Book of the month: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares


Brazil is certainly not short of stories. When I was collecting recommendations for my year of reading the world back in 2012, many people suggested tempting-sounding titles from South America’s most populous country. Since then, booklovers have continued to get in touch with ideas, leaving comments on the post I wrote about João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s House of the Fortunate Buddhas (the novel I chose for my project), and whizzing over emails and tweets.

Indeed, only this morning, Carlos left a comment to tell me about ‘The Devil to Pay in the Backlands’ (Grande Sertão: Veredas in the original), which he regards as ‘the greatest Brazilian novel’. He went on to say, however, that he believes it’s untranslatable because author João Guimarães Rosa invented many of the words in it, creating ‘a unique reading experience’, which Carlos fears would be lost if the book were converted into another language. (It would be interesting to hear what others think about this.)

Beyond the personal recommendations I’ve been lucky to get from readers, a number of anthologies of Brazilian writing have opened up the work of some of the nation’s newer authors to English-language readers in recent years. Thanks to publications such as Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, writers such as JP Cuenca, Vanessa Barbara and Tatiana Salem Levy are on the anglophone radar. Their work (or some of it at least) is accessible to the huge number of people who read in English, the most published language in the world.

As a result, there are thankfully a relatively large number of translated Brazilian works that I could have chosen as November’s Book of the month – both recent novels and fantastic blasts from the past. Over the past year, for example, I’ve found myself enthralled by the writings of Clarice Lispector and could happily have written an enthusiastic post about her wonderfully strange novel Hour of the Star. 

However, in the discussions I’ve had about Brazil recently, one title in particular caught my attention. It was a novella translated by my friend Daniel Hahn for Berlin-based ebook company Frisch & Co: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares’s Family Heirlooms.

I was intrigued by Frisch & Co and by Hahn’s comment that Tavares was not likely to be known to many English-language readers, despite her being much-lauded at home in Brazil. This month, there was another incentive too. Having spent the last few weeks reading Tolstoy’s magnificent War and Peace, the idea of a book I could finish in a handful of hours was very appealing! So I decided to give the book, which was first published in Portuguese in 1990, a go.

Set in Itaim Bibi, a district in São Paulo, the novella follows Maria Bráulia Munhoz, an elderly, yet formidable, widow who is putting her affairs in order with the reluctant help of her nephew. When one of the pieces in her jewellery collection, a handsome pigeon’s-blood ruby ring, is found to be a fake, the discovery triggers an avalanche of recollections and revelations that uncovers the foundations of the central character and the bourgeois world that is fading with her.

The discrepancy between our private selves and the faces we present to the world is everywhere apparent in the book. From the formal ceremony of the rose-petal-strewn fingerbowl that Maria Bráulia Munhoz insists must follow every meal, to the ritual of her make-up routine and the awkward posturing of her nephew, Tavares captures the thousand ways we shore ourselves up with pretence.

Often, this is very funny. In the description of the nephew’s sensitivity about his thinning hair and the way that he is ‘more afraid of his aunt’s migraines than the movement of shares on the Stock Exchange’, we see the glimmer of Tavares’s sense of the ridiculous. The author (or perhaps more accurately Hahn in his translation) makes rich use of lacunae too, frequently deflating characters’ pretensions by the inclusion of pithy, bracketed dollops of interior monologue.

The writing is inventive. At several points, for example, life itself crops up, personified and spoiling for a fight, ready to beat characters down. And for my money, you have to go some distance to find a simile better than the description of a stroke that afflicts one of the lesser characters towards the end of the book:

‘His words seemed to be coming from very far away, like the roar of the sea – they were transatlantic words – only to die there in the corner of his mouth, forming, in front of his embarrassed friends, a slight layer of froth that took a while to disappear […] All that muted volume, that threat coming from so far away, a thought coming from such a depth, and soon just a little bit of froth, nothing at all, just a little froth, a mere trifle.’

It’s fair to say that not all the devices work as well as this. Labyrinthine sentences leave the reader foundering occasionally. Similarly, some of the imagery cancels itself out by changing tack from one phrase to the next.

All in all, though, this is an enjoyable and illuminating read. It walks the tightrope between humour and insight with aplomb, finishing with a flourish. I found it a joy – and a delightful counterpoint to the Napoleonic wars.

Now, back to Tolstoy’s Moscow, where the enemy has entered the gates…

Family Heirlooms (Jóias de Família) by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Frisch & Co., 2014)

Picture: São Paulo by Júlio Boaro on Flickr

Good news for women and translation



Writing is a tricky career at the best of times. With thousands of titles published every day, the chances of selling enough books to make a living as a wordsmith are slim. Indeed, a study by Queen Mary University reported by the Telegraph earlier this year found that only a tenth of British authors are able to support themselves purely by writing – a sharp drop from the 40 per cent who claimed to be able to do so a decade ago.

If you write in a language other than English, your odds of making a decent living from your books are narrower still. With translations accounting for only around 4.5 per cent of the literary works published in the UK, deals in the world’s most published language are like hen’s teeth, meaning that the majority of foreign-language authors have access to a much smaller market than their anglophone counterparts.

And if you make the silly error of being born a woman, well, your chances of seeing your work made available to many of the world’s readers shrink yet further. As Alison Anderson reflected in an excellent piece for Words Without Borders back in 2013, the statistics don’t look good. According to figures from Open Letter Books’ Translation Database, for example, only around a quarter of translated works published in the US each year are by women.

Many international literary prizes show an even sharper discrepancy. The fact that only two women authors have won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in its 25-year history is a case in point.

In the three years that I’ve been involved with English PEN’s PEN Translates funding programme, I’ve seen this imbalance first hand. Over the past five or six rounds, we have often struggled to award grants to more than a handful of female authors. This is not because of a lack of will to support women writers on the part of the panel, but because the applications have overwhelmingly been for books written by men.

So it’s great to be able to share the news that this latest round of grants achieves gender parity for the first time. Eight of the 16 writers whose books have been supported are women, with the languages represented including Korean, Mandarin and Turkish. Authors range from well-known names such as Han Kang, whose novel, The Vegetarian, was published to great acclaim in the UK this year, and Prix Goncourt winner Lydie Salvayre, to wordsmiths likely to be unfamiliar to anglophone readers, such as Karmele Jaio, who writes in Basque.

The supported titles should be out in the next year or so. Great news for readers and writers alike. Let’s hope this is the shape of things to come.

Picture: Four of the best translated books by women I’ve read recently.

My evening with Helle Helle


I met a star last night. Novelist Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s best-known and most respected contemporary writers. She’s won numerous awards – and I had the honour of not just meeting her, but also sharing a stage with her and spending an hour chatting about our books.

The event was at the ninth Henley Literary Festival, which this week sees book lovers attending more than 170 writing-related talks in the picturesque Oxfordshire town famous for its regatta.

Helle and I were talking with translator and writer Daniel Hahn. It was a felicitous grouping, as Reading the World and This Should be Written in the Present Tense, Helle’s first novel to be translated into English, are both published in the UK by Harvill Secker, a publisher that Hahn also often translates for.

Despite apologising for her (near-perfect) English, Helle spoke powerfully about her writing process and the way she created the quiet, intimate and enthralling world of her novel, in which lead character Dorte drifts through her days, taking the train into Copenhagen but never attending the university course on which she is enrolled.

I was particularly interested by Helle’s comments on what writing means to her. She used a sentence from her book as an example: ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control, they were both of them teachers.’

The humour in this sentence came from the lack of a conjunction, she said. If she had written ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control because they were both of them teachers’ or ‘They were both teachers so they couldn’t keep the weeds under control’, the sentence would be flat. It was the lack of conjunction that left the space for that dash of wry humour.

This was the key to literature for her: playing with language and seeing how it worked and making it do interesting things.

Afterwards, we chatted in the green room about the Danish television series that have taken the world by storm. Helle revealed that she wasn’t much taken with The Bridge but she’d loved the first season of The Killing.

Then it was back on the train to London for me – and a long spell sitting at a red signal which meant I missed the last tube home. Although it wasn’t as epic a journey as the night I went to speak at the Hilt in Hampshire, it did mean I didn’t get back until 1.30am.

There’s no rest for the wicked, though, as I’m writing this on a train bound for Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, where I’m taking part in an event at Wigtown Book Festival tomorrow. Here’s hoping this journey goes smoothly – and that the next discussion is every bit as fascinating…

Book of the month: Carl Frode Tiller


If you think of Norwegian literature, two kinds of writing will probably come to mind. The first is the crime fiction that has taken the world by storm in recent years, spearheaded by the phenomenal success of Jo Nesbø. The second comprises lengthy collections of linked literary novels – from Karl Ove Knausgård’s acclaimed six-book My Struggle to the outstanding Kristin Lavransdatter by Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset (the only translation I ever wrote about on, the blog I had before I decided to expand my horizons and read the world).

What you may not think of in connection with Norway is Nynorsk literature. There’s a good reason for that: despite being an official language, in comparison to Bokmål (the most widely used Norwegian language), Nynorsk (‘new Norwegian’ as its name is commonly translated) is not much published. Books in it are rare. Which means English translations of Nynorsk literature are like hen’s teeth.

In fact, if the subject of this post isn’t the only translation currently available in the world’s most published language, I’d be very surprised (do put a comment below if you know otherwise).

However, though it was written in a different language, Carl Frode Tiller’s Encircling does share some traits with other Norwegian books translated into English. Like Undset and Knausgård’s novels – and indeed much of Nesbø’s work – the book is part of a series. It’s the first in a trilogy, also called Encircling, that Sort Of Books proposes to bring into English in the next few years.

This opening instalment centres around the enigmatic character of David, who, we are told, has lost his memory, giving rise to a newspaper appeal for people who know him to make contact and share stories about his life that might help re-establish his sense of identity. Three people respond: two close friends from his teenage years in the small town of Namsos and his now-estranged stepfather. The narrative consists of their letters to David, interspersed with interior monologues and commentary on their present-day lives.

One of Tiller’s many strengths is his ability to capture people’s emotional states in small details. Through looks, gestures and – strikingly often – desperate or furious grins, he manages to convey the guilt, tensions and frustrations that underpin the familial, platonic and romantic relationships in the novel. He has an eye for ‘the unwritten rules’ that govern long-standing associations and a keen sense of the way emotions can gust up and throw us off-balance, forcing us to do ridiculous or perverse things.

This can give rise to moments of humour, as when the former friends recall some of their teenage posturing and attempts at sophistication. But it can also tilt over into pathos too, as we watch characters sabotaging themselves often in full knowledge of what they are doing but without the ability break the patterns that hem them in.

Another joy is Tiller’s (and translator Barbara J. Haveland’s) skill in presenting the distinctive voices of the three narrators. I particularly enjoyed free-spirit-turned-disillusioned-academic Silje’s occasional exclamations at the beauty of her own writing – a witty key to her character that might have taken pages of description to render another way.

The writing is so enjoyable that many of the passages feel as though they could stand alone as short stories. Yet all the while, the turbo engine of the narrative drives on, navigating deftly from one episode to the next, keeping up the momentum. Tiller takes full advantage of the shifting perspectives to drop in numerous contradictions and revelations along the way, building up a rich, problematic and fractured picture of David and the lives of those around him. The denouement is clever and, unlike the endings of many other trilogy openers, feels satisfying in its own right.

Occasionally, the structure presents problems. Now and then it’s tricky to remember who some of the wider circle of characters are. In addition, the decision to lump long passages of dialogue together into single paragraphs in the latter sections can give the text a (probably intentionally) breathless feel. And while the repetition of certain constructions, such as Silje’s frequent assertion that she doesn’t know why she’s saying what she’s saying, can give a powerful impression of the way the characters are entrenched in toxic mindsets, the overuse of some words and phrases grates occasionally.

Overall, though, this is a great read. It’s certainly the best Nynorsk literature I’ve ever read. And though that’s not saying much for now, there’s no doubt that Tiller can hold his own alongside Norway’s other literary big hitters. I’m very much looking forward to the next instalment.

Encircling (Innsirkling) by Carl Frode Tiller, translated from the Nynorsk by Barbara J. Haveland (Sort of Books, 2015)

Picture: the waterfront in Namsos, Norway, by Grete Rasmussen

How does censorship affect a writer’s career?


A controversy in New Zealand has this month brought the issue of banning books to many bibliophiles’ attention around the world. At the centre of the storm is Ted Dawe’s award-winning Into the River, a Young Adult novel that follows a Maori teenager who wins a scholarship at an exclusive Auckland boarding school.

The book has been out for two years, but on September 3 it was withdrawn from bookshops and libraries after a Christian group objected to its sexually explicit content and portrayal of drug use. While New Zealand’s Film and Literature Board of Review decides whether or not to issue a permanent ban, any company caught distributing the book in the nation faces a fine of up to NZ$10,000. It is the first time a title has been restricted in this way in the country for around two decades.

As censorship was a big issue I encountered during my year of reading the world, the story threw up several interesting points for me. The first was the curious and counter-intuitive effect that bans like this tend to have in much of the English-speaking world. Although such steps are rare in New Zealand, there have been attempts to restrict certain titles in other Anglophone nations in recent years, with the Harry Potter books, To Kill a Mocking Bird and even The Diary of Anne Frank drawing challenges.

What’s interesting about such episodes is that they almost invariably result in precisely the surge of publicity and sales that these works’ opponents would most like to avoid. Although NZ librarians reported borrowing rates for Dawe’s novel dropped when it was first given a warning sticker in December 2013, the latest events have brought Into the River international renown. My first action on hearing about the ban was to order a copy – something I would probably not have if the book were freely available, given that it is aimed at teenage boys.

Granted, the restrictions on distribution may hamper sales inside New Zealand in the short-term, but the widespread media coverage will fix Dawe’s name in many minds for a long time to come and will no doubt drive sales of his other titles, whether Into the River returns to the shelves or not.

The second thought for me was how sharply this situation contrasts with the issues facing authors working in many other languages and under much more restrictive regimes, where the media does not have the ability to challenge similar decisions and hold authorities to account in the same way. Throughout my project, I came across a number of writers whose careers had been stunted and sometimes cut short by often brutal attempts to limit their freedom to write what they felt they must.

When I researched my book Reading the World, I interviewed several of them at length, in particular Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov and Turkmen writer Ak Welsapar. They had both been forced to flee their home countries in fear of their safety and even their lives.

As they explained to me, rebuilding your career in another language is a huge challenge for an exiled author. Welsapar, who now lives in Sweden, even went so far as to call it a tragedy – not surprising when you consider that the unpublished translation I read of his novel The Tale of Aypi remains without a publishing deal, despite it being the first book ever translated directly from Turkmen into English.

More than 20 years after they fled their homelands, Ismailov and Welsapar have nevertheless made admirable progress. Ismailov has had several works published, most recently his acclaimed novella The Dead Lake,  and was writer in residence at the BBC World Service for several years. Meanwhile, Welsapar has been published in Swedish and Russian, and he was the Turkmen poet at Poetry Parnassus, a cultural event organised to complement the London 2012 Olympic Games.

I was particularly delighted that both writers had short stories featured in the summer 2015 issue of the excellent Index on Censorship magazine.

For Welsapar this represented almost the first prose work he has ever had published in English. Not comparable to the worldwide attention Ted Dawe’s novel has received over the past few weeks. But at least it’s a start.

Picture by Samuele Ghilardi

My time in Edinburgh


I’ll admit it: I was nervous. Although my quest to read the world has taken me on many adventures and seen me speaking to a wide variety of audiences – from 20 Women’s Institute members in a school hall in Lee to 300 Procter & Gamble employees in Geneva – I had never faced a challenge quite like this. As I walked into the authors’ yurt, backstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I couldn’t help being aware that I was here to take part in one of the most renowned literary events in the world.

Now, I’ve been in a yurt or two before (I once gave a talk in one in Canterbury), but I have never seen one to compare to this. Sprawling over an area about twice the size of my flat, it was made up of a series of conjoined octagons, which created pleasing little alcoves furnished with benches and cushions, where you could sit and prepare before your event. There was a luggage area, and tea and coffee, and an array of tempting snacks, and everywhere you looked you spied well-known, bookish faces, as though the world’s literary supplements had come to life and deposited their occupants here.

There wasn’t much time to take in the scene, however, as Dutch writer Gaston Dorren (with whom I was appearing) and I were quickly whisked away for press photos. A festival staff member led us round the back, past the bins, to a studio area. Four photographers appeared from another yurt and began shouting instructions: ‘Ann, look here!’ ‘Look there!’ ‘Put your hands on your hips!’ ‘Look up at the sky, Ann!’

Then, after a brief pre-talk chat with chair Rosemary Burnett, Gaston and I made our way to the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre, where our event, ‘The World in Words’, was due to begin.

I’d had an anxiety dream the night before that no-one came to watch us, but when we walked out on stage I was delighted to see that the room was full. Gaston kicked off proceedings by reading from his witty and fascinating book, Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe, I read a bit from Reading the World, and the discussion quickly got going, helped along by Rosemary’s questions.

Afterwards, we went to the bookshop to sign copies and chat to members of the audience. I was particularly pleased to meet several people I have been in touch with virtually over the past few years, among them Catharine Cellier-Smart, a blogger who lives on Reunion Island, where she is one of only two ‘sworn translators’, who help local people by translating official documents.

A brief respite and then it was back onstage, this time with award-winning translator, poet and critic, Michael Hofmann. Hofmann’s criticism is renowned (indeed, he was described in the festival programme as ‘one of the most fearlessly outspoken literary critics writing in English today’), so I was more than a little in awe of him. He was very gracious and kind, however, and went out of his way to put me at my ease.

Our discussion, chaired by Society of Authors chair Daniel Hahn (another award-winning translator), explored the concept of world literature, and some of the many challenges and joys translators and readers experience when trying to access stories from other linguistic and literary cultures.

I spent the following day recharging and seeing a handful of the more than 3,000 shows being staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month (among them In His Own Write, a groundbreaking performance of the Beatle John Lennon’s nonsense book).

But on Wednesday I was back at the literary festival, this time as an audience member. Queuing for a talk on ‘What is the Nation State, Anyway?’ by academics Frank Bechhofer & David McCrone, I was delighted to bump into Gaston Dorren. We sat together to watch the event, which turned out to be an intriguing examination of Bechhofer and McCrone’s research into attitudes to national identity in England and Scotland. According to the pair, it’s helpful to think of national identity as a set of cards (made up of markers such as birthplace, language, place of residence and ethnicity), which each person will play differently from situation to situation. I found this very interesting as working out what makes a book count as being ‘from’ a particular nation was one of the big questions I had to grapple with during my year of reading the world.

Afterwards, Gaston and I repaired to the authors’ yurt where we spent a happy hour discussing writing, languages and our next book projects. I was also pleased to have a chance to say hello to my former creative writing tutor, Paul Magrs, who was preparing to run a readers’ workshop on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The final event of my visit was ‘Where I’m Writing From’, a discussion between authors Petina Gappah and Nell Zink about national identity and writing. As a Zimbabwean living in Geneva and an American living in Germany respectively, Gappah and Zink had a lot to say on the topic and there were plenty of laughs along the way. I was particularly struck by Gappah’s comments on the danger of expecting a writer to speak for a nation because, as she said, ‘writing about is not the same as writing for’ a place or a group of people. And I was thrilled to hear about her collaborative project to translate George Orwell’s Animal Farm into Shona – the first time the novel has ever been published in an indigenous African language.

When the applause died down, it was time to head off to the station to catch the train back to King’s Cross. My Edinburgh adventure had lasted three days and involved a round trip of more than 800 miles. Yet I felt I had travelled much further than that.

Book of the month: Sema Kaygusuz


Short story collections have traditionally been a hard sell in the UK. Unlike publishers in the US – where short pieces have long been a key part of the literary culture – companies in the British book industry have tended to focus almost exclusively on novels, with only well-known writers getting deals to release assortments of shorter works.

In recent years, particularly since short-form writers Lydia Davis and Alice Munro scooped the Man Booker International Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature respectively in 2013, things have started to change. Last year, the Telegraph newspaper reported that, according to the Bookseller, short-story sales had risen by 35%. And where sales figures lead, publishers tend to follow.

If anyone needed further evidence of the power and value of short stories, The Well of Trapped Words  by Turkish writer Sema Kaygusuz makes a compelling case. Peopled with outcasts, misfits, trauma survivors and eccentrics, the collection makes for arresting reading. From the tale of the mentally disturbed girl whose self-loathing focuses itself on her feet, to the account of the old man driven into a frenzied search for water after years of drought, the pieces pit characters against the norms of their communities, rattling propriety’s cage.

The brevity of many of the tales allows Kaygusuz to write with an intensity that might be difficult to sustain – and to read – over longer stretches. Revealing how emotion seeps into and colours the world, tainting sight, taste and smell, she captures moments of crisis vividly. A particular favourite of mine is this description of the moment before a woman boiling fruit in her kitchen realises a snake is about to bite her toddler in ‘The Viper’s Son’:

And this is when the whole world went silent.

The whole world. Even the birds stopped singing. Standing over the plums, Zilver suddenly noticed that the only sound she could hear was their bubbling.

There are also impressive longer pieces, often portraying an emotional reversal and frequently exploring gender politics. For example, two of the strongest stories, ‘Stolen’ and ‘Deep Inside’, delineate a devastating shift in relationship dynamics, in both cases leaving the men bewildered as the women they thought of as theirs assume control.

The precision of the language in many of the pieces is striking – and here praise must go to translator Maureen Freely too. My copy is riddled with pencil marks picking out phrases that distil a complex truth or emotion into a small cluster of words – the feeling of ‘regrets steaming inside me, and somehow, strangely, washing me clean’, for example, or the description of ‘a girl whose life is fading at the creases. Its multi-coloured fabric […] fast unravelling’.

There is also a winning streak of wit and irreverence in the writing, as when the narrator of ‘Tacettin’ tells the reader that the title character had ‘a neck twice the size of yours and maybe five times the size of mine’. I don’t know about you, but I think this is the first time a book has called me fat.

Sometimes the structure lets the writing down a little. While a few too many of the stories rely on the device of a final section told from another perspective to tie up the loose ends, a number feel a little loose and meandering. In addition, passing references to political figures and events in a couple of the pieces may prove trip hazards to readers not familiar with Turkey’s history (although the smattering of footnotes do help smooth the path).

All in all, though, The Well of Trapped Words is a testament to the power of storytelling. By turns funny, alarming, familiar and strange, this collection will surprise, challenge and delight. Hats off to Comma Press for publishing a work not only in a genre but also from a language that has traditionally been underrepresented on British shelves.

The Well of Trapped Words by Sema Kaygusuz, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely (Comma Press, 2015).

Book of the month: Valeria Luiselli


I’ve been on the trail of Mexican writers for the last few months. Conscious that there is a wealth of exciting literature emerging from south of the US border, I was keen to experience a broad range of it and find something that I could recommend to you.

Things got off to a promising start. Having stumbled across Elena Poniatowska being interviewed at the London Book Fair, I read Leonora, her biographical novel based around the life and work of eccentric British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington – whom Poniatowska spent a great deal of time with during her latter years. The book was extraordinary, colourful, alarming and brave.

Next, on the recommendation of my Liveright/Norton editor Elisabeth, I sought out Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera. Striking, rich and odd, this novel brought forth a virtuosic performance from its translator Lisa Dillman. She writes at the end about the efforts she went to to achieve a geographically unmarked English rendering for Herrera’s linguistically playful account of a young woman’s journey to the US in search of her brother.

Either of these books would have been a worthy candidate for Book of the month. However, as both authors are already extensively celebrated nationally and relatively well-known beyond Mexico’s borders, I thought it might be nice to find work by a lesser-known author to tell you about. And, as the majority of my Books of the month have been by men, I decided to seek out work by a woman author.

This is where things got more difficult. A bit of virtual detective work led me to Gabriela Jauregui, a published poet who has turned her hand to novel-writing in recent years. I contacted her through her website to ask if her novel was available in English and if not, whether she could recommend any women authors whose work is not widely known outside Mexico.

Jauregui replied that her novel was only being published in Spanish this September. An English version is not yet on the cards, but she (and I) hopes that this may happen one day.

She had two names for me: Brenda Lozano and Daniela Tarazona. Both young and doing great work, they were not as widely known as more established writers such as Valeria Luiselli or Cristina Rivera-Garza.

I tracked both authors down in that wonderful, global talking shop Twitter and sent them messages. Were their novels available in English? I would very much like to read them if so.

Sadly, as happened so often during  my year of reading the world, the answer was no in both cases. Despite building an increasingly impressive reputation in the hispanophone world, Lozano and Tarazona are off-limits to anglophone readers. (For now at least – if you know of an English-language publishers looking for exciting new Mexican writers, do send them their way, and to Jauregui too!)*

In the absence of anything available in the language I read in by these authors, I decided to go for one of Jauregui’s fallbacks and plumped for Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli. This book has received some great write ups and I was keen to take a look.

Split between Mexico City and New York, the narrative records the attempts of a young mother to write a novel drawing on her youth in the Big Apple. As the scraps of text she generates in between looking after her children build, layer upon layer emerges and we find the narrative consumed by her own fears, concerns and fascination with obscure Harlem Renaissance poet, Gilberto Owen.

The fragmented nature of the narrative makes for a quirky and sometimes surprising reading experience. Many English-language reviewers have remarked on the originality of Luiselli’s style, but those familiar with the work of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector will find parallels.

I particularly enjoyed the playful allusions to the reactions of the narrator’s husband, who keeps reading the work in progress and trying to adjust his behaviour in response to it, as though the fictional events described are somehow a comment on him. It was also great fun to read the sometimes contrary comments on the translation and publishing world that pepper the narrative: ‘That’s the way literary recognition works, at least to a certain degree,’ the narrator observes at one point. ‘It’s all a matter of rumor, a rumor that multiplies like a virus until it becomes a collective affinity.’ (And surely this blog post and the way I chose this book are a neat demonstration of the truth of the statement.)

Add to this a range of wry and wise insights into human nature and the way we deceive ourselves about our motives, and it’s rare that you turn a page without nodding in recognition at some observation or other.

What moves the book onto the next level, however, is Luiselli’s technical flair. Rarely does an object get mentioned without reappearing as a plot device later; time and again the narrative turns back to satirize and comment upon itself. The result is that the novel is peppered with payoffs and the last third presents a series of pleasing moments of recognition, where idea after idea is tied up, resolved or complicated.

This demands attention from the reader and it’s fair to say that there are times when the fragmentary narrative is tough to follow. By the same token, the set-up the structure demands can make for some stretches that feel rather devoid of tension and lacking in momentum.

But if you give yourself over to Luiselli and resign yourself to the rare moments when the narratological currents leave you idling in the reeds, you’re in for a joyous ride. Opening up onto stunning prospects and shimmering moments here and there, this novel achieves the rare balance of being at once accessible and profound, funny and wise.

Mexico, we need more from you.

Faces in the Crowd (Los Ingrávidos) by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Granta, 2013)

* An extract of Brenda Lozano’s novel Todo nada, translated by Rosalind Harvey, has already appeared in the México20 collection, featuring work by 20 Mexican writers under 40.

Book of the month: Abdulaziz Al Farsi


About 18 months ago, fellow literary explorer Camila Navarro from Brazil (who is recording her own literary odyssey on her Portuguese-language website) got in touch. ‘Ann, I have good news!’ she wrote. ‘There’s a great Omani novel translated recently. It’s “Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs”, by Abdulaziz Al Farsi. I’ve just read it and I loved it!’

This was good news indeed, as, when I tried to find a book to read from Oman back in 2012, there was precious little available. Apart from the collection of fairy stories I eventually got my hands on, there was almost nothing in English.

This month, I at last made it to Camila’s recommendation on my teetering to-read pile. And I was very glad I did.

Starting with the return of government employee Khalid Bakhit to the remote village of his birth, the novel reveals the tensions and historical ties that bind and warp human society. It brings together the accounts of everyone from Ayda – the only woman in the place ever to have gone to university – to dark-skinned servant Khadim, and depicts the build up to a coup that threatens to break the community apart, spilling secrets with the power to kill.

Neatly plotted and containing some genuinely surprising revelations, much of the book makes for engrossing reading. Al Farsi certainly seems to enjoy playing with suspense: he deftly foreshadows disasters and, in the case of one passage towards the end of the book, even describes a funeral while withholding the identity of the corpse until almost the very last line of the chapter.

Stories nest within stories. There are funny anecdotes, such as the description of how the village mosque’s call to prayer came to be shared unorthodoxly between two muezzins, and the tale of Imam Rashid’s insistence on keeping time using his rooster. And there are much more poignant and sometimes shocking accounts that, collectively, work to round and ground the characters in the story.

The novel’s multiple voices and perspectives afford Al Farsi great scope to move between registers, from earthy, humorous observations about vanity, misconceptions and back-biting, to lyrical portrayals of loss and love. Several times, I found myself surprised into delight by succinct encapsulations of experience – the claim that ‘it was as though he had drawn in the reins of the scene and placed them in my hand’, for example, or the observation that ‘Our problem when it comes to love is that we always want those we love to match the image we’ve drawn of them in our mind’s eye’.

Translator Nancy Roberts, who has also translated Mahfouz and Nasrallah, deserves credit for the beauty that often shimmers in the prose, as well as her skill in making the story’s sometimes unfamiliar mores and references comprehensible for anglophone readers.

In addition, many of Al Farsi’s observations have universal resonance precisely because they are so touchingly human. I couldn’t help but wonder whether something of the author’s medical experience (he is a senior specialist in oncology in Muscat) had informed his description of the way people often pledge and fail to reform bad habits:

It’s like what happens when a man walks all night long, then falls asleep from sheer exhaustion. The next morning he wakes up and finds himself lying on a railroad track. He hears a train approaching in the distance, but he doesn’t feel like moving his body. He says, ‘I’m all tired out from my long trip, and the train’s still a long way off. When it gets closer I’ll do something.’ […] Then, just when the time comes for him to act, he’s overcome by drowsiness, and the train runs over him.

For all its strengths, however, the book is not without flaws. Some of the metaphors miss the mark – I was rather wrongfooted by the imagery of someone being chased by a wound at one point. In addition, the myriad voices and sometimes cacophonous presentation of scraps of dialogue within a single paragraph can be confusing (although it’s testament to the strength of Al Farsi’s characterisation that the key figures in the story almost always remain clear and distinct). Finally, a few readers may find the whimsical figure of the Saturnine poet a bit hard to take.

On the whole, though, this is an enjoyable and intriguing novel. It reveals the duality of the ties that at once link us to communities and ground our identity, yet may also throttle our individuality and limit our freedom to be ourselves. A welcome addition to the tiny library of Omani literature in English translation.

Thanks for the tip, Camila.

Earth Weeps, Saturn Sleeps (Tabki al-Ard yadhak Zuhal) by Abdulaziz Al Farsi, translated from the Arabic by Nancy Roberts (The American University in Cairo Press, 2013)

Free Chinese literature


As those of you who’ve followed this project for a while will know, China is very poorly represented in terms of the number of its books that make it into English. According to Chinese translator collective Paper Republic, only 20 fiction and poetry books were published anywhere in the world in English in 2013.

So it’s great to hear of an initiative by Paper Republic to try to broaden anglophone readers’ access to literature from the world’s most populous country. Starting last week, the collective has promised to publish one translated short story on its website every Thursday for the next year.

The stories will be freely available. And if the first two pieces – a witty and touching sketch of the power dynamics in a romantic relationship by novelist A Yi, and wistful ‘The Road to the Weeping Spring’ by Li Juan – are anything to go by, they promise to be a weekly highlight.

The first two stories are also refreshingly short, making them the perfect tasters for anyone keen to sample writing with a view to discovering authors whose books they might like to try. Ideal companions for the morning commute, a quick cup of tea or a soothing ten-minute read before bed.

Photo: ‘relics’ © Mart


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