Postcard from my bookshelf #7

This project has international origins. It came from a comment on a blog I used to keep, where an American reader suggested I try an Australian novel: Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. This got me looking at my bookshelves with new eyes and made me realise how narrow my reading choices were. So in recognition of Australian literature’s role in opening my eyes to the world’s stories, I’m sending this month’s literary postcard to a reader in that nation.

Selecting one recipient from the clutch of very good entries from Down Under has not been easy. I liked all of the comments and had ideas of what I wanted to send to many of them, from JenroetheJourno, who is interested in LGBT fiction (try Nu Nu Yi’s Smile as They Bow, Jenroe), to Sharkell who likes not-too-heavy literary fiction and wanted to try some Arabic literature (it would have been Girls of Riyadh).

I was also intrigued to hear about the challenges of reading internationally in the outback – Bethany relies heavily on her e-reader as it takes around four weeks for many physical titles to reach her (Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad for you, Bethany). And I very much wanted to pick the brains of Alistair MW, a Latvian-Australian history teacher and Aboriginal education coordinator in Adelaide as I have yet to try Aboriginal literature and could do with some tips (my choice for you would have been Sandra Kalniete’s With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snow).

Unable to decide, I resorted to the time-honoured practice of picking a name out of a hat (or, in this case, my pocket). This yielded Ashlee Stewart, a 15-year-old Victorian who is keen to set out and read the world herself. Ashlee wrote this:

This is a great idea! I am thinking of doing my own version of this, but I won’t be able to fit it into just one year. I live in Victoria, Australia and I am 15 years old. I absolutely love reading. However, when I looked at my bookshelf, I saw a similar trend throughout my books, to what you saw when you looked at yours. I have now come to the conclusion, as you did, that I need to extend my range of reading.
To be given a copy of a translated book would be extremely helpful for this challenge, as the problem with spending money to buy all the books (as a lot won’t be available in my local libraries) is something that is playing on my mind.
Before starting this challenge I am writing a list of what books I will read for each country (which I am in the process of doing at the moment).
Also, do you have any tips or tricks that will help me with this challenge? Anything would be extremely helpful 🙂

Well, Ashlee. My main tips are to be persistent, curious and open-minded. Sometimes the route to finding those hard-to-reach titles can be surprising. Bear in mind that a lot has changed since I did my quest five years ago. Although some countries remain unrepresented in commercially available English translations, there have been some exciting new publications that have started to open up new literatures to us anglophone readers. I’ve featured some of them as my books of the month (the orange links on the List) but there are more out there, so I would encourage you to look widely.

It’s great that you’re getting organised and planning what you’d like to read, but I’d also leave the door open for changing your mind and discovering things along the way too. The more you do this sort of project, the more you learn about what’s going on with publishing around the world and you might find you stumble upon some more interesting choices as you go along.

As for my selection for you, I’ve decided to send you Kunzang Choden’s The Circle of Karma, to help you tick one of the smaller nations, Bhutan, off your list. The book is not a translation in the literal sense – it’s the first English-language novel written by a woman from the nation. However, in many senses it is a translation because it takes experiences that would be very alien to most Western readers and puts them into a form that we can appreciate.

Its central character has a lot in common with you. She’s also 15 and setting out on a quest – to travel to a remote village to light ritual butter lamps in her late mother’s memory. As I hope your reading adventure will for you, this journey opens up many ideas and possibilities for her, and leads her to a much richer life than she would have had if she had stayed in her familiar surroundings.

I hope you like it and good luck!

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on August 15.

Book of the month: Elena Varvello

Just over three years ago, an Italian novel tempted me out of book-reviewing retirement and formed the subject of the first of my Book of the month posts on this blog. You might have heard of the author – a reclusive chronicler of Naples life who was rising rapidly to fame in the anglophone world when I encountered her work and has since achieved massive international success.

I’m talking, of course, about Elena Ferrante; it was the first in her Neapolitan series, titled My Brilliant Friend in English and translated by Ann Goldstein, that persuaded me to start posting about books again on this blog. I was sent a copy by Daniela Petracco, tireless champion of great literature originating in languages other than English and UK director of Europa Editions. I loved the book and knew I had to tell people about it (I’ve since read The Days of Abandonment and for my money it’s even better than the Neapolitan novels).

So when I received an advance translation of a new Italian novel and, skimming through the publicity material, saw that one of its supporters was Daniela Petracco, I decided I would have to try it. My resolve strengthened when I turned to the Acknowledgements and saw that, far from simply supporting the novel, Petracco was Varvello’s first reader. The chances were that this book would be good.

At first glance, Elena Varvello’s Can You Hear Me? has all the hallmarks of a commercial thriller. The premise is typically high stakes – a young woman’s disappearance in a remote community, a boy’s murder, and a man losing his mind as his son comes of age. Then there’s the opening sentence: ‘In the August of 1978, the summer I met Anna Trabuio, my father took a girl into the woods.’ So far, so nail-biting.

Yet those who venture further into the pages expecting the novel to be nothing more than a page-turner are in for a surprise. For this book offers so much more.

Varvello has published two collections of poetry and it shows. Not only is her writing (translated here by Alex Valente) taut, but it is also exquisitely precise. Rather than scatter-gunning the reader with details, she selects one telling enough to convey an entire character or mood. From the way a person watches their reflection in a mirror, or the briefest of exchanges, the author conjures entire scenes, imbuing her pages by turns with menace, nostalgia and wistfulness.

This talent for concision enables her to convey profound observations without falling into the trap of expressing points too directly or knowingly. Time and again, characters are able to articulate what they are experiencing with stunning clarity, while remaining locked in the fatal subjectivity that is the essence of human experience and – in this and so many other great stories – prevents them from taking the actions that might avert disaster.

Chief among the cast of blinkered individuals is the narrator, Elia’s, father, whose redundancy and subsequent breakdown are the catalysts for much of the action. Menacingly erratic and yet pitiable, he towers from the page.

Varvello’s play with perspective and timeshift adds another layer of fascination. Exploiting many of the possibilities that telling the story through Elia’s eyes at 30 years’ remove presents, she interlaces different threads, employing several voices to blur the lines between memory and fantasy, empathy and repugnance, innocence and guilt.

While keeping the thread of the plot tightly wound and making heavy use of foreshadowing to sustain readers’ interest, she manages not to strike the nakedly manipulative tone that often topples the backdrop in less sophisticated works. Although some will find the sombre foreboding that suffuses the narrative a little monochrome, there is no doubt that the atmosphere is skilfully created. At points the writing is breathtakingly deft.

The result is an engrossing and troubling book that hangs big questions on the taut wire of a gripping plot. Like her namesake Ferrante, Elena Varvello knows how to keep readers hooked. We shall see more of her work.

Can You Hear Me? (La vita felice) by Elena Varvello, translated from the Italian by Alex Valente (Two Roads, 2017)

Postcard from my bookshelf #6

Another potluck selection from the more than 200 entries to this project this month. This time, the random-number generator led me to the following comment from Aina Qistina:

Hi Ann!! I was just blog walking and end up here. Your idea of postcard from your bookshelf really excites the bookworm side of me. I’m new here but I would really love to receive one of your books.

I’m stuck with my reading habits when I was stuck in a hospital for almost a year. Before that, I do love reading but I’m not too keen of having books yet. Until one day, during my boring days when I was bed ridden, there was this one volunteer group..they were foreigners. They approach me, and play a bit with me. They offer me two things, one of it is a story book. It was my first novel. Enid Blyton. Since then I learn that by reading books makes me leave the current world I’m in. I’m in love with the wide world inside books. I can travel anywhere I like. I love to read adventure books. As i grew up, my adventures cross to some heavy literature like Haruki Murakami’s. I’ve tried various genres, like science fiction and love stories.. but nothing beats the beauty of those flowery literature writings in adventure books. I’ve read dark books such as the series of “Flower in the Attic”. It’s dark, twisted and lots of dramas but the way the author spins the words makes me love it so much.

I’m just a normal girl from Malaysia. I love reading and treats it as my savior. I was 8 when I was bed ridden. But i fought off my sickness and live strongly till today. I take courage from the characters in the books I’ve read. I learn to be positive from them too. And now I’m in University learning engineering.
I’d love to see what kind of adventure books you have in your bookshelves that you can offer to me. Some that have a strong and unexpected endings. 😉 Or maybe you have something else to offer that will broadens more of my adventure world.

I hope you would choose me. Thank you for reading this Ann. ❤

I was pleased with this chance selection for several reasons. Firstly, Aina is in many ways representative of the numerous people I’ve heard from over the past five years who have found books to be a source of strength and support often in very difficult circumstances. It’s amazing how stories have the potential to transport us, allowing us not only to travel to new places but also to escape tough situations, even if only for a while.

Secondly, I identified with Aina’s childhood discovery of the power of reading. I wasn’t bedridden as a child like her, but I did suffer from an illness that restricted my movement. At around the age of seven, I was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis and over the next six years or so, the condition migrated around my body, affecting my knees, elbows, jaw, hands and feet at different times.

I was lucky that I recovered with relatively little lasting damage. However, one legacy of that experience – along with my appalling handwriting – is undoubtedly my love of reading. At a time when walking was often painful, I could always rely on a book to take me away.

For me, it wasn’t Enid Blyton who unlocked this door (although I did enjoy many of her books) but the Canadian writer LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. When I finished it, aged eight, I knew that I would go to university to study literature. (I also decided to spell my name with an ‘e’, but that resolution didn’t stick!)

Finally, I really like the way Aina expresses herself. ‘Blog walking’ – what a lovely way to describe surfing through sites online. And the fact that she is in Malaysia feels fitting too – the first person to show the generosity that I received from so many strangers during 2012 was Rafidah in Kuala Lumpur, the woman who volunteered to choose my Malaysian book and post it to me four days after I launched my appeal for people to help me read the world.

As for Aina’s request, well the book selected itself before I’d got to the end of her comment. I’m not a big reader of adventure stories, but during my quest there was one such book that had caused a sensation in its region and made it onto my list as a result. The novel in question was Telesa: The Covenant Keeper, the first in the self-published YA trilogy by Samoan author Lani Wendt Young.  This fusion of Samoan myth and culture with American high-school fantasy had found fans in several countries and proved to be an intriguing read.

So there you go, Aina. It’s on its way to you. Thanks for stopping by the blog and all the best for your studies.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on July 15.

Book of the month: Dawit Gebremichael Habte

The question of whether a book has to be set in a particular country in order to be ‘from’ that place was a recurrent theme during my year of reading the world. Many people feel that this is an important factor in determining a story’s cultural identity. Indeed, I know of a number of literary quests that make setting the primary consideration when it comes to choosing books from different regions – sometimes preferring stories by non-nationals over texts by people born or living in the nation.

During my project, I took a different view. Although the majority of stories I read in 2012 took place at least partly in the country under whose name they appear on the list, this wasn’t the case with all of them.

There were several reasons for this. Firstly, as British and American wordsmiths write books set all over the world, I didn’t see why I should expect authors from other places to limit their imaginations to the space within the borders of their own nations, or even to the real world at all. What interested me most was voice and perspective, rather than a representation of cultural detail in each place.

However, sometimes there was no option but to choose a story set somewhere other than in the country I was selecting it to represent. This was particularly true in the case of states where freedom of expression is limited and most of those who write have been forced to flee.

Eritrea is a prime example. Although North Korea is frequently described as the home of the world’s most oppressive regime, the north-east African nation often ranks below it for freedom of expression. The iron-fisted government control in this one-party nation, where all media is owned by the state, means that anyone who wishes to express an independent opinion must either suffer or leave.

As a result, when I came to look for a book by an Eritrean writer, I knew it was likely to be by someone no longer living there. This proved to be the case: the novel I chose was by Eritrean-born Sulaiman Addonia, who has spent most of his life outside the nation. It was called The Consequences of Love and was set in Saudi Arabia.

While I’m sure the oppressive atmosphere Addonia conjures around the illicit love affair at the heart of his novel owes something to the fear that his family must have known in their country of origin, the choice meant that the specifics of life inside Eritrea remained a mystery to me. So when I was contacted by a publicist to ask if I would be interested in reading ‘an immigrant’s story from war-torn Eritrea to asylum in the US’, I was intrigued. Within a few weeks, a copy of Gratitude in Low Voices by Dawit Gebremichael Habte had landed on my doormat.

As its title suggests, Habte’s is a success story. Having escaped to Kenya as a teenager in 1989, the young man made his way to the US. There by dint of hard work and extraordinary determination he carved out a life for himself, eventually receiving support from Michael Bloomberg to develop a software and training programme to benefit his compatriots.

Habte’s life has been a mixed one and his book reflects this. Part memoir, part treatise, part self-help volume, with a goodly amount of historical detail, political argument and philosophical musings thrown in, this is an unusual work.

For readers like me, its most interesting sections come in the first half, where Habte writes clearly and warmly about life in his homeland. He shares many insights. We learn, for example, about naming conventions among the Tigrinya-speaking population, for whom surnames don’t exist but who have the tradition of giving each child a new name and then the father’s first name from every known preceding generation, leading to official names that can stretch over numerous lines.

I particularly enjoyed his description of his time reading at the British Council Library in Asmara. Here was another writer inspired by reading stories from elsewhere. Indeed, Habte’s account of the influence of British stories and games on his thinking is a powerful testament to what books can do, as well as an echo of some of the sentiments other African writers raised on European fiction (perhaps most notably Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have expressed:

‘Thanks to the British version of the Monopoly board game and the books of Charles Dickens (Oliver TwistDavid CopperfieldA Christmas Carol…), we made London our virtual vacation home. We basically were strolling through the streets of London without actually setting foot at Heathrow Airport. It is at this point that we started to live locally but think globally.’

Habte’s explanations of the political and historical context of the situation facing Eritrea in the last few decades are clear and damning – if occasionally a little roughly shoehorned into the narrative. Through his eyes, we see how the nation has been failed by the international community, which has repeatedly allowed greed, oil deals and wider political considerations to come before the interests of the people in the region.

Yet the writer is not bitter. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the book is Habte’s unfailingly positive attitude to the challenges he confronts. In the face of huge difficulty, he does not look for help from others but relies on his own ingenuity, meeting prejudice and selfishness with compassion (as he does when he crosses paths with the people smuggler who betrayed him) and humour (fabricating an outlandish account of life back home to scandalise a group of ignorant high-school girls).

At times, the gratitude of the title can become a little wearing. Habte makes no secret of the fact that the book is intended at least partly as a thank you to the many ‘angels without wings’ who helped him on his way. His earnestness is touching, but the repeated, dutiful digressions to give accounts of the lives of people who were kind to him get rather exhausting.

The narrative is patchy too and could have done with tighter editing. And I’m sure I won’t be the only one to find the final third, in which Habte recounts his progression through various US educational institutions, dull in comparison to what goes before (although the accounts of the lengths he went to to fund and sustain his education are often inspiring).

And yet this remains an important book. It is an insight into a nation that is little represented in the minds of many people, as well as a powerful portrayal of the experience of being an immigrant. As such, it provides a sound riposte to anyone who thinks people leave their homelands and everything they know to travel across the globe and start from scratch lightly.

Those looking for masterful writing won’t find it here. But those looking for passion and a fresh perspective undoubtedly will.

Gratitude in Low Voices: A Memoir by Dawit Gebremichael Habte (RosettaBooks, 2017)

Postcard from my bookshelf #5

Last month, I sent a translated book to someone from the nation that showed most interest in my 2012 Year of Reading the World. This month, I’m giving one to someone from the country that, in many ways, provided me with the biggest challenge during the quest.

While I struggled to find a single translated work from numerous places – many of the lusophone and francophone African nations had no commercially available literature in English, for example – there were some nations that posed the opposite conundrum. These were the countries that had such a wealth of literature available that the idea of choosing a single book seemed ludicrous.

India was by far the trickiest of these. As I recorded in my blog post at the time, I was swamped with recommendations for titles from this vast and diverse nation. And every time I asked someone to help me choose my Indian book, they simply added more suggestions to my list.

Luckily, just as I was beginning to despair of ever finding a satisfactory way of selecting one thing to read, a journalist called Suneetha Balakrishnan came to my rescue. She had noticed that all the titles people had suggested were written in English. To her mind, this was second best when you considered that there was so much Indian literature written in other languages – the subcontinent is home to 22 officially recognised tongues, along with hundreds of others.

One of her favourite writers was MT Vasudevan Nair, who writes in Malayalam. She suggested I try to find a translation of one of his books.

Suneetha’s argument made sense to me. More than that, as happened so often that year, it highlighted a blind spot in my thinking. Despite the quest being driven by my desire to read more diversely, it hadn’t occurred to me to seek out Indian literature written in languages other than English.

I followed her suggestion and found a translation of Vasudevan Nair’s novel Kaalam. I enjoyed it very much and it opened the door for me to start exploring numerous other Indian literatures, which I have continued to do over the last five years.

(Incidentally, the exchange provided a lightbulb moment for Suneetha too. Realising how neglected Indian literature in languages other than English often is, she launched her own Reading Across India blog, an idea which she adapted for Mslexia magazine.)

Suneetha applied for a postcard and I was very tempted to choose a book for her. Had I done so, it would probably have been my UK choice, Caryl Lewis’s Martha, Jack and Shanco, or another book translated from Welsh because my discussion with Suneetha also inspired me to think about literature in languages other than English in my home country.

However, this project is about sending books to strangers and, although Suneetha and I have never met in person, I feel we are friends through the exchanges we have had. (Thanks once again for all your interest, support and wise words, Suneetha. I hope we will share many more reading ideas in future.)

As such, I have decided to send a book to one of Suneetha’s compatriots instead as a sort of thank you-by-proxy. After reading through the many Indian entries, I settled on Azfar Zaidi. He told me this:

I’ve been reading the replies to this post, and frankly, I feel a little unqualified. […] I’m nowhere near as “international” as anyone here. I’ve never sat on an airplane, and there are few cities in India that I have explored. But I read, and that breaks borders. Being able to imagine a parallel world through the descriptions and situations in a book is one thing I love to do. However, I believe that every book has a bit of its author’s own world in it. No matter how fictitious a book is, there’s an element of the author in it. It gets reflected by the way he narrates, describes or argues. Exploring parallel worlds through the medium of books somewhat compensates for the (current) limits of my world. I don’t have a specific genre to request. I read what comes my way, and I leave it to your discretion as to which book you’d like to send me (if you do). I’m only looking to widen the horizons of my mind. And I hope you’ll help.

Just as Suneetha’s words did five years ago, Azfar’s comment struck a chord with me. Reading does break borders and expand horizons. That was one of the most powerful things I took away from the project and continue to experience with my literary explorations to this day.

He also made me think almost instantaneously of the book I wanted to send him. It is a memoir by someone who, like Azfar, had never been on a plane, but ended up discovering the world through reading and his own curiosity.

The book in question is An African in Greenland by the Togolese writer and explorer Tété-Michel Kpomassie. It was one of the most joyous, funny and heartwarming books I read during 2012.

Azfar, it will shortly be travelling across the world to you. I hope you enjoy it.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on June 15.

Book of the month: Samanta Schweblin

When I was at university, I saw the following question on an exam paper: ‘Literary prizes often go to the right author but rarely the right book. Discuss.’ It was one of my earliest exposures to the doubts that often surface as the book world’s award ceremonies come round each year.

It’s easy to see why some people are cynical about prizes. With so many publications competing for attention (according to the Guardian recent years have seen more than 20 titles released every hour in the UK alone, with a total of 184,000 new and revised works coming out in 2013), it seems inevitable that awards are at least partly luck of the draw.

Indeed, history is littered with the names of literary greats passed over for accolades that subsequent generations of readers would have rushed to heap upon them. Neither Virginia Woolf nor James Joyce received the Nobel Prize for Literature, for example, while several of those lauded over the decades have slipped into obscurity.

Nevertheless, during my quest to read a book from every country, I found book prizes could act as useful signposts when it came to selecting reads from literary traditions and markets that were largely unfamiliar to me. The fact that Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Metta had won the Best Sinhala Novel State Literary Award, for instance, emboldened me to choose it for Sri Lanka with positive results.

So, although I appreciate that book prizes are an inexact science, I nevertheless look out for the announcement of the major longlists and shortlists each year. And for those of us interested in reading books that originate beyond the English-speaking world, they don’t come much more major than the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded for the first time last year to Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian, a book of the month pick of mine some months before.

April’s book of the month, Argentinian novelist Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell, comes from the shortlist for the 2017 award. I read it some weeks ago after seeing lots of excitement about it on social media and it stayed with me. Earlier this month, I was delighted to discover that it was among the six novels in contention for the award.

Framed as a vision arising from a woman’s delirium as she lies dying, the narrative centres on a holiday gone sour. Terror glints in the sunshine as Amanda haltingly recalls meeting flamboyant Carla and the macabre story she shared about her desperate attempt to save her poisoned son, David, by submitting him to a process of partial  transmigration conducted by a local medicine woman. Yet, as the book unfolds, it becomes apparent that the malevolent forces in question are not confined to Carla’s memory, and that Amanda and her daughter Nina could be at risk from them too.

Concision is central to the narrative’s power. In this slender, 194-page novel, Schweblin and McDowell know the weight of each word and deploy them to achieve maximum pressure.

Mystery abounds as the familiar becomes strange. This is a world where the most mundane of things – a child waking in the night, a lesser-known brand of peas – acquire a horrid weirdness. And as Amanda swerves in and out of the story, urged on by the very David whose eerie unmaking lies at the heart of the book, the ground of the narrative shifts unnervingly beneath our feet.

‘You know. But you don’t understand,’ David tells Amanda. Is he addressing us too?

Loathe though I am to make too much of comparisons between writers from markedly different times and traditions, I couldn’t help but find echoes of the work of one of my favourite authors, Shirley Jackson, here. Schweblin’s management of unease and foreboding is every bit as deft as the building of giddy queasiness found in such classics as The Haunting of Hill House. (Incidentally, Ruth Franklin’s outstanding biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, is a must-read for all those who have enjoyed Jackson’s work.)

The result is memorable, haunting and brave. Like all books that test the limits of what words can do, Fever Dream takes risks and there are odd occasions where the narrative knots or sags, such that some readers might flail to regain the thread. These are few, however.

Not having read Schweblin’s other works, I can’t say how this compares and whether or not it is the title from her oeuvre most deserving of global recognition. But if the Man Booker International Prize judges see fit to honour Fever Dream this year, I would count it a worthy second winner.

Fever Dream (Distancia de rescate) by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld, 2017)

Image from manbookerprize.com

Choosing a book for Donald Trump: Bonus World Book Day postcard from my bookshelf

Happy World Book Day! (At least to those outside the UK and Ireland, where we mark World Book Day on a different date to the rest of the planet. Don’t get me started…)

In honour of this day celebrating the joy of reading, many people give one another books. In Barcelona, for example, where the concept originated and the date coincides with Diada de Sant Jordi, around 10 per cent of the city’s book sales take place today as thousands of residents exchange written works and roses. I was there last year and it’s an amazing party!

As a result, I decided to follow suit and take the opportunity to send an extra postcard from my bookshelf. This translated book will be the only one I select for someone who didn’t apply to be one of my 12 recipients.

Below is a copy of the letter I sent accompanying the novel I chose.

Dear President Trump

Happy World Book Day!

I’m an author and TED speaker living in the UK. In 2012, I set myself the challenge of reading a book from every country in the world in one year. It turned out to be an amazing adventure, with people around the globe researching, translating and even writing stories to help me achieve my goal.

One nation turned out to be a particularly strong supporter of the project, however. Around a third of the views that my blog, ayearofreadingtheworld.com, has ever received have come from the US. That’s more than three times the number coming from my homeland, which was the second-most-interested country.

Many of your citizens, Mr President, are passionately interested in exploring stories from beyond their borders. Judging by the statistics from my blog, you are the leader of the world’s most internationally curious English-speaking nation.

In recognition of this fact, I wanted to send you a book as a gift. It’s part of a project I’m doing this year to celebrate the five-year anniversary of my original quest. Every month, I’m choosing a translated book to send to a stranger. Earlier in April, I posted a book to a book editor in New Orleans in celebration of the overwhelming American support my project received. However, as many people mark World Book Day by giving books as gifts, I decided to send an extra title today to you.

The book I’ve chosen is The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane, the first woman to be come a published novelist in Mozambique. It’s translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw and published by Archipelago Books, one of a number of US-based small presses doing great work to open up international literature to English speakers.

I love this book because it’s funny, challenging and thought-provoking. Like so many of the stories from elsewhere I have read during and since my quest, it turns a lot of the things we English speakers often take for granted inside out.

I know you’re very busy, so in case you don’t have time to read the whole thing, I wanted to share one passage that I think is particularly powerful. To me, this is a brilliant statement of why inequality works for nobody, even people at the very top:

‘The white man says to the black man: It’s your fault. The rich man says to the poor man: It’s your fault. The man says to the woman: It’s your fault. The woman says to her son: It’s your fault. The son says to the dog: It’s your fault. The dog barks furiously and bites the white man, and the white man once again angrily shouts at the black man: It’s your fault. And so the wheel turns century after century ad infinitum.’

I hope you enjoy the novel.

With best wishes

Ann Morgan

Which high-profile person would you like to send a book to and what would you choose? Let me know in the comments below.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on May 15.

Postcard from my bookshelf #4

One of the things I loved about my Year of Reading the World was the way it brought me into contact with booklovers around the planet. In the five years it’s been going, this blog has had views from more than 230 territories – far more places than the 196 UN-recognised nations (plus Taiwan) that I set out to read books from in 2012.

It’s been brilliant hearing from readers in so many regions and the international nature of the project is a constant reminder to me of the potential stories have to connect us across cultural, geographical, political and religious divides.

However, one nation stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of its interest in the quest. Roughly a third of all the views this website has ever had have come from the US. That’s three times as many as those from the next most-interested country: my homeland, the UK. Indeed, it was the interest of US-based TV channel CNN International that first brought the project onto the radar of many people around the world.

As such, I decided that this month’s translated book gift should go to someone from the US, in recognition of that nation’s enthusiasm for the idea of reading the world.

As you might imagine from the stats, there have been lots of American entries for this project. These include people of all ages and backgrounds, many of whom have inspiring things to say about what books have done for them. There are aspiring writers, librarians, students, teachers, translators and many others in the mix. And there are a number of people who have faced or are facing extraordinary personal challenges.

I was struggling to pick a winner. But then one comment caught my eye and I knew in an instant which book I wanted to send to that person.

The message came from Jane Banks, a university professor-turned-book editor in New Orleans. She wrote this:

I mostly edit books by non-native writers. I have edited two books on the war in the Balkans, both translated from Albanian, one Ph.D. dissertation by a student from Iran, a book about utopian urban planning in Europe and Central America by a professor from Portugal, and my current book by a professor in Australia on video piracy and online culture in her native China.

I love these projects because they give me a window on other countries and cultures and because armchair traveling is next best to the real thing. I would love to read books, fiction or non fiction, that have a significant sense of place. I live in New Orleans and find that books set here often use the city itself as a character. I’d like to read books like that, from any country at all.

Immediately, I thought of the novel Metropole by Hungarian writer Ferenc Karinthy. It’s an extraordinary book in which a linguist accidentally gets on the wrong plane and finds himself in a country where, unusually for him, he can make neither head nor tail of the language. Disorientated and increasingly anxious, he wanders around a city that becomes ever more menacing and strange – a character in its own right, just as Jane describes.

So there you are, Jane. This one’s on its way to you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

There will be a bonus postcard from my bookshelf this month in celebration of World Book Day. Keep your eyes peeled for an announcement on 23 April. 

And if you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next regular recipient will be announced on May 15.

Book of the month: Abdulai Silá

Hearing about new translations coming from nations that are underrepresented in the English-language literary world is always exciting. It’s especially pleasing when these titles are from countries whose literature I struggled to access in 2012 – places like Turkmenistan, Panama and Madagascar (which should soon have its first complete translated novel published in English).

You can imagine, then, how pleased I was when I got an email from translator Jethro Soutar a few weeks ago. Seeing Soutar’s name in my inbox was a thrill in its own right: he is the translator of Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s widely acclaimed By Night the Mountain Burns, only the second book to make it into English from Equatorial Guinea and my pick for Book of the month a year or so ago.

When I opened the email, my excitement grew. Soutar wanted to let me know that, in part prompted by discovering through my project that there were no novels available in English by writers from Guinea-Bissau, he had made it his mission to find a work to translate from the nation. He had done so and the resultant book, The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá, was being published by Dedalus this April. Would I be interested in seeing an advance copy?

Would I ever! Guinea-Bissau was one of the toughest nations to find something to read from. Back in 2012, I had resorted to a collection of mid-20th-century political writings by the revolutionary thinker Amílcar Cabral – the necessity of this was sadly ironic, as one of the points Cabral makes is how important the exchange of culture and stories across borders is.

Now, at last the first full-length work of Bissauan literature was available to many more of the world’s readers.

Ostensibly, the novel follows the fortunes of Ndani, a teenager who goes to work as a servant in the capital after a local magic man proclaims that she is cursed, only to find that the negative forces governing her existence are more difficult to escape than she hopes. In practice, however, the narrative brings in the stories and perspectives of a number of different characters who Ndani encounters and there are long stretches where we hear nothing about her at all. The tragedy that does ultimately affect the protagonist is a much more diffuse and meandering affair than many of us might be used to seeing in novels – certainly novels written in English.

This is one of several aspects of the book that those used to Western literature may find off-putting at first. Others include a rather unfamiliar approach to pacing – which sees the rapes and deaths of central characters skimmed over in a sentence or two, while football matches and long sessions of soul-searching about seemingly tangential issues can take up several pages – as well as leaps and double-backs in the chronology that can be bewildering.

However, those who persevere will be rewarded. As the pages turn, you begin to find your way into the world of the book. The problem, you come to realise, is not with the writing, as you might have first thought (a common knee-jerk reaction to the unfamiliar that we literary explorers must always be careful to interrogate). Instead, it is we who need to learn how to read it.

Fundamentally, the plot is secondary to the ideas Silá wants to illustrate. Chief among these are the damage wrought by colonialism and the resultant doublethink with which generations of Bissau-Guineans have been indoctrinated. Sometimes these issues are stated explicitly, but often they are woven through the thought processes of the characters. The best example is the ambitious Régulo. Full of plans to get his compatriots to recognise and throw off the shackles of their history, he nevertheless can look at the mixed-race wife of an official and conclude that the man must be a ‘second-rate white’ for marrying her, revealing the way he has internalised the prejudices he rails against. Similarly, though he rages at the atrocities perpetrated by the Europeans, his sexual fantasies about his reluctant sixth wife are riddled with the language of conquest.

The idea-led quality of much of the narrative may make the book sound dry, but that is not the case. Silá delights in using humour to spear hypocrisy and there is some startling imagery at play in many passages. He also demonstrates a flair for technically adventurous storytelling, with the novel featuring one-sided conversations here and deft uses of repetition there. The passages in which Ndani falls in love at last are beautiful and joyous, as are the descriptions of her discovery of sexual fulfillment.

Translator Southar has done deft work to encourage the learning process that this text demands. By choosing to leave numerous words in their original language and trusting to the context to elucidate them, he encourages readers to let go of the guide rope of the narrative and become comfortable with the unfamiliar. In addition, he has woven in some delightful language play. I particularly enjoyed the idea of the story that ‘had nothing to do with Senhor Machado’s work in customs and excise, [but rather] concerned customs exercised in his house’.

Those looking for the smooth, literary narrative beloved of many anglophone book reviewers won’t find it in The Ultimate Tragedy. But nor should they. This is not a Western novel, but a Bissauan one, told on a Bissauan author’s terms. As such, it is an important addition to our bookshelves. Though he would no doubt have been horrified at the thought that it would take until 2017 for a novel by one of his compatriots to be translated into the world’s most published language, I suspect Amílcar Cabral would have approved of this choice.

The Ultimate Tragedy (A última tragédia) by Abdulai Silá, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar (Dedalus, April 2017)

World bookshopper: #12 Jimbocho, Tokyo

On a recent trip to Tokyo, I had lunch with my Japanese literary agent and Mr Akira Yamaguchi, editor in chief at Hayakawa Publishing Corporation, which will be publishing my novel Beside Myself later this year. Over an array of delicious dishes of tofu, meat, fish, rice and miso soup, I decided to pick their brains about bookshops in the capital.

Both men were in agreement: I should visit Jimbocho. And so that afternoon I lost no time in following up on their suggestion.

Jimbocho is not a single shop but an entire neighbourhood devoted to bookselling. Well over 150 bookstores operate here, catering to the many enthusiastic bibliophiles for whom this city of more than 13 million people is home.

Interestingly for a society in which technology is so seamlessly integrated into many aspects of daily life – from vending-machine ordering systems in many restaurants to washroom facilities – ebooks are not very popular in Japan. Although the nation spawned the cell-phone novel, one of the earliest forms of literature to be widely enjoyed on-screen, most Japanese are apparently reluctant to buy electronic devices purely for reading. As a result, the physical book is still the preferred format for many of the nation’s readers and certainly those in the older generation.

This much is evident is in bustling Jimbocho, where crowds of booklovers throng the new and second-hand shops in search of their latest read. You can find anything you can think of here and a lot more besides.

Although the vast majority of books sold here are in Japanese, anglophone visitors will recognise many of the names and faces peering up from the covers in the shops stocking contemporary fiction. Home-grown superstars such as Murakami rub shoulders with English-language commercial giants, as well as internationally renowned authors working in other languages. Pierre Le Maitre is hugely popular: the Japanese version of his novel Alex has sold more than a million copies and it seems no mystery section is complete without him.

There are also some surprisingly niche titles in the mix. You might not expect sheep farming in the UK’s Lake District to be of much interest to city dwellers on the other side of the world, but you can find new publications on it here.

And there are instances of not particularly well-known writers from elsewhere who have an unusually devoted following in Japan.

I was particularly pleased to spot a novel by the US writer David Gordon prominently placed in one window display. In 2014, Gordon wrote a witty article in the New York Times about the surreal experience of discovering that his modestly successful debut novel The Serialist had become a smash hit in Japan. ‘You might not know me, but I’m famous. Don’t feel bad. Until recently, I didn’t know I was famous either, and most days, even now, it’s hard to tell,’ the feature begins.

But though many of the names in the contemporary-fiction sections may be familiar, the layout of the shops can take some getting used to. Rather than being arranged alphabetically by author name, paperback novels are ordered by publisher, with special tabs for famous writers. As a result, in Japan, authors are particularly reliant on their publisher having strong distribution arrangements with retailers: unless the press releasing your book has good shelf presence, your creation is unlikely to find its way into readers’ hands.

In addition, there are several sections that you would be hard-pushed to find in most English-language bookshops. As well as the extensive manga aisles – featuring strikingly large erotica sections in some stores – there are shelves devoted to a particular kind of Japanese non-fiction (known, as far as I am aware, as shinso), which is written with the aim of helping intelligent readers get to grips with particular topics and issues of the moment. Running to around 200 pages, these books are extremely popular – so much so that it is common for publishers to commission writers specially to produce them. Slender yet thought-provoking, these titles are the perfect companion for commuters braving crush hour – as are small-format versions of longer books, which are often sold split into several volumes, partly for ease of reading in tight spaces.

The new-book trade is just one facet of what Jimbocho has to offer. In fact, most of the stores and stalls you’ll see in the district offer primarily second-hand works. As varied as the titles they sell, many of these places specialise in particular subject areas. There are shops devoted to writing about music or titles from particular language groups.

Here and there, you’ll spot cardboard boxes stuffed with Western classics and contemporary bestsellers. And there are also a number of stores that carry first-edition anglophone books.

Often gleaned from house clearances, these titles offer occasionally mind-boggling insights into the tastes of some of the English speakers to have lived in Tokyo. I spent some time browsing the shelves in Kitazawa Bookstore, a wood-panelled emporium at the top of a curved staircase.

There, along with early editions of works from many famous, largely American, names – Hemingway, Melville and Stein among them – I was intrigued to encounter A History of Secret SocietiesWelsh Folklore and Folk-Custom and WOG Lofts and DJ Adley’s formidable-sounding The Men Behind Boys’ Fiction.

It made me wonder if, long after I have written my last post on this blog and slipped off into virtual oblivion, a UK first edition of Beside Myself might one day find itself here, six thousand miles from home…