December 7, 2013
Since I finished my Year of Reading the World last December, I’ve had the privilege of being involved in a number of exciting opportunities and projects. The last few months have been no exception. Not only was I invited to record a piece about reading the world at BBC Broadcasting House for NPR in the states (you can hear the finished report through the link at the bottom of this post), but I was also asked to sit on English PEN’s PEN Translates panel for the second time.
If you’ve not come across it, PEN Translates is a funding programme run by the freedom of expression and literary network charity English PEN. It exists to help pay for the translation into English of works that deserve to reach a wider audience. Scores of books have received support from the fund since it was launched in 2012, including Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, who you can see pictured above at a signing (photo by Robert Burdock).
As it’s open to works in any language and from anywhere, the programme has to have a careful assessment process. First off, the publishers’ submissions and original versions of the proposed texts are read by people with in-depth knowledge of that region’s literature and language. These assessors prepare detailed reports in English, giving their reactions and explaining whether or not they support the application. The panel members (aka yours truly and six others) read these reports and formulate their own opinions. Then we get together and have a discussion that goes on for several hours.
It’s not easy. For one thing, it’s often very hard to make a judgement about how good a book is – or what sort of a job a publisher is likely to do with it – when you’ve never read a word of the story. As I discovered last year, books that don’t necessarily sound promising at first can often be hidden gems.
Then there’s the challenge of balancing all the rival considerations that affect a book’s chances: the quality of the writing, the diversity of applications, how well represented literature from that region is in the UK market, whether or not the work is too similar to other things in the bookshops, whether or not you (yes, you sitting there) are likely to want to read it and if you are, whether the story needs funding in the first place – to name but a few.
Amazingly, however, after several hours of discussion, we always seem to manage to reach a good solution. Luckily, because the panel is not required to grant the full amount requested, we have the freedom to make partial awards where it seems appropriate, which means we can make the money go a long way. In fact, at the last meeting, we managed to support some 17 books.
It’s inspiring and humbling to be involved and I’m proud to have the chance to play a small part in helping to bring some exciting new works into English. If you’re looking for Christmas present ideas, why not check out the supported titles on the PEN website? I’m told there is going to be an updated version soon, complete with books that dance!
Photo by Robert Burdock
October 16, 2013
When I came up with the idea of reading the world in a year back at the end of 2011, I could never have predicted where the project would lead. I certainly never dreamed it would help Steve and me arrange our honeymoon. But that’s the latest twist in this extraordinary adventure.
Shortly after I wrote my article for BBC Culture, I received an email from Lea at Combadi, a travel agent with the strapline ‘Come back different’. She and her husband Yannis were interested in writing a piece about this blog for their newsletter.
At the time, Steve and I were in the process of planning our wedding. We’d been wondering about Greece as a honeymoon destination, but weren’t really sure where to look, so when we found out Combadi is based in Athens, it seemed like a perfect fit. With just a few emails back and forth, Lea and Yannis organised us a fabulous break in Crete, tracking down some wonderful places we would never have found for ourselves.
If that wasn’t enough, imagine my delight when we arrived at the beautiful hotel in a remote village in eastern Crete three weeks ago to find a special Year of Reading the World surprise waiting for me. Lea and Yannis had arranged for a copy of Freedom and Death by Crete’s most famous writer Nikos Kazantzakis (the author of Zorba the Greek) to be in our room.
Proclaimed as a modern Iliad in its blurb, the 1950 novel (first translated into English in 1956) follows the fortunes of the fearsome Cretan resistance fighter Captain Michales as he tries to lead the residents of the village of Megalokastro in a bloody fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire and union with Greece.
It is a mighty book, full of gripping and terrible events. From the bitter mountain duel between the Turk Nuri Bey and his arch-enemy Michales’s cousin to the cruel machinations of the Pacha and the Bacchanalian blowouts the protagonist uses to try to escape his own thoughts, the novel throbs with dark energy.
For me, reading about the brutal events of more than a century before amid the picturesque landscape where they took place was an education. Not only did it open my eyes to a new chapter of history, but it also unlocked numerous local mores and customs. Following a comment from Steve about the large number of middle-aged Cretan men sporting moustaches, I was intrigued to discover a dialogue in the book that implied facial hair was a key gender marker in 19th-century Crete – an attitude that perhaps still lingers in some places today. Similarly, after reading about a hearty meal of Cretan sausage, I ordered it for dinner, confident that we would have a delicious meal (we did).
I finished the dramatic last page (don’t worry, no spoilers here) with a sense of awe. Once again, books were taking me places and opening up experiences I could never have accessed on my own.
Freedom and Death (Captain Michalis) by Nikos Kazantzakis, translated from the Greek by Jonathan Griffin (Faber & Faber, 1966)
August 7, 2013
It’s been an exciting time in the A Year of Reading the World camp over the past few weeks. First, BBC Culture asked me to write an article about the project (you can see it here, unless you’re in the UK, in which case you’ll have to paste the link into a proxy site such as anonymouse.org to access it). They even sent a photographer round to my flat to capture me with some of the books – I’d never realised how tough it is to smile continuously before!
When the article went live, a flood of visitors came pouring onto the blog and with it media requests from all over the world. This led to articles in newspapers in Denmark, Sweden, Serbia, Macedonia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary and many other places besides, as well as approaches from radio stations in Australia, Ireland and the US. In fact, I’m still getting requests more than three weeks after the event.
If that wasn’t enough, some mysterious person then posted The List on Reddit and things got crazier still. More than 42,000 people piled through to this site in a single day, making my head spin. It was humbling to think that so many people could take an interest in what I’d been up to – and very exciting to know that the idea of reading world literature appeals to so many others.
In other news, the World Bookshop Challenge has got off to a good start with feedback from various sources in the UK and abroad (so far, it seems, you’re unlikely to find literature from more than 70 countries represented on the shelves of a single bookshop).
As ever, the world’s readers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help – and none more so than Paul in Waterstones Windsor. He not only counted up all the books from different countries in the shop, but also wrote a blog post about the feat and did a pie chart to represent his findings. He’s itching to tell someone about the shop’s Kyrgyz literature now, so if you’re passing through Windsor why not pop into Waterstones and make his day? (Apparently, he’s the one with the beard.)
However, Paul’s labour of love and my own foray into nearby Kirkdale Bookshop (which, the manager estimates, carries literature from 25–30 nations) have made me realise just what a tall order counting up the number of books from different countries can be in many shops. For one thing, most places don’t even demarcate books that way. You’ll find The White Tiger and Things Fall Apart rubbing shoulders with Rebecca and Cloud Atlas in the general fiction section – not to mention the international free-for-all that is the bestsellers list.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to modify the challenge slightly. Where counting is not possible, it’s more than OK to ask staff to give you a rough estimate. Though it won’t be exact, it will nevertheless provide an interesting insight. Of course, if you are as diligent as Paul, I’d love for you to hit me with your pie charts, but whatever you can find out would be great.
Thanks again for all your support. None of this would have happened without you.
Picture by Diane Cordell
June 12, 2013
As you know, I’m a big believer that lots of brains are better than one. If it hadn’t been for the many hundreds of you who stopped by this blog last year to offer book suggestions, contacts, help, translation services and even to send me stories from your corners of the planet, I would never have managed to read my way around the world. I’d probably be in Mauritania right now, wandering miserably around the market in Nouakchott in search of somebody – anybody – who could tell me a story in English.
As a writer, it turns out I’m not much different: if I can get people who know more about a subject to help me with my research, I will. And so I thought I’d turn to you again to see if you can give me a hand with finding something out.
I’m currently working on chapter two of Reading the World: postcards from my bookshelf, my forthcoming book about our adventure. As it stands (and of course subject to the judgment of my excellent editors Michal and Gemma at Harvill Secker), this section deals with the major obstacles to getting books in English from every country in the world.
To put this in context, I’m keen to give an idea of the number of countries that have books represented on the shelves of the average bookshop. I’ve been in touch with the publicity departments of the major bookshop chains in the UK, but so far no-one’s been able to give me accurate figures. It seems they simply don’t measure their stock in that way.
So here’s where you come in. If you’ve got a spare half hour, I was wondering if you might pop down to your local bookshop and tot up the number of nations represented on their shelves. Ideally, I’m looking for novels, short story collections and memoirs by writers from the countries in question (ie I’m not interested in books by other nationals set there). However, I appreciate this might be a little tricky to work out, so I’m happy to stick with fiction if that makes your life easier. And if the bookshop has its own categorisations for literature from different nations, I’m happy for you to count that up rather than looking at each book to work out where the author is from.
Essentially, I’m interested in whatever information or observations you can give me on the offering of international literature wherever you are in the world. If you get a chance to snap a shot of your local world books section, it would be fascinating to compare photographs too.
Once you have something to share, please post the information along with the name and region of the bookshop below or on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page, tweet it to @annmorgan30 or email it to me (ann’at’annmorgan.me).
Looking forward to hearing about your discoveries.
Picture by Ujwala Prabhu
May 14, 2013
During last year’s epic adventure to read a book from every country in the world, there were a number of pinch-me moments. Sitting in CNN’s London studios waiting to do an interview that would be broadcast around the planet was one. Receiving a flood of messages from Portuguese speakers and translators volunteering their time and talents to enable me to read a book from Sao Tome & Principe was another. And I’ll never forget the evening I got home to find a package of postcards from Honduran writer Guillermo Yuscarán, or the extraordinary afternoon I spent with Jens Nielsen, the former partner of Swiss author Aglaja Veteranyi, after I wrote about her book.
Today brings another hard-to-believe moment and it has to do with that building pictured above. For years, travelling into London every Sunday morning for my weekly singing job – the only regular income I had when I started out as a freelance writer – I would pass the offices of Random House on Vauxhall Bridge Road and stare up at the windows wondering what it would be like to be an author with a book deal there. It seemed another world.
This morning, I am going into that building for my first session with my editors Michal Shavit and Gemma Wain at Harvill Secker on the manuscript of my book, Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, the story of last year’s quest. There will be a lot of work to do and I’m daunted, as well as intrigued, to hear what Michal and Gemma made of the first draft. But mostly, as I wriggle into my coat and head off down the hill to catch the bus that will take me down that familiar road once more, I’ll be excited.
Thanks again to all of you for helping me get to this point. Wish me luck!
Picture by chrisjohnbeckett
March 21, 2013
I didn’t expect to be doing this. I thought when I finished my last post on 31 December 2012, that would be it – I would close the door on A Year of Reading the World and venture off to pastures new.
Then a few things happened. Firstly, after I finished the adventure, nearly 1,500 more of you signed up to follow the blog and it seemed a shame not to say ‘hello’ – hi, great to have your company.
And secondly, UK writer Rebecca Wait, whose novel The View on the Way Down comes out next month (preorder it now why dontcha?), invited me to take part in ‘My Next Big Thing’. It’s an internet meme apparently (sounds very grand), which is passed from writer to writer allowing each to talk about his or her next project.
The idea is that I answer the questions and then tag three more writers to do the same on their sites at the end. It struck me that this might be a nice way to connect you with three of the writers whose work I enjoyed reading last year, so that’s what I’m going to do.
Bear with me.
What is the title of your next book?
The title of my next (and first) book is Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf.
The title of my next blog, which you can get your hands on much sooner, is If Women Ruled (hence the picture at the top). I’d love it if you’d join me for that adventure – any ideas much appreciated!
Where did the idea for the book come from?
About four months into A Year of Reading the World, I wrote an article about the project for the Guardian newspaper (I was working there at the time so I managed to collar the literary editor and convince her to let me do it). Interest started to pick up off the back of that and I began to wonder if the story of the project and the stories behind the stories that I read might make a book.
Then a friend, writer Rosie Fiore (her latest novel Wonder Women came out on ebook last week), introduced me to my now-agent, Caroline Hardman at Hardman & Swainson. Caroline thought the project would make a book too, so we put together some sample chapters and a proposal, and Reading the World was born.
What genre does your book fall under?
Technically speaking, it’s a narrative non-fiction blook (a blog that’s turned into a book). It’s part memoir and part literary criticism.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Gosh. Well, in my daydreams Kate Winslet would play me, but in reality – particularly when the going gets tough – Woody Allen is probably nearer the mark.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The story of my quest to read a book from every country in the world in 2012.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It’s being published by UK publisher Harvill Secker (part of Random House) thanks to my agent Caroline Hardman.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About three months.
What other books of the same genre would you compare yours with?
Tricky. I’d like to think it’s a bit Bill Brysony and others have compared the style to Elif Batuman and Anne Fadiman.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was very lucky to have a publishing deal and a deadline – wonderful for focusing the mind!
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It contains an account of my extraordinary meeting with the ex-lover of my Swiss author, Aglaja Veteranyi, and the story of how Honduran writer Guillermo Yuscarán (formerly William Lewis) got his name.
When and how will it be published?
Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker in 2015.
And here are my tags for three of the writers whose work I read last year:
Giovanna Rivero is a Bolivian writer. She has published numerous books in Spanish and took part in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2004. I was lucky to be introduced to her work by leading Bolivian writer Edmundo Paz Soldán and read her 2006 short story collection Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood for A Year of Reading the World. She’ll be talking about her Next Big Thing on her blog.
Ak Welsapar is a Turkmen poet, journalist and novelist. He represented Turkmenistan in London’s Poetry Parnassus event in 2012. He writes in Russian, Turkmen and Swedish and his novel Cobra is due out in English soon. I was delighted to be able to read an unpublished manuscript of a translation of one of his other novels, The Tale of Aypi, which he emailed to me.
Danderma is a prolific Kuwaiti blogger and novelist. She has drawn considerable attention in the region for her self-published series, The Chronicles of Dathra: A Dowdy Girl from Kuwait. The books are written in a mixture of English and Arabish – a way to chat online using English letters and numbers with Arabic spelling – and Danderma was kind enough to send me the first volumes so that I could tuck into one for A Year of Reading the World.
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 29, 2012
So there it is, up there on the star in the top left of the picture: the 53rd – and last – book I’ve read on my Kindle for this project. But which of the shortlisted places and peoples not featured on the main list did it come from? Basque Country, Bermuda, Catalonia, Faroe Islands, Kurdistan or Native America?
Well, the voting was fierce. Nearly 400 of you took part in the poll and there was plenty of passionate campaigning along the way. You can see the full breakdown of results on the Rest of the World page, but the headline news is that it came down to a two-horse race between Jaume Cabré’s Winter Journey from Catalonia and Jalal Barzanji’s The Man in Blue Pyjamas from Kurdistan. Cabré held the lead for a long time, but in the end, thanks to some vigorous lobbying on the part of #TwitterKurds, Barzanji romped home to secure the A Year of Reading the World wild-card spot.
Written after its author was named PEN Canada’s first ever Writer-in-Exile in 2007, The Man in Blue Pyjamas tells the story of poet and journalist Jalal Barzanji’s life in Iraqi Kurdistan, his three years of imprisonment and torture under Saddam Hussein’s regime – throughout which he remained in the night-clothes in which he was arrested – and the lengths he went to to secure a future for himself and his family on the other side of the world. It weaves together Barzanji’s memories, the experiences of people he met along the way, historical events and Kurdish traditions to present a compelling picture of the contested homeland that both shaped and nearly destroyed the writer.
With its account of what it means to grow up in a nation that does not fit into the neat country borders most of us use to organise the planet, the memoir is in many ways a very fitting ‘Rest of the World’ choice. Opening with a map showing Kurdistan spread across portions of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, the book owes its structure to the sense of fragmentation that Barzanji grew up with – ‘I must present my story in small pieces because my life has been in pieces,’ he writes before going on to leap between past, present, ancient history and future, like a spider spinning a web between far-distant points.
Yet the struggle for national and cultural autonomy is only part of the story: for Barzanji the battle to make a life as a writer is every bit as fraught. Born in a house with no books or pens, the writer had to contend with his family’s incomprehension of his ambitions, draconian and often bewildering censorship laws, and the challenges of funding and publishing his own work. Crucially, it was not his years of imprisonment by the Iraqi regime nor atrocities like the attack on Halabja, but the infighting between different Kurdish factions that made Barzanji decide he had to flee his homeland and throw himself on the mercy of smugglers, as he explained to his wife Sabah: ‘”I have to go to a place where I can continue to be an independent writer. I do not want to take sides in this civil war.”‘
In the face of such huge obstacles, under a regime that transformed the library in which he first discovered his love of words into the prison where he was tortured, Barzanji’s dedication to his craft is deeply moving. His portrayal of the stories of his fellow Kurds – from the waggish Ako’s account of the difficulty of consummating his marriage because of his family’s cramped sleeping arrangements, to the devastating drowning of Shwan in a bungled people-smuggling attempt – lays bare the sense of duty that drove the author to risk everything for the sake of reaching a country where these experiences could be written. Not that Barzanji is quick to take credit for this – ‘that’s the way writers are: they seldom think about the consequences of what they do or write,’ he claims, seeming to shrug at us from the page.
Indeed, Barzanji’s style is so unassuming that you only realise the scale of what he has achieved in this book gradually. His skill shines through from page to page in the details that bring the experiences described home to the reader: the blood on the prison walls, the dyed moustache of the torturer, the boyhood trick of placing a flis coin on the railway track and waiting for a train to squash it into something resembling a more valuable coin, and the terrifying darkroom and stick reserved for the mentally ill at the sheikh’s house. It also appears in his endearing honesty about his shortcomings – his social awkwardness at parties, his habit of losing his luggage, his daydreaming.
Only when you step back from these intimate and immediate observations and survey the fragmented narrative in its entirety do you realise the extent of its power. Taking us to a place that many refuse to accept exists, Barzanji reveals what it means to be forced to weigh freedom, self-expression and survival against belonging, duty and the law. Seen from the final page, the story in pieces transforms itself into a beautiful and beguiling whole. A humbling read.
The Man in Blue Pyjamas by Jalal Barzanji, based on a translation from the Kurdish by Sabah Salih (University of Alberta Press, 2012)
December 27, 2012
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)
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!