Book of the month: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares


Brazil is certainly not short of stories. When I was collecting recommendations for my year of reading the world back in 2012, many people suggested tempting-sounding titles from South America’s most populous country. Since then, booklovers have continued to get in touch with ideas, leaving comments on the post I wrote about João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s House of the Fortunate Buddhas (the novel I chose for my project), and whizzing over emails and tweets.

Indeed, only this morning, Carlos left a comment to tell me about ‘The Devil to Pay in the Backlands’ (Grande Sertão: Veredas in the original), which he regards as ‘the greatest Brazilian novel’. He went on to say, however, that he believes it’s untranslatable because author João Guimarães Rosa invented many of the words in it, creating ‘a unique reading experience’, which Carlos fears would be lost if the book were converted into another language. (It would be interesting to hear what others think about this.)

Beyond the personal recommendations I’ve been lucky to get from readers, a number of anthologies of Brazilian writing have opened up the work of some of the nation’s newer authors to English-language readers in recent years. Thanks to publications such as Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, writers such as JP Cuenca, Vanessa Barbara and Tatiana Salem Levy are on the anglophone radar. Their work (or some of it at least) is accessible to the huge number of people who read in English, the most published language in the world.

As a result, there are thankfully a relatively large number of translated Brazilian works that I could have chosen as November’s Book of the month – both recent novels and fantastic blasts from the past. Over the past year, for example, I’ve found myself enthralled by the writings of Clarice Lispector and could happily have written an enthusiastic post about her wonderfully strange novel Hour of the Star. 

However, in the discussions I’ve had about Brazil recently, one title in particular caught my attention. It was a novella translated by my friend Daniel Hahn for Berlin-based ebook company Frisch & Co: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares’s Family Heirlooms.

I was intrigued by Frisch & Co and by Hahn’s comment that Tavares was not likely to be known to many English-language readers, despite her being much-lauded at home in Brazil. This month, there was another incentive too. Having spent the last few weeks reading Tolstoy’s magnificent War and Peace, the idea of a book I could finish in a handful of hours was very appealing! So I decided to give the book, which was first published in Portuguese in 1990, a go.

Set in Itaim Bibi, a district in São Paulo, the novella follows Maria Bráulia Munhoz, an elderly, yet formidable, widow who is putting her affairs in order with the reluctant help of her nephew. When one of the pieces in her jewellery collection, a handsome pigeon’s-blood ruby ring, is found to be a fake, the discovery triggers an avalanche of recollections and revelations that uncovers the foundations of the central character and the bourgeois world that is fading with her.

The discrepancy between our private selves and the faces we present to the world is everywhere apparent in the book. From the formal ceremony of the rose-petal-strewn fingerbowl that Maria Bráulia Munhoz insists must follow every meal, to the ritual of her make-up routine and the awkward posturing of her nephew, Tavares captures the thousand ways we shore ourselves up with pretence.

Often, this is very funny. In the description of the nephew’s sensitivity about his thinning hair and the way that he is ‘more afraid of his aunt’s migraines than the movement of shares on the Stock Exchange’, we see the glimmer of Tavares’s sense of the ridiculous. The author (or perhaps more accurately Hahn in his translation) makes rich use of lacunae too, frequently deflating characters’ pretensions by the inclusion of pithy, bracketed dollops of interior monologue.

The writing is inventive. At several points, for example, life itself crops up, personified and spoiling for a fight, ready to beat characters down. And for my money, you have to go some distance to find a simile better than the description of a stroke that afflicts one of the lesser characters towards the end of the book:

‘His words seemed to be coming from very far away, like the roar of the sea – they were transatlantic words – only to die there in the corner of his mouth, forming, in front of his embarrassed friends, a slight layer of froth that took a while to disappear […] All that muted volume, that threat coming from so far away, a thought coming from such a depth, and soon just a little bit of froth, nothing at all, just a little froth, a mere trifle.’

It’s fair to say that not all the devices work as well as this. Labyrinthine sentences leave the reader foundering occasionally. Similarly, some of the imagery cancels itself out by changing tack from one phrase to the next.

All in all, though, this is an enjoyable and illuminating read. It walks the tightrope between humour and insight with aplomb, finishing with a flourish. I found it a joy – and a delightful counterpoint to the Napoleonic wars.

Now, back to Tolstoy’s Moscow, where the enemy has entered the gates…

Family Heirlooms (Jóias de Família) by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Frisch & Co., 2014)

Picture: São Paulo by Júlio Boaro on Flickr

Book of the month: Zoe Whittall


The internet is a wonderful thing. As this project has demonstrated many times, the unprecedented access the world wide web gives us to information and each other enables all sorts of connections and discoveries that would not have been possible – or at least nowhere near as easy – in centuries gone by.

October’s Book of the month is a good example. I found it through, of all things, accommodation site Airbnb, after Steve and I used it to book a place to stay in Toronto a couple of weeks back. Our host turned out to be a friend of a friend, TV and film producer Michelle Mama, who, among many things, made the award-winning documentary 21 Days to Nawroz about the lives of three women in Kurdistan.

Michelle and I got on well and had a great time discussing our various projects, so when she told me about a Canadian novel that she had bought the film rights for and offered to lend me a copy, I was keen to take a look. She disappeared upstairs and returned with Torontonian author Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts, one of the Globe and Mail newspaper’s top 100 books of 2007 and, I soon realised, an engrossing read.

Set around the time of the 1995 Quebec referendum, the novel follows 19-year-old Eve as she seeks to move out of her parents’ house and establish herself and her sexual identity in downtown Montreal. There she meets and falls for ardent separatist and non-monogamous older woman Della, who sweeps her into a world of sensation and experience she could barely have imagined before. As their volatile relationship shatters and remakes her, Eve finds her way into an urban family consisting of her new housemates, aspiring novelist Rachael and the flamboyant Seven. They ride the waves of politics, violence and homophobia that surge through the city’s streets with her, seeking true independence, even at the ultimate price.

Like many of the best writers I’ve encountered during my literary travels, Whittall has the knack of taking us into unfamiliar worlds. Despite being a stranger to both the independence question and Montreal’s ‘queer’ – as Whittall’s characters call it – scene, I quickly found myself drawn into Eve’s milieu. I felt with her the threat lurking in the gaze of neo-Nazi skinheads and the aggressive advances of the men she encounters in the street late at night, as well as the unease sparked by the passionate debates around Quebec’s bid for sovereignty, and the way expectations – heteronormative or otherwise – risk crushing and warping who we are.

This sense of immersion in Eve’s world is helped by the deft succinctness of Whittall’s language: the cold air that ‘hits [her] like a punch of new ideas’, the room so colourful ‘it’s like living in the middle of an exploding comet’. Time and again the author’s images snare experience and bring it home, fresh and twitching.

Whittall’s eye for quirkiness is a source of joy too and leads to funny moments in what might otherwise be an overly heavy book. Through odd details such as Eve’s stubborn belief that she can perform a handstand on two fingers to the curse that Della claims has led to all the women in her family dying by their 30th birthday, the characters come alive. In addition, there are wicked cameos, such as my favourite, the over-discerning customer who comes into the healthfood cafe where Eve works and asks, ‘Umm, what exactly is in the tofu carrot mushroom miso stew?’

The structure creaks a little now and then. After a punchy, filmic opening that, using the technique deployed in many episodes of subsequent blockbusters such as Breaking Bad, starts with the end crisis and then winds back to take us through what led up to it, the book is a little slow to get going. There’s also a risky section towards the end where Seven stages a play to reveal his responses to the events they have lived through. Some readers may find this hard to swallow.

Overall, though this novel is a great achievement. Unlike the maudlin, coming-of-age accounts many other Anglophone writers produce, in which boredom and drifting are the order of the day, things really happen in this book. Survival is at stake, people change and Whittall knows how to make us care. The story should make an absorbing film. I hope it won’t be too long before we can all go and see it.

Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall (Cormorant Books, 2007)

Picture by Josh Graciano

My evening with Helle Helle


I met a star last night. Novelist Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s best-known and most respected contemporary writers. She’s won numerous awards – and I had the honour of not just meeting her, but also sharing a stage with her and spending an hour chatting about our books.

The event was at the ninth Henley Literary Festival, which this week sees book lovers attending more than 170 writing-related talks in the picturesque Oxfordshire town famous for its regatta.

Helle and I were talking with translator and writer Daniel Hahn. It was a felicitous grouping, as Reading the World and This Should be Written in the Present Tense, Helle’s first novel to be translated into English, are both published in the UK by Harvill Secker, a publisher that Hahn also often translates for.

Despite apologising for her (near-perfect) English, Helle spoke powerfully about her writing process and the way she created the quiet, intimate and enthralling world of her novel, in which lead character Dorte drifts through her days, taking the train into Copenhagen but never attending the university course on which she is enrolled.

I was particularly interested by Helle’s comments on what writing means to her. She used a sentence from her book as an example: ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control, they were both of them teachers.’

The humour in this sentence came from the lack of a conjunction, she said. If she had written ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control because they were both of them teachers’ or ‘They were both teachers so they couldn’t keep the weeds under control’, the sentence would be flat. It was the lack of conjunction that left the space for that dash of wry humour.

This was the key to literature for her: playing with language and seeing how it worked and making it do interesting things.

Afterwards, we chatted in the green room about the Danish television series that have taken the world by storm. Helle revealed that she wasn’t much taken with The Bridge but she’d loved the first season of The Killing.

Then it was back on the train to London for me – and a long spell sitting at a red signal which meant I missed the last tube home. Although it wasn’t as epic a journey as the night I went to speak at the Hilt in Hampshire, it did mean I didn’t get back until 1.30am.

There’s no rest for the wicked, though, as I’m writing this on a train bound for Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, where I’m taking part in an event at Wigtown Book Festival tomorrow. Here’s hoping this journey goes smoothly – and that the next discussion is every bit as fascinating…

Book of the month: Carl Frode Tiller


If you think of Norwegian literature, two kinds of writing will probably come to mind. The first is the crime fiction that has taken the world by storm in recent years, spearheaded by the phenomenal success of Jo Nesbø. The second comprises lengthy collections of linked literary novels – from Karl Ove Knausgård’s acclaimed six-book My Struggle to the outstanding Kristin Lavransdatter by Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset (the only translation I ever wrote about on, the blog I had before I decided to expand my horizons and read the world).

What you may not think of in connection with Norway is Nynorsk literature. There’s a good reason for that: despite being an official language, in comparison to Bokmål (the most widely used Norwegian language), Nynorsk (‘new Norwegian’ as its name is commonly translated) is not much published. Books in it are rare. Which means English translations of Nynorsk literature are like hen’s teeth.

In fact, if the subject of this post isn’t the only translation currently available in the world’s most published language, I’d be very surprised (do put a comment below if you know otherwise).

However, though it was written in a different language, Carl Frode Tiller’s Encircling does share some traits with other Norwegian books translated into English. Like Undset and Knausgård’s novels – and indeed much of Nesbø’s work – the book is part of a series. It’s the first in a trilogy, also called Encircling, that Sort Of Books proposes to bring into English in the next few years.

This opening instalment centres around the enigmatic character of David, who, we are told, has lost his memory, giving rise to a newspaper appeal for people who know him to make contact and share stories about his life that might help re-establish his sense of identity. Three people respond: two close friends from his teenage years in the small town of Namsos and his now-estranged stepfather. The narrative consists of their letters to David, interspersed with interior monologues and commentary on their present-day lives.

One of Tiller’s many strengths is his ability to capture people’s emotional states in small details. Through looks, gestures and – strikingly often – desperate or furious grins, he manages to convey the guilt, tensions and frustrations that underpin the familial, platonic and romantic relationships in the novel. He has an eye for ‘the unwritten rules’ that govern long-standing associations and a keen sense of the way emotions can gust up and throw us off-balance, forcing us to do ridiculous or perverse things.

This can give rise to moments of humour, as when the former friends recall some of their teenage posturing and attempts at sophistication. But it can also tilt over into pathos too, as we watch characters sabotaging themselves often in full knowledge of what they are doing but without the ability break the patterns that hem them in.

Another joy is Tiller’s (and translator Barbara J. Haveland’s) skill in presenting the distinctive voices of the three narrators. I particularly enjoyed free-spirit-turned-disillusioned-academic Silje’s occasional exclamations at the beauty of her own writing – a witty key to her character that might have taken pages of description to render another way.

The writing is so enjoyable that many of the passages feel as though they could stand alone as short stories. Yet all the while, the turbo engine of the narrative drives on, navigating deftly from one episode to the next, keeping up the momentum. Tiller takes full advantage of the shifting perspectives to drop in numerous contradictions and revelations along the way, building up a rich, problematic and fractured picture of David and the lives of those around him. The denouement is clever and, unlike the endings of many other trilogy openers, feels satisfying in its own right.

Occasionally, the structure presents problems. Now and then it’s tricky to remember who some of the wider circle of characters are. In addition, the decision to lump long passages of dialogue together into single paragraphs in the latter sections can give the text a (probably intentionally) breathless feel. And while the repetition of certain constructions, such as Silje’s frequent assertion that she doesn’t know why she’s saying what she’s saying, can give a powerful impression of the way the characters are entrenched in toxic mindsets, the overuse of some words and phrases grates occasionally.

Overall, though, this is a great read. It’s certainly the best Nynorsk literature I’ve ever read. And though that’s not saying much for now, there’s no doubt that Tiller can hold his own alongside Norway’s other literary big hitters. I’m very much looking forward to the next instalment.

Encircling (Innsirkling) by Carl Frode Tiller, translated from the Nynorsk by Barbara J. Haveland (Sort of Books, 2015)

Picture: the waterfront in Namsos, Norway, by Grete Rasmussen

Book of the month: Valeria Luiselli


I’ve been on the trail of Mexican writers for the last few months. Conscious that there is a wealth of exciting literature emerging from south of the US border, I was keen to experience a broad range of it and find something that I could recommend to you.

Things got off to a promising start. Having stumbled across Elena Poniatowska being interviewed at the London Book Fair, I read Leonora, her biographical novel based around the life and work of eccentric British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington – whom Poniatowska spent a great deal of time with during her latter years. The book was extraordinary, colourful, alarming and brave.

Next, on the recommendation of my Liveright/Norton editor Elisabeth, I sought out Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera. Striking, rich and odd, this novel brought forth a virtuosic performance from its translator Lisa Dillman. She writes at the end about the efforts she went to to achieve a geographically unmarked English rendering for Herrera’s linguistically playful account of a young woman’s journey to the US in search of her brother.

Either of these books would have been a worthy candidate for Book of the month. However, as both authors are already extensively celebrated nationally and relatively well-known beyond Mexico’s borders, I thought it might be nice to find work by a lesser-known author to tell you about. And, as the majority of my Books of the month have been by men, I decided to seek out work by a woman author.

This is where things got more difficult. A bit of virtual detective work led me to Gabriela Jauregui, a published poet who has turned her hand to novel-writing in recent years. I contacted her through her website to ask if her novel was available in English and if not, whether she could recommend any women authors whose work is not widely known outside Mexico.

Jauregui replied that her novel was only being published in Spanish this September. An English version is not yet on the cards, but she (and I) hopes that this may happen one day.

She had two names for me: Brenda Lozano and Daniela Tarazona. Both young and doing great work, they were not as widely known as more established writers such as Valeria Luiselli or Cristina Rivera-Garza.

I tracked both authors down in that wonderful, global talking shop Twitter and sent them messages. Were their novels available in English? I would very much like to read them if so.

Sadly, as happened so often during  my year of reading the world, the answer was no in both cases. Despite building an increasingly impressive reputation in the hispanophone world, Lozano and Tarazona are off-limits to anglophone readers. (For now at least – if you know of an English-language publishers looking for exciting new Mexican writers, do send them their way, and to Jauregui too!)*

In the absence of anything available in the language I read in by these authors, I decided to go for one of Jauregui’s fallbacks and plumped for Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli. This book has received some great write ups and I was keen to take a look.

Split between Mexico City and New York, the narrative records the attempts of a young mother to write a novel drawing on her youth in the Big Apple. As the scraps of text she generates in between looking after her children build, layer upon layer emerges and we find the narrative consumed by her own fears, concerns and fascination with obscure Harlem Renaissance poet, Gilberto Owen.

The fragmented nature of the narrative makes for a quirky and sometimes surprising reading experience. Many English-language reviewers have remarked on the originality of Luiselli’s style, but those familiar with the work of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector will find parallels.

I particularly enjoyed the playful allusions to the reactions of the narrator’s husband, who keeps reading the work in progress and trying to adjust his behaviour in response to it, as though the fictional events described are somehow a comment on him. It was also great fun to read the sometimes contrary comments on the translation and publishing world that pepper the narrative: ‘That’s the way literary recognition works, at least to a certain degree,’ the narrator observes at one point. ‘It’s all a matter of rumor, a rumor that multiplies like a virus until it becomes a collective affinity.’ (And surely this blog post and the way I chose this book are a neat demonstration of the truth of the statement.)

Add to this a range of wry and wise insights into human nature and the way we deceive ourselves about our motives, and it’s rare that you turn a page without nodding in recognition at some observation or other.

What moves the book onto the next level, however, is Luiselli’s technical flair. Rarely does an object get mentioned without reappearing as a plot device later; time and again the narrative turns back to satirize and comment upon itself. The result is that the novel is peppered with payoffs and the last third presents a series of pleasing moments of recognition, where idea after idea is tied up, resolved or complicated.

This demands attention from the reader and it’s fair to say that there are times when the fragmentary narrative is tough to follow. By the same token, the set-up the structure demands can make for some stretches that feel rather devoid of tension and lacking in momentum.

But if you give yourself over to Luiselli and resign yourself to the rare moments when the narratological currents leave you idling in the reeds, you’re in for a joyous ride. Opening up onto stunning prospects and shimmering moments here and there, this novel achieves the rare balance of being at once accessible and profound, funny and wise.

Mexico, we need more from you.

Faces in the Crowd (Los Ingrávidos) by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Granta, 2013)

* An extract of Brenda Lozano’s novel Todo nada, translated by Rosalind Harvey, has already appeared in the México20 collection, featuring work by 20 Mexican writers under 40.

Book of the month: Abdulaziz Al Farsi


About 18 months ago, fellow literary explorer Camila Navarro from Brazil (who is recording her own literary odyssey on her Portuguese-language website) got in touch. ‘Ann, I have good news!’ she wrote. ‘There’s a great Omani novel translated recently. It’s “Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs”, by Abdulaziz Al Farsi. I’ve just read it and I loved it!’

This was good news indeed, as, when I tried to find a book to read from Oman back in 2012, there was precious little available. Apart from the collection of fairy stories I eventually got my hands on, there was almost nothing in English.

This month, I at last made it to Camila’s recommendation on my teetering to-read pile. And I was very glad I did.

Starting with the return of government employee Khalid Bakhit to the remote village of his birth, the novel reveals the tensions and historical ties that bind and warp human society. It brings together the accounts of everyone from Ayda – the only woman in the place ever to have gone to university – to dark-skinned servant Khadim, and depicts the build up to a coup that threatens to break the community apart, spilling secrets with the power to kill.

Neatly plotted and containing some genuinely surprising revelations, much of the book makes for engrossing reading. Al Farsi certainly seems to enjoy playing with suspense: he deftly foreshadows disasters and, in the case of one passage towards the end of the book, even describes a funeral while withholding the identity of the corpse until almost the very last line of the chapter.

Stories nest within stories. There are funny anecdotes, such as the description of how the village mosque’s call to prayer came to be shared unorthodoxly between two muezzins, and the tale of Imam Rashid’s insistence on keeping time using his rooster. And there are much more poignant and sometimes shocking accounts that, collectively, work to round and ground the characters in the story.

The novel’s multiple voices and perspectives afford Al Farsi great scope to move between registers, from earthy, humorous observations about vanity, misconceptions and back-biting, to lyrical portrayals of loss and love. Several times, I found myself surprised into delight by succinct encapsulations of experience – the claim that ‘it was as though he had drawn in the reins of the scene and placed them in my hand’, for example, or the observation that ‘Our problem when it comes to love is that we always want those we love to match the image we’ve drawn of them in our mind’s eye’.

Translator Nancy Roberts, who has also translated Mahfouz and Nasrallah, deserves credit for the beauty that often shimmers in the prose, as well as her skill in making the story’s sometimes unfamiliar mores and references comprehensible for anglophone readers.

In addition, many of Al Farsi’s observations have universal resonance precisely because they are so touchingly human. I couldn’t help but wonder whether something of the author’s medical experience (he is a senior specialist in oncology in Muscat) had informed his description of the way people often pledge and fail to reform bad habits:

It’s like what happens when a man walks all night long, then falls asleep from sheer exhaustion. The next morning he wakes up and finds himself lying on a railroad track. He hears a train approaching in the distance, but he doesn’t feel like moving his body. He says, ‘I’m all tired out from my long trip, and the train’s still a long way off. When it gets closer I’ll do something.’ […] Then, just when the time comes for him to act, he’s overcome by drowsiness, and the train runs over him.

For all its strengths, however, the book is not without flaws. Some of the metaphors miss the mark – I was rather wrongfooted by the imagery of someone being chased by a wound at one point. In addition, the myriad voices and sometimes cacophonous presentation of scraps of dialogue within a single paragraph can be confusing (although it’s testament to the strength of Al Farsi’s characterisation that the key figures in the story almost always remain clear and distinct). Finally, a few readers may find the whimsical figure of the Saturnine poet a bit hard to take.

On the whole, though, this is an enjoyable and intriguing novel. It reveals the duality of the ties that at once link us to communities and ground our identity, yet may also throttle our individuality and limit our freedom to be ourselves. A welcome addition to the tiny library of Omani literature in English translation.

Thanks for the tip, Camila.

Earth Weeps, Saturn Sleeps (Tabki al-Ard yadhak Zuhal) by Abdulaziz Al Farsi, translated from the Arabic by Nancy Roberts (The American University in Cairo Press, 2013)

Free Chinese literature


As those of you who’ve followed this project for a while will know, China is very poorly represented in terms of the number of its books that make it into English. According to Chinese translator collective Paper Republic, only 20 fiction and poetry books were published anywhere in the world in English in 2013.

So it’s great to hear of an initiative by Paper Republic to try to broaden anglophone readers’ access to literature from the world’s most populous country. Starting last week, the collective has promised to publish one translated short story on its website every Thursday for the next year.

The stories will be freely available. And if the first two pieces – a witty and touching sketch of the power dynamics in a romantic relationship by novelist A Yi, and wistful ‘The Road to the Weeping Spring’ by Li Juan – are anything to go by, they promise to be a weekly highlight.

The first two stories are also refreshingly short, making them the perfect tasters for anyone keen to sample writing with a view to discovering authors whose books they might like to try. Ideal companions for the morning commute, a quick cup of tea or a soothing ten-minute read before bed.

Photo: ‘relics’ © Mart

Book of the month: Alain Mabanckou

James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963A while ago, I got a message from a reader in the US. In the wake of the recent widely reported police killings of unarmed African-Americans and the unrest that erupted in several cities as a result, she was keen to read something that would help increase her understanding of racial tensions in her home country. Had I encountered any such books on my literary adventures that I could recommend?

Conscious that this was very much not my area of expertise, I made a few tentative suggestions of things I hoped would at least be a starting point. Chief among them were Alex Haley’s reimagining of the experience of slavery, Roots, and the civil rights activist James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

In fact I had read Baldwin’s most famous book only a few months before and my head was still full of its powerful, disturbing and urgent arguments. So, when I heard that leading Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou (who now divides his time between Paris and the US), had written an ode to him, I knew I had to take a look.

Addressed directly to Baldwin, who died in 1987, Letter to Jimmy is a reading of his life and work. Weaving in extracts of his writing and the words of many other important commentators, such as Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, it follows Baldwin’s life from the streets of Harlem to the French Riviera. In this way, it reveals how Baldwin’s views developed, as well as their significance and resonance in Mabanckou’s own life.

The intimacy of the portrait neatly demonstrates the link between the personal and the political. Through descriptions of photographs of Baldwin, the tensions with his paranoid preacher stepfather and his encounters with homophobia, Mabanckou reveals how our experiences shape our world view and vice versa, and shows how, as he writes in his postscript ‘the life of every author is often its own novel, even a tragic one’.

The narrative bristles with insights. From the different challenges facing migrants in Europe and black Americans, to the ongoing problems in many parts of Africa, where, ‘aid is nothing more than veiled prolonging of enslavement’, Mabanckou engages fully and frankly with many of the passionate and often furious arguments Baldwin made throughout his life.

He has some thought-provoking things to say about African writing too. I was particularly struck by his comments on the rise of what he calls ‘child soldier’ literature – something I encountered several times during my quest – and the pressures he claims that many contemporary authors feel to write exclusively about the negative aspects of their compatriots’ experience. ‘If we are not careful, an African author will be able to do nothing but await the next disaster on his continent before starting a book in which he will spend more time denouncing than writing,’ Mabanckou observes.

These sometimes controversial observations are couched in prose – translated by Sara Meli Ansari – that is often breathtaking in its clarity and beauty. My copy is filled with notes exclaiming ‘yes!’ and ‘wow’ alongside phrases such as this description of Cameroonian author Mongo Beti, who ‘believed that a writer should stand up, place blame where it is due and roar in the face of current events’, or this portrayal of the hidden deprivation a few steps from the bustle of Paris’s prestigious boulevards: ‘behind the thoroughfare, there is always a dark alleyway, a dead end, a cul-de-sac. And at the end of this alley, a man is seated on a bench, a can of beer in his hand.’

That said, the passively sexist slant of the writing is disappointing. With the ubiquitous use of ‘he’ – instead of ‘one’, ‘he or she’, varying ‘he’ with ‘she’, or a plural alternative – and pretty much exclusive reference to works by men, it would be possible to come away from this book thinking that the issues Mabanckou discusses are a purely male preserve.

That would be a shame, because this is a work that deserves to be read widely by people of all genders and ethnicities. A masterclass in the way texts and writers can talk to one another across linguistic, temporal, geographical and political boundaries, it has lessons for everyone – not only on some of the injustices that continue to blight human society, but on writing, storytelling and what words have the power to do. A great and important book.

Letter to Jimmy (Lettre à Jimmy) by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari (Soft Skull, 2014)

Picture: James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963, from Wikimedia Commons

US publication day


It’s official: The World Between Two Covers is published in the US. Huzzah!

To celebrate the occasion, Steve and I returned to Coney Island’s Steeplechase Pier in New York this morning to restage the photo at the top of this blog. That original snap was taken in January 2012, a few days after I’d embarked on my quest to read a book from every country in a year.


Today, the weather is rather nicer, the boardwalk has been refurbished and my hair is longer. Oh, and the books I’m reading have changed too…

IMG_9193Photos by Steve Lennon

Book of the month: Cao Wenxuan


It’s always a pleasure to hear from fellow literary explorers. Since I began my year of reading the world in January 2012, I have come into contact with a large number of people who have embarked on projects to read more widely and discover what stories from other places have to offer.

I’ve heard from people reading their way around continents and language groups, as well as others armchair travelling through time, sampling one text from each year. By far the most popular notion, however, seems to be the idea of travelling the world through children’s books. To date, I know of at least five people who are doing or plan to do this and I’m sure there are many more out there.

So when I heard that author and translator Helen Wang (one of the many kind people who shared their expertise with me while I was researching my book) had translated a children’s story by the Chinese author Cao Wenxuan, I was intrigued to read it.

My interest grew when I read a little more about Cao and the story, Bronze and Sunflower, in the notes at the back of the book. According to them, Cao is often described as China’s Hans Christian Andersen. What’s more, the story was inspired by the childhood experience of a friend of his during the Cultural Revolution, but didn’t fall into place for a long time until Cao had a vision of the Chinese characters for ‘Bronze’ and ‘Sunflower’ one Chinese New Year.

The result is a moving account of two children brought together by loneliness, and bound to each other through familial affection and the determination to survive. Sunflower is the daughter of an artist banished to do hard labour at a rural cadre school and Bronze is the mute son of impoverished villagers who live nearby. After Sunflower’s father dies, Bronze persuades his parents to take her in and the family devotes itself to giving her a decent life in the face of extreme hardship that threatens repeatedly to destroy them.

Bleak though the premise may sound, the book is in fact extraordinarily beautiful. In addition to the touching affection Cao creates between the children and the other family members, his (and Wang’s) vivid, lyrical and sometimes startling descriptions shimmer from the page. From the way Sunflower’s father’s ‘cardboard folder flapped like the wings of a giant bird and released his paintings to the sky’ to the plague of locusts ‘swirling and thrashing like an army of screaming black demons, their mouths gaping, their tongues flicking’, the book is a masterclass in the pictures words can paint.

The story is engrossing too. With Bronze and Sunflower battling to survive and thrive, the stakes could not be higher. As a result, Cao is able to weave in some sophisticated observations about the realities of poverty. He also powerfully portrays the experience of living in a place where services like health care and education are seen as privileges and not rights – thought-provoking stuff for children in many parts of the English-speaking world, who may be more used to grumbling about than begging to go to school.

Gender roles are a little problematic in the book: although Sunflower is full of gumption, she almost always blunders and has to be rescued from her scrapes by the more ingenious Bronze. The situation is rarely reversed, although Sunflower does teach Bronze to read and write, making for one of the most triumphant moments of the book, when Bronze silences the sneers of a crowd by stepping forward and painting his name on a wall.

In addition, it is slightly difficult to know what age range of children would get most out of the book. The publisher, Walker Books, recommends it for children aged nine and over, and says that it can be read independently by confident readers or read aloud by parents, but certain aspects of it feel better suited to children of other ages. While the narrative’s somewhat graphic descriptions of violence and suffering, and sophisticated vocabulary would test most nine-year-olds, the somewhat naive, innocent tone of the story makes it feel more appropriate for younger children.

From conversations I’ve had with Wang, I understand that this is a common challenge when it comes to bringing Chinese children’s literature into English – an interesting insight, perhaps, into the different expectations of childhood in Chinese and Western culture.

All the same, this is an absorbing and beguiling book. Despite being nearly 25 years outside the target readership age, I found myself gripped by many of its episodes and moved by its clear, elegant and often beautiful descriptions. However old you are, this book will expand your horizons – whether you’re engaged in a reading quest or not.

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, translated from the Chinese by Helen Wang (Walker Books, 2015)


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