the narratives convey a great deal of pride in West African culture. From depictions of personal rituals such as Khadiatou’s grandmother setting an extra place at the table for their stolen ancestress, through to explanations of the significance of particular insults and the traditions that mean an uncle can also be called a brother, Ismaili takes the role of a guide, interpreting unfamiliar concepts for readers so they too may inhabit the world of the book. Indeed, her evocation of domestic life in Benin is often so warm and inviting that it almost makes you homesick for a place you may never have been.

With this pride and love of place comes of strong sense of the importance of championing the independence and rights of Africans. This gives rise to some powerful, angry writing, as in ‘Coloured Beads and Glass Trees’, in which an exiled politician returns home in an attempt to avert a crisis and, among other things, discovers the grubby conditions attached to Western aid in the region. However, it can at times hi-jack the stories, particularly in the latter third of the book, causing the plots to buck and jerk under its weight. For example, ‘Tandi’, in which a lonely secretary gets swept up in the struggle against apartheid in Johannesburg, creaks a little in the effort to contain all that Ismaili wants to say. In addition, devices such as the radio reports that break into the text, begin to lose their effectiveness with repeated use.

Overall, though, there is a lot to like in this book. Ismaili is at her best when she is writing about the small details that bring meaning to people’s daily lives. In this, she has that rare gift of being able to take readers by the hand and introduce them to lives and concerns very different from their own. An extremely lucky find.

Stories We Tell Each Other by Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr (publication pending)

You have just three days left to vote for my penultimate book of the year. Go on, tell me what to read!

Palau: a world apart

November 26, 2012

From very early on in the year, this country of around 21,000 people spread over 250 islands, 500 miles east of the Philippines distinguished itself as the most difficult Pacific island nation to find books from. Every other literary globetrotter I’ve heard of has struggled to find a Palauan story, with many people resorting to anthropological works and histories by Western academics in the absence of anything by writers from the place.

My own experience bore this out. While I was able to find people to contact for recommendations from all the other Pacific nations – no matter how tricky the books ended up being to track down – it was difficult to know where to start with Palau. The few emails I fired off to people in the country disappeared into the ether without a trace. And any experts on the region I contacted simply said Palau would be difficult and left it at that. Things were starting to get desperate.

And then my resourceful colleague – who, by the way, I’m beginning to suspect is some kind of secret agent, so uncanny is his ability to find leads in the remotest of places – sent me a link to a Palauan writers Yahoo group. Judging by the absence of recent activity on the site, it might well have turned out to be another dead-end. However, there was an email address for the list owner. And so, not holding out much hope, I sent a message to it.

After about a week, a detailed email came back from Susan Kloulechad, a Canadian citizen who is married to a Palauan, with whom she has three children, and has lived in the country for nearly 20 years. She suggested several organisations and people to contact on the islands before mentioning that she had a couple of unpublished manuscripts of her own. One in particular, Spirits’ Tides, caught my interest. And so, judging that Kloulechad’s long association with the nation qualified her work to be considered as Palauan, I asked her if she would let me read it.

Moving back and forth between New York and the imaginary archipelago of Lekes, which Kloulechad says is a fictional version of Palau (the name is taken from a place in her husband’s village), the novel tells the fraught love story of Jonathan C Durston Jr and Micronesian girl Rur. Worlds apart in terms of their lifestyles and experiences, the two are really spirit companions who were separated when they entered time and were born at opposite ends of the Earth. They meet again when multi-millionaire tycoon Jonathan crashes his plane in the sea by one of Lekes’ deserted islands and Rur helps save his life. An attraction develops quickly between the pair, but, with so much separating them, a relationship between these star-crossed lovers seems impossible.

Jonathan’s crash-landing in the heart of Lekes provides Kloulechad with a great opportunity to reveal Micronesian culture to the reader. With Rur as a guide, we learn about everything from how to catch a coconut crab to the region’s strong family values and wedding rituals, as well as some of its folk tales. I was particularly pleased to come across the story of the race between the fish and the wily crab, which I read first in Marshall Islands Legends and Stories and now feels like an old friend.

The author balances this with a great evocation of New York City in winter, as seen through Rur’s eyes. Reading it made me deeply nostalgic for strolling through Central Park in the snow and my fingers itched to get online and book a flight – testament to how well Kloulechad captures the place.

There are some good touches of humour in the narrative too. Moments such as Rur’s mischievous pretence that her ability to start fires derives from island magic, rather than the lighter in her back pocket, and her fabrication of a story about the extent of Jonathan’s injuries to help them get a flight more quickly bring the novel alive.

On the downside, the balance slips during some of the debates between Jonathan and Rur so that the book often feels more like a two-dimensional manifesto for ‘the value of a simple life’ in Micronesia than the dramatisation of the meeting of two worlds. At times Rur seems to be hectoring not only Jonathan, but also the Westerner the author seems to envisage reading the book.

In addition, there are problems with the plot: the pact between scheming girlfriend Caroline and Jonathan’s father to entrap the hero in an engagement stretches credibility, while Jonathan’s forging ahead with plans for a marriage he doesn’t want and his reluctance to discover the identity of the employees embezzling funds from his company feel more like a decisions required by Kloulechad to keep the tension going rather than choices the protagonist would make. I was also uncomfortable with the use of Caroline’s desire to work once she’d had children as a way of vilifying her.

Nevertheless, as a light, romantic novel the book has potential. The raw subject matter is rich and Kloulechad’s skill in evoking places makes for some lovely moments. With a bit of structural underpinning and some fine tuning of motivations, it could be a very enjoyable read. And if it finds a publisher, it will also – as far as I can find out – be the first Palauan novel to make it into print. Now that’s something I’d love to see.

Spirits’ Tides by Susan Kloulechad

The Rest of the World vote closes on Friday 30 November at 23.59 (UK time). Make sure you have your say!

Rest of the World: vote now!

November 26, 2012

There are just four days left for you to have your say about which book I should read from the rest of the world (territories and peoples not represented on my main list).

Taking part is easy: just check out the shortlist below (drawn up from your nominations) and vote for the title that tickles your fancy in the poll. I’ll read the book with most votes for my penultimate post of the year. Can’t wait to see what you’ll choose…

Shortlist

  • Basque Country Bernardo Atxaga Seven Houses in France – a historical novel (first published in 2009) about a French army captain who sets out to make his fortune in the jungles of Congo
  • Bermuda Brian Burland The Sailor and the Fox – a 1973 novel about the island’s first ever mixed-race prizefight by one of Bermuda’s most notable and controversial writers
  • Catalonia Jaume Cabré Winter Journey – a collection of interlinked short stories (first published in 2001) based on the structure of a Schubert song cycle
  • Faroe Islands Heðin Brú The Old Man and His Sons – a novel depicting the transformation of the fishing industry, voted ‘Book of the 20th Century’ by the Faroese
  • Kurdistan Jalal Barzanji The Man in Blue Pyjamas – a literary memoir by a journalist imprisoned and tortured under Saddam Hussein’s regime
  • Native America Louise Erdrich The Round House – a novel about racial injustice, which won the US National Book Award in November 2012

Poll closes at 23.59 on Friday 30 November (UK time).

Picture courtesy of the_sprouts.

Moldova: nail-biting stuff

November 24, 2012

One of the nicest things about doing this project has been the way it’s brought me into contact with people all over the world. Nothing cheers me up more at 6.30am on a Monday morning than logging into my stats and seeing the number of visitors who’ve clicked on to the blog from all parts of the planet.

This has also been invaluable when it comes to finding books from hard-to-reach places, so when malinkasstudio visited my site and left a comment in which she described herself as ‘a proud Moldovan’, I seized the opportunity to ask her what I should read from her country. Malinkasstudio confirmed my suspicions that there wasn’t much Moldovan literature in translation out there – in fact she smilingly said that she would probably be one of the first writers from the small Eastern European state to make it into English. However, she was pleased to see that I already had a book by her favourite author, Ion Drutse, on the list. She wasn’t sure which short stories the collection Moldavian Autumn contained, but if it had  ‘Frunze de dor’ (an un-translatable phrase which she said would mean something like ‘Leaves of missing somebody’) and ‘The Last Month of Autumn’ she was sure I would like it.

That was enough of a recommendation for me. I tracked down a rather pricey copy of the 2001 translation on the internet, ordered it and sat back to wait for the book to arrive.

And waited. And waited. And, yes, waited some more. In fact six weeks went by without the collection appearing, by which time the bookseller and I concluded it must have got lost in the post. So, I tracked down another, slightly pricier copy and ordered that. A few days later I got a message from the vendor: unaccountably the book was missing from his warehouse. He was sorry, but he’d have to cancel my order.

Time was marching on. I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t manage to get my hands on a copy before the end of the year, particularly given the long delivery times quoted by many of the rare book dealers on the net.

However, alongside the listings for Moldavian Autumn, I’d also seen another book in English translation by Drutse: The Story of An Ant. There was no information about it, beyond the fact that it contained illustrations. Intrigued by the title and anxious to have some kind of Moldovan reading matter in my life, I ordered that instead.

A slender pamphlet arrived through the post, containing two fable-like animal stories by Ion Drutse. The first, ‘Duck Hunters’, portrays the development of a touching friendship between an old farmer’s housekeeper and a chick hatched from a stolen duck egg. The second story, which shares the title of the book, follows an ant’s epic quest to find some food in a harsh, giant-sized world.

Although ostensibly simple, the stories contain subtle portraits of the motivations driving their characters. From the descriptions of farmer Uncle Trofim, a ‘deeply disappointed old man’, whose sense of identity is bound up with his dwindling flock of ducks and the zama his housekeeper makes from them, to the savage attack launched by the farmyard geese on the pampered favourite, Drutse’s sense of the needs and desires of his subjects underpins the narratives. The first story also contains a powerful explanation of the reason we often feel uncomfortable with the idea of eating animals that tend to be pets: ‘You can’t make zama out of something that rejoices your soul’, as the old woman puts it.

Striking imagery and quirky details help make the stories live. While trouble sticks to Uncle Trofim ‘like a burr’ and the sitting goose laughs at the odd-shaped duck egg hidden in her clutch, the ant’s view of the obstacles in her way – from a massive pair of ploughman’s feet to a dozing muskrat (‘There’s no lazybones like a muskrat in this world and any ant would have stopped and told the rat about it’) – keep us gripped by her quest. In addition, the impressionistic illustrations, which vary markedly in tone between the two stories, help enrich the reading experience.

That said, the text does have some problems. The translation is erratic at times with pronouns and tenses leaping merrily all over the shop. One or two words also seem to have got mangled in the process – the description of how ‘before the frost came, the goslings changed their pubes into feathers’, for example, can’t be quite right.

In addition, the structure of the stories is a little unusual. While the first story seems to shift focus from Uncle Trofim to the old woman, as though Drutse only makes up his mind who his main character is half-way through, the second story ends so abruptly that it seems the author has lost patience with it and is eager to move on to something else.

Reading them, I couldn’t help feeling that I wasn’t seeing Drutse at his best, particularly given malinkasstudio’s enthusiasm for him. However, the quirky touches and striking imagery made me intrigued to try more of his work. If anyone out there has a copy of Moldavian Autumn that I can beg, buy or borrow I’d love to hear from you – maybe I can read it next year!

The Story of An Ant by Ion Drutse, translated from the Moldovan by Iraida Kotrutse, illustrated by Nina Danilenko (Kishinev Literatura Artistika, 1988)

The Rest of the World poll is now open. Vote to choose my penultimate book of the year!

There were several possibilities in the frame for Macedonia. Will Firth, translator of my Croatian pick, Our Man in Iraq, had suggested two options: Luan Starova’s My Father’s Books and Pirey by Petre M Andreevski, both of which sounded tempting.

But it was when I heard about writer Goce Smilevski that my ears really pricked up. His novel Sigmund Freud’s Sister won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2010 and is being published in more than 30 languages. Reaching further back, Smilevski was awarded the Central European Initiative Fellowship for young European authors in 2006 and his book Conversation with Spinoza: a cobweb novel won the 2003 Macedonian Novel of the Year Award. I decided it would be the book for me.

As the subtitle suggests, this is no ordinary novel. In fact, any hopes you might have of following a conventional yarn are quickly dispatched by the ‘Note to the Reader’ on the very first page:

‘The threads of this novel are spun out of conversations between you and Spinoza. So wherever there is an empty space in the words of Spinoza, just say your name and write it in the blank space.’

And that sums up the basic structure: ricocheting back and forth across the space of almost 400 years, the novel is based on a dialogue between the modern reader and the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza – or, rather, two versions of him. The first is the confident young man wedded to his quest for complete freedom by focusing his mind only on eternal things and mastering his emotions. The interlocutor of the second part is the lonely, elderly hermit, looking back with regret on a life lived at arm’s length from the world. Both Spinozas tell the story of their existences, prompted by questions and observations from the reader. In so doing, they set up two markers, between which, as Smilevski spins his narrative, a web of contradictions and connections shimmers.

The author’s attention to detail is extraordinary – so much so that in this ‘cobweb novel’ it sometimes feels as though we are seeing a spider’s-eye view of life. From the trace of a tear on the face of Spinoza’s corpse at the start of the novel, to a drop of blood painted by the 26-year-old Rembrandt – who makes a cameo appearance early on – we find ourselves in a universe where minutiae make all the difference. Smilevski turns this to great effect in the latter sections of the novel, where a speck on a handkerchief comes to symbolise the young Spinoza’s love for his mother and where the philosopher fights his feelings for Clara Maria, the daughter of his mentor, by listing and denying a series of finely observed details about her.

Some unexpected gusts of humour blow through the narrative too. I particularly enjoyed the description of Spinoza’s forebears enlisting people to carry messages to their relatives by way of a series of odd gestures and signs as they fled the Spanish Inquisition: ‘in all of the towns they passed through, Isaac and Mor Alvares left people jumping on one leg in the square, crouching and standing up near the harbor, or clapping their hands in front of the cathedral’. In addition, when we first meet Clara Maria she is lamenting the death of Jesus, only for her father to respond: ‘You can’t do anything about it dear, such is life. [...] Think about it, he was very old and all his teeth had fallen out; he couldn’t even eat properly’ – whereupon we learn that Jesus is a dog.

Smilevski’s handling of the question-and-answer structure is impressive. Rarely did I feel resentment at having words put in my mouth in the text because, for the most part, the author anticipates precisely the responses and questions his reader will have. This becomes a powerful tool in the latter stages where a very intimate dialogue evolves with the disappointed Spinoza, centring around his sadness at ‘how forcefully [he has] driven everybody away’.

The treatment of Spinoza’s philosophy in the text, on the other hand, is mixed. While Smilevski provides glimpses of what it’s like to stretch the limits of language and understanding in an effort to advance ideas, the conversations between his protagonist and some of the other characters occasionally become impenetrable. At these points, the meaning disappears behind a swarm of abstract terms, which, not fixed firmly enough with the pin of definition, flit about the text leaving the reader flailing in their wake. Smilevski’s introduction of anachronistic theories about evolution into the story as a way of explaining Spinoza’s rejection by the Jewish community is also problematic. The author seems to feel this too, for he makes the concepts the brainchild of a mysterious Macedonian who appears and disappears quickly and, we later hear, is executed for his dangerous ideas.

All in all, though, this a powerful and moving book. It is, in essence, a portrait of a mind trapping itself in a cage of its own making in the effort to be free. Smilevski’s portrayal of Spinoza’s philosophy may be opaque at times, but there’s surely something we can all take from it.

Conversation with Spinoza (Razgovor so Spinoza) by Goce Smilevski, translated from the Macedonian by Filip Korzenski (Northwestern University Press, 2006)

The Rest of the World poll is now open. Vote to choose my penultimate book of the year!

I first caught wind of my Turkmen book back in July, when the Scottish Poetry Library tweeted that exiled poet Ak Welsapar was popping up to Scotland from Poetry Parnassus in London to do a reading. Ever the opportunist, I fired off a tweet asking Library staff to see whether Welsapar could recommend a Turkmen prose work that I could read in English. A correspondence ensued with Sarah Stewart, manager of the SPL’s excellent Written World project. As far as she knew, Welsapar had a novel in English due out soon. Perhaps I would be able to read that?

I dropped Welsapar a line. Luckily, it turned out his English was much better than my Turkmen, Russian and Swedish (the three languages the author writes in). He told me that he had not one but too novels in translation in the pipeline: Cobra was due to be published by Silk Road Media in London towards the end of the year if everything went to plan, while The Tale of Aypi was being translated in the US with the manuscript scheduled to be ready in the autumn. He kindly agreed to send me a copy of this, the first ever novel to be translated directly into English from Turkmen, when it was done. And so it was that a couple of weeks ago, a rather special attachment arrived in my inbox. I clicked the file open and began to read.

The Tale of Aypi is set in an isolated community of Turkmen fishermen on the coast of the Caspian Sea. With the threat of relocation to the city in order to make way for a lucrative asthma sanatorium looming, the inhabitants face sacrificing their traditions and customs at the dubious altar of progress. But not everyone is prepared to go quietly: loner Araz refuses to leave and flouts the new fishing ban to continue his trade, while, beneath the waters, the ghost of wronged woman Aypi, whose story has haunted the village for centuries, begins to stir and seek revenge.

Welsapar is skilled at making us empathise with a diverse range of viewpoints. At first, in light of Araz’s passionate speeches to his long-suffering wife about what it means to belong to a place and a way of life – ‘If a man can’t follow his father’s trade, what’ll become of him? A man should be able to do what he loves! Is that possible or not?’ – it is hard not to see the rest of the villagers’ acquiescence in the relocation scheme as spineless. Yet, as the novel progresses and we discover the campaign of neglect the authorities have waged in the region, cutting off the most basic services to make life there impossible, and the concerns of the elderly inhabitants about their separation from the urban lives of their children and grandchildren, a more rounded and wistful picture emerges.

The marriage of Mammed Badaly’s son to an influential city worker’s daughter demonstrates this most powerfully. Afraid that his daughter-in-law and her esteemed guests might spurn his home altogether, Badaly waits anxiously for the wedding procession that should by tradition come to his house:

‘Mammed Badaly, though, feared it wasn’t just a matter of setting customs aside, but a grave concern for the present and the future. If the old man’s son and his bride refused to cross the threshold of their own parents’ home on their wedding day, how would it be later on, with their grandchildren? Wouldn’t they repudiate their grandparents entirely?

‘Yes, the village was old; the houses were dilapidated wrecks without polished embellishments and brilliant furnishings of artisan timber like city places had, but the fishermen’s open hearts were here.’

The perils of not finding a way to reconcile outside influences and change with traditions are ever present in the narrative through the spectre of Aypi, the ‘eternally drowned woman’ condemned to death by the community for accepting a ruby necklace from mysterious visitors who arrived on the shore some 300 years before. Fizzing with generations of injustice and repressed anger, the troubled ghost rampages through the streets, whispering feminist manifestos in the ears of men, challenging adulterers and working out a bitter and increasingly indiscriminate revenge.

At times, events take a decided turn for the weird, shuddering the framework of Welsapar’s carefully created world. In addition, the unusual structure of the book – which depends heavily on long dialogues in which points are rehearsed repeatedly – can take some getting used to. It is as though, bustling into the text from the arena of tax returns, tube delays and Twitter feeds, we must adapt to the pace of village life in order to appreciate the narrative to the full.

All in all, though, the quality of the writing and the poet’s exquisite metaphors, which shimmer through the text like jewels glimpsed through water, keep the pages turning. The novel is a striking parable for the incursion of modern life into the world’s remotest places and the havoc that powerlessness wreaks on people’s sense of themselves. Many of its images will stay with me for a good long while to come. Haunting.

The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, translated from the Turkmen by WM Coulson (currently seeking an English-language publisher)

Ghana: a new conquest

November 19, 2012

As a friend reminded me when I put a call out for Ghanaian suggestions on Facebook, Ghanaian literature has been part of my life almost since the beginning. I can still remember the Anansi tales being read to me in my first years of school, as we all sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the teacher at story time.

As an adult, however, I’ve not kept up with literature from the country, so when I found details of Journey by Dr Gheysika Adombire Agambila on the Writers Project of Ghana website, I had no means of knowing whether the novel was likely to be any good. I couldn’t help being a bit put off by the rather lack-lustre design of the book jacket, which features footprints going across sand under a weirdly beige sky. Alright, so we all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when you haven’t got much else to go on, it’s hard not to look for clues somewhere. On the strength of what I could see in front of me, I was tempted to stick with the first suggestion on my list, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, which, the internet told me, was likely to be good and, by the way, has a fabulous cover.

But Armah’s classic was published in 1968. Surely I should try to read something a little more contemporary if I could?

Then I noticed that Journey was championed by the African Books Collective, which has delivered a series of good reads to this project throughout the year. Maybe there was more to this 2006 novel than met the eye?

Journey recounts the coming of age of Amoah, a teenage school leaver keen to make his mark on the world. Sex and girls are high on the adolescent’s list, as are going to live with his uncle and getting a job in Accra, far away from his grandfather’s traditional village. But as reality bites, Amoah begins to lose his prefect’s swagger and realise there is more to life in contemporary Ghana than his neo-colonialist boarding school could hope to prepare him for.

This is a book that thrives on oppositions. Whether he’s pitting old against young, educated against illiterate, rich against poor, Christian against Muslim, male against female, or science against superstition, Agambila delights in testing the boundaries of ideologies and cultural mores by letting them fight it out in the arena of his narrative.

Humour is the biggest weapon in his arsenal. From sharp, language-based jokes, such as the unfortunate Schola’s letter to Amoah at ‘sukool’, in which she tries to make him see that they are ‘swimming in the same boat’, to killer one-liners – the observation, for example, that ‘if acne affected older people, they would have found a cure for it by now’ – Agambila makes great comic capital out of his material. Amoah is at the heart of this. Filled with the arrogance of youth and yet touchingly naive, he is forever coming a cropper in his desire to ‘take advantage of promising situations’: drinking himself silly instead of intoxicating the girl he hopes to seduce, lending money to a friend who will not pay it back, and finding his plans scuppered by the systems of a society he has not yet taken the time to understand.

This vulnerability makes Amoah very likeable and gives Agambila leverage to tackle some of the book’s more challenging themes, such as the long shadow that British rule has cast upon the country. Many of these struggles play out in Amoah’s mind as we see him scorning the ‘hopeless bush students’ at his school and reflecting that a porter is ‘so strong he would have fetched enough money to build a house and marry several wives in the days when humans were bought and sold’, but becoming furious at his grandfather’s nostalgia for colonial rule. Similarly, while he sneers at the traditions and beliefs of the villagers in Tinga, Amoah is unable to help superstitions about witches creeping into his mind when he walks out late at night. Educated to be disdainful and distrustful of the culture he is rooted in, he struggles to find a way to assimilate the contradictions within him, playing out a national drama on a personal level.

At times the pacing can be problematic. Agambila has a tendency to put us in scenes and keep us there in real time. While this works brilliantly with comic set pieces such as the dance Amoah attends at the hotel near his school, it becomes less compelling when it comes to descriptions of the hero’s bathing rituals. In addition, the latter half of the narrative could do with some tightening to keep the momentum up right to the end.

On the whole, though, there is a lot to like in this book. Sharp, funny and insightful, it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read – a worthy successor to the crown of Anansi in the kingdom of my imagination.

Journey by Gheysika Adombire Agambila (Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2006)

Tuvalu: how to make it rain

November 17, 2012

There’s tough and then there’s Tuvalu. The number of messages I’ve sent about this place –the third least populous nation on Earth after Vatican City and Nauru – over the past year is probably nearing the 50 mark. And though many of the people I contacted were willing to help, there was no getting round the fact that there was simply very little to suggest.

Somewhere along the way, however, I got in touch with scholar, writer, photographer, restorer of antique radio equipment, and community volunteer Peter McQuarrie. Though based in New Zealand, McQuarrie is married to a Tuvaluan and has connections with the Tuvaluan community in Auckland. He promised to ask around and duly came back with the suggestion of Tuvalu: a history, a book written by 17 Tuvaluans and published in 1983, a few years after the nation declared its independence.

As I explained to McQuarrie, I have tended to disregard history books so far during this quest, regarding them as being some way out of the scope of literature. However, the collaborative nature of the work, and the fact that it chimed in with the genre of national-identity stories I’d already discovered in Pacific works like Luelen Bernart’s The Book of Luelen and Sethy John Regenvanu’s Laef Blong Mi, made me hesitate. In the end, I decided to give it a go.

Written by people drawn from all walks of life on the nation’s nine islands during a series of workshops run by the University of the South Pacific, this collection of essays and personal accounts paints a picture of Tuvaluan life stretching back as far as folklore, hearsay and patchy historical records allow and reaching up to the time of writing. The pieces are divided by subject, with the writers tackling different aspects of the country’s culture, such as creation, religion, land, singing and dancing, and independence, in an effort to tell the story of their newly minted nation.

As in several other Pacific Island works I’ve read this year, the writers often make little distinction between factual and symbolic truth. The accounts rove back and forth between myth and history, mingling tales about cannibals and magical eels with maps, diagrams, and explanations about the islands’ names, geography and politics. Indeed, the fantastic and the factual sometimes seem to blend together, with anecdotal accounts about chiefs who could charm fish and the story of the old woman who knew how to make it rain:

‘Taia Teuai, an old woman who died in 1982, was generally recognised as having inherited from her grandparents the power to make it rain. Shortly before her death she explained how she did it:

‘”If there is a long drought then I will make the rain fall. First I go to the bush to gather coconut leaves and flowers with which to weave myself a garland. Later, towards sunset, I put oil over my body and wearing a clean dress and with a garland on my head go down to the beach to meet a team of ‘rain-makers’. These are little clouds sailing towards the setting sun. I look at them and dance, and sing a song such as this one:

‘”Little clouds, little clouds!/Bring rain to me,/To moisten my body.

‘”In about three days time there would be heavy rain. This sort of rain can easily be recognised because the drops are much thicker than those of ordinary rain.”‘

This blending of anecdote and historical research gives rise to some wonderful insights into Tuvaluan life. We learn, for example, how to hitch a ride on a turtle’s back – apparently the trick is to hang on without getting your fingers jammed between the neck and the shell or too near the mouth – as well as the islanders’ rather alarming traditional methods of dealing with troublemakers, which involve a leaky canoe without a paddle. We also discover the toll that Western influences have taken on the nation, from the blackbirders who came to kidnap people to work in the Peruvian mines in the 19th century, through to the suppression of dancing and singing by the missionaries, and the ravages of world war two – during which the Americans destroyed 22,000 of Nanumea’s 54,000 coconut trees building their defensive airfield.

The subject matter may be varied, but through all the accounts runs a sense of the gravity of the task the writers are undertaking. This is established from the first page, with the foreword from prime minister Tomasi Puapua, who describes the book as being of ‘considerable significance in the history of the young nation of Tuvalu’ because the accounts are, for the first time, ‘written by Tuvaluans interpreting events as they themselves see them’. This is perhaps most movingly borne out in Enele Sapoago’s brief essay ‘Today and Tomorrow’ at the back of the book, which describes in fresh and passionate terms what independence means.

That said, it’s hard not to feel the hand of the non-Tuvaluan workshop leaders on the shoulders of the writers at points. The essay form becomes stilted and awkward at times, and the later chapters dealing with events leading up to independence feel very dutiful and dense, and are often hard to read. In addition, it is difficult to ignore the fact that most of the historical source material the writers have to work with necessarily comes from the jottings of Western visitors to the archipelago. I sometimes found myself wondering who exactly the writing – carried out in English – was intended for.

Nevertheless, there’s no question that this is an important book. As the first concerted effort of Tuvaluans to tell their story, it is informative, passionate and sometimes surprising. Nearly 30 years on from its publication, it’s surely time we had some more.

Tuvalu: A History by Simati Faaniu, Vinaka Ielemia, Taulu Isako, Tito Isala, Laumua Kofe (Rev), Nofoaiga Lafita, Pusineli Lafai, Kalaaki Laupepa (Dr), Nalu Nia, Talakatoa O’Brien, Sotaga Pape, Laloniu Samuelu, Enele Sapoaga, Pasoni Taafaki, Melei Telavi, Noatia Penitala Teo, Vaieli Tinilau, ed Hugh Laracy (Institute of Pacific Studies, 1983)

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