March 31, 2015
It’s been a month of great reading. Funnily enough, through no deliberate intention, many of my favourite reads of the past few weeks have been novels about women in different parts of the planet. From Chantel Acevedo’s scintillating evocation of Cuba’s past in The Distant Marvels to Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – an engrossing exploration of the consequences of a lifetime’s bibliophilia in contemporary Beirut – I have found myself wowed by stories revealing the world through women’s eyes. I also took a detour into 20th-century writing to spend a few hours pinioned to my sofa by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – a chilling masterclass in how to construct a gripping plot.
Those in the UK keen to get their hands on a good read might find it easier to choose one of the titles mentioned above as, although March’s book of the month is published in the US, it isn’t out in the UK – yet – (although you can get it online). In fact, my copy of A Season for Martyrs was sent to me from Karachi by the author herself.
As you can see from the photo above, it came in an envelope covered in stamps. Inside was the beautifully colourful book, signed with a personal message from Bina Shah, who was one of the Pakistani writers readers recommended to me back in 2012. The novel’s vibrant jacket wasn’t the only striking thing about it: the edges of the pages were rough from where the paper had been cut to make the copy (see below).
The pages of my edition may be rough, but the same is certainly not true of the novel. At the heart of the book is ambitious student-cum-TV-news-researcher Ali, who is caught up in covering the controversial return to Pakistan of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. As he struggles to reconcile his liberal political beliefs and secret relationship with his Hindu girlfriend with his feudal Sindhi family’s views and fraught history, we see something of the national tussle for control and identity played out on the personal level. With myths and episodes from Sindh province’s long, rich and turbulent past interspersing the narrative, what emerges is a powerful and complex picture of contemporary Pakistan.
Shah’s tone is one of the first things that draw you in. Whether she is portraying the health gripes of a British Empire functionary, capturing the patter of a bus conductor in Islamabad, or describing the travails of tenth century Sufi saints – ‘even if you were regarded as the guardian of all waterways […] you could tire of riding a palla fish’ – her prose is engaging, funny, direct and refreshing. It makes her well-equipped to unmask and send up the ‘etiquette of hypocrisy’ that influences much of what goes on in the novel.
Yet satire is just one element in this novel. There are flashes of beauty in Shah’s writing and succinct insights that leave you marvelling at her skill for wrapping human emotions in words. When Ali contemplates his dysfunctional home life, for example, Shah finds a powerful simile in the buildings where he grew up:
How many other houses in their sedate neighborhood, with its old houses built in the seventies, its overgrown trees lining the zigzag streets that flooded during every monsoon season, were like theirs: genteel on the outside, wasting away from neglect on the inside? How many other families lived like fractured glass, cracked but still holding up within the constraints of their frames?
In addition, the novel contains some extraordinarily gripping episodes. From the account of Jeandal Shah’s fight to the death with a cheetah in 1827 and the night-long chess tournament between the young jailer Ahmed and a condemned Pir hours before the overlord’s execution in 1943, to the violent protest that leads to Ali to witness the injustice of the police firsthand, the book brims with urgent and troubling events.
Very occasionally there is a slight self-consciousness to the telling as Shah seems to try to explain historical context or 21st-century Pakistani politics – perhaps to English-language readers in other parts of the world. Now and then, as a character steps forward with a suspiciously slick explanation of events or a chunk of exposition bobs to the surface of the narrative, it is as though the author and her protagonist glance towards the camera, briefly breaking the spell.
(That said, the issue of how much cultural knowledge to assume in readers who may be far removed from the events described is a fine balancing act. Had Shah, who is well-versed in writing about Pakistan for readers elsewhere through her journalism for publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian, included less overt explanation she may well have run the risk of leaving people behind.)
Quibbles aside, though, this is a powerful and engrossing book. It has drama, beauty, wit, characters to care about and important things to say. It is, as Ali puts it himself, a story about what it’s like ‘to be lost and adrift and struggling at sea, and then, finally, to see the shore and begin swimming toward it with all one’s might’.
Now that it’s reached the US, I very much hope a British publisher picks it up so that A Season for Martyrs makes it to the shores of the UK soon too.
A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah (Delphinium Books, 2014)
March 16, 2015
As those of you who have followed this project for a while know, I was a writer long before I was a blogger. For the last seven years I have paid my bills by writing and subediting on a freelance basis for a variety of publications and organisations. In fact, for the first seven months or so of my Year of Reading the World, I was working five days a week at the Guardian newspaper in London and juggling shifts and commissions for several other clients. It made fitting in roughly six to eight hours of reading, blogging and researching a day quite a challenge!
What you may not know is that I was also a writer long before anyone paid me to do it. I made my first attempt at a novel when I was seven (a fantasy story set in an old castle with a bookcase that revealed a hidden world – it owed a lot to The Chronicles of Narnia) and throughout my childhood and teenage years I filled notebooks with scraps of stories and splinters of poems and half-formed things.
When I graduated from my creative writing master’s course and had to face the reality of earning my keep, I made a deal with myself: wherever I was working and whatever I was doing, I would always get up early and spend an hour or so on my own writing before I left to go and work for someone else.
For the next few years, through a series of varied and sometimes rather strange jobs (administrator, campaigns officer for a charity, invigilator for school exams, assessor of doctors’ surgeries, freelance choral singer, professional mourner – don’t ask), I stuck to my bargain. Give or take the odd duvet day, I got up at around 6am, sat at my desk and wrote.
I produced a lot of nonsense. Still, when I became a professional writer, I carried on with my regime. Before commuting into London to edit articles on planning applications for Building Design or write about the latest opportunities for international students for the British Council, I would spend an hour or so on my own (usually not very promising) projects.
Then, about four or five years ago, a glimmer of an idea came to me. I found myself gripped by the thought of a pair of identical twins swapping places in a childhood game and then one of them refusing to swap back.
It was the merest flicker of a concept, but it wouldn’t let me go. Over the months and years that followed, my mind returned to it again and again, full of questions. What would cause one child to refuse to swap back? What might it do to someone to grow up with the wrong life? What kind of family wouldn’t notice the change?
A few times, I was on the point of sitting down to start writing the story, but something always held me back. Somehow, it wasn’t ready for me (or perhaps I wasn’t ready for it).
Then A Year of Reading the World came along and for the first time in my adult life, I gave my precious early-morning writing slots over to something else, and filled them with reading and blogging.
What with everything that happened with the project and the book deal, it wasn’t until March 2013 that I got back into the swing of the old writing pattern. Having submitted my first draft of Reading the World to Harvill Secker, I found I had brainspace to focus on other things.
That was when the twins came and tugged at my sleeve once more. And this time I felt ready to take them on.
Over the 18 months that followed, in between long stints re-writing and editing Reading the World, I wrote my twins manuscript. Perhaps it was because I was in the rhythm of writing from the blogging and non-fiction book, but I found the story came to me easily and I wrote with excitement to find out what would happen next.
In autumn 2014, after several drafts, I gave the manuscript to my other half, Steve, and to my novelist friend, Emily Bullock, to read. I worked their feedback into my draft and shared it with a few more people. And then, when my lovely agent Caroline returned from maternity leave towards the end of the year, I sent it to her.
I envisaged that there would be a long process of re-writing and polishing, but when Caroline had finished reading the manuscript she told me she was very excited and that – with a little bit of tweaking – she thought it was ready to sell.
I spent about a week working on Caroline’s edits. Then, on the day that Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer was published in the UK, Caroline sent my novel, Beside Myself, out to editors.
We soon heard that several publishers were interested. I met with them and, after a few weeks of negotiation, I’m delighted to announce that Beside Myself has been bought by Bloomsbury and will be published worldwide in English by them next year. It means my book will be produced by the same team looking after the works of writers such as Margaret Atwood, Khaled Hosseini, Donna Tartt, William Boyd and JK Rowling.
My seven-year-old self wouldn’t have known about Harry Potter when she was scribbling my first novel back in the late 1980s, but I think she would have approved.
December 30, 2014
Since finishing my year of reading the world, I’ve been delighted to find that booklovers around the planet have kept in contact and still send me recommendations of good reads. It’s always a pleasure to hear of tempting books, but I’m particularly delighted when I come across a new translation from a country that I know to have very little literature available in English. Consequently, when I heard that innovative independent publisher And Other Stories was bringing out By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel from Equatorial Guinea, I was thrilled.
As far as I have been able to discover, this book is the second commercially available translation of literature from the country (the first being Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory, which I read for my project). The reasons for this lack are various (and in some ways the situation is quite typical of French-, Portuguese- and, in this case, Spanish-speaking African nations, most of which have very little literature in translation), however the fraught political situation in Equatorial Guinea made bringing this book to the Anglophone market particularly difficult, as translator Jethro Soutar explained in an article for the Guardian earlier this year. So when my copy arrived, looking striking with its elegant cover design, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
Set on the remote island of Annobón off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, the novel explores the childhood memories of its nameless narrator. It charts his recollections of growing up in his eccentric grandfather’s house and in a society fuelled by the competing imperatives of superstition and the need to secure goods and favours from passing ships. Punctuated by a series of catastrophic events that shape the community and the narrator’s own way of thinking, the narrative examines storytelling, memory and the way we reconcile ourselves with the events, beliefs and customs that made us who we are.
In many ways, this book is an ideal candidate for translation. Because its narrator grew up in a bilingual society, moving between the vernacular and the formal Spanish-language world of school, and because he now lives away from the island, he is a natural-born go-between. Whether he is unpicking the practicalities of cutting the dates from palm trees, explaining the relative significance of Christian terminology in his mother tongue and learned language, or unravelling the beliefs behind the ostracization of she-devils (known by their penchant for nighttime sea bathing), Ávila Laurel gives him a knack for making the unfamiliar plain.
Constantly questioning, evaluating, musing and challenging, the narrator draws the reader in with a compelling hybrid style that (as he reveals towards the end of the book) blends his own recollections with the island’s oral tradition. At times, he asks our opinion on the events of the story; at others he deflates those he portrays with dry wit. When the narrative takes a turn for the shocking, his tone is disconcertingly direct, with some passages recalling the monologues of an analysand on the therapist’s couch as he returns again and again to past traumas, searching for the key to unlock their meaning.
There are fantastical descriptions that might tempt the reader to reach for the term ‘magical realism’. And there are even occasions when the narrator assumes a schoolmasterly tone: ‘Does anyone know how you get the half-formed canoe to the shore from the bush it lies in?’ he asks at one point, so that for an instant we seem to be children sitting in a circle round him, agog as he spins his tale.
In the same way, the narrative plays with print conventions, eschewing chapter markers for occasional breaks in the storytelling and, at one point, even recording the number of victims to die in the island’s cholera epidemic with a series of crosses printed in the middle of a paragraph.
As a result, the book makes for a challenging read in the best sense of the word. Leaping between registers, tenses and episodes, with long digressions and whimsical catastrophisations and speculations interrupting proceedings, this novel (if that is the right term for it) divests readers of their preconceptions. Those looking for a conventional, three-act plot with a protagonist, an inciting incident and everything tied up neatly at the end will not find it here.
Instead, what you get is a lyrical evocation of quite another world, with plenty to chuckle at and be troubled by along the way. Thronged with suspected sorceresses and a sense of the supernatural, this book weaves a kind of magic. Abandon any assumptions you might have about what a story is at the title page and dive right in.
By Night the Mountain Burns (Arde el monte de noche) by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories, 2014).
November 25, 2014
Since I started asking for recommendations of books to read back in late 2011, I’ve been inundated with suggestions of tempting-sounding titles from around the globe. To this day, I receive messages and comments from booklovers across the world sharing some of their favourite reads with me. I still add all valid recommendations to the list and hope to continue doing so for a long time to come.
Among the welter of titles I have heard about over the last three years, however, there have been several that have stood out as being particularly admired. November’s book of the month is a prime example.
Its writer, David Grossman, has been mentioned to me by a large number of readers – so much so that I very nearly picked one of his novels as my Israeli choice for A Year of Reading the World. It was only my curiosity about the premise of Aharon Appelfeld’s Blooms of Darkness that made me plump for that instead.
So it’s great to be able to report back to you on one of Grossman’s books now: To the End of the Land, which was translated into English in 2010, two years after the original appeared in Hebrew.
The novel tells the story of three Jewish characters, Ora, Avram and Ilan, whose lives are intertwined from the moment they meet as teenage patients in a plague hospital in 1967. As they grow up, they are shaped and twisted by their loyalties and the cruel events of Israel’s modern history, which simultaneously bind and divide them through a web of secrets and regrets. But when her younger son Ofer volunteers for further service with the Israel Defence Forces, Ora is unable to stand the pressure anymore. Terrified that every moment will bring a knock at the door to notify her of his death, she sets out with Avram on a trek across the country to Galilee, covering old ground in search of peace.
Few books contain so many deft depictions of the fluctuating dynamics of human relationships. From the seismic shifts that break, warp and split lives, to the momentary lapses and dissemblances that colour conversations, this book has it all, with joyous bursts of humour to boot. For example, we see the moment-by-moment collapse of a longstanding relationship during the disastrous taxi ride taking Ofer to the front for which Ora unthinkingly books her trusted Arab driver, Sami, and through it the way that ‘the fears and hatred [they] both drank with [their] mother’s milk’ make certain things impossible – for all that Ora and Sami may laugh and rail together against ‘the long-winded indignant, greedy pretenses of both Jews and Arabs’ in times of relative tranquillity.
The descriptions of the wild places Ora and Avram pass through, dotted with memorial plaques to fallen soldiers and ruined Arab villages, are powerful, but it is the mental and emotional landscape that takes centre stage. Among the many extraordinary passages are a series of narrations from Ora about her memories of raising her sons, which transfigure the mundane incidents of domestic life into searing revelations of the myriad ambiguities and moral compromises that go into making up a human being. The scene in which the young Ofer discovers the truth about where meat comes from will stay with me for a long time – as will Grossman’s afterword, in which he discusses briefly the death of his son in military service in 2006 (the experience, he says, changed ‘the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written’).
Congratulations have to go to translator Jessica Cohen for her work with what must have been a challenging text – just one of the many conundrums being a passage where Ofer’s brother Adam talks exclusively in rhyme. My only quibble was with the choice of the word ‘pub’ for many of the various bars featured in the text, but this may not bother American readers – at whom this version was primarily aimed.
The expansiveness of the story’s emotional excavations means that this is an unapologetically long book and it took me a while to read. Like its characters, it moves at walking pace. The investment of time is well worth it, though. As Ora herself reflects: ‘It’s a good thing the path is so long… This way, there’s time to get accustomed to all the changes.’
To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Vintage Digital, 2010)
May 27, 2014
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)
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: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, which I’m writing for UK publisher Harvill Secker and comes out in 2015.
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).
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)
December 12, 2012
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)
December 4, 2012
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)
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!
November 23, 2012
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!