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When I wrote the final post of my Year of Reading the World, back on 31 December 2012, I thought this blog was finished. As the first months of 2013 went by, however, I discovered the world had other ideas.

Not only was I immersed in research about global literature for my forthcoming book, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, but I found myself constantly coming into contact with interesting projects and initiatives that I wanted to let you know about.

The book recommendations from readers all over the planet kept coming in too (they still do to this day), so I decided to update the list every now and then to make sure that none of the excellent suggestions go to waste.

But it didn’t stop there: various publishers also jumped on the band wagon, frequently emailing to ask whether they could send me books in the hope that I might blog about them. Even when I explained that I wasn’t reviewing books on this site anymore, some people still posted me their titles.

Such was the case with Daniela Petracco, director of Europa Editions UK. Although I told her that I wouldn’t write about Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, she insisted on sending me a copy along with a glowing description of the work, so convinced was she of its power.

All credit to her, because the novel might have sat on my to-read mountain for a long time had it not been for Petracco’s belief in it. Something about the way she described the story and her enthusiasm for it made it stand out in my memory so that when I came to choose my next read last week, my hand reached for it, bypassing many titles that have been waiting for weeks, months and even years.

What followed was an enthralling reading experience, reminiscent of those childhood immersions in a story that turn the volume of the real world down to a whisper. It impressed and delighted me – and it was powerful enough to make me revoke my decision not to do any more book reviewing on this blog because I simply had to let you know about it (despite her success in Italy, the reclusive Ferrante is very little known in the Anglophone world – last year, the Economist declared that she ‘may be the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of’).

Indeed, reading Ferrante’s novel has inspired me to introduce a regular review slot. From now on, I will choose one ‘Book of the month’ that has stood out from among the titles I’ve read (perhaps recommended by you, stumbled upon by me or sent by a passionate advocate) and publish a post on the last Tuesday of the month about it.

So, without further ado, here’s a little insight into what makes My Brilliant Friend: Childhood, Adolescence such a tour de force.

Charting a close friendship between two girls , Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood in 1950s Naples, this, the first volume in a trilogy, depicts the rabble of circumstances, character traits and incidents that conspire to make us dream of a better life while condemning us to be who we are. From the jealousy that steers the central characters between cruelty and fierce loyalty, at once sabotaging and supporting each other, to the bitter realities that blight the hopes of figures such as Lila’s brother, Rino – tormented by visions of a family shoemaking empire but without the focus and application to see it through – and the wretched Melina, driven mad by her love for a philandering poet, Ferrante shows us the levers working the vice that warps and crushes the human soul.

Menace is everywhere. Whether in the childhood imaginings that shape the ogre-like figure of Don Achille or the all-too-real characters of the Solara brothers, terrorising the area with their Camorra connections, violence is only ever a mistimed comment away. Straitjacketed by honour codes that at once protect and hobble them, Elena and Lila must make desperate choices to have a hope of exercising some sort of control over their lives.

Now and then, the narrative doesn’t hold together as tightly as it could. Ferrante gives us a few too many TV-style recaps of events and there are occasional statements that contradict what has gone before – at a wedding towards the end of the book, for example, we read that ‘it was clear no one who had received an invitation wanted to miss it’ shortly after we have just witnessed the local school teacher spurn an attempt to get her to attend.

Some readers may also be frustrated by the mismatch between the prologue, set in the present day presumably some way towards the conclusion of the yet-to-be-published (in English) third book in the trilogy, and the main narrative, which only goes up until the mid-1960s. Unlike works that make up many other literary trilogies, this novel cannot really be said to stand alone.

Nevertheless, if the trade-off is that we have to read on to find all the ends tied up, it’s a sacrifice few are likely to mind making. Hmmn, I wonder if I can persuade Daniela Petracco to send me the next book…

My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale) by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2012; 2013)

 

United Kingdom: coming home

December 31, 2012

Well, here we are. The 196th book (197th really, counting the Rest of the World choice) and the final post of the project that took over my life in 2012.

It’s been the most extraordinary year. We’ve seen a story specially written for the blog from South Sudan, a book translated by a team of volunteers to enable me to read something from Sao Tome and Principe, and been given a sneak preview of an illustrated, trilingual collection of microstories from Luxembourg, as well as many other wonderful discoveries.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the interest and support the blog has drawn around the world. From the huge number of people who have given up their time to help me track down those elusive titles and the many visitors who have liked, shared and commented on posts – keeping me going through all those late nights and early mornings – to the media interest that saw the blog featured on CNN International, in the national press and on UNESCO’s list of initiatives for World Book Day, the response has been humbling. Thank you.

I’m also delighted that the project will see another book added to the world – Reading the World: postcards from my bookshelf, which I’m writing for UK publisher Harvill Secker and comes out in 2014.

But back to the matter in hand. As far as I could see, the only way to finish this odyssey was with a return to the place where it all started and where I first discovered my love of reading: the UK.

At first glance, it seemed obvious that I would choose one of the bastions of British literature as my final book – something by Dickens or Eliot, perhaps, or a more modern work by Woolf, Orwell, Wodehouse or Waugh.

However, as the year went on and I became less and less convinced by the idea of one book summing up a country’s literature, other thoughts started to creep in. In particular, I began to think more about translation.

After all, I started this project because I realised I hardly ever read world literature and never read books in translation. And yet here I was living in a country that was home to several native languages other than English, the literatures of which I had never explored.

With this in mind, I wandered up to the Welsh Books Council stand at the London Book Fair earlier this year and asked for some suggestions. (I might as easily have chosen to read Gaelic literature or something translated from the now-dead Cornish language, but Welsh has a particular significance for me, it being my grandfather’s mother tongue.)

The woman I spoke to was very helpful and had many recommendations. However, one in particular stood out: Martha, Jack and Shanco by Caryl Lewis. It won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2005 and the English translation came out two years later. Intrigued, I noted it down and set off to find a copy.

Set on the bleak farm of Graig-ddu in west Wales, the novel recounts a year in the lives of three ageing siblings who were born and grew up there. Caught up in the demanding day-to-day running of the farm, Martha, Jack and their mentally disabled brother Shanco have little time to dwell on what else the world might have to offer them. But every so often outside forces break into their isolation, testing the forces that bind them to the memory of their parents and the place that shaped, warped and made them who they are.

Lewis’s evocation of this harsh and remote world is powerful. From the first scene, in which we follow the siblings as they head out in the dead of night to discover the reason for the wounds on one of their cows’ udders, we are caught up in the grim realities of life on Graig-ddu. This is a place where kittens tumble to their deaths from roofbeams, crows beat their beaks bloody at the window panes, and rams’ horns must be reshaped to stop them from growing into the creatures’ heads.

In the face of such daily occurrences and the gruelling physical schedule (not helped by Jack’s adherence to his father’s antiquated farming equipment), there is no room for sentimentality. Instead, emotions must be expressed in private and through little things – Mami’s bedroom kept as it was when she died, the wreath laid annually on the parents’ grave, the upturned washing-up bowl shielding the footprint Gwynfor left the day Martha told him she could not leave the farm and marry him.

Lewis’s writing reflects this too, condensing poignancy and meaning into a series of fleeting, yet breathtakingly precise images. There is the description of Martha and Shanco lying awake at night ‘each skull a bird cage full of thoughts flapping in the hope of freedom’, the way Jack tries to make sense of his sister’s words ‘laying them out one by one like clothes put out to dry on the line’, and the portrayal of Martha’s ‘home’s landscape [...] coated with a drift’ of interloper Judy’s things.

For all the bleakness of the setting however, there is humour and beauty too. Jack’s partnership with his sheepdog Roy is mesmerising, as is the depiction of the myriad stars in late summer ‘as though someone had cast them like quicksilver into the sky’. In addition, cameo characters like neighbouring farmer Will, who turns his cap round and continues on at the same speed when he wants his tractor to go faster, and Martha’s high jinks with the windpipes of the turkeys she butchers for Christmas add an endearing warmth to the narrative.

They also give it a sense of tradition and archaism that makes you forget that you are reading about contemporary Wales. Time and again, I found myself pulled up short by mentions of EU directives and 4×4s that reminded me that the story was set not in some long-distant decade and land, but a handful of years ago and only a few hundred miles from my London flat.

Now and then, Lewis labours her points. The repeated statements of the particulars of Mami’s will, which saw Graig-ddu entailed jointly on the siblings, for example, feel a little unnecessary. In addition, the careful fleshing out of most of the characters shows Judy up as rather two-dimensional in contrast. I also felt the steps leading to the climax of the novel could have been more subtly seeded into the narrative.

As a whole, though, this is a haunting and engrossing book. Lyrical, harsh and deeply moving, the novel reveals what it means to be born into a way life that leaves you no real room for imagining anything else. It is a reminder that you don’t have to look beyond the boundaries of your own nation to find people living in quite different worlds from your own.

Thanks again to everyone who has made this project possible and a special thank you to my fiancé Steve, who lived through it with me, took the picture at the top and came up with many of the best ideas along the way.

If you’d like to stay up to date with post-world developments, you can follow me on Twitter (@annmorgan30) or like the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page (by popular request I’ll be posting a shortlist of favourite commercially available world reads there in a few days’ time).

And if you’ve enjoyed this journey, I’d love it if you would join me on my next adventure, which will be taking shape over the next few months.

For now, though, I’m off to celebrate. Happy New Year everyone. Have fun!

Martha, Jack and Shanco (Martha Jac a Sianco) by Caryl Lewis, translated from the Welsh by Gwen Davies (Parthian, 2007)

Mauritania: language barriers

December 12, 2012

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If there were a hall of fame for hardest countries in the world to find literature from in English, Mauritania would be up there with the best of them. The short answer is that there are no commercially published translations of books penned by writers from the country in either Arabic, French, Hassaniya Arabic, Pulaar, Soninke or Wolof – the six most commonly spoken languages in the nation.

As Manuel Bengoéchéa of the Institut français de Mauritanie explained to me, this is partly because Mauritanian novels and other similar works don’t exist in great numbers in the first place. With so many linguistic communities in one place and a strong oral tradition, it is hard to justify putting resources into publishing works that will only be accessible to a fraction of the population. As a result, stories are more often spoken than written in the country.

Nevertheless, there are some published and celebrated Mauritanian novels out there – and several people went to great lengths to try to help me find one that I could read in English. Of these, International Prize for Arabic Fiction administrator Fleur Montanaro deserves a particular mention. Having lived in the country for seven years, she put a huge amount of energy into searching for a title – even scouring a book fair in the UAE for possible leads for getting a novella, L’amour impossible by leading writer Moussa Ould Ebnou, translated specially for the project.

And then, in one of those flukes of googling, where a brief portal seems to open up to the one page on the world’s more than 620 million websites that you need, I chanced upon an article about Mohamed Bouya Ould Bamba. While studying his PhD at Kent State University in the US, the Mauritanian Fulbright scholar has vowed to write, self-publish and make available for free download one novel each summer. His first book, Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language, came out in 2011. A quick search on the title took me to a download site. I clicked on the text and, just like that, Mauritania was solved.

Taking place over four days, Bamba’s novel unfolds a crisis in a nameless family in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. Having not been paid by his employer for many weeks, the father finds himself struggling to feed his pregnant wife and two daughters. His wife wants to solve the problem by appealing to her rich cousin, but the father has more extreme ideas and, as protests against political corruption flare in the streets, it looks as though the family unit may not survive this latest in a long line of setbacks.

As the title and bombastic prologue – written in the voice of the land of Mauritania – suggest, this is a book with big ambitions. With his anonymous, Everyman characters and lengthy dedication, Bamba seems to feel the need to speak for his entire nation – an understandable aim when you consider that this is in all likelihood the first book by a Mauritanian writer that English-language readers can access.

Coming after such grand beginnings, the domestic setting feels a little cramped at first. Bamba tries to show the link between national and personal events in the narrative, but there is still something of a disconnect, particularly when it comes to the title issue of ‘the curse of the language’ (the numerous people who have lost their native languages in the region), which features heavily in the prologue but barely gets a look in in the main text.

However, as the pages turn, the dramas in the lives of the characters grow to fill the space, providing many fascinating insights into daily life in the Mauritanian capital. While some elements, such as the delight of the male neighbours at the election of Obama over Bush, are disarmingly familiar, others are startlingly strange. For example, the custom of men being able to divorce their wives with a single word is extraordinary, while the wife’s belief that ‘freedoms were an American thing’ provides a fascinating insight into the differences in outlook that fill the novel. In addition, small details, such as the Turkish soap opera that threads through the narrative and the cousin’s daughter’s secret tryst with her boyfriend, bring Bamba’s spare prose to life.

The text contains the typos and slips common in self-published works. On top of this, while Bamba’s English is largely excellent, there are one or two linguistic tics and slight misuses of words that cloud the meaning. Pacing is also an issue: scenes move step by step, lacking the agility and dexterity found in the prose of more experienced writers.

Through it all, however, Bamba’s passion for his country and for telling the world about it shines through. The narrative may be threadbare at points, but its author’s ambition for change and a better life for many of the people in Nouakchott – where wealth and poverty have created a divide more impassable than any country boundary – is admirable. A rare insight into this most mysterious and overlooked of West African nations.

Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language by Mohamed Bouya Bamba (2011)

Ethiopia: home rule

December 4, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China: one in 1.3 billion

November 29, 2012

My knowledge of Chinese literature is pretty non-existent, so I was very grateful when translator Nicky Harman offered to talk me through some of the options last month. We met in a coffee shop in Covent Garden, where, sandwiched between groups of students and tourists planning expeditions to Oxford Street, Harman shared some of her insights into books from the world’s most populous country, which is home to a fifth of the planet’s people.

She said that, while a wide range of literature was published in China, a very narrow spectrum of works were available in English. These tended to be rather depressing, violent and, as she put it, ‘masculine’ books, which often made for heavy-going reading. She hoped that Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature this year would start to change this by increasing the appetite for publishing a greater variety of Chinese books around the world.

In the meantime, however, Harman did have some tips for me. If I didn’t mind hard-hitting books, Mian Mian’s Candy was a good bet, while Mo Yan’s short story collection Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh rung the changes, being both comic and tragic. In addition, Yan Ge (not to be confused with Yan Geling), a young, witty, female writer who Harman said was like a modern Jane Austen, was one to watch. Her work was not translated yet, but would hopefully be available in English soon. The same was true of Xu Zechen, whose short story ‘Throwing Out the Baby’ had been published on Words Without Borders.  In terms of non-fiction, the work of Xue Xinran was well worth looking out for.

In amongst Harman’s recommendations, however, one title stood out: Han Dong’s Banished!. Perhaps this wasn’t surprising, given that Harman had translated the novel herself; nevertheless I couldn’t help being intrigued by her description of the book, which, by the sound of it, provided an unusual – even quirky – perspective on the events of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. My interest was also piqued by the translator’s comment that the structure of the book, which reads like a memoir, with each chapter devoted to a different character in the village, reflected a popular tradition in Chinese fiction. I decided it would be the book for me.

Drawing on Han’s personal history, the novel portrays the banishment of the Tao family from the city of Nanjing to the village of Sanyu during the late 1960s. Required to ‘learn from the poorer and lower middle peasants’ as part of Mao Zedong’s attempt to erase capitalism and culture from the country, Grandma and Grandpa Tao, writer Tao and his wife Su Qun, and their son, young Tao, must make new lives for themselves. But, while they try to do the best they can with the meagre resources available to them, they must also take care not to do too well and arouse the jealousy of their impoverished and poorly educated neighbours: as objects of suspicion because of Tao’s intellectual past, their best hope lies in striking root and blending in with their drab, new surroundings.

Sinister undercurrents flow through the novel, bubbling to the surface now and then to flood the characters’ lives. From the bleak prospects Tao foresees for his young son and his fear that his wages might be stopped by the Party, to the investigation that makes Su Qun contemplate suicide and young Tao’s memory of the ransacked buildings he saw in Nanjing, there is an underlying sense of the threat hidden in the smallest and most apparently innocuous of decisions.

Most striking of all, however, is not the precariousness of the Tao’s situation, but its strangeness. Little details, such as the ‘good-news troupe’ marshalled to cheer the banished families on their way and the era’s unfamiliar jargon, reveal the profound oddness of the time, as does six-year-old Tao’s misplaced excitement at the initial hurly-burly of the Revolution and his proud boast that ‘our family’s got a bad egg too, and he’s been struggled against’. Indeed, as the anonymous narrator reminds us, the period is in many ways every bit as strange to contemporary Chinese readers as it is to Westerners:

‘I can only sincerely apologize to my young readers or those from another world. The world I describe here was, after all, a peculiar and transitory one, constructed of language that enshrouded and permeated it with what Buddhists call anitya, a mysterious impermanence.’

In the face of such ephemerality, the Taos ground themselves in the rituals of their new lives, devising strategies for survival. These often involve negotiating their way round the alien traditions of their neighbours – from finding a way to decline a proposal to involve young Tao in a childhood betrothal, to trying to outwit the hungry villagers who want to kidnap and eat their pet dogs. However, there are also moments of joy as we share in young Tao’s adventures in his rural surroundings and the family members’ satisfaction at being able to improve their living conditions through their ingenuity. Indeed, the little domestic triumphs of excluding draughts, drawing water and making adequate sanitary arrangements are so engrossing that we are a long way into the narrative before we realise quite what ‘Mr Tao Peiyi, the professional writer’, now ‘forbidden to write his own books’, has lost in the move to this remote region.

The result is a moving consideration of storytelling and the power of human beings to take charge of their identities in even the bleakest of circumstances. Through watching the Taos carve out a life that allows them to retain something of their sense of dignity and purpose in the face of an attempt to erase individuality, distinctiveness and creativity, we see the marvellous resilience of the human mind. Surprising, and rather wonderful.

Banished! by Han Dong, translated from the Mandarin by Nicky Harman (University of Hawaii Press, 2009)

There is just one day left until the Rest of the World poll closes. Vote now to choose which book I should read!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Philippines: the real story

November 6, 2012

There’s nothing like getting an enthusiastic recommendation from somebody who loves a particular book. So when Rach stopped by the blog to tell me that I had to read Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco, describing it as ‘a wonderful (funny) exploration of the country, its history, politics and people’, I made a point of looking it up.

Rach wasn’t alone in her appreciation of the novel. It won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 and was one of the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2010. Clearly a lot of people around the world rated it.

The novel follows Miguel Syjuco (yes, you read that right) as he attempts to get to the bottom of the death of his mentor, famous New York-based Filipino writer Crispin Salvador. Told through extracts from Salvador’s work and his protegé’s biography of him, interviews with the writer, meetings with his relatives, blog posts and comments in web chat rooms, a series of jokes about Filipinos in the West, and a first- and third-person narrative that charts Syjuco’s return to the Philippines in search of clues, the book traces and tangles the threads of Salvador and Syjuco’s histories. And, as the search for answers and identity becomes ever more fraught, it finds an echo in the public life of the nation, where a sleaze scandal, a rebellion and an impending typhoon look set to the shake the country to its core.

This is a novel about the search for authenticity – and one that plays this search out on every level. While Syjuco begins the novel ‘unconvinced’ by the accounts he has read and sets himself the task of sifting through the stories to get to the truth of Salvador’s life and death, readers must contend with the multitude of conflicting voices and sources in the book, as well as the protagonist’s self-confessed tendency to embroider the truth by, for example, fabricating a conversation with his neighbour on the plane home. In addition, the trustworthiness of love comes under scrutiny through the prism of Syjuco’s failed relationship with girlfriend Madison – a pairing based on embracing a series of ill-researched, international good causes and a vague Western guilt quite alien to their Filipino roots.

The result is an impressive and complex array of investigations into truth that can often spill over into the world outside the book. In fact, Salvador, whose work comes complete with footnotes in the novel, is such a convincing creation that for a while some readers even believed he existed in real life.

However, it is when it comes to writing that the questions about authenticity become most intense. Throughout the novel, a debate rages about what it means to be a Filipino author: there is the indignant Manila-based writer who maintains that writing in English is ‘heinous’ (more than a slight irony in this book which won the Grand Prize for the Novel in English at the 2008 Palanca Awards), while Salvador himself is on record advocating for dispensing with country boundaries altogether and aiming to be ‘an international writer’ because ‘your real home country will be that common ground your work plows between you and your reader’.

Yet nationality and cultural authenticity aren’t the only hot potatoes when it comes to writing in the novel. As the title of Salvador’s lost exposé, The Bridges Ablaze, suggests, the simple act of putting words on the page can itself be a violent, destructive thing. Throughout the book, storytelling causes rifts and feuds as people feel betrayed by the truths they are forced to confront. This touches on everything from the ridiculous insistence of Grapes and Granma that all their relatives’ work – no matter how remote from their lives – is about them, through to revelations that divide the nation. To write, then, requires fearlessness and even ruthlessness, as Syjuco finds himself reading, and perhaps also writing, in a dream:

‘Whatever they may say, your story is truly your own. You have a responsibility to it, the way a father has to a child. Damn your detractors, your hurt-faced family. They can’t take it away from you.’

The greatest irony is, of course, that the book’s interrogation of storytelling takes place through the medium of some truly outstanding writing. Funny, dexterous and seemingly effortless, Syjuco’s prose (the author… or are protagonist and author one and the same?) is a joy. Reading it is like skimming over deep waters in a speed boat with an expert pilot at the helm. If there are one or two too many daredevil manoeuvres here and there, the thrill of the overall experience more than makes up for it. Top notch.

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco (Picador, 2010)

Cambodia: the end of an era

October 12, 2012

Newspapers are not what they used to be. If you’ve had anything to do with the media in the last ten years, you’ll have heard a lot about dumbing down, loss of quality, the death of print and so on. In fact, depending on who you speak to, you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole industry is choking and dying right before our very eyes as we all stand round snapping photos and tweeting about its last moments.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact the search for my Cambodian book reminded me of one of the most exciting things to happen to journalism in recent years.

I was whiling away a quiet moment or two on the Guardian Books site when an article about the Cambodian genocide by Madeleine Thien caught my eye. Thien is a Canadian novelist, so I couldn’t include her book, Dogs at the Perimeter, on my Cambodian list, however, given her expertise on the country, I decided to leave a comment asking if she could recommend something I could read.

Less than two hours later, Thien replied with a full list of suggestions. I was delighted and more than a little surprised. Despite having written for various publications myself, I realised I’d been used to thinking of journalists as somehow operating in a different, parallel universe, a world that readers could not reach.

And yet here was one of these mysterious beings replying to me out of the blue. All of a sudden the article flickering on the screen in front of me seemed to switch from being a closed, finished thing, to an ongoing, evolving process. It was as though, instead of publishing something that was fixed and definitive, Thien had given a seminar in cyberspace and thrown the floor open to questions from the world.

Thien seemed particularly passionate about In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, a book that was due to come out that very week. ‘I hope this book will find its way to readers everywhere. It is an astonishing novel, brilliant, heartbreaking, and deeply courageous. A truly unforgettable piece of literature,’ she wrote. That was good enough for me.

Inspired by Ratner’s own childhood, the novel tells the story of seven-year-old Raami, a Cambodian princess who is evicted from her luxurious home in Pnomh Penh along with the rest of her family when the Khmer Rouge seize power in 1975. Caught up in the mass exodus from the cities as the regime seeks to eliminate all traces of education, culture, privilege and power, Raami endures four years of hard labour, starvation, abuse and terror in the party’s brutal new rural order – a world where her imagination is her only escape.

Few writers use imagery more richly than Ratner. Whether she is describing the sun yawning and stretching ‘like an infant deity poking its long multiple arms through the leaves and branches’, the gardener covered in butterflies ‘as if he were a tree stalk and his straw hat a giant yellow blossom’, or the way a marsh shimmers ‘as if at any moment it would spit out the sun’, the writer excels at finding arresting ways of bringing experience to her readers. This stands her in particularly good stead when it comes to the darker elements of the story, where the fear and sadness she builds are almost tangible. It also makes the more whimsical passages, particularly the exchanges between Raami and her haunted poet father, marvellous and engrossing where they might be twee and obvious in another author’s work.

Ratner’s consciousness of the value and weight of words is coupled with a profound sense of the importance of storytelling, which runs through the book. Various characters speak about the power of tales to connect people across time and space. Indeed, Raami’s faith in them is such that, in the final moments before he is taken away, she runs after her father begging for one more story, as though the mere act of narrating might be enough to keep him with her and save his life.

Like the novel itself, this belief in the power of telling is rooted in Ratner’s experience. She writes movingly about her motivations for rehearsing her family’s traumatic history through fiction in her ‘Author’s Note’ at the back of the book. The story is, she tells us, ‘in essence, [her] own [...], born of [her] desire to give voice to [her father's] memory, and the memories of all those silenced’.

As such – and given the unrelenting suffering and misery that makes up much of the book – it is perhaps inevitable that the narrative occasionally gets bogged down in emotion. While no doubt true to the experience of many children in such extreme circumstances, Raami’s repeated assertions that she is responsible for all the bad things that happen become a little wearing. There is also a slight problem with the narratological need to keep raising the stakes and ratcheting up the tension when the family has lost nearly everything from day one.

But these are trifling things by comparison to Ratner’s achievement. Looked at as a whole this is a powerful and beautiful debut from a writer committed to finding new ways of telling stories and taking the reader to heart of the matter. The world can always do with more of those.

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

Serbia: cultural exchange

October 8, 2012

Colleagues are wonderful things: you can have a casual conversation in passing one morning and suddenly discover that the person you catch sight of every so often in the canteen or say hello to on the stairs is an expert in a whole host of subjects you know nothing about. Over my time freelancing at newspaper and magazine offices in and around central London, I’ve shared water coolers with salsa dancers, filmmakers, fell runners, actors, poets, and many more besides.

In a place like London, colleagues can also be a great source of information about books from other countries. And so, when I discovered that Tijana who sat behind me for a time at the Guardian was Serbian and a booklover to boot, I lost no time in asking her for suggestions.

Tijana went one better than simply giving me a list of recommendations. On a trip home a few months later, she picked out a translation of a book she had enjoyed and posted it to me. And so it was that I found myself clutching a copy of Srđan Valjarević’s intriguingly titled Lake Como.

The novel follows a Serbian writer who takes up a Rockefeller scholarship for a month-long residency at the luxurious Villa Maranese by Lake Como in Italy. Surrounded by academics, thinkers and artists on similar bursaries, the protagonist, who is there on the pretext of writing a novel, spends his days sleeping, getting drunk, watching football and chatting up a waitress in a local bar. He seems destined to fritter his time away, yet as the weeks pass his observations and interactions with the people around him take on a meaning that in many ways transcends the work he might have done on his own.

Frank, irreverent and at ease with his shortcomings, Valjarević’s protagonist is an extremely likeable character. Whether he is describing his part in the application process for the scholarship – ‘I was drinking beer as I wrote a short outline of the novel, I made it all up, and my friend Vlada translated it into English and then corresponded with them for a while instead of me’ – or the fabrications he uses to get out of the centre’s dreary cultural evenings and concerts, the hero is refreshingly honest and often very funny.

Such humour is just the tool Valjarević needs to puncture the earnestness of the Villa Maranese and reveal the absurdity of much that goes on there. Whether he is dodging the fierce questions of the Kyrgyz literature expert determined to press-gang him into giving a lecture, sympathising with the Nigerian poet who has travelled all the way from Africa only to spend his residency laid up with back pain, or taking advantage of his peers’ simplistic assumptions about the horror of his life back in Belgrade, the hero’s interactions show up the surreal elements and contradictions that lie beneath the worthy veneer of life at the Villa Maranese. Perhaps most telling of all is the chapter where the writer invites the waitress and his other friends from the village to dinner at the house and discovers that, despite living next door to the fabulous grounds, they have never before been able to go inside.

Yet the novel is far from a hatchet job on pompous cultural schemes. Indeed, the paradox at the heart of the book is that, despite his ostensible abuse of the terms of his scholarship, the writer gains much of value during his residency: he makes meaningful connections, both with people in the village and with several fellow guests; he has moments of transcendent experience, from seeing a golden eagle to hearing the tune of bells in a town he can no longer visit played by another resident; and he begins to re-evaluate the way he lives.

The result is a moving and surprisingly searching consideration of nationality, art, identity, culture and human endeavour. It is at once one of the funniest books I’ve read this year and one of the most profound. If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s well worth the effort.

Lake Como (Komo) by Srđan Valjarević, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić (Geopoetika Publishing, Belgrade, 2009)

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