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This was a recommendation from Jim Dingley, acting chairman of the Anglo-Belarusian Society. In fact it was one of several suggestions he sent me from among the relatively tiny number of Belarusian works to have made it into English so far.

The front-runner of these was Paranoia, a banned novel by contemporary author Victor Martinovich. As far as Dingley knew, the translation was due out imminently. Sadly, however, when I contacted Martinovich, it turned out that the book would not be published by North Western University Press until 2013. For now, I would have to content myself with reading a review of the original in The New York Review of Books.

In the absence of Paranoia, the next title to catch my eye on the list was Uladzimir Karatkievich’s King Stakh’s Wild Hunt. I liked the sound of it because, according to Dingley, Karatkievich is regarded as ‘the most Belarusian of novelists’. The link he’d sent me to the free online pdf was, as far as he was aware, the only English version of any of the author’s historical works available. The one sticking point, he said, was that the translation wasn’t very good. Duly warned, I decided to take the risk.

The novel unfolds 96-year-old Andrei Belaretski’s account of the events of 1888, when, as a young ethnographer, he went to the remote Belarusian District N to collect folk stories and legends. After his carriage gets mired in one of the region’s treacherous bogs, Belaretski seeks refuge in the gloomy Castle of Marsh Firs, only to find the terrors of the heaths are matched by the horrors lurking within its walls. Taking pity on the estate’s teenage mistress, Nadzeya – the last of the aristocratic Yanowski family – the hero decides to do what he can to free her from the ancient curse that keeps her shut in from the world. But, as the weeks go by, Belaretski discovers the ghostly goings on in and around the castle are far from what they seem.

This is storytelling at its most delicious, gripping and gothic. From the life-and-death struggle to save the carriage from sinking into the dismal wastes, to the spooky Little Man and Lady-in-Blue prowling the castle’s corridors – not to mention the otherworldly huntsmen who sweep silently across the landscape hounding unfortunate travellers to their deaths – Karatkievich is a master of suspense. Indeed, in his frequent foreshadowing of horrors to come and wry references to other gothic novelists such as Anne Radcliffe, he seems to revel in playing with readers, watching us tiptoe around the maze his imagination has created. He even pokes fun at his craft at points, having one of Belaretski’s allies admonish him for his impatience to get to the bottom of things with the observation that ‘everything is cleared up easily and logically only in bad novels’ (before going on to tie everything up as neatly as anyone could wish).

This narratological virtuosity goes hand in hand with some great writing. We read, for example, how Belaretski ‘felt the wind of the centuries whistling past [his] back’ as he looks at the portraits of the Yanowski family and that ‘one has to be a misanthropist with the brain of a caveman to imagine [the bleakness of District N’s peat bogs]’. The narrative is so evocative, in fact, that I found it transformed not only my imaginary universe but the world around me too. Out of the corner of my eye, the television in my living room seemed transformed into a crackling fire and the drizzle outside the window became whirling snow as I read, as though my surroundings themselves were under Karatkievich’s spell.

This made me wonder about Dingley’s comment on the translation. Leaving aside one or two slightly clunky moments and odd notes, the narrative is so enjoyable and readable that it is certainly not ‘bad’ in the sense of being clumsy and grammatically incorrect, which is what people usually seem to mean when they talk about the quality of works converted from other languages. I could only conclude that Dingley must have been talking about how representative the text is of the original – and indeed there is a cosy familiarity to it that made me wonder how far translator Mary Mintz had stretched to make the work appeal to English-language readers (if you can shed light on this, do let me know).

That said, there is one element in the novel that remains indisputably Belarusian: the seam of national pride that runs through it. This appears in many guises, from the narrator’s evocations of ‘Byzantine Belarus’ in the opening pages, to his affectionate and sometimes despairing observations on the characteristics he and his compatriots share. There is also a somewhat subversive aspect to this novel – published during the Soviet era – in the form of the repeated jibes against Imperial Russia and the corruption of officials working for the regime. These add a welcome piquancy to the narrative, particularly in the final chapters where Belaretski encourages local peasants to rise up against the mysterious forces of oppression.

Faithful to the original or not, this a hugely enjoyable read. Gripping, witty and wonderfully spooky, it is the ideal story to curl up with on a dark December evening. A gift for gothic novel fans the world over.

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt by Uladzimir Karatkievich, translated from the Belarusian by Mary Mintz (Belarusian Literature in English Translations, 2006)

Merry Christmas all. See you the other side for the final three posts of the project!

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)

I first caught wind of my Turkmen book back in July, when the Scottish Poetry Library tweeted that exiled poet Ak Welsapar was popping up to Scotland from Poetry Parnassus in London to do a reading. Ever the opportunist, I fired off a tweet asking Library staff to see whether Welsapar could recommend a Turkmen prose work that I could read in English. A correspondence ensued with Sarah Stewart, manager of the SPL’s excellent Written World project. As far as she knew, Welsapar had a novel in English due out soon. Perhaps I would be able to read that?

I dropped Welsapar a line. Luckily, it turned out his English was much better than my Turkmen, Russian and Swedish (the three languages the author writes in). He told me that he had not one but too novels in translation in the pipeline: Cobra was due to be published by Silk Road Media in London towards the end of the year if everything went to plan, while The Tale of Aypi was being translated in the US with the manuscript scheduled to be ready in the autumn. He kindly agreed to send me a copy of this, the first ever novel to be translated directly into English from Turkmen, when it was done. And so it was that a couple of weeks ago, a rather special attachment arrived in my inbox. I clicked the file open and began to read.

The Tale of Aypi is set in an isolated community of Turkmen fishermen on the coast of the Caspian Sea. With the threat of relocation to the city in order to make way for a lucrative asthma sanatorium looming, the inhabitants face sacrificing their traditions and customs at the dubious altar of progress. But not everyone is prepared to go quietly: loner Araz refuses to leave and flouts the new fishing ban to continue his trade, while, beneath the waters, the ghost of wronged woman Aypi, whose story has haunted the village for centuries, begins to stir and seek revenge.

Welsapar is skilled at making us empathise with a diverse range of viewpoints. At first, in light of Araz’s passionate speeches to his long-suffering wife about what it means to belong to a place and a way of life – ‘If a man can’t follow his father’s trade, what’ll become of him? A man should be able to do what he loves! Is that possible or not?’ – it is hard not to see the rest of the villagers’ acquiescence in the relocation scheme as spineless. Yet, as the novel progresses and we discover the campaign of neglect the authorities have waged in the region, cutting off the most basic services to make life there impossible, and the concerns of the elderly inhabitants about their separation from the urban lives of their children and grandchildren, a more rounded and wistful picture emerges.

The marriage of Mammed Badaly’s son to an influential city worker’s daughter demonstrates this most powerfully. Afraid that his daughter-in-law and her esteemed guests might spurn his home altogether, Badaly waits anxiously for the wedding procession that should by tradition come to his house:

‘Mammed Badaly, though, feared it wasn’t just a matter of setting customs aside, but a grave concern for the present and the future. If the old man’s son and his bride refused to cross the threshold of their own parents’ home on their wedding day, how would it be later on, with their grandchildren? Wouldn’t they repudiate their grandparents entirely?

‘Yes, the village was old; the houses were dilapidated wrecks without polished embellishments and brilliant furnishings of artisan timber like city places had, but the fishermen’s open hearts were here.’

The perils of not finding a way to reconcile outside influences and change with traditions are ever present in the narrative through the spectre of Aypi, the ‘eternally drowned woman’ condemned to death by the community for accepting a ruby necklace from mysterious visitors who arrived on the shore some 300 years before. Fizzing with generations of injustice and repressed anger, the troubled ghost rampages through the streets, whispering feminist manifestos in the ears of men, challenging adulterers and working out a bitter and increasingly indiscriminate revenge.

At times, events take a decided turn for the weird, shuddering the framework of Welsapar’s carefully created world. In addition, the unusual structure of the book – which depends heavily on long dialogues in which points are rehearsed repeatedly – can take some getting used to. It is as though, bustling into the text from the arena of tax returns, tube delays and Twitter feeds, we must adapt to the pace of village life in order to appreciate the narrative to the full.

All in all, though, the quality of the writing and the poet’s exquisite metaphors, which shimmer through the text like jewels glimpsed through water, keep the pages turning. The novel is a striking parable for the incursion of modern life into the world’s remotest places and the havoc that powerlessness wreaks on people’s sense of themselves. Many of its images will stay with me for a good long while to come. Haunting.

The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, translated from the Turkmen by WM Coulson (currently seeking an English-language publisher)

Tonga: empire line

November 8, 2012

When my fiancé Steve saw my Tongan book he said: ‘Cor, that’s a good, manly title, isn’t it?’

I looked glum. Manly or not, the rather pugnacious sound of A Providence of War by Joshua Taumoefolau was one the reasons that I’d been trying to avoid having to read this book for some months. The others concerned its length – a cool 600 or so pages – and the fact that it was self-published. (Alright, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised by most of the self-published books I’ve read so far this year, but doing without those layers of quality control that usually come with traditionally published works is always a gamble.)

But the truth was, there really wasn’t much else to choose from. In fact, Taumoefolau’s novel, the first in a planned series of epics, had been the sole recommendation for Tonga from the Multicultural Services Team at Auckland Libraries, which ran a Pacific books festival called ‘Pasifika’ this March.

At last, having exhausted most other lines of inquiry I could think of, I decided I’d been dodging the novel long enough. I went to lulu.com and used my school German to navigate through the checkout and get my very own copy winging its way to me.

Beginning in AD 1120, when the Tu’i Tonga Empire was at the height of its powers, the novel follows warrior Crown Prince Talatama as he travels to the domain’s farthest corners on King Tu’itatui’s business. After years of turbulence and trouble from rebellious overlords on the remotest islands, peace and prosperity seem to reign. Yet beneath the calm surface of the ocean realm, trouble is stirring. It is up to Talatama and his small band of followers from the region’s many diverse groups to risk everything to defend his father’s sovereignty in the face of a plot that threatens to destroy not only the empire but history itself.

Swashbuckling doesn’t begin to cover it. Bristling with battles, betrayals, secret pacts, mass murder, rape, pillaging, riddles that must be solved on pain of death, sorcery, volcanic eruptions and even cannibalism, this is a book of action. As in several other Pacific island stories I’ve read this year, we see myth and reality blending together in the shape of magical characters such as the witch Mo’unga, who has the power to summon sharks to finish off her opponents, and Talatama’s ally Maui Atalaga, a mortal descendant of the god Maui. These characters introduce magic to the narrative so that the novel straddles historical fiction and fantasy and is a surprisingly gripping read.

Yet this is more than a rollicking yarn. Based on meticulous research by the author into archaeological finds in the region and such historical documentation as exists about the empire, the book – though necessarily fictional because of the lack of formal records from the era – is an attempt to record and build pride in Tongan heritage, as Taumoefolau explains in his ‘Historical Note':

‘My personal fascination with the Tu’i Tonga stems from a personal connection to ancient ancestry. Taumoefolau, my great-great-grandfather, from whom my surname has its origin, was the grandson of the 37th Tu’i Tonga, Ma’ulupekotofa who inherited the title around A.D.1770’s [sic]. Thus, from a lineage of father to son, I am able to connect a line back to the very characters that appear in this story.

‘But in a greater vein, my passion for this ancient period  is fuelled by two aspects: the nature of its obscurity, an epoch so coloured with grandeur yet so remote in the living memory of my people who never had the benefit of written records, and the goal of glorifying our legends and tales through the medium of historical fiction in hope that these stories and their heroes are not forgotten, but remembered.’

As a result, the novel carries several fascinating insights into Pacific customs. We learn, for example, about the origins of the kava ceremony, which was apparently introduced to the empire by King Tu’itatui as a way of educating people about the importance of respect, reverence and loyalty. And we hear more Pacific creation myths – this time more fluently woven into the narrative than is sometimes the case in books from the region.

Taumoefolau’s writing is at its best in action scenes, where it is usually lean and muscular like the warriors it describes. Elsewhere, his prose can become overwritten and awkward. Too many chapters begin with a weather report when they should plunge straight into the drama and some of the sex scenes in particular are a touch cringeworthy – I found myself writing ‘hmmn’ in the margin next to the description of Mahina being ‘completely drunk with [Talatama’s] manly tang’. In addition, as the extract above suggests, some of the phrasing is odd and the occasional malapropism creeps in.

However, these are mostly things that a professional editor would have sorted out. Structurally, the book is sound and Taumoefolau marshalls his large cast of characters with all their attendant sub-plots well. As a whole, it is surprisingly enjoyable – and all the more impressive for being apparently a lone Tongan prose voice on the world-literature stage.

A Providence of War by Joshua Taumoefolau (Lulu, 2009)

Guinea: history reclaimed

September 7, 2012

Guinean author Camara Laye is best known for his novel The Radiance of the King. In fact if you search for Guinean literature in English, you could be forgiven for thinking that this work is the only book from the Francophone African nation, which is made up of more than 24 ethnic groups, to have made it into the language of Milton, Shakespeare and Dan Brown.

I’ve certainly not been any able to find any other translated Guinean authors (although I’d love to hear about it if you have), so, in the interests of not making the most obvious choice, I decided to read one of Laye’s lesser known works: The Guardian of the Word.

Part anthropological account and part novel, with a dollop of sermonizing thrown in for good measure, the book focuses on the month Laye spent recording the stories of renowned Guinean griot (storyteller) Babu Condé in the village of Fadama in 1963. Beginning with the quest of brothers Moké Mussa and Moké Dantuman to hunt the fearsome Buffalo of Dô, the tales broaden out to bring in a huge cast of historical and mythic characters who contributed to the rise and eventual break up of the medieval Mali empire, and reveal a world of magic, mystery and rich heritage.

Laye makes clear from the start that he has high ambitions for the work. Through recording these stories, which to him ‘constitute the soul of ancient Africa’, he hopes not only to preserve the region’s history before development sweeps it away but also to prompt ‘the awakening of a new civilization’. As he explains at length in his opening his chapter, ‘Africa: Voices from the Depths’, Laye regards traditional stories as essential to his compatriots’ developing a sense of identity and a society that is more than a mere emulation of the European structures they had imposed on them until the mid-20th century:

‘Should not the wisdom of the Ancients and of their past serve as an example to our rising generations? In a continent where the heat in certain regions reaches 40° in the shade, should our African “emancipation” consist of the three-piece, all-wool suit and the bottle of scotch? Should it not rather have its source in our own deep roots in the distant past, and, at the same time, in the opening up of our new frontiers to universal values?’

However Laye’s impassioned appeals and his fascinating descriptions of the steps he had to take to win the privilege of recording the stories – from wearing certain garments to observing particular forms of etiquette – are just the prelude to Condé’s tales. Bristling with proverbs, rich imagery and bursts of humour, these accounts show storytelling at their best. As a Western reader, I found myself continually surprised by twists, turns and tropes that were like nothing I had come across before: where the hero would pick the wrong girl in the European fairy tale, he picks the right one and then comes to grief another way; where Western legends are usually content with mighty men having one formidable mother, here the tyrant Sosso is carried to term by three women, transferring between wombs every three months; and where marriage is usually a happily-ever-after scenario in the stories I grew up with, it is here the start of a battle of wits and (more often than not) sorcery between husband and wife.

Indeed the graphic nature of the storytelling, both sexually and in terms of the violence it involves, is often shocking. Maghan Kön Fatta’s eventual conquest of his wife Sogolon, who casts spells on him and refuses to sleep with him until he threatens to slit her throat ‘like a chicken’, makes for challenging reading, not least because the couple seem to get along very well after Fatta has his way.

Now and again, Laye’s passion for what he is doing threatens to overwhelm the narrative. At points in the stories where the rhetoric gets too grand or digressions with unnecessarily detailed cultural exposition and musings on the role of women creep in it’s tempting to wonder quite how much of the work is as Condé told it. More than once, Laye’s Uriah Heapish protest that ‘We are but the modest transcriber and translator’ seems to ring a little hollow.

But this does not take away from the book’s charm or how engrossing it is. If anything the subtle tug-of-war between oral storyteller and modern novelist adds to the richness of this fascinating text, which itself records a story that was shaped and embroidered over generations as the griots passed it down. I wonder what, if any, version of the saga is told in Fadama today.

The Guardian of the Word (Le Maitre de la Parole) by Camara Laye, translated from the French by James Kirkup (Fontana, 1980)

 

Dominica: myth making

August 22, 2012

An unusual picture today, but I couldn’t resist showing you how colourful this book was inside. I found it after a search for a Dominican writer other than  Jean Rhys, who is far and away the most famous literary daughter the small island has produced. Her widely read classic Wide Sargasso Sea – the story of the early life of Bertha Rochester, the first wife of  Mr Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – is rightly celebrated and studied as a work of great merit and skill. If I hadn’t already read it and several of Rhys’s other novels, I would have jumped at the chance. But I’m only reading writers I’ve never read before this year and, besides, I was curious to see what else Dominica had to offer.

My search took me to an intriguing website called the Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences, which hosts a microsite dedicated to Dominican writers dotted around the world in an effort to build links and enrich the local literary scene. Several of the writers listed, all of whom, as far I could make out, no longer live in Dominica, sounded interesting.

But then I saw The Snake King of the Kalinago on the list. It was apparently a reinterpretation of one of the island’s traditional creation myths, as told by the children in Grade 6 at Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica. Having heard of some other children’s writing schemes in countries where the publishing industry is still relatively small-scale, such as the Unbound Bookmaker Project in the Marshall Islands, I was intrigued to see what a book produced through one of these initiatives might be like.

Bringing together history and ancient myth, the storybook tells of an unusual relationship between Bakwa the giant snake king and the Kalinago people of the island. Having proclaimed himself guardian of the people, Bakwa stands up to the French settlers of centuries past, but his anger and the bows and arrows of the islanders are no match for the guns and swords of the Westerners. Facing defeat, Bakwa retreats to his cave to sleep, only to wake again when the world is finally at peace.

The imaginative use of everything from natural landscape features to historical events really makes the story sing. Using a rock formation on the shore that looks like a giant staircase as the setting for Bakwa’s first emergence from the sea, the myth is literally grounded in the island. This is complemented with some beautifully quirky descriptions, such as the invaders’ galleons on the horizon looking like ‘three massive fish on the sea’, and the vivid illustrations, which are taken from Yet We Survive: the Kalinago People of Dominica – Our Lives in Words and Pictures edited by Mary Walters.

Coupled with this, and giving the work a touch of childish authenticity, is that wonderful shrugging impatience children have when they are uninterested in an aspect of a story and keen to get to the main action. Bakwa, we learn, decided to make his home on Dominica simply because ‘he was no longer comfortable in the sea’. Nuff said. No doubt several of our novelists could learn a thing or two about concision from these young writers.

Nevertheless, I did find myself wondering about the process by which this book was generated. Was this story created as a group exercise orchestrated by a teacher/editor? Was it stitched together by a grown up from a series of individually written pieces? The acknowledgements shed very little light on this and I felt a little frustrated as a result. Without an understanding of the process, it seemed hard to draw conclusions about the finished book as I had no idea whether I was dealing with work primarily by children or a skilled editing job.

Still, the book made me smile. It’s certainly brightened up the shelf. And if the exercise, whatever form it took, prompts even one of those students to put more words on paper in future, it’s got to have been a good thing.

The Snake King of the Kalinago by Grade 6 of Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica (Papillote Press, 2010)

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