December 7, 2013
Since I finished my Year of Reading the World last December, I’ve had the privilege of being involved in a number of exciting opportunities and projects. The last few months have been no exception. Not only was I invited to record a piece about reading the world at BBC Broadcasting House for NPR in the states (you can hear the finished report through the link at the bottom of this post), but I was also asked to sit on English PEN’s PEN Translates panel for the second time.
If you’ve not come across it, PEN Translates is a funding programme run by the freedom of expression and literary network charity English PEN. It exists to help pay for the translation into English of works that deserve to reach a wider audience. Scores of books have received support from the fund since it was launched in 2012, including Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, who you can see pictured above at a signing (photo by Robert Burdock).
As it’s open to works in any language and from anywhere, the programme has to have a careful assessment process. First off, the publishers’ submissions and original versions of the proposed texts are read by people with in-depth knowledge of that region’s literature and language. These assessors prepare detailed reports in English, giving their reactions and explaining whether or not they support the application. The panel members (aka yours truly and six others) read these reports and formulate their own opinions. Then we get together and have a discussion that goes on for several hours.
It’s not easy. For one thing, it’s often very hard to make a judgement about how good a book is – or what sort of a job a publisher is likely to do with it – when you’ve never read a word of the story. As I discovered last year, books that don’t necessarily sound promising at first can often be hidden gems.
Then there’s the challenge of balancing all the rival considerations that affect a book’s chances: the quality of the writing, the diversity of applications, how well represented literature from that region is in the UK market, whether or not the work is too similar to other things in the bookshops, whether or not you (yes, you sitting there) are likely to want to read it and if you are, whether the story needs funding in the first place – to name but a few.
Amazingly, however, after several hours of discussion, we always seem to manage to reach a good solution. Luckily, because the panel is not required to grant the full amount requested, we have the freedom to make partial awards where it seems appropriate, which means we can make the money go a long way. In fact, at the last meeting, we managed to support some 17 books.
It’s inspiring and humbling to be involved and I’m proud to have the chance to play a small part in helping to bring some exciting new works into English. If you’re looking for Christmas present ideas, why not check out the supported titles on the PEN website? I’m told there is going to be an updated version soon, complete with books that dance!
Photo by Robert Burdock
August 7, 2013
It’s been an exciting time in the A Year of Reading the World camp over the past few weeks. First, BBC Culture asked me to write an article about the project (you can see it here, unless you’re in the UK, in which case you’ll have to paste the link into a proxy site such as anonymouse.org to access it). They even sent a photographer round to my flat to capture me with some of the books – I’d never realised how tough it is to smile continuously before!
When the article went live, a flood of visitors came pouring onto the blog and with it media requests from all over the world. This led to articles in newspapers in Denmark, Sweden, Serbia, Macedonia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary and many other places besides, as well as approaches from radio stations in Australia, Ireland and the US. In fact, I’m still getting requests more than three weeks after the event.
If that wasn’t enough, some mysterious person then posted The List on Reddit and things got crazier still. More than 42,000 people piled through to this site in a single day, making my head spin. It was humbling to think that so many people could take an interest in what I’d been up to – and very exciting to know that the idea of reading world literature appeals to so many others.
In other news, the World Bookshop Challenge has got off to a good start with feedback from various sources in the UK and abroad (so far, it seems, you’re unlikely to find literature from more than 70 countries represented on the shelves of a single bookshop).
As ever, the world’s readers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help – and none more so than Paul in Waterstones Windsor. He not only counted up all the books from different countries in the shop, but also wrote a blog post about the feat and did a pie chart to represent his findings. He’s itching to tell someone about the shop’s Kyrgyz literature now, so if you’re passing through Windsor why not pop into Waterstones and make his day? (Apparently, he’s the one with the beard.)
However, Paul’s labour of love and my own foray into nearby Kirkdale Bookshop (which, the manager estimates, carries literature from 25–30 nations) have made me realise just what a tall order counting up the number of books from different countries can be in many shops. For one thing, most places don’t even demarcate books that way. You’ll find The White Tiger and Things Fall Apart rubbing shoulders with Rebecca and Cloud Atlas in the general fiction section – not to mention the international free-for-all that is the bestsellers list.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to modify the challenge slightly. Where counting is not possible, it’s more than OK to ask staff to give you a rough estimate. Though it won’t be exact, it will nevertheless provide an interesting insight. Of course, if you are as diligent as Paul, I’d love for you to hit me with your pie charts, but whatever you can find out would be great.
Thanks again for all your support. None of this would have happened without you.
Picture by Diane Cordell
December 17, 2012
I met book blogger Alastair Savage at the Guardian First Book Awards ceremony a few weeks back. We were both there because we’d been on the team of reader-reviewers asked to help vet some of the contenders for the readers’ shortlist entry. As neither of us knew many people there, we got chatting, and when I discovered Savage lived in Barcelona it struck me that he might be just the person to help me solve one of the last major choosing conundrums on my list: Spain.
I’d been puzzling over what to read from the country for months. While the Spanish recommendations had been nowhere near as numerous as those for India, I was very conscious that the titles on the list represented a drop in the ocean of the amazing literature out there. I asked Twitter what I should do a few times but, while I did have some good responses, there was nothing conclusive.
For a long time Edith Grossman’s translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th century classic Don Quixote was a hot favourite. But while I was intrigued by it – and (pretty) confident that, having got through Ulysses, American Gods and A Providence of War this year, I could take it in my stride – I couldn’t help feeling that reading it might be a missed opportunity in terms of this project. Don Quixote was so well-known as to be almost stateless; I was keen to see what else Spain had up its sleeve.
Alastair Savage didn’t hesitate. I should read something by Juan Goytisolo, he said – and when he started to tell me about the writer, I couldn’t help agreeing. Living in voluntary exile from Spain in Marrakech, Goytisolo has carved out a niche as something of a malcontent and critic of his homeland. His most famous work, Count Julian, takes traditional Spain apart from the inside by giving an account of events that favours one of the country’s most notorious traitors. However, it was the notion of the author’s self-imposed separation from his home country that intrigued me, so when I discovered that one of his most recent novels is titled Exiled from Almost Everywhere I decided to read it.
Opening with the terrorist bomb blast that kills its main character, the novel portrays the afterlife of ‘the Monster of Le Sentier’, an unprepossessing character who in life spent his time hanging around public toilets looking for children to molest. Blown into the ‘virtual universe’ of the beyond (represented in his case by an empty cybercafe), the protagonist continues to receive emails from people in the real world and enters into a series of exchanges and experiences with extremists that show up the hollowness, contradictions and strangeness of consumerism and politics.
Just as the protagonist is exiled from life, so Goytisolo distances the novel from many narrative conventions. Moving from one short, loosely connected vignette to the next, the text frustrates readers’ attempts to find continuity and consistency in it. Emails from strangers lambast, exhort and attempt to con the main character; dreams blur with reality; and the narrator frequently steps out of the action to remind us of the ‘suspect nature of writing’. Indeed, reading the book often feels like browsing the internet, clicking from one unsubstantiated and dubious website to the next by way of a series of chance connections and interlinking search terms.
Irreverent and unapologetic for the book’s inconsistencies and contradictions – at times even pointing them out – the narrative sets out some delightfully quirky and provocative ideas. From the cross-dressing imam ‘Alice’, who moonlights as a stripper, to the vision of a hereafter in which you ‘can just as easily find yourself in a cybercafe the size of an Olympic stadium as floating in the weightlessness of space, or helplessly trapped in a traffic jam with an objectionable Madrid taxi driver for company’, there is a devil-may-care flamboyance to the writing that makes it engrossing.
The narrative’s organic and often random feel, however, will grate on some readers. While Goytisolo is careful to set out his stall early on with the observation that ‘the genes determining the static identities and solid characters that peopled the world of your childhood no longer parallel the discoveries made by science’ and that therefore shouldn’t ‘the astonishing innovations at work in the field of genetics be applied to the novel’, the practical implications of shape-, gender-, ethnicity- and dimension-shifting characters make for a rather giddy ride.
Overall, though, it’s hard not to admire Goytisolo’s achievement. In 135-odd pages, he manages to take on not only the whole world but the world to come too. The result is a queasy-making, yet compulsive vision of a jaundiced present, in which eclecticism and specificity are both kill and cure.
Exiled from Almost Everywhere (El exiliado de aqui y alla) by Juan Goytisolo, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)
December 16, 2012
Starting the countdown of the final 10 posts of the year is the story of one of the most extraordinary collaborative ventures I’ve ever had the privilege to witness: the translation of a book by a team of volunteers in Europe and the US specially for this project.
The idea to see if this was possible started back in September when I was beginning to despair of ever finding a novel, short story collection or memoir that I could read in English from the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. Like fellow Portuguese-speaking Guinea-Bissau, the country seemed to have no literature available in translation, no matter who I asked or how hard I searched – and in this case, there was no handy collection of speeches by a leading political activist to fall back on. As far as English-language readers were concerned, when it came to writing of any kind from Sao Tome and Principe, there was radio silence.
Finding me tearing my hair out at my desk one day, my fiancé Steve suggested that it might be time to try a different tack. ’Why don’t you can see if you can get a group of people to translate something for you?’ he said.
I wasn’t convinced. No-one was going to want to give up their time to translate bits of a book so that some strange girl in a hat and scarf in London could read it, I thought. But Steve brushed my protests aside: ‘Just try it and see what happens,’ he said.
So, rather doubtfully, I posted something on Facebook, tweeted a call for Portuguese translators and sat back to wait. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait very long. Within half an hour or so, an old school friend who teaches languages got in touch to say she’d be happy to help. Then I heard from a blog visitor through the AYORTW Facebook page – she was prepared to take on a section too.
Meanwhile, the Twitterati were whirring into action, with loads of suggestions of people to speak to and new connections pinging my way. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was inundated with emails from people offering their time and talents – among them award-winning translator Margaret Jull Costa, who translated Luis Cardoso’s The Crossing, the book I read from East Timor. In fact, the response to the appeal was so overwhelming that, within a week, I had heard from more people than I could involve in the project.
Next came the challenge of choosing the book to be translated. This proved to be rather difficult: although there were works by Santomean authors out there, most were too long to divide up into manageable chunks and only available as expensive one-offs through rare booksellers. Given that I needed 10 copies, these simply weren’t practical.
At last, however, I stoogled upon the website of Portuguese publisher Chiado Editora. The company had works by a couple of writers with connections to Sao Tome and Principe on its books and one in particular fitted the bill: A casa do pastor by Olinda Beja. Running to around 140 pages, this slender book was available in multiple copies. So, with next to no information about it, I put my order in, shipped the books off to my team of volunteers and, a month later, was delighted to receive their translations back.
Set in the Beira Alta region of Portugal (where Beja, who was born in Sao Tome and Principe and now lives in Switzerland, grew up), the collection brings together stories told to the author by her grandmother and octogenarian shepherd João Grilo, as well as her own childhood recollections. Ranging from quirky anecdotes to ghost stories, with a good helping of social commentary and the odd rant thrown in along the way, the pieces present a rich and varied picture of a way of life that is fast disappearing.
The setting of the book in Portugal rather than Sao Tome and Principe raised interesting questions for me and the translators. In fact, several of them were surprised and even disappointed to find that the backdrop to the stories was a lot more familiar than they had expected it to be. One in particular, Ana Cristina Morais in the US, was amazed to find herself reading stories in the dialect of the region her father grew up in, having braced herself for unfamiliar language and references.
For me, this was thought-provoking. While setting has not been a big factor in many of the book choices I’ve made this year – after all British writers write about other places all the time so I don’t see why I should expect authors from other countries to stick to stories within their own borders – the claim that this collection was Santomean literature was complicated by Beja’s strong links with Portugal. It seemed telling that, after all that searching, the only book that I could find that was short enough and available in large enough quantities for this project was by someone who had left the country and was writing about another place (although from what I understand much of Beja’s poetry draws more directly on her African heritage).
While it might not be Santomean, however, the rural culture that Beja explores and records in the stories is nevertheless fascinating. From the flamboyant saints festivals attended by João in his heyday, to the rough justice meted out to sheep rustlers and the majesty of the landscape, the Beira Alta region emerges as a haunting and characterful place. Indeed, it’s arguable that her Santomean heritage gives Beja the distance to appreciate the beauty and harshness of life in the region where ‘a whole generation of shepherds was coming to an end, leaving the hills [...] silent, bare of sounds and footsteps, stories and murmurings’.
The setting also threw up some translation challenges, with several of the region-specific and plant-related terms requiring careful handling. In particular, Yema Ferreira, an Angolan writer living in Denmark, and I had an interesting correspondence about how she should handle the word ‘giesta’ in the story ‘Maria Giesta’. The translation of the word is ‘genista’ (a flowering shrub) and this provides scope for some wordplay in the piece. As she was translating the character’s surname, Ferreira wondered whether she should also translate her first name, turning Maria Giesta into Mary Genista. In the end we agreed it was best to compromise with Maria Genista, however the discussion provided a fascinating insight into the sort of decisions translators have to make line by line.
Voice was another talking point. As might be expected in a collection drawn from the reminiscences and stories of three people and translated by nine others, the tone and register of the book varies considerably. There are wistful pieces such as ‘The Sower of Stars’, in which a boy grows up wanting to work in the night sky, and magical tales like ‘The Witch from Vila Chã’, as well as rambling anecdotes about a con artist who paints sparrows yellow to sell as canaries and a farcical run in with a cow on a country road.
This variety might explain the translators’ mixed reactions to the book. While some responded warmly to the simplicity of the storytelling, finding parallels with the work of writers such as Miguel Torga and Altino do Tojal, others disliked Beja’s writing, describing the stories as ‘dull’ and in one case as being like ‘torture’ to read.
As someone privileged to enjoy the finished product and oblivious to the scaffolding holding it all together behind the scenes, I found the collection fascinating. While some of the pieces are undoubtedly less successful than others, there are moments of great charm and beauty. At her best, conjuring the wildness of the Beira Alta mountain ranges, Beja is mesmerizing.
The experience of watching the collection come together was also humbling and gave me a renewed respect for the work translators do. It made me realise how much we monoglots rely on the good faith, skill and judgement of people with the ability to bridge language gaps for us. Without them, we would live in a very narrow world.
The Shepherd’s House (A casa do pastor) by Olinda Beja, translated from the Portuguese by Yema Ferreira, Ana Fletcher, Tamsin Harrison, Margaret Jull Costa, Clare Keates, Ana Cristina Morais, Robin Patterson, Ana Silva and Sandra Tavares
As an adjunct to the post above, Olinda Beja tells me that she has a collection of short stories set in STP which was nominated for a big Portuguese language prize this year. It’s called “Histórias da Gravana” and was published in Brazil (so not easily available in other parts of the world). However, if you speak Portuguese and are in or planning a trip to Brazil it sounds like a good read!
November 24, 2012
One of the nicest things about doing this project has been the way it’s brought me into contact with people all over the world. Nothing cheers me up more at 6.30am on a Monday morning than logging into my stats and seeing the number of visitors who’ve clicked on to the blog from all parts of the planet.
This has also been invaluable when it comes to finding books from hard-to-reach places, so when malinkasstudio visited my site and left a comment in which she described herself as ‘a proud Moldovan’, I seized the opportunity to ask her what I should read from her country. Malinkasstudio confirmed my suspicions that there wasn’t much Moldovan literature in translation out there – in fact she smilingly said that she would probably be one of the first writers from the small Eastern European state to make it into English. However, she was pleased to see that I already had a book by her favourite author, Ion Drutse, on the list. She wasn’t sure which short stories the collection Moldavian Autumn contained, but if it had ’Frunze de dor’ (an un-translatable phrase which she said would mean something like ‘Leaves of missing somebody’) and ‘The Last Month of Autumn’ she was sure I would like it.
That was enough of a recommendation for me. I tracked down a rather pricey copy of the 2001 translation on the internet, ordered it and sat back to wait for the book to arrive.
And waited. And waited. And, yes, waited some more. In fact six weeks went by without the collection appearing, by which time the bookseller and I concluded it must have got lost in the post. So, I tracked down another, slightly pricier copy and ordered that. A few days later I got a message from the vendor: unaccountably the book was missing from his warehouse. He was sorry, but he’d have to cancel my order.
Time was marching on. I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t manage to get my hands on a copy before the end of the year, particularly given the long delivery times quoted by many of the rare book dealers on the net.
However, alongside the listings for Moldavian Autumn, I’d also seen another book in English translation by Drutse: The Story of An Ant. There was no information about it, beyond the fact that it contained illustrations. Intrigued by the title and anxious to have some kind of Moldovan reading matter in my life, I ordered that instead.
A slender pamphlet arrived through the post, containing two fable-like animal stories by Ion Drutse. The first, ‘Duck Hunters’, portrays the development of a touching friendship between an old farmer’s housekeeper and a chick hatched from a stolen duck egg. The second story, which shares the title of the book, follows an ant’s epic quest to find some food in a harsh, giant-sized world.
Although ostensibly simple, the stories contain subtle portraits of the motivations driving their characters. From the descriptions of farmer Uncle Trofim, a ‘deeply disappointed old man’, whose sense of identity is bound up with his dwindling flock of ducks and the zama his housekeeper makes from them, to the savage attack launched by the farmyard geese on the pampered favourite, Drutse’s sense of the needs and desires of his subjects underpins the narratives. The first story also contains a powerful explanation of the reason we often feel uncomfortable with the idea of eating animals that tend to be pets: ‘You can’t make zama out of something that rejoices your soul’, as the old woman puts it.
Striking imagery and quirky details help make the stories live. While trouble sticks to Uncle Trofim ‘like a burr’ and the sitting goose laughs at the odd-shaped duck egg hidden in her clutch, the ant’s view of the obstacles in her way – from a massive pair of ploughman’s feet to a dozing muskrat (‘There’s no lazybones like a muskrat in this world and any ant would have stopped and told the rat about it’) – keep us gripped by her quest. In addition, the impressionistic illustrations, which vary markedly in tone between the two stories, help enrich the reading experience.
That said, the text does have some problems. The translation is erratic at times with pronouns and tenses leaping merrily all over the shop. One or two words also seem to have got mangled in the process – the description of how ‘before the frost came, the goslings changed their pubes into feathers’, for example, can’t be quite right.
In addition, the structure of the stories is a little unusual. While the first story seems to shift focus from Uncle Trofim to the old woman, as though Drutse only makes up his mind who his main character is half-way through, the second story ends so abruptly that it seems the author has lost patience with it and is eager to move on to something else.
Reading them, I couldn’t help feeling that I wasn’t seeing Drutse at his best, particularly given malinkasstudio’s enthusiasm for him. However, the quirky touches and striking imagery made me intrigued to try more of his work. If anyone out there has a copy of Moldavian Autumn that I can beg, buy or borrow I’d love to hear from you – maybe I can read it next year!
The Story of An Ant by Ion Drutse, translated from the Moldovan by Iraida Kotrutse, illustrated by Nina Danilenko (Kishinev Literatura Artistika, 1988)
The Rest of the World poll is now open. Vote to choose my penultimate book of the year!
July 1, 2012
So here we are: 98 books in and 98 books to go. Halfway round the world, exactly halfway through the year.
And what a journey it’s been so far. We’ve heard the North Korean government’s official line on fiction, sourced a manuscript of a classic novel unavailable in English from Mozambique and listened to a story written specially for the project from the world’s newest country South Sudan.
We’ve seen a Burundian novel published to ebook because of enthusiasm from blog readers, discovered the Andorran Dan Brown and had help from a Luxembourgish pop star to find a book from the world’s only grand duchy. We’ve even seen the world change slightly, with Palestine replacing Kosovo on the list.
The project’s been featured in two national newspapers, on UNESCO’s list of World Book Day initiatives and on countless other blogs around the globe, from Romania to South Korea.
None of this would have been possible without you. From the many people who’ve suggested books, helped with research and even gone to bookshops in far-flung places on my behalf, to the kind folk who comment on, like, tweet and share posts, making all the early mornings and late nights worthwhile, you have kept me going. Thank you.
But it’s not over yet. Not by a long chalk. And some of the biggest challenges lie ahead.
There are 25 countries that I have yet to find any books for. These are:
- Central African Republic
- Guinea Bissau
- Micronesia, Federated States of
- Papua New Guinea
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- San Marino
- Sao Tome and Principe
There are also plenty of other countries on the list that could do with some more recommendations.
So I’m asking you – yes, you, sitting there reading this now – to help me again. Please tweet/share/email/discuss/create expressive dance routines about this project. Please look at the list and see if there are any countries you might be able to help find novels, short story collections or memoirs from.
Maybe you have friends or relatives there? Maybe someone you work with does? Or someone whose restaurant you eat in? Or that nice man you sit next to sometimes on the bus*? Perhaps you’re going on holiday there this summer or you found a blog by someone from there recently?
However you do it and however tenuous the connections seem, I’d love to hear about them. Let’s see what we can find between us.
*Please be sure before you engage him in conversation that he really is a nice man.
June 24, 2012
For so small a country, Iceland is an impressive player on the global literary stage. According to Iceland Pulse, there were 757 books published on the island in 2011, among them 55 new works of fiction by Icelandic authors. Not bad for a nation with a population of less than 320,000.
Many of these authors don’t make it into English, however there has been a recent drive to translate some of the island’s most celebrated and successful writers, with crime authors such as Arnaldur Indriðason doing well overseas. Gyrðir Elíasson caught my eye because he has scooped several of the big national literary prizes. I liked the sound of his work and wanted to take a closer look.
Often centring around people taking a break from normal life to read, write, think, paint or simply be, Elíasson’s very short stories trace the unseen connections that link us to the world around us and reveal how tiny shifts in perspective can change the course of a life. There is the bird painter from Boston who encounters a gull and decides to give up his career, the music college vice principal who ducks out of a meeting to run away to the States, and the holidaymaker who discovers the disintegration of his marriage courtesy of an automated phone service message in a language he does not understand.
Many of the stories are about people struggling with frustrations that they cannot fully articulate. There are writers who go away to write only to spend their days procrastinating and young chess players locked in tournaments they know they cannot win. Perhaps most memorable of all is ‘The Piano’, a story in which a boy is driven to a nighttime orgy of vandalism when his ambitious yet emotionally distant parents force him to learn an instrument he hates.
Other books stalk through the pages of this collection. Whether the pieces focus on two translators living side by side as they render their own versions of different books by John Steinbeck, as in ‘The House of Two Stories’, or on the obsessive bibliophile walled in from normal life by his dependency on books in ‘Book after Book’, reading and writing often form a large part of the action of these tales. Literature also informs Elíasson’s descriptions, with several of his depictions of landscape drawing on associations from the world of books: ‘Saksun [...] would have been the perfect setting if Keats, Shelley and Byron had ever needed a retirement home,’ he writes in ‘Watershed’.
Though many of the stories feature characters grappling with the everyday problems of relationships, careers and meeting the expectations of others, they are by no means realist in style. Elíasson delights in delving into the uncanny, with many of the pieces set in eerie guesthouses and lonely holiday homes that owe more than a little to the Gothic tradition. Some, like ‘The Car Wreck’ and ‘The Silver Nose’, describe ghastly, otherworldly encounters, while others, such as ‘The Dream Glasses’, contain moments of profound beauty, all of which draw on the seductive pull of the mysterious and unexplained.
When it works, this creates extraordinarily powerful and wistful pieces. However, there are several stories that dissolve into nothingness, leaving a flat aftertaste. In addition, the large number of tales in the collection means that reading them back-to-back shows up a few tricks being played several times, necessarily blunting their effect second or third time round.
As a whole, though, this was a beautiful, eerie and evocative collection. The stories, like pieces of driftwood on a remote beach, seem to be fragments of other times and places, worn smooth by the action of Elíasson’s imagination. An intriguing and memorable work.
Stone Tree (Steintre) by Gyrðir Elíasson, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Comma Press, 2008)
June 16, 2012
This was a recommendation from one of the newest book bloggers on the block. Based in Redeyef, Tunisia, English teacher Ali Znaidi set up Tunisian Literature (in English) in May 2012 to plug a gap in the blogosphere, which seemed to have nothing in English dedicated specifically to Tunisian writing.
Providing news, book reviews and other information, Znaidi aims to raise awareness about his country’s literature. It therefore seemed natural to turn to him for a recommendation for this project – particularly as, from what I could find out, Tunisian literature is relatively rarely translated, compared to literature from many other Arab countries.
Znaidi confirmed what I suspected about the scarcity of Tunisian texts in English, but he came back with several suggestions. Of these, I went with Talismano by French-language writer Abdelwahab Meddeb.
Told by a Tunisian writer living in Paris (much like Meddeb himself), the 1979 novel, which the author reworked in 1987, is built around an imagined return to Tunis, Fez and the other cities of the narrator’s youth. As he wanders for a period of roughly 24 hours through streets built half from memory and half from fantasy, the protagonist tests the boundaries of experience and writing itself, by turns engaging in the sensual, riotous and often shocking events he encounters and stepping back to comment on the world and his place in it.
Culture and identity are central threads. As the writer walks through his ‘maze of discovery’, he records the impact that colonialism and the different communities that migrated to the region have had on the places he sees, mingling aspects of Islamic and Judao-Christian culture with ancient myths and secularism to create a heady, bustling and often bewildering text.
A polymath par excellence, Meddeb reaches for cultural references the way an experienced chef works with rare herbs and spices, adding complex layers of flavour and piquancy to his creation. From Dante, Hesse and Joyce, to the Koran and ancient Egyptian theology, the text is broad and full in its scope – a book more of the world than of any particular time and place.
Some of the references are clearly deliberately obscure, however, the experience of reading the novel as a Brit with very little knowledge of Tunisian culture added another layer of disorientation: there were times when I was not sure whether my missing things was part of the author’s design or a function of my own cultural blind spots.
This becomes clearer as the narrative unfolds, carrying with it a series of knowing commentaries on writing and the author’s craft. Perhaps the most telling of these comes right at the end in the Epilogue:
‘We have confided through writing, but without giving you a foothold, have strained your eyes with our arabesque of words, have recommended the circuits of our journey, have warned you of the fissure in all that meets the eye, have unsettled you on high moral grounds, have ruined you among the most robust constitutions, have dusted myself off, vanished into thin air, have found my way inside you through the least perceptible slit’.
No wonder then that extracting coherent meaning from the narrative sometimes feels like trying to scale a glass wall.
This can make for a frustrating reading experience, particularly in the early stages. However if you allow yourself to surrender to the narrative, and let it flow over you, carrying with it its tide of impenetrable allusions, you may be surprised by the insights and recognitions that flash suddenly from it like gems buried in the shifting sand of the seabed.
Beautiful, maddening, disturbing and strange, this is a book for the intrepid armchair adventurers out there. It is not a comfortable ride, but when you reach the end and look back along the route you’ve travelled, you get one hell of a view.
Talismano by Abdelwahab Meddeb, translated from the French by Jane Kuntz (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)
June 14, 2012
The Estonian Literature Centre was one of the first national literature organisations on the web. It launched in 2001, back when Mark Zuckerberg was just starting out at Harvard and tweeting was something only birds did. Judging by my correspondence with it, the organisation is also one of the most efficient of its type: within a few days of my query email, I received a message from Kerti at the centre. She sent me a list of three recommendations and attached the manuscript of a crime novel set in medieval Tallinn, for which the centre is trying to find an English-language publisher.
Tempting though the crime novel was, I decided to go with The Beauty of History by Viivi Luik. This was largely because, from what I could find out, she is one of the country’s most highly acclaimed writers behind Jaan Kross, the Estonian writer most well-known to the rest of the world.
The novel follows a young woman who agrees to pose for a sculptor around the time of the Prague Spring in 1968. With change sweeping across Europe and shivering the Iron Curtain, the woman sees life around her tilting out of alignment as old certainties buckle and the authorities rush to clamp down on underground networks. The sculptor senses it too and is preparing to escape to the West in order to avoid military service, but for his model the events have less tangible and more emotional consequences that send her groping through the past, present and future, trying to locate herself in a world that will never be the same.
This is a book about the power of words – words that forbid, mask and betray, and ‘must be soaked in blood in order to be effective’. With the oppressive Soviet regime necessitating the adoption of a ‘secret language’ for communication about the sculptor’s plans, innocent, everyday terms take on sly, double meanings that mean the heroine ‘can never understand whether the talk is simply of buying butter and cream or of the arrival of fateful news’.
Luik further emphasises the infiltration of terror into daily life through her use of quaint and everyday objects in her imagery: fear ‘flashes like a silver ear-trumpet into which one cannot speak, but only whisper and wheeze’, and ‘glows in naked forty-watt bulbs like an egg’.
In addition, the author’s spiralling of her heroine and her reader through time underlines the interconnectedness of personal and national narratives, revealing how political upheavals change not only the present and the future, but also the way we look at the past. When ‘all ages are flung together’ and ‘years are linked to one another like human vertebrae’, a single shock affects the whole organism.
The blending of myth, memory, past and future has a disorientating effect, which makes the narrative seem to whirl wildly at certain points, flinging the reader into confusion. This was no doubt exacerbated by my ignorance of Estonian political history, which meant that several references that might have provided hand holds slipped through my grasp.
Taken as a whole, though, this was an absorbing and beautiful tribute to the desire for freedom of thought, movement and self-determination. It left me with a powerful impression of what living under occupation might mean and a strange, wistful sense of the secret lives of everyday things.
Thanks, Kerti, for the recommendation – if any English-language publisher is looking for a historical Tallinn crime novel for its list, the Estonian Literature Centre may have just the book.
The Beauty of History (Ajoo ilu) by Viivi Luik, translated from the Estonian by Hildi Hawkins (Norvil Press, 2007)
June 9, 2012
This book was recommended by The Modern Novel, a blogger writing about the development of the literary novel worldwide. TMN kindly posted a comment on this site helping me out with a few of the harder to reach destinations (there are still quite a few gaps on that there list and plenty of countries with only one or two titles suggested – go on, have a look and let me know what I’m missing).
Several of the recommendations weren’t available in translation – much more linguistically gifted than I am, TMN reads in French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, as well as English – however there were some great additions to the list among them. The Crossing by Luis Cardoso was one of these.
In actual fact, The Crossing is not technically a novel, it’s a memoir. Like me, TMN holds the view that the boundaries between these two genres blur the more closely you look at them, which is why we’re both including memoirs in our projects.
Telling the story of Cardoso’s childhood and adolescence in East Timor, the book reveals the nation’s troubled recent history through a small and touchingly precise lens. As waves of Portuguese, Japanese and Indonesian colonialism wash over the country, the author records the tragic impact of these events on the ‘people lost in time’ who have to live through them, caught between the oppressive yet relatively stable patterns of the past and the fragile freedom ahead.
This is a book as much about forgetting as it is about remembering. While Cardoso’s traumatised and exiled father frames the narrative – bumbling about Lisbon where his son is studying trying ‘to recover the memory he had lost’, all his fire and bluster gone – Cardoso himself seeks to reconcile the partial versions of events he encounters with his own fragmentary memories of his homeland.
A nostalgia for Portuguese rule – warmer than any other attitudes to colonialism I’ve read about so far this year – permeates much of the book. For characters like Cardoso’s father the Portuguese administration, despite its enforcement of apartheid, and its rigid and sometimes brutal practices, is ‘the erstwhile mother country [...] even though the umbilical cord had been cut in such a way as to make the child bleed and the mother grieve’.
As well as blending novel and memoir, Cardoso brings in elements of poetry too through his descriptions that conjure places and people as deftly as the briefest of stanzas. Time and again, he captures complex situations in a net woven only of a single sentence, as when he sets out his father’s deluded hopes for his son’s future:
‘He dreamed that, one day, I would take up a post in [an] administration [made up of people educated in Portugal] – the dreams of someone who has built a boat and wants to go on sailing through time, along the lost route of the colonizing caravels’.
The huge cast of walk-on characters and vast catalogue of events mentioned in this relatively slim book mean that occasionally the narrative can jump like a scratched record from one scene to the next. Several times, I found myself having to turn back a page or two, trying to work out how I had been thrust into a storm that seemed to have gusted up out of nowhere. Sometimes, there wasn’t really an explanation.
Taken as a whole, though, this is a touching, lyrical and sometimes playful account of the search for identity in a land you can only fleetingly call your own (East Timor only managed a few months of independence in 1975 before it was conquered by the Indonesians and at last gained its sovereignty in 2002). It makes a compelling artwork out of a shifting kaleidoscope of personal and political allegiances. A great suggestion.
The Crossing: A Story of East Timor (Cronica de uma travessia: A epoca do Ai-Dik-Funam) by Luis Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Granta, 2000)