United Kingdom: coming home

December 31, 2012

Well, here we are. The 196th book (197th really, counting the Rest of the World choice) and the final post of the project that took over my life in 2012.

It’s been the most extraordinary year. We’ve seen a story specially written for the blog from South Sudan, a book translated by a team of volunteers to enable me to read something from Sao Tome and Principe, and been given a sneak preview of an illustrated, trilingual collection of microstories from Luxembourg, as well as many other wonderful discoveries.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the interest and support the blog has drawn around the world. From the huge number of people who have given up their time to help me track down those elusive titles and the many visitors who have liked, shared and commented on posts – keeping me going through all those late nights and early mornings – to the media interest that saw the blog featured on CNN International, in the national press and on UNESCO’s list of initiatives for World Book Day, the response has been humbling. Thank you.

I’m also delighted that the project will see another book added to the world – Reading the World: postcards from my bookshelf, which I’m writing for UK publisher Harvill Secker and comes out in 2014.

But back to the matter in hand. As far as I could see, the only way to finish this odyssey was with a return to the place where it all started and where I first discovered my love of reading: the UK.

At first glance, it seemed obvious that I would choose one of the bastions of British literature as my final book – something by Dickens or Eliot, perhaps, or a more modern work by Woolf, Orwell, Wodehouse or Waugh.

However, as the year went on and I became less and less convinced by the idea of one book summing up a country’s literature, other thoughts started to creep in. In particular, I began to think more about translation.

After all, I started this project because I realised I hardly ever read world literature and never read books in translation. And yet here I was living in a country that was home to several native languages other than English, the literatures of which I had never explored.

With this in mind, I wandered up to the Welsh Books Council stand at the London Book Fair earlier this year and asked for some suggestions. (I might as easily have chosen to read Gaelic literature or something translated from the now-dead Cornish language, but Welsh has a particular significance for me, it being my grandfather’s mother tongue.)

The woman I spoke to was very helpful and had many recommendations. However, one in particular stood out: Martha, Jack and Shanco by Caryl Lewis. It won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2005 and the English translation came out two years later. Intrigued, I noted it down and set off to find a copy.

Set on the bleak farm of Graig-ddu in west Wales, the novel recounts a year in the lives of three ageing siblings who were born and grew up there. Caught up in the demanding day-to-day running of the farm, Martha, Jack and their mentally disabled brother Shanco have little time to dwell on what else the world might have to offer them. But every so often outside forces break into their isolation, testing the forces that bind them to the memory of their parents and the place that shaped, warped and made them who they are.

Lewis’s evocation of this harsh and remote world is powerful. From the first scene, in which we follow the siblings as they head out in the dead of night to discover the reason for the wounds on one of their cows’ udders, we are caught up in the grim realities of life on Graig-ddu. This is a place where kittens tumble to their deaths from roofbeams, crows beat their beaks bloody at the window panes, and rams’ horns must be reshaped to stop them from growing into the creatures’ heads.

In the face of such daily occurrences and the gruelling physical schedule (not helped by Jack’s adherence to his father’s antiquated farming equipment), there is no room for sentimentality. Instead, emotions must be expressed in private and through little things – Mami’s bedroom kept as it was when she died, the wreath laid annually on the parents’ grave, the upturned washing-up bowl shielding the footprint Gwynfor left the day Martha told him she could not leave the farm and marry him.

Lewis’s writing reflects this too, condensing poignancy and meaning into a series of fleeting, yet breathtakingly precise images. There is the description of Martha and Shanco lying awake at night ‘each skull a bird cage full of thoughts flapping in the hope of freedom’, the way Jack tries to make sense of his sister’s words ‘laying them out one by one like clothes put out to dry on the line’, and the portrayal of Martha’s ‘home’s landscape [...] coated with a drift’ of interloper Judy’s things.

For all the bleakness of the setting however, there is humour and beauty too. Jack’s partnership with his sheepdog Roy is mesmerising, as is the depiction of the myriad stars in late summer ‘as though someone had cast them like quicksilver into the sky’. In addition, cameo characters like neighbouring farmer Will, who turns his cap round and continues on at the same speed when he wants his tractor to go faster, and Martha’s high jinks with the windpipes of the turkeys she butchers for Christmas add an endearing warmth to the narrative.

They also give it a sense of tradition and archaism that makes you forget that you are reading about contemporary Wales. Time and again, I found myself pulled up short by mentions of EU directives and 4×4s that reminded me that the story was set not in some long-distant decade and land, but a handful of years ago and only a few hundred miles from my London flat.

Now and then, Lewis labours her points. The repeated statements of the particulars of Mami’s will, which saw Graig-ddu entailed jointly on the siblings, for example, feel a little unnecessary. In addition, the careful fleshing out of most of the characters shows Judy up as rather two-dimensional in contrast. I also felt the steps leading to the climax of the novel could have been more subtly seeded into the narrative.

As a whole, though, this is a haunting and engrossing book. Lyrical, harsh and deeply moving, the novel reveals what it means to be born into a way life that leaves you no real room for imagining anything else. It is a reminder that you don’t have to look beyond the boundaries of your own nation to find people living in quite different worlds from your own.

Thanks again to everyone who has made this project possible and a special thank you to my fiancé Steve, who lived through it with me, took the picture at the top and came up with many of the best ideas along the way.

If you’d like to stay up to date with post-world developments, you can follow me on Twitter (@annmorgan30) or like the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page (by popular request I’ll be posting a shortlist of favourite commercially available world reads there in a few days’ time).

And if you’ve enjoyed this journey, I’d love it if you would join me on my next adventure, which will be taking shape over the next few months.

For now, though, I’m off to celebrate. Happy New Year everyone. Have fun!

Martha, Jack and Shanco (Martha Jac a Sianco) by Caryl Lewis, translated from the Welsh by Gwen Davies (Parthian, 2007)

Rest of the World: revealed

December 29, 2012

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So there it is, up there on the star in the top left of the picture: the 53rd – and last – book I’ve read on my Kindle for this project. But which of the shortlisted places and peoples not featured on the main list did it come from? Basque Country, Bermuda, Catalonia, Faroe Islands, Kurdistan or Native America?

Well, the voting was fierce. Nearly 400 of you took part in the poll and there was plenty of passionate campaigning along the way. You can see the full breakdown of results on the Rest of the World page, but the headline news is that it came down to a two-horse race between Jaume Cabré’s Winter Journey from Catalonia and Jalal Barzanji’s The Man in Blue Pyjamas from Kurdistan. Cabré held the lead for a long time, but in the end, thanks to some vigorous lobbying on the part of #TwitterKurds, Barzanji romped home to secure the A Year of Reading the World wild-card spot.

Written after its author was named PEN Canada’s first ever Writer-in-Exile in 2007, The Man in Blue Pyjamas tells the story of poet and journalist Jalal Barzanji’s life in Iraqi Kurdistan, his three years of imprisonment and torture under Saddam Hussein’s regime – throughout which he remained in the night-clothes in which he was arrested – and the lengths he went to to secure a future for himself and his family on the other side of the world. It weaves together Barzanji’s memories, the experiences of people he met along the way, historical events and Kurdish traditions to present a compelling picture of the contested homeland that both shaped and nearly destroyed the writer.

With its account of what it means to grow up in a nation that does not fit into the neat country borders most of us use to organise the planet, the memoir is in many ways a very fitting ‘Rest of the World’ choice. Opening with a map showing Kurdistan spread across portions of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, the book owes its structure to the sense of fragmentation that Barzanji grew up with – ‘I must present my story in small pieces because my life has been in pieces,’ he writes before going on to leap between past, present, ancient history and future, like a spider spinning a web between far-distant points.

Yet the struggle for national and cultural autonomy is only part of the story: for Barzanji the battle to make a life as a writer is every bit as fraught. Born in a house with no books or pens, the writer had to contend with his family’s incomprehension of his ambitions, draconian and often bewildering censorship laws, and the challenges of funding and publishing his own work. Crucially, it was not his years of imprisonment by the Iraqi regime nor atrocities like the attack on Halabja, but the infighting between different Kurdish factions that made Barzanji decide he had to flee his homeland and throw himself on the mercy of smugglers, as he explained to his wife Sabah: ‘”I have to go to a place where I can continue to be an independent writer. I do not want to take sides in this civil war.”‘

In the face of such huge obstacles, under a regime that transformed the library in which he first discovered his love of words into the prison where he was tortured, Barzanji’s dedication to his craft is deeply moving. His portrayal of the stories of his fellow Kurds – from the waggish Ako’s account of the difficulty of consummating his marriage because of his family’s cramped sleeping arrangements, to the devastating drowning of Shwan in a bungled people-smuggling attempt – lays bare the sense of duty that drove the author to risk everything for the sake of reaching a country where these experiences could be written. Not that Barzanji is quick to take credit for this – ‘that’s the way writers are: they seldom think about the consequences of what they do or write,’ he claims, seeming to shrug at us from the page.

Indeed, Barzanji’s style is so unassuming that you only realise the scale of what he has achieved in this book gradually. His skill shines through from page to page in the details that bring the experiences described home to the reader: the blood on the prison walls, the dyed moustache of the torturer, the boyhood trick of placing a flis coin on the railway track and waiting for a train to squash it into something resembling a more valuable coin, and the terrifying darkroom and stick reserved for the mentally ill at the sheikh’s house. It also appears in his endearing honesty about his shortcomings – his social awkwardness at parties, his habit of losing his luggage, his daydreaming.

Only when you step back from these intimate and immediate observations and survey the fragmented narrative in its entirety do you realise the extent of its power. Taking us to a place that many refuse to accept exists, Barzanji reveals what it means to be forced to weigh freedom, self-expression and survival against belonging, duty and the law. Seen from the final page, the story in pieces transforms itself into a beautiful and beguiling whole. A humbling read.

The Man in Blue Pyjamas by Jalal Barzanji, based on a translation from the Kurdish by Sabah Salih (University of Alberta Press, 2012)

Jordan: winds of change

December 27, 2012

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Hearing that my friend Andrew was off to the Middle East for a choir tour in October, I decided to recruit him to find my Jordanian book. The schedule for the tour was tight, but a brief window in Amman (not to be confused with Oman as I originally wrote) gave him the opportunity to slip off in search of a translation of a story.

Andrew had heard from members of a local choir, with whom his group Ishirini was collaborating, about a bookshop with a good English-language offering that stayed open late into the night. Complete with a built-in coffee shop, it was something of a hang-out for bibliophiles and so he made his way there.

However, on arriving, Andrew discovered there was a hitch: it being Eid, deliveries to the normally well-stocked shop were running late and pickings were slim. Nevertheless, there was one possibility in the shape of Jordanian-born Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. At more than 600 pages long, the book would certainly keep me busy, but, in the absence of many other options, it seemed wise to nab it. Handing over his dinars, Andrew bagged a copy and hurried off to his next rehearsal.

Set in a fictional Gulf state in the 1930s, the novel, which is banned in several Arab countries, explores the impact of the discovery of oil on a small oasis town. When American prospectors arrive in the region, bringing with them a host of machines, practices and mores unknown to the local Arab population, the residents find the centuries-old rhythms of their lives disrupted. Faced with technological change that is set to alter their mental, emotional and physical landscape forever, the people are left with two options: adapt or die.

On the surface, this is a novel about culture clashes. In the Arabs’ fear and wonderment at the Americans’ mechanised horses and brazen attitudes to nudity, and the prospectors’ obsession with photographing and documenting every mundane local activity they can gain access to – not to mention the stark contrast between Arab Harran and American Harran (the seaside town built to house the oil workers) – we see the sparks that fly as East and West, ancient and modern, and spiritual and secular collide head on.

This collision gives rise to moments of great humour. The terrified Emir’s first boat trip, for example, and his amazement at the voices coming out of the radio are hilarious, while the Americans’ simplistic pronouncements on the Arabs, to whom they intend to give employment rights ‘as if they were regular people’, raise many a wry smile.

Frequently, however, there is a great deal of pain mixed in with this. From the employee questionnaire – which mortifies Ibrahim with its impertinent queries about female relatives – to the sad demise of the Desert Travel Office under the wheels of shiny, new Western trucks, there is much lost in this exchange and many personal tragedies unfold along the way. Perhaps most painful of all is the death of Mizban in a diving accident while on company business, an event that points up the difference of priorities between the two groups obliged to live and work together on the same patch of land.

What episodes like this demonstrate is that the gulf between the characters is not so much one of culture as one of valuing things differently. What to the Americans is a harsh, hostile environment that they must master and subdue with their air-con and swimming pools for the sake of harvesting oil is home to the Arabs – a place ingrained in their psyches, the desert winds of which blow through the images they use to express themselves and the sun of which has hardened their very sense of identity. While the Americans can uproot trees and demolish houses ‘without pausing and without reflection’ because they see them only as worthless objects standing in the way of their prize, the Arabs suffer the transformation as a sort of physical violence that the new arrivals cannot begin to comprehend. As Dabbasi puts it: ‘To someone not of this land and this town, all land is the same – it’s just land’. And that is the fundamental difference.

At once expansive and deeply personal, this novel is a masterful presentation of the way misunderstandings and resentment spring up and fruit into bitterness and enmity. At times reading like a vast collection of interlinked short stories, it weaves together the triumphs and sadness of many individual lives to make a compelling and poignant whole. A marvel.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Vintage International, 1989)

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This was a recommendation from Jim Dingley, acting chairman of the Anglo-Belarusian Society. In fact it was one of several suggestions he sent me from among the relatively tiny number of Belarusian works to have made it into English so far.

The front-runner of these was Paranoia, a banned novel by contemporary author Victor Martinovich. As far as Dingley knew, the translation was due out imminently. Sadly, however, when I contacted Martinovich, it turned out that the book would not be published by North Western University Press until 2013. For now, I would have to content myself with reading a review of the original in The New York Review of Books.

In the absence of Paranoia, the next title to catch my eye on the list was Uladzimir Karatkievich’s King Stakh’s Wild Hunt. I liked the sound of it because, according to Dingley, Karatkievich is regarded as ‘the most Belarusian of novelists’. The link he’d sent me to the free online pdf was, as far as he was aware, the only English version of any of the author’s historical works available. The one sticking point, he said, was that the translation wasn’t very good. Duly warned, I decided to take the risk.

The novel unfolds 96-year-old Andrei Belaretski’s account of the events of 1888, when, as a young ethnographer, he went to the remote Belarusian District N to collect folk stories and legends. After his carriage gets mired in one of the region’s treacherous bogs, Belaretski seeks refuge in the gloomy Castle of Marsh Firs, only to find the terrors of the heaths are matched by the horrors lurking within its walls. Taking pity on the estate’s teenage mistress, Nadzeya – the last of the aristocratic Yanowski family – the hero decides to do what he can to free her from the ancient curse that keeps her shut in from the world. But, as the weeks go by, Belaretski discovers the ghostly goings on in and around the castle are far from what they seem.

This is storytelling at its most delicious, gripping and gothic. From the life-and-death struggle to save the carriage from sinking into the dismal wastes, to the spooky Little Man and Lady-in-Blue prowling the castle’s corridors – not to mention the otherworldly huntsmen who sweep silently across the landscape hounding unfortunate travellers to their deaths – Karatkievich is a master of suspense. Indeed, in his frequent foreshadowing of horrors to come and wry references to other gothic novelists such as Anne Radcliffe, he seems to revel in playing with readers, watching us tiptoe around the maze his imagination has created. He even pokes fun at his craft at points, having one of Belaretski’s allies admonish him for his impatience to get to the bottom of things with the observation that ‘everything is cleared up easily and logically only in bad novels’ (before going on to tie everything up as neatly as anyone could wish).

This narratological virtuosity goes hand in hand with some great writing. We read, for example, how Belaretski ‘felt the wind of the centuries whistling past [his] back’ as he looks at the portraits of the Yanowski family and that ‘one has to be a misanthropist with the brain of a caveman to imagine [the bleakness of District N's peat bogs]‘. The narrative is so evocative, in fact, that I found it transformed not only my imaginary universe but the world around me too. Out of the corner of my eye, the television in my living room seemed transformed into a crackling fire and the drizzle outside the window became whirling snow as I read, as though my surroundings themselves were under Karatkievich’s spell.

This made me wonder about Dingley’s comment on the translation. Leaving aside one or two slightly clunky moments and odd notes, the narrative is so enjoyable and readable that it is certainly not ‘bad’ in the sense of being clumsy and grammatically incorrect, which is what people usually seem to mean when they talk about the quality of works converted from other languages. I could only conclude that Dingley must have been talking about how representative the text is of the original – and indeed there is a cosy familiarity to it that made me wonder how far translator Mary Mintz had stretched to make the work appeal to English-language readers (if you can shed light on this, do let me know).

That said, there is one element in the novel that remains indisputably Belarusian: the seam of national pride that runs through it. This appears in many guises, from the narrator’s evocations of ‘Byzantine Belarus’ in the opening pages, to his affectionate and sometimes despairing observations on the characteristics he and his compatriots share. There is also a somewhat subversive aspect to this novel – published during the Soviet era – in the form of the repeated jibes against Imperial Russia and the corruption of officials working for the regime. These add a welcome piquancy to the narrative, particularly in the final chapters where Belaretski encourages local peasants to rise up against the mysterious forces of oppression.

Faithful to the original or not, this a hugely enjoyable read. Gripping, witty and wonderfully spooky, it is the ideal story to curl up with on a dark December evening. A gift for gothic novel fans the world over.

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt by Uladzimir Karatkievich, translated from the Belarusian by Mary Mintz (Belarusian Literature in English Translations, 2006)

Merry Christmas all. See you the other side for the final three posts of the project!

Monaco: grace and beauty

December 23, 2012

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If there were a league table for the number of books set in a place per head of population, Monaco would be up there with the best of them. Nestled in the French Riviera, the tiny but hugely wealthy principality has long been the holiday destination of choice for many of the world’s great, good, and not-so-good, including lots of writers. The results speak for themselves: novels set or partially set in the 0.76 square mile sovereign state include Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Graham Greene’s Loser Takes All, as well as many more besides.

But while hordes of foreign authors have written about the nation, home-grown literary works are much harder to find. Indeed, Monégasque writers are so thin on the ground that the Prince Pierre of Monaco Literary Prize, founded in 1951, has never gone to a local author. 

This leaves armchair adventurers like me in a dilemma. With no Monégasque novels, short story collections or memoirs available in English (the closest I got were some translated plays and poetry by Monaco-born Armand Gatti), I had to choose between opting for a work by a non-national writer who spent time in the place or broadening the scope of ‘book’. At one point, I even found myself wondering if there was any way I could justify reading a strange pamphlet called Russian Expatriates in Monaco, Including: Marat Safin, Andrei Cherkasov, Elena Dementieva as my Monaco book. (I discovered it sloshing around in the unknown bindings on Amazon and bought it out of curiosity, only to find that it was a run down of various Russian nationals’ tennis careers).

While I was wondering what to do, a French friend made a suggestion: what about reading a biography of Grace Kelly, the Hollywood star who married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, in 1956 and became a national treasure? I laughed and went on contacting anyone and everyone I could think of in and around the French Riviera.

However, when I got in touch with Beatrice Projetti, secretary and treasurer of the Association Monaco-Japon, I was made to think again. Like many other people I’ve emailed out of the blue this year, Projetti proved to be extremely helpful, and we struck up a long correspondence, during which she explored many options on my behalf. Somewhere in the midst of it, she mentioned that her brother had published a bilingual book called Grace Kelly: Princesse du Cinema, which included many pictures and other sources from the celebrity’s life. 

It got me thinking. By that stage in the year, I’d read several transcribed oral stories about national legends, such as The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounted by Nigerien griot Nouhou Malio. Passed down from generation to generation, these works couldn’t really be said to have a single author, and were more of a collective expression of cultural identity and history honed and shaped by many voices. Seen in this light, could a story about a modern legend – a woman who came to be seen as the epitome of Monégasque glamour, yet who retained a certain mystique right up until the patchily explained car crash that killed her – count as my Monaco book?

Bringing together photographs, posters and stills from the actress’s 12 films, Grace Kelly: Princesse du Cinema provides an overview of the star’s career up until her marriage. Although there is very little text – made up mostly of captions, quotes from co-actors such as Cary Grant and James Stewart, and sometimes clumsily translated plot summaries and excerpts from film scripts – a story emerges from the ‘special documents’ of the photographs (as the introduction describes them). From the poster for 1953 film Mogambo, on which Kelly loiters in the background behind the sultry Clark Gable and Ava Gardner, to the lavish display designed around her face for The Swan two years later, the actress’s meteoric rise to fame is writ large on these pages.

As you might expect in a tribute work such as this, complete with its non-translated preface by son Prince Albert, Grace Kelly’s beauty and elegance are the central theme. Whether she is posing in a ball gown, staring dreamily out over the head of her Oscar, or cowering in a pit on location, the actress’s charm and magnetism are always the first things that strike the eye.

Yet, as the pages turn, a shadow narrative comes into focus. With shots of daily life and on-set discussions mingled with film stills again and again, the line between reality and fantasy becomes harder and harder to draw. At times, we cannot be sure whether we are looking Cary Grant and Grace Kelly relaxing on the set of To Catch a Thief or John Robie and Frances in the midst of another heist.

This blurring of fact and fiction is never more apparent than in the depiction of Kelly’s marriage. Presented with its own poster (the extravaganza was filmed by MGM as compensation for Kelly reneging on her contract to star in Designing Woman) the ceremony is every inch the Hollywood fairytale – the end title card might as well have ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ written on it.

The rest is silence, leaving a strange sense of hollowness and inscrutability lingering in the wake of the woman who is somehow everywhere and nowhere in this book. In the absence of any insight into what happened after the lights were switched off and the cameras packed away, the image is all. And perhaps that’s precisely the point.

Grace Kelly: Princesse du Cinema edited by Richard and Danae Projetti (Stanislas Choko, 2007)

Madagascar: over to you

December 21, 2012

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‘You should easily be able to find something from Madagascar,’ said a friend a few months ago. ‘It’s massive.’

Massive though the world’s fourth-largest island nation may be, its literature is not widely translated. In fact, there’s so little out there that, seeing the gap on my list, Sophie Lewis, Editor at Large at And Other Stories, offered to lend a hand. She sent me her translation of a short story, ‘Za’, by Francophone Malagasy writer Jean-Luc Raharimanana. The story on its own would not be enough – it had developed into a novel but this was not yet translated; however, she would contact Raharimanana to see what else he could suggest.

The next day Lewis was back with the news that not a single Malagasy novel had been translated into English. Given what I’ve found to be the case with several other Francophone and Lusophone African countries this year, this didn’t surprise me a great deal, but Sophie was shocked – so much so that she’s determined to do something about it and is keen to hear about Malagasy novels that might be suitable for And Other Stories to translate and publish (please put your suggestions at the bottom of this post).

In the meantime, however, there was only one book that fitted the bill for my purposes: Voices from Madagascar, edited by Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa.

Published in 2002, the anthology brings together prose and poetry from more than 15 writers, including Raharimanana, in an effort to address the lack of translated Malagasy literature (which its editors claim stems from the country’s political isolation during its Marxist era and the fact that none of its publishers distribute abroad). Presented in parallel with the original French texts, the works range from bleak, violent tales such as David Jaomanoro’s ‘Funeral of a Pig’, in which a son orchestrates a brutal attack on his mother, through to bombastic, witty pieces like Lila Ratsifandriamanana’s ‘God Will Come Down to Earth Tomorrow!’, in which the world anticipates a visit from the Almighty.

There is a great deal of anger in this book, particularly in the early stories. This comes through in hard-hitting, personal pieces such as Raharimanana’s ‘Case Closed’, which sees an abused woman forced to aid a trafficker by sewing drugs into her baby’s corpse, as well as sharp, satirical stories like ‘The President’s Mirror’, in which writer Bao Ralambo goes to town on the fickleness and narcissism of the title character. There are also more rounded, extended works like Jean-Claude Fota’s ‘Walk No Work’, which depicts brilliantly the mental disintegration of a bright graduate in the face of continual rejection and lack of opportunity, recalling such bildungsromans as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and MT Vasudevan Nair’s Kaalam.

In addition, the collection provides some fascinating glimpses of Malagasy customs and mores. The shocking tradition of insulting a corpse to honour it at a funeral, for example, crops up several times, while there is an almost magical sense of the clash between the old and the new in stories such as Narcisse Randriamirado’s ‘Grandmother’. We also witness the way that many customs are weighted against gender equality in ‘In the Top’ by Alice Ravoson, which sees a woman strive to put herself through university in the face of family expectations that she will remain tied to domestic life.

As is nearly always the case in an anthology like this, some pieces come across better than others. While there is a lovely, poetic quality to much of the prose writing – no doubt owing to the fact that many of the writers work in both forms – it sometimes tips over into opacity and vagueness. The unrelenting shock and violence of the early pieces may also put some readers off, which is a shame as the collection broadens out beautifully.

Overall, though, as a tasting platter of Malagasy literary talent, this is a flavourful and moreish offering. Reading it adds to the sense of how many great works we must be missing because of the lack of cultural exchange to date. It’s surely high time that changed, so go on, tell me: what Malagasy novels should we English-language types be reading?

Voices from Madagascar ed. Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa (Ohio University Press, 2002)

Kazakhstan: an epic struggle

December 20, 2012

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This was a recommendation from Kazakh nationals studying at Durham and Exeter universities. The institutions kindly put out calls to their international students after hearing that I was struggling to fill in a few of the gaps on the list earlier this year.

Kazakhstan was one of these. Although I had been in touch with novelist Ilya Odegov, whose short story ‘Old Fazyl’s Advice’ is on Words Without Borders, none of his books are available in English yet – he is working with a translator so should hopefully have a novel coming out soon.

The Kazakh students at opposite ends of the country, however, were unanimous in their recommendation of The Nomads, a trilogy by Ilyas Yesenberlin (1915-1983). In fact, Aigerim in Exeter went further, not only pointing me to a site where I could download an Exxon-sponsored translation of the first book for a small registration fee, but also sending me a link to a subtitled trailer for Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe, a Kazakh film on a similar theme that came out this year (see below). She called it the ‘greatest movie of Kazakhstan’ and hoped very much that I would be able to find a full-length subtitled version to watch (I hope so too – it looks gripping).

But back to The Nomads. Focusing mainly on the 18th century, book one in the trilogy, The Charmed Sword, tells the story of some of the great battles that swept the territory that is now Kazakhstan. Depicting the cruelty and calculation of many of the tyrants that tussled for it during the second millennium – among them Genghis Khan and Timur – the narrative reveals the harshness and beauty of life on the plains and the source of the desire for an independent Kazakh state.

As the opening address from Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev suggests, national pride and identity are central themes in the book. The idea that ‘only the creation of a united and powerful Kazakh state could save the people’ runs through the novel, clashing with the cynical ‘divide and rule’ strategy of rulers such as wily Khan Abulkhair, who fuels infighting among the steppe tribes and his own family to keep control of them.

In this world of betrayal and suspicion, only the ruthless survive. Indeed, the narrative is awash with accounts of extreme violence and cruelty – from the 13-year-old boy indoctrinated to order the execution of his own mother, to the lover who is tied behind his horse and sent to what should be a brutal death with the flick of a whip.

Yet moments of beauty and some wonderful insights into steppe customs shine through too. We discover how to train hunting eagles, for example, and witness the politically pivotal storytelling competitions in which zhyrau-songsters vie to sway the crowd with their conflicting versions of events.

The sheer volume of characters, events and information in the narrative can make it tricky for someone ignorant of Kazakh history, like me, to follow. Now and then, caught up in a welter of names and incidents, it is difficult to work out exactly who is fighting and what they are doing it for.

This isn’t helped by the language problems that riddle this anonymous translation. Although certain metaphors and statements strike home, there are numerous grammatical errors and odd word choices that cloud the meaning of the more involved passages. At times, readers will find themselves lost in the maze of a sentence, searching for a subject that does not appear. There are also one or two moments where the narrative seems to jump like a scratched record, as though something is missing.

The text, such as it is, however, reveals a work of great passion and importance. This epic story opens a rare window on the history of a region that, even in this age of global communication, remains closed off to most English-language speakers. Perhaps now, 15 years after this translation came out, it’s time for another edition.

The Nomads by Ilyas Yesenberlin, translated by ? (Ilyas Yesenberlin Foundation, 1998)

Kuwait: the icing on the cake

December 19, 2012

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Hearing that I was struggling to find a Kuwaiti book that I could read in English, Fleur Montanaro, administrator of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, asked a contact for advice. Word came back that no prominent Kuwaiti authors had had anything more than the odd short story translated into English. However, there was one young writer called Haitham Boodai whose novels were available in translation. In fact, there was a picture of them on sale in the Avenues branch of Kuwait’s That Al Salasil bookshop on the iLSuL6ana blog.

Delighted with this news, I set about trying to get hold of a copy… and drew a blank. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not find a Boodai novel that I could purchase. I even called up That Al Salasil, only to be told that they did not have the books in stock. Queries to other big English-language booksellers in the Gulf region produced similar results. It seemed as though the books had never existed.

Beginning to wonder if I was going mad, I emailed iLSuL6ana and another local blogger Mark. Perhaps whoever took the picture might be able to shed some light on the mystery? But time went by and no response came back. It seemed to be a lost cause.

It was time for plan B. This came in the shape of three less-than-ideal options. Exhibit A was Pearling in the Arabian Gulf by Saif Marzooq al-Shamlan. Though it was by a Kuwaiti writer and billed itself as a ‘memoir’ in its subtitle, the 1970s book was really more of a social history and – judging by its sober cover – a dreary one at that. Next up was Women in Kuwait by Kuwaiti sociologist Haya al-Mughni. This sounded more interesting, but it was a bit of a leap to call it a story given that it was really a series of essays.

Last in the line-up of dubious contenders was Invasion Kuwait by Jehan S Rajab. This first-person account of the 1990 Iraqi invasion sounded like the front-runner, but there was a problem: although Rajab had lived and worked in the country for more than 30 years when she wrote the book (more than qualifying it to be considered as Kuwaiti literature under the terms of this project) the subtitle of the memoir was ‘An English Woman’s Tale’. Could I really justify reading a book described in such a way for Kuwait?

Unconvinced, I put off reading any of the three for as long as I could. But at last, the desperate day arrived and so, with a heavy heart, I picked up the ‘English Woman’s Tale’ and started making my way to the sofa to begin reading it. En route, however, I decided to check my email. And there, in my inbox, was a message from Mark.

It turned out Mark had been away in Japan, hence the slow reply. He didn’t have anything to say on the subject of the mysterious Haitham Boodai books, but he recommended contacting Kuwaiti writer and blogger Danderma, who he was sure would be able to help.

I fired off an email and Danderma replied swiftly: she had two self-published novels titled The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait, volumes I and II. If I gave her my address, she would send them to me.

And so it was that, with a handful of weeks left in the year, two colourful books bearing cover illustrations by Fatima F Al-Othman dropped through my letterbox. I picked up volume I and got stuck in.

The novel presents the tribulations of Dathra, an obese 32-year-old misfit in the midst of Kuwaiti high society. Scorned by her svelte relatives and obliged to watch the man she loves marry her cousin, Dathra (a word that means ‘dowdy’) vows to change her life for the better. But as her enormous appetite and relentless desire for junk food lead her into more and more extreme fixes, it seems as though her biggest enemy may be herself.

When it comes to writing about food, Danderma is in a league of her own. From obsessing over tastes and textures, through to the deceptions used to cover up each binge, the writer captures the mindset and emotions of an addict perfectly. Her depictions of Dathra’s cravings are so convincing, in fact, that she even made me hanker after a Big Mac at one point – something I never thought I’d feel!

The insights she provides into Kuwaiti society are equally compelling. Expressed in an arch, witty tone, her evocation of the rich Avenues shopping district where you can stand for hours watching people in the Pinkberry queue and the lavish parties that fill the social calendar make for enjoyable and revealing reading. I was particularly intrigued by the explanation of Arabish – a way to chat online using English letters and numbers with Arabic spelling – which features heavily in the book.

Having self-published her novels because of the difficulty of finding an English-language publisher in Kuwait, Danderma warned me that the first volume contained quite a few errors (these made her decide to hire an editor to help her prepare the second volume). While this is true, these rarely get in the way of the sense and flow of the text.

In fact the development of the plot and Dathra’s character are likely to be bigger issues for many readers. Although her vulnerability and self-deprecation make her likeable throughout much of the book, Dathra has moments of extreme selfishness and greed that can make her hard to sympathise with. In addition, while Danderma’s desire to make her heroine triumph over the superficial standards of the world around her and maintain her individuality is understandable, there is a problem with the fact that Dathra doesn’t change or learn much over the course of the narrative (the final scene introduces a slight shift in perspective, but it feels rather hasty and incidental). Despite nearly eating herself to death at one point, the heroine never really addresses her unsustainable addiction to food.

This does not stop the book being enjoyable, however. Witty, surprising and daring, the novel flies the flag for underdogs everywhere, with plenty of laughs along the way. Bridget Jones fans looking for a change of scene might find a new friend here.

The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait (volume I), by Danderma, illustrated by Fatima F Al-Othman (2011)

Spain: the world to come

December 17, 2012

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I met book blogger Alastair Savage at the Guardian First Book Awards ceremony a few weeks back. We were both there because we’d been on the team of reader-reviewers asked to help vet some of the contenders for the readers’ shortlist entry. As neither of us knew many people there, we got chatting, and when I discovered Savage lived in Barcelona it struck me that he might be just the person to help me solve one of the last major choosing conundrums on my list: Spain.

I’d been puzzling over what to read from the country for months. While the Spanish recommendations had been nowhere near as numerous as those for India, I was very conscious that the titles on the list represented a drop in the ocean of the amazing literature out there. I asked Twitter what I should do a few times but, while I did have some good responses, there was nothing conclusive.

For a long time Edith Grossman’s translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th century classic Don Quixote was a hot favourite. But while I was intrigued by it – and (pretty) confident that, having got through UlyssesAmerican Gods and A Providence of War this year, I could take it in my stride – I couldn’t help feeling that reading it might be a missed opportunity in terms of this project. Don Quixote was so well-known as to be almost stateless; I was keen to see what else Spain had up its sleeve.

Alastair Savage didn’t hesitate. I should read something by Juan Goytisolo, he said – and when he started to tell me about the writer, I couldn’t help agreeing. Living in voluntary exile from Spain in Marrakech, Goytisolo has carved out a niche as something of a malcontent and critic of his homeland. His most famous work, Count Julian, takes traditional Spain apart from the inside by giving an account of events that favours one of the country’s most notorious traitors. However, it was the notion of the author’s self-imposed separation from his home country that intrigued me, so when I discovered that one of his most recent novels is titled Exiled from Almost Everywhere I decided to read it.

Opening with the terrorist bomb blast that kills its main character, the novel portrays the afterlife of ‘the Monster of Le Sentier’, an unprepossessing character who in life spent his time hanging around public toilets looking for children to molest. Blown into the ‘virtual universe’ of the beyond (represented in his case by an empty cybercafe), the protagonist continues to receive emails from people in the real world and enters into a series of exchanges and experiences with extremists that show up the hollowness, contradictions and strangeness of consumerism and politics.

Just as the protagonist is exiled from life, so Goytisolo distances the novel from many narrative conventions. Moving from one short, loosely connected vignette to the next, the text frustrates readers’ attempts to find continuity and consistency in it. Emails from strangers lambast, exhort and attempt to con the main character; dreams blur with reality; and the narrator frequently steps out of the action to remind us of the ‘suspect nature of writing’. Indeed, reading the book often feels like browsing the internet, clicking from one unsubstantiated and dubious website to the next by way of a series of chance connections and interlinking search terms.

Irreverent and unapologetic for the book’s inconsistencies and contradictions – at times even pointing them out – the narrative sets out some delightfully quirky and provocative ideas. From the cross-dressing imam ‘Alice’, who moonlights as a stripper, to the vision of a hereafter in which you ‘can just as easily find yourself in a cybercafe the size of an Olympic stadium as floating in the weightlessness of space, or helplessly trapped in a traffic jam with an objectionable Madrid taxi driver for company’, there is a devil-may-care flamboyance to the writing that makes it engrossing.

The narrative’s organic and often random feel, however, will grate on some readers. While Goytisolo is careful to set out his stall early on with the observation that ‘the genes determining the static identities and solid characters that peopled the world of your childhood no longer parallel the discoveries made by science’ and that therefore shouldn’t ‘the astonishing innovations at work in the field of genetics be applied to the novel’, the practical implications of shape-, gender-, ethnicity- and dimension-shifting characters make for a rather giddy ride.

Overall, though, it’s hard not to admire Goytisolo’s achievement. In 135-odd pages, he manages to take on not only the whole world but the world to come too. The result is a queasy-making, yet compulsive vision of a jaundiced present, in which eclecticism and specificity are both kill and cure.

Exiled from Almost Everywhere (El exiliado de aqui y alla) by Juan Goytisolo, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)

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Starting the countdown of the final 10 posts of the year is the story of one of the most extraordinary collaborative ventures I’ve ever had the privilege to witness: the translation of a book by a team of volunteers in Europe and the US specially for this project.

The idea to see if this was possible started back in September when I was beginning to despair of ever finding a novel, short story collection or memoir that I could read in English from the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. Like fellow Portuguese-speaking Guinea-Bissau, the country seemed to have no literature available in translation, no matter who I asked or how hard I searched – and in this case, there was no handy collection of speeches by a leading political activist to fall back on. As far as English-language readers were concerned, when it came to writing of any kind from Sao Tome and Principe, there was radio silence.

Finding me tearing my hair out at my desk one day, my fiancé Steve suggested that it might be time to try a different tack. ‘Why don’t you can see if you can get a group of people to translate something for you?’ he said.

I wasn’t convinced. No-one was going to want to give up their time to translate bits of a book so that some strange girl in a hat and scarf in London could read it, I thought. But Steve brushed my protests aside: ‘Just try it and see what happens,’ he said.

So, rather doubtfully, I posted something on Facebook, tweeted a call for Portuguese translators and sat back to wait. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait very long. Within half an hour or so, an old school friend who teaches languages got in touch to say she’d be happy to help. Then I heard from a blog visitor through the AYORTW Facebook page – she was prepared to take on a section too.

Meanwhile, the Twitterati were whirring into action, with loads of suggestions of people to speak to and new connections pinging my way. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was inundated with emails from people offering their time and talents – among them award-winning translator Margaret Jull Costa, who translated Luis Cardoso’s The Crossing, the book I read from East Timor. In fact, the response to the appeal was so overwhelming that, within a week, I had heard from more people than I could involve in the project.

Next came the challenge of choosing the book to be translated. This proved to be rather difficult: although there were works by Santomean authors out there, most were too long to divide up into manageable chunks and only available as expensive one-offs through rare booksellers. Given that I needed 10 copies, these simply weren’t practical.

At last, however, I stoogled upon the website of Portuguese publisher Chiado Editora. The company had works by a couple of writers with connections to Sao Tome and Principe on its books and one in particular fitted the bill: A casa do pastor by Olinda Beja. Running to around 140 pages, this slender book was available in multiple copies. So, with next to no information about it, I put my order in, shipped the books off to my team of volunteers and, a month later, was delighted to receive their translations back.

Set in the Beira Alta region of Portugal (where Beja, who was born in Sao Tome and Principe and now lives in Switzerland, grew up), the collection brings together stories told to the author by her grandmother and octogenarian shepherd João Grilo, as well as her own childhood recollections. Ranging from quirky anecdotes to ghost stories, with a good helping of social commentary and the odd rant thrown in along the way, the pieces present a rich and varied picture of a way of life that is fast disappearing.

The setting of the book in Portugal rather than Sao Tome and Principe raised interesting questions for me and the translators. In fact, several of them were surprised and even disappointed to find that the backdrop to the stories was a lot more familiar than they had expected it to be. One in particular, Ana Cristina Morais in the US, was amazed to find herself reading stories in the dialect of the region her father grew up in, having braced herself for unfamiliar language and references.

For me, this was thought-provoking. While setting has not been a big factor in many of the book choices I’ve made this year – after all British writers write about other places all the time so I don’t see why I should expect authors from other countries to stick to stories within their own borders – the claim that this collection was Santomean literature was complicated by Beja’s strong links with Portugal. It seemed telling that, after all that searching, the only book that I could find that was short enough and available in large enough quantities for this project was by someone who had left the country and was writing about another place (although from what I understand much of Beja’s poetry draws more directly on her African heritage).

While it might not be Santomean, however, the rural culture that Beja explores and records in the stories is nevertheless fascinating. From the flamboyant saints festivals attended by João in his heyday, to the rough justice meted out to sheep rustlers and the majesty of the landscape, the Beira Alta region emerges as a haunting and characterful place. Indeed, it’s arguable that her Santomean heritage gives Beja the distance to appreciate the beauty and harshness of life in the region where ‘a whole generation of shepherds was coming to an end, leaving the hills [...] silent, bare of sounds and footsteps, stories and murmurings’.

The setting also threw up some translation challenges, with several of the region-specific and plant-related terms requiring careful handling. In particular, Yema Ferreira, an Angolan writer living in Denmark, and I had an interesting correspondence about how she should handle the word ‘giesta’ in the story ‘Maria Giesta’. The translation of the word is ‘genista’ (a flowering shrub) and this provides scope for some wordplay in the piece. As she was translating the character’s surname, Ferreira wondered whether she should also translate her first name, turning Maria Giesta into Mary Genista. In the end we agreed it was best to compromise with Maria Genista, however the discussion provided a fascinating insight into the sort of decisions translators have to make line by line.

Voice was another talking point. As might be expected in a collection drawn from the reminiscences and stories of three people and translated by nine others, the tone and register of the book varies considerably. There are wistful pieces such as ‘The Sower of Stars’, in which a boy grows up wanting to work in the night sky, and magical tales like ‘The Witch from Vila Chã’, as well as rambling anecdotes about a con artist who paints sparrows yellow to sell as canaries and a farcical run in with a cow on a country road.

This variety might explain the translators’ mixed reactions to the book. While some responded warmly to the simplicity of the storytelling, finding parallels with the work of writers such as Miguel Torga and Altino do Tojal, others disliked Beja’s writing, describing the stories as ‘dull’ and in one case as being like ‘torture’ to read.

As someone privileged to enjoy the finished product and oblivious to the scaffolding holding it all together behind the scenes, I found the collection fascinating. While some of the pieces are undoubtedly less successful than others, there are moments of great charm and beauty. At her best, conjuring the wildness of the Beira Alta mountain ranges, Beja is mesmerizing.

The experience of watching the collection come together was also humbling and gave me a renewed respect for the work translators do. It made me realise how much we monoglots rely on the good faith, skill and judgement of people with the ability to bridge language gaps for us. Without them, we would live in a very narrow world.

The Shepherd’s House (A casa do pastor) by Olinda Beja, translated from the Portuguese by Yema Ferreira, Ana Fletcher, Tamsin Harrison, Margaret Jull Costa, Clare Keates, Ana Cristina Morais, Robin Patterson, Ana Silva and Sandra Tavares

As an adjunct to the post above, Olinda Beja tells me that she has a collection of short stories set in STP which was nominated for a big Portuguese language prize this year. It’s called “Histórias da Gravana” and was published in Brazil (so not easily available in other parts of the world). However, if you speak Portuguese and are in or planning a trip to Brazil it sounds like a good read!

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