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)
August 11, 2012
This was a recommendation from Stewart of booklit.com. As the driving force behind not only booklit.com but also the World Literature Forum, Stewart knows a thing or two about global literature, so I was keen to see what his suggestion would be like.
Written in 1970 but not translated into English until 2008, Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole tells the story of Hungarian linguist Bubai who inadvertently gets on a flight to the wrong destination and, instead of arriving at the conference he is due to speak at, finds himself stranded in a mysterious country where he cannot make himself understood. Bewildered and increasingly desperate, he must bring all his knowledge, academic training, cunning and instincts to bear in an attempt to crack the cryptic language of the citizens and find his way home.
Karinthy is a skilful storyteller. Sweeping the reader along over the obstacles to credibility – the absence of anyone with knowledge of any of the two dozen languages Bubai speaks and the apparent indifference of the hotel staff to his plight, not to mention the whole business of getting there in the first place – he creates a compelling work.
He does this by embracing the unbelievable nature of the story and stretching its boundaries even further: the office block under construction near the hotel grows at an impossible rate, for example, and the city seethes in a ‘never-ending rush hour’. As a result, like the protagonist, we are never quite sure where we are and find ourselves wondering with Bubai whether he is ‘on planet earth at all or in some other part of the cosmos’ – or indeed in an imaginary world where the rules are different from our own.
This sense of disorientation is heightened by Bubai’s linguistic expertise. Watching a man used to navigating his way between cultures as easily as most of us get around our houses try and fail to achieve even the most basic level of communication is gripping.
At times it can be very funny, as when the hero is ‘all but dancing with rage [...], his arms threshing the air’, but as the book goes on and Bubai retreats into reticence as a result of the continual rebuffs he encounters it becomes increasingly tragic and disturbing. The unmaking of his confidence and sense of identity develops into a chilling parable about the rapidity with which all of us can be made to abandon our skills and self-belief in the face of sustained rejection and frustration.
If I had to name a gripe, it would be that the pacing is a little odd towards the middle of the book. As Bubai circles the communication problem, returning again and again to the same doubtful solutions like someone trying to break into a locked house, the narrative becomes a touch repetitive.
But this is nitpicking. Overall this is a thoroughly engrossing and masterful work about the potentially life and death consequences of not being able to communicate. It is the only book I’ve read where all dialogue bar the words spoken by the protagonist is gobbledygook, yet it is also one of the most thorough and powerful celebrations of language in all its forms. A joy.
Metropole (Epepe) by Ferenc Karinthy, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (Telegram Books, 2012)
May 7, 2012
I first heard about this novel when I stopped by the African Books Collective’s stall at the London Book Fair last month. Acting as a non-profit distribution outlet for 124 independent African publishers from 21 countries, the organisation has its finger on the pulse of much of the continent’s best contemporary work. So when they tipped me off about Weaver Press in Zimbabwe and recommended The Hairdresser of Harare by new talent Tendai Huchu, I knew I had to give it a go.
The novel follows single mother and hairdresser extraordinaire Vimbai as she struggles to keep her head above water in the swirling currents and rip tides of contemporary Zimbabwe. Challenged by the arrival in the salon of gifted male colleague Dumisani, Vimbai feels her reputation as the city’s best hairdresser slipping and battles to retain her position as ‘Queen Bee’. However, enmity quickly turns to love when Dumisani moves in as her lodger and life would be all-but perfect, were it not for the swelling tide of political unrest and Dumisani’s secret that must eventually tear Vimbai’s dreams apart.
The witty, conversational tone is what makes the book. Reading Vimbai’s comments about the one-upmanship between Harare’s salons, where ‘destroying a competitor’s reputation was all part of the game’, and her top tips on pleasing customers, feels like being an apprentice standing beside her as she initiates you into her art snip by snip. There is a deliciously bitchy, back-room-gossip flavour to some of the observations too, as when Vimbai describes the salon owner and her daughter: ‘neither mother nor daughter had necks. Shame’.
The liveliness of the voice and the strength of the characters mean that Huchu succeeds in foregrounding them against the extraordinary societal collapse that normally dominates the stories we in the West hear about Zimbabwe. While details – such as the bricks of money needed to buy the simplest things, the street children who make a living from selling their places in interminable queues, the corpses disinterred for their clothes, and the packs of tampons regarded as precious gifts – provide stark reminders of the sinister politics at work, the novel is about people who, far from being faceless victims, are determined to live to the full.
When national events do come crashing into the narrative, as in the case of the salon’s supplier and long-term friend Trina who is hounded out of the shop and told ‘Go back to Britain, you white pig’ by a VIP customer, they do so through personal encounters and become all the more powerful for it.
The cultural differences between Britain and Zimbabwe mean that the revelation of Dumisani’s secret (which I’ll try not to ruin for you) will probably have contrasting effects on many readers from the two countries. The book itself corroborates this, with several often very funny comments about the difference in attitudes the two countries have towards the issue.
While this may mean many British readers struggle to empathise with all Vimbai’s thought processes (and may realise the truth long before she does), it does nothing to lessen the fascination of watching her grapple with a social taboo. Huchu handles this nicely with the help of Vimbai’s ex-philosophy student brother, who enables him to rehearse several involved arguments without them sounding too forced in this otherwise light narrative. Nevertheless, I did find Vimbai’s shift in stance towards the end a little abrupt.
I could also have done with fewer cliffhanger ends to chapters. As it stands, every section ends with a titillating sentence where Huchu leans out of the book, thrusting the next chapter at readers as though he is anxious they will wander off and try something different if he doesn’t keep up the hard sell.
He should trust the strength, wit and engaging power of his work more. The novel is addictive, funny, thought-provoking and brave. If you’re looking for engrossing, funny summer reading with more depth than the average bear, the answer’s right here.
The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu (Weaver Press, 2010)
December 13, 2011
Some people say you should only read books in their original languages. This may be because they believe a particular text is inherently sacred – as in the case of the Quran – or because they are worried about bias and erroneous interpretations creeping in Chinese whispers-style when a third party gets between writer and reader. It can also be down to concerns about the difficulty of translating idioms, images and ideas that are specific to particular cultures (see writer Miguel Fernandes Ceia’s recent blog post for The Independent).
However there is often an element of snobbishness mixed up in this view too. Culture, we seem to think, shouldn’t come easy. It should be hard work and anything that threatens to make it more accessible is not quite cricket — a bit like someone refusing to have Brussel sprouts with their turkey on Christmas day.
There was definitely more than a hint of this in my mind when I started to think about my challenge to read a book from every country in 2012. Being able to read (slowly and with a very big dictionary) in French and German, I felt it was only right that I should take on stories from Francophone and German-speaking countries in their original languages. This would enable me to access the texts in their purest form (and allow me to show off how clever I am).
Then a kindly linguist pointed out that reading in other languages would miss the point. If this blog was about one person in London trying to access all of world literature, she said, it should stick to texts in the language that most Londoners can read: English.
After a bit of headscratching, I realised she was right. After all, if I truly believed that only reading done in the original language really counted then what was I doing trying to read my way around the world? Even with my impressive trilingualism (erhem), surely such a view would mean that I was only really able to access a very tiny percentage of what the world had to offer? And besides did I honestly believe that my schoolgirl French would provide a fuller, more meaningful reading experience than a translation researched and crafted by a professional linguist?
In fact the more I thought about it, the more vital translation seemed to be to people around the world having a hope of understanding where others are coming from. And the more scandalous it seemed that even despite the excellent work of organisations such as the Society of Authors’ Translators Association, English PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation (all of which have already been hugely supportive of this project) translated texts only make up 3 per cent of published works in the UK each year. (In fact, as English PEN’s Emma Cleave told me, even the figure of 3 per cent, which is quoted in pretty much any article you read about literary translation, is probably exaggerated — no one’s sure where it originated, so if you’ve got any idea we’d all love to know!)
Then there’s the fact that, as more books are sold in English than in any other language (according to English PEN and Free Word’s Global Translation Initiative Report), we are putting writers in other languages at a huge disadvantage by failing to translate all but a handful of the great foreign language works out there — particularly when the works of English language writers are so widely translated. The excellent Cairo-based blogger M. Lynx Qualey (another valued supporter of this project) wrote eloquently on this subject recently for the Egypt Independent.
So the long and short of it is that I am embracing translation. I am reading only in English and I make no apologies for it. I want to hear about all the latest, best and most exciting translations and the quirky, little-known ones too. I don’t care if something has been through three or four languages to get to me; I don’t care if you’ve translated it and sent me the text yourself (in fact I’d love that). If a work’s good, then it’s better that it has a chance to reach as wide an audience as possible instead of staying forever closed off to millions of people.
Keep the suggestions of books coming in — this is getting exciting…
November 24, 2011
One of the first challenges I had to face when starting to prepare for my project to read a book from every country in 2012 was to decide exactly what I meant by ‘country’. Having grown up in the UK, where there’s always someone talking about making a bid for independence – whether it’s Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Yorkshire or some of the feistier parts of south-east London – I had an inkling that this might be trickier than it first appeared.
But it wasn’t until I typed ‘number of countries in the world’ into Google that I realised quite what I was letting myself in for.
There are a lot of conflicting answers to the question. The UN has 193 members. There will be 205 countries represented at the London 2012 Olympic Games. And all in all there are at least 258 national flags in the world today (see the video below, which has 257 of them apart from the one for South Sudan, the world’s newest country, which declared independence from Sudan in July 2011).
Then there are the stateless nations, like the Kurds, who define themselves as a separate group but don’t have a territory to call their own. I’m not sure if anyone has counted these up, but I get the impression that the number of these depends on where you stand.
A lot of the issues have to do with the definition of what we mean by a sovereign state. As set out in the Montevideo Convention, sovereign statehood essentially boils down to having a permanent population, defined borders, a government and dealings with other states. You’re a state if you say you are and the people in and around you agree. But as the nightly news will tell you, this is often not as simple as it sounds.
The list I’m working from now comprises all UN-recognised countries plus Palestine and Taiwan. When I started the project, I was using what seemed to be the most universally accepted list of sovereign states out there. This included all UN-recognised countries, plus Kosovo. I took the liberty of adding Taiwan to this because it used to be a member of the UN and still maintains relations with many countries. This gave me a grand total of 196.
However as the project went on, I realised the list I’d been using was actually based on states recognised by Western countries such as the US. Given that this is a global project, this seemed a little wonky.
So I decided to change the world (there’s a phrase I’ve always wanted to write) and use a list of states with some degree of recognition (past or present) from the UN as a more global barometer of statehood. Counting permanent observer and ‘non-member entity’ Palestine and Taiwan, this came to 196 too and in practice only meant swapping Palestine for Kosovo on the list. So this is what I did – not purely to save myself work, but also because as far as I could see recognition by this global organisation was one of the clearest and most universally agreed upon definitions of countryhood around.
It’s by no means a perfect system though and it will mean odd omissions from my list, like Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, both of which, despite having quite distinct cultures and histories are technically territories of other states. Still, it’s the best I’ve got to go on for now. And it will certainly keep me busy.
Please do keep the suggestions of titles coming – I’m going to need all the help I can get!
This post was updated on 10 June 2012 to reflect my decision to include Palestine in Kosovo’s stead on the list.
October 24, 2011
In 2012, the world is coming to London for the Olympics and I’m going out to meet it. I’m planning to read my way around as many of the globe’s 196 countries (yes, I count Taiwan) as I can, sampling one book from every nation.
I want to read a story from Swaziland, a novel from Nepal, a book from Bolivia, a… well, you get the picture.
It’s going to be tough — according to the Society of Authors, only 3 per cent of the books published in the UK each year are translations. There are plenty of languages that have next to nothing translated into English. Then there are all the tiny tucked away places like Nauru and Tavalu (I know, I hadn’t either), where there may not be much written down at all.
Some countries have a culture of almost exclusively oral storytelling (alright, get your giggles over with now). Others have governments that don’t like to let works of art leak out to corrupt westerners.
And that’s not to mention the whole issue of what constitutes a national literature in the first place. Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in the country? Can it be about another nation state?
Frankly I don’t know. I’m hoping I’ll figure out the answers (or at least my answers) to some of these questions en route.
What I do know is I can’t do it by myself. As anyone who’s dropped in on my A year of reading women blog will realise, I tend to stick mostly to British and North American writers, with the occasional South African, Australian and Indian thrown in. My knowledge of world literature is shamefully anglocentric.
So I need your help. I need you to tell me what’s hot in Russia, what’s cool in Malawi, and what’s downright smoking in Iceland. I hope to get as good a list together as possible in advance so I can hit the ground sprinting come New Year’s Day.
The books can be classics or current favourites. They can be obscure folk tales or commercial triumphs. All I ask is that they capture something of the character of a country somewhere in the world — oh, and that they’re good.
With thanks to Jason Cooper for the idea.
Picture by Steve Lennon