IMG_0384

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!

I had hoped this post would be on a book by Emin Milli. I found him on Twitter, describing himself as a ‘dissident writer living in Azerbaijan’ – rather brave from what I’ve heard about the strictness of the regime. In fact, according to his website, Milli is no stranger to this himself: he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in 2009 and was only released conditionally in November 2010.

Sadly, when I contacted Milli, it turned out that the book of short stories he is working on won’t be ready until next year. He offered to translate and send me a couple of pieces – he works as an interpreter as well as a writer – but as I was really looking for a complete book, I decided not to put him to the trouble of doing that.

In the meantime, a contact at Sheffield Hallam University had sent through a suggestion of Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. This book presented another dilemma: although Azerbaijanis apparently consider it their national novel, at least according to Paul Theroux’s introduction in my edition, the identity of its author has been a mystery for many years. Several non-Azerbaijani writers have been in the frame since the book first appeared in Germany in 1937, alongside Baku-born Islam convert Mohammed Essad Bey (aka Lev Nussinbaum). He is the writer that journalist Tom Reiss concluded was behind the book – Reiss went on to write a biography of Bey, titled The Orientalist, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006. In addition, other scholars argue that Azerbaijani statesman Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli is the main author.

The odds were that the novel is by an Azerbaijani, but there was still room for doubt. Was this enough for me to justify making it my choice for the nation?

Faced with very little else available in translation, I finally decided to go for it when I discovered that the journal Azerbaijan International had dedicated an entire issue to the book. Whatever the truth about its author, it was clear that the novel had had a lasting impact on the nation. And so, at the risk that new evidence emerges that blows all this out of the water, I decided to give it a go.

The novel is set in the early decades of the 20th century, during the turbulent run up to the declaration of a separate Azerbaijani state, and tells the story of a relationship between Christian beauty Nino and Muslim Ali. Caught between the conservative traditions of Asia and the liberal culture of Europe, and with the might of Russia bearing down on the region, the lovers find themselves forced to question their desires and identities. And, as the world plunges into war, they realise that events on battlefields hundreds of miles away will decide whether a society in which their love can thrive will continue to exist.

The conflict between East and West is at the heart of this book. From the very first chapter, in which a geography teacher explains that Baku sits on the cusp of two continents and tells Nino and his classmates that it is partly down to them ‘whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia’, questions of allegiance and identity are at the forefront of the narrative. This plays out on every level, from different ways of eating through to the design of houses – all of which are presented with much affection and wit. I particularly enjoyed Ali’s conservative uncle’s description of his visit to the opera in Berlin:

‘We were taken to an opera, called L’Africaine. On stage stood a very fat woman and sang dreadfully. We disliked the woman’s voice very much. Kaiser Wilhelm noticed this and punished the woman on the spot. In the last act many negroes came and erected a big pyre. The woman was bound hand and foot and slowly burnt to death. We were very pleased about that. Later somebody told us that the fire had been only symbolical. But we did not believe this, for the woman shrieked just as terribly as the heretic Hurriet ul Ain, whom the Shah had had burnt to death in Tehran just before we set out on our journey.’

When it comes to the position of women in society, the contrast between the two cultures couldn’t be more stark. While Nino’s father advises Ali that marriage should be based on equality when he goes to ask for her hand, his own father tells him that ‘women are like children, only much more sly and vicious’ and his friends and other relatives advise him that wives have no souls and should be controlled with violence. And when Nino is kidnapped and Ali is forced to pursue her kidnapper’s car across the desert, the codes of honour by which he and his peers operate look set to have horrific consequences for his love.

It seems impossible that a relationship could bridge such a gulf, but the beauty of the book is that Said is able to reveal the coming together of two people in a way that is utterly believable and compelling. While recognising that culturally and historically they ‘ought to be blood enemies’, Ali and Nino are able to find ways of transcending their backgrounds while holding on to the truth of who they are. This does not come without great pain and sacrifice. In fact, much of the book is concerned with the struggles the lovers face to accommodate each other’s needs and desires – from the miserable months Nino spends walled up in a harem in Persia, to the indignation Ali has to swallow at hearing Europeans praise his beautiful, unveiled wife. However, according to the story at least, such reconciliation is possible, even if much is lost along the way.

As a metaphor for the dawning of the new Azerbaijani nation, which managed a few brave years before being swallowed into the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, the book is a powerful and memorable one. Written with great humour and beauty, it brims with affection for this nation of contrasts and contradictions. A wonderful read.

Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, translated from the German by Jenia Graman (Vintage 2000)

The internet has been a breeding ground for weird and wonderful literary ventures since it stretched its tentacles into most of our homes somewhere around the mid nineties. Whether you want to talk about, swap, write or analyse books – or even cut them up and make them into something else entirely – there is a site out there for you.

Few people, however, have been more dedicated to exploring the possibilities of marrying web and paper pages than Swiss networker and literary critic Beat Mazenauer. Having been involved with arts projects on the internet since the early days of the information superhighway, he is the driving force behind such collaborations as the literature platform Readme.cc and the recent Imaginary Museum of Migration, which collects and displays the migration stories of its users. He is also General Secretary of the Swiss Ministry of Culture, a daring project that capitalises on the fact Switzerland has no official ministry of culture (as its government members are known as federal councillors instead) to highlight the power of domain names.

Mazenauer gave me a fascinating list of Swiss titles I could read for this project. Several of the books on it were so tempting that I had to ask a colleague to help me choose. In the end, what made us decide on Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta was the intriguing and tragic life story of its author, Aglaja Veteranyi.

Born into a family of Romanian circus performers, Veteranyi spent her childhood travelling Europe performing tricks until she and her relatives were granted asylum in Switzerland, the country she came to adopt as her home. Illiterate because of her nomadic life, the teenage Veteranyi taught herself to read and write German before embarking on a career as a freelance writer in 1982. However, the abuse and exploitation of her early years had taken a lasting toll and the author drowned herself in Lake Zurich in 2002.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta is an autobiographical novel in which a child narrator describes the life of her itinerant circus family. In addition to walking the tightrope of childhood and adolescence, she must also negotiate the nightly fear that her mother, ‘THE WOMAN WITH THE STEEL HAIR,’ will fall from the winch from which she hangs in the big top, as well as the violence and sexual menace of her father and the risk that the family may be identified and sent back to Romania to be executed. She and her sister do this by masking one horror with another, creating a gruesome story about a child cooking alive in a vat of polenta, which they tell themselves for comfort when the world becomes too frightening.

The subject matter sounds grim, yet the narrative voice is light-hearted and even funny for much of the book. Filled with quirky insights and descriptions that capture the cadences and preoccupations of childhood to a tee, the novel fizzes with life. There is the car trip that ‘lasted several years’ and musings on knotty problems such as whether God speaks other languages, all of which make the succinct expressions of suffering all the more telling when they come: ‘I don’t scream. I’ve thrown my mouth away,’ says the narrator at one point, expressing more in eight words than pages of description could do.

The narrator’s striking perspective on the world is enhanced by the bold structural and formatting choices that run through the book. There are phrases picked out in capital letters, lists of repeated words, one-sentence chapters and even blank pages, which make the work feel more like a baggy poem at points and underline perfectly the disconcerting nature of a childhood where nothing can be relied upon and the most basic of rules do not apply.

At the root of this unease is the search for home and identity. To the narrator, ‘every country is in a foreign country’, and the family’s history and allegiances shift depending on who they are speaking to:

‘OUR STORY SOUNDS DIFFERENT EVERY TIME MY MOTHER TELLS IT.

‘We’re Orthodox, we’re Jewish, we’re international!

‘My grandfather owned a circus arena, he was a salesman, a captain, traveled from country to country, never left his own village and was a locomotive engineer. He was a Greek, a Romanian, a farmer, a Turk, a Jew, an aristocrat, a Gypsy, an Orthodox believer.

‘My mother was appearing in circuses even as a child so she could feed her whole family.

‘Another time she runs away to the circus with my father against her parents’ wishes.’

Out of this melting pot of conflicting accounts, Veteranyi concocts a rich and subtle meditation on childhood, belonging, nationality and truth. Wistful, tart and witty, the book achieves that fine balance of pathos and humour that only the very best childhood narratives share. It left me wanting more.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta (Warum das Kind in der Polenta kocht) by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated from the German by Vincent Kling (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)

Regime change seems to be the theme of the moment. No sooner had I finished YB Mangunwijaya’s satirical portrait of post-independence Indonesia than it was time to start Peter Thomson’s Kava in the Blood, an account of the coups that shook Fiji in 1987.

I was particularly intrigued to read the book because Dr Chakriya Bowman, Director of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s  Economic Governance Programme, found it for me after stopping by this blog. She very kindly visited the University of the South Pacific’s bookshop and emailed me the details and pictures of all the books she found that fitted the AYORTW criteria. Thomson’s EH McCormick Prize-winning memoir was one of these.

In fact, as Thomson acknowledges in his 1999 Foreword, Kava in the Blood contains not one story but two. Alongside his ‘account of what happened at Government House’, where he worked as Permanent Secretary of Information during 1987, he tells the poignant story of his love affair with the country his family emigrated to from Scotland four generations before he was born.

The question of what constitutes nationality and national identity is at the heart of the book. Not only is this the catalyst for the coups, sparked after Fiji’s first non-indigenous-dominated government came to power, but it also forms a powerful theme in Thomson’s personal life.

Despite having been born and brought up in Fiji, Thomson is forced to confront the fact that he has not been completely accepted into the ‘closed shop’ of Fijian society when the indigenous community closes ranks against ‘outsiders’ in the wake of the first coup. ‘I felt a creeping sense of delusion at being part of a country which, because of my European forbears, was now pointing a finger at me and saying “vulagi” — the Fijian word for visitor, or in this sense, foreigner’, he explains, going on to write wistfully of the ‘sense of oneness’ his indigenous peers must feel with the landscape and culture he loves.

This love is apparent throughout the book. It shows itself in Thomson’s humorous accounts of some of Fiji’s more bewildering traditions — ‘to those not used to it, a kava [Fiji's national drink] session can have similarities to Chinese water torture,’ he writes — his deep knowledge of the nation’s culture, plants and animals and history, and his lyrical descriptions of life under the ‘arching starscape of our southern skies’.

The narrative is packed with fascinating and affectionate insights into Fijian society, including reflections on everything from Fijian patois through to the island’s prison system and the after effects of British colonial rule. Thomson’s recollection of establishing a polling station on Naqelelevu in 1976 in his capacity as district officer the day only one of the six eligible villagers turned out to vote is particularly memorable:

‘With absolutely no sense of the ridiculous the polling station was declared open. The voter went through the identification process and then turned to the little audience of seated villagers, ballot paper in one hand [...]. Grinning self-consciously, he stood there long enough for the audience to take their mental snapshots of his moment of importance, and then another official guided him to the white wooden polling booth we had shipped with us.

‘The booth had been set up some distance from the table, giving the event an added sense of space and time. The official politely advised the protagonist to take his time with his vote. Inside the booth he did just that, while the rest of us on Naqelelevu that day looked on solemnly. Finally the booth started wobbling as he went through the motions of pacing his mark on the ballot paper. He emerged. Everyone pointed to the ballot box, and he went over to it and dropped the paper into its slot. He then stood for a while in front of the box like someone whose [sic] just won a TV gameshow, with a sheepish grin and not knowing quite where to put his hands.

[...]

‘With [the] lonely ballot paper… inadvertently eliminating the principle of the secret ballot, we packed up our gear, and bade farewell, sailing off to the south and leaving the islanders to their thoughts on the wonderful machinery of democracy.’

These rich recollections, along with Thomson’s exquisite accounts of his childhood on the islands, which read like extracts from a tropical Swallows and Amazons, more than make up for the jerky and episodic nature of the book, which sometimes feels more like a series scrapbook notes and jottings than a memoir. The addition of Thomson’s photographs into the 2008 edition heightens this impresion, giving the whole thing an immediate and personal quality. At points reading it feels as though you are sitting with Thomson under the giant rain trees outside his Waijevo residence, looking at his family album and waiting for the kava cup to come round.

Although writing in exile, after the second 1987 coup and four days of unlawful incarceration, during which he says ‘the umbilical cord to my homeland was cut’, Thomson’s love for Fiji clearly persists. As his two Afterwords suggest, his story of his island homeland is one from which he finds it hard to tear himself away. I did too.

Kava in the Blood by Peter Thomson (Booksurge, 2008)

PACIFIC APPEAL: do you know any good novels, short stories, memoirs, writers or even oral storytellers from other Pacific nations? Do you have friends or relatives in the region who might be able to suggest stories? Leave a comment or email ann’at’annmorgan.me and let me know.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,208 other followers