December 14, 2012
Sometimes when you’re trying to read a book by a writer from every country in the world, you have to travel in time as well as space. While there may not be any translated literature from that nation available in print at the time you’re looking, if you dig back into the past you can occasionally get your hands on an edition of a translation published decades ago that will take you into an imaginary universe from which you would otherwise be shut out. These out-of-print books are like portals, opening and closing at will: not everyone can get to them, they pop up in surprising settings and you’ll rarely find one in the same place twice.
My Paraguayan pick was one of these books. As far as I can find out, there is little other than Helen Lane’s 1986 translation of Augustos Roa Bastos’s I The Supreme out there for us English-language readers (do tell me if you know differently). Luckily, I was able to get hold of a faded 1988 edition listed by an independent bookseller on Abe Books (there are a few others on there at the moment, but they may disappear at any time).
The 1974 novel, which saw Bastos permanently exiled from his homeland, is a fictional rendering of the recollections, pronouncements and paranoid fantasies of the early 19th century Paraguayan dictator Dr José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (who dubbed himself El Supremo). Constructed by an anonymous compiler from a mountain of charred dossiers, pamphlets, correspondence and other documents salvaged from a fire at the time of the ruler’s death, the narrative presents a mind turning in on itself as the tyrant confronts his own mortality.
From the first page – which displays a lampoon in the voice of El Supremo found nailed to the cathedral doors in the capital – the text babbles with questions about identity, authority and authorship. The novel is shot through with footnotes and extracts from other works that contradict the primary account, as well as revisions from the tyrant as he creates his own account of the founding of the Perpetual Dictatorship. As El Supremo’s shadowy scribe puts it, in this world of reconfigurations, suppressed voices and fabrications, ‘even the truth appears to be a lie’.
For all the slipperiness of the narrative, however, the character of El Supremo looms large, riddled with the conflicts, eccentricities and the lack of empathy that comes from years of being cut off from normal human interaction. Bastos’s portrait of the ruler’s paranoia, who sees himself surrounded by people with ‘a bad case of the itch to be kings’, is brilliant and points up the psychology behind the grotesque and brutal punishments he metes out as casually as he orders his food – the cells blocked up to admit no light, the traitors left sitting in the sun, the man forced to row until he dies. These are offset by El Supremo’s delusions about his own benevolence, reflected in outbursts of irrational generosity – as in the case of the meticulous list of toys he orders to be distributed to children at Epiphany.
Bastos’s greatest achievement, however, is that, while revealing the monstrous actions and self-deception of the tyrant, he brings out his humanity too. This comes through in the lonely, sober tone of many of the entries in El Supremo’s private notebook, as well as through glimpses of the ruler as a frail old man playing dice in his slippers and contemplating the impending loss of his faculties. It also lives in his flashes of insight into his situation and his wistful daydreams about how if he had met a woman and had a family he might have enjoyed a peaceful, quiet old age, rather than sitting in fear and isolation, thinking about crowds burning his effigy and listening to ‘the sounds of a sick mind clattering along’.
For all its brilliance, however, the novel does come with a health warning: its dense, heavy style will be too rich for some appetites. The concentration wanders in its maze of associations and you sometimes have to retrace your steps to pick up the thread again. Although Bernard Levin might have read it twice in a weekend – as he writes breezily on the back cover – the book will take most people much longer to get through (I had to allow four days).
If you stick with it, however, the rewards are great. The I the Supreme is many things: a portrayal of the nightmare of being able to trust no-one but yourself; a portrait of a mind hemmed in; and a reminder of how easily we might be other than we are. Extraordinary.
I the Supreme (Yo el Supremo) by Augusto Roa Bastos, translated from the Spanish by Helen R Lane (Faber & Faber, 1988)
December 12, 2012
If there were a hall of fame for hardest countries in the world to find literature from in English, Mauritania would be up there with the best of them. The short answer is that there are no commercially published translations of books penned by writers from the country in either Arabic, French, Hassaniya Arabic, Pulaar, Soninke or Wolof – the six most commonly spoken languages in the nation.
As Manuel Bengoéchéa of the Institut français de Mauritanie explained to me, this is partly because Mauritanian novels and other similar works don’t exist in great numbers in the first place. With so many linguistic communities in one place and a strong oral tradition, it is hard to justify putting resources into publishing works that will only be accessible to a fraction of the population. As a result, stories are more often spoken than written in the country.
Nevertheless, there are some published and celebrated Mauritanian novels out there – and several people went to great lengths to try to help me find one that I could read in English. Of these, International Prize for Arabic Fiction administrator Fleur Montanaro deserves a particular mention. Having lived in the country for seven years, she put a huge amount of energy into searching for a title – even scouring a book fair in the UAE for possible leads for getting a novella, L’amour impossible by leading writer Moussa Ould Ebnou, translated specially for the project.
And then, in one of those flukes of googling, where a brief portal seems to open up to the one page on the world’s more than 620 million websites that you need, I chanced upon an article about Mohamed Bouya Ould Bamba. While studying his PhD at Kent State University in the US, the Mauritanian Fulbright scholar has vowed to write, self-publish and make available for free download one novel each summer. His first book, Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language, came out in 2011. A quick search on the title took me to a download site. I clicked on the text and, just like that, Mauritania was solved.
Taking place over four days, Bamba’s novel unfolds a crisis in a nameless family in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. Having not been paid by his employer for many weeks, the father finds himself struggling to feed his pregnant wife and two daughters. His wife wants to solve the problem by appealing to her rich cousin, but the father has more extreme ideas and, as protests against political corruption flare in the streets, it looks as though the family unit may not survive this latest in a long line of setbacks.
As the title and bombastic prologue – written in the voice of the land of Mauritania – suggest, this is a book with big ambitions. With his anonymous, Everyman characters and lengthy dedication, Bamba seems to feel the need to speak for his entire nation – an understandable aim when you consider that this is in all likelihood the first book by a Mauritanian writer that English-language readers can access.
Coming after such grand beginnings, the domestic setting feels a little cramped at first. Bamba tries to show the link between national and personal events in the narrative, but there is still something of a disconnect, particularly when it comes to the title issue of ‘the curse of the language’ (the numerous people who have lost their native languages in the region), which features heavily in the prologue but barely gets a look in in the main text.
However, as the pages turn, the dramas in the lives of the characters grow to fill the space, providing many fascinating insights into daily life in the Mauritanian capital. While some elements, such as the delight of the male neighbours at the election of Obama over Bush, are disarmingly familiar, others are startlingly strange. For example, the custom of men being able to divorce their wives with a single word is extraordinary, while the wife’s belief that ‘freedoms were an American thing’ provides a fascinating insight into the differences in outlook that fill the novel. In addition, small details, such as the Turkish soap opera that threads through the narrative and the cousin’s daughter’s secret tryst with her boyfriend, bring Bamba’s spare prose to life.
The text contains the typos and slips common in self-published works. On top of this, while Bamba’s English is largely excellent, there are one or two linguistic tics and slight misuses of words that cloud the meaning. Pacing is also an issue: scenes move step by step, lacking the agility and dexterity found in the prose of more experienced writers.
Through it all, however, Bamba’s passion for his country and for telling the world about it shines through. The narrative may be threadbare at points, but its author’s ambition for change and a better life for many of the people in Nouakchott – where wealth and poverty have created a divide more impassable than any country boundary – is admirable. A rare insight into this most mysterious and overlooked of West African nations.
Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language by Mohamed Bouya Bamba (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 9, 2012
It’s official (well, as official as these things can ever be): there are no novels, short story collections or memoirs by writers from Guinea-Bissau available in English translation. I know, because I checked. In fact, it wasn’t just me checking, but a whole army of people, working in, living in or studying the country – as well as several others with no particular connection to it – who kindly helped me with the search.
These included Professor Peter Aaby, director of the Bandim Health Project, who has lived and worked in the country for 35 years; Yema Ferreira, a bilingual Angolan writer and blogger, who spent ages sifting through Portuguese-language sites and other sources (she found a couple of titles that had been translated into French, but none that had made it into English); and a PhD student doing a doctorate on Guinea-Bissauan literature who I bumped into on Twitter and who assured me that there was nothing translated – although she might well consider translating something in future.
All the same, in amongst the barrage of queries that have flown back and forth from my computer bearing the words ‘Guinea-Bissau’ in recent months, one translated title kept cropping up: Unity and Struggle by Amilcar Cabral.
When I first heard about this collection of speeches and writings by the leader of the Guinea-Bissauan and Cape Verdean independence movements, I discounted it. I didn’t really see how an anthology of this type could be counted as a story and, besides, Cabral was assassinated some eight months before Guinea-Bissau declared its independence, making the book’s claim to be counted as a Guinea-Bissauan work problematic.
However, in this case circumstances made the decision for me. In the absence of any other available G-B literature in English, I decided I would have to give it a go and see what sort of story – if any – might emerge from the pages of this book.
Bringing together Cabral’s writings from a period of more than 25 years, right up to his death in 1973, the collection sets out the author’s vision for a free and vibrant Lusophone Africa. Including everything from funeral tributes to notable African leaders and rousing speeches to his countrymen and women, to addresses to the UN and circulars directed at different factions among the Portuguese colonialists, the anthology reveals the damage that occupation does to a country and sets out the, often radical, steps the writer believes will lead to liberation.
Cabral’s passion shines through on every page. A master of rhetoric, he speaks rousingly against the racist ideology that led to the subjection of his people – ‘this tradition of scorn for the African and of belief in the congenital incapacity of this “big child”‘ – as well as against the sexism and petty divisions that initially hampered his compatriots’ attempts to band together against their oppressors. He pulls no punches when it comes to the Portuguese either, whom he dismisses as coming from ‘a small country, the most backward in Europe’.
At times, his words take on a Messianic register, as when he enjoins his listeners to refrain from the distractions of getting married and having children until the struggle for independence is won. However, his belief in violence as being central to the restoration of his people’s sense of agency is perhaps more Old Testament than New, as his ‘Homage to Kwame Nkrumah’ demonstrates: ‘For us, freedom fighters, the finest flowers with which we can garland Kwame Nkrumah’s memory are the bullets, the shells, the missiles of every kind that we fire against the colonialist and racist forces in Africa’. In addition, some of Cabral’s observations on culture are questionable. While arguing strongly that art, literature and philosophy are central to a nation’s expression of its identity, he seems embarrassed by some aspects of African culture and occasionally seems to be apologising for the ‘staggering simplicity’ of his compatriot’s proverbs and traditions – perhaps demonstrating how entrenched the colonial mindset can be, even in those seeking to root it out.
Cabral’s passion for his work is only one side of the coin. Meticulously researched and reasoned, his arguments rest on a robust and largely watertight foundation. This sometimes takes the form of pages and pages of statistics about the economics, education systems and healthcare facilities of certain regions under Portuguese rule as compared with those of other countries. However there are also some memorable soundbites that leap out to shock and outrage the reader, such as his observation on the double standards operating in fellow Portuguese colony Angola:
‘The setting up of each European family costs Angola one million escudos. For an African peasant family to earn that much money, it would have to live for a thousand years and work every year without stopping.’
Inevitably, such weighty helpings of data mean that the book can be heavy-going. In fact, reading it through from beginning to end is in many ways perverse, as Cabral probably never envisaged these very immediate and time-specific addresses would be collected in such a way.
However, for those who persevere, a powerful picture emerges of a man who gave his life, in every sense, to a cause. His collection stands as a Bible for all subjected peoples around the world and a monument to the activist behind it, who never got to see the realisation of his dream. It is a sobering thought that, nearly 40 years after Guinea-Bissau gained its independence, the literature that its greatest champion regarded as key to its expression of national identity is not available to readers in much of the world. We still have a long way to go.
Unity and Struggle: speeches and writings of Amilcar by Amilcar Cabral, translated from the Portuguese by Michael Wolfers (Monthly Review Press, 1982)
December 7, 2012
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)
December 6, 2012
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
December 4, 2012
There are several strong contenders out there for Ethiopia, but Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was one of the first to catch my eye. I wasn’t the only one to like the sound of the critically acclaimed debut novel – the day after I finished it, Bradley stopped by the blog to say he was reading and really enjoying it. Clearly the book was a popular choice.
Drawing on the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, which forced Mengiste’s family to flee Ethiopia, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze traces the fall out of national events in individual lives. The narrative focuses on the family of an eminent Addis Ababa doctor, Hailu, who is struggling to keep his terminally ill wife alive against her wishes and who fears that his youngest son Dawit may be the next wounded revolutionary brought into the hospital for him to treat. At the start of the novel, Hailu has cast-iron confidence in his sense of right and wrong, born of years of making life-and-death decisions; yet, as society unravels around him, the lines begin to blur and when a horrifically tortured girl is brought to him to be patched up, Hailu finds his old certainties crumbling.
Like A Long Way Gone (my Sierra Leonean choice) the novel contains some of the most extreme descriptions of physical violence going. From brief glimpses, such as the pregnant woman ‘pleading at the foot of a man with stones for eyes and a plunging bayoneted rifle in his hand’, to extended scenes, including the interrogation of the small boy Berhane, the book bristles with outraged testimonies to the cruelty of its era – many of which will stay with readers long after they turn the final page.
Mengiste’s writing is excellent throughout. Perhaps the best proof of this for a child of the 1980s like me is the way that she manages to bring home the famines that ravaged rural Ethiopia throughout much of the final decades of the 20th century – and flooded Western TV screens, almost normalising images of extreme hunger for an entire generation. Through the eye-witness accounts of Dawit’s friend, Mickey, Mengiste cuts through the complacency that time and familiarity breed to shame readers with the horror of what happened once again:
‘This is how a man tills his land: behind cattle that are tied to one end of a plow that he uses to dig and lift and turn the ground. He holds a stick in one hand and the end of the plow in the other. At the end of that stick is a rope that he uses to whip the animals when they tire from the hot sun and the lack of water and simple hunger. A man works like this every day, every month, year after year, behind his cattle, his hand attached to a plow that has dug its own imprints into his calloused palms. He speaks to no one but himself, he hears nothing but his own slavish grunts as he pushes his plow into dirt, willing a crop to grow from unforgiving ground, praying daily for more rain. But it didn’t rain in 1972 in the north, my friend, and the farmer had no crops. The rains did not come as they should, and when the rains failed, the crops failed, and when the crops failed, the farmer grew hungry, and when he grew hungry, his cattle also grew hungry, because a farmer will feed his cattle before himself. When the cattle began to die, the farmer gathered his family and tried to walk to the nearest village, the nearest aid shelter, the nearest anywhere where he could hold out his proud hand and beg for food. But everyplace he went was the same as what he had left. They are starving here in Wello, Dawit. They are starving in Tigre and Shoa. We have lived in the city and we have forgotten about these people.’
Mengiste stretches these observations over a finely crafted plot, like canvases on a frame. Drawing in each character, the story moves from conflict to conflict, ratcheting up the tension with every chapter. I found myself gripping the Kindle in fear on several occasions – particularly in the scene where the soldiers come to search Hailu’s house for Dawit.
This solid structure means that the book can take the weight of the many larger questions its author heaps upon it. We find ourselves engaged in religious debates about where the line between accepting God’s will and working to ameliorate your situation should be and political reflections on the conditions needed to effect a revolution. In addition, we witness the events that can turn friendship into hatred, and discover a range of unsettling facts about life in post-revolution Ethiopia – such as the bullet fee families had to pay to receive the body of anyone shot by the authorities.
This is the sort of book that has the power to seem to stop time while the hours fly past. Gripping and thought-provoking, it sweeps you along to the final pages with just the right mix of emotional engagement and historical context. I’ll be adding Mengiste to the post-world watch list – I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste (Vintage Digital, 2010)
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)
December 1, 2012
I’d been trying to find an English-language Sierra Leonean alternative to work by Aminatta Forna for some time. I didn’t have anything against reading Forna – by all accounts she’s a very good writer – but I couldn’t help feeling that the British-born author had had a great deal of coverage since her most recent novel, The Memory of Love, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book Award 2011, and was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011, the IMPAC Award 2012 and the Warwick Prize 2011. I was curious to know what other stories Sierra Leone had to offer.
For a long time, the answer seemed to be not much. I did stoogle upon the website of the intriguing-sounding Sierra Leonean Writers Series, but my attempts to contact the company and find out how I could buy its books came to nothing. Other than that, most of the books out there from the West African nation – which is still recovering from an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002 – seemed to be decades old.
Then RebeccaV stopped by the blog and left a comment to say she was also involved in a global armchair adventure, in which she was trying to read around the world in 80 books. As fellow literary globetrotters can often be a great source of recommendations, I clicked through to her blog to see what she’d read so far. And there, staring back at me, was the answer to my Sierra Leonean quest: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah.
Telling the story of the years Beah spent evading capture by the rebels in the Sierra Leonean jungle and then serving as a child soldier in the army before finally being rescued and rehabilitated, the memoir takes us into the heart of the civil war. Through its frank depiction of the extreme brutality the author experienced and participated in, and the courage and compassion of those who helped him, it reveals the best and worst that humanity is capable of –and the steps by which any one of us might get there.
The violence depicted in the book is among the most shocking and severe I have ever read about. From the gruesome descriptions of the massacre sites Beah passed through in his years of wandering in the jungle after the war separated him from his family, to the mutilated messengers carrying the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF) ultimatums to the villagers it planned to attack, the suffering unleashed by the annihilation of social structures in much of the country is gut-wrenching. In the midst of the madness, particular sequences stand out – such as the cruel chain of events that saw Beah arriving in the village where his parents were rumoured to be staying only minutes after the RUF had struck, killing everyone in sight.
What stops the narrative from tipping over into the wallowing, sensationalist trauma memoir this book could so easily have been is the quality of Beah’s writing. The book brims with descriptions that capture the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world through which he fled. We read how ‘the evening was waving its fingers, signaling night to approach’ and the boys ‘walked fast as if trying to stay in the daytime’, and how the Atlantic Ocean sounded like ‘the roar of big engines, the rolling of metal drums on a tar road, a thunder exploding, roll after roll’ to Beah and his companions when they encountered it for the first time.
In addition, the writer excels at capturing profound emotional shifts succinctly. When Beah heard the story of what the RUF did to his friend Saidu’s parents and sisters, for example, we read that his ‘teeth became sour’, while, on the day the army lieutenant recruited the boys to fight ‘it seemed as if the sky were going to break and fall on the earth’.
Beah’s acute sense of the weight and value of words enables him to go where many other authors might fear to tread. From the drug-fuelled army initiation process and his trembling first touch of a gun, through to his initial kill, and on to the point where ‘killing had become as easy as drinking water’ and even a psychological need, Beah takes us through his own dehumanisation. Having inhabited this with him, we are able to understand the reluctance of the child soldiers to be rescued and taken away from the only structure and purpose they knew. We can also appreciate the huge task facing the rehabilitation staff, many of whom expected to deal with traumatised children without realising that they would come in the form of armed and drugged killers bent on violence at all costs.
In light of this, Beah’s recovery, which we also witness step by painstaking step, and his account of his experiences are nothing short of remarkable. In fact, the memoir is one of the best things I’ve read. Utterly engrossing, it brought me close to tears several times, made me laugh, took me to places I could never otherwise imagine, and inspired me to marvel at the goodness, kindness and potential in the world. You can’t ask much more.
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (Fourth Estate, 2007)
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)
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