South Sudan big

Those of you who have followed this project since the early days might remember Julia Duany. She is the South Sudanese author and senior civil servant who very kindly wrote and recorded the story that kicked off my year of reading the world on 1 January 2012.

If Julia hadn’t been so generous, I don’t know what I would have done about finding something to read from the world’s newest country. South Sudan had only come into being a handful of months before my literary quest began and was still feeling the impact of a long and bloody civil war that had devastated the region. The nascent nation had virtually no roads, no hospitals, no schools and certainly nothing in the way of a book publishing industry.

Julia’s story reflected this. She wrote with great feeling about her experience of returning to her homeland in 2005 after 20 years in the US to work to build her nation from the ground up. She was under no illusions about the challenges that lay ahead, but she was also full of hope and pride for her new nation.

Sadly, in the last month, fighting between the supporters of the South Sudanese president and those of his former deputy has brought great suffering to many in the region. With much of the country in chaos and thousands fleeing their homes to escape arrest or execution, it’s very hard to make contact with people there and find out what’s going on.

So when a producer of BBC Radio 4’s iPM programme contacted me to see if I could put her in touch with Julia to get an inside perspective on the situation I was determined to do my best to help. Luckily, it turned out that Julia had left South Sudan to spend Christmas with her family in the US shortly before the trouble erupted. Speaking from Washington, she recorded a powerful and moving account of her experiences and thoughts on the latest terrible events, which was broadcast last weekend (you can hear it here, although I suspect this won’t work outside the UK). As those of us in peaceful places wish each other Happy New Year and set out with high hopes for 2014, it’s sobering to think what Julia faces as she waits to return to the country she and her compatriots have worked so hard to establish.

One colleague of Julia’s is especially in my thoughts at the moment. Deng Gach Pal, the man who put me in touch with Julia and with whom I have kept in touch since I met him in the run up to South Sudan’s independence in 2011, has not answered my emails since the fighting broke out. I hope this is merely down to him being busy trying to cope with the extremely difficult circumstances in the capital, Juba, but I know that there is a chance that things are more serious than that. As you can see from an article I wrote about him for the New Internationalist, Deng is an extraordinary person full of enthusiasm and energy and has overcome challenges most of us could never imagine in his life. I can only hope that he is safe.

Picture of an ash-dressed Mundari child celebrating the first South Sudan Independence Day by Freedom House

Monaco: grace and beauty

December 23, 2012

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If there were a league table for the number of books set in a place per head of population, Monaco would be up there with the best of them. Nestled in the French Riviera, the tiny but hugely wealthy principality has long been the holiday destination of choice for many of the world’s great, good, and not-so-good, including lots of writers. The results speak for themselves: novels set or partially set in the 0.76 square mile sovereign state include Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Graham Greene’s Loser Takes All, as well as many more besides.

But while hordes of foreign authors have written about the nation, home-grown literary works are much harder to find. Indeed, Monégasque writers are so thin on the ground that the Prince Pierre of Monaco Literary Prize, founded in 1951, has never gone to a local author. 

This leaves armchair adventurers like me in a dilemma. With no Monégasque novels, short story collections or memoirs available in English (the closest I got were some translated plays and poetry by Monaco-born Armand Gatti), I had to choose between opting for a work by a non-national writer who spent time in the place or broadening the scope of ‘book’. At one point, I even found myself wondering if there was any way I could justify reading a strange pamphlet called Russian Expatriates in Monaco, Including: Marat Safin, Andrei Cherkasov, Elena Dementieva as my Monaco book. (I discovered it sloshing around in the unknown bindings on Amazon and bought it out of curiosity, only to find that it was a run down of various Russian nationals’ tennis careers).

While I was wondering what to do, a French friend made a suggestion: what about reading a biography of Grace Kelly, the Hollywood star who married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, in 1956 and became a national treasure? I laughed and went on contacting anyone and everyone I could think of in and around the French Riviera.

However, when I got in touch with Beatrice Projetti, secretary and treasurer of the Association Monaco-Japon, I was made to think again. Like many other people I’ve emailed out of the blue this year, Projetti proved to be extremely helpful, and we struck up a long correspondence, during which she explored many options on my behalf. Somewhere in the midst of it, she mentioned that her brother had published a bilingual book called Grace Kelly: Princesse du Cinema, which included many pictures and other sources from the celebrity’s life. 

It got me thinking. By that stage in the year, I’d read several transcribed oral stories about national legends, such as The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounted by Nigerien griot Nouhou Malio. Passed down from generation to generation, these works couldn’t really be said to have a single author, and were more of a collective expression of cultural identity and history honed and shaped by many voices. Seen in this light, could a story about a modern legend – a woman who came to be seen as the epitome of Monégasque glamour, yet who retained a certain mystique right up until the patchily explained car crash that killed her – count as my Monaco book?

Bringing together photographs, posters and stills from the actress’s 12 films, Grace Kelly: Princesse du Cinema provides an overview of the star’s career up until her marriage. Although there is very little text – made up mostly of captions, quotes from co-actors such as Cary Grant and James Stewart, and sometimes clumsily translated plot summaries and excerpts from film scripts – a story emerges from the ‘special documents’ of the photographs (as the introduction describes them). From the poster for 1953 film Mogambo, on which Kelly loiters in the background behind the sultry Clark Gable and Ava Gardner, to the lavish display designed around her face for The Swan two years later, the actress’s meteoric rise to fame is writ large on these pages.

As you might expect in a tribute work such as this, complete with its non-translated preface by son Prince Albert, Grace Kelly’s beauty and elegance are the central theme. Whether she is posing in a ball gown, staring dreamily out over the head of her Oscar, or cowering in a pit on location, the actress’s charm and magnetism are always the first things that strike the eye.

Yet, as the pages turn, a shadow narrative comes into focus. With shots of daily life and on-set discussions mingled with film stills again and again, the line between reality and fantasy becomes harder and harder to draw. At times, we cannot be sure whether we are looking Cary Grant and Grace Kelly relaxing on the set of To Catch a Thief or John Robie and Frances in the midst of another heist.

This blurring of fact and fiction is never more apparent than in the depiction of Kelly’s marriage. Presented with its own poster (the extravaganza was filmed by MGM as compensation for Kelly reneging on her contract to star in Designing Woman) the ceremony is every inch the Hollywood fairytale – the end title card might as well have ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ written on it.

The rest is silence, leaving a strange sense of hollowness and inscrutability lingering in the wake of the woman who is somehow everywhere and nowhere in this book. In the absence of any insight into what happened after the lights were switched off and the cameras packed away, the image is all. And perhaps that’s precisely the point.

Grace Kelly: Princesse du Cinema edited by Richard and Danae Projetti (Stanislas Choko, 2007)

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Sometimes when you’re trying to read a book by a writer from every country in the world, you have to travel in time as well as space. While there may not be any translated literature from that nation available in print at the time you’re looking, if you dig back into the past you can occasionally get your hands on an edition of a translation published decades ago that will take you into an imaginary universe from which you would otherwise be shut out. These out-of-print books are like portals, opening and closing  at will: not everyone can get to them, they pop up in surprising settings and you’ll rarely find one in the same place twice.

My Paraguayan pick was one of these books. As far as I can find out, there is little other than Helen Lane’s 1986 translation of Augustos Roa Bastos’s I The Supreme out there for us English-language readers (do tell me if you know differently). Luckily, I was able to get hold of a faded 1988 edition listed by an independent bookseller on Abe Books (there are a few others on there at the moment, but they may disappear at any time).

The 1974 novel, which saw Bastos permanently exiled from his homeland, is a fictional rendering of the recollections, pronouncements and paranoid fantasies of the early 19th century Paraguayan dictator Dr José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (who dubbed himself El Supremo). Constructed by an anonymous compiler from a mountain of charred dossiers, pamphlets, correspondence and other documents salvaged from a fire at the time of the ruler’s death, the narrative presents a mind turning in on itself as the tyrant confronts his own mortality.

From the first page – which displays a lampoon in the voice of El Supremo found nailed to the cathedral doors in the capital – the text babbles with questions about identity, authority and authorship. The novel is shot through with footnotes and extracts from other works that contradict the primary account, as well as revisions from the tyrant as he creates his own account of the founding of the Perpetual Dictatorship. As El Supremo’s shadowy scribe puts it, in this world of reconfigurations, suppressed voices and fabrications, ‘even the truth appears to be a lie’.

For all the slipperiness of the narrative, however, the character of El Supremo looms large, riddled with the conflicts, eccentricities and the lack of empathy that comes from years of being cut off from normal human interaction. Bastos’s portrait of the ruler’s paranoia, who sees himself surrounded by people with ‘a bad case of the itch to be kings’, is brilliant and points up the psychology behind the grotesque and brutal punishments he metes out as casually as he orders his food – the cells blocked up to admit no light, the traitors left sitting in the sun, the man forced to row until he dies. These are offset by El Supremo’s delusions about his own benevolence, reflected in outbursts of irrational generosity – as in the case of the meticulous list of toys he orders to be distributed to children at Epiphany.

Bastos’s greatest achievement, however, is that, while revealing the monstrous actions and self-deception of the tyrant, he brings out his humanity too. This comes through in the lonely, sober tone of many of the entries in El Supremo’s private notebook, as well as through glimpses of the ruler as a frail old man playing dice in his slippers and contemplating the impending loss of his faculties. It also lives in his flashes of insight into his situation and his wistful daydreams about how if he had met a woman and had a family he might have enjoyed a peaceful, quiet old age, rather than sitting in fear and isolation, thinking about crowds burning his effigy and listening to ‘the sounds of a sick mind clattering along’.

For all its brilliance, however, the novel does come with a health warning: its dense, heavy style will be too rich for some appetites. The concentration wanders in its maze of associations and you sometimes have to retrace your steps to pick up the thread again. Although Bernard Levin might have read it twice in a weekend – as he writes breezily on the back cover – the book will take most people much longer to get through (I had to allow four days).

If you stick with it, however, the rewards are great. The I the Supreme is many things: a portrayal of the nightmare of being able to trust no-one but yourself; a portrait of a mind hemmed in; and a reminder of how easily we might be other than we are. Extraordinary.

I the Supreme (Yo el Supremo) by Augusto Roa Bastos, translated from the Spanish by Helen R Lane (Faber & Faber, 1988)

Georgia: new horizons

December 10, 2012

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Things could well be looking up for Georgian fiction in translation. Although there are very few books by writers from the country available in English at the moment, the Georgian government has recently decided to make translation one of its cultural priorities.

This is good news because, from what I hear, there are several gems out there beyond our reach. Aka Morchiladze’s Santa Esperanza is one of these. Published in 2004, it comes in the form of 36 booklets and a map, gathered together in a bag instead of a cover. The idea is that you can read the booklets in any order and the story that emerges will depend on the route you decide to take.

Sadly, Santa Esperanza is not yet available in English. However, the first of the government-backed publications came out this year from Dalkey Archive Press: an anthology of Contemporary Georgian Fiction. The ministry of culture very kindly sent me a pdf of it when I contacted them earlier this year – and I was delighted to see that it included a short story by Santa Esperanza‘s author, Aka Morchiladze.

Weighing in at nearly 400 A4 sides, this chunky anthology presents a broad spectrum of work from writers in Georgia today. From sweeping national commentaries, to intricate domestic dramas and portraits of isolated moments of experience, the book sets out to give readers a sense of the scope and variety of literature on offer in the Eurasian state.

Despite the diversity of the collection, the best pieces in the book tend to share a quirky, playful air. Lasha Bugadze’s ‘The Round Table’, for example, takes us to a restaurant where extreme experiences, rather than food, are on the menu, with some witty results – ‘ah, so that was the problem. The dish came with a wife on the side,’ concludes the protagonist at one point. Similarly, the imaginary marriage conducted entirely by correspondence in ‘Love in a Prison Cell’ by Zurab Lezhava has the right mixture of weirdness and sincerity to be funny and compelling.

In addition, several of the stories demonstrate an endearingly self-deprecating wit when it comes to national affairs, which reminded me of a particular kind of self-satire you see occasionally in the British media. In Archil Kikodze’s ‘The Drunks’, for example, we hear that ‘the standard of Georgian political analysis was roughly on a par with that of two old codgers from the village’, while the wry explanation of blood feuds in Mamuka Kherkeulidze’s ‘A Caucasian Chronicle’ adds a great deal of colour and depth to the narrative.

There is plenty of darkness in the collection too. Lonely, estranged and frightened characters wander through its pages, missing their chances to connect with the people who matter most to them. One of the best examples of this is Kote Jandieri’s ‘Cinderella’s Night’, which, after a somewhat unsteady start, develops into a powerful retelling of the famous fairy story through the mouth of a mother waiting for her adulterous husband to return home. In addition, ‘November Rain’ by Nugzar Shataidze – the collection’s most structurally traditional piece – is one of the most memorable in this respect: its evocation of the terror of an elderly teacher who has a run-in with a secret police officer is chilling.

Inevitably, the book is a bit of a mixed bag. While some pieces start strongly only to tail off, others cry out for tightening and yet others wander aimlessly in search of their subject matter. Although this maverick narrative form works in the hands of a few writers, such as Aka Morchiladze – whose ‘Once Upon a Time in Georgia’ delivers some thought-provoking, albeit long-winded, insights into the country’s recent past – it can tend to leave the reader feeling rather nonplussed and disinclined to keep turning the pages. Given the size of the collection, it is hard not to feel that the ministry of culture has occasionally gone for quantity over quality, as though eager to include anything that might tempt English-language readers to look further, rather than limiting the selection to a few choice morsels.

Such enthusiasm, however, is encouraging. There’s no doubt that there is considerable talent among the 20 writers showcased here and it is to the Georgian government’s credit that it is keen to help them find a wider audience. Incidentally, the translator and editor of the anthology, Elizabeth Heighway, informs me that she has not only already translated one of Aka Morchiladze’s novellas, but that she is also considering turning her attention to Santa Esperanza. I hope she does – I’d like to order my copy now.

Contemporary Georgian Fiction, edited and translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)

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It’s official (well, as official as these things can ever be): there are no novels, short story collections or memoirs by writers from Guinea-Bissau available in English translation. I know, because I checked. In fact, it wasn’t just me checking, but a whole army of people, working in, living in or studying the country – as well as several others with no particular connection to it – who kindly helped me with the search.

These included Professor Peter Aaby, director of the Bandim Health Project, who has lived and worked in the country for 35 years; Yema Ferreira, a bilingual Angolan writer and blogger, who spent ages sifting through Portuguese-language sites and other sources (she found a couple of titles that had been translated into French, but none that had made it into English); and a PhD student doing a doctorate on Guinea-Bissauan literature who I bumped into on Twitter and who assured me that there was nothing translated – although she might well consider translating something in future.

All the same, in amongst the barrage of queries that have flown back and forth from my computer bearing the words ‘Guinea-Bissau’ in recent months, one translated title kept cropping up: Unity and Struggle by Amilcar Cabral.

When I first heard about this collection of speeches and writings by the leader of the Guinea-Bissauan and Cape Verdean independence movements, I discounted it. I didn’t really see how an anthology of this type could be counted as a story and, besides, Cabral was assassinated some eight months before Guinea-Bissau declared its independence, making the book’s claim to be counted as a Guinea-Bissauan work problematic.

However, in this case circumstances made the decision for me. In the absence of any other available G-B literature in English, I decided I would have to give it a go and see what sort of story – if any – might emerge from the pages of this book.

Bringing together Cabral’s writings from a period of more than 25 years, right up to his death in 1973, the collection sets out the author’s vision for a free and vibrant Lusophone Africa. Including everything from funeral tributes to notable African leaders and rousing speeches to his countrymen and women, to addresses to the UN and circulars directed at different factions among the Portuguese colonialists, the anthology reveals the damage that occupation does to a country and sets out the, often radical, steps the writer believes will lead to liberation.

Cabral’s passion shines through on every page. A master of rhetoric, he speaks rousingly against the racist ideology that led to the subjection of his people – ‘this tradition of scorn for the African and of belief in the congenital incapacity of this “big child”‘ – as well as against the sexism and petty divisions that initially hampered his compatriots’ attempts to band together against their oppressors. He pulls no punches when it comes to the Portuguese either, whom he dismisses as coming from ‘a small country, the most backward in Europe’.

At times, his words take on a Messianic register, as when he enjoins his listeners to refrain from the distractions of getting married and having children until the struggle for independence is won. However, his belief in violence as being central to the restoration of his people’s sense of agency is perhaps more Old Testament than New, as his ‘Homage to Kwame Nkrumah’ demonstrates: ‘For us, freedom fighters, the finest flowers with which we can garland Kwame Nkrumah’s memory are the bullets, the shells, the missiles of every kind that we fire against the colonialist and racist forces in Africa’. In addition, some of Cabral’s observations on culture are questionable. While arguing strongly that art, literature and philosophy are central to a nation’s expression of its identity, he seems embarrassed by some aspects of African culture and occasionally seems to be apologising for the ‘staggering simplicity’ of his compatriot’s proverbs and traditions – perhaps demonstrating how entrenched the colonial mindset can be, even in those seeking to root it out.

Cabral’s passion for his work is only one side of the coin. Meticulously researched and reasoned, his arguments rest on a robust and largely watertight foundation. This sometimes takes the form of pages and pages of statistics about the economics, education systems and healthcare facilities of certain regions under Portuguese rule as compared with those of other countries. However there are also some memorable soundbites that leap out to shock and outrage the reader, such as his observation on the double standards operating in fellow Portuguese colony Angola:

‘The setting up of each European family costs Angola one million escudos. For an African peasant family to earn that much money, it would have to live for a thousand years and work every year without stopping.’

Inevitably, such weighty helpings of data mean that the book can be heavy-going. In fact, reading it through from beginning to end is in many ways perverse, as Cabral probably never envisaged these very immediate and time-specific addresses would be collected in such a way.

However, for those who persevere, a powerful picture emerges of a man who gave his life, in every sense, to a cause. His collection stands as a Bible for all subjected peoples around the world and a monument to the activist behind it, who never got to see the realisation of his dream. It is a sobering thought that, nearly 40 years after Guinea-Bissau gained its independence, the literature that its greatest champion regarded as key to its expression of national identity is not available to readers in much of the world. We still have a long way to go.

Unity and Struggle: speeches and writings of Amilcar by Amilcar Cabral, translated from the Portuguese by Michael Wolfers (Monthly Review Press, 1982)

Qatar: Brits abroad

December 7, 2012

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Back in May I had an email from Michelle Wallin, an editor at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. I’d contacted the four-year-old publisher – which, as its name suggests, came out of a partnership between Bloomsbury Publishing and the Qatar Foundation – to see whether it might have any suggestions of books I could read in translation by Qatari writers.

As it happened, I was in luck. Wallin was editing the manuscript of the translation of a novel that had been very popular in Arabic. It would be one of the first Qatari novels to be published in English and was due out at the end of the year. Would I be interested in that?

I replied that I certainly would, especially if Wallin could send me an advance copy or manuscript so that I could read it in time for the end of the project. She promised to try and impressively, despite the delays that so often hamper the publishing process, a manuscript of The Corsair by Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud arrived in my inbox a couple of weeks ago.

Set in the early 19th century, when the British Empire was extending its reach across the globe, the novel tells the story of the struggle for control of the trade routes in the Persian Gulf. Spurred into action by the region’s burgeoning number of pirates or corsairs, among them the notorious Erhama bin Jaber, His Majesty’s Government moves to protect its interests, sending figures such as the aristocratic Captain Loch and the awkward Major George Sadleir to the Gulf to safeguard the transport of British cargo through diplomacy or military action. But the British have reckoned without the complex web of rivalries and loyalties that spans the Gulf. As the narrative progresses – roving between Plymouth in the UK, Bombay in India, Bahrain, Qatar, Madeira and many places in between – it becomes clear that the emissaries of the small nation that at one stage controlled a quarter of the planet are out of their depth.

Al Mahmoud’s 19th century Gulf region is a rich, cruel and bewildering place. From the sumptuous palaces of the Sultan of Oman to the barren plains where Ibrahim Pasha prosecutes his brutal wars, it is a world of contrasts and contradictions. Fresh springs bubble under the sea, making it possible for intrepid sailors to dive for drinking water, and lifeless deserts hide secret dens, buzzing with activity – signalling that here very little is what it seems. Relationships in the region are equally fraught, with family betrayal frequent and allegiances between factions and sects shifting with alarming regularity – ‘they pray to the same God and towards the same Kaaba, and yet they butcher each other,’ remarks Sadleir at one point. Through the hubbub and carnage strides the towering figure of Erham bin Jaber: terrifying, enigmatic and fascinating.

Al Mahmoud’s depiction of the British characters is similarly compelling – and one of the most convincing I’ve read all year. None of the false notes that so often strike you when you read the work of a foreign writer trying to describe your countrymen and women to you are present. Instead, his creations are utterly believable, right from the irritable and effete administrative official David Matthews to the governor in Bombay.

This credibility buys the author a lot of leeway when it comes to revealing the flaws in his characters and the national policies driving them. Beginning softly with a few instances of casual racism and ignorant generalisations on the part of the British, as well as some digs at the ill-suitedness of English attire and practices to most of the settings in the novel, he begins to dismantle the pomp and circumstance of empire to show the folly and hypocrisy on which it rests. This gradually moves to more serious matters, with the disgruntled Indian employee Gulap offering one of the first shots across the bows with the observation: ‘many Omanis regard the British as criminals and killers’.

The rest of the novel serves to demonstrate why such a view might well be justified. Welching on deals, commissioning murder, and promising the powerless lackey Abbas his safety only to kill him once he has served his purpose and testified against the Prince of Shiraz’s nephew, the British characters reveal themselves to be the most underhand and treacherous players in the Gulf.

Crucially, however, Al Mahmoud does not himself fall into the trap of generalising. He gives Sadleir a great deal of insight into the thoughtless cruelty of his compatriots, leaving the door open for a friendship between him and the pirate Erhama bin Jaber’s son, Bashir. As Bashir explains, the problem is really a question of perspective: ‘You would think differently if this land was your land and if these people were your people,’ he says. In fact, the author’s skill is such that, in this translation of his work into the language of the former empire, he manages to get readers to experience something of what it means to think differently: by the end I found myself rooting for Erhama bin Jaber and his followers against the Brits.

Although Al Mahmoud navigates well between his large array of settings and characters, there are one or two minor snags in the rigging. The lengthy descriptions of Captain Loch’s aristocratic background and his offhand manner with his crew in the first chapter seem to promise a mutiny which never materialises, as though the author changed his mind about the weighting of the narrative half-way through. Similarly, there are a few places in the book where Al Mahmoud sets up an obstacle only to sweep it away in the next sentence, rather than using the added tension to drive the narrative forward. At one stage, for example, Abu Matar speculates on the whereabouts of Bashir, saying that he hasn’t seen him for ages, only for Al Mahmoud to tell us in the next sentence that ‘they didn’t have to wait long for Bashir’, which has the odd effect of making Abu Matar look like an actor filling time on stage while he waits for a colleague to realise he’s missed his cue.

Overall, though, this is an excellent and fascinating book. Having grown up in the UK, where the history of the British Empire is regarded by many with complacency, I found it liberating, challenging and thought-provoking to read a bit of the narrative from another perspective. This novel, particularly in its translated form, is a reminder that truth is often in the eye of the beholder – and that we must cherish those with the insight to recognise something of the other sides of the story.

The Corsair by Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud, translated from the Arabic by Amira Nowaira (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2012)

Ethiopia: home rule

December 4, 2012

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There are several strong contenders out there for Ethiopia, but Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was one of the first to catch my eye. I wasn’t the only one to like the sound of the critically acclaimed debut novel – the day after I finished it, Bradley stopped by the blog to say he was reading and really enjoying it. Clearly the book was a popular choice.

Drawing on the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, which forced Mengiste’s family to flee Ethiopia, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze traces the fall out of national events in individual lives. The narrative focuses on the family of an eminent Addis Ababa doctor, Hailu, who is struggling to keep his terminally ill wife alive against her wishes and who fears that his youngest son Dawit may be the next wounded revolutionary brought into the hospital for him to treat. At the start of the novel, Hailu has cast-iron confidence in his sense of right and wrong, born of years of making life-and-death decisions; yet, as society unravels around him, the lines begin to blur and when a horrifically tortured girl is brought to him to be patched up, Hailu finds his old certainties crumbling.

Like A Long Way Gone (my Sierra Leonean choice) the novel contains some of the most extreme descriptions of physical violence going. From brief glimpses, such as the pregnant woman ‘pleading at the foot of a man with stones for eyes and a plunging bayoneted rifle in his hand’, to extended scenes, including the interrogation of the small boy Berhane, the book bristles with outraged testimonies to the cruelty of its era – many of which will stay with readers long after they turn the final page.

Mengiste’s writing is excellent throughout. Perhaps the best proof of this for a child of the 1980s like me is the way that she manages to bring home the famines that ravaged rural Ethiopia throughout much of the final decades of the 20th century – and flooded Western TV screens, almost normalising images of extreme hunger for an entire generation. Through the eye-witness accounts of Dawit’s friend, Mickey, Mengiste cuts through the complacency that time and familiarity breed to shame readers with the horror of what happened once again:

‘This is how a man tills his land: behind cattle that are tied to one end of a plow that he uses to dig and lift and turn the ground. He holds a stick in one hand and the end of the plow in the other. At the end of that stick is a rope that he uses to whip the animals when they tire from the hot sun and the lack of water and simple hunger. A man works like this every day, every month, year after year, behind his cattle, his hand attached to a plow that has dug its own imprints into his calloused palms. He speaks to no one but himself, he hears nothing but his own slavish grunts as he pushes his plow into dirt, willing a crop to grow from unforgiving ground, praying daily for more rain. But it didn’t rain in 1972 in the north, my friend, and the farmer had no crops. The rains did not come as they should, and when the rains failed, the crops failed, and when the crops failed, the farmer grew hungry, and when he grew hungry, his cattle also grew hungry, because a farmer will feed his cattle before himself. When the cattle began to die, the farmer gathered his family and tried to walk to the nearest village, the nearest aid shelter, the nearest anywhere where he could hold out his proud hand and beg for food. But everyplace he went was the same as what he had left. They are starving here in Wello, Dawit. They are starving in Tigre and Shoa. We have lived in the city and we have forgotten about these people.’

Mengiste stretches these observations over a finely crafted plot, like canvases on a frame. Drawing in each character, the story moves from conflict to conflict, ratcheting up the tension with every chapter. I found myself gripping the Kindle in fear on several occasions – particularly in the scene where the soldiers come to search Hailu’s house for Dawit.

This solid structure means that the book can take the weight of the many larger questions its author heaps upon it. We find ourselves engaged in religious debates about where the line between accepting God’s will and working to ameliorate your situation should be and political reflections on the conditions needed to effect a revolution. In addition, we witness the events that can turn friendship into hatred, and discover a range of unsettling facts about life in post-revolution Ethiopia – such as the bullet fee families had to pay to receive the body of anyone shot by the authorities.

This is the sort of book that has the power to seem to stop time while the hours fly past. Gripping and thought-provoking, it sweeps you along to the final pages with just the right mix of emotional engagement and historical context. I’ll be adding Mengiste to the post-world watch list – I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste (Vintage Digital, 2010)

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I always knew this little enclave in northern Italy was going to be tricky – and it did not disappoint me. In fact this post is the result of months of emails, phone calls, appeals to anyone I know with any connection to Italy, wishing on several stars and a good deal of luck.

This frantic activity threw up several leads. The first of these was Milena Ercolani, the Sammarinese poet at this summer’s Poetry Parnassus event in London. After googling around a bit, I found her through La Sammarina, the cultural association she founded, and got in touch to ask for her help. As it turned out, Ercolani had written two novels of her own, but neither had been translated yet. There were plans to create an English version of one of them but so far nothing was available.

I went back to the drawing board. An Italian literature research student friend of mine kindly got on the case and asked around. His inquiries turned up the suggestion that Italian-born crime writer and journalist Carlo Lucarelli might live in the Republic. Between us, we concocted an email asking Lucarelli if any of his novels were available in translation (or rather, I wrote something in English and my friend translated it) and fired it off. Sadly, there was no response.

About that time, I heard from Paul, a Canadian blogger also engaged in a round-the-world quest. Despite not being able to read Italian, he was translating a short story from San Marino to read for his own project, having been unable to find anything to read from the nation in English.

With around 1.87 days to read each book in order to get round the world  in a year, DIY translation was not an option for me. However, I was beginning to realise that San Marino might require a pretty radical solution.

An Italian contact of mine in Brussels gave me the number for the Sammarinese ministry of culture. I called it up, only to be told, amid much laughter and muffled discussion, that no-one was sure who the current minister of culture was. My best bet, apparently, was to ask the last minister of culture who he thought it was. Hopefully whoever he or she was would be able to help me.

The phone number for the last-known Sammarinese minister of culture took a long time to dictate, partly because of a lively debate about the translation for certain digits in Italian. When I finally put the phone down and tried to call it, it didn’t work.

The weeks went by and I continued to fire off emails to anyone and everyone I could think of in and around San Marino. Steve, my fiancé, joked that I had probably contacted nearly all of the Republic’s 30,000 inhabitants. I even tried emailing the writer Umberto Eco, who has strong links with the university there (I received a nice but non-committal response from his assistant).

And then, in reply to my deluge of messages, an email arrived. It was from Tina at the University of San Marino. A friend of hers had suggested The Republic of San Marino, a short history by a Sammarinese professor of Italian literature, Giuseppe Rossi, which had been translated into English.

At first, I wasn’t convinced. Histories weren’t really something I’d been in the market for throughout the year: I was looking for stories. However, when I thought about it and when a copy arrived and I looked at it, I realised that the account was not a million miles from the books I’d read from places such as the Federated States of Micronesia and Tuvalu. Much like those works from some of the world’s youngest countries, this publication from the planet’s arguably oldest sovereign state was an attempt to tell the story of the nation. Perhaps it counted after all.

Part guidebook, part manifesto and part good, old-fashioned PR, the illustrated Republic of San Marino takes the reader around the streets of the state, explaining the country’s traditions and idiosyncracies as we go. It begins with the arrival of Saint Marinus in the region and traces the development of the state from there, leading right up to the 1970s, when the pamphlet was published.

There are some fascinating insights along the way. The democratic process that sees a new pair of national captains elected every six months, for example – allegedly making it possible for citizens of all ranks to have a turn at being head of state – is intriguing. In addition, the numerous photographs of views, buildings and artefacts – which would no doubt have made this a very glossy and lavish publication in its day – add a rich sense of the character of the country, albeit a rather dated one.

Far more interesting than the information the book contains, however, is its tone, which veers wildly between factual and fanciful – with plenty of opinionated digressions thrown in along the way. We hear, in all seriousness, the reasons why San Marino decided against joining the nuclear arms race (apparently it would be too expensive and besides the Sammarinese have never been ones to pick fights), as well as a series of reflections on modern art and cars, ‘the latest and most forceful expression of civilization and progress’. There are also numerous references to San Marino’s peacefulness and its ‘noble, untarnished tradition’, which the author claims is the reason the state has never been tempted to try to expand its territories – all 24 square miles of them. This, despite a fearsome collection of ancient armaments, and a picture of a man aiming a crossbow on the cover.

The wheels come off occasionally in the syntax stakes and the anonymous translator has coined a few interesting words. We read, for example, that the layout of the national exhibition of weaponry allows ‘a careful visit and a noticement of this appendix’, while visitors climbing the parliament building’s ‘maiestic [sic] stone staircase’ will find themselves ‘staring, with some surprised, into the stern efficy of Abraham Lincoln’.

Much of this simply adds to the book’s interest, however. Whether intentionally or not, a story emerges from the gaps between the facts, from what is said and what is assumed, and from the preoccupations of the author. The work is a portrait of pride in a specific place at a particular point in history – and a lesson that we all tell stories in almost anything we do.

The Republic of San Marino by Giuseppe Rossi (The Governmental Tourist Body Sport and Spectacle of the Republic of San Marino, 1976)

There were several possibilities in the frame for Macedonia. Will Firth, translator of my Croatian pick, Our Man in Iraq, had suggested two options: Luan Starova’s My Father’s Books and Pirey by Petre M Andreevski, both of which sounded tempting.

But it was when I heard about writer Goce Smilevski that my ears really pricked up. His novel Sigmund Freud’s Sister won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2010 and is being published in more than 30 languages. Reaching further back, Smilevski was awarded the Central European Initiative Fellowship for young European authors in 2006 and his book Conversation with Spinoza: a cobweb novel won the 2003 Macedonian Novel of the Year Award. I decided it would be the book for me.

As the subtitle suggests, this is no ordinary novel. In fact, any hopes you might have of following a conventional yarn are quickly dispatched by the ‘Note to the Reader’ on the very first page:

‘The threads of this novel are spun out of conversations between you and Spinoza. So wherever there is an empty space in the words of Spinoza, just say your name and write it in the blank space.’

And that sums up the basic structure: ricocheting back and forth across the space of almost 400 years, the novel is based on a dialogue between the modern reader and the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza – or, rather, two versions of him. The first is the confident young man wedded to his quest for complete freedom by focusing his mind only on eternal things and mastering his emotions. The interlocutor of the second part is the lonely, elderly hermit, looking back with regret on a life lived at arm’s length from the world. Both Spinozas tell the story of their existences, prompted by questions and observations from the reader. In so doing, they set up two markers, between which, as Smilevski spins his narrative, a web of contradictions and connections shimmers.

The author’s attention to detail is extraordinary – so much so that in this ‘cobweb novel’ it sometimes feels as though we are seeing a spider’s-eye view of life. From the trace of a tear on the face of Spinoza’s corpse at the start of the novel, to a drop of blood painted by the 26-year-old Rembrandt – who makes a cameo appearance early on – we find ourselves in a universe where minutiae make all the difference. Smilevski turns this to great effect in the latter sections of the novel, where a speck on a handkerchief comes to symbolise the young Spinoza’s love for his mother and where the philosopher fights his feelings for Clara Maria, the daughter of his mentor, by listing and denying a series of finely observed details about her.

Some unexpected gusts of humour blow through the narrative too. I particularly enjoyed the description of Spinoza’s forebears enlisting people to carry messages to their relatives by way of a series of odd gestures and signs as they fled the Spanish Inquisition: ‘in all of the towns they passed through, Isaac and Mor Alvares left people jumping on one leg in the square, crouching and standing up near the harbor, or clapping their hands in front of the cathedral’. In addition, when we first meet Clara Maria she is lamenting the death of Jesus, only for her father to respond: ‘You can’t do anything about it dear, such is life. […] Think about it, he was very old and all his teeth had fallen out; he couldn’t even eat properly’ – whereupon we learn that Jesus is a dog.

Smilevski’s handling of the question-and-answer structure is impressive. Rarely did I feel resentment at having words put in my mouth in the text because, for the most part, the author anticipates precisely the responses and questions his reader will have. This becomes a powerful tool in the latter stages where a very intimate dialogue evolves with the disappointed Spinoza, centring around his sadness at ‘how forcefully [he has] driven everybody away’.

The treatment of Spinoza’s philosophy in the text, on the other hand, is mixed. While Smilevski provides glimpses of what it’s like to stretch the limits of language and understanding in an effort to advance ideas, the conversations between his protagonist and some of the other characters occasionally become impenetrable. At these points, the meaning disappears behind a swarm of abstract terms, which, not fixed firmly enough with the pin of definition, flit about the text leaving the reader flailing in their wake. Smilevski’s introduction of anachronistic theories about evolution into the story as a way of explaining Spinoza’s rejection by the Jewish community is also problematic. The author seems to feel this too, for he makes the concepts the brainchild of a mysterious Macedonian who appears and disappears quickly and, we later hear, is executed for his dangerous ideas.

All in all, though, this a powerful and moving book. It is, in essence, a portrait of a mind trapping itself in a cage of its own making in the effort to be free. Smilevski’s portrayal of Spinoza’s philosophy may be opaque at times, but there’s surely something we can all take from it.

Conversation with Spinoza (Razgovor so Spinoza) by Goce Smilevski, translated from the Macedonian by Filip Korzenski (Northwestern University Press, 2006)

The Rest of the World poll is now open. Vote to choose my penultimate book of the year!

Tuvalu: how to make it rain

November 17, 2012

There’s tough and then there’s Tuvalu. The number of messages I’ve sent about this place –the third least populous nation on Earth after Vatican City and Nauru – over the past year is probably nearing the 50 mark. And though many of the people I contacted were willing to help, there was no getting round the fact that there was simply very little to suggest.

Somewhere along the way, however, I got in touch with scholar, writer, photographer, restorer of antique radio equipment, and community volunteer Peter McQuarrie. Though based in New Zealand, McQuarrie is married to a Tuvaluan and has connections with the Tuvaluan community in Auckland. He promised to ask around and duly came back with the suggestion of Tuvalu: a history, a book written by 17 Tuvaluans and published in 1983, a few years after the nation declared its independence.

As I explained to McQuarrie, I have tended to disregard history books so far during this quest, regarding them as being some way out of the scope of literature. However, the collaborative nature of the work, and the fact that it chimed in with the genre of national-identity stories I’d already discovered in Pacific works like Luelen Bernart’s The Book of Luelen and Sethy John Regenvanu’s Laef Blong Mi, made me hesitate. In the end, I decided to give it a go.

Written by people drawn from all walks of life on the nation’s nine islands during a series of workshops run by the University of the South Pacific, this collection of essays and personal accounts paints a picture of Tuvaluan life stretching back as far as folklore, hearsay and patchy historical records allow and reaching up to the time of writing. The pieces are divided by subject, with the writers tackling different aspects of the country’s culture, such as creation, religion, land, singing and dancing, and independence, in an effort to tell the story of their newly minted nation.

As in several other Pacific Island works I’ve read this year, the writers often make little distinction between factual and symbolic truth. The accounts rove back and forth between myth and history, mingling tales about cannibals and magical eels with maps, diagrams, and explanations about the islands’ names, geography and politics. Indeed, the fantastic and the factual sometimes seem to blend together, with anecdotal accounts about chiefs who could charm fish and the story of the old woman who knew how to make it rain:

‘Taia Teuai, an old woman who died in 1982, was generally recognised as having inherited from her grandparents the power to make it rain. Shortly before her death she explained how she did it:

‘”If there is a long drought then I will make the rain fall. First I go to the bush to gather coconut leaves and flowers with which to weave myself a garland. Later, towards sunset, I put oil over my body and wearing a clean dress and with a garland on my head go down to the beach to meet a team of ‘rain-makers’. These are little clouds sailing towards the setting sun. I look at them and dance, and sing a song such as this one:

‘”Little clouds, little clouds!/Bring rain to me,/To moisten my body.

‘”In about three days time there would be heavy rain. This sort of rain can easily be recognised because the drops are much thicker than those of ordinary rain.”‘

This blending of anecdote and historical research gives rise to some wonderful insights into Tuvaluan life. We learn, for example, how to hitch a ride on a turtle’s back – apparently the trick is to hang on without getting your fingers jammed between the neck and the shell or too near the mouth – as well as the islanders’ rather alarming traditional methods of dealing with troublemakers, which involve a leaky canoe without a paddle. We also discover the toll that Western influences have taken on the nation, from the blackbirders who came to kidnap people to work in the Peruvian mines in the 19th century, through to the suppression of dancing and singing by the missionaries, and the ravages of world war two – during which the Americans destroyed 22,000 of Nanumea’s 54,000 coconut trees building their defensive airfield.

The subject matter may be varied, but through all the accounts runs a sense of the gravity of the task the writers are undertaking. This is established from the first page, with the foreword from prime minister Tomasi Puapua, who describes the book as being of ‘considerable significance in the history of the young nation of Tuvalu’ because the accounts are, for the first time, ‘written by Tuvaluans interpreting events as they themselves see them’. This is perhaps most movingly borne out in Enele Sapoago’s brief essay ‘Today and Tomorrow’ at the back of the book, which describes in fresh and passionate terms what independence means.

That said, it’s hard not to feel the hand of the non-Tuvaluan workshop leaders on the shoulders of the writers at points. The essay form becomes stilted and awkward at times, and the later chapters dealing with events leading up to independence feel very dutiful and dense, and are often hard to read. In addition, it is difficult to ignore the fact that most of the historical source material the writers have to work with necessarily comes from the jottings of Western visitors to the archipelago. I sometimes found myself wondering who exactly the writing – carried out in English – was intended for.

Nevertheless, there’s no question that this is an important book. As the first concerted effort of Tuvaluans to tell their story, it is informative, passionate and sometimes surprising. Nearly 30 years on from its publication, it’s surely time we had some more.

Tuvalu: A History by Simati Faaniu, Vinaka Ielemia, Taulu Isako, Tito Isala, Laumua Kofe (Rev), Nofoaiga Lafita, Pusineli Lafai, Kalaaki Laupepa (Dr), Nalu Nia, Talakatoa O’Brien, Sotaga Pape, Laloniu Samuelu, Enele Sapoaga, Pasoni Taafaki, Melei Telavi, Noatia Penitala Teo, Vaieli Tinilau, ed Hugh Laracy (Institute of Pacific Studies, 1983)

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