South Sudan big

Those of you who have followed this project since the early days might remember Julia Duany. She is the South Sudanese author and senior civil servant who very kindly wrote and recorded the story that kicked off my year of reading the world on 1 January 2012.

If Julia hadn’t been so generous, I don’t know what I would have done about finding something to read from the world’s newest country. South Sudan had only come into being a handful of months before my literary quest began and was still feeling the impact of a long and bloody civil war that had devastated the region. The nascent nation had virtually no roads, no hospitals, no schools and certainly nothing in the way of a book publishing industry.

Julia’s story reflected this. She wrote with great feeling about her experience of returning to her homeland in 2005 after 20 years in the US to work to build her nation from the ground up. She was under no illusions about the challenges that lay ahead, but she was also full of hope and pride for her new nation.

Sadly, in the last month, fighting between the supporters of the South Sudanese president and those of his former deputy has brought great suffering to many in the region. With much of the country in chaos and thousands fleeing their homes to escape arrest or execution, it’s very hard to make contact with people there and find out what’s going on.

So when a producer of BBC Radio 4’s iPM programme contacted me to see if I could put her in touch with Julia to get an inside perspective on the situation I was determined to do my best to help. Luckily, it turned out that Julia had left South Sudan to spend Christmas with her family in the US shortly before the trouble erupted. Speaking from Washington, she recorded a powerful and moving account of her experiences and thoughts on the latest terrible events, which was broadcast last weekend (you can hear it here, although I suspect this won’t work outside the UK). As those of us in peaceful places wish each other Happy New Year and set out with high hopes for 2014, it’s sobering to think what Julia faces as she waits to return to the country she and her compatriots have worked so hard to establish.

One colleague of Julia’s is especially in my thoughts at the moment. Deng Gach Pal, the man who put me in touch with Julia and with whom I have kept in touch since I met him in the run up to South Sudan’s independence in 2011, has not answered my emails since the fighting broke out. I hope this is merely down to him being busy trying to cope with the extremely difficult circumstances in the capital, Juba, but I know that there is a chance that things are more serious than that. As you can see from an article I wrote about him for the New Internationalist, Deng is an extraordinary person full of enthusiasm and energy and has overcome challenges most of us could never imagine in his life. I can only hope that he is safe.

Picture of an ash-dressed Mundari child celebrating the first South Sudan Independence Day by Freedom House

Kazakhstan: an epic struggle

December 20, 2012

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This was a recommendation from Kazakh nationals studying at Durham and Exeter universities. The institutions kindly put out calls to their international students after hearing that I was struggling to fill in a few of the gaps on the list earlier this year.

Kazakhstan was one of these. Although I had been in touch with novelist Ilya Odegov, whose short story ‘Old Fazyl’s Advice’ is on Words Without Borders, none of his books are available in English yet – he is working with a translator so should hopefully have a novel coming out soon.

The Kazakh students at opposite ends of the country, however, were unanimous in their recommendation of The Nomads, a trilogy by Ilyas Yesenberlin (1915-1983). In fact, Aigerim in Exeter went further, not only pointing me to a site where I could download an Exxon-sponsored translation of the first book for a small registration fee, but also sending me a link to a subtitled trailer for Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe, a Kazakh film on a similar theme that came out this year (see below). She called it the ‘greatest movie of Kazakhstan’ and hoped very much that I would be able to find a full-length subtitled version to watch (I hope so too – it looks gripping).

But back to The Nomads. Focusing mainly on the 18th century, book one in the trilogy, The Charmed Sword, tells the story of some of the great battles that swept the territory that is now Kazakhstan. Depicting the cruelty and calculation of many of the tyrants that tussled for it during the second millennium – among them Genghis Khan and Timur – the narrative reveals the harshness and beauty of life on the plains and the source of the desire for an independent Kazakh state.

As the opening address from Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev suggests, national pride and identity are central themes in the book. The idea that ‘only the creation of a united and powerful Kazakh state could save the people’ runs through the novel, clashing with the cynical ‘divide and rule’ strategy of rulers such as wily Khan Abulkhair, who fuels infighting among the steppe tribes and his own family to keep control of them.

In this world of betrayal and suspicion, only the ruthless survive. Indeed, the narrative is awash with accounts of extreme violence and cruelty – from the 13-year-old boy indoctrinated to order the execution of his own mother, to the lover who is tied behind his horse and sent to what should be a brutal death with the flick of a whip.

Yet moments of beauty and some wonderful insights into steppe customs shine through too. We discover how to train hunting eagles, for example, and witness the politically pivotal storytelling competitions in which zhyrau-songsters vie to sway the crowd with their conflicting versions of events.

The sheer volume of characters, events and information in the narrative can make it tricky for someone ignorant of Kazakh history, like me, to follow. Now and then, caught up in a welter of names and incidents, it is difficult to work out exactly who is fighting and what they are doing it for.

This isn’t helped by the language problems that riddle this anonymous translation. Although certain metaphors and statements strike home, there are numerous grammatical errors and odd word choices that cloud the meaning of the more involved passages. At times, readers will find themselves lost in the maze of a sentence, searching for a subject that does not appear. There are also one or two moments where the narrative seems to jump like a scratched record, as though something is missing.

The text, such as it is, however, reveals a work of great passion and importance. This epic story opens a rare window on the history of a region that, even in this age of global communication, remains closed off to most English-language speakers. Perhaps now, 15 years after this translation came out, it’s time for another edition.

The Nomads by Ilyas Yesenberlin, translated by ? (Ilyas Yesenberlin Foundation, 1998)

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I’d been trying to find an English-language Sierra Leonean alternative to work by Aminatta Forna for some time. I didn’t have anything against reading Forna – by all accounts she’s a very good writer – but I couldn’t help feeling that the British-born author had had a great deal of coverage since her most recent novel, The Memory of Love, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book Award 2011, and was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011, the IMPAC Award 2012 and the Warwick Prize 2011. I was curious to know what other stories Sierra Leone had to offer.

For a long time, the answer seemed to be not much. I did stoogle upon the website of the intriguing-sounding Sierra Leonean Writers Series, but my attempts to contact the company and find out how I could buy its books came to nothing. Other than that, most of the books out there from the West African nation – which is still recovering from an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002 – seemed to be decades old.

Then RebeccaV stopped by the blog and left a comment to say she was also involved in a global armchair adventure, in which she was trying to read around the world in 80 books. As fellow literary globetrotters can often be a great source of recommendations, I clicked through to her blog to see what she’d read so far. And there, staring back at me, was the answer to my Sierra Leonean quest: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah.

Telling the story of the years Beah spent evading capture by the rebels in the Sierra Leonean jungle and then serving as a child soldier in the army before finally being rescued and rehabilitated, the memoir takes us into the heart of the civil war. Through its frank depiction of the extreme brutality the author experienced and participated in, and the courage and compassion of those who helped him, it reveals the best and worst that humanity is capable of –and the steps by which any one of us might get there.

The violence depicted in the book is among the most shocking and severe I have ever read about. From the gruesome descriptions of the massacre sites Beah passed through in his years of wandering in the jungle after the war separated him from his family, to the mutilated messengers carrying the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF) ultimatums to the villagers it planned to attack, the suffering unleashed by the annihilation of social structures in much of the country is gut-wrenching. In the midst of the madness, particular sequences stand out – such as the cruel chain of events that saw Beah arriving in the village where his parents were rumoured to be staying only minutes after the RUF had struck, killing everyone in sight.

What stops the narrative from tipping over into the wallowing, sensationalist trauma memoir this book could so easily have been is the quality of Beah’s writing. The book brims with descriptions that capture the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world through which he fled. We read how ‘the evening was waving its fingers, signaling night to approach’ and the boys ‘walked fast as if trying to stay in the daytime’, and how the Atlantic Ocean sounded like ‘the roar of big engines, the rolling of metal drums on a tar road, a thunder exploding, roll after roll’ to Beah and his companions when they encountered it for the first time.

In addition, the writer excels at capturing profound emotional shifts succinctly. When Beah heard the story of what the RUF did to his friend Saidu’s parents and sisters, for example, we read that his ‘teeth became sour’, while, on the day the army lieutenant recruited the boys to fight ‘it seemed as if the sky were going to break and fall on the earth’.

Beah’s acute sense of the weight and value of words enables him to go where many other authors might fear to tread. From the drug-fuelled army initiation process and his trembling first touch of a gun, through to his initial kill, and on to the point where ‘killing had become as easy as drinking water’ and even a psychological need, Beah takes us through his own dehumanisation. Having inhabited this with him, we are able to understand the reluctance of the child soldiers to be rescued and taken away from the only structure and purpose they knew. We can also appreciate the huge task facing the rehabilitation staff, many of whom expected to deal with traumatised children without realising that they would come in the form of armed and drugged killers bent on violence at all costs.

In light of this, Beah’s recovery, which we also witness step by painstaking step, and his account of his experiences are nothing short of remarkable. In fact, the memoir is one of the best things I’ve read. Utterly engrossing, it brought me close to tears several times, made me laugh, took me to places I could never otherwise imagine, and inspired me to marvel at the goodness, kindness and potential in the world. You can’t ask much more.

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (Fourth Estate, 2007)

I had hoped this post would be on a book by Emin Milli. I found him on Twitter, describing himself as a ‘dissident writer living in Azerbaijan’ – rather brave from what I’ve heard about the strictness of the regime. In fact, according to his website, Milli is no stranger to this himself: he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in 2009 and was only released conditionally in November 2010.

Sadly, when I contacted Milli, it turned out that the book of short stories he is working on won’t be ready until next year. He offered to translate and send me a couple of pieces – he works as an interpreter as well as a writer – but as I was really looking for a complete book, I decided not to put him to the trouble of doing that.

In the meantime, a contact at Sheffield Hallam University had sent through a suggestion of Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. This book presented another dilemma: although Azerbaijanis apparently consider it their national novel, at least according to Paul Theroux’s introduction in my edition, the identity of its author has been a mystery for many years. Several non-Azerbaijani writers have been in the frame since the book first appeared in Germany in 1937, alongside Baku-born Islam convert Mohammed Essad Bey (aka Lev Nussinbaum). He is the writer that journalist Tom Reiss concluded was behind the book – Reiss went on to write a biography of Bey, titled The Orientalist, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006. In addition, other scholars argue that Azerbaijani statesman Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli is the main author.

The odds were that the novel is by an Azerbaijani, but there was still room for doubt. Was this enough for me to justify making it my choice for the nation?

Faced with very little else available in translation, I finally decided to go for it when I discovered that the journal Azerbaijan International had dedicated an entire issue to the book. Whatever the truth about its author, it was clear that the novel had had a lasting impact on the nation. And so, at the risk that new evidence emerges that blows all this out of the water, I decided to give it a go.

The novel is set in the early decades of the 20th century, during the turbulent run up to the declaration of a separate Azerbaijani state, and tells the story of a relationship between Christian beauty Nino and Muslim Ali. Caught between the conservative traditions of Asia and the liberal culture of Europe, and with the might of Russia bearing down on the region, the lovers find themselves forced to question their desires and identities. And, as the world plunges into war, they realise that events on battlefields hundreds of miles away will decide whether a society in which their love can thrive will continue to exist.

The conflict between East and West is at the heart of this book. From the very first chapter, in which a geography teacher explains that Baku sits on the cusp of two continents and tells Nino and his classmates that it is partly down to them ‘whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia’, questions of allegiance and identity are at the forefront of the narrative. This plays out on every level, from different ways of eating through to the design of houses – all of which are presented with much affection and wit. I particularly enjoyed Ali’s conservative uncle’s description of his visit to the opera in Berlin:

‘We were taken to an opera, called L’Africaine. On stage stood a very fat woman and sang dreadfully. We disliked the woman’s voice very much. Kaiser Wilhelm noticed this and punished the woman on the spot. In the last act many negroes came and erected a big pyre. The woman was bound hand and foot and slowly burnt to death. We were very pleased about that. Later somebody told us that the fire had been only symbolical. But we did not believe this, for the woman shrieked just as terribly as the heretic Hurriet ul Ain, whom the Shah had had burnt to death in Tehran just before we set out on our journey.’

When it comes to the position of women in society, the contrast between the two cultures couldn’t be more stark. While Nino’s father advises Ali that marriage should be based on equality when he goes to ask for her hand, his own father tells him that ‘women are like children, only much more sly and vicious’ and his friends and other relatives advise him that wives have no souls and should be controlled with violence. And when Nino is kidnapped and Ali is forced to pursue her kidnapper’s car across the desert, the codes of honour by which he and his peers operate look set to have horrific consequences for his love.

It seems impossible that a relationship could bridge such a gulf, but the beauty of the book is that Said is able to reveal the coming together of two people in a way that is utterly believable and compelling. While recognising that culturally and historically they ‘ought to be blood enemies’, Ali and Nino are able to find ways of transcending their backgrounds while holding on to the truth of who they are. This does not come without great pain and sacrifice. In fact, much of the book is concerned with the struggles the lovers face to accommodate each other’s needs and desires – from the miserable months Nino spends walled up in a harem in Persia, to the indignation Ali has to swallow at hearing Europeans praise his beautiful, unveiled wife. However, according to the story at least, such reconciliation is possible, even if much is lost along the way.

As a metaphor for the dawning of the new Azerbaijani nation, which managed a few brave years before being swallowed into the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, the book is a powerful and memorable one. Written with great humour and beauty, it brims with affection for this nation of contrasts and contradictions. A wonderful read.

Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, translated from the German by Jenia Graman (Vintage 2000)

Tonga: empire line

November 8, 2012

When my fiancé Steve saw my Tongan book he said: ‘Cor, that’s a good, manly title, isn’t it?’

I looked glum. Manly or not, the rather pugnacious sound of A Providence of War by Joshua Taumoefolau was one the reasons that I’d been trying to avoid having to read this book for some months. The others concerned its length – a cool 600 or so pages – and the fact that it was self-published. (Alright, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised by most of the self-published books I’ve read so far this year, but doing without those layers of quality control that usually come with traditionally published works is always a gamble.)

But the truth was, there really wasn’t much else to choose from. In fact, Taumoefolau’s novel, the first in a planned series of epics, had been the sole recommendation for Tonga from the Multicultural Services Team at Auckland Libraries, which ran a Pacific books festival called ‘Pasifika’ this March.

At last, having exhausted most other lines of inquiry I could think of, I decided I’d been dodging the novel long enough. I went to lulu.com and used my school German to navigate through the checkout and get my very own copy winging its way to me.

Beginning in AD 1120, when the Tu’i Tonga Empire was at the height of its powers, the novel follows warrior Crown Prince Talatama as he travels to the domain’s farthest corners on King Tu’itatui’s business. After years of turbulence and trouble from rebellious overlords on the remotest islands, peace and prosperity seem to reign. Yet beneath the calm surface of the ocean realm, trouble is stirring. It is up to Talatama and his small band of followers from the region’s many diverse groups to risk everything to defend his father’s sovereignty in the face of a plot that threatens to destroy not only the empire but history itself.

Swashbuckling doesn’t begin to cover it. Bristling with battles, betrayals, secret pacts, mass murder, rape, pillaging, riddles that must be solved on pain of death, sorcery, volcanic eruptions and even cannibalism, this is a book of action. As in several other Pacific island stories I’ve read this year, we see myth and reality blending together in the shape of magical characters such as the witch Mo’unga, who has the power to summon sharks to finish off her opponents, and Talatama’s ally Maui Atalaga, a mortal descendant of the god Maui. These characters introduce magic to the narrative so that the novel straddles historical fiction and fantasy and is a surprisingly gripping read.

Yet this is more than a rollicking yarn. Based on meticulous research by the author into archaeological finds in the region and such historical documentation as exists about the empire, the book – though necessarily fictional because of the lack of formal records from the era – is an attempt to record and build pride in Tongan heritage, as Taumoefolau explains in his ‘Historical Note':

‘My personal fascination with the Tu’i Tonga stems from a personal connection to ancient ancestry. Taumoefolau, my great-great-grandfather, from whom my surname has its origin, was the grandson of the 37th Tu’i Tonga, Ma’ulupekotofa who inherited the title around A.D.1770’s [sic]. Thus, from a lineage of father to son, I am able to connect a line back to the very characters that appear in this story.

‘But in a greater vein, my passion for this ancient period  is fuelled by two aspects: the nature of its obscurity, an epoch so coloured with grandeur yet so remote in the living memory of my people who never had the benefit of written records, and the goal of glorifying our legends and tales through the medium of historical fiction in hope that these stories and their heroes are not forgotten, but remembered.’

As a result, the novel carries several fascinating insights into Pacific customs. We learn, for example, about the origins of the kava ceremony, which was apparently introduced to the empire by King Tu’itatui as a way of educating people about the importance of respect, reverence and loyalty. And we hear more Pacific creation myths – this time more fluently woven into the narrative than is sometimes the case in books from the region.

Taumoefolau’s writing is at its best in action scenes, where it is usually lean and muscular like the warriors it describes. Elsewhere, his prose can become overwritten and awkward. Too many chapters begin with a weather report when they should plunge straight into the drama and some of the sex scenes in particular are a touch cringeworthy – I found myself writing ‘hmmn’ in the margin next to the description of Mahina being ‘completely drunk with [Talatama's] manly tang’. In addition, as the extract above suggests, some of the phrasing is odd and the occasional malapropism creeps in.

However, these are mostly things that a professional editor would have sorted out. Structurally, the book is sound and Taumoefolau marshalls his large cast of characters with all their attendant sub-plots well. As a whole, it is surprisingly enjoyable – and all the more impressive for being apparently a lone Tongan prose voice on the world-literature stage.

A Providence of War by Joshua Taumoefolau (Lulu, 2009)

Kyrgyzstan: a lonely road

August 28, 2012

I’ve written before about one-author countries: states from which the work of only one writer seems to have been translated into English and/or received recognition on the world-literature stage. But the landlocked country of Kyrgyzstan, which apparently enjoys the distinction of being farther from the ocean than any other state in the world, is certainly up there with the best of them. Anglophone readers wanting to sample Kyrgyz literature will run up against the work of the country’s most famous author Chingiz Aitmatov, whose 1957 novel Jamilia made his name – and not much else.

So far, all my efforts to find translated alternatives to Aitmatov’s books have run into dead ends. If you know of another Kyrgyz writer whose work has been translated (or you know of someone who should be translated and want to get the word out), please leave a comment and tell me about them. In the meantime, partly because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and partly – I’ll confess – because I really liked the picture on the 2007 Telegram edition, here’s what I thought of Jamilia.

Framed as an artist’s explanation of the story behind one of his paintings, the novel sets out the circumstances of a surprising love affair that springs up between the artist-narrator Seit’s sister-in-law Jamilia and disabled war veteran Daniyar back in Seit’s childhood. Charged with carting grain across the Kyrgyz plains to the railway station because the healthy men, including Jamilia’s husband, are away fighting on the front, Jamilia and Seit amuse themselves by teasing and tormenting the awkward Daniyar. But as time goes by, a deep bond springs up between the three of them that will make it impossible for them to stay in the traditional village that is their home.

A strong sense of obligation pervades the opening section of the book. Everything in the community, where ‘happiness[...] belongs to those who retain their honour and conscience’ and Seit’s father is ‘duty-bound to the spirits of his ancestors’, is codified and ranked, to the point where there are particular forms of address for each relative and even letters to and from the front must be written and read according to a set of rules.

Beneath this rigid and formal surface, however, strong currents surge. From the sinister sexuality of the lone men who eye Jamilia, to the horrors of war that ‘formed a hard clot deep in [Daniyar's] heart’ and keep him silent, the books is full of unspoken intensity. Often sublimated into passionate outpourings on the beauty of the natural world and haunting singing from Daniyar, these hidden seams of feeling imbue tiny actions with huge significance. A look, a touch, a head rested on a shoulder reverberate like the blasts of the weapons being fired far away across the steppe in this hushed, restrained world.

And so it is that, by observing the silent drama playing out between the two young adults, Seit discovers his passion for expressing unspoken emotions through art. ‘Words were not necessary; besides, words can never quite express a person’s feelings’, he explains, going on to describe his desire to capture ‘the truth, the truth of life, the truth of those two people’, in what is surely one of the most subtle and touching depictions of the development of an artistic sense we have.

Now and then the flashbacks feel stilted. In addition, some of Aitmatov’s more hackneyed tropes wear a little thin. Personally I could have done without the storm the night Jamilia and Daniyar consummate their love.

Overall, though, this is an extraordinarily beautiful book. If this novel is at all indicative of the quality of Kyrgyz writing, it’s definitely time we English-language readers had access to some more.

Jamilia (Djamilia) by Chingiz Aitmatov, translated from the Russian by James Riordan (Telegram, 2007)

There are some titles that seem to tell you everything you need to know about what’s inside a book. In the case of Johnny Mad Dog, a novel by academic Emmanuel Dongala who fled his native Republic of Congo for the US in 1997 during the civil war, I was pretty clear about what to expect: violence, unpleasantness, people being killed in cruel and unusual ways and possibly an incident with a vicious canine, depending on how literal a writer Dongala was. Just as well then that I’m not a great believer in taking things at face value, because if I had done so I might have bypassed this novel and missed out on a whole lot more.

Set during the civil war, the book follows two characters as they struggle to survive and succeed in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. While scholarly Laokolé tries desperately to get herself, her younger brother Fofo and their disabled mother out of the city as looters descend for 48 hours of mayhem, 16-year-old rebel soldier, rapist and looter Johnny Mad Dog battles for supremacy among his peers, never more than moments away from the next senseless confrontation that could end his life. At last, drawn together into the heart of the vacuum as society implodes around them, the teenagers come face to face.

Yes, violence features heavily. There are sickening killings and assaults. There is the child shot by Johnny and his cronies on the roadside and the television star raped in the studio in front of her camera crew in the minutes before she is due to go on air. What stops these episodes from being gratuitous, however, is Dongala’s insight into the processes by which we justify unforgivable actions to ourselves. Tuned into Johnny’s thoughts as he commits these crimes, we hear his paranoid delusions that his victims are somehow from rival factions – or even Chechen spies – and his bizarre conviction that the women he abuses enjoy what he is doing.

Dongala’s ability to inhabit the minds of his characters also gives rise to some unexpected flashes of comedy. We witness the bathos and confusion of the rebels as they try to dream up a nom de guerre for their breakaway faction and find themselves repeatedly suggesting the names of cars and football teams, and the ludicrous exceptions they make to the dictates of their leaders in this land where there is ‘no longer any logic’.

There are some passages of powerfully empathetic writing too. Dongala’s portrait of Laokolé’s struggles, taking in everything from her thwarted desire to study engineering to the shame and discomfort of having to do without sanitary towels amid the crowds fleeing on the roads, is quite extraordinary.

Inevitably for so humane a writer, the targets of the greatest scorn and anger are not the bungling kids perpetrating violence but the organisations and authorities that dehumanise killers and victims alike. Of these, the UN representatives and rich Westerners at the embassy where Laokolé goes to seek shelter come in for the greatest vitriol – although Dongala is careful to include a sympathetic American who tries to rescue Laokolé and so avoids slipping into the same generalisations that make him angry. Perhaps most scathing of all is the scene in which a convoy of UN vehicles sent to rescue the Western nationals knocks down a young Congolese girl begging for a place in the cars and then halts to allow one woman to run back and collect her ‘little one’, which turns out to be a lap-dog.

Dongala’s impatience to relate these intense experiences means that occasionally his plotting can be a little abrupt. The American’s offer of adopting Laokolé, for example, seems to come a bit out of nowhere, although the extremity of the circumstances might excuse it. In addition, a few of Laokolé’s turns of phrase, such as her claim at one point to have been ‘yielding to an atavistic human instinct’, are a little hard to swallow even for a bright and well-educated 16-year-old.

Overall, though, this book delivers a lot more than its fierce title promises. Subtle and surprising, it takes readers by the hand and leads  us through the chaos of civil war, finding meaning amidst the madness. A powerful work.

Johnny Mad Dog (Johnny chien méchant) by Emmanuel Dongala, translated from the French by Maria Louise Ascher (Picador, 2005)

There isn’t much Yemeni prose for curious English-language readers to get their hands on. At first I assumed this was because of a lack of translation – and that is part of it – but after some time researching Yemeni writers and emailing addresses for bookshops and writers associations that, without exception, bounced my messages straight back at me, I realised that there might be a bit more to it.

In fact, the country’s political history, which saw the rigid regime of the Imams give way to decades of war and unrest in the latter half of the 20th century, means that fiction writing and publishing in the country has been pretty thin on the ground. Nevertheless, there have been some pioneers and of these Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj, whose 1984 novel The Hostage was chosen as one of the top 100 Arabic novels of the 20th century by the Arab Writers Union, has to be one of the most celebrated.

Set during the run up to a brief revolution in the 1940s, the book portrays the struggles of a young boy who is taken hostage because of his father’s political activities and is sent to work as a duwaydar [attendant] in the Governor’s palace. Required to service every whim and desire of the men and women of the household, the boy learns the meaning of powerlessness and subjection. Yet, as his political awareness grows and society outside the palace gates begins to stir, his experiences give him the insight he needs to begin to imagine another future.

Interlink Books, the company behind the Emerging Voices series in which this translation was published, were clearly worried that the historical and social context of the novel might be challenging for Western readers. Not only did they include a preface explaining the reasons for translating the book in this edition, but they also added two introductions and footnotes to the Arabic terms in the text.

They needn’t have been so diligent because Dammaj’s skill as a storyteller is more than equal to the task of carrying his readers over his narrative’s sometimes challenging terrain. Indeed, the sense that we are getting a glimpse into the closed, privileged and long-lost world of palace life under the Imams’ rule is one of the novel’s great strengths. This is helped by the protagonist’s position as an outsider, which means that we discover the world with him and watch as he compares the formal processes of power with the way things are done in his own largely illiterate home community.

However, perhaps the most startling arena of discovery is that of the palace’s sexual politics. Women in this closed world are extremely predatory towards the young pubescent boys serving them, as are the soldiers manning the gates, leaving the hero feeling ‘like a rare bird [...] put in a golden cage for life’. During a drive back from a state visit, the women’s possessiveness even spills over into a physical fight, with the boy tossed between them like a doll:

‘Then suddenly, she got hold of me and threw me towards them, so that I lost my balance and fell in some of their laps.

‘”You’re simply jealous of me,” she said, “because he’s sitting next to me. Am I jealous of you because he’s in your beds every night?”‘

Humiliation doesn’t get much deeper than this. However for Dammaj’s hero, the extreme pressure of being possessed and passed around in this way is just the force he needs to sublimate his powerlessness into dignity and develop his own desire for self-determination.

This growth of the protagonist from a naive child into a humane and thoughtful young man is what transforms the narrative from an intriguing account of life in a particular period into a timeless, classic tale. Dummaj shows us the human heart beating beneath the strange clothes and outmoded customs. Powerful writing indeed.

The Hostage (Ar-Rahina) by Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj, translated from the Arabic by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley (Interlink Books, 1994)

I was all set to read something by Dubravka Ugresic for my Croatian book when a Serbian colleague who reads a lot of literature from the region burst my bubble – surely I could find something more interesting from Croatia, she said. Never one to turn down a challenge (how do you think I ended up trying to read a book from every country in the world in a year in the first place?), I decided to give it a shot. But given that Dubravka Ugresic was the frontrunner in the recommendations I’d had so far, I was going to need some help.

My first port of call was the British-Croatian Society. In response to my appeal for books I could read in translation, their secretary put me in touch with Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, director of Istros Books, a company set up in 2010 to publish literature from South-east Europe in English. I was in luck: they had published a Croatian novel only that week.

Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perišič is the story of a Croatian journalist, Toni, who faces the sack when the ill-qualified reporter he has sent to cover the war in Iraq for his newspaper becomes increasingly erratic before disappearing altogether. Obliged to fabricate his colleague’s articles, all the while struggling to hold together his increasingly fragile relationship with his actress girlfriend, Toni begins to draw on his memories of Croatia’s own conflict, unaware of the ridiculous lengths he will have to go to try to save his career.

The Graham Greene reference in the title (it would be interesting to know whether this was in the original or added for the benefit of English readers) is more fitted to the novel’s witty tone than its content. Unlike in Our Man in Havana, our hero is not the bewildered novice parachuted into a remote corner of the world and forced to make the best of it, but the bungler who sent him. Given the gravity of the situation in Iraq, this reversal, which keeps the war-zone correspondent a shadowy, mysterious figure for whom we can’t feel too anxious, is probably necessary for the comedy to work. Still, it’s striking to see a comic novel set, partly – albeit indirectly – in Iraq.

Perišič’s wit is complemented by his insight into the dynamics of human relationships. This comes across most strongly in his descriptions of the ebb and flow of Toni’s interactions with his live-in girlfriend Sanja. ‘Part of our love (and understanding) thrived on nonsense,’ explains Toni, going on to portray the fluctuations in their daily conversations with just the right mixture of perceptiveness, self-deprecation and bathos – a tone which also enables him to launch into passages of detailed commentary about the personal and social affects of the Croatian War of Independence without losing the reader.

There are one or two problems with the text. In particular, though funny when Toni’s terrible impression of an English TV chef is transliterated in all its auricular weirdness, the editorial decision to represent regional accents or dialects with regional English accents is very disconcerting. We find Toni’s mother talking in uneven Scots, while a man from his home village sounds as though he might be more at home strolling through the East End.

These jar, however, because the novel is, for the most part, so well done. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking story, which, while recalling some of the comic greats that have gone before, add its own brave, quirky and refreshing perspective to the tradition. An unexpected delight. I’d like to read more.

Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perišič, translated from the Croatian by Will Firth (Istros Books, 2012)

Vietnam: war of words

July 5, 2012

I first heard of this book in a comment at the bottom of an article on the Guardian books website. Opinionated, witty and weird, these reader discussions can often say more about the people writing the comments than the literature they are debating. However, every now and then someone adds something that really makes you think.

In this case, the topic was books about the Vietnam War. Journalist Mark Hooper had posted his top ten but, as the first commenter remarked, had neglected to include any books by Vietnamese authors. Hooped responded to say that the article was about Vietnam books that claim to be ‘the best book on the Vietnam War you’ll ever read’. He had of course read The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, but the book jacket only said sober things like ‘a classic’ and ‘a triumph’ and so it didn’t qualify for the list.

I hadn’t read The Sorrow of War so I decided to give it a go. Given Hooper’s comments, I was surprised when my edition arrived to find the cover sporting a quote from the Independent saying that the novel ‘takes its place alongside the greatest war novel of the century, All Quiet on the Western Front‘ – surely by default that meant it was claiming to be the best Vietnam War book you’ll ever read?

I wondered briefly about popping up to the books department to try and track down this Mark Hooper and ask him what he thought he was playing at. But the article was more than four years old and besides I still had nearly 100 books to get through before the end of the year. I decided I’d better get on with the reading.

Drawing on Bao Ninh’s own horrific experiences during the conflict (he was one of only 10 survivors out of a brigade of 500), the novel tells the story of Kien, a war veteran struggling to piece his life together after 11 brutal years on the front line. Haunted by the memories of what he has seen and thoughts of his teenage life before the war, Kien wanders through the city of Hanoi and a society he no longer recognises. But until he finds a way to express and work through his experiences, peace will remain another world.

Ninh’s writing is exceptional. Blowing apart clinical descriptions of battle procedure with violent blasts of extreme experience, he captures the mixture of detachment and horror that characterises Kien’s mental state. The episodes he recounts – among them the violent rape and murder or three young girls by US troops and the drowning of a wounded man in a flooding ditch – are among the most graphic and shocking I’ve come across but they are never gratuitous and, even after more than 10 years of embedded reporting from the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are startlingly fresh. Working with the eerie descriptions of phantoms and monsters that mark the protagonist and his terrified comrades’ ‘drift over the edge from logic’ after months in the Jungle of Screaming Souls, they capture ‘how cruelly [the young soldiers] were twisted and tortured by war’.

For all its anger and violence, however, the novel contains striking moments of beauty. The most bewitching of these involve Phuong, Kien’s childhood sweetheart, who, like him, is irrevocably altered by the conflict. Wistful and raw, these evocations of first love break in upon the narrative like rays of sunshine through the jungle canopy, making their surroundings seem all the more dark and threatening.

The chronology of the novel is complex, with the storyline shifting ground repeatedly so that the past and present all seem to inhabit a sort of formless now, reflecting Kien’s imprisonment in his vivid memories. In the hands of another writer, this might be frustrating, but in Ninh’s it is extraordinary, particularly in the final third, where the way events spiral in on Kien’s most painful recollection draws the book to a devastating close.

If we needed an argument for the importance of translation, it is here in this subtle, gripping, angry and tender depiction of the personal consequences of war. Striding across the arbitrary fronts of race and nationality, Bao Ninh speaks to the heart of human loss and longing. In a world where western journalists write lists of novels that tell only one side of this bitter story, his work should be read much more.

The Sorrow of War (Than Phan Cua Tinh Yeu) by Bao Ninh, English version by Frank Palmos from translation by Phan Thanh Hao (Minerva, 1994)

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