Postcard from my bookshelf #11

A final spin of the random-number generator brought me to this comment from Meghan:

I love this project! I have always said that if I could, I would love to spend quality time in every culture in the world. This is a great way to see into those different cultures and know that we are all the same, no matter where we ended up being born. I have eclectic taste: poetry, sci-fi, apocalyptic..I especially love reading books that show the day to day lives of other cultures so you feel yourself immersed in that culture. Thank you for sharing your journey with us!

Two things stood out for me from this: Meghan’s enjoyment of sci-fi and apocalyptic literature, and her desire to feel immersed in the day-to-day lives of other cultures.

This second point is a common theme among literary explorers. Indeed, when people hear about my project to read a book from every country in 2012, they often assume that I read a book set in every country.

I can see why. For many bibliophiles, part of the appeal of reading internationally is the idea that it will enable them to travel in the mind, using books as a telescope to look at far-away places that they might never visit in person.

There’s nothing wrong with this as an ambition – and there are many wonderfully immersive books bristling with local detail that will give readers the impression of being transplanted into the everyday lives of people thousands of miles away.

However, when I set out on my quest five years ago, I knew this wasn’t my goal. Apart from anything else, I was sure that it would take many more than one book from each place to get an accurate, rounded picture of what life in each nation was like.

Instead, what interested me was mindsets, voices and perspectives. I wanted to explore how writers in different places looked at life, seeing what individual viewpoints I could access, rather than trying to look for general truths.

This meant that setting was not a primary concern. It seemed to me that a novel about another country or an imaginary place could tell me as much about the world-view of the author as a lavish evocation of the region in which they lived. So, although many of the stories I read took place in the nations I chose them to represent, some didn’t – my Eritrean read being an example. Meanwhile, like many of the best English-language novels, a number of them featured international journeys.

With this in mind, I decided to crash together Meghan’s two points and selected an-otherworldly book that nevertheless reveals telling things about the culture in which it was written. My choice is the daring 1977 dystopian novel Egalia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes by Norwegian writer Gerd Brantenberg, translated by Louis Mackay.

It’s a novel I’ve discovered since I finished my original quest and have returned to several times. Indeed, I wrote an entry about it for the beautifully illustrated Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, which Hachette published last year. (The picture of the rather controversial Norwegian cover featured at the top comes from this.)

Set in a world where patriarchy is turned on its head so that society is ruled by wim, while menwim can only aspire to be ‘housebounds’ who must stay at home, look pretty and bring up the children, the novel explores gender dynamics through the lens of second-wave Scandinavian feminism. As British writer Naomi Alderman’s The Power would do decades later, it uses this startling reversal of the status quo to reveal the injustices and cruelties that lurk beneath the surface of many of our assumptions about how life works.

Like the best books, it is as at once specifically of its time and place, and universal – packed with insights that are relevant to people reading in a different language at forty years’ remove.

Meghan, 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 final recipient will be announced on December 15.

 

Book of the month: Liliana Colanzi

With a few notable exceptions, South American countries are generally poorly served when it comes to having their literature translated into the world’s most published language. If you want to venture beyond Colombian, Argentinian or Brazilian literature, you quickly find that quite a few nations only have a handful of their authors’ works available in English.

Bolivia is a case in point. When I cast about for something to read from there in 2012, there seemed to be very little choice. In the end, on the recommendation of the country’s most celebrated contemporary writer, Edmundo Paz Soldán, who graciously responded to my request for thoughts on lesser-known Bolivian writers I might discover, I plumped for the striking and savage short-story collection Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz.

Five years later when a translation of another short-story collection by a female Bolivian writer came onto my radar through #WITMonth, I thought it might make an interesting comparison.

A brief summary of the content of some of the stories in Liliana Colanzi’s Our Dead World, translated by Jessica Sequeira, immediately shows up common ground between the authors. Stories of mental breakdown, maternal cruelty, child death, indigenous slavery and suicide make up the meat of this collection; like Rivero, Colanzi has an eye for the darker side of life.

The similarities don’t end there, for Colanzi’s writing possesses a similar muscularity and violence to Rivero’s. She has no hesitation in plunging us into disturbing scenes – such as the brutal killing of a pig, which opens the story ‘Alfredito’. These she fleshes out in precise and alarming detail, revealing that cruelty lives not in the summary of the things we do but in the moment-by-moment choices to deny, impose, withhold or force.

As with Rivero’s work – and indeed a number of the other Latin American works I’ve read – mental illness and the uncanny loom large. The world is never quite stable or trustworthy. The wave that travels through a university campus, triggering a spate of student suicides, is never explained. Neither are the spooky animals glimpsed by a homesick space traveller on Mars.

What gives Colanzi’s writing its own unique flavour, however, is her love of unusual perspectives. From ‘Family Portrait’, in which the surfacing of longstanding grudges between generations is told largely through the eyes of the photographer’s assistant helping to set up a group photograph, to ‘Story with Bird’, in which the narrator steps back briefly from events to envisage a time when humankind is extinct and other unimaginable beings inhabit the earth, the writer delights in showing us her characters from surprising angles.

The most delicious example is the way she crashes together space time and quotidian human existence at the start of ‘Meteorite’:

‘The meteroid traced the same orbit in the solar system for fifteen million years until the movement of a comet pushed it toward Earth. Even so, it took another twenty thousand more years before it collided with the planet, during which time the world passed through an ice age, mountains shifted and the waves gave land masses a new shape. Innumerable life forms died out forever, while others battled ferociously, adapted and repopulated the Earth. When the object at last entered the atmosphere[…] the igneous ball, a meter and a half in diameter, fell on the outskirts of San Borja. Its spectacular descent from the heavens was witnessed by a couple at home, arguing at five-thirty in the morning.’

Sometimes this playfulness topples into the outright weird. There are digressions and odd turns of events that feel too loosely threaded through the narratives. And, as is almost always the case with collections of this kind, certain of the stories are more successful than others.

On the whole, though, this is an arresting book. Its pieces work together to remind us that, although we are small, short-lived organisms in a vast and ancient universe, we nevertheless have the capacity to do startling things.

Our Dead World (Nuestro mundo muerto) by Liliana Colanzi, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Sequeira (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017)

Picture: ‘Abandoned steam engine in Uyuni train cemetery’ by Jimmy Harris on flickr.com

Translation as transhumance

Being wordy people, translators often turn their hand to writing their own work. From David Bellos to Edith Grossman, many of the big names in the field have set down their thoughts about their craft in articles, essays and full-length books.

Blending their experiences with broader theoretical reflections about what it takes to transport meaning from one language to another, these works are often enjoyable and illuminating. Nevertheless, they can feel daunting to readers not directly engaged in working with words. Consisting largely, as they often do, of the writer’s efforts to find the terms to express the mechanisms of their art – to translate the concept of translation – these meta-narratives sometimes feel a little inward-looking, as though they can only be grasped fully by fellow practitioners.

As a result, when award-winning translator Ros Schwartz contacted me about her translation of French translator Mireille Gansel’s book Traduire comme transhumer (which hits the British bookshop shelves as Translation as Transhumance on November 1), I hesitated. A translation of a book about translation? Where would it all end?

The publicity material that accompanied the book wasn’t calculated to dispel my reservations. According to its opening sentence, the work I held in my hand was ‘half-memoir, half-philosophical treatise musing on translation’s potential for humanist engagement’. My thoughts strayed to the translation of the Boris Akunin mystery I had just downloaded to my Kindle in advance of the Russian superstar coming to the Folkestone Book Festival next month – surely it would be more fun to put this worthy volume aside and crack on with a highfalutin tale of murder in nineteenth-century Moscow?

Luckily, Translation as Transhumance proved to be nothing like the dry, self-referential treatise I feared. Instead, what I discovered when I turned to the first page was an urgent, human work, blending together lived experience with insights so precise that they would make booklovers of all stripes gasp.

The writing is often exquisite. Presenting her memories and the reflections they inspire in a series of brief chapters, many of which run to no more than a page, Gansel (through Schwartz’s lens) has the knack of pulling us into a scene with a handful of words. We are there with her, beside her father’s armchair, on the night she first discovers the magic of unspooling the meaning in the letters that used to arrive from relatives in Budapest; we stand in the spartan rooms of her elderly relations dispersed across Europe by the cruel events of the twentieth century; and we discover the life-saving power of the work of Brecht as she relates her youthful encounter with it.

The immediacy of these descriptions means that we not only understand Gansel’s argument that human experience is encoded into words; we feel it too. Her portrayal of the way history has devastated and rebuilt the German spoken by many of Europe’s displaced people is as moving as it is beautiful:

‘This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and ways of speaking.’

Language, we learn, bears the marks and scars of those who have used it before us. Even innocuous-seeming words can, with a little probing, be made to bleed.

Using this passionate engagement with the inner significance of words as a starting point, and tying it to detailed examples from her career, Gansel presents interpretations of translation at the end of many of her chapters. Several familiar tropes appear – bridging and smuggling both feature. But Gansel quickly leaves these behind, encountering and moving past image after image in an effort to elucidate what she does with words. Translation is an attempt to reach the language of the soul. It is an effort to communicate a work’s humanity. It is a ‘seismograph at the heart of time’. It is, as the title suggests, akin to the seasonal movement of flocks from pasture to pasture in search of nourishment.

Each of these formulations is illuminating and yet none of them entirely encapsulates the writer’s meaning. In many ways, that is Gansel’s point: language shifts constantly as words accrue associations that gradually bury others, such that a phrase written now will read very differently to someone encountering it in fifty years’ time.

As such, true translation must be a living, ongoing process; a constant effort to find the mot if not exactly juste then at least acceptable. It is for this reason that we need retranslations of classic works. And, yes, it is for this reason that there will always be room for new publications of translators’ reflections on their craft. If only they could all be as powerful as this.

Translation as Transhumance (Traduire comme transhumer) by Mireille Gansel, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Les Fugitives, 2017)

Postcard from my bookshelf #10

Without the millions of people putting stories into words around the planet, my quest to read a book from every country in the world would never have got off the ground. In consequence, this month, I’m sending a book to a writer.

I was encouraged to find a number of people with literary ambitions among the entrants to this giveaway. As I wrote when I got my book deal for my first novel, Beside Myself, my journey through a wide range of the globe’s stories was the key that unlocked writing for me. Prior to that project, I had spent years churning out cramped, inward-looking little half-books. Reading the world blew my imagination open and let the fresh air in.

There were many aspiring wordsmiths to choose from for this venture. A large proportion of the people who have commented on the project post maintain their own blogs or write about reading in other ways. What’s more, a significant minority of these stated explicitly that they want to be writers (NB to those of you who said this, if you’re putting words on a screen or page, you already are a writer. Writing isn’t a state of being; it’s something you do. Keep going!)

In the end, however, it was the following comment from Cheche in the Philippines that caught my eye:

Hi Ann! I’m really hoping that I could take part in this fun adventure of yours!

I’m Cheche and I’m from one of the distant provinces here in the Philipppines! I’m 25 and diagnosed with leukemia last year. Thankfully, I’m now in remission but still under maintenance treatment. Before, I have always wanted to read books that are not related to school or medical stuffs (I graduated with a degree in Medical Technology) but didn’t had enough motivation to do so and ended up reading very very few ones only. Then came my diagnosis that made me stay in my bed and at home for most of my days. It was then I finally did the thing I’ve always wanted to do – read. But mostly as a distraction from depression or a time- killer. I was surprised to find myself able to finish a book in just one day! I know this is pretty much nothing for you guys who are bookworms but I have never done that before, especially that I was on weekly chemo at that time. I discovered how much I truly love reading. And now I have my blog which has been up for a few months now. I write about my experiences and also tried one daily prompt by WordPress out of desperation. Hahah! I don’t write fast and don’t publish in a daily or weekly basis. I learned that I am able to write better if I read more. I dig up the right inspiration to start a blog after reading stories of other cancer survivors as well. I admit I’m sort of running out of motivation again and I kind of beat myself up for this since I have only started writing for just a few months. It hasn’t even been a year and I can’t seem to find the words now.

Anyways, every time I go to the bigger city, I always try to find time to drop by at Booksale to rummage through some quality second hand books from US, Canada and other places in the world at very cheap prices. For months now, I haven’t been reading a book, physically, as I find myself enjoying the blogs and Long reads from WordPress. But I am really looking forward to getting myself smelling the pages of a book again! I’ll be going to the big city probably by the end of this month for a procedure and I’ll make sure to buy books good for 2 or 3 months. I like reading inspirational books, fiction or non-fiction, real stories of survival of whatever kinds of adversities. Also I would like to read books about cancer, healthy eating, lifestyle and healing.

Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity to share with you how reading made do something I have never thought I would ever do in my lifetime. And THANK YOU too for your utmost love for reading!

When I clicked through to Cheche’s blog, I found that her corner of the virtual world contains posts covering everything from making museli to tricycle rides. She writes a lot about her condition too. In particular, one post on the homepage stands out: To Be a Young Adult With Cancer in the Philippines. In this, Cheche describes the challenges that her condition brings, from the specific logistical issues that come with having leukaemia in her region to frustrations that must be familiar to young people battling illness everywhere:

‘With cancer, one thing is always certain- the sense of being a burden to everyone. People my age are supposed to be earning enough or maybe just starting out, but my circumstances called for unemployment. I can’t help but be angry at myself. Health and youth are supposed to go hand-in-hand, but in my case they don’t.’

I wanted to choose a book that might be a good source of companionship through the next stage of Cheche’s treatment. However, when I thought about the novels I had read to do with illness – from Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s The Sickness to Seeing Red by Lina Meruane from Chile – I realised that, while many of them are brilliantly written, the majority are rather pessimistic in outlook.

As a result, I turned my mind to stories concerning people facing other extreme challenges. This made me remember the various books I have encountered about child soldiers. Although several of the fictional accounts, such as Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma from Côte d’Ivoire, are understandably bleak, one very uplifting narrative sprang into my thoughts: the memoir A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah from Sierra Leone.

(Indeed, this exercise made me realise something about memoir that had never occurred to me before: by its nature, it is an optimistic form. In order to write their story, the central personage has to have survived whatever challenges they describe and got to a place where they are able to look back, process and understand.)

Cheche, I hope this book inspires you. Like, The Circle of Karma, which I sent to Ashlee back in July, this is not a translation in the literal sense of the word because it was written in English, but in many ways it does the same work: it finds the language to take us into an experience that is thankfully alien to most of us. It is not an easy read because it deals with the full range of things that make us human, from the ugliest to the most beautiful impulses. But from what I know of you, I’m sure you’re able to cope with that.

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 November 15.

Book of the month: Vivek Shanbhag

Since completing my year of reading the world, I’ve been fascinated by literature translated from the 22 languages other than English that have official status in India. One of the most interesting discoveries I made during my project was when an Indian journalist opened my eyes to the work Malayalam writer, MT Vasudevan Nair. So I was delighted to hear about the publication this year of a novel translated into English from the South Indian language of Kannada, which is still barely represented in the anglophone reading world.

Although Ghachar Ghochar is Vivek Shanbhag’s English-language debut, the book is far from being his first work. The celebrated  author from the Indian state of Karnataka has published eight works of fiction and two plays.

His experience and expertise is quickly apparent when you open this novel. Deceptively simple in its premise – the destabilization of dynamics when a business venture dramatically improves a family’s financial circumstances – this slender work relies on deft writing and keen-eyed observation to carry it along. Shanbhag and his translator Srinath Perur – who worked closely together on the English-language version – provide these in abundance.

In a lesser author’s hands this book might easily be a creaky parable about the threats to traditional hierarchies posed by India’s economic boom, or a rambling disquisition on the discontent of the newly comfortable protagonist Vincent. Instead, although the best elements of both these things are woven neatly into the fabric of the story, it is a vivid and moving portrait of humanity in all its contrariness and perversity.

The delight is in the detail. Domestic objects represent and reveal great emotional shifts. For example, in the revelation that Vincent now feels it would be meaningless to buy his mother the sari he dreamed of getting her as a boy when his family lived in a shack on the other side of Bangalore, we see the price of financial gain.

Similarly, profound truths are expressed in handfuls of everyday words: ‘The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness’; ‘the last strands of a relationship can snap from a single glance or a moment of silence’; ‘it is one of the strengths of families to pretend that they desire what is unavoidable’.

It is no surprise to discover that, as Shanbhag reveals in an interview on his English-language publisher’s website, the author is a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory – ‘that most of the story is beneath the surface’. Indeed, he extends this to translation too, regarding the process as the business of ‘taking what is unsaid in a work from one language to another’.

Yet Shanbhag’s writing is warmer than Hemingway’s usually manages to be. There is humour in the occasionally querulous tone of his narrative and evidence of an eye for the ridiculous in the manner in which he sets out his characters’ quirks – the family’s nearly year-long resistance to buying a new pressure cooker on the off-chance that one might be given away at a conference, for example, and the way Vincent’s father, in his original sales job, would spend evenings going over figures ‘again and again until they gave in and agreed’.

The abruptness of the ending will bring some readers up short. Yet, when considered in light of the novel’s title – a nonsense phrase that, among Vincent’s wife’s relatives, signifies things getting tangled up – it makes a kind of sense. The title becomes a prediction – no sooner do we understand its significance than we see it embodied in the story.

Unlike his novel, though, Shanbhag’s English-language career looks far from ending in a knotted mess. Ghachar Ghochar has garnered rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and Shanbhag and Srinath Perur are already preparing another of his books for the anglophone market. About time too.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (Penguin Random House, 2017)

Picture: ‘Busy busy Brigade Road in Bangalore’ by Ryan on flickr.com

Postcard from my bookshelf #9

This month, the random-number generator led me to an intriguing comment. It was posted back in January by Rachel Unklesbay and went as follows:

I’ve just started your challenge to read a book from every country (not in a year, though. I have a toddler. I’m giving myself more time than that.) I love the idea of getting to know different peoples through their literature!

I would love to receive a book – or just recommendations. I sometimes struggle to find books that aren’t overtly sexual – I’m okay with some sex, but nothing pornographic – and sometimes authors try to make their books “edgy” and only succeed in making them really awkward. Is this something I just have to get over? Is this a worldwide trend, or just something Americans do to try to look grown-up?

Rachel’s words posed me something of a head-scratcher. After all, I have no way of knowing what counts as ‘overtly sexual’ in her eyes or whether our definitions of ‘pornographic’ match. Among many things, reading the world has taught me that people can have very different thresholds when it comes to a whole range of sensitive issues and if you attempt to second-guess someone’s sensibilities you can often end up extremely wide of the mark.

It’s a dilemma I’ve encountered many times over the last five years. One of the most common queries I receive is from people – often teachers – asking whether the books on the list are suitable for children of certain ages.

I’m sure they find my replies frustratingly vague, but the truth is I can’t answer definitively as I do not know what they would deem acceptable. Apart from the fact that individual children vary hugely in what they are capable of appreciating, there is the problem that what I consider harmless might be beyond the pale for my correspondents and visa versa.

It’s a point that was neatly illustrated when I looked into Chinese children’s literature and chose the award-winning Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (translated by Helen Wang) as my Book of the month back in April 2015. According to Wang and several other translators I’ve been in touch with, it can often be challenging to find Chinese children’s books that will work in the anglophone market because standards are so different: while Chinese stories can often seem rather simplistic and old-fashioned about things like gender roles, they can also be far more violent and graphic than is usual in English-language works aimed at similar age groups.

However, one thing I could very much identify with in Rachel’s comment was her comment about sex coming across as awkward in a lot of the titles she’s tried. That’s certainly an issue as far as British writers are concerned. Indeed, so much terrible writing about physical intimacy is published each year in my home country that the Literary Review magazine even runs an annual Bad Sex in Fiction award.

I can’t say for sure whether this is a problem exclusive to English-language writers, although it’s certainly true that my international reading has introduced me to some of the best writing about sex that I have ever encountered (indeed, my post on the book I read for Guyana, which I naively titled ‘Guyana: sex and how to do it’ unintentionally brought a lot of people using dubious, sex-tourism-related search terms to my blog – but that’s another story).

Still, I wanted to choose a book that Rachel would be likely to enjoy and so didn’t want to run the risk of selecting something that she would find too explicit.

Instead, I’ve opted for a book that, while it might appear overtly sexual, is in fact far from it. The novel in question is The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane (translated by Alison Anderson), which was my pick for Algeria.

As I wrote in my 2012 review, its provocative title made for some awkward moments on public transport – and was a neat demonstration of the old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’.

Witty, inventive and beautifully written, this is a treat of a novel. Rachel, I hope you like it!

 

Being translated

 

 

 

 

 

Having spent the past five years thinking a lot about translation and how important it is, I’ve been delighted to have a chance to observe the process from a different angle over the past twelve months. My novel Beside Myself has received book deals in around nine language territories, which means that I have had the privilege of seeing my writing translated into other tongues.

This has been a strange experience. As I don’t speak Thai, Polish, Chinese or Italian (some of the languages in which my work now exists), I have no way of knowing how the respective translators have rendered my story. I have had to trust them and my publishers to produce a fair representation of my original work, one that I hope will convey the kernel and spirit of the narrative to readers in their respective language markets.

From my own research and experience with reading translations, I am aware that this might involve a degree of alteration or the inclusion of extra bits of explanation in order to convey concepts that may not be familiar to people in other parts of the world.

As such, the process has brought home to me once more the generosity and fragility of translation – that it is essentially an exercise that relies on strangers reading your work with sympathetic and discerning eyes.

However, although I can’t read the foreign-language versions of my novel (apart from the French – of which more soon!), I have been able to consider the different book jackets and titles that publishers have chosen to give my work. This has been an education in the way that different book markets operate and so I am sharing a selection below. Above, from left to right, are the UK hardback, UK paperback, US hardback and US paperback covers for comparison.

(For those who don’t know, the novel centres around a pair of identical twins who swap places in a game and then get trapped in the wrong lives when one of them refuses to change back.)

 

Vida robada

This is the cover of the Spanish edition. I like the sepia feel of the picture, which harks back to my central characters’ childhoods in the 1980s.

The literal translation of the title is ‘Stolen life’. This is interesting as it makes a more definitive statement about who is to blame for what happens in the novel than the original title. Spanish readers will have the sense that someone has done something wrong before they even begin the first page.

 

 

Moja siostra …czy ja?

The Polish cover is intriguing. We’re in thriller territory here. The mirror gets across the idea of twinship and doubleness. However there is a much darker feel to everything, as though the beautiful woman in the reflection is about to come to serious harm.

The title (‘My sister… or me?’) is much more direct than the English or Spanish versions. In Poland, readers know that this is a story about choosing between sisters as soon as they glimpse the spine of the book.

 

 

Beside Myself

The Taiwanese edition seems like a halfway house between the two previous versions. We have the slightly retro-feeling little girls, but the fragmenting of the picture lends a dark feel as though everything is about to fall apart.

The Taiwanese publisher has kept the English title on the cover (apparently this is common practice in this part of the world), but I’m not sure whether the Chinese characters are a literal translation of it or a different title – can anyone help me out?

 

 

The Person Who Stole My Name 

The Chinese cover is the most unusual of the ones I have seen. In fact, when I was first sent it, I was so intrigued that I asked my agent to find out what the thinking behind it was (in case you were wondering, there aren’t any flamingos in the novel).

The answer came back that the separation of the species – the little girl and the birds – was intended to indicate loneliness. This is a central theme in the novel, so that makes sense to me.

As with the Spanish title, Chinese readers of ‘The person who stole my name’ will have the sense that a wrong has been done to someone before they turn to the first page.

 

À sa place

The French cover also prompted a question, as to my British eyes it seemed to have slightly erotic overtones (again, not a strong feature of the book). My French editor, however, assures me that this is not the case in the French market.

I really like the ambiguity of the title (‘In her place’), which leaves open the question of which twin’s identity is under threat.

As I can read French (very slowly and with a big dictionary), I will be able to see how the story has been carried over into this new language. I’m planning to get stuck in as soon as I finish editing my next novel.

I’ll let you know how I get on…

Book of the month: Jana Beňová

August is Women in Translation month. The initiative was started four years ago by translator Meytal Radzinski to challenge the gender imbalance in the anglophone publishing industry. This sees works by women making up only around 30 per cent of books originally written in other languages that make it onto English-language bookshop shelves.

As such, I knew I wanted to review a book by a woman writer this month (although I haven’t gone to the same lengths as last August, when I read 17 translated works by women and featured five on this blog in an effort to start to redress the gender imbalance in my own original project). And as #WITmonth (for the Twitterate among you) is all about championing underrepresented voices, it seemed to make sense to seek out a title from a country that is relatively poorly served for translation overall.

Slovakia is such a nation. Although a relatively wide selection of Czech literature is available in English, there is surprisingly little to sample from the country that made up the other half of Czechoslovakia until its dissolution in 1993. Certainly, back in 2012, I found there were very few titles to choose from (although I did enjoy the novel by Peter Pišťánek that I ended up reading).

So I was intrigued to hear about Seeing People Off, the first English-language translation (done by Janet Livingstone) of the work of European Union Prize for Literature-winner Jana Beňová, whose writing, according to US publisher Two Dollar Radio, bears comparison with the Brazilian great Clarice Lispector. Here, surely, was an exciting title to get my teeth into.

At a mere 126 pages, Seeing People Off might seem to be a sliver of a book. Its contents, however, are far from lightweight. Centred around Elza and her partner Ian, who live in a large apartment block in a district of Bratislava, ‘a place where time plays no role’, the narrative consists of telling fragments of their experiences and of the lives that surround them. We hear snatches of their neighbours’ arguments, as well as lines from the conversations of people at nearby tables in the cafés they frequent. Elements of the main characters’ backstories and those of their friends crop up unannounced, crowbarring themselves into the pages in a way that might at first seem chaotic but quickly creates an arresting whole.

The similarities to Lispector’s work are obvious for, as in The Hour of the Star, the story is told in short bursts, giving the text the appearance of a series of feverish notes on existence. There is the same playful oddness that runs through the Brazilian writer’s work: a river swells its banks and threatens to overwhelm the city; childhood imaginary friends tumble into the narrative and begin to act independently; and Elza, who is writing Seeing People Off and reads out extracts from it to her contemporaries now and then, comments wryly on her reasons for cutting down the space she gives to certain people in the tale and the frustrations of the Slovakian publishing industry.

There are oddball comparisons too. We read, for example, that forlorn figures wandering around a half-closed fun fair remind Elza ‘of England in times when they used children as chimney sweeps’.

Much of this quirkiness is funny, but it can be alarming too. Discussions surrounding a reality TV show set in a concentration camp and cold – almost clinical – accounts of violence and suicide inspire unease as the narrative lurches between what is acceptable and what is not, inviting readers to acknowledge and test this boundary within themselves.

The result is a book that seems to operate partly on the subconscious level, dredging up, inverting and reconfiguring ideas, themes and images. As such, it requires careful reading for, suspended on the finest of threads, the narrative is always only an attention lapse or two away from tumbling into nonsense.

For those who persevere, however, the rewards are great. In a very few words, Beňová tugs at the strings that bind conventional narratives, testing the knots and exposing the weaknesses. In so doing, she reveals that sometimes the point of reading might be to lose the thread.

Seeing People Off  by Jana Beňová, translated from the Slovak by Janet Livingstone (Two Dollars Radio, 2017)

Postcard from my bookshelf #8

This month, I’ve chosen someone from the publishing world to receive a book. Although the literature of some countries remains unrepresented on anglophone bookshop shelves, the vast majority of the translated books I read during 2012 were commercially available (or at least available to buy secondhand). I could never have completed – or even seriously contemplated – the challenge of reading a book from every country without the army of editors, agents, scouts, rights managers, publicists, production staff and many others who spend their time bringing books to market.

In my experience, these people (particularly those working on translated literature) are deeply devoted bibliophiles who often work long hours for relatively little financial reward. For many of them, publishing the world’s stories is a labour of love.

The entries on the project post bore this out. Among the numerous comments from people working in or  connected to the publishing industry, there was a common theme: passion for literature and a readiness to go beyond the call of duty to share brilliant written works.

I was especially encouraged by the number of publishing students and aspiring editors who participated. It’s great to know that many of the next generation of literary gatekeepers share my enthusiasm for opening up the world’s stories to as many readers as possible. A special mention must go to Sarah, who comes to the UK this month to take up a place on Oxford University’s Columbia Publishing course. I hope it’s the start of a rewarding career!

In the end, however, it was a comment by Juliana Gonçalves that caught my eye:

Hi Ann,
my name is Juliana, and I am a student of Publishing Studies. Your work has been an inspiration to me, and I religiously follow your blog. It makes me feel ever more blessed for choosing the path I did! When I saw your TED video I immediately had a look at my bookshelf and I realized it wasn’t multicultural at all! Not a good sign for someone that wishes to work in the publishing world. Since then I have been trying to change this. A million thanks for opening my eyes! I was amazed to find out you read and loved Paulina Chiziane, because she is an astonishing writer and represents Portuguese language marvelously!

I love your new idea as in fact I love all others you had before, and I would be thrilled to participate too! I am not very picky with books! The last one I read is called Depois de morrer aconteceram-me muitas coisas by Ricardo Adolfo, a Portuguese writer that I am just now discovering and already find to be spectacular! A book I highly recommend, by the way! I am mostly happy when I find out books like this: amazingly written, funny and dramatic at the same time, that conveys deep meaning, but not very well known. These are the books I like to call pearls! Those I feel proud to find out from a million of other books. But I am not picky, as I said before! To receive books, any kind of books, is both a joy and a blessing.

I was drawn to Juliana’s enthusiasm and honesty. It’s always a good sign when someone recommends a book in a way that persuades me to look it up (sadly, my initial searches suggest that Adolfo’s work has yet to make it into English, but maybe this is something you’ll be able to change, Juliana).

In particular, I liked the way Juliana described the sort of books she loves. Her words put me in mind of one of my favourite titles from my quest – Lake Como by the Serbian writer Srđjan Valjarević, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić. Funny, deft and wonderfully written, this seems to me to have all the hallmarks of one of Juliana’s ‘pearls’.

Although the book has been published in English by a small house in Serbia, it is very hard to get. A colleague brought my copy back from Belgrade in 2012. Since then, Valjarević’s Serbian agent has been in touch with me to ask for advice about getting the book a mainstream anglophone publishing deal. (I’d be very happy to connect him with anyone who is interested.)

As such, I had to order a secondhand copy online this time as the English translation no longer seems to be in print. I hope you like it, Juliana – perhaps this is one to add to your list to publish one day!

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 September 15.

Book of the month: Olga Tokarczuk

As with last month’s pick, July’s Book of the month came by way of a recommendation. I have known Magda Raczyńska, head of literature at the London-based Polish Cultural Institute for five years – ever since we both took an English PEN evening class about translation. Few people know more about what’s coming into English from Poland than Magda, so I always pay attention to her bulletins.

A few months ago, however, her email was particularly enthusiastic. A novel by one of Poland’s most celebrated contemporary authors, Olga Tokarczuk, had been translated into English by Jennifer Croft and was being published as Flights by Fitzcarraldo Editions in May of this year. As is often the case with many of the best books I read, something in the tone of her recommendation told me that this novel was special.

I lost no time ordering a copy. When it arrived, my inkling that this was no ordinary book was reinforced by a single endorsement printed on the back of Fitzcarraldo’s trademark minimalist blue cover: Tokarczuk is ‘a magnificent writer’, according to Belarusian Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich, whose Chernobyl Prayer astonished me last year.

Flights is a challenging book to review. Woven of many threads tracing different kinds of journeys through space and time – stretching back across several centuries and around the globe – this is a novel that defies attempts to summarise it. Instead of the familiar formula of a central character or small group of characters forging their way through the thickets and over the obstacles an author throws in their path to create a single, loosely coherent journey, this is a vast ensemble piece in which voices appear and disappear and new perspectives surface as late as tens of pages from the end.

Rather than characters tying the narrative together, this novel is held together by ideas: reflections on the body, travel, life, death and what it means to move through space. These are expressed through a variety of tropes that crop up repeatedly in the fragmented accounts that, among many other things, portray the story of the Flemish anatomist Philip Verheyen, the journey of Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw and a mother’s abandonment of her chronically ill child to ride the Moscow metro and sleep rough alongside an eccentric homeless woman.

The whole is carried on a current of exquisite writing (credit to Jennifer Croft here), which captures objects and experiences in startlingly fresh ways yet without the showiness that so often attaches itself to works that make heavy use of imagery. Time and again passages such as the description of nightfall on the opening page – ‘Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snail’s eyes; the orchestra of the world has departed, vanishing into the park – had me reaching for my pencil to scrawl an enthusiastic ‘YES’ in the margin. In particular, the extended description of the death of a distinguished lecturer towards the end of the book is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever seen.

Although one of the many voices in the book claims that ‘describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear,’ Tokarczuk challenges this notion on almost every page, bodying forth life in all its vibrancy and strangeness so that we can recognise it anew. She makes us nostalgic for experiences we have never had – childhood holidays in rural Poland, trips to remote islands, conferences in far-flung corners of the globe. Meanwhile, the assuredness of her writing means that the frequent shifts between perspectives and the resumption of some storylines long after their last appearance is rarely a problem.

That said, the narrative will be too diffuse for some readers. Although the majority of the book is taut and compelling, there are odd sections that feel aimless or contain somewhat self-indulgent digressions that an editor might not have let a lesser-known writer keep. I also wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of maps, drawings and other illustrations, most of which are too small to interpret easily (and probably mean that this book is better read in hard copy than on an ereader).

But it almost feels churlish to mention these gripes in the face of such brilliance. The quality of the whole more than makes up for them. In sum, I can only echo the words of a far more discerning reader: Tokarczuk is magnificent.

Flights (Bieguni) by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)