February 8, 2014
One of the great, unexpected things that has come out of my project to read a book from every country in 2012 is the fact that I’m often invited to go and tell people about it at various events around the UK and even abroad. There’s nothing nicer than sharing some of the great stories you helped me find and the extraordinary kindness of many readers and writers around the planet that I encountered that year – and still do to this day.
So when Graham asked me to come and give a talk yesterday evening at the Hilt in Chandler’s Ford, Hampshire, I was only too pleased to say yes. The plan was that I would get the train from London to Winchester, where Graham would pick me up.
Everything was going swimmingly until, about ten minutes before we were due to pull into my stop, the train slowed to a halt. The guard came on the Tannoy. There’d been an incident at Winchester, he said, and the station was closed. Instead of stopping there, the train would go back the way it had come and take another route. Next stop: Woking, then Southampton.
My heart was in my mouth. I thought of Graham waiting at the station and all the people who had bought tickets to hear me speak. How on earth was I going to make it on time?
Luckily, the woman sitting next to me knew the area well. The best thing for me to do was to stay on until Southampton as it wasn’t that far to drive there from Winchester. I’d be late, but I would at least make it, she said.
Over the next two hours, the woman and I chatted as the train crawled its way around southern England. Claire, I learned, was a film editor making a documentary about fashion and we talked openly about our work and families. At some point, we heard that the disruption at Winchester had resulted from a person jumping under a train, a sad discovery that made us reflect on some of the difficult situations facing people we knew in our own lives.
At last, 20 minutes after my talk was due to start, we pulled into Southampton Central. By this stage, poor Graham had been waiting for nearly an hour and had bought me several cups of peppermint tea and a veggie pizza, nearly all of which had gone cold.
We got to the Hilt and I gave my talk. Despite having to wait so long, the audience were warm and enthusiastic and I felt very welcome. As ever, the excitement and fellow-feeling that books have the power to generate was humbling.
Then it was back to the station. Things I’d seen online suggested that by this stage trains should be running from Winchester once more, but when I arrived on the platform, it turned out not to be the case. The information on the boards and the recorded messages just kept pushing departure times back and cancelling services, and there was no member of staff (erhem, South West Trains) to advise us.
At length, a man asked me if I was headed for London and what I thought about the idea of getting a group of people together and trying to share a taxi. It seemed better than spending the night staring at numbers on a screen, so we gave it a go and before we knew it we had six people and a taxi prepared to drive us the 70-odd miles or so to London for a reasonable price.
Feeling a bit like children embarking on a school trip – the taxi driver even made us stop at a petrol station to use the toilet and get snacks and drinks before we started – we set off. My fellow passengers, I discovered, included theatre director Daphna and set designer Jenny who had been at work on I Do, a play showing at Winchester’s Theatre Royal and coming back to the Almeida Theatre in London soon, and a young artistic guy working for an architecture firm called Tom.
Sitting up front as we bowled down the motorway, Tom and I had a great discussion about Amsterdam, where he lived for 18 months, and our various projects.
Finally, some way north of midnight and after the poor taxi driver’s sat nav had erroneously led us to the Ritz, we arrived at Waterloo, tired but strangely happy. Against all the odds, it had been a great journey. We had met new people and learned something about the awkward strangers we normally found ourselves sitting among on public transport.
If the person who died on the tracks that day needed proof that they were worth something and had the power to make a difference, it was there in that car. Sadly, however, they’ll never know.
Picture of a Banksy in Boston by Chris Devers
January 9, 2014
Those of you who have followed this project since the early days might remember Julia Duany. She is the South Sudanese author and senior civil servant who very kindly wrote and recorded the story that kicked off my year of reading the world on 1 January 2012.
If Julia hadn’t been so generous, I don’t know what I would have done about finding something to read from the world’s newest country. South Sudan had only come into being a handful of months before my literary quest began and was still feeling the impact of a long and bloody civil war that had devastated the region. The nascent nation had virtually no roads, no hospitals, no schools and certainly nothing in the way of a book publishing industry.
Julia’s story reflected this. She wrote with great feeling about her experience of returning to her homeland in 2005 after 20 years in the US to work to build her nation from the ground up. She was under no illusions about the challenges that lay ahead, but she was also full of hope and pride for her new nation.
Sadly, in the last month, fighting between the supporters of the South Sudanese president and those of his former deputy has brought great suffering to many in the region. With much of the country in chaos and thousands fleeing their homes to escape arrest or execution, it’s very hard to make contact with people there and find out what’s going on.
So when a producer of BBC Radio 4′s iPM programme contacted me to see if I could put her in touch with Julia to get an inside perspective on the situation I was determined to do my best to help. Luckily, it turned out that Julia had left South Sudan to spend Christmas with her family in the US shortly before the trouble erupted. Speaking from Washington, she recorded a powerful and moving account of her experiences and thoughts on the latest terrible events, which was broadcast last weekend (you can hear it here, although I suspect this won’t work outside the UK). As those of us in peaceful places wish each other Happy New Year and set out with high hopes for 2014, it’s sobering to think what Julia faces as she waits to return to the country she and her compatriots have worked so hard to establish.
One colleague of Julia’s is especially in my thoughts at the moment. Deng Gach Pal, the man who put me in touch with Julia and with whom I have kept in touch since I met him in the run up to South Sudan’s independence in 2011, has not answered my emails since the fighting broke out. I hope this is merely down to him being busy trying to cope with the extremely difficult circumstances in the capital, Juba, but I know that there is a chance that things are more serious than that. As you can see from an article I wrote about him for the New Internationalist, Deng is an extraordinary person full of enthusiasm and energy and has overcome challenges most of us could never imagine in his life. I can only hope that he is safe.
Picture of an ash-dressed Mundari child celebrating the first South Sudan Independence Day by Freedom House
December 30, 2013
This time last year I was preparing the final post of my Year of Reading the World: the 197th book review of the international reading project that took over my life in 2012. In the 12 months since then, I’ve been on many related adventures – from being invited to write and speak about what we got up to that year, to taking part in exciting events, workshops and initiatives to promote reading books from further afield.
What’s more, I’ve heard from many more readers and writers around the planet and continued to receive lots of intriguing book recommendations. Many of them have sounded so good that I knew I had to share them, so in the last few weeks I’ve spent time going through all the suggestions I’ve had in the last year and updated the list accordingly. Do check it out if you’re planning some literary travels or bookpacking in 2014.
Among the comments, I’ve been particularly pleased to receive suggestions for some of the countries that have very few entries – Fiji, Nepal, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands and Oman are all looking stronger thanks to recent additions and I’m especially intrigued by Veronica’s suggestion of Balys Sruoga’s Forest of the Gods for Lithuania, translated into English by the author’s granddaughter.
It’s also been great to have further tips for some of the most well-represented countries. We now have lots more recommendations of Indian literature written in languages other than English, especially Bengali stories. Hungary and Turkey are also looking formidable, and as several people have told me to read Bosnian writer Meša Selimović’s Death and the Dervish, I’m definitely going to have to give it a go.
As I found last year, there are growing mountains of titles that you feel should be translated into English but are not yet available. Romanian writer Dan Lungu’s Raiul găinilor is one such. According to Cristi, it has been translated into French and her description certainly makes it sound tempting:
‘It’s a novel about the small world of a street at the outskirts of a Romanian city, where people live only to be in the center of attention, and that makes them do whatever it takes to get the attention they crave. It’s immensely hilarious and benefits from the author’s sociological expertise.’
In addition to including your recommendations on the list, I’ve taken the liberty of sticking on some of the international titles I’ve been particularly impressed by recently, among them Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul, an astonishing glimpse inside the torture chambers of the Algerian War, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Apart from featuring some rather misleading depictions of how quickly and easily blogs develop a following (the heroine’s Lagos blog picks up 1,000 unique visitors in a handful of days without any effort on her part – something most new blogs take weeks if not months and lots of publicising to achieve), this is one of the most insightful and engrossing things I’ve read all year.
It’s also been great to hear from many of the writers whose work I’ve read for this project – Michael Aubertin, Anna Kim, Samson Kambalu, Cecil Browne, Daniel Kelin, Glenville Lovell, Ak Welsapar, Marie-Therese Toyi and Philo Ikonya to name but a few. In fact I was delighted when Philo included one of my comments about Kenya Will You Marry Me? on the cover of her new book, Still Sings the Nightbird. It was also lovely to receive this comment from Ahmed:
‘Hi, Ms Morgan, I am from the tiny islands of Maldives. You chose one of the best books to read about our beliefs, culture and lifestyle. Just now informed Mr. Abdulla Sadiq of your choice. He was delighted. What a great idea!’
It made me smile to think that Abdulla Sadiq could know the influence his freely available translation of his homeland’s classic story Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu has had on a random person on the other side of the world.
Finally, I’ve been delighted to hear from more of the growing army of world readers and book groups embarking on global projects around the planet. From those who’ve been going for years, to those who started yesterday and from those reading under all sorts of time, genre and setting constraints to those simply seeing what they can find, there seem to be more and more of us with every week that passes. This is testament to the extraordinary times we live in and can only be a good thing. I hope my list helps you navigate some of the rockiest terrain and look forward to updating it further as exciting new literary territory opens up for English-language readers around the globe.
Thanks again for all your interest and support. It continues to be a great encouragement as I settle down to write the final draft of Reading the World: Postcards from my bookshelf (published by Harvill Secker in 2015) in the coming weeks.
A very happy new year to you all. Watch this space.
Picture by Rakka
December 7, 2013
Since I finished my Year of Reading the World last December, I’ve had the privilege of being involved in a number of exciting opportunities and projects. The last few months have been no exception. Not only was I invited to record a piece about reading the world at BBC Broadcasting House for NPR in the states (you can hear the finished report through the link at the bottom of this post), but I was also asked to sit on English PEN’s PEN Translates panel for the second time.
If you’ve not come across it, PEN Translates is a funding programme run by the freedom of expression and literary network charity English PEN. It exists to help pay for the translation into English of works that deserve to reach a wider audience. Scores of books have received support from the fund since it was launched in 2012, including Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, who you can see pictured above at a signing (photo by Robert Burdock).
As it’s open to works in any language and from anywhere, the programme has to have a careful assessment process. First off, the publishers’ submissions and original versions of the proposed texts are read by people with in-depth knowledge of that region’s literature and language. These assessors prepare detailed reports in English, giving their reactions and explaining whether or not they support the application. The panel members (aka yours truly and six others) read these reports and formulate their own opinions. Then we get together and have a discussion that goes on for several hours.
It’s not easy. For one thing, it’s often very hard to make a judgement about how good a book is – or what sort of a job a publisher is likely to do with it – when you’ve never read a word of the story. As I discovered last year, books that don’t necessarily sound promising at first can often be hidden gems.
Then there’s the challenge of balancing all the rival considerations that affect a book’s chances: the quality of the writing, the diversity of applications, how well represented literature from that region is in the UK market, whether or not the work is too similar to other things in the bookshops, whether or not you (yes, you sitting there) are likely to want to read it and if you are, whether the story needs funding in the first place – to name but a few.
Amazingly, however, after several hours of discussion, we always seem to manage to reach a good solution. Luckily, because the panel is not required to grant the full amount requested, we have the freedom to make partial awards where it seems appropriate, which means we can make the money go a long way. In fact, at the last meeting, we managed to support some 17 books.
It’s inspiring and humbling to be involved and I’m proud to have the chance to play a small part in helping to bring some exciting new works into English. If you’re looking for Christmas present ideas, why not check out the supported titles on the PEN website? I’m told there is going to be an updated version soon, complete with books that dance!
Photo by Robert Burdock
October 16, 2013
When I came up with the idea of reading the world in a year back at the end of 2011, I could never have predicted where the project would lead. I certainly never dreamed it would help Steve and me arrange our honeymoon. But that’s the latest twist in this extraordinary adventure.
Shortly after I wrote my article for BBC Culture, I received an email from Lea at Combadi, a travel agent with the strapline ‘Come back different’. She and her husband Yannis were interested in writing a piece about this blog for their newsletter.
At the time, Steve and I were in the process of planning our wedding. We’d been wondering about Greece as a honeymoon destination, but weren’t really sure where to look, so when we found out Combadi is based in Athens, it seemed like a perfect fit. With just a few emails back and forth, Lea and Yannis organised us a fabulous break in Crete, tracking down some wonderful places we would never have found for ourselves.
If that wasn’t enough, imagine my delight when we arrived at the beautiful hotel in a remote village in eastern Crete three weeks ago to find a special Year of Reading the World surprise waiting for me. Lea and Yannis had arranged for a copy of Freedom and Death by Crete’s most famous writer Nikos Kazantzakis (the author of Zorba the Greek) to be in our room.
Proclaimed as a modern Iliad in its blurb, the 1950 novel (first translated into English in 1956) follows the fortunes of the fearsome Cretan resistance fighter Captain Michales as he tries to lead the residents of the village of Megalokastro in a bloody fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire and union with Greece.
It is a mighty book, full of gripping and terrible events. From the bitter mountain duel between the Turk Nuri Bey and his arch-enemy Michales’s cousin to the cruel machinations of the Pacha and the Bacchanalian blowouts the protagonist uses to try to escape his own thoughts, the novel throbs with dark energy.
For me, reading about the brutal events of more than a century before amid the picturesque landscape where they took place was an education. Not only did it open my eyes to a new chapter of history, but it also unlocked numerous local mores and customs. Following a comment from Steve about the large number of middle-aged Cretan men sporting moustaches, I was intrigued to discover a dialogue in the book that implied facial hair was a key gender marker in 19th-century Crete – an attitude that perhaps still lingers in some places today. Similarly, after reading about a hearty meal of Cretan sausage, I ordered it for dinner, confident that we would have a delicious meal (we did).
I finished the dramatic last page (don’t worry, no spoilers here) with a sense of awe. Once again, books were taking me places and opening up experiences I could never have accessed on my own.
Freedom and Death (Captain Michalis) by Nikos Kazantzakis, translated from the Greek by Jonathan Griffin (Faber & Faber, 1966)
August 7, 2013
It’s been an exciting time in the A Year of Reading the World camp over the past few weeks. First, BBC Culture asked me to write an article about the project (you can see it here, unless you’re in the UK, in which case you’ll have to paste the link into a proxy site such as anonymouse.org to access it). They even sent a photographer round to my flat to capture me with some of the books – I’d never realised how tough it is to smile continuously before!
When the article went live, a flood of visitors came pouring onto the blog and with it media requests from all over the world. This led to articles in newspapers in Denmark, Sweden, Serbia, Macedonia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary and many other places besides, as well as approaches from radio stations in Australia, Ireland and the US. In fact, I’m still getting requests more than three weeks after the event.
If that wasn’t enough, some mysterious person then posted The List on Reddit and things got crazier still. More than 42,000 people piled through to this site in a single day, making my head spin. It was humbling to think that so many people could take an interest in what I’d been up to – and very exciting to know that the idea of reading world literature appeals to so many others.
In other news, the World Bookshop Challenge has got off to a good start with feedback from various sources in the UK and abroad (so far, it seems, you’re unlikely to find literature from more than 70 countries represented on the shelves of a single bookshop).
As ever, the world’s readers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help – and none more so than Paul in Waterstones Windsor. He not only counted up all the books from different countries in the shop, but also wrote a blog post about the feat and did a pie chart to represent his findings. He’s itching to tell someone about the shop’s Kyrgyz literature now, so if you’re passing through Windsor why not pop into Waterstones and make his day? (Apparently, he’s the one with the beard.)
However, Paul’s labour of love and my own foray into nearby Kirkdale Bookshop (which, the manager estimates, carries literature from 25–30 nations) have made me realise just what a tall order counting up the number of books from different countries can be in many shops. For one thing, most places don’t even demarcate books that way. You’ll find The White Tiger and Things Fall Apart rubbing shoulders with Rebecca and Cloud Atlas in the general fiction section – not to mention the international free-for-all that is the bestsellers list.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to modify the challenge slightly. Where counting is not possible, it’s more than OK to ask staff to give you a rough estimate. Though it won’t be exact, it will nevertheless provide an interesting insight. Of course, if you are as diligent as Paul, I’d love for you to hit me with your pie charts, but whatever you can find out would be great.
Thanks again for all your support. None of this would have happened without you.
Picture by Diane Cordell
June 12, 2013
As you know, I’m a big believer that lots of brains are better than one. If it hadn’t been for the many hundreds of you who stopped by this blog last year to offer book suggestions, contacts, help, translation services and even to send me stories from your corners of the planet, I would never have managed to read my way around the world. I’d probably be in Mauritania right now, wandering miserably around the market in Nouakchott in search of somebody – anybody – who could tell me a story in English.
As a writer, it turns out I’m not much different: if I can get people who know more about a subject to help me with my research, I will. And so I thought I’d turn to you again to see if you can give me a hand with finding something out.
I’m currently working on chapter two of Reading the World: postcards from my bookshelf, my forthcoming book about our adventure. As it stands (and of course subject to the judgment of my excellent editors Michal and Gemma at Harvill Secker), this section deals with the major obstacles to getting books in English from every country in the world.
To put this in context, I’m keen to give an idea of the number of countries that have books represented on the shelves of the average bookshop. I’ve been in touch with the publicity departments of the major bookshop chains in the UK, but so far no-one’s been able to give me accurate figures. It seems they simply don’t measure their stock in that way.
So here’s where you come in. If you’ve got a spare half hour, I was wondering if you might pop down to your local bookshop and tot up the number of nations represented on their shelves. Ideally, I’m looking for novels, short story collections and memoirs by writers from the countries in question (ie I’m not interested in books by other nationals set there). However, I appreciate this might be a little tricky to work out, so I’m happy to stick with fiction if that makes your life easier. And if the bookshop has its own categorisations for literature from different nations, I’m happy for you to count that up rather than looking at each book to work out where the author is from.
Essentially, I’m interested in whatever information or observations you can give me on the offering of international literature wherever you are in the world. If you get a chance to snap a shot of your local world books section, it would be fascinating to compare photographs too.
Once you have something to share, please post the information along with the name and region of the bookshop below or on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page, tweet it to @annmorgan30 or email it to me (ann’at’annmorgan.me).
Looking forward to hearing about your discoveries.
Picture by Ujwala Prabhu
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)