March 31, 2015
It’s been a month of great reading. Funnily enough, through no deliberate intention, many of my favourite reads of the past few weeks have been novels about women in different parts of the planet. From Chantel Acevedo’s scintillating evocation of Cuba’s past in The Distant Marvels to Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – an engrossing exploration of the consequences of a lifetime’s bibliophilia in contemporary Beirut – I have found myself wowed by stories revealing the world through women’s eyes. I also took a detour into 20th-century writing to spend a few hours pinioned to my sofa by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – a chilling masterclass in how to construct a gripping plot.
Those in the UK keen to get their hands on a good read might find it easier to choose one of the titles mentioned above as, although March’s book of the month is published in the US, it isn’t out in the UK – yet – (although you can get it online). In fact, my copy of A Season for Martyrs was sent to me from Karachi by the author herself.
As you can see from the photo above, it came in an envelope covered in stamps. Inside was the beautifully colourful book, signed with a personal message from Bina Shah, who was one of the Pakistani writers readers recommended to me back in 2012. The novel’s vibrant jacket wasn’t the only striking thing about it: the edges of the pages were rough from where the paper had been cut to make the copy (see below).
The pages of my edition may be rough, but the same is certainly not true of the novel. At the heart of the book is ambitious student-cum-TV-news-researcher Ali, who is caught up in covering the controversial return to Pakistan of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. As he struggles to reconcile his liberal political beliefs and secret relationship with his Hindu girlfriend with his feudal Sindhi family’s views and fraught history, we see something of the national tussle for control and identity played out on the personal level. With myths and episodes from Sindh province’s long, rich and turbulent past interspersing the narrative, what emerges is a powerful and complex picture of contemporary Pakistan.
Shah’s tone is one of the first things that draw you in. Whether she is portraying the health gripes of a British Empire functionary, capturing the patter of a bus conductor in Islamabad, or describing the travails of tenth century Sufi saints – ‘even if you were regarded as the guardian of all waterways […] you could tire of riding a palla fish’ – her prose is engaging, funny, direct and refreshing. It makes her well-equipped to unmask and send up the ‘etiquette of hypocrisy’ that influences much of what goes on in the novel.
Yet satire is just one element in this novel. There are flashes of beauty in Shah’s writing and succinct insights that leave you marvelling at her skill for wrapping human emotions in words. When Ali contemplates his dysfunctional home life, for example, Shah finds a powerful simile in the buildings where he grew up:
How many other houses in their sedate neighborhood, with its old houses built in the seventies, its overgrown trees lining the zigzag streets that flooded during every monsoon season, were like theirs: genteel on the outside, wasting away from neglect on the inside? How many other families lived like fractured glass, cracked but still holding up within the constraints of their frames?
In addition, the novel contains some extraordinarily gripping episodes. From the account of Jeandal Shah’s fight to the death with a cheetah in 1827 and the night-long chess tournament between the young jailer Ahmed and a condemned Pir hours before the overlord’s execution in 1943, to the violent protest that leads to Ali to witness the injustice of the police firsthand, the book brims with urgent and troubling events.
Very occasionally there is a slight self-consciousness to the telling as Shah seems to try to explain historical context or 21st-century Pakistani politics – perhaps to English-language readers in other parts of the world. Now and then, as a character steps forward with a suspiciously slick explanation of events or a chunk of exposition bobs to the surface of the narrative, it is as though the author and her protagonist glance towards the camera, briefly breaking the spell.
(That said, the issue of how much cultural knowledge to assume in readers who may be far removed from the events described is a fine balancing act. Had Shah, who is well-versed in writing about Pakistan for readers elsewhere through her journalism for publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian, included less overt explanation she may well have run the risk of leaving people behind.)
Quibbles aside, though, this is a powerful and engrossing book. It has drama, beauty, wit, characters to care about and important things to say. It is, as Ali puts it himself, a story about what it’s like ‘to be lost and adrift and struggling at sea, and then, finally, to see the shore and begin swimming toward it with all one’s might’.
Now that it’s reached the US, I very much hope a British publisher picks it up so that A Season for Martyrs makes it to the shores of the UK soon too.
A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah (Delphinium Books, 2014)
March 16, 2015
As those of you who have followed this project for a while know, I was a writer long before I was a blogger. For the last seven years I have paid my bills by writing and subediting on a freelance basis for a variety of publications and organisations. In fact, for the first seven months or so of my Year of Reading the World, I was working five days a week at the Guardian newspaper in London and juggling shifts and commissions for several other clients. It made fitting in roughly six to eight hours of reading, blogging and researching a day quite a challenge!
What you may not know is that I was also a writer long before anyone paid me to do it. I made my first attempt at a novel when I was seven (a fantasy story set in an old castle with a bookcase that revealed a hidden world – it owed a lot to The Chronicles of Narnia) and throughout my childhood and teenage years I filled notebooks with scraps of stories and splinters of poems and half-formed things.
When I graduated from my creative writing master’s course and had to face the reality of earning my keep, I made a deal with myself: wherever I was working and whatever I was doing, I would always get up early and spend an hour or so on my own writing before I left to go and work for someone else.
For the next few years, through a series of varied and sometimes rather strange jobs (administrator, campaigns officer for a charity, invigilator for school exams, assessor of doctors’ surgeries, freelance choral singer, professional mourner – don’t ask), I stuck to my bargain. Give or take the odd duvet day, I got up at around 6am, sat at my desk and wrote.
I produced a lot of nonsense. Still, when I became a professional writer, I carried on with my regime. Before commuting into London to edit articles on planning applications for Building Design or write about the latest opportunities for international students for the British Council, I would spend an hour or so on my own (usually not very promising) projects.
Then, about four or five years ago, a glimmer of an idea came to me. I found myself gripped by the thought of a pair of identical twins swapping places in a childhood game and then one of them refusing to swap back.
It was the merest flicker of a concept, but it wouldn’t let me go. Over the months and years that followed, my mind returned to it again and again, full of questions. What would cause one child to refuse to swap back? What might it do to someone to grow up with the wrong life? What kind of family wouldn’t notice the change?
A few times, I was on the point of sitting down to start writing the story, but something always held me back. Somehow, it wasn’t ready for me (or perhaps I wasn’t ready for it).
Then A Year of Reading the World came along and for the first time in my adult life, I gave my precious early-morning writing slots over to something else, and filled them with reading and blogging.
What with everything that happened with the project and the book deal, it wasn’t until March 2013 that I got back into the swing of the old writing pattern. Having submitted my first draft of Reading the World to Harvill Secker, I found I had brainspace to focus on other things.
That was when the twins came and tugged at my sleeve once more. And this time I felt ready to take them on.
Over the 18 months that followed, in between long stints re-writing and editing Reading the World, I wrote my twins manuscript. Perhaps it was because I was in the rhythm of writing from the blogging and non-fiction book, but I found the story came to me easily and I wrote with excitement to find out what would happen next.
In autumn 2014, after several drafts, I gave the manuscript to my other half, Steve, and to my novelist friend, Emily Bullock, to read. I worked their feedback into my draft and shared it with a few more people. And then, when my lovely agent Caroline returned from maternity leave towards the end of the year, I sent it to her.
I envisaged that there would be a long process of re-writing and polishing, but when Caroline had finished reading the manuscript she told me she was very excited and that – with a little bit of tweaking – she thought it was ready to sell.
I spent about a week working on Caroline’s edits. Then, on the day that Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer was published in the UK, Caroline sent my novel, Beside Myself, out to editors.
We soon heard that several publishers were interested. I met with them and, after a few weeks of negotiation, I’m delighted to announce that Beside Myself has been bought by Bloomsbury and will be published worldwide in English by them next year. It means my book will be produced by the same team looking after the works of writers such as Margaret Atwood, Khaled Hosseini, Donna Tartt, William Boyd and JK Rowling.
My seven-year-old self wouldn’t have known about Harry Potter when she was scribbling my first novel back in the late 1980s, but I think she would have approved.
February 27, 2015
A rather lovely email arrived in this morning. The message was from Rafidah, the generous stranger who, four days after I first asked the planet’s booklovers to help me read the world, left a message offering to go to her local English-language bookshop in Kuala Lumpur and choose and post me my Malaysian book.
Rafidah’s kindness was a great inspiration for me at the start of this project and so, when Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer was published earlier this month, I emailed her to ask if I could send her a copy in return for the books she once sent me.
The photograph above shows my book and the card I enclosed in Rafidah’s apartment, where my parcel has just arrived. More than three years after her act of generosity kickstarted my quest, the book that it led to has found its way to her. I’m so pleased.
January 27, 2015
Some books follow you around. At least, that has been my experience this month with The Vegetarian by the South Korean novelist Han Kang. No sooner had I resolved to read it after seeing a tweet about it from Gary Perry, assistant head of fiction at Foyles, than it seemed to be popping up everywhere.
When I went into the Guardian newspaper’s offices to record a podcast about my forthcoming book, it cropped up in conversation with the literary editor Claire Armitstead. Next, I saw that Chad Post, editor of Three Percent, had picked it out as one of the texts for his translation students at Rochester University to discuss this semester.
Then, before I knew it, an enthusiastic tweet of my own somehow led to an invitation to the London launch. And so last week, there I was in the London Review Bookshop, listening to Han Kang (speaking through an interpreter) and her translator Deborah Smith discuss the novel with Deborah Levy, author of the Man Booker prize-shortlisted novel Swimming Home.
It’s not surprising that The Vegetarian has captured so many people’s imaginations. The premise alone is bound to intrigue: centring on a hitherto apparently unremarkable woman, Yeong-hye, the narrative presents the fallout from her abrupt decision to reject meat – and with it the food culture she has grown up with – after she has a violent dream. As her eating becomes more and more restricted and her body shrinks and weakens, the cracks in her relationships deepen, allowing glimpses of the traumas, assumptions and impossible dreams that lie beneath.
The novel’s tone is one of its great strengths. Indeed, despite the weightiness of the subject matter, the opening pages have a levity and dry wit as Yeong-hye’s husband sets the scene of his marriage to ‘the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world’. This lightness makes the shock all the greater when the husband and his in-laws round on Yeong-hye, attempting to overcome her resistance and act upon her with violence that they find frighteningly easy to justify.
Han’s (and Smith’s) beautifully modulated sentences weave their way through a series of increasingly outlandish, alarming and yet alluring images as the narrative barrels further and further away from the apparent normality of the outset. From fleeting tropes, such as the idea of a wound consuming an entire body, to the monstrous yet exquisite flower-copulation video created by Yeong-hye’s video artist brother-in-law as a way of enacting his own particular ambitions for her body, the text astonishes and challenges the reader.
As in most ambitious works, the writing takes risks that occasionally threaten to destabilise it. At the start of each of the novel’s three sections – which are narrated by a different family member, although never the title character herself – it is as though the narrative is thrown up into the air until we deduce whose gaze we have borrowed and everything falls into place once more. Similarly, a few of the flashbacks emerge so subtly out of the texture of events that it is sometimes difficult to locate yourself – a technique that adds to the dreamlike quality of much of the writing but can distance the reader from the narrative too.
Overall, though, the effect is utterly absorbing. Poetic, shocking and thought-provoking, this is a book that forces us to confront some of the darkest realities of the human experience: the violence with which we are forced to be complicit simply through the fact of our existence, the way we manipulate and objectify others, and our ability to become inured to horror and abuse. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2015)
October 28, 2014
As those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while will know, translation (or the lack of it) is probably the single biggest obstacle literary explorers have to face. With only a handful of texts from many countries making it into English – the globe’s most published language – each year, the literary offering from many parts of the planet available to Anglophone readers is negligible, if not non-existent.
This can affect classics and national treasures every bit as much as lesser known works. During my Year of Reading the World, for example, I was shocked to discover that the great Mozambican novel Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (named one of the top 100 African books of the 20th century) had not been published in English. I was lucky to read a manuscript translation and discover Khosa’s towering warrior-leader hero, Ngungunhane, that way. But for the moment, unless they also read Portuguese, Anglophone bibliophiles have no official way of meeting him.
So when fellow book blogger Marina Sofia tipped me off about a long overdue translation of a novel by another internationally celebrated writer, I was determined to take a look.
Coming some 86 years after the original, Michelle Bailat-Jones‘s rendering of Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz‘s Beauty on Earth makes the work widely available to English-language readers for the first time (there is an anonymous 1929 translation, but it is only stocked in a very few libraries and diverges from the French-language version in several key respects).
The story turns on the arrival of Cuban emigrant Juliette in a small European mountain village following the death of her father. The plan is for her to stay with her uncle, a café owner called Milliquet, until she turns 21, but before long Juliette’s unsettling beauty has stirred simmering resentments and tensions in the community, setting a train of events in motion that can only end in disaster.
As Bailat-Jones observes in her ‘Translators note’, the narrative voice is one of the most curious and distinctive aspects of the book. Part Greek chorus, part omniscient witness, it veers between every perspective and none, swooping in and out of people’s minds and concerns – not to mention pronouns and tenses. At times it has an almost hypnotic feel, with the repetition of key phrases giving the text a compelling timelessness, as though its events are taking place in an eerie eternal present.
This sense of timelessness is heightened by the creative portrayals of action, colours and scenery in the book, which give it the air of an intricate landscape painting set before our eyes. Small details are rendered with fine brushwork. We read, for example, of how ‘a ladder of sunshine had descended from a hole in the sky, like a boat throwing a rope to someone cast overboard'; of a leaf ‘wrinkled up […] like a duck’s foot'; and of how, when one of the characters smashes a mirror, ‘a star is made in the glass and his view of us vanishes’.
Meanwhile, flashes of light come in the form of shockingly precise observations on the human experience, revealing in language as clear as glass how ‘one has to kill impossible things inside oneself’ and how vehemently we deny the approach of our own ruin.
Inevitably, the experimental use of images and words means that occasionally the events described take some time to come into focus, leaving us momentarily bewildered and unsure as to exactly what is going on. In addition, the ponderous pace of some of the scenes – in which the narrative eye can linger on the cutting and consuming of bread and cheese, for example, for several sentences – sparks the occasional flicker of impatience.
Taken as a whole though, the accretion of these details builds up a mesmeric picture so that, in the final pages, we are able to step back from the canvas and appreciate the full effect. Beautiful.
Beauty on Earth (La beauté sur la terre) by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, translated from the French by Michelle Bailat-Jones (Onesuch Press, 2013)
September 30, 2014
Those of you who followed this blog during my year of reading the world in 2012 may remember the difficulty I had choosing a book to read from India. With such a wealth of stories available from this nation of 1.2 billion people, it seemed impossible to find a way to select just one for my project.
Luckily for me, the dilemma was solved when Indian writer Suneetha Balakrishnan stopped by the blog and observed that all the recommendations I’d had were for books written in English, and that there was a huge amount of even better literature written her nation’s 22 other official languages – not to mention the many unofficial tongues also spoken there. On the strength of Suneetha’s comments, I chose a book by one of her favourite authors, MT Vasudevan Nair, who writes in Malayalam. As you can see from the post I wrote at the time, it proved to be a great decision.
All the same, I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t explore more Indian literature in translation during that year. It seemed that there was a rich variety of amazing stories that we English-language speakers rarely if ever hear about.
So I was delighted to hear from Suneetha this summer that she has been blogging for women’s writing magazine Mslexia about Indian literature written in languages other than English. In celebration of this (and because I enjoyed her previous recommendation so much), I decided to feature one of the novels she has reviewed as my September Book of the month.
I plumped for Crowfall by Shanta Gokhale. This was partly because of Suneetha’s enthusiasm for the book, which you can read about on her post, and partly because I was intrigued by the process the novel went through to get into my hands. Not only did Ghokale write the original version in Marathi, she also translated it into English herself. I was intrigued to see how it had turned out.
Crowfall is a big and ambitious book. It weaves together the experiences of three painters, a musician, a journalist, a teacher and the widowed mother of two of them in Mumbai. Recording their struggles as they attempt to define their careers, themselves and one another – and overcome their grief at a series of untimely deaths and a loved one’s disappearance – it uses individual lives as a prism through which to look at large questions of identity, prejudice, the caste system and what we mean when we talk about art.
Though the premise might be tricky to unpick, the language certainly isn’t. Gokhale has worked as a translator during her career and her facility with words shines through in the beautiful clarity of her sentences. Time and again, succinct phrases capture complex ideas and emotions. From writing about the experience of being crushed between passengers on a bus ‘like chutney in a sandwich’ and describing an extreme method for dealing with Eve-teasing, to a skilful elucidation of the way performances based on raags (melodic modes) work in Hindustani music, Gokhale brings us along with her, by dint of her clear, compelling voice.
This linguistic precision makes the discussion of many of the larger issues that pepper the narrative a joy to read. I particularly liked the exploration of what constitutes art in the book, which is accompanied by many insightful descriptions of what it is like to be caught up in the creative process, such as this one:
Creative ideas are like that. You don’t plead with them to come. You pretend you can live happily without them. Then they steal upon you like thieves. Just be alert to grab them by the hair.
Gokhale’s portrayals of the experience of consuming art (as well as the platefuls of delicious-sounding food served throughout the book) are similarly eloquent – no mean feat, as many writers fail miserably when faced with conjuring up what it is like to look at a colourful, urgent painting in flat, grey words.
With such a large cast of central characters and numerous peripheral figures, the book can be confusing at times. This isn’t helped by Gokhale’s decision to leave considerable amounts of dialogue unattributed, so that you can find yourself confronted with long stretches of sentences in speech marks, wondering who said what. In addition, the numerous philosophical discussions – though skilfully rendered – slow the narrative down. There are times when you get the sense that Gokhale is much more interested in evoking experiences and exploring ideas than telling a story.
For all that, though, this is a marvellous read. As intricate as a performance of a raag, it intertwines experiences, lives and cultural specificities to create a powerful and thought-provoking – if sometimes dissonant – whole. Once again, like MT’s work, it provides a tantalising taste of the banquet Indian writers working in languages other than English have prepared.
Crowfall (Tya Varshi [That Year]) by Shanta Gokhale, translated from the Marathi by Shanta Gokhale (Penguin Books India, 2013)
July 29, 2014
The nation that July’s Book of the Month hails from is not represented on the A Year of Reading the World list of 195 UN-recognised states plus Taiwan. One of the 22 republics representing ethnic minority groups in Russia, the region now known as North Ossetia-Alania was absorbed into the bigger country in the mid-19th century and has been part of it ever since. Had I read this book back in 2012, I would have had to file it under ‘Russia’ or perhaps put it among my ‘Rest of the World’ contenders.
Much like his homeland, novelist Alan Cherchesov, who is also founder and director of the Institute of Civilization in the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz, is little-known in the English-speaking world. Indeed, it was only by chance that I heard of him. Having read Andrei Volos’s mini masterpiece Hurramabad – one of the most exquisite books I encountered during my project – for Tajikistan, I received an email from Natasha Perova at the publisher Glas New Russian Writing. She thanked me for my review and suggested a couple of other titles on their list that might interest me.
Two years later, as I began to look around for stories to consider for my Book of the Month slot, I remembered that email and tracked down the works on it. And I’m very glad that I did, because in Cherchesov’s novel, Requiem for the Living, I discovered one of the most extraordinary narratives I have ever read.
Relating the exploits of a mysterious orphan, Alone, who comes to live in a remote mountain aul (village) as a child and gradually assumes control of the entire community, the novel weaves a haunting and troubling picture. As the population contends with the arrival of the sinister Belgians who are intent on exploiting the region’s resources, the contempt of the ethnic Russians and the locals’ own blind adherence to feuds and traditions, we see the inscrutable protagonist manipulate the course of events ‘twining the multicoloured threads of all these individuals lives together’ in a brave and painful attempt to escape his own dubious past. Part fable, part morality tale and part epic, the novel – narrated by the son of one of the other main characters – reveals how loyalties can at once bind us together and tear us apart.
Cherchesov has a gift for evoking the remote world of his story through succinct descriptions. From the prison cell with ‘two dozen bunks, soiled plasterwork, and a permanent atmosphere of stubborn, lonely fury’ to the powerful narration of a horse and cart careening over a precipice, he brings the strange, dreamlike events of his narrative close to us.
The same is true of his encapsulation of the feelings and anxieties of his characters in small details. The observation, for example, that for an Ossetian villager ‘speaking Russian in front of a crowd of people was almost like stripping naked in public’ tells us all we need to know about the relations between the two ethnic groups.
In particular, Cherchesov is a master of portraying conflicting emotions and reveals again and again how emotional weather can change in the space of a sentence, as rapidly as the mist rolls in to shroud the aul. Using a technique known as free indirect discourse, he plaits the narrative into the thoughts and words of his characters, laying bare the way we buck and struggle under the pull of irreconcilable concerns and desires. Episodes such as the unravelling of a love triangle involving a jealous shopkeeper and the narrator’s father, the morning-after curdling of tenderness between Alone and the prostitute to whom he loses his virginity, and his drunken rant to the narrator after a girl kills herself for love of him come alive because of the inconsistencies that the author threads through them.
For all its brilliance, though, the novel does come with a sizeable health warning. This is not an easy book. Indeed, the word ‘labyrinthine’ might have been coined for it. From the sentence level up, it is intricate and demanding, often switching between time periods and perspectives in a handful of words.
This is made all the more challenging by the fact that there are no section or chapter breaks, so that the narrative is a single 351-page chunk. The reason for this could be, as a German critic writing in Die Welt has suggested, because the work owes a lot to a complex Eastern literary genre known as ‘divan’, in which threads weave together like the patterns of a carpet. While this may be true, it does not make for a relaxing read. In particular, Cherchesov’s tendency to withhold backstory until very late in the narrative can make for moments of extreme bafflement as characters’ carry out seemingly bizarre actions that only make sense much later.
Nevertheless, the book rewards those who persevere. I’ll warrant few of us raised in the Western literary tradition will have come across much like this before. It is certainly one of the strangest and at times most mesmerising stories I have ever read. And, like the region it comes from, it deserves to be more widely known.
Requiem for the Living by Alan Cherchesov, translated from the Russian by Subhi Shervell (Glass New Russian Writing, 2005)
November 14, 2012
I had hoped this post would be on a book by Emin Milli. I found him on Twitter, describing himself as a ‘dissident writer living in Azerbaijan’ – rather brave from what I’ve heard about the strictness of the regime. In fact, according to his website, Milli is no stranger to this himself: he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in 2009 and was only released conditionally in November 2010.
Sadly, when I contacted Milli, it turned out that the book of short stories he is working on won’t be ready until next year. He offered to translate and send me a couple of pieces – he works as an interpreter as well as a writer – but as I was really looking for a complete book, I decided not to put him to the trouble of doing that.
In the meantime, a contact at Sheffield Hallam University had sent through a suggestion of Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. This book presented another dilemma: although Azerbaijanis apparently consider it their national novel, at least according to Paul Theroux’s introduction in my edition, the identity of its author has been a mystery for many years. Several non-Azerbaijani writers have been in the frame since the book first appeared in Germany in 1937, alongside Baku-born Islam convert Mohammed Essad Bey (aka Lev Nussinbaum). He is the writer that journalist Tom Reiss concluded was behind the book – Reiss went on to write a biography of Bey, titled The Orientalist, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006. In addition, other scholars argue that Azerbaijani statesman Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli is the main author.
The odds were that the novel is by an Azerbaijani, but there was still room for doubt. Was this enough for me to justify making it my choice for the nation?
Faced with very little else available in translation, I finally decided to go for it when I discovered that the journal Azerbaijan International had dedicated an entire issue to the book. Whatever the truth about its author, it was clear that the novel had had a lasting impact on the nation. And so, at the risk that new evidence emerges that blows all this out of the water, I decided to give it a go.
The novel is set in the early decades of the 20th century, during the turbulent run up to the declaration of a separate Azerbaijani state, and tells the story of a relationship between Christian beauty Nino and Muslim Ali. Caught between the conservative traditions of Asia and the liberal culture of Europe, and with the might of Russia bearing down on the region, the lovers find themselves forced to question their desires and identities. And, as the world plunges into war, they realise that events on battlefields hundreds of miles away will decide whether a society in which their love can thrive will continue to exist.
The conflict between East and West is at the heart of this book. From the very first chapter, in which a geography teacher explains that Baku sits on the cusp of two continents and tells Nino and his classmates that it is partly down to them ‘whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia’, questions of allegiance and identity are at the forefront of the narrative. This plays out on every level, from different ways of eating through to the design of houses – all of which are presented with much affection and wit. I particularly enjoyed Ali’s conservative uncle’s description of his visit to the opera in Berlin:
‘We were taken to an opera, called L’Africaine. On stage stood a very fat woman and sang dreadfully. We disliked the woman’s voice very much. Kaiser Wilhelm noticed this and punished the woman on the spot. In the last act many negroes came and erected a big pyre. The woman was bound hand and foot and slowly burnt to death. We were very pleased about that. Later somebody told us that the fire had been only symbolical. But we did not believe this, for the woman shrieked just as terribly as the heretic Hurriet ul Ain, whom the Shah had had burnt to death in Tehran just before we set out on our journey.’
When it comes to the position of women in society, the contrast between the two cultures couldn’t be more stark. While Nino’s father advises Ali that marriage should be based on equality when he goes to ask for her hand, his own father tells him that ‘women are like children, only much more sly and vicious’ and his friends and other relatives advise him that wives have no souls and should be controlled with violence. And when Nino is kidnapped and Ali is forced to pursue her kidnapper’s car across the desert, the codes of honour by which he and his peers operate look set to have horrific consequences for his love.
It seems impossible that a relationship could bridge such a gulf, but the beauty of the book is that Said is able to reveal the coming together of two people in a way that is utterly believable and compelling. While recognising that culturally and historically they ‘ought to be blood enemies’, Ali and Nino are able to find ways of transcending their backgrounds while holding on to the truth of who they are. This does not come without great pain and sacrifice. In fact, much of the book is concerned with the struggles the lovers face to accommodate each other’s needs and desires – from the miserable months Nino spends walled up in a harem in Persia, to the indignation Ali has to swallow at hearing Europeans praise his beautiful, unveiled wife. However, according to the story at least, such reconciliation is possible, even if much is lost along the way.
As a metaphor for the dawning of the new Azerbaijani nation, which managed a few brave years before being swallowed into the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, the book is a powerful and memorable one. Written with great humour and beauty, it brims with affection for this nation of contrasts and contradictions. A wonderful read.
Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, translated from the German by Jenia Graman (Vintage 2000)
November 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)
November 5, 2012
Guernica Press may not have been able to help with my Latvian query in time for the end of the year, but it came up trumps for Slovenia. As Mike explained when I emailed to ask about Nora Ikstena’s work, the company was just in the process of publishing a novel by Slovene author Luka Novak. It was called The Golden Shower or What Men Want – would I be interested in seeing a copy?
Not only was the title intriguing (if a little disconcerting), but Luka Novak sounded like quite a character in his own right. The co-host of a popular Slovenian TV cookery show and programme director of the Slovenian Book Fair, he ran a publishing house for 20 years, as well as launching what is apparently Eastern Europe’s first ever concept store. He also ran for Mayor of Ljubljana in 2006, speaks six languages, and has translated 20 books, including Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, into Slovenian.
Phew. I had to see what this one-man cultural extravaganza’s novel was like.
The book starts when a middle-aged psychiatrist and his younger actress girlfriend arrive in Provence, France, for a holiday, which he intends to spend writing a book of cultural essays. It’s not long, however, before their plans start to go awry and the couple, along with Orada, the doctor’s Bosnian masseuse neighbour back in Ljubljana, and a German mythology professor, find themselves caught up in a covert cultural, religious and political movement that aims to take over and remake the world in its own image.
Novak is great at making his characters reveal their inconsistencies through their actions and the stories they tell about themselves. From the brilliant portrait of procrastination in the early chapters, where the psychiatrist is always on the point of sitting down to write his essays but finds himself forced to seek refuge in glass after glass of rosé, to the constant shifting of ground that characterises his arguments with Larisa – during which the pair wander miserably around picturesque French towns, neither getting to do what they want to, with the fact of their childlessness only a Freudian slip away – the novel is full of instances of self-deception and people interacting at cross purposes.
This is helped greatly by Novak’s witty voice. Whether his characters are asserting the opinion that ‘in Ljubljana they’re incapable of making a coherent croissant’ or expressing home truths about the Bosnian War there is a pithiness to his writing that makes for absorbing reading. This is coupled with a series of great cameo characters. I particularly enjoyed the German couple at Ducasse’s country inn, who have planned out every minute of their holiday, barring the ‘five percent spontaneity they generously afford themselves on every trip’.
The humour is important because it buys Novak considerable slack when the narrative rises into the realms of the surreal, tugging at its moorings like a hot air balloon. Watching the plot move into farce after 80 pages or so – with kimono-sporting monks, religious SWAT teams, gender-morphing musicians and the President of Slovenia all dropping in under the watchful eye of the mysterious aesthete, Contractor – is disconcerting and would no doubt be off-putting if the novel weren’t so enjoyable to read.
The same is true of the clamour of philosophical and religious references in the narrative. These centre around Contractor’s desire to reconstruct religious tableaux for the modern age in an effort to create what is variously described as ‘a commercial for a better world’, a ‘pornographic invitation to rebellion’ and the basis for the ‘alteration of people’s very sensibility’. The whole thing might be unbearably pretentious in another writer’s hands, but in Novak’s it’s quirky, intriguing and odd.
That said, the book is not without its frustrations. Even with the general rule of thumb (broken occasionally with the story of the German mythology professor) that the chapters alternate between the experiences of the psychiatrist and Orada, it’s often hard to know where you are. I spent the beginning of several sections straining to catch a familiar reference so that I could work out who I was reading about – a tricky extra complication when you’re dealing with a plot that embraces randomness. In addition, there are some abrupt shifts that leave us scrabbling to catch up. In one paragraph, for example, Orada is watching the Venezuelan police seize an accomplice on the beach; in the next, Contractor is stopping his motorbike in some woods. It’s left to us to infer that Orada hopped on behind him.
All in all, though, this is an enjoyable and surprising novel. No doubt the plot and the subject matter will be too wacky for some readers, but if you give yourself over to it, the narrative sweeps you along, delivering a good helping of insights, thrills, spills and laughs along the way. Apparently, Novak is working on a second novel, this time about the mysterious death of an eccentric pianist-performer in 1980s Paris. I’m intrigued to see what that will entail…
The Golden Shower or What Men Want (Zlati Dez ali Kaj Hoce Moski) by Luka Novak, translated from the Slovenian by Urska Charney (Guernica Editions, 2012)