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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)

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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)

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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)

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)

Egypt: breaking boundaries

November 12, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Sudan: the outsider

September 16, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bolivia: fresh blood

September 13, 2012

Jimena, who suggested my Dominican Republic book, also had thoughts on Bolivia: Edmundo Paz Soldán was the most celebrated Bolivian writer around, she said. Perhaps if I emailed him and told him about my project he might be able to point me in the direction of a lesser-known Bolivian author whose work had been translated into English.

I had some reservations about this idea. In my experience, asking a writer to recommend other writers can often be the literary equivalent of wandering into McDonald’s and asking the staff if they know of any good fast-food outlets in the area. It’s not calculated to ingratiate you with them, you’re unlikely to get what you’re looking for, and you may very well find yourself asked to leave in no uncertain terms.

Still, if I did want to explore what other literature in translation might be available from South America’s poorest country, there wasn’t much else to go on. And besides, there was a big lot of water between me in London and Paz Soldán in his department at Cornell University. It was probably worth the risk.

Luckily for me, Paz Soldán turned out to be one of those exceptions that prove the rule. He wrote back enthusiastically to say that, while there was very little Bolivian literature available in English, his top recommendation was a short story collection by young writer Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, which had been published in a bilingual edition by Editorial La Hoguera in Bolivia.

When my copy of Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood arrived, the reasons for Paz Soldán’s enthusiasm became doubly clear: he had written the ‘Prologue’, in which he described Rivero as ‘one of the top-ranked young women writers of our time’. I was eager to see how her work stacked up.

Graphic, gripping and strange, Rivero’s stories – published here in an alternating edition where the English translation follows each Spanish piece – explore how power dynamics shift, warp and harden in relationships. Whether they focus on the child scared by a glimpse of her father’s sexuality during a telling of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’, the psychiatric patient obliged to trade physical favours to win the right to shave her armpits, or the dog who eats her puppies while her owners endure the tension of house-to-house searches by the military, the way that people and animals displace and sublimate emotion in extreme circumstances is at the heart of these tales.

Much of the tension in the collection derives from opposition, particularly between the sexes. In ‘Masters of the Sand’, for example, two cousins discover how ‘enmity, love and glory are part of a perverse game’, when a childhood battle between two captive scorpions forges a destructive chain of consequences that wraps itself around both their lives. Similarly, the opening story ‘Final Countdown’, in which Macy and Alfredo battle each other in a series of sadistic sexual games opens up a mingled seam of sex and violence which runs throughout the collection.

For all their directness, though, many of the stories thrive on what Rivero leaves unwritten. The vital key to the characters’ suffering is only hinted at – as in the title story in which we can only guess at the precise nature of the abuse that Silva’s father inflicts on her – or the stories end at the moment before the decisive action takes place.

My favourite piece, ‘An Imperfect Day’, is a great example of this. Here, Rivero swirls together details – Marcelino’s mutilated hand, his loss of his job, the revolver his dad passed down from the Chaco War, his partner’s all-engulfing sexuality – which circle faster and faster, like water spiralling round a plughole, until they disappear into the inevitable conclusion, which happens just after the last line.

This subtlety means that a few of the pieces are a bit opaque. In addition, the leanness of the writing, in which nothing is wasted, requires absolute concentration from the reader to achieve its full effect. I found myself having to go over the opening paragraphs of several stories twice, so immediately did they thrust me into the midst of their action.

Such focus though is no hardship. Indeed, most of the stories are so compelling that they draw you in without you even realising. A word of warning though: commuters should consider saving this one for bedtime reading, otherwise Rivero might well make you miss your stop.

Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, translated from the Spanish by Kathy S Leonard (Editorial La Hoguera, 2006)

Hungary: lost in transit

August 11, 2012

This was a recommendation from Stewart of booklit.com. As the driving force behind not only booklit.com but also the World Literature Forum, Stewart knows a thing or two about global literature, so I was keen to see what his suggestion would be like.

Written in 1970 but not translated into English until 2008, Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole tells the story of Hungarian linguist Bubai who inadvertently gets on a flight to the wrong destination and, instead of arriving at the conference he is due to speak at, finds himself stranded in a mysterious country where he cannot make himself understood. Bewildered and increasingly desperate, he must bring all his knowledge, academic training, cunning and instincts to bear in an attempt to crack the cryptic language of the citizens and find his way home.

Karinthy is a skilful storyteller. Sweeping the reader along over the obstacles to credibility – the absence of anyone with knowledge of any of the two dozen languages Bubai speaks and the apparent indifference of the hotel staff to his plight, not to mention the whole business of getting there in the first place – he creates a compelling work.

He does this by embracing the unbelievable nature of the story and stretching its boundaries even further: the office block under construction near the hotel grows at an impossible rate, for example, and the city seethes in a ‘never-ending rush hour’. As a result, like the protagonist, we are never quite sure where we are and find ourselves wondering with Bubai whether he is ‘on planet earth at all or in some other part of the cosmos’ – or indeed in an imaginary world where the rules are different from our own.

This sense of disorientation is heightened by Bubai’s linguistic expertise. Watching a man used to navigating his way between cultures as easily as most of us get around our houses try and fail to achieve even the most basic level of communication is gripping.

At times it can be very funny, as when the hero is ‘all but dancing with rage [...], his arms threshing the air’, but as the book goes on and Bubai retreats into reticence as a result of the continual rebuffs he encounters it becomes increasingly tragic and disturbing. The unmaking of his confidence and sense of identity develops into a chilling parable about the rapidity with which all of us can be made to abandon our skills and self-belief in the face of sustained rejection and frustration.

If I had to name a gripe, it would be that the pacing is a little odd towards the middle of the book. As Bubai circles the communication problem, returning again and again to the same doubtful solutions like someone trying to break into a locked house, the narrative becomes a touch repetitive.

But this is nitpicking. Overall this is a thoroughly engrossing and masterful work about the potentially life and death consequences of not being able to communicate. It is the only book I’ve read where all dialogue bar the words spoken by the protagonist is gobbledygook, yet it is also one of the most thorough and powerful celebrations of language in all its forms. A joy.

Metropole (Epepe) by Ferenc Karinthy, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (Telegram Books, 2012)

Taiwan is the country with the most tenuous claim to be included on the list of independent countries I’m reading books from this year. It was a member of the UN until 1971, when the dispute between its government, the Republic of China, and the Chinese government, the People’s Republic of China, led to the UN voting to withdraw its recognition of the ROC and thus Taiwan. From that time onwards, although Taiwan governs its internal affairs independently and many countries around the world maintain informal diplomatic relations with it (the UK government sent a parliamentary delegation to visit the country in 2011, for example), the nation has officially been part of China. Only 22 UN members recognise it as a separate sovereign state.

I was curious to see what literature from this disputed land might be like, so when @markbooks suggested Pai Hsien-yung’s Crystal Boys, I was quick to add it to the list.

Claiming to be ‘the first modern Asian gay novel’, the 1983 book portrays the lives of a group of young male prostitutes in Taipei’s underworld. Following A-Qing, a teenage run-away who was expelled from school and thrown out of home for being found in a compromising position with a supervisor, the narrative explores the precarious lives of these young men, peeling back the layers to show the tenderness, vulnerability and hurt within.

The subject matter and suggestive cover picture of a half-naked Taiwanese youth set up an expectation of explicitness that is actually quite misleading. In fact, beyond passing references, the book doesn’t feature a single sex scene. Instead, all the drama and extreme experience is played out in the dialogue between the characters, in which cruel insults and desperate appeals are laughed off in a welter of banter. There is the boy Wu Min who talks about his plans for suicide only for his friends to think he is joking until he goes home to slash his wrists and the chief who pushes the youngsters into encounters with seemingly heartless abandon.

Yet, beneath the hard shell that nights around the lotus pond in Taipei’s New Park and later at the Cosy Nest café force them to develop, the boys possess a great deal of warmth and tenderness that often expresses itself in surprising ways. When Wu Min is in hospital and unable to meet his medical bills, the boys all donate blood to keep him alive – ‘what we share in common are bodies filled with aching, irrepressible desire and hearts filled with insane loneliness’, observes A-Qing, articulating the bond that ties him to his friends. In addition, A-Qing, who misses his younger brother Buddy, is forever adopting and protecting younger boys who remind him of home.

Indeed, by far the most daring and subversive aspect of the book is not its presentation of sexuality and prostitution but its use of those things to express ideas about nationhood, sovereignty and identity. As homosexuality was illegal in mainland China until 1997, it is effectively off-limits, out-of-bounds and dangerous territory in the book. This enables Pai Hsien-yung to use the crystal boys’ world as a powerful metaphor, as the opening lines of the novel show:

‘There are no days in our kingdom, only nights. As soon as the sun comes up, our kingdom goes into hiding, for it is an unlawful nation; we have no government and no constitution, we are neither recognised nor respected by anyone, our citizenry is little more than rabble. [...] It’s as though our kingdom were surrounded and hidden by a tightly woven fence – cut off from the outside world, isolated for the time being. But we are always keenly aware of the constant threat to our existence by the boundless world on the other side of the fence.’

At times, the narrative becomes a little stilted and episodic, with too many characters crowding in one after the other. Pai Hsien-yung’s tendency to stress the emotional suffering of the boys can also be a little repetitive and could have done with some tighter editing.

However, none of this detracts from the fact that this is a courageous and fascinating work from a writer not afraid to speak out against the majority. The book is a gripping insight into a fragile and contested world. Powerful stuff.

Crystal Boys (Nieh-Tzu) by Pai Hsien-yung, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Gay Sunshine Press, 1995)

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