Book of the month: Cao Wenxuan

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It’s always a pleasure to hear from fellow literary explorers. Since I began my year of reading the world in January 2012, I have come into contact with a large number of people who have embarked on projects to read more widely and discover what stories from other places have to offer.

I’ve heard from people reading their way around continents and language groups, as well as others armchair travelling through time, sampling one text from each year. By far the most popular notion, however, seems to be the idea of travelling the world through children’s books. To date, I know of at least five people who are doing or plan to do this and I’m sure there are many more out there.

So when I heard that author and translator Helen Wang (one of the many kind people who shared their expertise with me while I was researching my book) had translated a children’s story by the Chinese author Cao Wenxuan, I was intrigued to read it.

My interest grew when I read a little more about Cao and the story, Bronze and Sunflower, in the notes at the back of the book. According to them, Cao is often described as China’s Hans Christian Andersen. What’s more, the story was inspired by the childhood experience of a friend of his during the Cultural Revolution, but didn’t fall into place for a long time until Cao had a vision of the Chinese characters for ‘Bronze’ and ‘Sunflower’ one Chinese New Year.

The result is a moving account of two children brought together by loneliness, and bound to each other through familial affection and the determination to survive. Sunflower is the daughter of an artist banished to do hard labour at a rural cadre school and Bronze is the mute son of impoverished villagers who live nearby. After Sunflower’s father dies, Bronze persuades his parents to take her in and the family devotes itself to giving her a decent life in the face of extreme hardship that threatens repeatedly to destroy them.

Bleak though the premise may sound, the book is in fact extraordinarily beautiful. In addition to the touching affection Cao creates between the children and the other family members, his (and Wang’s) vivid, lyrical and sometimes startling descriptions shimmer from the page. From the way Sunflower’s father’s ‘cardboard folder flapped like the wings of a giant bird and released his paintings to the sky’ to the plague of locusts ‘swirling and thrashing like an army of screaming black demons, their mouths gaping, their tongues flicking’, the book is a masterclass in the pictures words can paint.

The story is engrossing too. With Bronze and Sunflower battling to survive and thrive, the stakes could not be higher. As a result, Cao is able to weave in some sophisticated observations about the realities of poverty. He also powerfully portrays the experience of living in a place where services like health care and education are seen as privileges and not rights – thought-provoking stuff for children in many parts of the English-speaking world, who may be more used to grumbling about than begging to go to school.

Gender roles are a little problematic in the book: although Sunflower is full of gumption, she almost always blunders and has to be rescued from her scrapes by the more ingenious Bronze. The situation is rarely reversed, although Sunflower does teach Bronze to read and write, making for one of the most triumphant moments of the book, when Bronze silences the sneers of a crowd by stepping forward and painting his name on a wall.

In addition, it is slightly difficult to know what age range of children would get most out of the book. The publisher, Walker Books, recommends it for children aged nine and over, and says that it can be read independently by confident readers or read aloud by parents, but certain aspects of it feel better suited to children of other ages. While the narrative’s somewhat graphic descriptions of violence and suffering, and sophisticated vocabulary would test most nine-year-olds, the somewhat naive, innocent tone of the story makes it feel more appropriate for younger children.

From conversations I’ve had with Wang, I understand that this is a common challenge when it comes to bringing Chinese children’s literature into English – an interesting insight, perhaps, into the different expectations of childhood in Chinese and Western culture.

All the same, this is an absorbing and beguiling book. Despite being nearly 25 years outside the target readership age, I found myself gripped by many of its episodes and moved by its clear, elegant and often beautiful descriptions. However old you are, this book will expand your horizons – whether you’re engaged in a reading quest or not.

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, translated from the Chinese by Helen Wang (Walker Books, 2015)

Book signing in Covent Garden

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Book signings are funny things. You do your talk and read your extract, and then you sit at a table, crossing your fingers that someone will have liked what you said enough to actually buy your book.

Sometimes you can wait a while. Other times, as happened when I gave a talk at a bookshop in south London recently, you are surrounded by so many people asking questions and wanting to talk about books that the signing itself is a bit of a scramble – I think several people went home with rather eccentric variations on my signature that day!

What always makes the experience better, though, is when people I know through the project are there. After my Around the World in 10 Books event with Scott Pack at the Bath Literary Festival a couple of weeks back, I was delighted to be joined at the signing table by Robin Patterson, one of the volunteers who translated a book for me to read from São Tomé and Príncipe. Scott and I had discussed Our Musseque, the Angolan novel by José Luandino Vieira that Robin had translated, and it was great to see Robin signing copies of that book.

Of course, it’s not possible for many of those who I’ve met virtually on my reading adventures to get to events in the UK. People who follow this blog are spread all over the world. My stats show that it has been viewed by folk in well over 200 territories, including in many places like Mayotte, New Caledonia and the Northern Mariana Islands that didn’t feature on the UN list I worked from for my quest. So the chances are that many of you won’t be in Covent Garden at 6.30pm next Tuesday evening.

But if by some miraculous chance you are in London that day, I’d love it if you’d join me for an event I’m doing at the wonderful Stanfords bookshop on Long Acre in Covent Garden. If you come along, you’ll get to hear me speaking about the project, how it started, some of the amazing stories and people we encountered along the way and how the book developed – and ask any questions you want (within reason…).

And if you haven’t been to Stanfords before, you’ll discover one of the world’s best travel bookshops into the bargain.

Hope to see you there…

Reading the World – an evening with Ann Morgan, Tuesday 24th March, 6.30pm at Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP. Tickets £3 (redeemable against the cost of Reading the World) available here

A special message

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A rather lovely email arrived in this morning. The message was from Rafidah, the generous stranger who, four days after I first asked the planet’s booklovers to help me read the world, left a message offering to go to her local English-language bookshop in Kuala Lumpur and choose and post me my Malaysian book.

Rafidah’s kindness was a great inspiration for me at the start of this project and so, when Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer was published earlier this month, I emailed her to ask if I could send her a copy in return for the books she once sent me.

The photograph above shows my book and the card I enclosed in Rafidah’s apartment, where my parcel has just arrived. More than three years after her act of generosity kickstarted my quest, the book that it led to has found its way to her. I’m so pleased.

Book of the month: José Luandino Vieira

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February’s book of the month has special significance for me. It was translated by Robin Patterson, one of the nine volunteers who came to my rescue to convert Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor into English when I was unable to find anything I could read from São Tomé and Príncipe back in 2012. At the time, Robin was just starting out as a translator, so it is wonderful to see his efforts come to fruition in this lovely edition of Our Musseque by Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira.

In fact, I am doubly pleased to see this novel because, as I found with São Tomé and Príncipe, translations of literary works from Portuguese-speaking African nations are still very rare. So when Dedalus Books sent me a copy, I lost no time diving in.

First published more than 40 years after Luandino Vieira wrote it in prison, the novel captures the experience of growing up in a musseque (shanty town) on the outskirts of Luanda. Thronged with vibrant characters, from the prostitute Albertina to the delinquent Zito and the alcoholic inventor manqué Mr Augusto, the book bustles with individual stories that surge and jostle against one another as the narrative builds towards its narrator’s – and the nation’s – coming of age when Angola’s War of Independence looms.

As in Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns, the oral tradition informs and shapes the text, filling each page with a clamour of voices. We quickly learn that the story is a collective endeavour with accounts perpetually contradicted, augmented and challenged by conflicting descriptions or subsequent events. Consequently, the question of truth-telling and the way stories are presented for different audiences are recurring themes, because, as the narrator concedes, ‘no one can tell where the truth ends and the lies begin’.

This is deliciously illustrated when the ebullient boy Zeca tries to reinvent the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ for a local audience. In response to accusations from his peers that he is ‘messing it all up’ by changing the details they were taught in school, he makes an eloquent case for his use of artistic licence:

‘If I tell a story about a girl in a red hood being eaten by a wolf and all that, nobody’s going to be able to make head nor tail of it, now are they? Are there any girls like that here in this country? No. Are there any wolves in the bush here? Of course not! But we’ve got leopards instead and that’s why I tell it like this.’

This sense that stories are fluid, mutable things operates on all levels of the narrative. While the tone of the interconnected stories veers from lyrical to earthy – occasionally within a single paragraph – the chronology of events is complex, with the narration doubling back to fill in a gap or dodging ahead to something years in the future.

According to Patterson’s Translator’s Note, Luandino Vieira took a similar approach to fact and fiction and even language itself in the novel. His childhood memories informed the book – the parish priest Father Neves, who appears in the story, really existed – and the original language of the narrative wove together Portuguese and Kimbundu to represent the way people spoke in Luanda’s shanty towns. Although Patterson decided not to attempt to recreate this blend in English, his melding of registers echoes that hybrid feel cleverly, capturing the disparate experiences and social situations in which the characters must present themselves.

The result is a rich and involving piece of work that takes readers into the heart of the community it portrays. While those of us used to the conventions of the Anglo-European novel may find the fluid chronology and crowd of characters bewildering at points – we meet six in the first paragraph alone – the overall effect when you surrender yourself to the narrative is surprising, delightful and often profoundly moving. By the end of the book, we are nostalgic for a place we have never been.

Our Musseque (Nosso musseque) by José Luandino Vieira, translated from the Portuguese by Robin Patterson (Dedalus, 2015).

What’s your favourite TED talk?

One of the lovely things to come out of this project is the fact that I’m often invited to go and speak to people about reading and the world. From standing on stage at International Translation Day talking to a packed audience of translators (eek! – actually they were lovely) to speaking to a handful of booklovers in a yurt at the Wise Words Festival in Canterbury last September, I’ve been privileged to share these adventures with many people and I’ve met some fascinating bibliophiles along the way.

I have to confess, however, to being particularly excited about an invitation that I’ll be taking up soon: in March I’ll be flying out to Geneva to talk at a TEDx event organised by Procter & Gamble.

As anyone familiar with the TED format will know, this involves speaking to an audience (in my case of about 300 people) while being filmed by several cameras. The film is then edited together and shared free online.

It’s a fantastic opportunity and a great honour to be asked, but it’s not a little daunting too. As a result, I am spending a lot of time preparing and will be watching many TED talks in the coming weeks.

I’ve shared my favourite above – the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, which she delivered at TEDGlobal in 2009. This was a big inspiration for me throughout my project and kept me conscious of trying to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that one book can stand for a nation.

But I’d be really interested to hear your recommendations. Are there any TED talks that have stood out for you? If so, what was it about them that made them particularly powerful?

Any thoughts would be very much appreciated. Thanks!

Ready for launch

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My dress is pressed. The wine is on its way. In a few hours’ time, I’ll be taking those shrink-wrapped copies of Reading the World in the picture above to central London to join a mountain of others at the launch before my book goes on sale tomorrow and I become a published author.

I’m excited to see my friends, family and many of the people who helped make the book happen. I’m eager to hear my editor speak about the project. And I’m looking forward to getting up on stage to read an extract out loud.

But for now, sitting in the peace and quiet of the living room where this journey started just over three years ago, I’m taking a moment to reflect on this project and where it has led. I’m thinking of the people around the planet who shared their knowledge and experience with me, the supporters who cheered me on, and the amazing stories we found together.

Human beings and books are capable of extraordinary things.

Reading the World: the movie

Well, not quite a movie. But a close second. This is the author film made for me by the excellent production company Vloop.

The idea is to give a little flavour of what Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer is like and how it’s different from the blog. At the end, there are links to three very short extra videos about some of the highlights from that extraordinary year, as well as the film of the shelf piling up with books. I hope you like it.

Seeing the finished film is a great end to what’s already been a very exciting week. In the past few days, the book’s first review has been published and I visited the Guardian newspaper’s offices to record a podcast – to be released soon.

There are lots more things to come in the next few weeks as we build up to the UK publication day (or pub date, as I’ve learned it’s called in the industry) of February 5, 2015. Watch this space.

The finished book

Finished book

A package came last night. This was inside. It’s the UK edition of the finished book, the book that so many of you helped make happen.

If you look closely, you can just spot me peeking up from the author photo on the inside back cover. You can’t see it from here, but I am grinning in that photo almost as much as I am now.

Roll on the UK publication date of February 5, 2015!

Book of the month: David Grossman

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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)

US book deal with Norton

Celebration near Ground Zero

The last month or so has been a strange time for me. On the one hand, there was the euphoria of getting to the end of the stack of edits I showed you on the penultimate draft of Reading the World and knowing that the book I’d been writing on and off for 18 months was done. But on the other, there was the knowledge that this meant I was entering a whole new phase of the publishing process with challenges of its own.

For me, finding out whether the book would get a publisher in the US was top of the pile. With the manuscript finished, Sarah Levitt at the Zoë Pagnamenta Agency in New York (who often works with my agent Caroline Hardman in the UK) was able to swing into action, pitching the project to editors Stateside.

A nervous wait ensued. I tried not to think about it too much. I reminded myself that it’s rare for a British debut author to get taken on in the US, where publishers have their pick of tens of thousands of homegrown wordsmiths. And I consoled myself with the thought that, whatever happened, my book was going to be published in the UK in early 2015 by Harvill Secker/Random House – and that was far more than I had ever dreamed would happen when I first embarked on the madcap adventure of reading a book from every country in the world in a year. A deal in the US would be the icing on the cake, I told myself.

But the truth was, no matter how sanguine I tried to be about it, I cared very much about whether or not the book would come out in America. Having spent the first few weeks of my Year of Reading the World in the States (the picture at the top, in case you haven’t spotted it, was taken on the pier at Coney Island), I feel that the project has a particular connection with the place – several of the stories I read in those early stages were picked off the shelves at McNally Jackson. What’s more, given that over a third of total views of this blog have come from the US, I was keen to share the book with the nation that has been this venture’s most enthusiastic supporter.

So you can imagine my excitement when Sarah Levitt got in touch this week to confirm that we had a deal with editor Elisabeth Kerr at W.W. Norton & Co. The fact that the publisher is Norton and that the book will be coming out under its Liveright imprint (or trade name) makes the news all the sweeter – relaunched in 2012, Liveright sets out to publish ‘outstanding works that define and redefine our culture’. Its historic list is a literary hall of fame, with William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud and T.S. Eliot accounting for just some of its impressive names.

I was particularly delighted to discover that one of Liveright’s first publications after its relaunch was George Orwell’s Diaries. Orwell has always been a bit of a hero of mine and, like me, he started out as a sub-editor on British newspapers (although, much as I might like to think otherwise, the similarities between us probably end there).

The book is set to come out in the US in summer 2015 (probably in May, but I’ll let you know once the date is confirmed). However, if I thought my writing work on it was done, it turns out I can think again: Norton is publishing an anthology called Reading the World soon, so Elisabeth and I will need to think of another title for the US edition. Any suggestions gratefully received…

Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen

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