Book of the month: Trifonia Melibea Obono

August is Women in Translation month. This is an excellent initiative started in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinski to highlight the fact that less than a third of the books translated into English each year are written by women. As I realised when I totted up my numbers a couple of years ago, my quest broadly reflected the gender imbalance in publishing in 2012 – only 27 per cent of the books I read that year were by female authors.

As a result, I welcome the continued efforts of bloggers like Radzinski to bring translated work by women to wider audiences and am pleased to see a new reading women writers worldwide project by journalist Sophie Baggott getting off to a flying start. For my own small contribution to the cause, I read only work by women in August.

This year has seen some great additions to the anglophone global bookshelf, including several fascinating reads from underrepresented countries and languages. Examples include Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis, and Celestial Bodies by Omani author Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth.

My pick for this month, however, comes not only from a little represented country, but from a minority perspective in that nation. La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, is not only the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into the world’s most published language, but it is also one of the few LGBTQ African novels to have come onto my radar.

The story follows the coming of age of Okomo, a motherless girl who sets out to try to find her father, and in the process discovers some challenging truths about herself and her traditional Fang culture. As she becomes aware of her desires and of the way that people like her and her Uncle Marcelo – a ‘fan e mina’ or ‘man-woman’ – stand outside society’s norms, the protagonist is pushed towards a deeper understanding of the impulses that drive her and the forces that have shaped the world in which she must find a place.

The novel provides fascinating insights into a way of life that feels far removed from Western urban culture. With its glimpses of Fang traditions – including the belief that women can prove their femininity by handling hot pots without cloths and the expectations surrounding polygamous marriages – it will offer rich material for readers hungry for details of places they might never visit in person. The presentation of the LGBTQ elements of the story is also striking. (‘There isn’t a word for it. It’s like you don’t exist,’ explains Uncle Marcelo to Okomo, although translator Schimel does opt to include the English term ‘lesbian’ later in the book.)*

Yet some of the narrative’s most memorable and often funny moments have a ring of universality to them too. Okomo’s grandfather’s misogynistic ramblings about the suitable behaviour of young girls, for example, and her grandmother’s attempts to manipulate her younger relatives feel instantly recognisable. Okomo also displays a deadpan humour that would be authentic in the mouth of a teenager anywhere.

At times, the book almost feels like a fable or fairy tale. Recalling some of the fantastic elements of By Night the Mountain Burns, as well as the Nigerian classic The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the narrative takes flight when Okomo ventures into the forest, a place where restrictive rules fall away and she is free to be herself. As Abosede George writes in her thoughtful Afterword, this use of the setting confronts common claims that LGBTQ issues are ‘unAfrican’ by rooting these characters and their relationships in the soil.

There is no hiding the fact that this book requires work from anglophone readers. Its perspective and cultural references will inevitably have a distancing effect for many. In addition, the differences in approaches to pacing, repetition and taboos may mean a lot of Western readers find the narrative leaping forward when they expect more build up and circling back when they are impatient to press ahead. Characters may also appear coy and blunt by turns as their mores clash with anglophone norms.

Most of these issues, however, have more to do with many English-language readers’ limitations – reinforced by the prevailing trends in publishing – than with La Bastarda itself. It is a significant book. The more such stories we read, the better we will learn to understand them.

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel (Feminist Press, 2018)

Picture: ‘Bioko_2010_1891‘ by NathanaelStanek on flickr.com

*After I wrote this review, translator Lawrence Schimel explained to me that the Spanish word ‘lesbiana’ is present in two places in the book, hence his inclusion of the English term. There is no word for lesbian in the Fang language. Apparently, the way to approach this was a source of considerable discussion during the editing process.

Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares

Today, I am sorry to learn of the death of Brazilian writer Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares. Although her work is little known in the English-speaking world, the author – who was born in 1930 – was celebrated in her home country. She won many awards, including the prestigious Jabuti prize.

I was lucky enough to hear about her work through translator Daniel Hahn. I featured his ebook translation of her novella Family Heirlooms as a Book of the month back in 2015 and was delighted by its humour and inventiveness.

Daniel Hahn is keen to find an anglophone home for Tavares’s work and surely an English-language deal would be a fitting tribute to this distinguished literary career.

Publishers, over to you!

Book of the month: Esther Gerritsen

Some books stay with you. I wasn’t going to feature another Dutch novel for a while, having written about Herman Koch’s Dear Mr M relatively recently. But then I got sucked into reading Esther Gerritsen’s Craving (translated by Michele Hutchison) after World Editions sent it to me along with a couple of other titles to mark Boekenweek (an annual festival of literature in The Netherlands). Four months later, it’s still on my mind.

In fact, Craving is one of several memorable Dutch novels I’ve read in recent years, among them Sam Garrett’s long-anticipated translation of Gerard Reve’s classic The Evenings and Jaap Robben’s You Have Me to Love, brought into English by David Doherty. Powerful and atmospheric though these books are, however, they didn’t quite get their claws into me in the way that Craving managed to do.

On the face of it, this is a very simple novel. The erratic Coco returns home to live with her terminally ill mother after years of estrangement. Their renewed proximity forces a re-examination of their troubled relationship and something of a rapprochement that sheds fresh light on both their lives.

As with several other contemporary Dutch novels, including Robben’s and Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (translated by David Colmer), Craving focuses on filial relationships. It has the feel of a film shot exclusively in close-up, with small details representing dramatic shifts. This means that although Craving does not share the isolated settings of Robben’s and Bakker’s books, it possesses a similar quiet intensity, which comes from the narrative containing a minimal amount of background noise.

The words work hard here. Credit is due to Michele Hutchison for the way she has managed to present text that is as powerful as it is spare, where almost every phoneme seems to perform multiple functions – conveying the action, revealing specific emotional truths and acting as broader statements about the human experience. Even the comma splices that would usually have pedants bristling seem to work within the context of the narrative voice.

The efficiency of the dialogue is testament to the power of the language. Normally, I get frustrated by reams of unattributed statements and struggle to remember who is saying what without a reminder every three or four lines. In Craving, however, the character of each speaker comes across so clearly that I barely noticed the lack of signposts.

The economy of expression allows for some great comic moments too. Bathos and distraction are favourite devices for Gerritsen, who delights in reminding us how the monumental and banal coexist and colour one another, gilding significant moments with foolishness and elevating mundane happenings to precarious importance.

Through it all, Gerritsen never loses sight of the pattern she is weaving. She threads story deftly through the text, so that the whole picture comes into focus gradually. Instead of the neat reveal common in more commercial books, the central meaning emerges in such a way that it cannot be condensed or explained but can be comprehended only by reading the words set out in precisely the order the author has chosen. No more, no less.

Craving (Dorst) by Esther Gerritsen, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison (World Editions, 2015)

Buddy reads, kipper sandwiches and 1984: Meeting the man who prompted me to read the world

Last Friday was a special day. Nearly seven years on from launching my quest to spend 2012 journeying through a book from every country, I had the chance to meet the man who gave me the idea to read the world.

His name is Jason and the concept of exploring international literature came out of an exchange we had in the comments section of a blog I used to write about women’s literature. Jason suggested I read Cloudstreet by the Australian writer Tim Winton and everything spiralled from there.

Over the intervening years, Jason and I have kept in touch, mostly through Facebook. When my first book, Reading the World (titled The World Between Two Covers in the US), came out, I sent him a copy as a thank you for his part in inspiring what turned out to be a life-changing project.

As Jason lives in Wyoming, US, and I live in the UK, however, there was never much prospect of us meeting… until last week. Jason was coming to London for Man Booker 50, a festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. It was the perfect chance to say hello.

We met at the Sail Loft in Greenwich, on the banks of the River Thames. Jason was accompanied by his friend Ben, who took the photograph above (thanks Ben!) and is married to Ana, one of the volunteer translators who made it possible for me to read a book from São Tomé and Príncipe back in 2012.

Although we’d never met in person, the conversation flowed freely, centring around books. I was particularly interested to hear about Jason’s experience as a BookTuber – his channel is called Old Blue’s Chapter and Verse. Never having explored this world, I was fascinated to learn about some of its conventions. The concept of ‘buddy reads’, for example, struck me as very interesting – the idea is that two BookTubers read the same title simultaneously and post videos about their experiences.

When Jason revealed that he is engaged in a buddy read of 1984, the conversation took flight. All three of us turned out to be big admirers of George Orwell. It was amazing to hear how Jason was finding encountering the book as an adult when so many people, myself included, read it for the first time at school.

He reminded me quite how dark it is and said he was troubled by the idea of it being taught to children. In response, I suggested under-18s might actually be more comfortable with Big Brother’s dystopia than we would be: as most youngsters will be used to living with a degree of control and scrutiny, these ideas may not be as disturbing to them as they would be to independent adults.

From there, we moved on to taboos in books that readers fail to acknowledge. Jason gave the example of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, which he is surprised that many people seem to read without realising that it involves incest. We wondered if this is a sign that we readers unconsciously censor references to subjects that we find too upsetting.

The conversation wasn’t all book-based. There were a few culinary detours along the way. Jason tried his first scotch egg – with great success – and shared some wise advice on not assuming that things you like in isolation will work well together. He had learnt this too his cost some while before when he attempted to construct a kipper sandwich and found that the addition of mayonnaise to the fish produced one of the most disgusting things he’d ever tasted.

I’m sure we could have talked for hours, but Jason and Ben had an evening appointment with Hilary Mantel and Pat Barker. Unable to compete with such brilliance, I bade them goodbye, hoping it won’t be too long before our paths cross again.

Book of the month: Leonardo Padura

This book was a recommendation from two visitors to this blog. Suroor said it was ‘about the events leading up to Trotsky’s assasination’ and ‘about “corrupted utopias”: the Soviet Union, Cuba and Spain during the civil war,’ while CarolS told me that her book group had enjoyed Padura’s work, finding him a ‘superb conveyer of atmosphere’.

When I looked up Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs, translated by  Anna Kushner, I found that it had garnered a sheaf of enthusiastic reviews and that the word ‘masterpiece’ had been liberally applied to it. This set alarm bells ringing for me. Could this novel really live up to such hype?

The fruit of many years of research, thinking, discussion and writing, The Man Who Loved Dogs makes no secret of its ambition. Centring around the assassination of  the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940, it sets out to explore how ideologies are built and betrayed, how wars are won and lost, and how history is manipulated to suit the interests of those in power. To do so, it moves between multiple perspectives – weaving together an account of Trotsky’s years in exile, the reflections of late-twentieth century Cuban writer Iván Cárdenas Maturell and the strange story of a frail man he meets walking two Russian wolfhounds on the beach.

The novel is as weighty as its subject matter. At 576 pages, it is on its way to rivalling the classics of Russian literature for girth. The similarities don’t end there: the book’s expansive scope recalls the sweeping arcs of the works of Tolstoy, and like Tolstoy, Leonardo Padura capitalises on the richness that such long-form storytelling affords, taking time to establish motivations, personality shifts and moments of crisis that are all the more devastating for their extended build-up.

The drawn-out description of the radicalisation and indoctrination of Ramón Mercader, for example, and the painstaking delineation of the days leading up to his assassination of Trotsky are exceptionally powerful. The same goes for the detailed depictions of Trotsky’s sufferings and the struggles of many secondary characters, chief among them Mercader’s flinty mother, Caridad, and Maturell’s brother, who pays a heavy price for openly acknowledging his homosexual relationship at a time when this is still illegal in Cuba.

Through these haunting, engrossing episodes, which immerse us in the feelings and thoughts of those living them, we see how ‘the decisions of history can come in through the window of some lives and destroy them from the inside’.

The history in question, however, is somewhat different to that with which many English speakers will probably be familiar. As I discovered repeatedly during my quest to read the world, one of the mind-expanding things about literature from elsewhere is its tendency to portray familiar stories from unfamiliar angles, revealing aspects of well-known events that we may not previously have appreciated.

Here, we see the coming and unfolding of the second world war not from the familiar vantage points of London or Washington, but from the Soviet Union and Spain. The devastating implications of the pact between Stalin and Hitler – which, among other things, led to the suicide of numerous Communists imprisoned under Franco – leap from the page far more vigorously than they do from many anglophone history books.

In addition, Padura lays bare a mindset that many readers in Western capitalist countries may never have penetrated before. Through the discussions between Mercader and his mentor, he reveals what drives those who sacrifice their lives and identities for an idea:

‘I’m just one person , so very small, in the fight for a dream. A person and a name are nothing […] : a man can be relegated, substituted. The individual is not an unrepeatable unit but rather a concept that is added to and makes up a mass that is real. But man as an individual isn’t sacred and, as such, is expendable. […] The dream is what matters, not the man, and even less the name.’

This is a truly fascinating novel. To get through it takes commitment: even speedy readers will have it in their lives for the best part of a week. Yet, when I finished it I found myself wishing it had been longer – I wanted more of the hardships of life in late-twentieth century Cuba, as glimpsed through the eyes of Maturell, and I wished Padura had turned his talents to conjuring the thoughts of Trotsky’s nemesis, Stalin, who is a sinister, shadowy absence at the heart of this excellent book.

The term masterpiece is often used and seldom merited. It is justified in this case.

The Man Who Loved Dogs (El hombre que amaba a los perros) by Leonardo Padura, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013)

Picture: ‘Trotsky’s Gravesite’ by verifex on flickr.com

New TEDx talk: what I learned reading a book from every country

Earlier this month, I was honoured to be one of the speakers at TEDx Hanoi. Taking place at the city’s United Nations International School, the day-long event presented a fascinating collection of talks around the theme ‘Toward a Global Community’.

While Professor Kourosh Kayvani, founder of Aurecon’s Design Academy and mastermind behind the technicalities of Wembley stadium in the UK and the flagship football venue in Doha, reflected on the potential of engineering to solve problems, environmental activist Huong Le spoke about #SaveSonDoong, her campaign to protect the world’s largest cave from insensitive commercial development. There were also talks on career advice, architecture and the role that history can play in helping us live wisely – this last presentation was given by former diplomat Madame Ninh, a very inspiring person and prominent figure in Vietnam, who was constantly surrounded by young women eager to learn from her.

There were also several great presentations and performances from school students, among them Minh Quan Do, an aspiring poet and poetry translator, and South Korean yo-yo player, Hyunjoon Choi. And for those keen to do more than simply sit and listen, there were improv comedy workshops and self-defence classes in the breaks, as well as the opportunity to take a virtual tour of the majestic Son Doong, about which Huong Le spoke so powerfully.

For me, the event was special for three reasons. Not only did it give me chance to visit a new country and meet some fascinating people, but it also allowed me to reflect on what reading the world has taught me six years on from my original quest. This was exciting as there have been so many interesting things that have happened since the project, so it was wonderful to have the opportunity to share some of the more recent insights I have gained from interactions around stories from elsewhere.

Thanks to the organisers of TEDx Hanoi for a very inspiring day and a wonderful trip.

Picture by TEDxHanoi on flickr.com

Advice for world readers

One of my favourite things about this project is the way other people have taken it on and made it their own. Several times a week – and sometimes as much as every day – I hear from booklovers who have been inspired to launch their own international-reading ventures.

These can sometimes be very individual and specific – such as the Mexican students who gave away books in their town to promote reading or the horror fan keen to sample something of that genre from as many nations as possible. Usually, however, the messages come from people who, as I did back in 2011, have realised quite how narrow their reading has been and are keen to broaden their horizons by exploring stories from elsewhere.

Sometimes they just want to let me know what they are planning. Sometimes, they ask questions. And, though the questions can be very varied, the most common are these: What advice can I give people trying to read the world? How can you read so much so quickly? Where do you find books from nations with little or no published literature in English? What do you do if you can’t afford to buy books? Can I help?

Much as I’d love to be able to help with individual quests, time and money factors usually make this impossible. During my ‘Postcards from my Bookshelf’ project last year, in which I sent books to 12 strangers in celebration of the fifth anniversary of my quest, I received comments from more than 200 people keen to take part. It simply wouldn’t be possible for me to buy books for everyone.

However, there are a few tips and bits of information that I’ve learnt over the past six years that might be useful for would-be literary explorers. I’m putting them below. Please feel free to add your own advice in the comments.

  • Be curious and open to changing your ideas Reading the world requires you to let go of your assumptions about many things – from morality and history to what counts as a book in the first place. This can be challenging but also hugely rewarding. As far as possible, try to keep an open mind. In particular, when you find yourself reading something that feels difficult, remember that your reaction may reveal more about your own cultural conditioning and blind spots than about the book or country it comes from.
  • Make the quest your own Many of the people I hear from tell me that they’re using my list as a guide. It’s great to know that it’s useful and I hope that the Book of the month reviews help keep it fresh. However, there are so many amazing books out there and a huge amount has changed since I read the world in 2012. Thousands of brilliant new translations have been published, in some cases opening up the literature of countries that had nothing available in English during my quest. Meanwhile, other titles have gone out of print and are harder to find. So, although people are welcome to use my list, I would urge them to explore for themselves too. There are many great resources out there but three good places to start are English PEN’s World Bookshelf, Words Without Borders and Asymptote.
  • Go at your own pace You don’t have to read the world in a year. You don’t have to read it in ten years. It’s much better to go at a pace that you can sustain rather than to drive yourself frantic by trying to cram reading into every spare moment and turning it into a chore. Instead, find a window of time (even if it’s just 15 minutes a day) that you can dedicate to reading and stick to that. And if you find yourself wanting to spend more time reading as you go along – great!
  • Use libraries and other reading resources to read for free Reading can be expensive. Even with the generous book gifts I received from strangers, my original quest cost me several thousand pounds. This can be prohibitive, especially if you live in a part of the world where books are relatively expensive. There aren’t always easy solutions. However, where they exist, libraries can be a fabulous resource for bookworms. Not only do they make books freely available, but they will also often order in titles you request. For people in particularly difficult circumstances, there are charities such as Book Aid working to supply books. It may be worth researching what is available in your area and contacting the relevant organisations to see how international their offering is. Whatever you do, please avoid the temptation to resort to pirated versions of texts. The inequalities in the international publishing industry that mean that some literatures are much more widely read and translated than others will only be reinforced by this. It’s important that authors are paid for their work.
  • Be patient and use your initiative It’s very difficult when you come to a country that has no commercially available literature in English. What you do about this will depend on how much time and energy you have. During my quest (as you’ll see if you read the posts for the Comoros, Panama and São Tomé and Príncipe, to name a few), I resorted to all sorts  of outlandish things to try to source texts, including contacting charities, academics and students working in the region, and tracking translators down through social media. There is no magic solution to ticking off these countries. However, the good news is, it’s getting easier. Since my project, literature from several previously off-limits nations, including Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau, has been released in English. I’m hopeful it won’t be long before every UN-recognised nation has something available in the world’s most-published language. I’ll do my best to keep you informed. Watch this space!

Picture: ‘One last look at 2012. Happy New Year planet Earth!’ by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on flickr.com.

Book of the month: Prajwal Parajuly

One of the joys of this project has been the number of people who have shared their book recommendations with me. Even now, six years on from my year of reading the world, I usually get several messages a day from readers telling me about literature from different parts of the planet.

I wish I had the time to follow up on them all. But even if I were still reading at my 2012 rate of four books a week, I would not manage to keep pace with the volume of suggestions I get. Still, I’m always delighted when someone posts a good recommendation on the blog: even if I can’t get to it, I hope it might catch the eye of some of the other adventurous readers who pass this way.

From time to time, however, a suggestion stands out. This is particularly common when the messages concern countries with little published literature in English. As I’m always keen to help increase the opportunity for underrepresented voices to be heard, I do my best to pursue these leads.

That’s how I came to read The Gurhka’s Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly. Suyasha from Nepal emailed me with several suggestions of books available in English from her country. Of these, Parajuly’s short-story collection most intrigued me because it promised to contain depictions of a diverse range of characters and experiences.

This proved to be the case. Ranging from the woes of a paanwalla in the north-east Indian hill station of Kalimpong, to the troubles of an ambitious young property owner in Manhattan, the collection, which was written in English, is impressive in its scope. Yet, there are two common threads, neatly encapsulated by the name of the title story: familial ties and cultural heritage.

For Parajuly, the distinction between ethnicity and nationality is a major theme. Several of his characters comment on what it means to be Nepali and how this should dictate life choices such as whether to stay married and the duties owed to relatives. Others, meanwhile, find themselves frustrated by outsiders (usually Westerners) who exist in ‘uninformed bubbles’ and cannot understand that it is possible to be Nepali even if you were born in a different nation. Nepal is not so much a country as a physical inheritance – and perhaps, also, a state of mind.

Alongside these cultural concerns, anxieties about status, class and caste are key sources of momentum that drive the narratives. Delighting in hurling his characters into scenarios that destabilise the social norms they have absorbed, Parajuly reveals the petty hypocrisies that can erode and divert the course of lives. We see a daughter so bent on marrying a fellow Brahmin that she sacrifices her happiness on the altar of tradition in ‘A Father’s Journey’ and a young man driven to cruelty by his fears about how his wealthy cousins will respond to his small home in ‘Missed Blessing’. There is also a beautiful rapprochement in the final piece in the collection, ‘The Immigrants’, in which a relatively wealthy man and a poor village woman are brought together by virtue of both being Nepali outsiders in New York.

Although many of the stories have tragic currents, they also carry a great deal of humour. Parajuly has a keen eye for inconsistencies and foibles, and makes use of these both to endear his characters to us and at times to ridicule them. Mock grief, insecurities about bad teeth and naked greed all parade through his pages. Often the only distinction between likeable and unlikeable characters is whether they acknowledge these imperfections in themselves. There are some wonderful examples of bathos too.

This is not a perfect collection. The stories are a little uneven and occasionally topple into a kind of journalism in the passages where Parajuly deems it necessary to include a great deal of contextual information  Sometimes they feel stagey and a little bald, particularly when characters step forward to deliver fluent speeches about what has led them to a particular point.

Overall, though, this is a rich and intriguing book. For those keen to discover something of the multiple layers of Nepali society, it is a good place to start. And you’ll get some chuckles, surprises and moving moments along the way too. Thanks Suyasha!

The Gurkha’s Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly (riverrun, 2012)

Picture: Kathmandu Nepal by Macro Eye on flickr.com

A new work from Turkmenistan

People often ask me about the unpublished manuscripts I encountered during my 2012 quest to read a book from every country in the world. Have they been picked up by publishers? Are they available for other literary explorers to read?

The answer is mixed – while some of the works, such as Juan David Morgan’s The Golden Horsehave appeared (albeit briefly) in English – several deserving books, chief among them Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, remain off-limits to anglophone readers.*

Getting translated works published can be an uphill struggle, so I was very pleased when Glagoslav Publications took on The Tale of Aypi, the first novel ever to be translated from Turkmen into English. Its author, Ak Welsapar, kindly shared it with me in manuscript form during my project and it’s great that it’s now commercially available.

Late last year, I received more news from Welsapar. Glagoslav Publications were bringing out another book by him – a collection of short stories. Would I be prepared to write a foreword for it?

I accepted gladly and am delighted to announce that the collection, Death of the Snake Catcher, translated by Lois Kapila, Yossef Azemoun and Richard Govett, was published last month. Containing stories written during Welsapar’s time in his homeland and over the decades since his exile, the book is an intriguing insight into life in one of the most closed societies on Earth, as I attempted to explain in my foreword:

‘Although the stories may appear very diverse, a closer look reveals a number of common themes and tropes at work. The power of the unexplained is among the most prominent. As in The Tale of Aypi, a book that is haunted by the ghost of a girl who died some centuries before the story takes place, the uncanny has a strong influence. The ground shifts constantly beneath our feet, leaving us uncertain what to expect and what to trust.

[…]

‘In other stories, this sense of uncertainty spreads to engulf everyday objects. People cannot be trusted and neither can things. Even the most innocuous-seeming of occurrences – a love affair, two carts approaching a crossroad, a man writing at a desk – can turn treacherous and become the thing that destroys your life. As Jummi, the luckless team leader in “One of the Seven is a Scoundrel”, says, “these days one of your two eyes can become your enemy.”

‘For readers, these sudden shifts in significance are as instructive as they are unsettling. Faced with a reality that may never be quite what it seems, we find ourselves ill at ease. Like a citizen in a society overseen by a fickle dictator, or a writer working in the shadow of freedom of expression-limiting rules the specifics of which are left at the discretion of individual censors – as was the case in the Soviet era – we can never be sure what is safe. It is as though Welsapar writes us into the world he has left, letting us taste the bitterness of living in constant fear of recrimination for offences, or faults in interpretation, we may not even realise we have committed.

[…]

‘Yet, although the stories frequently tackle dark subject matter, there is a lightness to the writing that lifts it out of the gloom that might otherwise swamp these pages. We see it in the optimism of young lovers and in the determination of many of the characters to achieve the dignity of leading an independent existence – no matter how limited and basic that might be. What’s more, hopefulness pervades the title story, in which two mortal enemies – the snake catcher and his prey – meet and in so doing discover that they have made each other what they are. Although their identities are built at least partly on their mission to destroy one another, the story hints that the world might nevertheless be big enough to contain them both. As Welsapar explained when I asked him about the collection: “People should never forget that we are only part of a great life, a cosmos, and it does not become a person to take living space from other living creatures. Only the weak strive to destroy one another. The strong learn to coexist.”

‘For all the difficulties he and his characters face, the belief that a better reality is possible underpins Welsapar’s writing. Just as he continued to work in the face of what must have seemed like insurmountable obstacles when he was first blacklisted and forced to endure seeing his books destroyed, so the people he portrays retain faith that survival is its own reward and that tomorrow may bring better things. Even if “the most important thing, the secret thing, maybe, slips away as always, and remains unfathomable”, the effort to express what can be expressed and live what can be lived is worthwhile.

It is great to see this second work of fiction from the only Turkmen writer with a voice in English hitting the shelves. Congratulations to Ak Welsapar and to Glagoslav Publications for continuing to champion this author.

* Thanks to Catherine for alerting me to the fact that Ualalapi is now available, published by Tagus in 2017.

Picture: ‘Golden statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, first president of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat‘ by David Stanley on flickr.com

Book of the month: Basma Abdel Aziz

An editor once told me that she worked on the basis that a reader has to hear about a book five times before he or she will buy it. April’s Book of the month is a neat demonstration of her theory.

In the two years since Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation of Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue came out, the book has flashed repeatedly on my radar. It cropped up in several articles about underrated books by women. Marcia Lynx Qualey, tireless champion of Arabic literature, made much of it on her excellent blog. When it made the shortlist for the inaugural TA First Translation Prize, I finally cracked and bought a copy.

The novel centres around Yehya, a man wounded in a political uprising in an unnamed state. Forced to join the static queue at the Gate – the sinister, faceless institution that has assumed power in the wake of the Disgraceful Events – Yehya, his friend Nagy and lover Amani must pit themselves against the system in order to stand a chance of obtaining the operation that will save his life. As they do so, they encounter a host of other characters, including a school teacher barred from practising for allowing a subversive essay to be read in class and a man petitioning for compensation on behalf of a cousin killed in the service of the state, and witness the slow disintegration of society in the face of an increasingly intransigent regime.

Like its author, who is nicknamed ‘the rebel’ in her home country, the novel is unashamedly political. Its ideas lie close to the surface and, although the state in which it is set is unnamed, readers cannot fail to miss the references to the Arab Spring. Whether she is portraying the way that legislation can become weaponised to weaken and even kill citizens by making it impossible for them to obtain the things necessary for their survival, or showing how seemingly innocuous objects such as mobile phones can be used against their owners, Aziz writes with insight and wry humour. The best passages reveal the human toll that such inhuman policies exact. The following is a good example:

‘Everyone was on equal ground. But they all had the same look about them, the same lethargy. Now they were even all starting to think the same way. […] The queue was like a magnet. It drew people toward it, then held them captive as individuals and in their little groups, and it stripped them of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.’

For obvious reasons, the novel has been compared to works by George Orwell and Franz Kafka and like those books (and the political theatre of Bertolt Brecht), it has a distant, no-man’s-land quality, as though it has tapped into a universal nightmare. Many of the lesser characters remain nameless and are identified only by their clothing or physical characteristics, and the descriptions of the city are mostly stark and spare.

However, a humanity throbs at the heart of Aziz’s writing, indicating a possibility for redemption that other such works sometimes lack. In the face of the cruelty of the state, the friendship between the central characters and the connections between the secondary figures who support and encourage one another to endure the endless waiting persist and even strengthen. Although they may be powerless to ameliorate their material circumstances, individuals in the queue retain control over the expression of their humanity. If not exactly heartening, this observation adds subtlety and depth to the writing. The same is true of the sections that reveal how queue life is liberating in some ways for a number of the characters – particularly the women – because it enables them to break free of social mores and become more assertive.

The book is not always an easy read. Like the queue itself, the plot remains static for long periods before jerking forward suddenly. Occasionally the narrative gets bogged down in logistics and abstractions that are hard to follow – mimicking, perhaps, the legal documents and pronouncements that stymie so many of the characters’ lives. Its abrupt shifts in perspective are sometimes disconcerting and its prose is occasionally simple to the point of being bald.

On the whole, though, the novel is too important for any of this to matter. In capturing a specific moment and using it to express universal truths about freedom and identity, it joins the ranks of great stories that endure across the generations. In twenty years’ time, when the Arab Spring has faded from many memories, readers will still be hearing about this book frequently enough to keep picking it up.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Melville House, 2016)

Picture: ‘Once Bank Misr Reopened in February People Queued For Hours To Collect Their Money’ by Alisdare Hickson on Flickr.com.