Can you help me read the world?

In 2012, the world is coming to London for the Olympics and I’m going out to meet it. I’m planning to read my way around as many of the globe’s 196 countries (yes, I count Taiwan) as I can, sampling one book from every nation.

I want to read a story from Swaziland, a novel from Nepal, a book from Bolivia, a… well, you get the picture.

It’s going to be tough — according to the Society of Authors, only 3 per cent of the books published in the UK each year are translations. There are plenty of languages that have next to nothing translated into English. Then there are all the tiny tucked away places like Nauru and Tavalu (I know, I hadn’t either), where there may not be much written down at all.

Some countries have a culture of almost exclusively oral storytelling (alright, get your giggles over with now). Others have governments that don’t like to let works of art leak out to corrupt westerners.

And that’s not to mention the whole issue of what constitutes a national literature in the first place. Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in the country? Can it be about another nation state?

Frankly I don’t know. I’m hoping I’ll figure out the answers (or at least my answers) to some of these questions en route.

What I do know is I can’t do it by myself. As anyone who’s dropped in on my A year of reading women blog will realise, I tend to stick mostly to British and North American writers, with the occasional South African, Australian and Indian thrown in. My knowledge of world literature is shamefully anglocentric.

So I need your help. I need you to tell me what’s hot in Russia, what’s cool in Malawi, and what’s downright smoking in Iceland. I hope to get as good a list together as possible in advance so I can hit the ground sprinting come New Year’s Day.

The books can be classics or current favourites. They can be obscure folk tales or commercial triumphs. All I ask is that they capture something of the character of a country somewhere in the world — oh, and that they’re good.

With thanks to Jason Cooper for the idea.

Picture by Steve Lennon

When is a country not a country?

One of the first challenges I had to face when starting to prepare for my project to read a book from every country in 2012 was to decide exactly what I meant by ‘country’. Having grown up in the UK, where there’s always someone talking about making a bid for independence – whether it’s Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Yorkshire or some of the feistier parts of south-east London – I had an inkling that this might be trickier than it first appeared.

But it wasn’t until I typed ‘number of countries in the world’ into Google that I realised quite what I was letting myself in for.

There are a lot of conflicting answers to the question. The UN has 193 members. There will be 205 countries represented at the London 2012 Olympic Games. And all in all there are at least 258 national flags in the world today (see the video below, which has 257 of them apart from the one for South Sudan, the world’s newest country, which declared independence from Sudan in July 2011).

Then there are the stateless nations, like the Kurds, who define themselves as a separate group but don’t have a territory to call their own. I’m not sure if anyone has counted these up, but I get the impression that the number of these depends on where you stand.

A lot of the issues have to do with the definition of what we mean by a sovereign state. As set out in the Montevideo Convention, sovereign statehood essentially boils down to having a permanent population, defined borders, a government and dealings with other states. You’re a state if you say you are and the people in and around you agree. But as the nightly news will tell you, this is often not as simple as it sounds.

The list I’m working from now comprises all UN-recognised countries plus Palestine and Taiwan. When I started the project, I was using what seemed to be the most universally accepted list of sovereign states out there. This included all UN-recognised countries, plus Kosovo. I took the liberty of adding Taiwan to this because it used to be a member of the UN and still maintains relations with many countries. This gave me a grand total of 196.

However as the project went on, I realised the list I’d been using was actually based on states recognised by Western countries such as the US. Given that this is a global project, this seemed a little wonky.

So I decided to change the world (there’s a phrase I’ve always wanted to write) and use a list of states with some degree of recognition (past or present) from the UN as a more global barometer of statehood. Counting permanent observer and ‘non-member entity’ Palestine and Taiwan, this came to 196 too and in practice only meant swapping Palestine for Kosovo on the list.  So this is what I did – not purely to save myself work, but also because as far as I could see recognition by this global organisation was one of the clearest and most universally agreed upon definitions of countryhood around.

It’s by no means a perfect system though and it will mean odd omissions from my list, like Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, both of which, despite having quite distinct cultures and histories are technically territories of other states. Still, it’s the best I’ve got to go on for now. And it will certainly keep me busy.

Please do keep the suggestions of titles coming – I’m going to need all the help I can get!

This post was updated on 10 June 2012 to reflect my decision to include Palestine in Kosovo’s stead on the list.

Translation: what does it all mean?

Some people say you should only read books in their original languages. This may be because they believe a particular text is inherently sacred – as in the case of the Quran – or because they are worried about bias and erroneous interpretations creeping in Chinese whispers-style when a third party gets between writer and reader. It can also be down to concerns about the difficulty of translating idioms, images and ideas that are specific to particular cultures (see writer Miguel Fernandes Ceia’s recent blog post for The Independent).

However there is often an element of snobbishness mixed up in this view too. Culture, we seem to think, shouldn’t come easy. It should be hard work and anything that threatens to make it more accessible is not quite cricket — a bit like someone refusing to have Brussel sprouts with their turkey on Christmas day.

There was definitely more than a hint of this in my mind when I started to think about my challenge to read a book from every country in 2012. Being able to read (slowly and with a very big dictionary) in French and German, I felt it was only right that I should take on stories from Francophone and German-speaking countries in their original languages. This would enable me to access the texts in their purest form (and allow me to show off how clever I am).

Then a kindly linguist pointed out that reading in other languages would miss the point. If this blog was about one person in London trying to access all of world literature, she said, it should stick to texts in the language that most Londoners can read: English.

After a bit of headscratching, I realised she was right. After all, if I truly believed that only reading done in the original language really counted then what was I doing trying to read my way around the world? Even with my impressive trilingualism (erhem), surely such a view would mean that I was only really able to access a very tiny percentage of what the world had to offer? And besides did I honestly believe that my schoolgirl French would provide a fuller, more meaningful reading experience than a translation researched and crafted by a professional linguist? 

In fact the more I thought about it, the more vital translation seemed to be to people around the world having a hope of understanding where others are coming from. And the more scandalous it seemed that even despite the excellent work of organisations such as the Society of Authors’ Translators AssociationEnglish PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation (all of which have already been hugely supportive of this project) translated texts only make up 3 per cent of published works in the UK each year. (In fact, as English PEN’s Emma Cleave told me, even the figure of 3 per cent, which is quoted in pretty much any article you read about literary translation, is probably exaggerated — no one’s sure where it originated, so if you’ve got any idea we’d all love to know!)

Then there’s the fact that, as more books are sold in English than in any other language (according to English PEN and Free Word’s Global Translation Initiative Report), we are putting writers in other languages at a huge disadvantage by failing to translate all but a handful of the great foreign language works out there — particularly when the works of English language writers are so widely translated. The excellent Cairo-based blogger M. Lynx Qualey (another valued supporter of this project) wrote eloquently on this subject recently for the Egypt Independent.

So the long and short of it is that I am embracing translation. I am reading only in English and I make no apologies for it. I want to hear about all the latest, best and most exciting translations and the quirky, little-known ones too. I don’t care if something has been through three or four languages to get to me; I don’t care if you’ve translated it and sent me the text yourself (in fact I’d love that). If a work’s good, then it’s better that it has a chance to reach as wide an audience as possible instead of staying forever closed off to millions of people.

Keep the suggestions of books coming in — this is getting exciting…

What counts as a story?

It seemed so simple: read one book from every country in the world in 2012. What could possibly be confusing about that?

But as soon as I started to plan the project in earnest, the questions started coming in. Was I including poetry? What about plays? And memoirs? Where did I stand on biographies? Did journalism count? Did the books have to be contemporary?

I realised I was going to have to define my terms a little more carefully.

A lot of the people I spoke to about this project felt that I should stick to prose fiction. This was my first instinct too. After all, novels, novellas and short stories are the main media for storytelling, aren’t they? Surely I should keep a level playing field between all countries by reading only one particular kind of book?

But as time went on, I got more and more recommendations for intriguing books that wouldn’t fit that mould and found myself getting frustrated. I heard of literary award-winning journalism that had led to bounties being placed on writers’ heads and biographies detailing extraordinary lives, and I wanted to read them.

There were also books that straddled several genres. Dr Ruth Martin, who recommended Elias Canetti’s autobiographical work The Torch in My Ear for Austria, for example, wrote in her comment that ‘the writing is wonderfully literary and he does “embellish” the truth a little’. One man’s memoir might just be another man’s fairytale…

I also realised that, while prose fiction may be fairly ubiquitous, it’s by no means native to every culture. In fact, in places where stories tend to be passed on verbally, narrative poems may be much truer reflections of literature there.

The question of contemporaneity also gave me a dilemma or two. Much like M Lynx Qualey, who very kindly wrote a blog post setting out her recommendations for Arabic literature in translation,  I was tempted to keep to recent texts. But when Dr Valerie Henitiuk of the British Centre for Literary Translation told me that her all-time favourite translation was Sonja Arntzen’s rendering of the 10th century Japanese Kagero Diary, there was no way I was going to bar it from the list.

So, after chewing it over for a while, I decided that I would count all narratives that could be read to full effect by one reader on their own. This means memoirs, novels, short stories, novellas, biographies, narrative poems and reportage are in and, with regret, non-narrative poetry and plays are out.

I also decided that while I would stick to mainly contemporary stories, I wanted to leave the door open for fantastic blasts from the past. The one condition is that the works have to have been created when the country was in existence in something like its modern-day form.

So if you know of an outstanding eighth century Swedish epic, or an intriguing narrative poem from Tuvalu, now’s your chance to tell the world (well, me, at least) about it. Keep the suggestions coming in – there are still quite a few gaps on that there list…

Blogcast: Final preparations

So this is it: less than 48 hours to go until the great adventure begins. The shelf is ready and the list is groaning with suggestions of books from more than 110 countries (just 86 or so left to find — let me know if you can help… or if you’ve got an idea for a better title than the ones on my list).

Already the first consignment of books is peering down at me as I type, ooh, and producer Chris Elcombe has put together this blogcast about the project…

With thanks to Steve Lennon for the shelf pic.

South Sudan: the first New Year


New Year is a time for fresh starts. And they don’t come much fresher than in South Sudan, where, since declaring independence from Sudan in July 2011, the leaders of the world’s most recently declared sovereign state have been getting to grips with all the challenges that come with establishing a brand new country from scratch.

As I discovered when I interviewed senior civil servant Deng Gach Pal around the time of independence, these challenges are particularly formidable in South Sudan. Ravaged by 21 years of civil war, much of the country lacks the most basic infrastructure, with roads, schools and hospitals few and far between. In fact, when I phoned the country last month, I still had to use the old Sudanese dialling code to get through. And as today’s sad reports of infighting have shown, even peace itself is brittle and intermittent.

Small wonder, then that, as far as I could discover there has been little, if any, literature published in the country’s short history (under the terms of this project anything published before the date the country was established would not count).

I did find some mention of a Writers’ Association of South Sudan on the internet, but beyond their draft constitution, dated 8 July 2011, I couldn’t find any more information about them (if any South Sudanese creative writers would like to get in touch, it would be great to hear about what it’s like building a national literature from the ground up).

So I was honoured and delighted when the Chair of the Civil Service Recruitment Board in South Sudan, Julia Duany, agreed to write and record a story for the launch of this project. A former refugee and research associate at the University of Indiana, Duany published her memoirs Making Peace and Nurturing Life: Memoir of an African Woman about a Journey of Struggle and Hope in 2003. She returned to South Sudan in 2005 to help prepare for independence, spending five years as Undersecretary in the Ministry for Parliamentary Affairs.

Here, reading in English, South Sudan’s official language, Duany remembers the aftermath of the conflict that she describes as a ‘pantomime of hell’ in her homeland and looks forward with hope to a brighter future as the South Sudanese celebrate their first ever New Year.

‘To Forgive is Divine Not Human’ by Julia Duany. Publisher: (2012)

Austria: compacted meaning


They say that good things come in small packages, and, with literature from 196 countries to read and blog about this year, I’m inclined to agree. So I was particularly pleased when the first book for this project arrived, courtesy of a recommendation from Heide Kunzelmann at the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature, to find that it was a mere 123 pages long.

Slender though it may be, Frozen Time rivals many a weightier tome for depth and scope. Written by South Korean-born Anna Kim, who moved to Austria from Germany aged seven and regards German as her mother tongue, the narrative follows a young researcher in Vienna’s Red Cross Tracing Service as she attempts to help a Kosovan man discover what happened to his wife during the war in former Yugoslavia.

The narrator finds herself drawn more and more into the man’s trauma, and, as the lines in their professional relationship become blurred, she is forced to confront unfinished business of her own in Kosovo.

Kim is one of those rare writers who manage to combine economy of language with rich significance. At times she condenses so much meaning into her spare sentences that they feel more like poetry than prose. This impression is strengthened by the way the layout and structure of the text reflect the shredding effects of loss on a psyche: sentences tail off into dashes, paragraphs hang broken on the page and the narrative leaps between times and perspectives, as though unable to stay focused on any one train of thought for long.

Kim’s presentation of the way trauma plays out in the mind is equally impressive. From the horrific images and memories that crash into mundane activities, to the paranoid projections that twist the memory of the beloved (reminiscent at times of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances), she provides a masterclass in dysfunction.

Translator Michael Mitchell writes about the difficulty of rendering some of the subtleties of meaning in the text — in particular the shift between the formal German ‘you’ (Sie) and the informal version (du) — in his introduction. Nevertheless, he has created a powerful version in which the frequent modulations between registers of language (formal, professional, intimate and child-like) mirror the mental shifts the text describes. Highly recommended.

Frozen Time by Anna Kim (translated from the German by Michael Mitchell). Publisher (this edition): Ariadne Press (2010)

Syria: the power of words


‘Don’t squander your precious words… Words are responsibility’

I had my doubts about this one. Having picked it up on a whim in Foyle’s (which makes it one of the handful of books I’ll be reading this year that are easily available on the UK high street), I began to question its authenticity as an example of Syrian literature when I realised it had been written in German.

After all, I’d had so many intriguing recommendations for literature written in Arabic that it seemed hard to justify deviating from those for the sake of what may turn out to be a sort of hybrid fiction, caught between the Arab and Western worlds.

In fact award-winning author Rafik Schami, who emigrated from Syria to Germany at the age of 25 and holds dual nationality, makes the difficulty of telling stories across cultures one of the themes of this book. Incorporating the tales told by the seven friends of Salim the coachman, Damascus’s best storyteller, in an effort to lift an enchantment that has struck him dumb, his witty and engrossing narrative includes a discourse from Tuma the emigrant, who, having lived in America for 10 years, attempts to explain his time in the West to his friends.

Describing how he found it difficult to speak in the US (‘How are you going to talk to people who don’t have the faintest idea about the things that really matter to you?’), he then goes on to discover similar difficulties in trying to interpret Western culture for his friends. In the end, frustrated by their repeated dismissal of his words as ‘fairytales’, he decides to lie instead.

At this point, it’s hard not to picture Schami smirking at his typewriter (he wrote this in 1989), and to wonder how much of the colour of the Damascus he describes, ‘a city where legends and pistachio pastries are but two of a thousand and one delights’, is shaded in for the benefit of his European readers.

But what cuts through this playful jousting with truth is a sense of the crucial importance of communication. Storytelling is a vital force in the novel: it’s the way that cafe owners keep their customers coming back each day, how deals are done and friendships cemented and, in many of the stories, a matter of life and death. What matters is not the truth or otherwise of what is related but that it is related.

Set in 1959 against the uneasy backdrop of the United Arab Republic, a union between Syria and Nasser’s Egypt, which saw the region awash with secret police and transistor radios designed to allow the government ‘to proclaim the one and only valid truth’ because ‘governments in Syria, without exception, made a habit of proclaiming peace and order just when they were on the verge of collapse’, the novel’s presentation of the need for a plurality of voices and accounts is deeply moving. It finds its echo in the events of today and deserves to be read in the West, the Middle East and throughout the world.

Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami (translated from the German by Philip Boehm). Publisher (this edition): Arabia Books (2011)

Portugal: a moral dilemma

If you could make yourself rich beyond your wildest imaginings by ringing a bell would you do it?

What if ringing that bell caused the death of someone you’d never met on the other side of the world?

Such is the dilemma facing the unlikely hero Teodoro, an impoverished scribe at Portugal’s of Internal Affairs and Education department, in the title of story of this collection by Portuguese writer José Maria Eça de Queiroz.

Confronted with this choice (a reworking of the ‘mandarin paradox’ first posed by French writer Chateaubriand in 1802) late one night after a Mephistophelian character appears in his bedroom, Teodoro gives in, half-believing that he is dreaming. Then a messenger arrives with bank drafts making over the fortune of recently deceased Mandarin Ti Chin-Fu to him, setting in motion a carnival of excess and guilt that ultimately leads to our hero travelling to China in an attempt to make amends for what he has done.

Eça de Queiroz is widely hailed as Portugal’s greatest 19th century novelist, yet there is a freshness to his writing which makes it seem much more recent. Where English authors such as Hardy and Dickens point to the loosening grip of Church teachings on the popular imagination, Eça de Queiroz comes right out with the assertion that ‘Heaven and Hell are social concepts created for the sole use of the lower classes’, albeit hedged round with the private superstitions and blindspots of each of his characters: self-professed atheist Teodoro, for example, makes regular offerings to his patron saint, our Lady of Sorrows.

In addition, the difficulties Teodoro encounters trying to repay his moral debts to the community he has wronged find echoes in many of the debates about global development and aid today. Initially hoping to salve his conscience by making a donation to the state, he is warned off this course of action by the Russian ambassador in words that might have been spoken yesterday (if not in relation to China):

‘Those millions would never reach the imperial Treasury. They would line the bottomless pockets of the ruling classes. They would be frittered away… They would not help to relieve the hunger of a single ordinary Chinese person… They would merely contribute to the continuance of the whole Asian orgy.’

This freshness, blended with lyricism and spiced with sardonic insights into the hypocrisy and blindness of humanity, flavours the whole collection. Playful and experimental, Eça de Queiroz  delights in turning on his readers at points, challenging them with the same quandaries he poses his characters, a technique he takes to its limits in the final story ‘José Matias’ by putting the narrative in the second person, thereby plonking the reader into the carriage right next to the narrator. Even the least successful piece in the collection ‘ The Idiosyncrasies of a Young Blonde Woman’, which is more of an extended character sketch than a fully realised story, is lively and compelling.

I shall return Eça de Queiroz (probably in about 2020, when I get through the backlog of all the other wonderful things I’m stumbling past during this attempt to read the world). Thanks to Silvia for the recommendation and for lending me the book.

The Mandarin and Other Stories by José Maria Eça de Queiroz (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa). Publisher (this edition): Dedalus (2009)

Bulgaria: buzz buzz


I had a book lined up for Bulgaria. I was going to read Elias Canetti‘s The Tongue Set Free. It was in my bag and everything.

Then I discovered a copy of Georgi Gospodinov ‘s Natural Novel in the excellent indie bookstore McNally Jackson in New York City (where I’m staying for a week or so, hence the different bookshelf) and it sounded so intriguing that I had to buy it and read it there and then.

Normally at this point in a post, I’d give a brief rundown of what the book’s about. I’m stuck here, I’m afraid because, as the narrator, one Georgi Gospodinov, writes in the fictional ‘Editor’s note’ that pops up after chapter 2, ‘the novel itself could hardly be summarized’.

The throughline, such as it is, is the mental disintegration of the protagonist, another Georgi Gospodinov, after a divorce. But to say that seems to reduce the narrative and squash it back on to the page when it is a living, breathing, alarming entity that leaps around the room, in and out of your brain, helping itself to your insecurities.

As his psyche splinters, the writer/narrator gives himself over to experimentation, trying everything from a novel based solely on the beginnings of classic works and a novel written only in verbs to the Bible according to flies (‘The Book of Flies’) and a disquisition on the artistic significance of toilets.

As in several other books I’ve read so far, the ubiquity of Western culture is evident with The Kinks, Reservoir Dogs, Elvis Presley, Daniel Defoe, J.D Salinger and Shakespeare all featuring (along with many others). But here, instead of a sinister, controlling force, it seems rather to be an amusette or smogasbord for Gospodinov to pick at, pull apart and reconfigure as he pleases, often to startling effect.

Essentially, this book is about itself. Fly-like it lights on and digests its own events, regurgitating them in altered form for reconsideration. However, unlike much postmodern literature, it doesn’t take itself wholly seriously. Anarchic and subversive, the narrative bristles with jokes. It pokes fun at me, at you, at them and most of all at itself, while opening a door on to a fresh landscape of linguistic possibilities and ushering us all through.

Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov (translated from the Bulgarian by Zornitsa Hristova). Publisher (this edition): Dalkey Archive Press (2005)