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)

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)

Georgia: new horizons

December 10, 2012

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Things could well be looking up for Georgian fiction in translation. Although there are very few books by writers from the country available in English at the moment, the Georgian government has recently decided to make translation one of its cultural priorities.

This is good news because, from what I hear, there are several gems out there beyond our reach. Aka Morchiladze’s Santa Esperanza is one of these. Published in 2004, it comes in the form of 36 booklets and a map, gathered together in a bag instead of a cover. The idea is that you can read the booklets in any order and the story that emerges will depend on the route you decide to take.

Sadly, Santa Esperanza is not yet available in English. However, the first of the government-backed publications came out this year from Dalkey Archive Press: an anthology of Contemporary Georgian Fiction. The ministry of culture very kindly sent me a pdf of it when I contacted them earlier this year – and I was delighted to see that it included a short story by Santa Esperanza‘s author, Aka Morchiladze.

Weighing in at nearly 400 A4 sides, this chunky anthology presents a broad spectrum of work from writers in Georgia today. From sweeping national commentaries, to intricate domestic dramas and portraits of isolated moments of experience, the book sets out to give readers a sense of the scope and variety of literature on offer in the Eurasian state.

Despite the diversity of the collection, the best pieces in the book tend to share a quirky, playful air. Lasha Bugadze’s ‘The Round Table’, for example, takes us to a restaurant where extreme experiences, rather than food, are on the menu, with some witty results – ‘ah, so that was the problem. The dish came with a wife on the side,’ concludes the protagonist at one point. Similarly, the imaginary marriage conducted entirely by correspondence in ‘Love in a Prison Cell’ by Zurab Lezhava has the right mixture of weirdness and sincerity to be funny and compelling.

In addition, several of the stories demonstrate an endearingly self-deprecating wit when it comes to national affairs, which reminded me of a particular kind of self-satire you see occasionally in the British media. In Archil Kikodze’s ‘The Drunks’, for example, we hear that ‘the standard of Georgian political analysis was roughly on a par with that of two old codgers from the village’, while the wry explanation of blood feuds in Mamuka Kherkeulidze’s ‘A Caucasian Chronicle’ adds a great deal of colour and depth to the narrative.

There is plenty of darkness in the collection too. Lonely, estranged and frightened characters wander through its pages, missing their chances to connect with the people who matter most to them. One of the best examples of this is Kote Jandieri’s ‘Cinderella’s Night’, which, after a somewhat unsteady start, develops into a powerful retelling of the famous fairy story through the mouth of a mother waiting for her adulterous husband to return home. In addition, ‘November Rain’ by Nugzar Shataidze – the collection’s most structurally traditional piece – is one of the most memorable in this respect: its evocation of the terror of an elderly teacher who has a run-in with a secret police officer is chilling.

Inevitably, the book is a bit of a mixed bag. While some pieces start strongly only to tail off, others cry out for tightening and yet others wander aimlessly in search of their subject matter. Although this maverick narrative form works in the hands of a few writers, such as Aka Morchiladze – whose ‘Once Upon a Time in Georgia’ delivers some thought-provoking, albeit long-winded, insights into the country’s recent past – it can tend to leave the reader feeling rather nonplussed and disinclined to keep turning the pages. Given the size of the collection, it is hard not to feel that the ministry of culture has occasionally gone for quantity over quality, as though eager to include anything that might tempt English-language readers to look further, rather than limiting the selection to a few choice morsels.

Such enthusiasm, however, is encouraging. There’s no doubt that there is considerable talent among the 20 writers showcased here and it is to the Georgian government’s credit that it is keen to help them find a wider audience. Incidentally, the translator and editor of the anthology, Elizabeth Heighway, informs me that she has not only already translated one of Aka Morchiladze’s novellas, but that she is also considering turning her attention to Santa Esperanza. I hope she does – I’d like to order my copy now.

Contemporary Georgian Fiction, edited and translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)

Qatar: Brits abroad

December 7, 2012

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Back in May I had an email from Michelle Wallin, an editor at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. I’d contacted the four-year-old publisher – which, as its name suggests, came out of a partnership between Bloomsbury Publishing and the Qatar Foundation – to see whether it might have any suggestions of books I could read in translation by Qatari writers.

As it happened, I was in luck. Wallin was editing the manuscript of the translation of a novel that had been very popular in Arabic. It would be one of the first Qatari novels to be published in English and was due out at the end of the year. Would I be interested in that?

I replied that I certainly would, especially if Wallin could send me an advance copy or manuscript so that I could read it in time for the end of the project. She promised to try and impressively, despite the delays that so often hamper the publishing process, a manuscript of The Corsair by Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud arrived in my inbox a couple of weeks ago.

Set in the early 19th century, when the British Empire was extending its reach across the globe, the novel tells the story of the struggle for control of the trade routes in the Persian Gulf. Spurred into action by the region’s burgeoning number of pirates or corsairs, among them the notorious Erhama bin Jaber, His Majesty’s Government moves to protect its interests, sending figures such as the aristocratic Captain Loch and the awkward Major George Sadleir to the Gulf to safeguard the transport of British cargo through diplomacy or military action. But the British have reckoned without the complex web of rivalries and loyalties that spans the Gulf. As the narrative progresses – roving between Plymouth in the UK, Bombay in India, Bahrain, Qatar, Madeira and many places in between – it becomes clear that the emissaries of the small nation that at one stage controlled a quarter of the planet are out of their depth.

Al Mahmoud’s 19th century Gulf region is a rich, cruel and bewildering place. From the sumptuous palaces of the Sultan of Oman to the barren plains where Ibrahim Pasha prosecutes his brutal wars, it is a world of contrasts and contradictions. Fresh springs bubble under the sea, making it possible for intrepid sailors to dive for drinking water, and lifeless deserts hide secret dens, buzzing with activity – signalling that here very little is what it seems. Relationships in the region are equally fraught, with family betrayal frequent and allegiances between factions and sects shifting with alarming regularity – ‘they pray to the same God and towards the same Kaaba, and yet they butcher each other,’ remarks Sadleir at one point. Through the hubbub and carnage strides the towering figure of Erham bin Jaber: terrifying, enigmatic and fascinating.

Al Mahmoud’s depiction of the British characters is similarly compelling – and one of the most convincing I’ve read all year. None of the false notes that so often strike you when you read the work of a foreign writer trying to describe your countrymen and women to you are present. Instead, his creations are utterly believable, right from the irritable and effete administrative official David Matthews to the governor in Bombay.

This credibility buys the author a lot of leeway when it comes to revealing the flaws in his characters and the national policies driving them. Beginning softly with a few instances of casual racism and ignorant generalisations on the part of the British, as well as some digs at the ill-suitedness of English attire and practices to most of the settings in the novel, he begins to dismantle the pomp and circumstance of empire to show the folly and hypocrisy on which it rests. This gradually moves to more serious matters, with the disgruntled Indian employee Gulap offering one of the first shots across the bows with the observation: ‘many Omanis regard the British as criminals and killers’.

The rest of the novel serves to demonstrate why such a view might well be justified. Welching on deals, commissioning murder, and promising the powerless lackey Abbas his safety only to kill him once he has served his purpose and testified against the Prince of Shiraz’s nephew, the British characters reveal themselves to be the most underhand and treacherous players in the Gulf.

Crucially, however, Al Mahmoud does not himself fall into the trap of generalising. He gives Sadleir a great deal of insight into the thoughtless cruelty of his compatriots, leaving the door open for a friendship between him and the pirate Erhama bin Jaber’s son, Bashir. As Bashir explains, the problem is really a question of perspective: ‘You would think differently if this land was your land and if these people were your people,’ he says. In fact, the author’s skill is such that, in this translation of his work into the language of the former empire, he manages to get readers to experience something of what it means to think differently: by the end I found myself rooting for Erhama bin Jaber and his followers against the Brits.

Although Al Mahmoud navigates well between his large array of settings and characters, there are one or two minor snags in the rigging. The lengthy descriptions of Captain Loch’s aristocratic background and his offhand manner with his crew in the first chapter seem to promise a mutiny which never materialises, as though the author changed his mind about the weighting of the narrative half-way through. Similarly, there are a few places in the book where Al Mahmoud sets up an obstacle only to sweep it away in the next sentence, rather than using the added tension to drive the narrative forward. At one stage, for example, Abu Matar speculates on the whereabouts of Bashir, saying that he hasn’t seen him for ages, only for Al Mahmoud to tell us in the next sentence that ‘they didn’t have to wait long for Bashir’, which has the odd effect of making Abu Matar look like an actor filling time on stage while he waits for a colleague to realise he’s missed his cue.

Overall, though, this is an excellent and fascinating book. Having grown up in the UK, where the history of the British Empire is regarded by many with complacency, I found it liberating, challenging and thought-provoking to read a bit of the narrative from another perspective. This novel, particularly in its translated form, is a reminder that truth is often in the eye of the beholder – and that we must cherish those with the insight to recognise something of the other sides of the story.

The Corsair by Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud, translated from the Arabic by Amira Nowaira (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2012)

Maldives: free books

December 6, 2012

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I expected to find getting a book in English by a Maldivian author fairly straightforward. Given the country’s colonial history, I assumed that there would be several things out there and it would just be a case of choosing what to read.

How wrong I was. After weeks of googling around and emailing people, I began to realise that, for some reason, books in English by Maldivian authors were more than a little thin on the ground.

I even tried contacting Robbie Bulloch, the British Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. It turned out he was one step ahead of me: he’d asked friends in the Maldives for suggestions of translations only the previous week. From their blank looks, he said, it seemed the selection couldn’t be very wide.

He did send a link to a blog by Ibrahim Waheed, a writer who won the National Library of the Maldives’ first ever English Fiction Story Writing Competition in 2007 with what he claimed were the ‘first ever novella-length fictional works published in the English language by a Maldivian author’ (try saying that with a mouthful of marbles). In fact, he’d won not only first prize but also second prize, which made me wonder how many entries the competition had attracted in the first place.

His stories were available to read as pdfs on his site – but they were somewhat short. The search continued.

About this time in the year, I started pestering PhD students. It struck me that the biggest experts on literature from some of the remotest countries on my list might not be thousands of miles away but holed up in university libraries up and down the land. Perhaps they would be able to help?

As it turned out, there weren’t many people doing doctorates on the Maldives. However, I did find one: Mariyam Shiuna, a student exploring ‘Urban violence and disillusionment with democracy in the Maldives’ at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

The discovery was a stroke of luck. Not only was Shiuna researching the Maldives, but she was also a Maldivian national. Two days after I emailed her, she came back with details of a classic she had studied at school, which she described as ‘the Maldivian version of Romeo and Juliet or Layla and Majnun‘. In fact, she went one better than simply telling me about it: she had found a free pdf of an English translation of the work online on a website promoting Maldivian heritage. The hunt was at an end.

Starting several generations before the birth of the title characters, Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu – told in this prose version by Abdullah Sadiq – unfolds a great, royal love affair that stretches across the archipelago. Boasting a large cast of characters, a plethora of incidents and a good dose of myth and magic, the narrative takes readers on a tour of the obstacles, complications and frustrations that stand in the way of happiness.

This is a book of new beginnings. I lost track of the number of times that characters abandoned their old homes and habits and struck out to set up a new life on a different island.  From Raaveri Ali – who, having lost his family because of a rival’s curse, gets on a boat for Komandu island, leaving no trace of himself behind on Maroshi ‘even his smell’ – to his son Moosa, who runs off to live in Malé, the idea of clean breaks drives much of the narrative. This can be disconcerting, particularly when we see how quickly old loves and lives are forgotten, but it also gives rise to great ingenuity. The child Moosa, for example, sets himself up as a Koran tutor in the capital, earning the money that will enable him to start afresh. Indeed, the narrative seems to be shaped as much by the nation’s island geography as by its characters’ desires, and moves in fits and starts between one colourful episode and the next.

Through it all, the diligence of its modern-day author and his desire to do justice to this ancient classic is clear. As he demonstrates in his ‘Author’s Preface’, Sadiq feels a great responsibility to render the character of the original raivaru (song version), expressing his desire to write a prose story ‘that was worthy of such inspiration’. As a result, he includes numerous maps, genealogies, notes and explanatory essays in and at the back of the text, as though anxious that not one ounce of significance should be lost on the reader.

In fact, the story is robust enough to stand on its own, not least because the strangeness of some its episodes is one of its strengths. The curses and magic spells that fill the text, and are often described in elaborate detail, are fascinating – at one point the story even becomes a battle of wits between Ali Fulhu and Hawwa Fulhu, as each hurls fanditha (magic) at the other in an effort to come out on top. The scene where Ali Fulhu summons the great king of the Ocean is marvellous too. In addition, the numerous rituals that surround daily life, from the way to prepare for fishing to the words that should be spoken on the birth of a child are, for the most part, self-explanatory.

That said, Western readers will find some episodes hard to empathise with. Dhon Aisa and Moosa’s sanguine reaction to the discovery that their midwife has murdered seven of their babies is surprising, for example, while some of the reasons for characters to act as they do seem opaque – although this could be as much to do with the age of the story as its cultural setting. In addition, Sadiq’s commitment to use plain language and retain the original form gives rise to a few sequences in which very little seems to happen. Sometimes, reading descriptions of the characters talking about how much sugar they should prepare for toddy and their domestic arrangements, it’s hard not to feel that we are being forced to sit through the dressing-room conversations of actors in between their big scenes on stage.

All in all, though, this is a fascinating book – and one quite different from anything I’ve read before. It sparkles with insights and humour drawn from a time and place quite different from our own. If some of the storytelling techniques and actions of the earlier characters have a distancing effect, the love affair between Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu is utterly believable and engrossing when it comes. Enchanting.

Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu by Abdullah Sadiq, translated from the Dhivehi by Fareesha Abdullah and Michael O’Shea © F Abdullah and M O’Shea, 2004

China: one in 1.3 billion

November 29, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had hoped this post would be on a book by Emin Milli. I found him on Twitter, describing himself as a ‘dissident writer living in Azerbaijan’ – rather brave from what I’ve heard about the strictness of the regime. In fact, according to his website, Milli is no stranger to this himself: he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in 2009 and was only released conditionally in November 2010.

Sadly, when I contacted Milli, it turned out that the book of short stories he is working on won’t be ready until next year. He offered to translate and send me a couple of pieces – he works as an interpreter as well as a writer – but as I was really looking for a complete book, I decided not to put him to the trouble of doing that.

In the meantime, a contact at Sheffield Hallam University had sent through a suggestion of Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. This book presented another dilemma: although Azerbaijanis apparently consider it their national novel, at least according to Paul Theroux’s introduction in my edition, the identity of its author has been a mystery for many years. Several non-Azerbaijani writers have been in the frame since the book first appeared in Germany in 1937, alongside Baku-born Islam convert Mohammed Essad Bey (aka Lev Nussinbaum). He is the writer that journalist Tom Reiss concluded was behind the book – Reiss went on to write a biography of Bey, titled The Orientalist, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006. In addition, other scholars argue that Azerbaijani statesman Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli is the main author.

The odds were that the novel is by an Azerbaijani, but there was still room for doubt. Was this enough for me to justify making it my choice for the nation?

Faced with very little else available in translation, I finally decided to go for it when I discovered that the journal Azerbaijan International had dedicated an entire issue to the book. Whatever the truth about its author, it was clear that the novel had had a lasting impact on the nation. And so, at the risk that new evidence emerges that blows all this out of the water, I decided to give it a go.

The novel is set in the early decades of the 20th century, during the turbulent run up to the declaration of a separate Azerbaijani state, and tells the story of a relationship between Christian beauty Nino and Muslim Ali. Caught between the conservative traditions of Asia and the liberal culture of Europe, and with the might of Russia bearing down on the region, the lovers find themselves forced to question their desires and identities. And, as the world plunges into war, they realise that events on battlefields hundreds of miles away will decide whether a society in which their love can thrive will continue to exist.

The conflict between East and West is at the heart of this book. From the very first chapter, in which a geography teacher explains that Baku sits on the cusp of two continents and tells Nino and his classmates that it is partly down to them ‘whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia’, questions of allegiance and identity are at the forefront of the narrative. This plays out on every level, from different ways of eating through to the design of houses – all of which are presented with much affection and wit. I particularly enjoyed Ali’s conservative uncle’s description of his visit to the opera in Berlin:

‘We were taken to an opera, called L’Africaine. On stage stood a very fat woman and sang dreadfully. We disliked the woman’s voice very much. Kaiser Wilhelm noticed this and punished the woman on the spot. In the last act many negroes came and erected a big pyre. The woman was bound hand and foot and slowly burnt to death. We were very pleased about that. Later somebody told us that the fire had been only symbolical. But we did not believe this, for the woman shrieked just as terribly as the heretic Hurriet ul Ain, whom the Shah had had burnt to death in Tehran just before we set out on our journey.’

When it comes to the position of women in society, the contrast between the two cultures couldn’t be more stark. While Nino’s father advises Ali that marriage should be based on equality when he goes to ask for her hand, his own father tells him that ‘women are like children, only much more sly and vicious’ and his friends and other relatives advise him that wives have no souls and should be controlled with violence. And when Nino is kidnapped and Ali is forced to pursue her kidnapper’s car across the desert, the codes of honour by which he and his peers operate look set to have horrific consequences for his love.

It seems impossible that a relationship could bridge such a gulf, but the beauty of the book is that Said is able to reveal the coming together of two people in a way that is utterly believable and compelling. While recognising that culturally and historically they ‘ought to be blood enemies’, Ali and Nino are able to find ways of transcending their backgrounds while holding on to the truth of who they are. This does not come without great pain and sacrifice. In fact, much of the book is concerned with the struggles the lovers face to accommodate each other’s needs and desires – from the miserable months Nino spends walled up in a harem in Persia, to the indignation Ali has to swallow at hearing Europeans praise his beautiful, unveiled wife. However, according to the story at least, such reconciliation is possible, even if much is lost along the way.

As a metaphor for the dawning of the new Azerbaijani nation, which managed a few brave years before being swallowed into the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, the book is a powerful and memorable one. Written with great humour and beauty, it brims with affection for this nation of contrasts and contradictions. A wonderful read.

Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, translated from the German by Jenia Graman (Vintage 2000)

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