December 31, 2012
Well, here we are. The 196th book (197th really, counting the Rest of the World choice) and the final post of the project that took over my life in 2012.
It’s been the most extraordinary year. We’ve seen a story specially written for the blog from South Sudan, a book translated by a team of volunteers to enable me to read something from Sao Tome and Principe, and been given a sneak preview of an illustrated, trilingual collection of microstories from Luxembourg, as well as many other wonderful discoveries.
I’ve been overwhelmed by the interest and support the blog has drawn around the world. From the huge number of people who have given up their time to help me track down those elusive titles and the many visitors who have liked, shared and commented on posts – keeping me going through all those late nights and early mornings – to the media interest that saw the blog featured on CNN International, in the national press and on UNESCO’s list of initiatives for World Book Day, the response has been humbling. Thank you.
I’m also delighted that the project will see another book added to the world – Reading the World: postcards from my bookshelf, which I’m writing for UK publisher Harvill Secker and comes out in 2014.
But back to the matter in hand. As far as I could see, the only way to finish this odyssey was with a return to the place where it all started and where I first discovered my love of reading: the UK.
At first glance, it seemed obvious that I would choose one of the bastions of British literature as my final book – something by Dickens or Eliot, perhaps, or a more modern work by Woolf, Orwell, Wodehouse or Waugh.
However, as the year went on and I became less and less convinced by the idea of one book summing up a country’s literature, other thoughts started to creep in. In particular, I began to think more about translation.
After all, I started this project because I realised I hardly ever read world literature and never read books in translation. And yet here I was living in a country that was home to several native languages other than English, the literatures of which I had never explored.
With this in mind, I wandered up to the Welsh Books Council stand at the London Book Fair earlier this year and asked for some suggestions. (I might as easily have chosen to read Gaelic literature or something translated from the now-dead Cornish language, but Welsh has a particular significance for me, it being my grandfather’s mother tongue.)
The woman I spoke to was very helpful and had many recommendations. However, one in particular stood out: Martha, Jack and Shanco by Caryl Lewis. It won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2005 and the English translation came out two years later. Intrigued, I noted it down and set off to find a copy.
Set on the bleak farm of Graig-ddu in west Wales, the novel recounts a year in the lives of three ageing siblings who were born and grew up there. Caught up in the demanding day-to-day running of the farm, Martha, Jack and their mentally disabled brother Shanco have little time to dwell on what else the world might have to offer them. But every so often outside forces break into their isolation, testing the forces that bind them to the memory of their parents and the place that shaped, warped and made them who they are.
Lewis’s evocation of this harsh and remote world is powerful. From the first scene, in which we follow the siblings as they head out in the dead of night to discover the reason for the wounds on one of their cows’ udders, we are caught up in the grim realities of life on Graig-ddu. This is a place where kittens tumble to their deaths from roofbeams, crows beat their beaks bloody at the window panes, and rams’ horns must be reshaped to stop them from growing into the creatures’ heads.
In the face of such daily occurrences and the gruelling physical schedule (not helped by Jack’s adherence to his father’s antiquated farming equipment), there is no room for sentimentality. Instead, emotions must be expressed in private and through little things – Mami’s bedroom kept as it was when she died, the wreath laid annually on the parents’ grave, the upturned washing-up bowl shielding the footprint Gwynfor left the day Martha told him she could not leave the farm and marry him.
Lewis’s writing reflects this too, condensing poignancy and meaning into a series of fleeting, yet breathtakingly precise images. There is the description of Martha and Shanco lying awake at night ‘each skull a bird cage full of thoughts flapping in the hope of freedom’, the way Jack tries to make sense of his sister’s words ‘laying them out one by one like clothes put out to dry on the line’, and the portrayal of Martha’s ‘home’s landscape [...] coated with a drift’ of interloper Judy’s things.
For all the bleakness of the setting however, there is humour and beauty too. Jack’s partnership with his sheepdog Roy is mesmerising, as is the depiction of the myriad stars in late summer ‘as though someone had cast them like quicksilver into the sky’. In addition, cameo characters like neighbouring farmer Will, who turns his cap round and continues on at the same speed when he wants his tractor to go faster, and Martha’s high jinks with the windpipes of the turkeys she butchers for Christmas add an endearing warmth to the narrative.
They also give it a sense of tradition and archaism that makes you forget that you are reading about contemporary Wales. Time and again, I found myself pulled up short by mentions of EU directives and 4×4s that reminded me that the story was set not in some long-distant decade and land, but a handful of years ago and only a few hundred miles from my London flat.
Now and then, Lewis labours her points. The repeated statements of the particulars of Mami’s will, which saw Graig-ddu entailed jointly on the siblings, for example, feel a little unnecessary. In addition, the careful fleshing out of most of the characters shows Judy up as rather two-dimensional in contrast. I also felt the steps leading to the climax of the novel could have been more subtly seeded into the narrative.
As a whole, though, this is a haunting and engrossing book. Lyrical, harsh and deeply moving, the novel reveals what it means to be born into a way life that leaves you no real room for imagining anything else. It is a reminder that you don’t have to look beyond the boundaries of your own nation to find people living in quite different worlds from your own.
Thanks again to everyone who has made this project possible and a special thank you to my fiancé Steve, who lived through it with me, took the picture at the top and came up with many of the best ideas along the way.
If you’d like to stay up to date with post-world developments, you can follow me on Twitter (@annmorgan30) or like the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page (by popular request I’ll be posting a shortlist of favourite commercially available world reads there in a few days’ time).
And if you’ve enjoyed this journey, I’d love it if you would join me on my next adventure, which will be taking shape over the next few months.
For now, though, I’m off to celebrate. Happy New Year everyone. Have fun!
Martha, Jack and Shanco (Martha Jac a Sianco) by Caryl Lewis, translated from the Welsh by Gwen Davies (Parthian, 2007)
December 24, 2012
This was a recommendation from Jim Dingley, acting chairman of the Anglo-Belarusian Society. In fact it was one of several suggestions he sent me from among the relatively tiny number of Belarusian works to have made it into English so far.
The front-runner of these was Paranoia, a banned novel by contemporary author Victor Martinovich. As far as Dingley knew, the translation was due out imminently. Sadly, however, when I contacted Martinovich, it turned out that the book would not be published by North Western University Press until 2013. For now, I would have to content myself with reading a review of the original in The New York Review of Books.
In the absence of Paranoia, the next title to catch my eye on the list was Uladzimir Karatkievich’s King Stakh’s Wild Hunt. I liked the sound of it because, according to Dingley, Karatkievich is regarded as ‘the most Belarusian of novelists’. The link he’d sent me to the free online pdf was, as far as he was aware, the only English version of any of the author’s historical works available. The one sticking point, he said, was that the translation wasn’t very good. Duly warned, I decided to take the risk.
The novel unfolds 96-year-old Andrei Belaretski’s account of the events of 1888, when, as a young ethnographer, he went to the remote Belarusian District N to collect folk stories and legends. After his carriage gets mired in one of the region’s treacherous bogs, Belaretski seeks refuge in the gloomy Castle of Marsh Firs, only to find the terrors of the heaths are matched by the horrors lurking within its walls. Taking pity on the estate’s teenage mistress, Nadzeya – the last of the aristocratic Yanowski family – the hero decides to do what he can to free her from the ancient curse that keeps her shut in from the world. But, as the weeks go by, Belaretski discovers the ghostly goings on in and around the castle are far from what they seem.
This is storytelling at its most delicious, gripping and gothic. From the life-and-death struggle to save the carriage from sinking into the dismal wastes, to the spooky Little Man and Lady-in-Blue prowling the castle’s corridors – not to mention the otherworldly huntsmen who sweep silently across the landscape hounding unfortunate travellers to their deaths – Karatkievich is a master of suspense. Indeed, in his frequent foreshadowing of horrors to come and wry references to other gothic novelists such as Anne Radcliffe, he seems to revel in playing with readers, watching us tiptoe around the maze his imagination has created. He even pokes fun at his craft at points, having one of Belaretski’s allies admonish him for his impatience to get to the bottom of things with the observation that ‘everything is cleared up easily and logically only in bad novels’ (before going on to tie everything up as neatly as anyone could wish).
This narratological virtuosity goes hand in hand with some great writing. We read, for example, how Belaretski ‘felt the wind of the centuries whistling past [his] back’ as he looks at the portraits of the Yanowski family and that ‘one has to be a misanthropist with the brain of a caveman to imagine [the bleakness of District N's peat bogs]‘. The narrative is so evocative, in fact, that I found it transformed not only my imaginary universe but the world around me too. Out of the corner of my eye, the television in my living room seemed transformed into a crackling fire and the drizzle outside the window became whirling snow as I read, as though my surroundings themselves were under Karatkievich’s spell.
This made me wonder about Dingley’s comment on the translation. Leaving aside one or two slightly clunky moments and odd notes, the narrative is so enjoyable and readable that it is certainly not ‘bad’ in the sense of being clumsy and grammatically incorrect, which is what people usually seem to mean when they talk about the quality of works converted from other languages. I could only conclude that Dingley must have been talking about how representative the text is of the original – and indeed there is a cosy familiarity to it that made me wonder how far translator Mary Mintz had stretched to make the work appeal to English-language readers (if you can shed light on this, do let me know).
That said, there is one element in the novel that remains indisputably Belarusian: the seam of national pride that runs through it. This appears in many guises, from the narrator’s evocations of ‘Byzantine Belarus’ in the opening pages, to his affectionate and sometimes despairing observations on the characteristics he and his compatriots share. There is also a somewhat subversive aspect to this novel – published during the Soviet era – in the form of the repeated jibes against Imperial Russia and the corruption of officials working for the regime. These add a welcome piquancy to the narrative, particularly in the final chapters where Belaretski encourages local peasants to rise up against the mysterious forces of oppression.
Faithful to the original or not, this a hugely enjoyable read. Gripping, witty and wonderfully spooky, it is the ideal story to curl up with on a dark December evening. A gift for gothic novel fans the world over.
King Stakh’s Wild Hunt by Uladzimir Karatkievich, translated from the Belarusian by Mary Mintz (Belarusian Literature in English Translations, 2006)
Merry Christmas all. See you the other side for the final three posts of the project!
December 23, 2012
If there were a league table for the number of books set in a place per head of population, Monaco would be up there with the best of them. Nestled in the French Riviera, the tiny but hugely wealthy principality has long been the holiday destination of choice for many of the world’s great, good, and not-so-good, including lots of writers. The results speak for themselves: novels set or partially set in the 0.76 square mile sovereign state include Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Graham Greene’s Loser Takes All, as well as many more besides.
But while hordes of foreign authors have written about the nation, home-grown literary works are much harder to find. Indeed, Monégasque writers are so thin on the ground that the Prince Pierre of Monaco Literary Prize, founded in 1951, has never gone to a local author.
This leaves armchair adventurers like me in a dilemma. With no Monégasque novels, short story collections or memoirs available in English (the closest I got were some translated plays and poetry by Monaco-born Armand Gatti), I had to choose between opting for a work by a non-national writer who spent time in the place or broadening the scope of ‘book’. At one point, I even found myself wondering if there was any way I could justify reading a strange pamphlet called Russian Expatriates in Monaco, Including: Marat Safin, Andrei Cherkasov, Elena Dementieva as my Monaco book. (I discovered it sloshing around in the unknown bindings on Amazon and bought it out of curiosity, only to find that it was a run down of various Russian nationals’ tennis careers).
While I was wondering what to do, a French friend made a suggestion: what about reading a biography of Grace Kelly, the Hollywood star who married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, in 1956 and became a national treasure? I laughed and went on contacting anyone and everyone I could think of in and around the French Riviera.
However, when I got in touch with Beatrice Projetti, secretary and treasurer of the Association Monaco-Japon, I was made to think again. Like many other people I’ve emailed out of the blue this year, Projetti proved to be extremely helpful, and we struck up a long correspondence, during which she explored many options on my behalf. Somewhere in the midst of it, she mentioned that her brother had published a bilingual book called Grace Kelly: Princesse du Cinema, which included many pictures and other sources from the celebrity’s life.
It got me thinking. By that stage in the year, I’d read several transcribed oral stories about national legends, such as The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounted by Nigerien griot Nouhou Malio. Passed down from generation to generation, these works couldn’t really be said to have a single author, and were more of a collective expression of cultural identity and history honed and shaped by many voices. Seen in this light, could a story about a modern legend – a woman who came to be seen as the epitome of Monégasque glamour, yet who retained a certain mystique right up until the patchily explained car crash that killed her – count as my Monaco book?
Bringing together photographs, posters and stills from the actress’s 12 films, Grace Kelly: Princesse du Cinema provides an overview of the star’s career up until her marriage. Although there is very little text – made up mostly of captions, quotes from co-actors such as Cary Grant and James Stewart, and sometimes clumsily translated plot summaries and excerpts from film scripts – a story emerges from the ‘special documents’ of the photographs (as the introduction describes them). From the poster for 1953 film Mogambo, on which Kelly loiters in the background behind the sultry Clark Gable and Ava Gardner, to the lavish display designed around her face for The Swan two years later, the actress’s meteoric rise to fame is writ large on these pages.
As you might expect in a tribute work such as this, complete with its non-translated preface by son Prince Albert, Grace Kelly’s beauty and elegance are the central theme. Whether she is posing in a ball gown, staring dreamily out over the head of her Oscar, or cowering in a pit on location, the actress’s charm and magnetism are always the first things that strike the eye.
Yet, as the pages turn, a shadow narrative comes into focus. With shots of daily life and on-set discussions mingled with film stills again and again, the line between reality and fantasy becomes harder and harder to draw. At times, we cannot be sure whether we are looking Cary Grant and Grace Kelly relaxing on the set of To Catch a Thief or John Robie and Frances in the midst of another heist.
This blurring of fact and fiction is never more apparent than in the depiction of Kelly’s marriage. Presented with its own poster (the extravaganza was filmed by MGM as compensation for Kelly reneging on her contract to star in Designing Woman) the ceremony is every inch the Hollywood fairytale – the end title card might as well have ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ written on it.
The rest is silence, leaving a strange sense of hollowness and inscrutability lingering in the wake of the woman who is somehow everywhere and nowhere in this book. In the absence of any insight into what happened after the lights were switched off and the cameras packed away, the image is all. And perhaps that’s precisely the point.
Grace Kelly: Princesse du Cinema edited by Richard and Danae Projetti (Stanislas Choko, 2007)
December 17, 2012
I met book blogger Alastair Savage at the Guardian First Book Awards ceremony a few weeks back. We were both there because we’d been on the team of reader-reviewers asked to help vet some of the contenders for the readers’ shortlist entry. As neither of us knew many people there, we got chatting, and when I discovered Savage lived in Barcelona it struck me that he might be just the person to help me solve one of the last major choosing conundrums on my list: Spain.
I’d been puzzling over what to read from the country for months. While the Spanish recommendations had been nowhere near as numerous as those for India, I was very conscious that the titles on the list represented a drop in the ocean of the amazing literature out there. I asked Twitter what I should do a few times but, while I did have some good responses, there was nothing conclusive.
For a long time Edith Grossman’s translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th century classic Don Quixote was a hot favourite. But while I was intrigued by it – and (pretty) confident that, having got through Ulysses, American Gods and A Providence of War this year, I could take it in my stride – I couldn’t help feeling that reading it might be a missed opportunity in terms of this project. Don Quixote was so well-known as to be almost stateless; I was keen to see what else Spain had up its sleeve.
Alastair Savage didn’t hesitate. I should read something by Juan Goytisolo, he said – and when he started to tell me about the writer, I couldn’t help agreeing. Living in voluntary exile from Spain in Marrakech, Goytisolo has carved out a niche as something of a malcontent and critic of his homeland. His most famous work, Count Julian, takes traditional Spain apart from the inside by giving an account of events that favours one of the country’s most notorious traitors. However, it was the notion of the author’s self-imposed separation from his home country that intrigued me, so when I discovered that one of his most recent novels is titled Exiled from Almost Everywhere I decided to read it.
Opening with the terrorist bomb blast that kills its main character, the novel portrays the afterlife of ‘the Monster of Le Sentier’, an unprepossessing character who in life spent his time hanging around public toilets looking for children to molest. Blown into the ‘virtual universe’ of the beyond (represented in his case by an empty cybercafe), the protagonist continues to receive emails from people in the real world and enters into a series of exchanges and experiences with extremists that show up the hollowness, contradictions and strangeness of consumerism and politics.
Just as the protagonist is exiled from life, so Goytisolo distances the novel from many narrative conventions. Moving from one short, loosely connected vignette to the next, the text frustrates readers’ attempts to find continuity and consistency in it. Emails from strangers lambast, exhort and attempt to con the main character; dreams blur with reality; and the narrator frequently steps out of the action to remind us of the ‘suspect nature of writing’. Indeed, reading the book often feels like browsing the internet, clicking from one unsubstantiated and dubious website to the next by way of a series of chance connections and interlinking search terms.
Irreverent and unapologetic for the book’s inconsistencies and contradictions – at times even pointing them out – the narrative sets out some delightfully quirky and provocative ideas. From the cross-dressing imam ‘Alice’, who moonlights as a stripper, to the vision of a hereafter in which you ‘can just as easily find yourself in a cybercafe the size of an Olympic stadium as floating in the weightlessness of space, or helplessly trapped in a traffic jam with an objectionable Madrid taxi driver for company’, there is a devil-may-care flamboyance to the writing that makes it engrossing.
The narrative’s organic and often random feel, however, will grate on some readers. While Goytisolo is careful to set out his stall early on with the observation that ‘the genes determining the static identities and solid characters that peopled the world of your childhood no longer parallel the discoveries made by science’ and that therefore shouldn’t ‘the astonishing innovations at work in the field of genetics be applied to the novel’, the practical implications of shape-, gender-, ethnicity- and dimension-shifting characters make for a rather giddy ride.
Overall, though, it’s hard not to admire Goytisolo’s achievement. In 135-odd pages, he manages to take on not only the whole world but the world to come too. The result is a queasy-making, yet compulsive vision of a jaundiced present, in which eclecticism and specificity are both kill and cure.
Exiled from Almost Everywhere (El exiliado de aqui y alla) by Juan Goytisolo, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)
December 10, 2012
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)
December 3, 2012
I always knew this little enclave in northern Italy was going to be tricky – and it did not disappoint me. In fact this post is the result of months of emails, phone calls, appeals to anyone I know with any connection to Italy, wishing on several stars and a good deal of luck.
This frantic activity threw up several leads. The first of these was Milena Ercolani, the Sammarinese poet at this summer’s Poetry Parnassus event in London. After googling around a bit, I found her through La Sammarina, the cultural association she founded, and got in touch to ask for her help. As it turned out, Ercolani had written two novels of her own, but neither had been translated yet. There were plans to create an English version of one of them but so far nothing was available.
I went back to the drawing board. An Italian literature research student friend of mine kindly got on the case and asked around. His inquiries turned up the suggestion that Italian-born crime writer and journalist Carlo Lucarelli might live in the Republic. Between us, we concocted an email asking Lucarelli if any of his novels were available in translation (or rather, I wrote something in English and my friend translated it) and fired it off. Sadly, there was no response.
About that time, I heard from Paul, a Canadian blogger also engaged in a round-the-world quest. Despite not being able to read Italian, he was translating a short story from San Marino to read for his own project, having been unable to find anything to read from the nation in English.
With around 1.87 days to read each book in order to get round the world in a year, DIY translation was not an option for me. However, I was beginning to realise that San Marino might require a pretty radical solution.
An Italian contact of mine in Brussels gave me the number for the Sammarinese ministry of culture. I called it up, only to be told, amid much laughter and muffled discussion, that no-one was sure who the current minister of culture was. My best bet, apparently, was to ask the last minister of culture who he thought it was. Hopefully whoever he or she was would be able to help me.
The phone number for the last-known Sammarinese minister of culture took a long time to dictate, partly because of a lively debate about the translation for certain digits in Italian. When I finally put the phone down and tried to call it, it didn’t work.
The weeks went by and I continued to fire off emails to anyone and everyone I could think of in and around San Marino. Steve, my fiancé, joked that I had probably contacted nearly all of the Republic’s 30,000 inhabitants. I even tried emailing the writer Umberto Eco, who has strong links with the university there (I received a nice but non-committal response from his assistant).
And then, in reply to my deluge of messages, an email arrived. It was from Tina at the University of San Marino. A friend of hers had suggested The Republic of San Marino, a short history by a Sammarinese professor of Italian literature, Giuseppe Rossi, which had been translated into English.
At first, I wasn’t convinced. Histories weren’t really something I’d been in the market for throughout the year: I was looking for stories. However, when I thought about it and when a copy arrived and I looked at it, I realised that the account was not a million miles from the books I’d read from places such as the Federated States of Micronesia and Tuvalu. Much like those works from some of the world’s youngest countries, this publication from the planet’s arguably oldest sovereign state was an attempt to tell the story of the nation. Perhaps it counted after all.
Part guidebook, part manifesto and part good, old-fashioned PR, the illustrated Republic of San Marino takes the reader around the streets of the state, explaining the country’s traditions and idiosyncracies as we go. It begins with the arrival of Saint Marinus in the region and traces the development of the state from there, leading right up to the 1970s, when the pamphlet was published.
There are some fascinating insights along the way. The democratic process that sees a new pair of national captains elected every six months, for example – allegedly making it possible for citizens of all ranks to have a turn at being head of state – is intriguing. In addition, the numerous photographs of views, buildings and artefacts – which would no doubt have made this a very glossy and lavish publication in its day – add a rich sense of the character of the country, albeit a rather dated one.
Far more interesting than the information the book contains, however, is its tone, which veers wildly between factual and fanciful – with plenty of opinionated digressions thrown in along the way. We hear, in all seriousness, the reasons why San Marino decided against joining the nuclear arms race (apparently it would be too expensive and besides the Sammarinese have never been ones to pick fights), as well as a series of reflections on modern art and cars, ‘the latest and most forceful expression of civilization and progress’. There are also numerous references to San Marino’s peacefulness and its ‘noble, untarnished tradition’, which the author claims is the reason the state has never been tempted to try to expand its territories – all 24 square miles of them. This, despite a fearsome collection of ancient armaments, and a picture of a man aiming a crossbow on the cover.
The wheels come off occasionally in the syntax stakes and the anonymous translator has coined a few interesting words. We read, for example, that the layout of the national exhibition of weaponry allows ‘a careful visit and a noticement of this appendix’, while visitors climbing the parliament building’s ‘maiestic [sic] stone staircase’ will find themselves ‘staring, with some surprised, into the stern efficy of Abraham Lincoln’.
Much of this simply adds to the book’s interest, however. Whether intentionally or not, a story emerges from the gaps between the facts, from what is said and what is assumed, and from the preoccupations of the author. The work is a portrait of pride in a specific place at a particular point in history – and a lesson that we all tell stories in almost anything we do.
The Republic of San Marino by Giuseppe Rossi (The Governmental Tourist Body Sport and Spectacle of the Republic of San Marino, 1976)
November 24, 2012
One of the nicest things about doing this project has been the way it’s brought me into contact with people all over the world. Nothing cheers me up more at 6.30am on a Monday morning than logging into my stats and seeing the number of visitors who’ve clicked on to the blog from all parts of the planet.
This has also been invaluable when it comes to finding books from hard-to-reach places, so when malinkasstudio visited my site and left a comment in which she described herself as ‘a proud Moldovan’, I seized the opportunity to ask her what I should read from her country. Malinkasstudio confirmed my suspicions that there wasn’t much Moldovan literature in translation out there – in fact she smilingly said that she would probably be one of the first writers from the small Eastern European state to make it into English. However, she was pleased to see that I already had a book by her favourite author, Ion Drutse, on the list. She wasn’t sure which short stories the collection Moldavian Autumn contained, but if it had ’Frunze de dor’ (an un-translatable phrase which she said would mean something like ‘Leaves of missing somebody’) and ‘The Last Month of Autumn’ she was sure I would like it.
That was enough of a recommendation for me. I tracked down a rather pricey copy of the 2001 translation on the internet, ordered it and sat back to wait for the book to arrive.
And waited. And waited. And, yes, waited some more. In fact six weeks went by without the collection appearing, by which time the bookseller and I concluded it must have got lost in the post. So, I tracked down another, slightly pricier copy and ordered that. A few days later I got a message from the vendor: unaccountably the book was missing from his warehouse. He was sorry, but he’d have to cancel my order.
Time was marching on. I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t manage to get my hands on a copy before the end of the year, particularly given the long delivery times quoted by many of the rare book dealers on the net.
However, alongside the listings for Moldavian Autumn, I’d also seen another book in English translation by Drutse: The Story of An Ant. There was no information about it, beyond the fact that it contained illustrations. Intrigued by the title and anxious to have some kind of Moldovan reading matter in my life, I ordered that instead.
A slender pamphlet arrived through the post, containing two fable-like animal stories by Ion Drutse. The first, ‘Duck Hunters’, portrays the development of a touching friendship between an old farmer’s housekeeper and a chick hatched from a stolen duck egg. The second story, which shares the title of the book, follows an ant’s epic quest to find some food in a harsh, giant-sized world.
Although ostensibly simple, the stories contain subtle portraits of the motivations driving their characters. From the descriptions of farmer Uncle Trofim, a ‘deeply disappointed old man’, whose sense of identity is bound up with his dwindling flock of ducks and the zama his housekeeper makes from them, to the savage attack launched by the farmyard geese on the pampered favourite, Drutse’s sense of the needs and desires of his subjects underpins the narratives. The first story also contains a powerful explanation of the reason we often feel uncomfortable with the idea of eating animals that tend to be pets: ‘You can’t make zama out of something that rejoices your soul’, as the old woman puts it.
Striking imagery and quirky details help make the stories live. While trouble sticks to Uncle Trofim ‘like a burr’ and the sitting goose laughs at the odd-shaped duck egg hidden in her clutch, the ant’s view of the obstacles in her way – from a massive pair of ploughman’s feet to a dozing muskrat (‘There’s no lazybones like a muskrat in this world and any ant would have stopped and told the rat about it’) – keep us gripped by her quest. In addition, the impressionistic illustrations, which vary markedly in tone between the two stories, help enrich the reading experience.
That said, the text does have some problems. The translation is erratic at times with pronouns and tenses leaping merrily all over the shop. One or two words also seem to have got mangled in the process – the description of how ‘before the frost came, the goslings changed their pubes into feathers’, for example, can’t be quite right.
In addition, the structure of the stories is a little unusual. While the first story seems to shift focus from Uncle Trofim to the old woman, as though Drutse only makes up his mind who his main character is half-way through, the second story ends so abruptly that it seems the author has lost patience with it and is eager to move on to something else.
Reading them, I couldn’t help feeling that I wasn’t seeing Drutse at his best, particularly given malinkasstudio’s enthusiasm for him. However, the quirky touches and striking imagery made me intrigued to try more of his work. If anyone out there has a copy of Moldavian Autumn that I can beg, buy or borrow I’d love to hear from you – maybe I can read it next year!
The Story of An Ant by Ion Drutse, translated from the Moldovan by Iraida Kotrutse, illustrated by Nina Danilenko (Kishinev Literatura Artistika, 1988)
The Rest of the World poll is now open. Vote to choose my penultimate book of the year!
November 23, 2012
There were several possibilities in the frame for Macedonia. Will Firth, translator of my Croatian pick, Our Man in Iraq, had suggested two options: Luan Starova’s My Father’s Books and Pirey by Petre M Andreevski, both of which sounded tempting.
But it was when I heard about writer Goce Smilevski that my ears really pricked up. His novel Sigmund Freud’s Sister won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2010 and is being published in more than 30 languages. Reaching further back, Smilevski was awarded the Central European Initiative Fellowship for young European authors in 2006 and his book Conversation with Spinoza: a cobweb novel won the 2003 Macedonian Novel of the Year Award. I decided it would be the book for me.
As the subtitle suggests, this is no ordinary novel. In fact, any hopes you might have of following a conventional yarn are quickly dispatched by the ‘Note to the Reader’ on the very first page:
‘The threads of this novel are spun out of conversations between you and Spinoza. So wherever there is an empty space in the words of Spinoza, just say your name and write it in the blank space.’
And that sums up the basic structure: ricocheting back and forth across the space of almost 400 years, the novel is based on a dialogue between the modern reader and the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza – or, rather, two versions of him. The first is the confident young man wedded to his quest for complete freedom by focusing his mind only on eternal things and mastering his emotions. The interlocutor of the second part is the lonely, elderly hermit, looking back with regret on a life lived at arm’s length from the world. Both Spinozas tell the story of their existences, prompted by questions and observations from the reader. In so doing, they set up two markers, between which, as Smilevski spins his narrative, a web of contradictions and connections shimmers.
The author’s attention to detail is extraordinary – so much so that in this ‘cobweb novel’ it sometimes feels as though we are seeing a spider’s-eye view of life. From the trace of a tear on the face of Spinoza’s corpse at the start of the novel, to a drop of blood painted by the 26-year-old Rembrandt – who makes a cameo appearance early on – we find ourselves in a universe where minutiae make all the difference. Smilevski turns this to great effect in the latter sections of the novel, where a speck on a handkerchief comes to symbolise the young Spinoza’s love for his mother and where the philosopher fights his feelings for Clara Maria, the daughter of his mentor, by listing and denying a series of finely observed details about her.
Some unexpected gusts of humour blow through the narrative too. I particularly enjoyed the description of Spinoza’s forebears enlisting people to carry messages to their relatives by way of a series of odd gestures and signs as they fled the Spanish Inquisition: ‘in all of the towns they passed through, Isaac and Mor Alvares left people jumping on one leg in the square, crouching and standing up near the harbor, or clapping their hands in front of the cathedral’. In addition, when we first meet Clara Maria she is lamenting the death of Jesus, only for her father to respond: ‘You can’t do anything about it dear, such is life. [...] Think about it, he was very old and all his teeth had fallen out; he couldn’t even eat properly’ – whereupon we learn that Jesus is a dog.
Smilevski’s handling of the question-and-answer structure is impressive. Rarely did I feel resentment at having words put in my mouth in the text because, for the most part, the author anticipates precisely the responses and questions his reader will have. This becomes a powerful tool in the latter stages where a very intimate dialogue evolves with the disappointed Spinoza, centring around his sadness at ‘how forcefully [he has] driven everybody away’.
The treatment of Spinoza’s philosophy in the text, on the other hand, is mixed. While Smilevski provides glimpses of what it’s like to stretch the limits of language and understanding in an effort to advance ideas, the conversations between his protagonist and some of the other characters occasionally become impenetrable. At these points, the meaning disappears behind a swarm of abstract terms, which, not fixed firmly enough with the pin of definition, flit about the text leaving the reader flailing in their wake. Smilevski’s introduction of anachronistic theories about evolution into the story as a way of explaining Spinoza’s rejection by the Jewish community is also problematic. The author seems to feel this too, for he makes the concepts the brainchild of a mysterious Macedonian who appears and disappears quickly and, we later hear, is executed for his dangerous ideas.
All in all, though, this a powerful and moving book. It is, in essence, a portrait of a mind trapping itself in a cage of its own making in the effort to be free. Smilevski’s portrayal of Spinoza’s philosophy may be opaque at times, but there’s surely something we can all take from it.
Conversation with Spinoza (Razgovor so Spinoza) by Goce Smilevski, translated from the Macedonian by Filip Korzenski (Northwestern University Press, 2006)
The Rest of the World poll is now open. Vote to choose my penultimate book of the year!
November 14, 2012
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)
November 5, 2012
Guernica Press may not have been able to help with my Latvian query in time for the end of the year, but it came up trumps for Slovenia. As Mike explained when I emailed to ask about Nora Ikstena’s work, the company was just in the process of publishing a novel by Slovene author Luka Novak. It was called The Golden Shower or What Men Want – would I be interested in seeing a copy?
Not only was the title intriguing (if a little disconcerting), but Luka Novak sounded like quite a character in his own right. The co-host of a popular Slovenian TV cookery show and programme director of the Slovenian Book Fair, he ran a publishing house for 20 years, as well as launching what is apparently Eastern Europe’s first ever concept store. He also ran for Mayor of Ljubljana in 2006, speaks six languages, and has translated 20 books, including Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, into Slovenian.
Phew. I had to see what this one-man cultural extravaganza’s novel was like.
The book starts when a middle-aged psychiatrist and his younger actress girlfriend arrive in Provence, France, for a holiday, which he intends to spend writing a book of cultural essays. It’s not long, however, before their plans start to go awry and the couple, along with Orada, the doctor’s Bosnian masseuse neighbour back in Ljubljana, and a German mythology professor, find themselves caught up in a covert cultural, religious and political movement that aims to take over and remake the world in its own image.
Novak is great at making his characters reveal their inconsistencies through their actions and the stories they tell about themselves. From the brilliant portrait of procrastination in the early chapters, where the psychiatrist is always on the point of sitting down to write his essays but finds himself forced to seek refuge in glass after glass of rosé, to the constant shifting of ground that characterises his arguments with Larisa – during which the pair wander miserably around picturesque French towns, neither getting to do what they want to, with the fact of their childlessness only a Freudian slip away – the novel is full of instances of self-deception and people interacting at cross purposes.
This is helped greatly by Novak’s witty voice. Whether his characters are asserting the opinion that ‘in Ljubljana they’re incapable of making a coherent croissant’ or expressing home truths about the Bosnian War there is a pithiness to his writing that makes for absorbing reading. This is coupled with a series of great cameo characters. I particularly enjoyed the German couple at Ducasse’s country inn, who have planned out every minute of their holiday, barring the ‘five percent spontaneity they generously afford themselves on every trip’.
The humour is important because it buys Novak considerable slack when the narrative rises into the realms of the surreal, tugging at its moorings like a hot air balloon. Watching the plot move into farce after 80 pages or so – with kimono-sporting monks, religious SWAT teams, gender-morphing musicians and the President of Slovenia all dropping in under the watchful eye of the mysterious aesthete, Contractor – is disconcerting and would no doubt be off-putting if the novel weren’t so enjoyable to read.
The same is true of the clamour of philosophical and religious references in the narrative. These centre around Contractor’s desire to reconstruct religious tableaux for the modern age in an effort to create what is variously described as ‘a commercial for a better world’, a ‘pornographic invitation to rebellion’ and the basis for the ‘alteration of people’s very sensibility’. The whole thing might be unbearably pretentious in another writer’s hands, but in Novak’s it’s quirky, intriguing and odd.
That said, the book is not without its frustrations. Even with the general rule of thumb (broken occasionally with the story of the German mythology professor) that the chapters alternate between the experiences of the psychiatrist and Orada, it’s often hard to know where you are. I spent the beginning of several sections straining to catch a familiar reference so that I could work out who I was reading about – a tricky extra complication when you’re dealing with a plot that embraces randomness. In addition, there are some abrupt shifts that leave us scrabbling to catch up. In one paragraph, for example, Orada is watching the Venezuelan police seize an accomplice on the beach; in the next, Contractor is stopping his motorbike in some woods. It’s left to us to infer that Orada hopped on behind him.
All in all, though, this is an enjoyable and surprising novel. No doubt the plot and the subject matter will be too wacky for some readers, but if you give yourself over to it, the narrative sweeps you along, delivering a good helping of insights, thrills, spills and laughs along the way. Apparently, Novak is working on a second novel, this time about the mysterious death of an eccentric pianist-performer in 1980s Paris. I’m intrigued to see what that will entail…
The Golden Shower or What Men Want (Zlati Dez ali Kaj Hoce Moski) by Luka Novak, translated from the Slovenian by Urska Charney (Guernica Editions, 2012)