Jordan: winds of change

December 27, 2012

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Hearing that my friend Andrew was off to the Middle East for a choir tour in October, I decided to recruit him to find my Jordanian book. The schedule for the tour was tight, but a brief window in Amman (not to be confused with Oman as I originally wrote) gave him the opportunity to slip off in search of a translation of a story.

Andrew had heard from members of a local choir, with whom his group Ishirini was collaborating, about a bookshop with a good English-language offering that stayed open late into the night. Complete with a built-in coffee shop, it was something of a hang-out for bibliophiles and so he made his way there.

However, on arriving, Andrew discovered there was a hitch: it being Eid, deliveries to the normally well-stocked shop were running late and pickings were slim. Nevertheless, there was one possibility in the shape of Jordanian-born Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. At more than 600 pages long, the book would certainly keep me busy, but, in the absence of many other options, it seemed wise to nab it. Handing over his dinars, Andrew bagged a copy and hurried off to his next rehearsal.

Set in a fictional Gulf state in the 1930s, the novel, which is banned in several Arab countries, explores the impact of the discovery of oil on a small oasis town. When American prospectors arrive in the region, bringing with them a host of machines, practices and mores unknown to the local Arab population, the residents find the centuries-old rhythms of their lives disrupted. Faced with technological change that is set to alter their mental, emotional and physical landscape forever, the people are left with two options: adapt or die.

On the surface, this is a novel about culture clashes. In the Arabs’ fear and wonderment at the Americans’ mechanised horses and brazen attitudes to nudity, and the prospectors’ obsession with photographing and documenting every mundane local activity they can gain access to – not to mention the stark contrast between Arab Harran and American Harran (the seaside town built to house the oil workers) – we see the sparks that fly as East and West, ancient and modern, and spiritual and secular collide head on.

This collision gives rise to moments of great humour. The terrified Emir’s first boat trip, for example, and his amazement at the voices coming out of the radio are hilarious, while the Americans’ simplistic pronouncements on the Arabs, to whom they intend to give employment rights ‘as if they were regular people’, raise many a wry smile.

Frequently, however, there is a great deal of pain mixed in with this. From the employee questionnaire – which mortifies Ibrahim with its impertinent queries about female relatives – to the sad demise of the Desert Travel Office under the wheels of shiny, new Western trucks, there is much lost in this exchange and many personal tragedies unfold along the way. Perhaps most painful of all is the death of Mizban in a diving accident while on company business, an event that points up the difference of priorities between the two groups obliged to live and work together on the same patch of land.

What episodes like this demonstrate is that the gulf between the characters is not so much one of culture as one of valuing things differently. What to the Americans is a harsh, hostile environment that they must master and subdue with their air-con and swimming pools for the sake of harvesting oil is home to the Arabs – a place ingrained in their psyches, the desert winds of which blow through the images they use to express themselves and the sun of which has hardened their very sense of identity. While the Americans can uproot trees and demolish houses ‘without pausing and without reflection’ because they see them only as worthless objects standing in the way of their prize, the Arabs suffer the transformation as a sort of physical violence that the new arrivals cannot begin to comprehend. As Dabbasi puts it: ‘To someone not of this land and this town, all land is the same – it’s just land’. And that is the fundamental difference.

At once expansive and deeply personal, this novel is a masterful presentation of the way misunderstandings and resentment spring up and fruit into bitterness and enmity. At times reading like a vast collection of interlinked short stories, it weaves together the triumphs and sadness of many individual lives to make a compelling and poignant whole. A marvel.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Vintage International, 1989)

Kuwait: the icing on the cake

December 19, 2012

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Hearing that I was struggling to find a Kuwaiti book that I could read in English, Fleur Montanaro, administrator of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, asked a contact for advice. Word came back that no prominent Kuwaiti authors had had anything more than the odd short story translated into English. However, there was one young writer called Haitham Boodai whose novels were available in translation. In fact, there was a picture of them on sale in the Avenues branch of Kuwait’s That Al Salasil bookshop on the iLSuL6ana blog.

Delighted with this news, I set about trying to get hold of a copy… and drew a blank. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not find a Boodai novel that I could purchase. I even called up That Al Salasil, only to be told that they did not have the books in stock. Queries to other big English-language booksellers in the Gulf region produced similar results. It seemed as though the books had never existed.

Beginning to wonder if I was going mad, I emailed iLSuL6ana and another local blogger Mark. Perhaps whoever took the picture might be able to shed some light on the mystery? But time went by and no response came back. It seemed to be a lost cause.

It was time for plan B. This came in the shape of three less-than-ideal options. Exhibit A was Pearling in the Arabian Gulf by Saif Marzooq al-Shamlan. Though it was by a Kuwaiti writer and billed itself as a ‘memoir’ in its subtitle, the 1970s book was really more of a social history and – judging by its sober cover – a dreary one at that. Next up was Women in Kuwait by Kuwaiti sociologist Haya al-Mughni. This sounded more interesting, but it was a bit of a leap to call it a story given that it was really a series of essays.

Last in the line-up of dubious contenders was Invasion Kuwait by Jehan S Rajab. This first-person account of the 1990 Iraqi invasion sounded like the front-runner, but there was a problem: although Rajab had lived and worked in the country for more than 30 years when she wrote the book (more than qualifying it to be considered as Kuwaiti literature under the terms of this project) the subtitle of the memoir was ‘An English Woman’s Tale’. Could I really justify reading a book described in such a way for Kuwait?

Unconvinced, I put off reading any of the three for as long as I could. But at last, the desperate day arrived and so, with a heavy heart, I picked up the ‘English Woman’s Tale’ and started making my way to the sofa to begin reading it. En route, however, I decided to check my email. And there, in my inbox, was a message from Mark.

It turned out Mark had been away in Japan, hence the slow reply. He didn’t have anything to say on the subject of the mysterious Haitham Boodai books, but he recommended contacting Kuwaiti writer and blogger Danderma, who he was sure would be able to help.

I fired off an email and Danderma replied swiftly: she had two self-published novels titled The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait, volumes I and II. If I gave her my address, she would send them to me.

And so it was that, with a handful of weeks left in the year, two colourful books bearing cover illustrations by Fatima F Al-Othman dropped through my letterbox. I picked up volume I and got stuck in.

The novel presents the tribulations of Dathra, an obese 32-year-old misfit in the midst of Kuwaiti high society. Scorned by her svelte relatives and obliged to watch the man she loves marry her cousin, Dathra (a word that means ‘dowdy’) vows to change her life for the better. But as her enormous appetite and relentless desire for junk food lead her into more and more extreme fixes, it seems as though her biggest enemy may be herself.

When it comes to writing about food, Danderma is in a league of her own. From obsessing over tastes and textures, through to the deceptions used to cover up each binge, the writer captures the mindset and emotions of an addict perfectly. Her depictions of Dathra’s cravings are so convincing, in fact, that she even made me hanker after a Big Mac at one point – something I never thought I’d feel!

The insights she provides into Kuwaiti society are equally compelling. Expressed in an arch, witty tone, her evocation of the rich Avenues shopping district where you can stand for hours watching people in the Pinkberry queue and the lavish parties that fill the social calendar make for enjoyable and revealing reading. I was particularly intrigued by the explanation of Arabish – a way to chat online using English letters and numbers with Arabic spelling – which features heavily in the book.

Having self-published her novels because of the difficulty of finding an English-language publisher in Kuwait, Danderma warned me that the first volume contained quite a few errors (these made her decide to hire an editor to help her prepare the second volume). While this is true, these rarely get in the way of the sense and flow of the text.

In fact the development of the plot and Dathra’s character are likely to be bigger issues for many readers. Although her vulnerability and self-deprecation make her likeable throughout much of the book, Dathra has moments of extreme selfishness and greed that can make her hard to sympathise with. In addition, while Danderma’s desire to make her heroine triumph over the superficial standards of the world around her and maintain her individuality is understandable, there is a problem with the fact that Dathra doesn’t change or learn much over the course of the narrative (the final scene introduces a slight shift in perspective, but it feels rather hasty and incidental). Despite nearly eating herself to death at one point, the heroine never really addresses her unsustainable addiction to food.

This does not stop the book being enjoyable, however. Witty, surprising and daring, the novel flies the flag for underdogs everywhere, with plenty of laughs along the way. Bridget Jones fans looking for a change of scene might find a new friend here.

The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait (volume I), by Danderma, illustrated by Fatima F Al-Othman (2011)

Egypt: breaking boundaries

November 12, 2012

This was another recommendation from Roger Allen, Professor Emeritus of Arabic & Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. His number-one tip for Egypt was Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz – and he should know as he met the great man several times and translated several of his books. However if I were looking for something other than work by the nation’s leading literary giant, he had several more suggestions up his sleeve from among the thousands of excellent Egyptian writers on the market today. Ain Shams University professor Radwa Ashour was one of these.

I thought about it for a while. On one hand, I was very tempted by Mahfouz: several visitors to this blog had written highly of his work and I was sure I’d be in for a treat with practically any of his books. On the other hand, though, I couldn’t help feeling that Mahfouz was a safe choice. This journey was about discovery, after all, and I was eager to see what else was out there by writers I hadn’t heard of before – so I went for Ashour and chose her book Spectres.

Interlacing the lives of two Cairo academics, history lecturer Shagar and literature expert Radwa Ashour, this part-novel, part-autobiography and part-documentary explores the frontiers of storytelling. The two women are born on the same day and grow up during the mid-20th century, witnessing the Suez Crisis and the protests that shook the capital in the decades after it. As each runs up against the limitations of her gender, political sphere and the medium within which the author allows her to exist, the women seek to shape their own narratives out of the shards and fragments that litter their lives.

This is a courageous and often angry book. Whether it deals with the prejudice against women that causes Shagar’s great-grandmother to be viewed with suspicion because she refuses to marry again and Radwa’s children to be held up at passport control, or the political manoeuvres at the university that see one of Shagar’s colleagues hounded out, Ashour’s writing is indignant and powerful.

This is particularly the case when it comes to the central issue that runs through the book and, to a certain extent, shapes the women’s lives: Palestine. Marshalling sources ranging from Mahatma Gandhi’s 1938 claim that ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs’ through to testimonials from villagers and Israeli officers about the Deir Yassin massacre, Ashour compiles a compelling  array of evidence to support her character’s forthright attacks on Zionist writers such as Elie Wiesel, ‘who wrote volumes against silence and described in detail the ordeal of the Jews in the Holocaust, of which he himself was a survivor, [but] did not see the contradiction in his own total silence in the face of what was happening to the Palestinians’.

However, as Shagar discovers when she attempts to present a paper at a conference organised on the 25th anniversary of Zionist Martin Buber’s death, the Palestinian perspective is one that struggles to find a platform. Vulnerable to accusations of bias and partiality – and the indifference of a West so far removed from Arab concerns that in 1991 an announcer on CNN is able to compare Baghdad under fire to ‘a huge Christmas tree […] “It’s a magical, thrilling sight!”‘ – the issue remains caught in the perennial paradox that in order for Palestinians to debate on equal terms with their opponents they must already have won the argument and proved their sovereignty to those who refuse to accept it.

Faced with the difficulty of constructing a narrative in the face of such powerful counter-narratives, the novel challenges and interrogates itself, oscillating between fact and fiction in search of a middle path that can carry the truth of both. Ashwour’s voice breaks into the text repeatedly, questioning the decisions she has made about characters, discussing her work in relation to her other books, and revealing the dizzying possibilities open to her as a weaver of stories – a sentiment she finds echoed in a translation of Aristotle cited in the text:

‘The work of the poet is not to narrate that which has happened, but rather that which might happen or is possible in accordance with probability or necessity’.

Seen in this light, this novel, first published in 1998, is in the extraordinary position of being able to enter into dialogue not only with the past but also with the future. With its telescoping of time, that sees, for example, Shagar simultaneously engaged with the events of 1946 and 1972 in Tahrir Square – and its swoops into and out of the future tense – the book seems to extend a line forward to the momentous events that shook the country only last year and takes on an eerily prophetic quality.

Entwining these themes, Ashwour delivers a challenging and complex read that tests the boundaries of communication. Bursting with references and the sheer volume of the ideas it explores and conveys, the novel strains at its seams, spilling out into the world beyond its pages and compelling the reader to engage with what it has to say. The result is passionate, rigorous and shaming.

Spectres by Radwa Ashour, translated from the Arabic by Barbara Romaine (Arabia Books, 2010)

One thing this quest has taught me is that there’s no harm in trying. You can never predict whether someone will help you from reading their biography or studying their tweets. The worst that can happen when you fire off an email asking for suggestions of books from far-flung corners of the planet is that you receive a grumpy message in reply (rare) or you hear nothing back (more common and completely understandable). But every so often, if you type really nicely and wish double hard, you strike gold.

With this in mind, I sent an email to University of Pennsylvania Professor Emeritus of Arabic & Comparative Literature and leading translator Roger Allen back in June this year, asking for advice on some of the Middle Eastern countries I had yet to source books for. As I discovered when I came across an interview with him on the blog Fascinated by the Arab World,  Allen was uniquely placed to help me. Not only does he hold the US’s oldest professorial post for Arabic as a separate language, but he has also translated books by some of Arabic literature’s finest writers, among them Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, whom he met many times.

In spite of his busy schedule, Allen replied with several thoughts. All in all, he confirmed, there was very little available in translation from the Gulf states. However, when it came to the UAE, there was one writer he could recommend with some short story collections in translation: his name was Mohammad Al Murr. I lost no time in looking Al Murr up and within minutes his intriguingly titled The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf was winging its way to me.

Al Murr’s collection spans a cross-section of UAE society. From the businessman flying first-class to the thief rustling camels to please his prostitute girlfriend, Al Murr’s characters are eclectic and often surprising. There is the driving instructor who charms her way into a family circle, the trumpet player with impractical plans for starting a string of businesses, and the middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with owning a talking parrot.

Quirky and intriguing, the stories often deal with the minutiae of existence, showing how a look, a word or even an apparent wink – as in the case of the title work – can change the course of a life. Often these changes centre on small tragedies or victories, as in ‘The Night’s Catch’, in which three boys steal and sell some pigeons from a violent collector in order to pay for a trip to the cinema, but they frequently point to more fundamental shifts. The outstanding ‘Road Accidents’, for example, in which a husband and wife undertake a treacherous drive through fog, testing and exposing the cracks in their relationship along the way, is a masterclass in using small details as chess pieces to play out psychological battles.

In this world where much is left unsaid and people are often at cross purposes to one another – conducting affairs, gossiping about irrelevancies around a sick-bed and, in the case of the children in the collection, bemused by the oddness of the things others take for granted – it is often left to the non-human participants in the stories to act out hidden tensions and desires. While the naughty pet ape Umm Kamil leads her owners a merry dance in ‘Just Standing There, Smiling’, crashing a wedding and at one point even disrupting worship in a mosque, Adoul the monkey becomes the agent of his mistress’s cruel revenge on a servant in ‘The Awesome Lady’.

One or two of the more enigmatic stories, such as ‘The Secret’, in which a boy becomes a mute because of something he witnesses, have an unfinished quality. In addition, the play with dialogue and one-sided conversations, which works brilliantly in stories such as ‘Words, Words, Words’, overwhelms the drive of a few pieces so that occasionally it seems as though Al Murr is more interested in exploring the technical possibilities than developing the action.

Overall, though, this is a fascinating collection. Packed with rich perceptions, it is an intense evocation of people’s lives and concerns. It is also testament to Al Murr’s skill that our faith in the situations he creates does not falter, no matter how bizarre they may be. It will be a long time before I forget the image of Umm Kamil appropriating the bride’s veil during a wedding feast.

The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf by Mohammad Al Murr, translated from the Arabic by Jack Briggs (Motivate Publishing, 1998)

Sudan: the outsider

September 16, 2012

There were several great contenders in translation for Sudan. What swung it for Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North was the fact that it was named the most important Arab novel of the 20th century by a panel of Arab writers and critics in 2001.

My curiosity was further piqued by the author’s introduction in my Penguin Modern Classics edition. Far from the usual mixture of modest thank yous and self-deprecation, his discussion of ‘this onerous and not entirely felicitious [sic] pursuit of novel writing’ was more than a little disgruntled in tone.

Salih had good cause for feeling peeved: despite the recognition his novel has received in recent years, its journey into the world-literature canon was by no means straightforward. Banned in many Arab countries because of its graphic scenes, the 1966 book got a patchy reception – the Times Literary Supplement ‘haughtily dismissed the novel as “episodic” which the reviewer said was a common weakness in all Arab writing’. Worse still for Salih’s purposes, the book was published in many countries without a single royalty being paid to the author. A million copies were printed in Russia, for example, but, because the country was not a signatory to the Berne convention at the time, the writer did not see a single rouble of the profits.

Not surprisingly, such injustice left Salih with a rather ambivalent attitude to the experience of being published:

‘And so the book went on its way, as books do, almost separate from me. It gets banned from time to time in this country or that and then it is unbanned; it is permanently banned in all the Gulf States. It is loved and hated and attacked and praised. It is taught in universities and doctoral and masters theses are written on it. That ought to make me happy and so it does in a way.’

Beginning with the return home of a young Sudanese man after seven years studying English literature in Europe, the novel tells the story of Mustafa Sa’eed, a strangely charismatic figure who has moved into the village while the narrator was away. Claiming to come from humble beginnings somewhere near Khartoum, Mustafa displays unusual astuteness in village affairs. But it isn’t until the narrator hears him let slip a line of English poetry late one night that he begins to uncover Mustafa’s mysterious past, unfolding a tale of murder, passion, alienation and rootlessness that will consume him and shake the village to its core.

Salih is one of those rare writers who can combine the specific and the universal in a single, compelling whole. Whether he is sending up the villagers’ naive questions about the cultural quirks of Europeans or capturing the arrogance of the young narrator, convinced that ‘the 10 million inhabitants of the country had all heard of [his academic] achievement’, he constructs characters and situations that are at once individual and yet recognisable to readers everywhere.

This comes to a head in Mustafa Sa’eed, an extraordinary creation who is at once a product of his time and influences and a unique person, moving through the world and making his own sometimes brutal and perverse choices. Indeed, the narrative is careful to resist any pat generalisations the reader may be tempted to draw from the story about the interaction of Arab and Western culture. ‘Whatever my life has been it contains no warning or lesson for anyone,’ says Mustafa, recalling how he wanted to jump up to contradict his advocate’s conclusion at his Old Bailey murder trial that he was ‘a noble person whose mind was able to absorb Western civilization but it broke his heart’.

In fact this human tendency to read people of other cultures too simplistically is something Mustafa boasts of having exploited during his many liaisons with women in London. He reveals that he encouraged them to think of him as Othello and related ‘fabricated stories about deserts of golden sands and jungles where non-existent animals called out to one another’. ‘My store of hackneyed phrases is inexhaustible,’ he tells the narrator.

Ironically, of course, while pulling the stuffing out of the quest for the essence of a culture, the novel is hugely evocative of both 20th century Britain and Sudan. Whether he is describing a student party in Chelsea or an impromptu desert feast on the road to Khartoum, Salih’s writing is arresting, inventive and rich. In addition, the insights the book provides into issues such as female circumcision, delivered during an earthy discussion with the fearless village gossip Bint Majzoub, and the legacy of colonialism which has turned the population into ‘lies of [their] own making’, are fascinating.

Occasionally the time shifts and narration-within-narration mean that it is hard to locate yourself in the flow of the story. However, far from seeing this as the ‘episodic’ problem that so irritated the TLS reviewer, I found it complemented the sense of rootlessness that colours many of Mustafa’s choices.

Put simply, this is a towering achievement: a mirror-world where lies are truth, destruction is tenderness, and home is alien territory. It’s the sort of book that makes you wish the author were still alive so that you could go and find him and shake his hand. Brilliant.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies (Penguin, 2003)

Oman: a rare treat

September 9, 2012

Last December, when Cairo-based blogger mlynxqualey wrote a post on her excellent Arabic Literature (in English) blog giving me her recommendations for books in translation, Oman proved to be a stumbling block:

‘Someone help me so Morgan doesn’t end up reading something dreadful like Behind the Veil in Oman. I am not saying there are no Omani writers; I’m just saying that, outside of stories published in Banipal, I don’t know of anything in English,’ she wrote.

In fact, it wasn’t until nearly nine months later that an alternative presented itself in the shape of a recommendation from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington. It had recently published a translation of a collection of Omani fairy tales and was happy to send me a copy if I was interested. I needed no second invitation to take a look.

Much like Camara Laye’s The Guardian of the Word (see the Guinea post below), My Grandmother’s Stories: folk tales from Dhofar is a work with big ambitions. As set out in a variety of introductions and prefatory materials, author Khadija bint Alawi Al-Dhahab intends the collection, which is dedicated to ‘His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said and the people of Oman’, not only to preserve the tales that she has gathered and transcribed but also to convey the different lifestyles that were traditional across the Dhofar region. In addition, translator W Scott Chahanovich, who undertook the project as a Fullbright Scholar, regards the recording of such stories as essential to ‘cultivating a sense of Omani nationhood’ and hopes the book will help challenge the fact that ‘the contemporary Arab world is, by and large, still represented by mass media almost exclusively as a monolithic idea’.

If that wasn’t enough to take on in 90 pages, there is also the issue of explaining certain cultural traits that bear on the tales, such as the Omani aversion to bragging and the national admiration for astuteness, and the challenges the author faced transcribing stories told in dialects for which no written form exists. This is further complicated when it comes to translation, with even small metaphors proving challenging to convey, as Chahanovich found when he came to the phrase ‘a cut of your hand':

‘Confused by the phrase, I consulted the Omani student translators [with whom I was working]. “A cut of the hand,” they explained, is a local colloquial adynaton – a figure of speech expressed in hyperbole that conveys an impossibility. At first, “when pigs fly” seemed most suitable for an English children’s fable; but this is both religiously inappropriate and culturally irrelevant. Islam, like Judaism, prohibits the consumption of pork. Also, there are no pigs in Oman. Choosing “when pigs fly” would be insulting to Omanis and would disregard the cultural particularity of this region, the setting represented in the tales.

‘Instead, I chose another popular adynaton in Arabic, the image of which is shared in other Western versions of the English “when pigs fly”: the cow. In Arabic, the expression is, “when cows go to Mecca to perform Hajj [the religious pilgrimage]”. This is too long and culturally dense to include in an English children’s story. […] Therefore I chose the phrase “when cows fly”.’

With so much going on behind the scenes, you might expect the stories to show signs of strain and awkwardness. Not a bit of it. Lively, witty and original, the tales flow as though they are being told as you read by a seasoned storyteller who combines a sound knowledge of Omani traditions with a gift for creative embellishments when the occasion demands. This is a world where foxes make deals with camel traders, wells produce magical rams, and genies transform puppets into living brides for princes.

The stories often have a dark side too. There is Princess Salma, who has her limbs amputated by a jealous genie ‘insistent that he would not leave her alone until she was in the worst pain imaginable’, and the foolish old couple Shaq and Shurambaq, who kill their grandchild because of their ignorance. Even suicidal thoughts make an appearance in ‘The Poor Woodcutter’.

The advantage of this is that the stakes are nearly always high, making for some gripping stories. It also gives rise to some intrepid women characters, who, while they might need to use disguise or ingenuity to overcome the limitations placed on them by society, nearly always carry the day. Hearteningly there is repeated emphasis on the value of women being clever and shrewd and the importance of marriage being a meeting of minds. Even the unfortunate Salma triumphs in the end, though she pays dearly and disturbingly for the privilege of keeping her chastity intact along the way.

Now and again the moral message seems a bit like an afterthought. You can almost feel the adult narrator reaching the end of a graphic tale of derring-do and adding on a neat little observation out of a sense of duty. In addition, some of the tales finish a little abruptly. The book is also not helped by a formatting glitch that means the contents list page numbers do not match up with the stories.

All in all, though, this is a strong, intriguing and welcome taste of a literature that has until now been off-limits to English-language readers. Let’s hope it’s the first of many to come.

My Grandmother’s Stories: folk tales from Dhofar collected and transcribed by Khadija bint Alawi al-Dhahab, translated by W Scott Chahanovich, Munira Al-Ojaili, Fatima Al-Mashani, Muna Al-Mashani, Muna Saffrar, illustrated by Fatima bint Alawi Muqaybil (Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, 2012)

I’m not the only one trying to read the world. Since I launched this project to explore a novel, short story collection or memoir from every UN-recognised country in 2012, I’ve heard from people engaged in a whole range of international literary quests.

One of the latest ventures I’ve come across is by Swedish blogger Fredrika, who stopped by this blog ten days ago to tell me about a project she started in November to read a book from every country. Much more organised than me, she got a pretty comprehensive list together before she started and is working her way through it over the course of the next few years. Her criteria are different to mine, in that she is taking on some historical and anthropological books too, however there are also some fascinating fiction and biography choices on her list.

Fredrika has clearly done a massive amount of thinking about world literature, so when she recommended a Swedish title for me, I decided I’d be mad not to give it a try.

The book was Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, an award-winning novel exploring the experience of immigrants in Sweden. Told through a correspondence between one Jonas Khemiri and Kadir, who claims to be an old family friend, the book is a daring, powerful and often hilarious attempt to unfold the story of the struggle of Dads, Jonas’s estranged father, to make a life for himself in Scandinavia after he left Tunisia as a young man.

The novel is rich with comedy as the overbearing Kadir wrestles with the author in an attempt to guide and direct the narrative as he sees fit. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, from Kadir’s ‘glissades of truth’ to his patronising asides to the author about writing techniques and instructions for how he should handle particular events – ‘this scene must be filled with great dramatic gunpowder and symphonic basses’, he writes at one point.

Best of all are Kadir’s odd expressions and similes, which had me laughing on nearly every page of the first half of the book. Among the most sparkling examples are his descriptions of Jonas’s paternal grandmother as ‘a powerfully strong woman who grappled with her context like the wrestler and actor Hulk Hogan’, his confession of his suspicion ‘that [Jonas’s father] had become infected with homosex’ at one point and his later remark that ‘the tooth of time had munched a festive breakfast on his exterior’.

That translator Rachel Willson-Broyles is able to convey the linguistic quirks of Kadir’s Arabicised Swedish is testament to her great skill. This skill is essential to getting the subtleties of the book across as the narrative delves deeper into Dads’s battle to shrug off the label of ‘immigrant’ and establish himself in a society that becomes ever more hostile to outsiders or ‘blatte’ as Jonas grows up.

This battle, which sees Dads reject his origins in an effort not to ‘infect [his] son with being an outsider’, takes place as much on the linguistic as on the physical level and leaves deep scars. For much of the book, Jonas writes about himself in the second person, as though cut off from his identity, and his consciousness of the losing linguistic battle his father had to fight is acute:

‘One single wrong preposition is all it takes. A single en word that should be an ett. Then their second-long pause, the pause they love, the pause that shows that no matter how much you try, we will always, ALWAYS see through you. They enjoy taking the power and waiting waiting waiting until just when Dads think they are defeated. Then they point out the right way with vowels that are quadrupled as if they were talking with a deaf imbecile. STRAAAAAIGHT AHEEEEAD, then to the LEEEEEEEEEEEFT, okay, then RIIIIIIGHT. You’re welcome. And Dads say thanks politely and bow and you’re standing alongside and feeling how something is bubbling inside.’

Even with Willson-Broyles’s superlative translation, I can only imagine the effect of reading the book’s moving dissection of the politics of the Swedish language in the non-standard Swedish of the original. In English it is riveting, wise and sad. A towering achievement of a book. Thank you, Fredrika.

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Knopf, 2011)

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