IMG_0383

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)

Lasītāja emailed me back in April. There wasn’t much Latvian prose available in translation, she said, but she did have a few suggestions: the Latvian Literature Centre had a small database of translations I could search and Guernica Press in Canada had got a grant to publish a short story collection by Nora Ikstena which might be out in time for me to include it in the project (sadly not by the looks of it). However, my best hope was probably European Parliament Member for Latvia Sandra Kalniete’s With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows, a work of literary non-fiction published in English translation by Dalkey Archive Press in 2009.

When I looked it up, I discovered it also happened to be the most translated Latvian title since the work of Vilis Lācis, who died in 1966. What was it, I wondered, that had made the book such a run-away success?

Ranging across the 20th century, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows reveals the impact of the deportation of Kalniete’s parents from Latvia to Siberia, where Kalniete was born in 1952. One of countless Latvian families to suffer displacement, bereavement and extreme hardship on account of the Soviet occupation of their country, the Kalnietes had to develop great resourcefulness simply to survive decades of persecution that saw many of their closest friends and relatives killed. Through their story, Kalniete traces the history of modern Latvia and reveals the dark mechanisms driving an atrocity that is rarely ever mentioned in the West.

Kalniete sets out her intention to present the facts as openly and honestly as she can from the very first page. Starting with a series of stark potted histories and vignettes, she sketches the circumstances of her relatives’ lives and deaths, together with hints of the long-term impact of their experiences – such as the fact that 44 years after her mother returned from Siberia she was still unable to watch bread being carried away from the table without feeling a degree of panic.

The book that follows reveals the context of these short pieces, both in terms of personal stories and the history of Latvia and its neighbours. As you might expect from a politician (well, some politicians, anyway) Kalniete is rigorous when it comes to state affairs. She provides valuable and detailed accounts of the three successive occupations of Latvia in the early 20th century (twice by the Soviet Union and once by Germany), as well as a chilling insight into how a once-free society can be subjected and controlled by an external power. For the Western reader, there are also some surprising observations which bear witness to how little most of us know of events that took place on the other side of Germany during the world wars: I was staggered to read, for example, that Finland managed to hold out on its own against the Soviet invasion for 105 days in 1939-40, while the accounts of how the Nazi soldiers were initially welcomed by Latvians as liberators are testament to the harshness of the Communist regime.

However, it is her relatives’ stories that bring out Kalniete’s most telling writing. Sparing herself nothing in the effort to get to the heart of what happened, Kalniete reveals the hardships suffered by her parents and grandparents: the deportation train packed with people that sat in a station for three days; the cold, brightly lit cellar where her grandfather was forced to sleep on his back with his hands by his sides in between spells of interrogation; the moss and grass her mother and grandmother had to eat to survive the Siberian ‘Island of Death’; and the tyranny by bureaucracy that saw people trapped in limbo for want of the correct form, condemned for crimes they did not commit, and sentenced to permanent exile from their homeland for owning property or being related to an enemy of the state.

Most moving of all are the moments when the composed demeanour of the professional writer-turned-investigative journalist slips and we see what the telling of this story means to its author. Kalniete’s description of her excitement at holding her grandfather’s case file and putting her hand on his fingerprint, for example, is touching, while her reflections on what allowing their daughter to be indoctrinated with Soviet propaganda for her own safety must have cost her dissident parents are fascinating. And when she recounts the impact of an interview with her mother about what it is like to starve, the full force of emotion breaks through:

‘When I later listened to the taped conversations, their calm flow seemed unbearable to me, so abnormal was their content. The sad story told in my mother’s everyday voice singed me with sudden waves of pain. My body shook and I had to hang onto my desk to contain my uncontrollable sobs. I could not listen to my practical voice repeating a question about how a rat tastes or wondering how mother had not died from eating a horse cadaver.’

Despite its devastating content, the book contains much that is uplifting too. From love stories and small triumphs, to Kalniete’s mother’s dogged-to-the-point-of-irrational determination to dress and educate her daughter in preparation for a return to Latvia – a return that looked impossible for many years, given that the family had been sentenced to exile for life – the book reveals how dignity and the human spirit can endure in the most appalling circumstances. As the dance shoes of the title suggest – which refers to the flimsy shoes in which Kalniete’s mother was arrested and forced to travel to Siberia at the age of 14 – sometimes the smallest details can become a symbol of identity and resistance in the face of those who would extinguish hope. Outstanding.

With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows (Ar balles kurpem Sibirijas sniegos) by Sandra Kalniete, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailītis (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009)

Eritrea: heart and home

September 23, 2012

This was a recommendation from an Eritrean friend of mine. She had read Sulaiman Addonia’s The Consequences of Love not long after it came out in 2008 and enjoyed it. If I was looking for Eritrean literature in English, this was her top tip.

I had my reservations: a brief scan of Addonia’s biography revealed that, although he was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother, he has spent very little of his life there, having fled to Sudan and subsequently Saudi Arabia as a young child. He now lives and writes in London – could his work really be counted as Eritrean?

Then I thought about my friend’s own story. Like Addonia, she was driven from Eritrea, which has long been in the grip of a regime so oppressive that Reporters Without Borders ranks the country below North Korea for press freedom. The danger is such that my friend has been unable to visit her family there since she left, and her mother has never met her son-in-law and grandchild as a result. I began to wonder if such stories of separation and displacement were not as much a part of Eritrean life as the experiences of those who’ve stayed put.

Exile is also central to Addonia’s novel, which is set in the late 1980s, towards the end of Eritrea’s bitter 30-year war with Ethiopia. Like its author, the central character, 20-year-old Naser, has spent his teenage years in Saudi Arabia. Yet, although he has escaped the perils of conflict, he finds himself hemmed in by a whole range of other restrictions in Jeddah, where religious police scour the streets for people who break the strict behaviour codes, lovers are flogged and executed in Punishment Square and the vitriolic sermons of the blind imam blare through the city.

Lonely and anxious for the mother he left behind in Eritrea, Naser faces a life of isolation, until a mysterious, veiled woman drops a love letter at his feet one day. But in a society where communication between unmarried men and women is banned, it will take all Naser and his secret admirer Fiore’s courage and ingenuity if they are to give their happiness a chance.

Naser’s world is one where direct emotional expression is outlawed. Whether they are yearning for their homelands or pining for lovers, he and his cronies must shroud and sublimate their feelings so as to avoid chastisement at the hands of the ever-watchful authorities.

Such repression in this ‘world of black and white’ can have surprising results as blocked emotions and impulses play out through other means. There is Jasim’s café – where wealthy older men coerce the waiters, including Naser, into being their sexual partners until they get married and have a legitimate outlet for their libido – and there is the thriving trade in banned books, including Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (my Sudanese pick), through which the characters live vicariously from inside the country Jasim describes as ‘the biggest prison in the world’. In addition, creativity blossoms, in the shape of Fiore’s drawings, the lovers’ impassioned letters, and the inventive means by which they get messages to one another. As Naser puts it, ‘caged emotions make poets out of all of us, even the illiterate’.

Caged emotions also make for a compelling story. In this tale of ‘love before sight’, the scene where Fiore is finally able to remove her hijab and the lovers come face to face after months is very moving. The sky-high stakes also make for a nail-biting conclusion, although, for my money, the final unravelling is too heavily foreshadowed to come as a surprise. However other readers may feel the dramatic irony creates a tension all its own.

Taken as a whole, though, this is a thoroughly engrossing and often beautifully written portrayal of what happens when regimes and laws run counter to human needs and emotions. As Naser puts it, it is the story of an individual’s struggle to ‘do what it takes to get a life that is rightfully [his]‘ – a struggle that, by the sound of it, many Eritreans know all too well.

The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia (Vintage Digital, 2008)

Tajikistan: imagine

February 17, 2012

‘Is Tajikistan a real country?’ asked someone when I said it was next on my list. ‘Are you sure it’s not one of those made up places?’

I don’t know what ‘those made up places’ are — are we talking Neverland, Utopia or Walford here? — but strangely enough I think the citizens of Tajikistan might have chimed in with my companion’s sentiments back in the early nineties, when ‘one day everything, literally in a single instant, tore away irrevocably from its old bearings and went careering downhill like a snowball, picking up more and more atrocities on its way’.

Charting the outbreak of civil war in Tajikistan following the collapse of the USSR, Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad, which is named after a mythical city of joy and happiness, portrays the eviction of ethnic Russians who ‘suddenly found [themselves] in exile without having to move anywhere’. This is told through 13 interlinked stories, each revealing the private calamity of a different individual and the way it contributes to the undermining and toppling of a collective reality that had existed for 70 years.

Anti-Booker prize-winner Volos is usually considered to be a Russian writer (and he writes in Russian), yet he was born in what is now Tajikistan, where his family had lived since the 1920s (his father suffered a heart attack and died when they were evicted). His personal perspective on the tragedies and atrocities he describes — from the man using all he has in the world to buy a gravestone for his brother before he leaves his homeland for good to the man coerced into kidnapping and sex-trafficking young girls to Afghanistan for arms — gives a muscular, biting edge to the writing, which at times launches vicious attacks on the authorities that stood by while their citizens were robbed, raped, ruined and rejected.

What is extraordinary, however, is the way that Volos has been able to sublimate and channel this emotion into a towering work of art in such a short space of time (the original text appeared in 1998). Indeed, the things described are so shocking and so far removed from anything that we in Western Europe have had to deal with for decades that I found my brain reordering 1992 to read 1929 the first few times I encountered it, as though it simply couldn’t entertain the proximity of these events.

While the constant switching from one story to another can be a little tiring and disorientating, the pieces themselves are immensely powerful. For my money ‘The House by the River’, in which Yamninov, having been forced to sign away his property to a government thug, embarks on a desperate and soul-destroying attempt to save the family house he spent seven years building, is in a league of its own. But each piece is compelling.

Over and above this, though, Volos’s use of imagery (aided no doubt by Arch Tait’s excellent translation) is among the very best I’ve read. The text glitters with spine-tingling similes and metaphors. From the ‘low overcast sky… like a hat pulled down over someone’s eyes’ to the abandoned assumptions that ‘immediately leapt back the way mountains do when you take the binoculars from your eyes’ and the heat ‘like a poultice slapped over the eyes’, Volos demonstrates time and again his ability to reach out from this forgotten corner of the world and take you to his characters.

The result is engrossing and shaming. With this book, Volos makes the experience of being evicted from your homeland by force — an experience to which many of us have been deadened by reams of newsprint and the blue flickers of the nightly news — immediate, human and real.

It left me feeling I’d been living in a fairytale until I read it.

Hurramabad by Andrei Volos (translated from the Russian by Arch Tait). Publisher (this edition): GLAS (2001)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 17,332 other followers