A great honour

June 15, 2014

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I had a nice surprise this weekend. There was a very familiar name on the list of people receiving Queen’s Birthday Honours (the titles awarded every year by Elizabeth II to mark her official birthday). The person in question was celebrated Portuguese- and Spanish-literature translator, Margaret Jull Costa, who has been given an OBE for services to literature.

I first came across Jull Costa’s work back in the initial week of my year of reading the world when a colleague at the newspaper I was working at lent me her translation of Eça de Queiroz’s The Mandarin and Other Stories to read as my choice from her home country, Portugal.

A few months later, I encountered Jull Costa again when I read Luís Cardoso’s powerful memoir The Crossing, one of the few books available in English translation by a writer from East Timor.

On both occasions, I was struck by the clarity and beauty of the writing and, as my appreciation for the extraordinary skill that translation requires grew throughout the project, I began to realise how deserved the many accolades Jull Costa has received over the course of her career are. But it wasn’t until September of that year that I witnessed her dedication to literature first-hand.

That month, having tried and failed to find any stories in translation from the small African nation of Sao Tome & Principe, I decided to appeal to the kindness of strangers and see whether Portuguese speakers might come to my rescue to translate a short story collection especially for me. As happened so many times during my quest, the world’s literature lovers overwhelmed me with their generosity and before a week had gone by, I had more offers of help than I was able to accept.

In amongst the welter of messages, however, there was one particularly exciting email. It was a message from Margaret Jull Costa, who had heard about the venture from a student on a summer school she had taught at, and wanted to offer her assistance.

I couldn’t believe it. This was Margaret Jull Costa. The Margaret Jull Costa – translator of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, and Javier Marías and a shelf-ful of other revered writers. And she wanted to do a translation for me? As I said at the time to a friend, I felt as though I had asked to borrow a bike and been lent a Ferrari.

True to her word, along with eight other volunteers, Jull Costa translated the stories I selected and sent them back, enabling me to read Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor in its entirety. Without her work, both published and unpublished, I would not have been able to read the world as I did. Hearty congratulations to her on this latest achievement in a glittering and immensely valuable career.

Picture by marcus_jb1973

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

Not only was I immersed in research about global literature for my forthcoming book, Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, 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)

 

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Tonight is a big night from for booklovers in my part of the planet. Following on from the original date of World Book Day (marking the anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes), World Book Night is the time when bibliophiles in the UK, Ireland and the US give away free copies of some popular titles in an effort to encourage reluctant readers to get into stories.

There’s a serious point behind it: with 35 per cent of adults in the UK claiming not to read for pleasure, there is a huge group of people for whom books are a closed, er, book. It’s great that tonight might give some of them a chance to discover what they’re missing.

All the same, I can’t help being disappointed when I look at the list of the 20 books that volunteers in the UK will be distributing this evening. Though the genres vary from classic crime fiction in the shape of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral to John Boyne’s Young Adult Holocaust novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and from former SAS sergeant Andy McNab’s memoir Today Everything Changes to Sathnam Sanghera’s The Boy with the Topknot, an account of growing up in the Punjabi community in Wolverhampton, there is not a single translated novel to be found on the list. Unlike previous years, all the books are by authors who write in English – most of whom are British, with the odd Irish and American wordsmith thrown in for good measure.

It’s a similar story when you look at the US WBN list, although there is one Spanish-language work in the mix: Puerto Rican author Esmeralda Santiago’s Cuando Era Puertorriqueña, which is also being given away in both Spanish and English.

According to the WBN UK website, this year’s selection was arrived at by an ‘expert editorial committee’, which looked for ‘good, enjoyable, highly readable books with strong compelling narratives [and] … a really wide variety as what will inspire one person will turn another off’.

I have no problem with that. I’m with Samuel Johnson in the belief that reading any book is better than reading none. ‘I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good,’ wrote the 18th century man of letters. ‘I would let him first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get a better book afterwards.’

The one point on which I disagree with both Johnson and the WBN committee is that this has to be an ‘English’ book. If you want to give people a gripping crime novel, why not put a bestselling Jo Nesbo on the list or the latest translated French thriller? If it’s Holocaust fiction you’re after, why not pick from the fine array of German-language novels on the subject or plump for Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning Blooms of Darkness – I certainly can’t think of a more intriguing premise than that of a Jewish boy being hidden in a brothel throughout the war.

The problem seems to be that those in charge of World Book Night have got so hung up on the issue of engaging non-readers with books that they have forgotten the world. Perhaps they are afraid that the world itself might prove another obstacle to someone picking a story up.

They could be right. But if they don’t give potential readers the choice, we’ll never know.

Instead, for now, the ‘world’ represented on both sides of the Atlantic this World Book Night will be a very narrow, inward-looking one; a place where the only stories non-readers will be offered are those written in the language they have been speaking all along.

What translated fiction would you choose to give away this World Book Night? Leave a comment and let me know…

Photo by wsilver

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One of the exciting things about reading the world was the number of unpublished manuscripts I got to sample during the project. From the crowd-sourced translation of Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor, which I read for Sao Tome & Principe after nine volunteers generously converted it into English for me, and Mozambican literary giant Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, to Ak Welsapar’s The Tale of Aypi  – the first book ever to be translated directly from Turkmen but still, sadly, without an Anglophone publishing deal – I was repeatedly surprised and delighted by the extraordinary works I had the privilege of discovering.

People often ask me whether any of these works are going to make it into the shops. I hope so, is the short answer. Certainly many of them deserve to – not least because they are often one of the few, if not the only, English-language translations of literature in existence from particular nations. I would be delighted if this project meant that some of these exciting stories had a chance to break into the world’s largest publishing market.

So you can imagine my pleasure when I heard today that Robi Gottlieb-Cahen’s Minute Stories has come out through Editions Phi.

Now, I have  to confess that A Year of Reading the World has nothing to with Gottlieb-Cahen’s success – the book was already slated for publication when Claudine Muno, frontwoman of Luxembourgian band Claudine Muno and the Lunar Boots, helped me find it. Still, it’s great to hear of the first AYORTW manuscript making it into print – particularly from Luxembourg, which has very little literature available in English.

Gottlieb-Cahen’s fascinating collection of tiny stories of no more than two or three sentences written in three languages and accompanying paintings by the author will give many readers a chance to sample literature from a nation they might not otherwise have the opportunity to read a book from. Congratulations on your achievement, Robi!

And for details of more AYORTW titles coming to bookshops or e-retailers near you, watch this space…

Picture from Editions Phi

Villalobos

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

Bookshop

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

United Kingdom: coming home

December 31, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest of the World: revealed

December 29, 2012

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So there it is, up there on the star in the top left of the picture: the 53rd – and last – book I’ve read on my Kindle for this project. But which of the shortlisted places and peoples not featured on the main list did it come from? Basque Country, Bermuda, Catalonia, Faroe Islands, Kurdistan or Native America?

Well, the voting was fierce. Nearly 400 of you took part in the poll and there was plenty of passionate campaigning along the way. You can see the full breakdown of results on the Rest of the World page, but the headline news is that it came down to a two-horse race between Jaume Cabré’s Winter Journey from Catalonia and Jalal Barzanji’s The Man in Blue Pyjamas from Kurdistan. Cabré held the lead for a long time, but in the end, thanks to some vigorous lobbying on the part of #TwitterKurds, Barzanji romped home to secure the A Year of Reading the World wild-card spot.

Written after its author was named PEN Canada’s first ever Writer-in-Exile in 2007, The Man in Blue Pyjamas tells the story of poet and journalist Jalal Barzanji’s life in Iraqi Kurdistan, his three years of imprisonment and torture under Saddam Hussein’s regime – throughout which he remained in the night-clothes in which he was arrested – and the lengths he went to to secure a future for himself and his family on the other side of the world. It weaves together Barzanji’s memories, the experiences of people he met along the way, historical events and Kurdish traditions to present a compelling picture of the contested homeland that both shaped and nearly destroyed the writer.

With its account of what it means to grow up in a nation that does not fit into the neat country borders most of us use to organise the planet, the memoir is in many ways a very fitting ‘Rest of the World’ choice. Opening with a map showing Kurdistan spread across portions of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, the book owes its structure to the sense of fragmentation that Barzanji grew up with – ‘I must present my story in small pieces because my life has been in pieces,’ he writes before going on to leap between past, present, ancient history and future, like a spider spinning a web between far-distant points.

Yet the struggle for national and cultural autonomy is only part of the story: for Barzanji the battle to make a life as a writer is every bit as fraught. Born in a house with no books or pens, the writer had to contend with his family’s incomprehension of his ambitions, draconian and often bewildering censorship laws, and the challenges of funding and publishing his own work. Crucially, it was not his years of imprisonment by the Iraqi regime nor atrocities like the attack on Halabja, but the infighting between different Kurdish factions that made Barzanji decide he had to flee his homeland and throw himself on the mercy of smugglers, as he explained to his wife Sabah: ‘”I have to go to a place where I can continue to be an independent writer. I do not want to take sides in this civil war.”‘

In the face of such huge obstacles, under a regime that transformed the library in which he first discovered his love of words into the prison where he was tortured, Barzanji’s dedication to his craft is deeply moving. His portrayal of the stories of his fellow Kurds – from the waggish Ako’s account of the difficulty of consummating his marriage because of his family’s cramped sleeping arrangements, to the devastating drowning of Shwan in a bungled people-smuggling attempt – lays bare the sense of duty that drove the author to risk everything for the sake of reaching a country where these experiences could be written. Not that Barzanji is quick to take credit for this – ‘that’s the way writers are: they seldom think about the consequences of what they do or write,’ he claims, seeming to shrug at us from the page.

Indeed, Barzanji’s style is so unassuming that you only realise the scale of what he has achieved in this book gradually. His skill shines through from page to page in the details that bring the experiences described home to the reader: the blood on the prison walls, the dyed moustache of the torturer, the boyhood trick of placing a flis coin on the railway track and waiting for a train to squash it into something resembling a more valuable coin, and the terrifying darkroom and stick reserved for the mentally ill at the sheikh’s house. It also appears in his endearing honesty about his shortcomings – his social awkwardness at parties, his habit of losing his luggage, his daydreaming.

Only when you step back from these intimate and immediate observations and survey the fragmented narrative in its entirety do you realise the extent of its power. Taking us to a place that many refuse to accept exists, Barzanji reveals what it means to be forced to weigh freedom, self-expression and survival against belonging, duty and the law. Seen from the final page, the story in pieces transforms itself into a beautiful and beguiling whole. A humbling read.

The Man in Blue Pyjamas by Jalal Barzanji, based on a translation from the Kurdish by Sabah Salih (University of Alberta Press, 2012)

Jordan: winds of change

December 27, 2012

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Hearing that my friend Andrew was off to the Middle East for a choir tour in October, I decided to recruit him to find my Jordanian book. The schedule for the tour was tight, but a brief window in Amman (not to be confused with Oman as I originally wrote) gave him the opportunity to slip off in search of a translation of a story.

Andrew had heard from members of a local choir, with whom his group Ishirini was collaborating, about a bookshop with a good English-language offering that stayed open late into the night. Complete with a built-in coffee shop, it was something of a hang-out for bibliophiles and so he made his way there.

However, on arriving, Andrew discovered there was a hitch: it being Eid, deliveries to the normally well-stocked shop were running late and pickings were slim. Nevertheless, there was one possibility in the shape of Jordanian-born Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. At more than 600 pages long, the book would certainly keep me busy, but, in the absence of many other options, it seemed wise to nab it. Handing over his dinars, Andrew bagged a copy and hurried off to his next rehearsal.

Set in a fictional Gulf state in the 1930s, the novel, which is banned in several Arab countries, explores the impact of the discovery of oil on a small oasis town. When American prospectors arrive in the region, bringing with them a host of machines, practices and mores unknown to the local Arab population, the residents find the centuries-old rhythms of their lives disrupted. Faced with technological change that is set to alter their mental, emotional and physical landscape forever, the people are left with two options: adapt or die.

On the surface, this is a novel about culture clashes. In the Arabs’ fear and wonderment at the Americans’ mechanised horses and brazen attitudes to nudity, and the prospectors’ obsession with photographing and documenting every mundane local activity they can gain access to – not to mention the stark contrast between Arab Harran and American Harran (the seaside town built to house the oil workers) – we see the sparks that fly as East and West, ancient and modern, and spiritual and secular collide head on.

This collision gives rise to moments of great humour. The terrified Emir’s first boat trip, for example, and his amazement at the voices coming out of the radio are hilarious, while the Americans’ simplistic pronouncements on the Arabs, to whom they intend to give employment rights ‘as if they were regular people’, raise many a wry smile.

Frequently, however, there is a great deal of pain mixed in with this. From the employee questionnaire – which mortifies Ibrahim with its impertinent queries about female relatives – to the sad demise of the Desert Travel Office under the wheels of shiny, new Western trucks, there is much lost in this exchange and many personal tragedies unfold along the way. Perhaps most painful of all is the death of Mizban in a diving accident while on company business, an event that points up the difference of priorities between the two groups obliged to live and work together on the same patch of land.

What episodes like this demonstrate is that the gulf between the characters is not so much one of culture as one of valuing things differently. What to the Americans is a harsh, hostile environment that they must master and subdue with their air-con and swimming pools for the sake of harvesting oil is home to the Arabs – a place ingrained in their psyches, the desert winds of which blow through the images they use to express themselves and the sun of which has hardened their very sense of identity. While the Americans can uproot trees and demolish houses ‘without pausing and without reflection’ because they see them only as worthless objects standing in the way of their prize, the Arabs suffer the transformation as a sort of physical violence that the new arrivals cannot begin to comprehend. As Dabbasi puts it: ‘To someone not of this land and this town, all land is the same – it’s just land’. And that is the fundamental difference.

At once expansive and deeply personal, this novel is a masterful presentation of the way misunderstandings and resentment spring up and fruit into bitterness and enmity. At times reading like a vast collection of interlinked short stories, it weaves together the triumphs and sadness of many individual lives to make a compelling and poignant whole. A marvel.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Vintage International, 1989)

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This was a recommendation from Jim Dingley, acting chairman of the Anglo-Belarusian Society. In fact it was one of several suggestions he sent me from among the relatively tiny number of Belarusian works to have made it into English so far.

The front-runner of these was Paranoia, a banned novel by contemporary author Victor Martinovich. As far as Dingley knew, the translation was due out imminently. Sadly, however, when I contacted Martinovich, it turned out that the book would not be published by North Western University Press until 2013. For now, I would have to content myself with reading a review of the original in The New York Review of Books.

In the absence of Paranoia, the next title to catch my eye on the list was Uladzimir Karatkievich’s King Stakh’s Wild Hunt. I liked the sound of it because, according to Dingley, Karatkievich is regarded as ‘the most Belarusian of novelists’. The link he’d sent me to the free online pdf was, as far as he was aware, the only English version of any of the author’s historical works available. The one sticking point, he said, was that the translation wasn’t very good. Duly warned, I decided to take the risk.

The novel unfolds 96-year-old Andrei Belaretski’s account of the events of 1888, when, as a young ethnographer, he went to the remote Belarusian District N to collect folk stories and legends. After his carriage gets mired in one of the region’s treacherous bogs, Belaretski seeks refuge in the gloomy Castle of Marsh Firs, only to find the terrors of the heaths are matched by the horrors lurking within its walls. Taking pity on the estate’s teenage mistress, Nadzeya – the last of the aristocratic Yanowski family – the hero decides to do what he can to free her from the ancient curse that keeps her shut in from the world. But, as the weeks go by, Belaretski discovers the ghostly goings on in and around the castle are far from what they seem.

This is storytelling at its most delicious, gripping and gothic. From the life-and-death struggle to save the carriage from sinking into the dismal wastes, to the spooky Little Man and Lady-in-Blue prowling the castle’s corridors – not to mention the otherworldly huntsmen who sweep silently across the landscape hounding unfortunate travellers to their deaths – Karatkievich is a master of suspense. Indeed, in his frequent foreshadowing of horrors to come and wry references to other gothic novelists such as Anne Radcliffe, he seems to revel in playing with readers, watching us tiptoe around the maze his imagination has created. He even pokes fun at his craft at points, having one of Belaretski’s allies admonish him for his impatience to get to the bottom of things with the observation that ‘everything is cleared up easily and logically only in bad novels’ (before going on to tie everything up as neatly as anyone could wish).

This narratological virtuosity goes hand in hand with some great writing. We read, for example, how Belaretski ‘felt the wind of the centuries whistling past [his] back’ as he looks at the portraits of the Yanowski family and that ‘one has to be a misanthropist with the brain of a caveman to imagine [the bleakness of District N's peat bogs]‘. The narrative is so evocative, in fact, that I found it transformed not only my imaginary universe but the world around me too. Out of the corner of my eye, the television in my living room seemed transformed into a crackling fire and the drizzle outside the window became whirling snow as I read, as though my surroundings themselves were under Karatkievich’s spell.

This made me wonder about Dingley’s comment on the translation. Leaving aside one or two slightly clunky moments and odd notes, the narrative is so enjoyable and readable that it is certainly not ‘bad’ in the sense of being clumsy and grammatically incorrect, which is what people usually seem to mean when they talk about the quality of works converted from other languages. I could only conclude that Dingley must have been talking about how representative the text is of the original – and indeed there is a cosy familiarity to it that made me wonder how far translator Mary Mintz had stretched to make the work appeal to English-language readers (if you can shed light on this, do let me know).

That said, there is one element in the novel that remains indisputably Belarusian: the seam of national pride that runs through it. This appears in many guises, from the narrator’s evocations of ‘Byzantine Belarus’ in the opening pages, to his affectionate and sometimes despairing observations on the characteristics he and his compatriots share. There is also a somewhat subversive aspect to this novel – published during the Soviet era – in the form of the repeated jibes against Imperial Russia and the corruption of officials working for the regime. These add a welcome piquancy to the narrative, particularly in the final chapters where Belaretski encourages local peasants to rise up against the mysterious forces of oppression.

Faithful to the original or not, this a hugely enjoyable read. Gripping, witty and wonderfully spooky, it is the ideal story to curl up with on a dark December evening. A gift for gothic novel fans the world over.

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt by Uladzimir Karatkievich, translated from the Belarusian by Mary Mintz (Belarusian Literature in English Translations, 2006)

Merry Christmas all. See you the other side for the final three posts of the project!

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