December 30, 2014
Since finishing my year of reading the world, I’ve been delighted to find that booklovers around the planet have kept in contact and still send me recommendations of good reads. It’s always a pleasure to hear of tempting books, but I’m particularly delighted when I come across a new translation from a country that I know to have very little literature available in English. Consequently, when I heard that innovative independent publisher And Other Stories was bringing out By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel from Equatorial Guinea, I was thrilled.
As far as I have been able to discover, this book is the second commercially available translation of literature from the country (the first being Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory, which I read for my project). The reasons for this lack are various (and in some ways the situation is quite typical of French-, Portuguese- and, in this case, Spanish-speaking African nations, most of which have very little literature in translation), however the fraught political situation in Equatorial Guinea made bringing this book to the Anglophone market particularly difficult, as translator Jethro Soutar explained in an article for the Guardian earlier this year. So when my copy arrived, looking striking with its elegant cover design, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
Set on the remote island of Annobón off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, the novel explores the childhood memories of its nameless narrator. It charts his recollections of growing up in his eccentric grandfather’s house and in a society fuelled by the competing imperatives of superstition and the need to secure goods and favours from passing ships. Punctuated by a series of catastrophic events that shape the community and the narrator’s own way of thinking, the narrative examines storytelling, memory and the way we reconcile ourselves with the events, beliefs and customs that made us who we are.
In many ways, this book is an ideal candidate for translation. Because its narrator grew up in a bilingual society, moving between the vernacular and the formal Spanish-language world of school, and because he now lives away from the island, he is a natural-born go-between. Whether he is unpicking the practicalities of cutting the dates from palm trees, explaining the relative significance of Christian terminology in his mother tongue and learned language, or unravelling the beliefs behind the ostracization of she-devils (known by their penchant for nighttime sea bathing), Ávila Laurel gives him a knack for making the unfamiliar plain.
Constantly questioning, evaluating, musing and challenging, the narrator draws the reader in with a compelling hybrid style that (as he reveals towards the end of the book) blends his own recollections with the island’s oral tradition. At times, he asks our opinion on the events of the story; at others he deflates those he portrays with dry wit. When the narrative takes a turn for the shocking, his tone is disconcertingly direct, with some passages recalling the monologues of an analysand on the therapist’s couch as he returns again and again to past traumas, searching for the key to unlock their meaning.
There are fantastical descriptions that might tempt the reader to reach for the term ‘magical realism’. And there are even occasions when the narrator assumes a schoolmasterly tone: ‘Does anyone know how you get the half-formed canoe to the shore from the bush it lies in?’ he asks at one point, so that for an instant we seem to be children sitting in a circle round him, agog as he spins his tale.
In the same way, the narrative plays with print conventions, eschewing chapter markers for occasional breaks in the storytelling and, at one point, even recording the number of victims to die in the island’s cholera epidemic with a series of crosses printed in the middle of a paragraph.
As a result, the book makes for a challenging read in the best sense of the word. Leaping between registers, tenses and episodes, with long digressions and whimsical catastrophisations and speculations interrupting proceedings, this novel (if that is the right term for it) divests readers of their preconceptions. Those looking for a conventional, three-act plot with a protagonist, an inciting incident and everything tied up neatly at the end will not find it here.
Instead, what you get is a lyrical evocation of quite another world, with plenty to chuckle at and be troubled by along the way. Thronged with suspected sorceresses and a sense of the supernatural, this book weaves a kind of magic. Abandon any assumptions you might have about what a story is at the title page and dive right in.
By Night the Mountain Burns (Arde el monte de noche) by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories, 2014).
August 23, 2014
The last month or so has been a strange time for me. On the one hand, there was the euphoria of getting to the end of the stack of edits I showed you on the penultimate draft of Reading the World and knowing that the book I’d been writing on and off for 18 months was done. But on the other, there was the knowledge that this meant I was entering a whole new phase of the publishing process with challenges of its own.
For me, finding out whether the book would get a publisher in the US was top of the pile. With the manuscript finished, Sarah Levitt at the Zoë Pagnamenta Agency in New York (who often works with my agent Caroline Hardman in the UK) was able to swing into action, pitching the project to editors Stateside.
A nervous wait ensued. I tried not to think about it too much. I reminded myself that it’s rare for a British debut author to get taken on in the US, where publishers have their pick of tens of thousands of homegrown wordsmiths. And I consoled myself with the thought that, whatever happened, my book was going to be published in the UK in early 2015 by Harvill Secker/Random House – and that was far more than I had ever dreamed would happen when I first embarked on the madcap adventure of reading a book from every country in the world in a year. A deal in the US would be the icing on the cake, I told myself.
But the truth was, no matter how sanguine I tried to be about it, I cared very much about whether or not the book would come out in America. Having spent the first few weeks of my Year of Reading the World in the States (the picture at the top, in case you haven’t spotted it, was taken on the pier at Coney Island), I feel that the project has a particular connection with the place – several of the stories I read in those early stages were picked off the shelves at McNally Jackson. What’s more, given that over a third of total views of this blog have come from the US, I was keen to share the book with the nation that has been this venture’s most enthusiastic supporter.
So you can imagine my excitement when Sarah Levitt got in touch this week to confirm that we had a deal with editor Elisabeth Kerr at W.W. Norton & Co. The fact that the publisher is Norton and that the book will be coming out under its Liveright imprint (or trade name) makes the news all the sweeter – relaunched in 2012, Liveright sets out to publish ‘outstanding works that define and redefine our culture’. Its historic list is a literary hall of fame, with William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud and T.S. Eliot accounting for just some of its impressive names.
I was particularly delighted to discover that one of Liveright’s first publications after its relaunch was George Orwell’s Diaries. Orwell has always been a bit of a hero of mine and, like me, he started out as a sub-editor on British newspapers (although, much as I might like to think otherwise, the similarities between us probably end there).
The book is set to come out in the US in summer 2015 (probably in May, but I’ll let you know once the date is confirmed). However, if I thought my writing work on it was done, it turns out I can think again: Norton is publishing an anthology called Reading the World soon, so Elisabeth and I will need to think of another title for the US edition. Any suggestions gratefully received…
Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen
June 24, 2014
As those of you who followed this blog during my year of reading the world back in 2012 will remember, Africa is by far the most difficult continent to get published literature in English from. Not only is there a serious lack of translation (which meant that I often had to resort to unpublished manuscripts and even had to have something translated specially by a team of volunteers in one case), but in countries where English is widely spoken there are often very few publishers and weak networks for getting books out. The result is that very few stories written by African authors make it onto bookshop shelves in places like Britain and America.
Luckily, there are organisations working to change this. The African Books Collective (ABC) is one such – for more than 20 years, it has distributed African literature around the world and now represents 147 publishers from 25 nations in the continent. It came to my rescue several times during my quest and was the means by which I discovered Weaver Press, the Harare-based publisher behind Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare, which I read for Zimbabwe.
I very much enjoyed that book, so when the ABC’s Justin Cox told me about a new book from Weaver Press, Christopher Mlalazi’s They are Coming, I was keen to take a look.
Set in Lobengula Township in Bulawayo, northern Zimbabwe, the novel reveals the personal cost of the traumatic events in the nation’s recent past. It is told through the eyes of Ambition, a young boy whose family is thrown into disarray when his older sister, Senzeni, runs away from home to join the pro-Mugabe youth militia. Switching between 2004 and the time of the 1977 War of Independence, the narrative traces a series of old grudges and scores, revealing how violence begets violence on both a domestic and national level.
Mlalazi’s skill shines through in the little details. Every so often, his spare prose is illuminated by a glorious image, bringing the narrative alive and plunging us into the heart of the scenes he describes. There is the national flag streaming above the Green Bombers militia so that they look ‘as if they’re accompanied by a brightly coloured bird’, for example, and the group of people scattered by police tear gas ‘as if they’ve been flung hither and thither by a giant hand’.
This fine observational detail accompanies a host of strong female characters – a recurring trait in much of the African literature written by men that I have read. From the irrepressible prostitute MaVundla, who does not scruple to abuse and exact revenge on clients who do not pay, to the angry Senzeni herself, the narrative is thronged with women determined to assert themselves.
When set against the multitude of threats that render daily life perilous – including economic breakdown, political spies, guerrilla attacks and witchcraft (it is widely believed, for example, that new underwear can be used to cast a spell that will make a woman menstruate to death) – this intransigence is admirable. As Ambition’s mother observes, ‘this isn’t about politics, […] it’s about survival.’
That’s not to say that this is a perfect book. The nuts and bolts of the narrative creak. Tenses slip, conversations meander, and the various revelations of the narrative tumble into view rather clumsily. Now and then, the stripped-back prose reads more like a synopsis than a rounded, fleshed out novel.
In addition, the question of who Mlalazi is writing for crops up a few times. Having been a fellow on the University of Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Program and a Guest Writer of the City of Hanover, among several other accolades, Mlalazi clearly has an eye on the international audience, meaning that he sometimes shoehorns in rather chilly exposition in an effort to keep us all up to speed. His writing works best when he treats as locals, trusting us to infer what we need to know. (The section where he gives us directions to Jiba village, for example, is great because it allows us to put off our foreignness and entertain the illusion that we are residents of Plumtree district.)
Despite these problems, however, this is a refreshing and brave book. It is an illuminating view from a section of world society that usually goes unheard. As an imaginative account of the trials and challenges facing ordinary people under Mugabe’s rule, it is valuable. Weaver Press must be applauded for continuing to put out such works in the face of many obstacles. Let’s hope there are lots more to come.
They are Coming by Christopher Mlalazi (Weaver Press, 2014)
April 21, 2014
In the 16 months or so since I finished my year of reading the world, I’ve been delighted to hear how the project continues to generate interest and have unexpected consequences. From booklovers discovering stories they would never have otherwise found to other readers being inspired to take on similar quests, it’s great to know that my little adventure has encouraged people around the planet to engage with books in new ways.
So you can imagine my delight when, a little while ago, I received a message from film producer Genevieve Lemal. Having worked on such notable movies as Coco Before Chanel and a forthcoming adaptation of Madame Bovary, as well as numerous French-language films, Lemal is always looking for stories that might work well on the big screen.
She’d heard about Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland when she read an article about my project in The Atlantic a few months ago, and decided to take a closer look at the book. Just as I did, she fell in love with the writer’s account of his teenage escape from the clutches of a python cult in rural Togo and amazing journey up through Africa and Europe to live with the Inuit in Greenland.
Lemal liked the story so much, in fact, that she thought it would make a good film and was in talks with Kpomassie’s French publisher to secure the rights. If all went well, she hoped to be able to invite me to the premiere a few years hence.
A month or so later she was back in touch: she’d been to Paris and met Kpomassie, who is now in his seventies and lives just outside the city. He was an astonishing character, she said, full of stories about his adventures – he even recounted an extraordinary conversation he’d had with his grandfather when he returned to Togo, in which he struggled to explain all that he had seen and done because his mother tongue, Mina, has no word for ‘snow’. I was very jealous as, as I mentioned in my post on his book, Kpomassie is the writer I would most like to meet in the world, so Lemal generously said that if I was coming to Paris I should let her know and perhaps we could all meet up.
A few messages further on and a deal has been struck and a scriptwriter engaged, and Lemal is looking forward to going scouting for locations in Greenland. As she warns me, it will be a long time before the film is ready for screening. Nevertheless, I can’t help being very excited. It’s brilliant to think that Kpomassie’s wonderful story has a chance to reach even more of the world. I look forward to shaking his hand on the red carpet when that day comes.
Picture showing Tété-Michel Kpomassie signing a copy of his book at a student event by Stundentersamfunnet Bergen.
March 17, 2014
One of the exciting things about reading the world was the number of unpublished manuscripts I got to sample during the project. From the crowd-sourced translation of Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor, which I read for Sao Tome & Principe after nine volunteers generously converted it into English for me, and Mozambican literary giant Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, to Ak Welsapar’s The Tale of Aypi – the first book ever to be translated directly from Turkmen but still, sadly, without an Anglophone publishing deal – I was repeatedly surprised and delighted by the extraordinary works I had the privilege of discovering.
People often ask me whether any of these works are going to make it into the shops. I hope so, is the short answer. Certainly many of them deserve to – not least because they are often one of the few, if not the only, English-language translations of literature in existence from particular nations. I would be delighted if this project meant that some of these exciting stories had a chance to break into the world’s largest publishing market.
So you can imagine my pleasure when I heard today that Robi Gottlieb-Cahen’s Minute Stories has come out through Editions Phi.
Now, I have to confess that A Year of Reading the World has nothing to with Gottlieb-Cahen’s success – the book was already slated for publication when Claudine Muno, frontwoman of Luxembourgian band Claudine Muno and the Lunar Boots, helped me find it. Still, it’s great to hear of the first AYORTW manuscript making it into print – particularly from Luxembourg, which has very little literature available in English.
Gottlieb-Cahen’s fascinating collection of tiny stories of no more than two or three sentences written in three languages and accompanying paintings by the author will give many readers a chance to sample literature from a nation they might not otherwise have the opportunity to read a book from. Congratulations on your achievement, Robi!
And for details of more AYORTW titles coming to bookshops or e-retailers near you, watch this space…
Picture from Editions Phi
January 9, 2014
Those of you who have followed this project since the early days might remember Julia Duany. She is the South Sudanese author and senior civil servant who very kindly wrote and recorded the story that kicked off my year of reading the world on 1 January 2012.
If Julia hadn’t been so generous, I don’t know what I would have done about finding something to read from the world’s newest country. South Sudan had only come into being a handful of months before my literary quest began and was still feeling the impact of a long and bloody civil war that had devastated the region. The nascent nation had virtually no roads, no hospitals, no schools and certainly nothing in the way of a book publishing industry.
Julia’s story reflected this. She wrote with great feeling about her experience of returning to her homeland in 2005 after 20 years in the US to work to build her nation from the ground up. She was under no illusions about the challenges that lay ahead, but she was also full of hope and pride for her new nation.
Sadly, in the last month, fighting between the supporters of the South Sudanese president and those of his former deputy has brought great suffering to many in the region. With much of the country in chaos and thousands fleeing their homes to escape arrest or execution, it’s very hard to make contact with people there and find out what’s going on.
So when a producer of BBC Radio 4’s iPM programme contacted me to see if I could put her in touch with Julia to get an inside perspective on the situation I was determined to do my best to help. Luckily, it turned out that Julia had left South Sudan to spend Christmas with her family in the US shortly before the trouble erupted. Speaking from Washington, she recorded a powerful and moving account of her experiences and thoughts on the latest terrible events, which was broadcast last weekend (you can hear it here, although I suspect this won’t work outside the UK). As those of us in peaceful places wish each other Happy New Year and set out with high hopes for 2014, it’s sobering to think what Julia faces as she waits to return to the country she and her compatriots have worked so hard to establish.
One colleague of Julia’s is especially in my thoughts at the moment. Deng Gach Pal, the man who put me in touch with Julia and with whom I have kept in touch since I met him in the run up to South Sudan’s independence in 2011, has not answered my emails since the fighting broke out. I hope this is merely down to him being busy trying to cope with the extremely difficult circumstances in the capital, Juba, but I know that there is a chance that things are more serious than that. As you can see from an article I wrote about him for the New Internationalist, Deng is an extraordinary person full of enthusiasm and energy and has overcome challenges most of us could never imagine in his life. I can only hope that he is safe.
Picture of an ash-dressed Mundari child celebrating the first South Sudan Independence Day by Freedom House
October 16, 2013
When I came up with the idea of reading the world in a year back at the end of 2011, I could never have predicted where the project would lead. I certainly never dreamed it would help Steve and me arrange our honeymoon. But that’s the latest twist in this extraordinary adventure.
Shortly after I wrote my article for BBC Culture, I received an email from Lea at Combadi, a travel agent with the strapline ‘Come back different’. She and her husband Yannis were interested in writing a piece about this blog for their newsletter.
At the time, Steve and I were in the process of planning our wedding. We’d been wondering about Greece as a honeymoon destination, but weren’t really sure where to look, so when we found out Combadi is based in Athens, it seemed like a perfect fit. With just a few emails back and forth, Lea and Yannis organised us a fabulous break in Crete, tracking down some wonderful places we would never have found for ourselves.
If that wasn’t enough, imagine my delight when we arrived at the beautiful hotel in a remote village in eastern Crete three weeks ago to find a special Year of Reading the World surprise waiting for me. Lea and Yannis had arranged for a copy of Freedom and Death by Crete’s most famous writer Nikos Kazantzakis (the author of Zorba the Greek) to be in our room.
Proclaimed as a modern Iliad in its blurb, the 1950 novel (first translated into English in 1956) follows the fortunes of the fearsome Cretan resistance fighter Captain Michales as he tries to lead the residents of the village of Megalokastro in a bloody fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire and union with Greece.
It is a mighty book, full of gripping and terrible events. From the bitter mountain duel between the Turk Nuri Bey and his arch-enemy Michales’s cousin to the cruel machinations of the Pacha and the Bacchanalian blowouts the protagonist uses to try to escape his own thoughts, the novel throbs with dark energy.
For me, reading about the brutal events of more than a century before amid the picturesque landscape where they took place was an education. Not only did it open my eyes to a new chapter of history, but it also unlocked numerous local mores and customs. Following a comment from Steve about the large number of middle-aged Cretan men sporting moustaches, I was intrigued to discover a dialogue in the book that implied facial hair was a key gender marker in 19th-century Crete – an attitude that perhaps still lingers in some places today. Similarly, after reading about a hearty meal of Cretan sausage, I ordered it for dinner, confident that we would have a delicious meal (we did).
I finished the dramatic last page (don’t worry, no spoilers here) with a sense of awe. Once again, books were taking me places and opening up experiences I could never have accessed on my own.
Freedom and Death (Captain Michalis) by Nikos Kazantzakis, translated from the Greek by Jonathan Griffin (Faber & Faber, 1966)
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).
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)
December 29, 2012
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)
December 27, 2012
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)