Bahrain: why translation matters

For so small an island, Bahrain has an impressive place on the world literature stage. It is thought by many to be the site of the mythic land of Dilmun, featured in ancient masterpieces such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Legend also states that it was the location of the Garden of Eden (a claim reflected by the somewhat anachronistic Tree of Life that flourishes in the middle of desert land there). As such, it has a claim to call itself the cradle of the world’s bestselling story, The Bible.

Sadly, when it comes to contemporary books in translation, Bahrain’s record is not nearly as impressive. As it turned out, I struggled to find anything at all that would qualify as Bahraini  literature in English. In the end I asked author Lucy Caldwell, whose excellent Dylan Thomas prize-winning novel The Meeting Point is set in Bahrain, to see whether she had come across any contemporary Bahraini writers during her research.

She said that she had found very little, but that there was a writer she had heard about but not read herself. A colleague who grew up in Bahrain also gave a suggestion, mentioning an author who was the first Bahraini author to write and publish work directly in English. They were both talking about Ali Al Saeed.

Published in 2004, Al Saeed’s novel QuixotiQ explores the emptiness of modern existence through the eyes of a series of characters seeking to turn their lives around. When violence rips through their orderly hometown Okay, a place so stable that the local psychiatric clinic has gone out of business, the characters are set on a collision course. The resulting combustion uncovers a chain of corruption that links up through every level of society, right to the very top.

The basic premise is good but it is let down by the execution. Grammatically odd, peppered with strange expressions and veering between tenses often in a single sentence, the text makes the reader very uneasy from the start. This is not helped by the strange rootlessness of the narrative, which seems to be set in some mysterious, non-existent mid-Atlantic state, where characters such as ‘Conrad Spitfire’ and ‘Randy Challenge’ rub shoulders on streets with names like ‘Elmo Avenue’.

At times, the outlandish registers and malapropisms reach comic proportions. ‘Should he keep finagling?’ one character asks himself, while someone else walks about ‘feeling exacerbated’ and the narrative voice confesses ‘The way this whole shenanigan unfolded was a mystery’.

More worrying still, are the holes in the plot, which see characters acting without cause and often questioning their own motivations. ‘I suppose I could have taken the bus’, muses one to himself as he drives off in the car he has just stolen. In addition, the great revelation at the end is more than a little deflated by the observation: ‘How Patrick knew that, nobody knew’.

Al Saeed seems conscious of this. In fact much of the final section is given over to defensive comments that ‘sometimes things do not have to make any sense to be true’.

This awareness points to an authorial sense which suggests that, writing in his mother tongue with more revisions and better editorial support than self-publishing company iUniverse could offer him, Al Saeed might have made much richer capital out of his promising raw material.

It would be interesting to know why he felt he had to opt for a Western setting and for writing in his second language. But then again, given the track record for translating contemporary Bahraini literature into English, perhaps it doesn’t take a genius to work that one out.

QuixotiQ by Ali Al Saeed (iUniverse, 2004)

Venezuela: the best medicine

This project would be nothing without the people all over the planet who get in touch to suggest books, publishers, experts and organisations to help me read my way round the world. I’m continually delighted by how generous fellow booklovers are with their time and expertise, and the way these recommendations are opening up new vistas of reading.

Cherie Elston is one of those people. As arts editor of Palabras Errantesan ezine dedicated to promoting Latin American literature (which Laura introduced me to via a comment on The List), she knows a thing or two about books from South America. All the same, I couldn’t help being impressed by the list of 65 authors she sent in reply to my email.

I’m still researching my way through it and it will probably take me years to get hold of all the books (translations permitting). But I had to start somewhere and, as I didn’t have anything down for Venezuela before Cherie got in touch, I decided to begin with Alberto Barrera Tyszka.

Charting Dr Andrés Miranda’s response to the discovery that his father has terminal cancer, Tyszka’s Herralde Prize-winning novel The Sickness explores health, illness, life and death, and the strange, dispassionate vehicle of medicine that shuttles us between them. As Dr Miranda’s professionalism crumbles in the face of his impending loss, he is forced to confront his limitations and reassess his relationship with the vocation to which he is dedicated his life.

Tyszka’s ability to write about loss in all its guises is exceptional. From the seismic tremors it sends through an ordered existence to the absent-mindedness it interpolates into everyday moments, he captures it expertly. He also has a talent for presenting the inner workings of paranoia, which he sets forth through an email correspondence between Dr Miranda’s secretary and a strangely dependent patient.

The imagery he finds to convey the physical effects of shock and sadness is powerful too. When Andrés first sees his father’s results, we read that he feels ‘as if he bore inside him some helpless, stumbling creature, as if he were giving birth to a disaster’ and later, when his father phones to hear the news, that he ‘has a hedgehog on his tongue. His throat fills with pineapple rind’. This directness spills into Tyszka’s observation’s about his own craft as well. ‘Tears are very unliterary: they have no form’, he observes.

This insight is not always matched when it comes to observations about other areas of human existence. There are some strange generalisations about sexuality and the sexes, which ring oddly in the work of so generally empathetic and intuitive a writer.

Now and then the portrayal of hospital life stretches credulity too. Having grown up in a medical household, I found the idea that a surgeon would cancel an operation because his friend had just had some bad news hard to swallow. Now and then it seemed that Tyszka had underestimated the thick skin that most medical practitioners have to develop to survive their careers.

But these were minor points. The book was immensely enjoyable, as well as being touching and profound. Its exploration of the emotional spectrum and the stories we tell to inoculate ourselves against its worst effects will no doubt resonate with readers around the world, as it did with me.

Thanks Laura, Cherie and everybody else – please keep those recommendations coming.

Angola: the meaning of life

The names of certain countries seem bound up with the conflicts that shaped them. For many in the West words such as Bosnia, Sudan and Libya will conjure up the images of death and destruction that flickered on our TV screens throughout recent decades.

The magnitude of these events and the time it takes to translate and distribute books mean that many of the most powerful translated novels still coming out of these countries deal directly with war and its legacy. So we find a harrowing portrait of the expulsion of ethnic Russians from Tajikistan in Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad and a startling child’s-eye view of the Bosnian War in Sasa Stanisic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.

However, as I discovered when I read my Angolan choice for this project, not all literature from recent war zones strikes a mournful note.

Published in 2008 by now sadly defunct Aflame Books, Ondjaki’s The Whistler, the slender first novel from the author who made his name on the world literature stage with Good Morning Comrades, brims with joy and belief in rejuvenation.  It chronicles the arrival of a man with a haunting whistle in a sleepy village. Taking up residence in the church, the mysterious visitor fills the neighbourhood with his tunes, which are so beguiling they even charm the pigeons.

The effect of the music on the village’s human inhabitants is more impressive still. Cutting through the ‘general torpor’, the melodies unsettle and invigorate the largely elderly residents so that each in his or her way breaks free from the predictable patterns of daily life. The narrative culminates in an orgy of sensation, colour and delight, leaving behind a changed community where the inhabitants have a fresh appreciation of their own potency and the rich possibilities of life.

Ondjaki has a great eye for the contrary details that create character. The novel bustles with intriguing individuals who loom from the page: from the town oddball with his penchant for defecation in the open air to the put-upon gravedigger who refuses to leave his post at the cemetery despite no-one having died for years.

Zany and dream-like, the narrative almost takes flight into poetry on several occasions. This creates some extraordinary images, although it can make the throughline of the plot hard to follow.

The novel is so exuberant, however, that this hardly matters. As Ondjaki’s letter to his friend poet Ana Paula Tavares (published at the end of this edition) makes clear, his main concern is with creating a powerful impression rather than a conventional story.

He achieves this. The book is imaginative, passionate and extraordinary. And, when considered in the context of the 500,000 people killed during Angola’s 27-year civil war, it’s peculiarly moving too.

The Whistler by Ondjaki (translated from the Portuguese by Richard Bartlett). Aflame Books, 2008

Brazil: Goethe the ‘dirty old man’

From one Portuguese-language country with very few novels available in translation we jump to another that has a whole heap of them (by British standards, at least).

With so many exciting recommendations on the list, Brazil was a tough choice. In the end, I plumped for House of the Fortunate Buddhas because of the intriguing circumstances of its inception: Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro was commissioned to write one in a series of books inspired by the seven deadly sins. I was curious to see whether a novel written to order in such a way would turn out to be any good. And I wanted to see how Ribeiro handled the vice he chose to write about: lust.

As with the other Dalkey Archive book I’ve read so far this year (Francois Emmanuel’s Invitation to a Voyage), voice is this novel’s driving force. Prompted to record her story by a terminal illness, Ribeiro’s fearless narrator, a self-confessed ‘queen of lectures’, recalls her heyday in the 1940s and 50s. She focuses on her and her friends’ many and varied sexual exploits ‘at a time when everything was more difficult for women’, attacking the social mores that straitjacket desire and force people to ‘live according to rules and patterns for which no human was made’.

This disarming frankness extends to literary conventions too. Unafraid to share her opinions on any subject, the narrator weighs into many of academia’s leading lights, calling Lacan’s work ‘con games’, Goethe ‘a real fucker who died a dirty old man’ and Freud ‘the greatest waste of genius since Plato, the son of a bitch’.

Similarly forthright about her own blindspots and limitations, she questions her own utterances and literary skill with urgency and humour. ‘This testimony isn’t a novel, it doesn’t even have a plot – although the novels of Henry James barely had one, now that I think about it,’ she says at one point.

This unflinching engagement with the world and her place in it, enables the narrator to venture confidently where others fear to tread. The narrative is filled with exceedingly graphic accounts of sex in all its forms, which succeed because they are free from the coyness amd awkwardness that send other writers fumbling for euphemisms and clichés.

Ribeiro’s ability to inhabit the female universe is impressive. The voice is powerful, believable and peppered with details that will have many women nodding wryly in recognition. Only occasionally did I find some of the claims about the power dynamics between the sexes hard to swallow and sense a slight Tiresian wistfulness in the descriptions of men as ‘poor machos chained to a bunch of strange expectations’.

In general, this is an engrossing and persuasive performance by a leading writer on the world literary stage. With its narrator’s bold depiction of her – perhaps Utopian – vision for ‘a world of sex without problems’, it brims with generosity, fellow-feeling and a desire to improve the lot  of humankind. The issue, it suggests, may not lie with the unbridled expression of sexual desire, but with the concept of sin itself.

Perhaps this is simply the passionate manifesto for free love it appears to be. Or maybe, on some ‘con game’, Lacanian or Freudian level, the artist Ribeiro is protesting that the basis of his commission is ultimately flawed.

House of the Fortunate Buddhas by Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro (translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E Landers). Dalkey Archive Press, 2011

Mozambique: uncharted territory

I was preparing a post about Mia Couto’s Under the Frangipani when Miguel popped a comment on The List that took the wind out of my sails. He told me that I should read Paulina Chiziane’s Niketche for Mozambique ‘because it’s a cliché to only read Mia Couto and she needs more attention’.

Horrified at the thought that I might be turning into a literary cliché, I swallowed my reluctance to add yet another book to this year’s tally and googled Chiziane.It took quite a bit of digging before I came across a company called Aflame Books that seemed to have published an English language translation of Niketche. Keen to get hold of a copy, I sent them an email.

A few days later a message came back from translator and company founder Richard Bartlett. He was sorry to say that Aflame Books had gone bust before it managed to publish Niketche and only a third of the book had ever been translated. He was a big fan of Mozambican literature, but the only writer he could think of whose work was available in English was… Mia Couto. He did, however, have an unpublished translation of a novel called Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa if I’d be interested to take a look?

A cursory internet search told me that this Khosa fellow was really rather a big cheese in Mozambican literary circles. Not only had Ualalapi won the 1990 Grand Prize of Mozambican Fiction, it was also included on the list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century drawn up in 2002. This I had to see.

Told in six installments, partly through the eyes of Nguni warrior Ualalapi, the novel portrays the rise and fall of the legendary leader Ngungunhane, who presided over the region now known as Mozambique until the Portuguese  conquered it in the nineteenth century. Graphic and startling, it lays bare the bloody realities of tribal warfare and colonialism, revealing the personal and societal costs of the human desire for power over others.

Myth-making is a big theme. Delighting in unpacking Ngungunhane’s national significance as a symbol of resistance against imperialism, Khosa plays conflicting accounts of the leader off against one another. Charismatic and ruthless, Ngungunhane remains something of an enigma, driven by the impossible longing to be ‘the first protagonist and the only one that History will record while men will be on the earth’.

This running preoccupation makes his final speech before he boards his captors’ ship, in which he envisages the horrors of the colonial and post-colonial eras and imagines the Portuguese forcing children ‘to speak of my death and call me criminal and cannibal’, all the more striking. He exits the narrative to take up his place alongside Oedipus, King Lear and Okonkwo as one of the world’s towering tragic heroes.

Some fantastical events add to the novel’s mythic quality: from the woman whose menstrual blood floods a village, to the strange prophesies that come to pass. These are expressed with lively and at times wonderfully earthy imagery. So we hear of the gossiping servants leaving a house ‘with bags full of words that they were throwing to the wind’ and the shrugging acceptance that no-one is perfect: ‘who is the man who has not snot in his nose?’

Being one of the few people ever to read this powerful classic in English was a huge privilege. It felt like getting a glimpse through a keyhole into a locked garden full of astonishing plants flourishing out of my reach. It made me sad to think of all we must miss in our little English-language bubble and angry that Mozambican literature in so commonly spoken a language as Portuguese is not more widely translated and read.

I am very grateful to Richard Bartlett for sharing the manuscript and to Miguel for forcing me to raise my game. What other Mozambican literature should be translated into English? Leave a comment and let me know.

Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (translated from the Portuguese by Isaura de Oliveira and Richard Bartlett). First published by Associacao dos Escritores Mocambicanos (1987)

Fiji: no man is an island

Regime change seems to be the theme of the moment. No sooner had I finished YB Mangunwijaya’s satirical portrait of post-independence Indonesia than it was time to start Peter Thomson’s Kava in the Blood, an account of the coups that shook Fiji in 1987.

I was particularly intrigued to read the book because Dr Chakriya Bowman, Director of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s  Economic Governance Programme, found it for me after stopping by this blog. She very kindly visited the University of the South Pacific’s bookshop and emailed me the details and pictures of all the books she found that fitted the AYORTW criteria. Thomson’s EH McCormick Prize-winning memoir was one of these.

In fact, as Thomson acknowledges in his 1999 Foreword, Kava in the Blood contains not one story but two. Alongside his ‘account of what happened at Government House’, where he worked as Permanent Secretary of Information during 1987, he tells the poignant story of his love affair with the country his family emigrated to from Scotland four generations before he was born.

The question of what constitutes nationality and national identity is at the heart of the book. Not only is this the catalyst for the coups, sparked after Fiji’s first non-indigenous-dominated government came to power, but it also forms a powerful theme in Thomson’s personal life.

Despite having been born and brought up in Fiji, Thomson is forced to confront the fact that he has not been completely accepted into the ‘closed shop’ of Fijian society when the indigenous community closes ranks against ‘outsiders’ in the wake of the first coup. ‘I felt a creeping sense of delusion at being part of a country which, because of my European forbears, was now pointing a finger at me and saying “vulagi” — the Fijian word for visitor, or in this sense, foreigner’, he explains, going on to write wistfully of the ‘sense of oneness’ his indigenous peers must feel with the landscape and culture he loves.

This love is apparent throughout the book. It shows itself in Thomson’s humorous accounts of some of Fiji’s more bewildering traditions — ‘to those not used to it, a kava [Fiji’s national drink] session can have similarities to Chinese water torture,’ he writes — his deep knowledge of the nation’s culture, plants and animals and history, and his lyrical descriptions of life under the ‘arching starscape of our southern skies’.

The narrative is packed with fascinating and affectionate insights into Fijian society, including reflections on everything from Fijian patois through to the island’s prison system and the after effects of British colonial rule. Thomson’s recollection of establishing a polling station on Naqelelevu in 1976 in his capacity as district officer the day only one of the six eligible villagers turned out to vote is particularly memorable:

‘With absolutely no sense of the ridiculous the polling station was declared open. The voter went through the identification process and then turned to the little audience of seated villagers, ballot paper in one hand […]. Grinning self-consciously, he stood there long enough for the audience to take their mental snapshots of his moment of importance, and then another official guided him to the white wooden polling booth we had shipped with us.

‘The booth had been set up some distance from the table, giving the event an added sense of space and time. The official politely advised the protagonist to take his time with his vote. Inside the booth he did just that, while the rest of us on Naqelelevu that day looked on solemnly. Finally the booth started wobbling as he went through the motions of pacing his mark on the ballot paper. He emerged. Everyone pointed to the ballot box, and he went over to it and dropped the paper into its slot. He then stood for a while in front of the box like someone whose [sic] just won a TV gameshow, with a sheepish grin and not knowing quite where to put his hands.


‘With [the] lonely ballot paper… inadvertently eliminating the principle of the secret ballot, we packed up our gear, and bade farewell, sailing off to the south and leaving the islanders to their thoughts on the wonderful machinery of democracy.’

These rich recollections, along with Thomson’s exquisite accounts of his childhood on the islands, which read like extracts from a tropical Swallows and Amazons, more than make up for the jerky and episodic nature of the book, which sometimes feels more like a series scrapbook notes and jottings than a memoir. The addition of Thomson’s photographs into the 2008 edition heightens this impresion, giving the whole thing an immediate and personal quality. At points reading it feels as though you are sitting with Thomson under the giant rain trees outside his Waijevo residence, looking at his family album and waiting for the kava cup to come round.

Although writing in exile, after the second 1987 coup and four days of unlawful incarceration, during which he says ‘the umbilical cord to my homeland was cut’, Thomson’s love for Fiji clearly persists. As his two Afterwords suggest, his story of his island homeland is one from which he finds it hard to tear himself away. I did too.

Kava in the Blood by Peter Thomson (Booksurge, 2008)

PACIFIC APPEAL: do you know any good novels, short stories, memoirs, writers or even oral storytellers from other Pacific nations? Do you have friends or relatives in the region who might be able to suggest stories? Leave a comment or email ann’at’ and let me know.

Indonesia: talking about revolution

The further I get into this project to read the world, the more I appreciate the challenge facing translators working with books written in societies very different from my own. Not only must they endeavour to create engaging and faithful reflections of the original texts, but they must often also find a way of explaining objects, customs and even whole belief systems that may have no counterpart in their target audience’s culture without turning the narratives into anthropological essays.

Some, like May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley, the translators of Ibrahim Al-Koni’s The Bleeding of the Stone, choose to tackle this with a brief notes section at the back, to which readers can defer for help decoding terms they may not have come across before. In other cases, as with Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh, cultural and linguistic differences lead to a substantial reworking of the translated text, with controversial results.

Few books, however, can have required more fancy philological footwork than YB Mangunwijaya’s Durga/Umayi. Not only does this novel satirise most of the major political events in Indonesia from the 1930s to the late 1980s, but it also draws on the region’s shadow-play tradition, weaving a number of Indonesia’s myths into the text. On top of this, as translator Ward Keeler explains in the introduction, Mangunwijaya has helped himself to all the different dialects of Indonesian spoken in the country, creating his own ‘zany style that is without precedent in Indonesian or Javanese literature’. Phew.

The basic premise — thank goodness — is relatively simple. Central character, Iin, a young woman opposed to the ‘cooking-cleaning-cuddling view’ of her sex, finds herself with a front-row seat at most of Indonesia’s key historical events, from before the time of independence from the Dutch, through the Japanese occupation of the 1940s and the horrific communist massacres of the 1960s and beyond.

Mirroring the events shaping her nation, Iin morphs from a young idealist into a hardened globe-trotter, cutting cynical deals that will never benefit the people she used to care for most and changing her dress, manner and even her face and body to fit each new scenario. Like the beautiful goddess Durga of the title — who finds herself transformed into the monstrous Umayi when she refuses to have sex with her husband Lord Guru in public — Iin loses her identity in her effort to assert herself.

As with all great satirists, Mangunwijaya has an eye for the ridiculous and a talent for plunging pride into bathos. So we hear of ‘the Nippon Armed Forces who were undefeated but then were’ and the lament of the peasant farmers: ‘Oh God, when is this freedom era going to end, begging your pardon’. Again, like the best satire, this merciless stripping back of pretension and propaganda proceeds from deep, humane anger at the injustices heaped upon normal people, which bubbles up through the text, aerating and stirring the narrative.

For all its brilliance, however, this novel does come with a health warning. Delightful though Mangunwijaya’s ‘verbal high jinks’ can be, they demand a lot. Sentences spiral off across page after page, leaving the reader trailing behind them, struggling to keep hold of subjects and objects, nevermind the overall sense. At times, searching in vain for a main clause, I found myself wondering if I had any idea what was going on at all, as though the language was forcing me to share the bewilderment of the Indonesians as regime change after regime change sweeps their land.

This is not a book to curl up with. It’s a book to concentrate on and frown at and read bits of several times over. The effort it is worth it though: this is easily one of the most inventive, urgent and passionate texts I’ve read. It’s also a testament to what skilled translators, the neglected heroes of the world literature scene, can achieve. Hats off to you, Ward Keeler.

Durga/Umayi by YB Mangunwijaya (translated from the Indonesian by Ward Keeler). Publisher (this edition): University of Washington Press (2004)

United States: supersize gods

When you’re trying to get through 196 books in a year, size matters. If a book’s more than 300 pages, it’s a challenge. If it’s more than 400, it’s pushing it. And anything over 500 pages is just having a laugh.

Weighing in at 672 pages, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods nearly disqualified itself on girth alone — particularly when I discovered that the 10th anniversary edition featured an extra 12,000 words not published before. To my page-swamped mind, this was bordering on rude.

There was another objection too: despite having lived in the United States for 20 years, having children there and being married to an American, British-born Gaiman is not a US citizen and has said that he has no intention of taking citizenship. Would this book by a perpetual outsider really count as US literature?

But Carol, who recommended the novel, was very insistent and so, kissing my weekend goodbye —  and dodging the glares from Roth, Steinbeck, Oates, Hemingway, Chabon and the host of other American greats up on my bookshelf —  I holed myself up and began to read.

Bold, baggy and mind-boggling, the novel traces the fate of the gods brought to the land of the free by immigrants, right from the arrival of the earliest prehistoric visitors to the refugees and fortune-hunters of the present day. The story is told through the eyes of Shadow, who gets out of prison to find that his wife and employer have been killed in a car crash, taking with them his hopes of a normal life. With nothing to lose except his new-found freedom, Shadow goes to work for the mysterious Mr Wednesday, who seems to know an uncanny amount about his life.

Wednesday’s omniscience is no accident. As head of the collective of traditional gods who are finding themselves sidelined for the ‘gods of credit card and freeway, of internet and telephone’, he is rallying his troops for a battle between deities old and new. But as the storm approaches and breaks, it seems that the gods themselves may be labouring under false beliefs.

Gaiman’s writing is refreshingly approachable. At times echoing the stripped-back voices of Hemingway and Steinbeck, the narrative manages to carry humour and philosophical reflections equally lightly, blending fantasy, mythology and a quirky, humane perspective that is all Gaiman’s own. This is helped by some surprising imagery — the description of driving into Chicago, for example, so that the city ‘happened slowly like a migraine’, and the presentation of the hinterworld ‘behind the scenes’ are particularly memorable.

Gaiman also has the knack of making us care quickly. The narrative veers off repeatedly into stories of some of the many travellers who came to America to make a life and, for the most part, these are compelling in their own rights, as well as giving the philosophical and mythological arguments in the book a human face.

This gives rise to some great reflections on what it means to be a nation of immigrants. ‘Nobody’s American. Not originally. That’s my point,’ says Wednesday at one stage, articulating sentiments that resonated particularly strongly for me as a Londoner proud of having grown up in a city that is home to people from nearly every nation of the world. Given the definition of US nationhood Gaiman posits in his novel, he, as an ex-pat Brit, fits right in.

By rights, I should be angry with this book. It kept me up at night, it made me late for trains and towards the end it made my eyes go a bit fuzzy. If this book were someone I knew, I’d definitely be thinking about unfriending it on Facebook. But as a book, it’s an impressive achievement that leaves readers very little room for doubt of its power or the pleasure of spending time in its company. Several novels further into my quest to read the world, Gaiman’s characters still people my daydreams. Thanks Carol for introducing us.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Publisher (Kindle edition): Review (2011)

Algeria: the truth within

As titles go, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris has to be one of the most controversial out there. In fact, I got quite a few stares when I was reading this book on the Tube (no mean feat when you consider the sights you see on the East London line most days of the week).

One of the most anxious stares came from a young, blonde woman, who, when she saw me looking at her, switched on the radiant smile of the evangelical Christian. This impression was strengthened when the seat next to her became free and I sat down and saw that the title of the chapter she was reading was ‘The Lavish Grace of God’. All through the journey, I thought I could feel her twitching beside me, ready to pounce and tell me the good news.

However, if my neighbour had read the book, she would have found that there is a surprising lack of sex in much of it, albeit not for want of trying on the part of the protagonist. Having reached his fourth decade, Algerian-born banker Basile Tocquard, who ‘Frenchified’ his name as part of his attempts to shrug off North Africa and embrace Western culture, feels it is high time he moved out of his mother’s home and set himself up in a bachelor pad in the centre of town. There, he envisages, he will quickly dispense with his virginity and embark on a sexual odyssey among the city’s Caucasian goddesses.

He has reckoned without two things though: the powerful pull of his Islamic heritage, and the barriers in his own head. In addition, Basile’s story is related by a contemptuous female narrator, who makes fine capital out of the gap between his fantasies and the reality. As the novel progresses and Basile becomes increasingly deluded and paranoid, she strips his ambitions bare, revealing the contradictions and hollowness within.

Leïla Marouane is an exceptional writer, with a gift for making words pay their way. Every detail counts, from Basile’s ‘whitening creams and hair straightening sessions’ to the ‘poetry manuscripts’ he locks away in his desk drawer, building a rich picture that is at once funny, true and sad. This literary economy extends to the way that Marouane insinuates her female narrator into the text: at first sketched in only at the start of chapters and in the occasional footnote, but gradually making her presence felt everywhere.

Although the narrative is rooted in the clash between Islamic and Western culture, it is packed with universal insights about the attempts of younger generations everywhere to break away from what has gone before. As Basile sinks into madness in his efforts to deny his origins, the book excavates the foundations of identity, revealing the uneasy bargains we must all strike, whether between one culture and another or between the present and the past.

Inner peace, it seems, depends on an honest engagement with who we are and what we have been — sentiments with which I suspect my East London line neighbour would have heartily agreed. But then, who knows what her book was really about anyway?

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane (translated from the French by Alison Anderson). Publisher: Europa Editions (2010)

Greece: child’s play

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But when I saw Clockroot Books’ 2009 edition of Margarita Karapanou’s 1974 classic Kassandra and the Wolf, complete with Ihrie Means’s disturbing cover art — a woman’s body topped with a wolf’s pelt and reflected in a mirror — I had to take a closer look.

One of literature’s youngest child narrators, six-year-old Kassandra is also one of its most unsettling. In fact, with her detached, vicious and sometimes bizarre accounts of life at her grandmother’s home in Athens, she often seems every bit as embattled as Birahima, the former child soldier in Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is not Obliged. 

Too young to feel obliged to present a socially acceptable persona to the world, Kassandra is unfailingly frank. Whether she is describing her torture and killing of the kitten ‘Borrowedy’, who is lent to her for a week, or her sexual abuse at the hands of grandmother’s chauffeur Peter — ‘He panted and sweated. I didn’t mind it too much’ — she overturns society’s tacitly agreed modes of talking about things again and again.

Even the favourite authorial trick of getting the reader onside by making the protagonist a book lover is disregarded here, with Kassandra declaring: ‘I don’t want to learn reading and writing’.

Sometimes, this unchecked verbalisation has great comic effect, as in the case of the PhD or ‘doctor’s desertation’, as explained by Kassandra’s acquaintance France:

‘Well, you see, you take a book and go to the middle of a desert or something and then you bury it in the sand for a long time and then you dig it up again and you find that all the words have got mixed up like the sand and then you put them all back in place only this time you put them back any way you like.’

Yet for all her frankness, Kassandra finds herself repeatedly sidelined, silenced and misunderstood. Where she releases outbursts of oddities or obscenities that reflect the troubling associations of her mother’s distance and her inner world, her refined relatives see only naughtiness and disrespect. Repeatedly chastened and instructed on ladylike behaviour, she develops a stammer before retreating into silence — ‘But I do talk to them, only I don’t use words’, she tells the specialist hired to assess her.

The danger of failed communication is made clear in the sad fate of Uncle Harilaos, who, having declared his desire to kill himself on several occasions, takes his own life.

Society, it seems, is not set up to accommodate so naked an expression of needs and longings. If Kassandra is to survive, she must learn to disguise and smother her impulses and join in with fashioning the conversational cat’s cradles the adults spin over her head. She will gain her place in the world this way. But she will also lose something too.

Compelling, strange and savage, this is a rare example of how a book’s cover can reflect the contents within.

Kassandra and the Wolf by Margarita Karapanou, translated from the Greek by NC Germanacos (Clockrootbooks, 2009)