Belize: high praise

This was a recommendation from Shirlene at Belizean Publisher Cubola Productions, who I emailed for suggestions. There were several authors she could recommend, she said, but Zoila Ellis was her top pick and she was sure I would enjoy her work.

It turned out Shirlene was in good company. When I opened my copy, I was met by a foreword by Governor-General Dr Colville Young, in which he remembers Ellis’s tentative request that he might look at her work and see if it was worth publishing in 1988 and talks in glowing terms about what he found when he  did. It sounded promising so I settled down to read.

The seven short stories in On Heroes Lizards and Passions paint a powerful and varied picture of life in Belize and the Belizean diaspora. Centring on moments when characters find release from fears, prejudices, assumptions, hopes and dreams, they reveal the way that, wittingly or unwittingly, we can change the course of one another’s lives. There is the lapsed priest who finds a way to make peace with his inadequacies through a neighbour’s chance comment, the pregnant teenager set free by her grandmother’s compassion and the lizard community thrown into confusion by the arrival of humans.

Ellis’s speciality is pinpointing the blind spots and bigotry lodged in her characters’ psyches, all the while keeping their humanity in the forefront of the reader’s mind. The most memorable example of this is ‘And the Subway Takes me Home’, in which Carla struggles against prejudice in her work as a maid for a rich white American pensioner, all the while pondering how to get her son away from his Kerub girlfriend back home in Belize:

‘How could she explain to him: “Son I don’t know her, but I know a lot of people like her. Kerubs are all alike. Clannish, dirty, smell of fish. Before you know it you married to her and her whole generation move in with you.”‘

The power of the story lies in Ellis’s tracing of the steps that have led to Carla’s skewed way of thinking, which makes the explosion of her plans at the end of the story all the more devastating and cathartic.

Ellis’s eye for the wrinkles in the human mind can give rise to a great deal of comedy too. The final story, ‘A Hero’s Welcome’, in which a remote Belizean community prepares a grand celebration to welcome home Mas’ Tom, its one and only member to go off and fight in the second world war, is at once hilarious and touching. As we watch the villagers scrambling to devise fitting entertainments for the man they have pictured playing a pivotal role in secret missions all over the globe and come to think of as ‘their salvation’, the widening gap between their imaginings and the unprepossessing truth becomes funnier and sadder with every page.

Occasionally Ellis’s phonetic representations of Belizean speech can sometime be a little hard to decipher. This disturbed the flow of some of the early stories, although I did find myself keying into it more and more towards the end.

But this was a minor issue. Overall this was a great read by a subtle and empathetic storyteller with a keen awareness of how the cogs turn in the human (and possibly lizard) brain. Shirlene and Dr Colville Young were right: I thoroughly enjoyed it. If only every constitutional figurehead were as proactive in championing writing like this.

On Heroes Lizards and Passion by Zoila Ellis (Cubola Productions, 1997)

Japan: strange coincidences

I was very lucky to have some excellent recommendations for Japan, including a hit parade of must-reads put together by Japanese writer Kyoko Yoshida (see the List for these). However the title of this book was given to me scribbled on the back of a business card at the end of a talk at the London Book Fair.

The card belonged to translator and editor Lucy North, who described Michael Emmerich, the translator of this novel, as her mentor. As I was studying it, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned round to find myself facing Dr Valerie Henitiuk, director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. Henitiuk was one of the kind and patient people who put up with me asking all sorts of inane and obvious questions when I was researching this project late last year. We’d emailed and spoken on the phone but never met. It turned out she’d been sitting just behind me all the way through the panel discussion.

‘Lucy’s great,’ she said. ‘If she’s given you a recommendation, you should follow it up.’

That decided things. Much like my German book, it felt as though this novel was choosing me.

As it turned out, coincidences and unexpected connections were a very fitting way to come to Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami. Charting the struggles of Kei to find meaning in her life 12 years after her husband’s disappearance, the book reveals the uncanny links that thread through the past and present, tying us to events that are yet to come.

Disorientation is a big theme in the novel. Drawn again and again to the little seaside resort of Manazuru, Kei wades through a sea of half-memories where time telescopes in on itself and ‘things are vague, unsettled’. Against the relentlessly shifting backdrop of the ocean, she finds the world flooded with otherwordly figures and oddly familiar people and scenes that wash her into a whirlpool of remembering in which she founders, seeking the rock on which she can build a meaningful life.

Kawakami’s spare and precise style works by homing in on details that flash like beacons in the grey mist of Kei’s confusion. From the mended tear in the sleeve of a café cook, to the interaction of bulbul birds in a persimmon tree, she creates a sense of an intricate world balanced by the minute movements of its constituent cogs and wheels.

This attention to specifics gives Kawakami’s work a poetic power, which enables her to write about the contrariness of human emotion and existence with sometimes shocking clarity. Riffing on the theme that ‘disgust and tenderness do not stand in opposition’, she reveals the strange sense of detachment that runs through much of life: ‘however fiercely we hurl ourselves together, it comes to seem that we are only mimicking forms that we have seen before, somewhere’, reflects Kei.

This sense of isolation coupled with gasps of sudden emotion and violence that shudder the text, gives the novel a compelling and often eerie feel. We do not always know where we are or what we are witnessing, but this is the key to the narrative’s power: cast adrift on an ocean of impressions in this striking and subtle work, we come to appreciate the vastness of human experience – and that loneliness may sometimes be the thing that binds us together most of all.

Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich (Counterpoint, 2010)

Cameroon: joking aside

Just as one writer can become the go-to wordsmith for a particular nation in the eyes of the rest of the world (see my post on Afghan literature below), so one book can become so famous that we forget the author ever wrote anything else. In the case of Mongo Beti, I was all set to read The Poor Christ of Bomba, the 1956 novel banned in Cameroon for lampooning the religious and colonial authorities. Several people had recommended it and it seemed like an obvious choice.

But, as I was googling around Beti, I stumbled upon a description of his slightly later humorous book, Mission to Kala. Intrigued at the thought of reading my first African comic novel, I decided to give it a go.

Told by Medza, a self-confessed ‘professional failure’, the novel describes the summer he fails his baccalaureat and undertakes a trip to a remote village to escape his father’s wrath. Charged with bringing back his neighbour’s wife, who has absconded to the region, the young man sets out to recover his community’s honour. But he has not reckoned on the welcome his distant relatives have in store for him and, finding himself celebrated as a celebrity and erudite man of the world, he begins to gather the gumption he needs to face his terrifying father and make his own way in the world.

Beti’s instinct for comedy is up there with the best of them. From the bathetic chapter introductions, of which the penultimate one is my favourite – ‘in the course of which the reader will become convinced that the final climax of this story is at last in sight – a conviction which is, most unfortunately, mistaken’ – to hilarious set pieces such as the white-knuckle bus ride which anticipates The Italian Job when the vehicle ends up hanging over a precipice, the book is bursting with rib ticklers. Perhaps the funniest sequence of all is when Medza finds himself beseeched to impart his great insights into Western learning to the villagers and, having exhausted his paltry stock of knowledge fairly quickly, is forced to improvise.

The comedy is heightened by Peter Green’s 1958 translation, which often sees him reaching into the PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh lexicon and pulling out phrases such as ‘a really barbarous howler’ and ‘Oh the greedy beast!’ It would be interesting to see how a contemporary translator might render Beti’s words differently and whether this would alter the feel of the book at all.

As in his more famous novel, Beti has serious points to make. These focus largely on colonialism, religion and the questionable choices of parents, as one of the most powerful passages towards the end of the book demonstrates:

‘We were those children – it is not easy to forget – and it was our parents who forced this torment upon us. Why did they do it?

‘We were catechized, confirmed, herded to Communion like a gaggle of holy-minded ducklings, made to confess at Easter and on Trinity Sunday, to march in procession with banners on the Fourteenth of July; were militarized, shown off proudly to every national and international commission.

That was us remember?

‘Ragged, rowdy, boastful, nit-infested, cowardly, scab-ridden, scrounging little beasts, feet swollen with jiggers: that was us; a tiny squeaking species adrift in the modern age like poultry in mid-Atlantic. What god were we being sacrificed to, I wonder?’

Arresting though these passages are, they sit oddly with the jovial tone of the rest of the book. Reading them is a bit like watching a dinner party guest explode into a rant in the middle of a witty anecdote, leaving you unsure when it’s OK to start laughing again. Similarly, one or two of the set pieces Beti seeds in early in the novel fail to materialise, making Medza’s claims that he ‘can’t remember’ how certain things turned out feel like a bit of a fudge.

Overall, though, this novel was a great joy to read and had me laughing nearly all the way through. I’m already looking forward to getting acquainted with Beti’s other works when I’ve finished reading the world. And you can’t get a much better recommendation than that.

Mission to Kala by Mongo Beti, translated from the French by Peter Green (Mallory Publishing, 2008)

Afghanistan: blood and guts

It was harder than I expected to find an Afghan book that wasn’t by Khaled Hosseini. Not that I’ve got anything against Khaled Hosseini, but as he has become the go-to Afghan writer in the UK I was keen to see what else a curious reader could turn up from this much reported and yet strangely mysterious land.

I contacted the Afghan Women’s Writing Project for ideas. They sent back some intriguing suggestions, several of which are on the list, however as most of the books they mentioned were either stories that had been told by women to non-Afghans and written down or accounts by Western journalists and soldiers of their experiences in the country, I didn’t feel they quite met my criteria.

I even had a brief exchange with a Canadian soldier-cum-food blogger who is serving out in Afghanistan at the moment. He told me the writer he’d read in preparation for his trip was… Khaled Hosseini.

In the end, a mixture of googling and reading reviews turned up Prix Goncourt-winning The Patience Stone by French-Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi. Skipping the introduction (by Khaled Hosseini) I plunged right in.

Set ‘somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere’, this slender novella portrays the struggles of a nameless woman as she tries to care for her comatose husband in a city torn apart by war. As militants roam the streets, bombs fall and the front line shifts to her neighbourhood cutting her and her children off from basic supplies, she battles to stick to the strict regime of prayer prescribed by the Mullah and to keep the wounded man clean and stable.

But as the days creep by measured out in the names of God she must recite 99 times for each of her 99 prayer beads every day and punctuated here and there by bursts of fear and sudden atrocities nearby, the woman is tested to her limits. With the power dynamics between her and the man who used to control her strangely reversed and the buildings around her crumbling, she begins to assert herself, spewing forth all the bitterness, frustrations and secrets that have walled her in for years.

The novel is stylistically striking. Told through a sort of floating consciousness that remains in the sick man’s room as the woman comes and goes and accords the same attention to the activities of the spider in the roof beams as to the human characters, the narrative has a weirdly detached air, which often makes the descriptions read like stage directions.

This creates a powerful contrast with the volleys of emotion that engulf the woman as she speaks in extraordinarily graphic terms of her physical, mental and sexual sufferings, caught up in tenderness and hate. It also makes for great suspense in the scenes where we wait in the room to discover what is happening outside, beyond our gaze, as in the passage where the woman goes to discover the grisly fate of her neighbour’s male relatives:

‘The women walk off across the rubble. They can no longer be heard.

Suddenly, a howl. From the woman. Horrified. Horrifying. Her footsteps stagger over the flagstones, stumble through the ruins, cross the garden and enter the house. She is still screaming. She vomits. Weeps. Runs around the house. Like a madwoman.’

At first the novel’s stylistic framework makes for moments of awkward exposition. With no omniscient narrator and no first-person thought processes through which to explain the backstory, Rahimi has to rely on the woman rehearsing the events that have led up to the start of the novel out loud to the unconscious man. This jars in the initial pages, but soon becomes natural and, as the woman’s thoughts and emotions become more volatile, even develops into the novel’s central trope.

Rahimi’s transformation of his narrative’s weakness into its strength, mirroring his central character’s journey, is impressive. I was gripped and moved by his ability to make something so telling and immediate out of stylistic constraints that might have been alienating and pedantic in another writer’s hands. It made me very glad I wandered off the beaten track.

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, translated from the French by Polly McLean (Vintage Digital, 2010)

Equatorial Guinea: public service announcement

We interrupt this blog to bring you a public service announcement: libraries are in trouble and I’m beginning to realise why. In the first five months of A Year of Reading the World, I’ve noticed a worrying trend. Many of the second-hand books I’ve ordered for this project have turned out to be copies that have been withdrawn from libraries around the UK. Sometimes that’s because the library itself is closing, but more often than not it’s clear from the smattering of date stamps on the fly-leaf that it’s because these largely excellent translations from remote corners of the globe are rarely borrowed and read.

All the same, nothing could have prepared me for what happened when I opened Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory to find a sticker as blank and pristine as the day the book first appeared on the shelves at Grangetown Library. This novel, written in a small African nation that has yet to build its first bookshop, painstakingly translated by Michael Ugarte because of his admiration for it, and picked out by some unknown visionary person in Cardiff Council Library Service to be made freely available to the people of Wales, had not been borrowed once. [Since publishing this post I have had confirmation from Cardiff Council that they no longer stamp library books, however the pristine condition of the book made it clear that it had been read very little if at all.]

Set during the last year of Spanish rule in Equatorial Guinea, the novel reveals the thoughts of a young African as he traces the story of his attraction to and eventual rejection of the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church. Held up as the great white hope of his community and his Spanish missionary mentors alike, the protagonist is forced to confront the damaging influence that colonialism and religion developed in an alien cultural framework have had on him and his nation. This, he discovers, is the only way he can ever hope to find some kind of lasting independence and peace.

Ndongo’s presentation of his hero’s internalisation of the political struggles that grip his country is extraordinary. Raw, vivid and shocking, his frank portrayal of the tortured emotional, sexual and intellectual development of the young man speaks eloquently, particularly when it comes to the self-loathing engendered in him as he tries to espouse the creeds and value systems of his country’s colonial rulers:

‘I identified with the martyrs’ early sufferings, a little like mine but infinitely more sublime, and I so yearned to have their faith, integrity, constancy, because more than anything, I wanted to be like them; yet I couldn’t, I would never be. In the soul of a little black boy like me, an animal in the wild, the vices of my primitive race were locked in, just as Father Amadeo had told me in confession’.

Ndongo further dramatises his hero’s wrestles with ‘the inexorable and inextricable absurdity of successive centuries’ in his use of language. The narrative roves restlessly back and forth between the first and second person reflecting the protagonist’s fractured sense of self, while the commencement of the book at ‘Chapter Zero’, in which he announces his intention to give up training for the priesthood, underlines the process of psychological unmaking and remaking he must go through simply to emerge as ‘a man among others’. Similarly, the way correspondence and speech are woven into the prose without the usual markers and separations emphasises the extent to which the protagonist internalises the expectations of those around him. By the end, I was left in no doubt that this was one of the most linguistically subtle, inventive and complex books I’ve read so far this year.

But back to that blank sticker. Fear not: this is not a lecture about using your local library. For one thing, I’m hardly in a position to talk – I haven’t taken a book out in more than two years. On an idealistic level, I believe that books should be available to everybody in libraries whether we take them out or not.

Sadly, though, we live in an era of cuts and quotas, where books that don’t get borrowed enough get banished and where libraries that don’t get used enough are closed. It’s the age-old law of supply and demand and it’s hard to argue against when you’ve got cancer care units in need of funds and schools teaching pupils in Portakabins.

I’m not sure what we do about it. Still, I can’t help being saddened at the thought of all these great books that have travelled through so many hands and minds to get to us sitting pristine and untouched in public buildings up and down the land. And I can’t help worrying that that bold person in the Cardiff Council Library Service will go for something a little closer to home when it’s time to choose the next round of titles. Or, worse, that he or she will decide not to bother getting more books at all.

Shadows of Your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo, translated from the Spanish by Michael Ugarte (Swan Isle Press, 2007)

Cyprus: double vision

Royal Mail nearly scuppered this one. When Haris Ioannides, director of Cypriot publisher Armida Publications kindly offered to send me a selection of titles in English, I waited with excitement for the package.

And waited. And waited. A delivery card appeared telling me there was a parcel at the sorting office for me, but when I trotted off to collect it I was met with blank faces. Computer said no.

Eventually, I received an email from Ioannides telling me that the three books, having travelled to London and back, were now in Nicosia again. Could he send me the ebook pdfs instead?

By this stage, buoyed by British-Cypriot writer Lorna V’s enthusiasm for the writers on Ioannides’s list, I had already ordered a copy of Nora Nadjarian’s Ledra Street. However, given past form, I thought I’d play safe and get the ebook version too. Ioannides emailed me the files, whereupon the print volume arrived. I now had two copies: one for each eye.

As it turns out, this doubled reading experience was particularly appropriate for Ledra Street, a short story collection set in Nicosia, the last divided capital city in the world. Terse, jagged and sometimes fragmentary, Nadjarian’s tales capture moments in lives and psyches sundered when the island was split in two during the Turkish invasion of 1974. Ledra Street, once a bustling thoroughfare, is now a blind alley populated by people yearning for things they can never attain: an estranged son, a perfect love, or simply ‘a time when Ledra Street was whole, non-pedestrianised, and we still called Turkish coffee, Turkish’.

Nadjarian’s attention to detail and use of the mundane to capture the extraordinary experience of seeing your homeland torn in half make the book. Whether she’s describing politicians rambling on a TV chat show, a disastrous haircut or a trip to a museum, the writer portrays the irreconcilable rifts in perspective that leave people isolated and sad. One of the most successful stories in the book, ‘Guided Tour’, for example, sees a woman leading a group of tourists around the city’s sites, and portrays the gulf between their casual absorption of the  neat list of facts she reels off and the turbulent emotions behind the events:

‘Everything makes perfect sense. Of course, of course, history when it becomes history, when it can be read in history books, when it can be talked about by tourist guides, makes perfect sense. The only way out.


‘What a strange thing, a rare pain, to be trapped in your own country.’

This packing of meaning into street signs and small talk, combined with the brevity of many of the pieces, gives them a poetic quality. At times, it almost feels as though they are poems that have been stretched like canvasses across the page to fill the space of stories. This impression is enhanced by Nadjarian’s creative use of language, which sees metaphors blurred and spread over paragraphs like watercolour paints.

Occasionally, the fragmentary nature of the pieces is too stark. I wasn’t sold on the ‘Ten Nights at the Movies’ vignettes, which ended the book and felt faintly contrived. Similarly, one or two of the ‘Ten Little Stories of Love and Hate’ were so stripped back as to teeter into the banal.

On the whole though, this is a powerful series of pieces that harnesses violent gusts of emotion in taut writing, pulling the collection along at an exhilirating pace. Familiar and yet strange, European and yet not, Nadjarian’s voice reveals what word artists can achieve, creating a lively collection that intrigues, delights and challenges. I’m very glad my copies found their way to me in the end.

Ledra Street by Nora Nadjarian (Armida Publications, 2006)

South Africa: getting a perspective

I can still remember the day I first heard about South Africa. I was eight years old and sitting in my classroom at school when our teacher – a young, smiley woman who reminded me of Miss Honey in Roald Dahl’s Matilda – came in excitedly to tell us it was a great day because a wonderful man called Nelson Mandela had been freed in a country that had been being unfair to black people for a long time and we were all going to write a story about it.

Twenty-two years later, that memory came back as I found myself having to decide which South African book to read for this project. I had a great list of titles kindly suggested by Sophy at South African literary site Books Live, but, for the first time this year, the question of the author’s race seemed significant. Should I choose something by a black or a white South African?

In the end, largely because I realised I couldn’t think of a book by a black South African author I’d read, apart from Mandela’s autobiography – whereas Gordimer, Trapido and Coetzee are regular guests in my imaginary universe – I decided to go with a black author and plumped for Siphiwo Mahala’s intriguing-sounding African Delights. 

Spanning the mid-late twentieth century, this irreverent, gutsy and absorbing collection of interlinked stories paints a picture of life in the townships and luxury districts of South Africa. From witty, local tales of men’s attempts to cover their infidelities, as in ‘The Suit Stories’, to parabolic portraits of the betrayal of the nation for short-term gain in the title story, the pieces span South African society, weaving a complex, rich and vibrant picture of this land of contradictions and unsettled scores.

Mahala’s conversational style is one of the keys to the book’s success. From the very first page, he casts us as characters in his stories so that reading his words is like sitting down at the kitchen table with the protagonists as they tell you the latest gossip, reaching over now and then to tap you playfully on the arm – ‘Ag man, I forgot that you young people wouldn’t know those dresses,’ says the narrator of the first story, for example, as he attempts to describe a girl who caught his eye.

This familiarity combines with a winning audacity to make many of Mahala’s characters irresistibly likeable even as they cheat, lie and pull the wool over other people’s eyes. In ‘Hunger’, for example, an impoverished student’s attempts to impress a Danish woman with his family connections are very funny:

‘”Yes, he’s my grandfather,” I said. Traditionally speaking, I was telling the truth. Mandela shared the same clan name as my grandmother, and that made him my grandfather. But the closest I had come to meeting him was seeing him on TV.’

Behind the bravado, wit and ingenuity, however, lurks a starker, darker truth. Shaded into the background of every story is the monstrous injustice of a society weighted heavily against more than half its citizens on racial grounds. Sometimes this is present only in the fleeting choice of which road to run down after dark because ‘a black man fleeing with a parcel tucked under his arm […] could make a perfect shooting target’. At other times it erupts into the midst of stories, dragging lives off course, as in ‘White Encounters’, in which a maid loses her job for bringing her sick child to work and allowing him to play with the houseowner’s son.

Mahala, however, is careful not to allow his stories to become tales of us and them. Told from a variety of contradictory perspectives, which often see the narrators taking issue with one another’s descriptions of events, they are instead tales of me and me and me. We discover that the pious radio pastor of the previous story is running a racket and that the wronged woman is secretly pregnant with another man’s child. Or are they?

Memorable, fearless and funny, Mahala’s characters burst off the page. While apartheid may have engendered ‘a lingering bond that always brought [Africans] together’, Mahala’s stories prove that it did nothing to erase the individuality of those it sought to oppress. As this life-affirming and engrossing book shows us, nothing is ever truly black and white.

African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala (Jacana Media 2011)

Ecuador: righteous anger

Novels with messages are hard to do well. Even the best writers can become worthy bores when they set out to change people’s minds about something, turning their rounded characters into two-dimensional puppets jerking on the strings of their social and political beliefs.

No wonder then that my heart sank when I saw the phrase ‘great novel of social protest’ in the foreword to the rather ancient edition of The Villagers by Jorge Icaza, which winged its way to me from one of the independent sellers on Amazon. Clearly this was going to be a barrel of laughs.

At first glance, a summary of the plot seemed to back up my misgivings. Set in the remote Ecuadorian jungle, the novel describes landowner Don Alfonso Pereira’s project to build a new road through the swamps, documenting the hardships and mistreatment of the indigenous ‘Indian’ tribes forced to sacrifice their labour, lands and lives to the endeavour. Cheated, abused, starved and exploited by the magnates who buy and sell them with the territory, the Indians endure more and more extreme sufferings, until at last one of them, Andres, is pushed over the limit when his partner Cunshi dies, sparking a rebellion with tragic results.

What makes the book great, however, is Icaza’s ingenious approach to his subject matter. Starting the novel with insolvent Don Alfonso undergoing an uncomfortable interview with his creditor uncle, the author turns us through 180 degrees, shifting our sympathies from the harassed landowner to the people he exploits so that by the end of the book we are as impatient for Don Alfonso’s overthrow as the Native Americans are.

Much of this is achieved by the shocking descriptions of callous treatment and cruelty throughout the book. Numerous incidents stand out, from the wet-nurse forced to leave her baby to starve to death while she feeds Don Alfonso’s granddaughter, to the worker pulled to death by ropes thrown round him in an attempt to drag him out of quicksand. In addition, sadistic figures dominate the narrative, such as the one-eyed foreman who has free reign to practice his quack medicine on his charges. His remedy for malaria is particularly nasty: whipping sufferers to run until they collapse and then feeding them a mixture of brandy, herbs, urine from a pregnant woman, lemon juice and ground guinea pig excrement.

Icaza’s insight into the human psyche helps him add depth to these visions of horror, revealing the lies people tell themselves and each other in order to be able to treat fellow human beings like dirt. He shows how greed masquerades as progress and callousness dresses itself up as discipline in the minds of the oppressors. Perhaps most memorable of all is the role of the church in perpetuating the fear and poverty of the Indians, oozing hypocrisy at every pore, as in the scene where Andres goes to try to find a plot in the graveyard for Cunshi and has the pricing structure of the different areas explained to him by the priest:

‘These unpainted wooden crosses belong to the poor cholos and Indians. As you can easily understand they are a little far from the sanctuary, and the prayers sometimes reach them and sometimes don’t. God’s mercy, which is infinite” (the priest made another bow and another salute with his birreta and with his eyes) “has destined these unhappy souls to go to Purgatory. You, my dear Chiliquinga, know what the tortures of Purgatory are like. They’re worse than those of Hell.’

At times, the narrative can be a little hard to follow. While Andres and Cunshi are fully realised, many of the rest of the Native Americans remain shadowy, faceless figures who don’t step off the page. This is exacerbated by Icaza’s stylistic fondness for strange streams of dialogue, in which a myriad of unidentified voices comment on an event as it happens.

But these are small quibbles. All in all, though, this is an extraordinary novel, which forces the reader to confront the chilling capacity of an ordinary person to delude him or herself into sanctioning horrific acts. It reaches beyond the specific social issues of its time to reveal truths about humankind and still resonates 80 years on from its publication. A powerful reminder of what storytelling can do.

The Villagers (Huasipungo) by Jorge Icaza, translated from the Spanish by Bernard Dulsey (Arcturus Paperbacks, 1974)

Chad: written out

April was a proud month for A Year of Reading the World. The Scotsman published an article about it, UNESCO featured it on its list of World Book Day initiatives and I got to write a piece for the Guardian books website about some of the highlights and challenges of armchair adventuring so far.

One of the best things about all the excitement was the flood of new visitors it brought to my little corner of the web and the book leads they brought with them. A couple of them even solved countries I thought would be tricky in a single message.

Writer Mark Staniforth was one of these people. He had recently written his own post on a book from Chad as part of the excellent Africa Reading Challenge and was more than happy to share the details with me. As I had made up my mind from my preliminary research that getting a book in translation from this impoverished and troubled country (the Fund for Peace even goes so far as to call it a Failed State) was going to be a mission, Staniforth’s lead seemed too good to be true.

It seems I wasn’t the only one conscious of Chad’s bad rap. Writer and politician Joseph Brahim Seid, who was Minister for Justice until two years before his death in 1980, was clearly sensible of it too – so much so that he sets out to give a very different account of his homeland in his slender short story collection Told by Starlight in Chad.

As the title and romantic preface suggest, the book paints an idyllic picture of rural life in the war-torn country. Drawing on scenes from Seid’s childhood, snatches of folklore and history, and the author’s own imaginings, the tales weave a rich tapestry that is by turns deceptively simple and strange.

Often, there is a fable-like quality to the stories, which, though set ‘in the days when miracles and wonders were still common among us’, frequently contain lessons readers can apply to the modern world. We hear of creation myths that summon pride in the beauty and long history of the country and its peoples, disputes among animals that are strangely reminiscent of human politics, and an ancestor’s shadow that continues to haunt the Bulala warriors to this day.

Some of the morals and conclusions are intriguingly alien to the Western eye. ‘Nidjema, the Little Orphan Girl’, for example, sees an abused runaway return to endure her foster mother’s beatings because ‘in this life happiness consists in being virtuous’. However, there are points of contact. The last story of ‘The Misanthropic King’, for example, in which King Choua passes his powers to his people only for them to end up under a tyrant once more, is a fascinating dissection of the steps by which a democracy becomes an oligarchy and then a dictatorship in the absence of proper accountability and controls.

As the book goes on, more and more characters emerge from the stories. However, there is a strangely faceless, flat quality to many of the groups and people in the tales, as though they are types instead of fully realised individuals. This may be partly explained by the eulogy to the oral tradition that begins the final story:

‘As far back in time as men can remember, albeit they forget very fast, the oral tradition is there to remind them constantly of events that happened before they were born. Its elasticity and capacity for changing and evolving allows the tradition to yield to the exigencies of the moment; it adapts according to the place and the time in which the individuals live. And thus it guarantees the orderly continuation of custom, linking the past to the present and the present to the future.’

This evocation of the flexibility of the oral tradition inevitably shows up the somewhat stilted quality of some of Seid’s tales. Caught between the spoken stories the author remembers affectionately and the written canon of his formal education, they feel like butterflies pinned to the page: trapped forever in a particular form and robbed of the fluid motion that is also part of their essence. They are fascinating specimens, but you can’t help feeling they are, for the most part, display models rather than living, breathing creations. The real heartbeat of Chadian storytelling, it seems, throbs elsewhere.

Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid, translated from the French by Karen Haire Hoenig (Africa World Press, Inc, 2007)

Germany: now and then

The question of who decides which of the many millions of books in other languages make it into English has fascinated me since I started to plan this project to read a book from every country in the world in 2012. As confirmed by a recent seminar on ‘Gatekeepers’ at the London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Centre, it’s a complex chicken-and-egg sort of issue that depends on who you think drives trends in publishing – publishers, readers, critics, translators or someone else entirely?

One person who was also at the Gatekeepers seminar was translator Katy Derbyshire (although I didn’t know this until a former colleague, translator Cathy Kerkhoff-Saxon, introduced us a few weeks later and we made the connection). Based in Berlin, Derbyshire has recently set up a book group for publisher And Other Stories, a small indie house that prides itself on sourcing great literature from some way off the beaten track.

The purpose behind the group, as she explained to me, is to use German literature fans to assess titles and recommend which ones the company should sign up for English translation. And Other Stories is, as far as she knows, the first publisher to work in this way and since the company was founded in 2010 it has built a reputation for putting out high-quality and innovative titles. Now Derbyshire hopes that her group of around 13 exchange students, translators and writers (most of them not native German speakers) will contribute to the growth of the company’s list by picking out works different to the clichéd German ‘Nazi novels’ that many UK publishers lean towards.

The connection with Derbyshire was doubly surprising because And Other Stories had sent me one of the first books she translated for them only a few weeks prior to the London Book Fair. With the powers that be seemingly conspiring to steer me towards this particular title, it seemed perverse to choose anything else.

Peopled with outsiders and underdogs, Clemens Meyer’s Leipzig Book Fair Prize-winning short story collection All the Lights puts society’s misfits centre stage. From the boxer on a losing streak to the unemployed loner whose world has shrunk to the letters he receives describing a long-lost friend’s adventures in South America, the characters in Meyer’s universe are all diminished, saddened versions of their younger selves, often set against the unforgiving backdrop of post-unification East Germany.

Many have retreated into paranoia, as in ‘The Shotgun , the Street Lamp and Mary Monroe’, in which a mentally ill addict mutters to himself in the living room up the hall from the bedroom where his girlfriend lies, ominously still:

‘I need a strong heart so I don’t go back to my shoes. In my shoes, out in the hall. I’ve hidden something in there under the orthopaedic insole, it’s a sort of emergency supply, but I don’t need it anymore, I’ll chuck it down the toilet later and flush it away, but actually an emergency supply’s only for a real emergency, and I’m sure that won’t happen now, and if it does I’ll stick it out, so I might as well just leave the stuff in my shoe.’

Meyer’s minimalist style (rendered through Derbyshire’s deft translation) enables him to cram words with significance, changing the mood in a clause and sketching a backstory in a sentence. This means that he can evoke extremely powerful and often surprising responses in the reader. ‘Of Dogs and Horses’, for example, in which we spend the story anticipating one kind of disaster only for the rug to be pulled from under us in quite another way in the final ten words, is devastating. Similarly, in ‘Fatty Loves’, we find ourselves in the unusual position of pitying a middle-aged teacher dismissed for an inappropriate relationship with a young girl.

This minimalism combines with a jagged chronology in which time jumps like a scratched record, hurling the characters back and forth between the present and the years gone by. With hints of missed connections between the stories – the same description of a girl’s teeth cropping up twice leading us to wonder whether the adult in one story is the same as the girl in ‘Fatty Loves’, familiar hints of the school sports field, and the humming of fridges in several lonely flats – this creates a powerful sense of wistfulness, as though other, better possibilities are forever unfolding slightly out of reach.

Once or twice the structure becomes a tad baggy as a result, as in ‘Riding the Rails’, the least successful story in the collection, in which a pair of ex-cons lose themselves in a rent-boy scam. For the most part though, it is incredibly skilfully handled.

Stuart Evers writes in his introduction that the stories reveal ‘the terrifying possibility of now’, but there is a sepia tint to Meyer’s lens that undercuts this statement. These tales take place in a world where people are woken by digital clocks rather than mobile phone alarms, where they make calls from phone boxes, write letters, and think in Deutschmarks, and where the tentacles of the internet have yet to penetrate. Seen in this light, the works are more about the tragic properties of ‘then’ than the possibilities of now. But Meyer’s achievement is to make that ‘then’ belong to all of us, whether we lived through it or not. Outstanding.

All the Lights by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (And Other Stories, 2011)