Would you like to do an Incomprehension Workshop?

When I set out to read a book from every country in a year nearly a decade ago, I realised something alarming. Many of the techniques and assumptions I learned at school and as a student of English literature at university were of limited use in the face of stories from markedly different traditions and cultures. With only 1.87 days to choose, read and blog about each book I featured on this site in 2012, I had no hope of doing the sort of diligent, contextual study that often unlocked the meaning of texts on my degree course. In the face of books built on drastically different ideas of what storytelling should be or imbued with values far removed from my own, I couldn’t rely on my cultural compass to keep me on track.

The only option was to embrace not knowing. I had to make peace with the fact that I wouldn’t understand everything and try to have a meaningful reading experience in spite of this.

This proved to be a revelation. Indeed, far from being a disadvantage, reading with the awareness that I wasn’t going to be able to make sense of everything set me free to have a much more curious, playful and thought-provoking engagement with texts. The more I went on, the more I discovered that paying attention to what I didn’t know could be a strength, teaching me not only about opportunities for further learning but also about my own conditioning, assumptions and blind spots.

As the years went by, I found myself developing a reading technique that centred rather than sidelined incomprehension. The idea of not knowing became a key thread in how I engaged with books of all kinds, as well as in my interactions with other people and things.

It was so transformative that I began to wonder if this technique might be of interest to others. I started talking about it, testing the idea out with a range of different people, and tweaking and developing it in response to their reactions. The encouragement I received led me to think there might be scope for a workshop on this way of reading and I spent a year or so considering the shape this could take.

During this time, my thoughts kept returning to the comprehension exercises I had done at school – those literature-class staples where you have to answer questions about an extract from a book. As I mentioned in a talk I gave on BBC Radio 4 last year, although these exercises help develop many useful skills, they carry the implication that if you can’t explain everything in a piece of writing you’re failing and that there is some single perfect reading of a text that we should be all be striving towards.

Last month, I was thrilled to be allowed to pilot this idea as part of my role as Literary Explorer in Residence at the UK’s Cheltenham Literature Festival, running my Incomprehension Workshop twice on the Huddle stage. There, two groups of around thirty intrepid readers joined me in some literary off-roading, applying my incomprehension techniques to a series of texts likely to be outside the comfort zone of most anglophone readers.

The discussions that ensued were fascinating. It was wonderful to see people letting go of the fear of failing to understand and instead embracing gaps in knowing as a necessary part of the reading process. We covered so much more than we would have done if we had simply set out to explain and make sense of the texts.

Since the pilot, the idea has continued to grow. I’m delighted to have been invited to run the workshop for some sessions with humanities teachers in the UK.

On the subject of which, in celebration of the ten-year anniversary of my life-changing quest to read a book from every country, I’m offering to run one free virtual Incomprehension Workshop for up to 30 participants anywhere in the world in 2022. If you would like to take part, please leave a comment below or drop me a line (ann[at]annmorgan.me) telling me a little bit about you and why you read. 

Book of the month: Graeme Armstrong

Earlier this month, I had the honour of being Literary Explorer in Residence at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, one of the biggest events in the UK’s literary calendar. Created as part of a three-year focus on the theme ‘Read the World’, my role saw me taking part in 18 events over five days, including launching my new Incomprehension Workshop for adventurous readers and delivering a keynote speech, which you can catch on the #CheltLitFest Player until the end of this year.

The experience led to many memorable moments and fascinating conversations. These included a discussion about crime fiction around the world with international bestseller Ragnar Jónasson, Indian mystery writer Manjiri Prabhu and crime-writing critic and novelist Joan Smith, and an event on what reading the world means with novelist Clare Clark, academic Helen Vassallo, who writes the brilliant Translating Women blog, and translator and social researcher Gitanjali Patel.

I was also delighted to catch up with teams from several of the small publishers my reading adventures have brought me into contact with over the years. Representatives from Istros Books, Charco Press and Europa Editions UK all joined me on the stage in the Huddle to talk about their work championing literature from elsewhere (indeed, the Europa team are in many ways responsible for the continuation of this blog, having prompted me to start my Book of the month slot by persuading me to read the work of a little-known – in English – Italian writer called Elena Ferrante back in 2014).

Of all the conversations I had at Cheltenham, however, one in particular stands out in my mind. It was with Scottish writer Graeme Armstrong, author of the bestselling and award-winning novel The Young Team, only the third UK title I’ve featured in ten years of writing this blog.

Drawing on Armstrong’s experience of gang culture in North Lanarkshire, Scotland, The Young Team tells the story of Azzy Williams, who grows up in a post-industrial wasteland of deprivation, addiction, sectarianism and violence. Narrated by Azzy at the age of 14, 17 and 21, it charts his rise through and eventual fall out of the ranks of the Young Team, taking the reader into the heart of a cycle of neglect and abuse that most mainstream storytelling prefers to ignore.

The book is not an easy read in many senses. In addition to the profanity and violence that fill its pages, it is written in dialect – something that was a key factor in the book being rejected some 300 times before it found a publishing deal. Armstrong explores his desire to write in this way powerfully in his article ‘Standard English is oor Second Language’.

Comparisons to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting are obvious – and indeed Armstrong cites reading that book as one of the key inspirations that prompted him to leave gang life and study to be a writer. However, it’s important not to let the Welsh parallel detract from Armstrong’s achievement: in finding a written framework for his mother tongue (as opposed to the east Scottish dialect of Welsh’s novels), he has not only created a new mode of expression but breathed fresh poetry into written English, even as the language strains and cracks to contain the narrative’s voice. (The audiobook, narrated by Armstrong, adds another level to this, even featuring lusty renditions by the author of several Orange marching songs.)

The writing has an extraordinarily compelling, immersive quality. Whether he’s describing tripping at a rave, acting up in school or beating up members of a rival gang, Armstrong captures all the colours of the experiences he portrays. We feel not only the pain and the pity of many of the situations he presents but the humour too, and even the thrill. (‘That was our Vietnam,’ Armstrong told me someone he knows once said, looking back on their shared years in the gang.)

For Armstrong, though, storytelling is about more than simply evoking experience. Now involved with anti-violence and addiction-recovery campaigns, he makes no secret of his ambition to use his writing to effect change. The novel declares this too: each section begins with a striking statistic or piece of research focusing on violence, suicide, deprivation or addiction levels in his home region. At times, it almost has an essay-like quality, with points made, and then illustrated and backed up by the events that follow.

As a result, the pacing takes on an unusual quality in the second half of the book. The fizz and thrill of the early chapters, as we see the young Azzy embrace gang life, dissipate. Instead of the ratcheting up of tension and pace we might expect in a more traditionally plotted book, the narrative takes on a heavier, more contemplative tone. Armstrong has no intention of providing a neat pay off. We are forced to confront the messy consequences of what has gone before and to dwell with Azzy in the aimless brokenness that leads many in his community to be drained of all hope and vitality at 21, whether we like it or not.

This book is not an easy read, but it was never meant to be. As with the first UK book I featured on this blog back in 2012, albeit in a very different way, it forced me to confront the glaring disparity between my reality and the lives of those only a few hundred miles from my front door – the many worlds my nation contains. Its message is too urgent to be anything but uncomfortable. After all, as someone remarked after my conversation with Armstrong in Cheltenham, not many book festival events end with the sentence: ‘Literature saved my life.’

The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong (Picador, 2020)

Book of the month: Alicia Yáñez Cossío

This was a recommendation from Fran, an Ecuadorian who stopped by this blog a few weeks ago to add some suggestions to the list.

First published in 1985 and brought into English by translator Amalia Gladhart some twenty years later, The Potbellied Virgin follows the political wrangles surrounding a small wooden icon in an unnamed town in the Andes. This strangely shaped representation of the Mother of the Christian God is the repository of local pride and virtue (as well as a secret that comes to light in the course of the novel) and is controlled by a group of local matriarchs from the landowning Benavides clan. Led by the formidable Doña Carmen, president of the Sisterhood of the Bead on the Gown of the Potbellied Virgin, these women watch over the virgins nominated to dress and prepare the icon for each of the many festivals and rituals built around it. But when communism begins to sweep neighbouring regions, stirring up dissent among the less fortunate residents of the town, the women will need more than prayer to maintain their dominance.

This is a book about female power warped and poisoned by a patriarchal, classist and racist system. The narrative refers at one point to the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and the parallels between the play’s eponymous heroine and Doña Carmen are clear. The same dessication of youth and cramping of development that plagues Bernarda Alba’s captive daughters shows in the frustrated virgins who fall under her sway. Similarly, the deployment of proverbs, which  run through the narrative like a kind of psychic chorus, creates a memorable impression of the internalised, punitive voices that limit and direct women’s actions.

Unlike Bernarda Alba, however, Yáñez Cossío’s matriarch does not focus on shutting the world out but on subverting and controlling it. The author shows this in astonishing detail, swooping in on the key moments in which characters manipulate and better one another to show minds shifting and changing beat by beat. Time and again, we see the downtrodden tempted to act against their best interests in the name of short-term security, exhaustion and disillusionment.

What’s more, we feel it too. Yáñez Cossío and Gladhart’s writing is so precise and vivid that, within a handful of sentences, we are taken into the deepest concerns and emotions of figures who often appear only fleetingly in the narrative. The death of the new magistrate at the hands of his former friends is a particularly striking piece of writing. This account of some of his final thoughts is a powerful sample:

‘… he sees with his own bulging eyes the bad movie of his life, its grotesque presence in full color. And he wants to cry because it is a ridiculously sad movie, it’s an interminable melodrama, and the protagonist is a small-town man who would have liked to have had so many things, and would have liked to live in a different fashion and to have died in his own bed with that unknown something that he never had and which is now set aside and he needs it. And he is filled with shame and nostalgia at never having had it, not because he didn’t want it, but because he was never allowed, because if he had had that which is called dignity, he wouldn’t be stretched out on the strangely fresh grass now, although he thinks at the same time that with dignity he and his children would have starved to death.’

Although it centres on life in a small, nameless town, the narrative has an epic quality. It sweeps across the decades in a single piece, unbroken by chapters, like the train of a richly embroidered gown, snagging now and then just long enough for particular details to catch the eye before jerking forward again. This grand quality has the effect of augmenting the bathos of some of the novel’s more ignominious and ridiculous episodes, but it also lends the work a timeless, majestic air.

For readers from other traditions, some of the rhetoric  (in particular, the habit of rehearsing the same mechanism of undercutting expectations over a series of consecutive paragraphs) may feel overblown. It is also intriguing to note which terms the publisher chose to italicise and explain in the glossary, and which they left undefined (often a keen tell on who the production team envisages the reader to be). I found myself having to freewheel over passages with extensive lists of local foodstuffs, materials and practices, although this may not be such an issue for readers in Texas, who may well have more knowledge of Latin American traditions than I do.

Luckily though, this book is more than equal to accommodating sporadic, superficial slippages in comprehension. The narrative glides along like the current of a mighty river, carrying readers with it, however they flail. Irresistible and powerful.

The Potbellied Virgin (La cofradía del mullo del vestido de la Virgen Pipona) by Alicia Yáñez Cossío, translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart (University of Texas Press, 2006)

Conversations with translators: Sarah Ardizzone

For the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of being an interviewer for the ‘Writers Aloud’ podcast produced by the Royal Literary Fund. This has given me the opportunity to go and record conversations with a range of the fascinating biographers, poets, non-fiction writers, novelists and playwrights who have held RLF fellowships.

The latest interview to be released was particularly special for me: I have wanted to meet Sarah Ardizzone since I read Just Like Tomorrow, her translation of Faïza Guène’s Kiffe kiffe demain, as my choice for France back in 2012. A translator with an impressive track record of bringing stories outside the mainstream of French literature into English, Ardizzone inspires me with her longstanding commitment to amplifying underrepresented voices and broadening the range of Francophone works available to anglophone readers. (Her translation of Bessora & Barroux’s graphic novel, Alpha: Abidjan to Garde du Nord, a Book of the month of mine back in 2019, is a great example of this.)

Released in two parts, the conversation on the podcast covers a lot of ground. The first episode focuses on the challenge of finding equivalencies for slang and dialect, the lengths Ardizzone went to in bringing Guène’s work into English and the responsibilities that come with working with literature from traditionally marginalised communities. I was particularly interested to hear about the concept of ‘dosage’ – the level of idiomatic language a writer chooses to include in their work – and the loaded significance of the double ‘f’ in Kiffe kiffe demain.

The second part draws on Ardizzone’s experiences studying with the world-renowned French acting movement coach Jacques Lecoq at his eponymous Paris theatre school and explores how performance feeds into her translations. It also touches on how a shift in the way publishers handle markers of difference on the page may reveal a greater acceptance of diversity in storytelling and the ongoing need for challenging those in positions of power to rethink rules.

The timing of the podcasts’ release is serendipitous too: it comes just ahead of the publication by Cassava Republic of Ardizzone’s translation of Faïza Guène’s latest book to come into English, Men Don’t Cry, on October 12, 2021. Judging by Guène and Ardizzone’s past work, it will be a compelling and necessary read.

If you get a chance to read the book or listen to the interview, I’d love to know what you think!

Book of the month: Patrícia Melo

This #WITMonth, my reading has had a particular flavour. In October, I’ll be the inaugural Literary Explorer in Residence at the Cheltenham Literature Festival (theme: ‘Read the World’). One of the events I’ll be involved in is chairing a discussion about ‘Crime Fiction Around the World’ between celebrated writers Ragnar Jónasson, Mark Sanderson and Manjiri Prabhu.

As a result, I’ve been using the summer holiday to catch up on some of the world’s most intriguing who/how/whydunnits, with the help of recommendations gleaned from social media and more knowledgeable bloggers in this field, among them Marina Sofia, a contributor to Crime Fiction Lover and one of the driving forces behind Corylus Books. Female-authored highlights from recent weeks include: The Aosawa Murders by Ritu Onda, translated by Alison Watts, and Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol, translated by Ruth Whitehouse.

For me, one of the fascinating things about crime stories that travel is the contrasting ways that regional norms around criminality, detection and punishment shape page-turners based on concepts of right and wrong. A murder mystery set in a country with the death penalty may land awkwardly for readers unused to the idea of criminals being executed; an investigation proceeding in a city where limitations on resources or infrastructure mean that the sort of forensic techniques commonly available in the global North are off-limits presents an author with contrasting choices to those confronting, say, Jo Nesbø. Meanwhile, varied conventions around interrogation practices and the handling of evidence may mean that the unravelling of a particular crime has the potential to play out rather differently depending on where it takes place and who is telling the story.

Bestselling Brazilian author Patrícia Melo embraces this issue in The Body Snatcher, translated by Clifford Landers. Presenting a narrator-protagonist who considers himself morally ‘neutral, to tell the truth’ and is well aware that ‘we’re not in Sweden, the police here are corrupt’, she unravels the mystery not of how a crime is solved but how it is committed and the ways a human mind must contort itself in order to do and try to get away with despicable things.

The premise is outlandish: out fishing one day in rural Corumbá, near the Bolivian border, the cash-strapped narrator witnesses a fatal light-aircraft crash. Discovering that the pilot is the son of one of the region’s wealthiest families and that his backpack contains a large packet of cocaine, he hits on the idea of selling the drugs and ultimately extorting money from the dead man’s parents as they grow desperate to recover their son’s body. What follows is a deft, fast-moving story full of twists and surprises.

Melo and Landers’ writing carries the day. While some of the set up and events, particularly in the early part of the story, would probably feel a little heavy-handed or convenient in another author’s hands (the protagonist wangling a job as the wealthy family’s chauffeur, for example, or his girlfriend having recently started working at the mortuary), this novel sweeps us over bumps in the road with an engaging, witty and beguiling narrative voice that can’t help but fascinate. Reading it is like watching a high-wire act – part of the enjoyment comes from the knowledge that the performer could tumble and seeing the flare and skill with which Melo dodges one pitfall after another.

Spare rather than bald, the writing bristles with beautifully succinct descriptions and observations. Consider this depiction of the pilot’s mother ‘being eaten alive by the worms of [her] son’s death’:

‘Every day there was a new health problem, a neck pain, another in the temples, in the neck and temples at the same time, her arms numb, tingling in the legs, tachycardia, vomiting, always some new symptom. And new doctors. If Junior were to appear, even dead, I knew the illness would go away. The same thing happened with my mother. At first the sickness is just a fiction, a kind of blackmail the body uses against the mind, and then, over time, it becomes a true cancer.’

These insights into human psychology are one of the keys to the novel’s success. With an uncanny sense of how the mind moves, Melo is careful to sweep us along in the currents of her narrator’s obsession. Starting with the revelation of a few shabby but relatable traits in her narrator – drawing comfort from disaster headlines because of the satisfaction of being outside the events, for example – she brings us along on his journey towards the unforgiveable, taking us through the loops of rationalisation and justification by which almost any act can be made acceptable to the doer.

Except that in the world Melo presents, the acts are not quite as unforgiveable as they might appear in some other places. With corruption revealed at every turn – indeed, with double-dealing repeatedly offered as the only way to afford a decent standard of living – the moral compass swings increasingly wildly as we journey through the book. By the end, the question is not so much whether the protagonist will be found out but whether we would want him to be. What makes this novel great is that rather than leave us on the outside, looking at the conundrum through the prism of our own society’s conventions about law enforcement and justice, it draws us into its centre, filling us with the same doubts and contradictions that besiege its characters.

A novel about a plane crash leading to an extortion attempt set in the British countryside might take very different twists and turns. And that’s precisely the point. This is a story that is the product both of its characters and of the world in which it takes place. In great writing, the two are inextricable.

The Body Snatcher (Ladrão de cadáveres) by Patrícia Melo, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers (Bitter Lemon Press, 2015)

Picture: ‘Pantanal, Corumbá/MS’ by Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE on flickr.com

Book of the month: Nanjala Nyabola

Although most of the books I feature on this blog are fiction, one of the titles I refer to most often from my 2012 quest to read a book from every country is a travel memoir: An African in Greenland by the Togolese explorer Tété-Michel Kpomassie, translated by James Kirkup. This joyful account of teenage Kpomassie’s real-life odyssey through Africa and Europe to go and live with the Inuit never fails to bring a smile to my face when I think of it, and I can still feel all the enthusiasm that went into my initial review nine years ago. I loved its curiosity and fearlessness, the optimism with which Kpomassie pursued his goal, and the humour with which he exposed the quirks of the people and societies he encountered.

Recent years have seen some welcome additions to travel writing in English by authors with similarly illuminating and underrepresented perspectives. Two of my favourites are Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johnny Pitts and Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders by Li Juan, translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan. Nevertheless, non-white and non-Western accounts of travelling are still relatively rare in mainstream anglophone publishing – something that my latest Book of the month makes a powerful case to change.

As its subtitle makes clear, Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Kenyan writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola is not a memoir but rather a collection of think pieces inspired by the author’s journeys through some 70 countries. Although a number of the chapters centre around particular trips – to Burkina Faso, to the DRC, to Botswana in search of the legacy of Bessie Head (whose A Question of Power also featured in my 2012 quest) – this is a book about the larger questions that arise from moving through the world. In particular, it focuses on what that experience is like when you come from a demographic that is commonly restricted and denied the rights granted freely to those in more privileged groups.

Nyabola’s arguments are as fearless and intrepid as her journeys have been. She has no hesitation in taking down some of the world’s most powerful players – exposing everything from the hypocrisy at the heart of the sort of aid organisations she used to work for, and the racism embedded in the visa system, to the rottenness of an international news industry predicated upon representing black and brown people in ways ‘at odds with how the communities in question may see themselves’, alongside the complacency of many of us who imagine ourselves to be anti-racist.

Her femaleness and blackness sit at the heart of the collection. Being different to the default world traveller can be a double-edged sword. While the frustration and exhaustion that constantly running up against people’s assumptions causes is clear, Nyabola’s reflections on the access that her appearance sometimes gives her to experiences and neighbourhoods that white-orientated guidebooks would brand no-go areas are thought-provoking.

Nor does she exempt herself from criticism when it comes to the problematic stereotypes that often attend international travel. ‘I am no better than those I would challenge,’ she writes in her account of her summer in Haiti. ‘I take pictures that I probably shouldn’t take. I am afraid of the water coming from the tap. I surreptitiously glance over my shoulder when I am on my long, lonely walks.’ Even in her home continent, she often used to find herself in the grip of extreme wariness: ‘I’m ashamed to admit that I was even afraid of Africa: the Africans of CNN, warring Africans who killed each other on a whim, who hated women and did violence to them, who ate monkeys and spread Ebola, whose bodies were ravaged with AIDS, and who were always waiting to steal from each other.’

The unpicking of the reasons for these assumptions is one of the sources of the book’s great power. ‘I started to appreciate that, because I had been uncritically consuming other people’s versions of Africa – shaped by particulars of those people’s existence – I had learnt to be afraid of it. […] Later, I would go back to my travel guides and realise something that today seems so painfully obvious: the vast majority of guidebooks, especially those written about Africa, are written by white men for white men.’

As a result of her almost exclusive exposure to a certain kind of narrative, to ‘the dominance of a normative standard determined by a certain eye’, the view Nyabola had internalised not only of the world but also of herself and those around her was slanted, problematic, incomplete. Her description of her journey to free herself from this and see the world in terms more reflective of her lived reality is a masterclass in self-awareness, curiosity, questioning and personal growth.

We can’t all travel as widely as Nyabola has done. Most of us will never spend more than a decade hitching our way to Greenland like Kpomassie, or pass months living with nomadic herders in the manner of Li Juan. That’s why we need writers like this and why we need more of their stories in the world’s most published language. Because, as Nyabola so clearly demonstrates, when it comes to living well in the world, it is not what you see but how you see that matters most of all. ‘We are bigger than what we hear about each other,’ writes Nyabola, reflecting on the way different black communities’ views of one another are diminished by being filtered through prevailing white narratives. How might things be different if we all read about travelling the world through various eyes?

Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Nanjala Nyabola (Hurst, 2020)

Picture: ‘airport‘ by whity on flickr.com

Book of the month: Ayu Utami

In the ten years since I set out to read the world, I have interacted with thousands of book lovers, writers, academics and curious readers around the globe. Many of the most illuminating of these discussions have been with translators – people who, by virtue of having expertise in two or more languages and extensive experience working on texts, are able to shed light on how books travel and what comes into English, and often draw my attention to gems that would otherwise pass me by.

So I was delighted when, a few weeks back, an email arrived from Irfan Kortschak, a translator based in Jakarta, sharing some thoughts about Indonesian literature. Chief among his recommendations was the work of Ayu Utami, a groundbreaking novelist, whose Saman (1998) is credited with ushering in a sea change in the nation’s storytelling by daring to deal with sex and politics in a way that was previously off-limits for female authors. This shift is known as sastra wangi, with some people at the time anecdotally referring to the women writers in the movement as the ‘cliterati’.

‘Ayu is an old friend,’ wrote Kortschak. ‘She’s quite involved in the arts and literature center that I translate for. You do have to remember that she became a best-selling author in the final years of the Soeharto dictatorship, when a sort of Victorian morality prevailed and it wasn’t acceptable for women to talk about their sexual experiences. Her books were radically shocking and she often appeared on television, where each time she would appall the audiences by saying she had no intention of getting married, by talking about her experiences with men[…] and so on. It wasn’t unusual for her to receive death threats.[…] I’m happy to say that Indonesia seems to have moved on a bit since then!’

Billed as a novel, although perhaps more accurately a collection of interlinked short stories (written in markedly different registers), Saman, translated by Pam Allen, presents the experiences of four female friends and a Roman Catholic priest, who is the title character. With sections set in 1996, 1990 and 1983, and moving between New York and Indonesia, it reveals how each of them negotiates the tightrope strung between family expectations, social mores, political obligations, spiritual promptings and personal inclination, using their time in the ostensibly more liberated US as a foil for their lives back home.

In her extremely frank and illuminating ‘Note on the Translation’, in which she writes about the challenge of not allowing her sense of political correctness to distort the English-language version, Allen describes the work as ‘a visual panorama rather than a plot-driven narrative’. Although understandable, this is slightly misleading: while Saman may lack the sort of overarching story thread many anglophone readers will be used to, there is great urgency in many of the sections. Whether she is writing about a thirty-year-old virgin waiting for her married lover to appear in Central Park or a priest struggling to prevent a mentally disabled young woman from being abused in a rural village, Utami has the knack of getting us on the side of her characters.

It’s interesting that Allen found her sense of taboo to be a stumbling block while translating the book, as the differing perspectives and biases that contrasting life experiences and expectations give us is a key theme. I particularly enjoyed the presentation of the New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch, which, although earnest in its desire to ameliorate the situation of oppressed people in Indonesia somehow fails to grasp the multi-layered nature of that experience:

‘Despite HRW’s sincere concern about these problems, its office seems so remote – an entire world away. I can’t imagine how the people who work there – having never experienced such problems themselves – can have a feel for what is happening so far away – the violence, and the humor too, that happens there. Could they really believe it possible that a young woman like Marsinah might be brutally beaten and left to die for having the audacity to question the fairness of her wages? Can they imagine how they would feel about the intelligence investigation that followed her murder and that resulted in innocent people being tortured until they falsely confessed – thereby enabling the real murderer to get off scot-free?

‘At the same time, people in the office also seem to have an exaggerated notion of the effectiveness of an oppressive system like the one in Indonesia; they don’t seem to realize, for example, that it’s not all that difficult to obtain the books of Pramoedya Ananta Toer and other banned authors. Or that you can throw a small party for your friends in jail and give them a laptop computer or a mobile phone! I don’t see Indonesia as you do, as a machine of oppression. Instead, I envisage our country as swirling with unpredictability, a place where the law oscillates like a pendulum.’

The insight about humour struck me as particularly thought-provoking. It is a truism in translation that jokes are hard to move between languages. Might this sometimes not merely be a technical issue but a function of the fact that in the struggle to envisage people in distant places and traditions as fully human, humour is one of the first elements to slip from our grasp?

Utami and Allen certainly do their level best to combat this. This book is strikingly funny – often irreverently so. Whether it deals with a bet that requires the loser to embarrass herself by going and buying a box of novelty condoms or self-deception around weight loss and diet, the narrative leaves us in no doubt that its characters have a strong sense of the ridiculous and no trouble sending themselves up. The ability to shock is not the sole preserve of liberal Westerners, we learn, often with a chuckle.

Yet this is no lightweight amusement. Time and again, Utami and Allen nail insights that take us to the heart of the events portrayed, reminding us that the world moves differently, depending on where you find yourself: ‘It rotates clockwise if we imagine ourselves standing in the South Pole looking to the other pole. And if we were in the North Pole it would rotate in the opposite direction. Weird, eh?’

Reading Saman is not without its challenges: veering from satirical to realist to fable-like, the narrative keeps rewriting its own rules. Things happen in some sections that would not be possible in others. What’s more, as is often the case with works split between several perspectives and periods, some passages are more successful than others.

But this, surely, is no surprise in a novel that sets out to present experiences ranging from banter with friends to interrogation under torture. We human beings are, after all, not seamless, through-written works. Anyone seeking to portray us honestly must find a way to reflect this unevenness. The violence, and the humour too.

Saman by Ayu Utami, translated from the Indonesian by Pam Allen (Equinox Publishing, 2005)

Picture: ‘Kalian Kenang by Hugh Dellar‘ by Map of the Urban Linguistic Landscape on flickr.com

Book of the month: Gerty Dambury

One of the first problems I had to solve when I set myself the madcap challenge of reading a book from every country in 2012 was to decide exactly how many countries my world contained (not something on which everybody agrees). Given the premise of the project, it was logical to order the quest by nation and, to this day, the titles on this blog are categorised by the UN-recognised state with which they are most closely aligned.

As the years have gone by, however, those country categories have begun to chafe. The perennial problem of what makes a book ‘from’ a particular nation – little to do with setting, and mostly to do with author heritage and perspective for me, though there are exceptions on the list – is just the start. There is the issue of the genrefication of national literatures – often a side effect of the marketing efforts of big western publishers, which, at its worst, means our ideas of the sort of writing that comes from particular regions is heavily skewed by a handful of breakout bestsellers. And there’s the problem that many territories fall under the umbrella of former colonial powers, meaning that their works can easily be overlooked.

My latest book of the month is a good example. Written by Guadeloupian theatre director, poet and novelist Gerty Dambury, and translated from the French by Judith G. Miller, The Restless will sit under ‘France’ on my list. Yet its authors and subject matter hail from the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Spanning the run up to an outbreak of violence when talks failed between management and a construction-workers union in May 1967, the novel centres around Émilienne as she waits for her father to come home and grows increasingly anxious that her schoolteacher, Madame Ladal, has disappeared. The narrative is directed by Émilienne’s eight siblings, who take on the role of callers in a Caribbean quadrille, ushering forward an increasingly rebellious gaggle of characters – living and dead – to present their versions of what is going on. As the story whirls faster and order breaks down, Dambury reveals the interconnectedness of events and the way that injustice echoes down the decades, loading seemingly inconsequential details with meaning.

Voices are at the heart of this narrative. With so many characters clamouring to have their say, it is testament to Dambury and Miller’s skill that it is usually easy to know who is narrating. Indeed, in the case of the irreverent Nono, a dead, nonagenarian who remains peeved that one of her legs was removed before she was put in her coffin and spends a lot of time looking for it, you often recognise the voice from the first few words.

Yet, though the text abounds with rulebreakers and even descends into near-anarchy at certain points, the writing is tightly controlled. Reticence has as much power here as eloquence, with the gaps left for the reader to infer cruelties in the margins revealing something of what it is like to live in the shadow of monstrous injustices that have never been acknowledged or addressed. This technique is neatly mirrored in Miller’s decision to explain some but not all of the Creole dialogue in the book – this is a text of half-heard whispers, of stories muffled in the telling.

When Dambury chooses to articulate something, the writing is astonishingly precise. Take this beautiful reframing of old people’s habit of repeating themselves as ‘work that starts when we turn sixty’:

‘We take apart the seams; we unroll the balls of yarn. Other people think we’re just repeating ourselves, rehashing and rambling, but the truth is, nature doesn’t give us a choice. It’s as though everything is hardwired in our genes; you have to travel back in time.’

Or this consideration of why many of the characters hold back from challenging the status quo until violence becomes their only option:

‘If you really dig into this story, you’ll see that everyone has a hell of a burden to carry, just getting up in the morning and continuing to live their lives[…] – and that impression of never quite getting on top of things, that blacks are damned for all eternity, from century to century.

‘They have to be clever, tricky, and act like a fox – but all that leaves scars on the spirit. You can’t forget the other side of the coin: hating yourself for what you’ve become, for constantly questioning your life. You can end up detesting yourself, imagining what others think of you, and then rebelling violently. You demand respect by brandishing a knife, consideration by carrying a revolver. You take revenge for slights you’ve only invented in your mind.’

With so much pain and injustice underlying this narrative – drawn from real-world events, many of the facts of which have only recently come to light – it would be easy for Dambury’s novel to leave us with anger. But Dambury is too large-hearted a writer for this. Although the outrage these events call forth is justified and necessary, her novel looks beyond this, to a time ‘when the fury started to abate, when people could start seeing each other again’.

The recognition of one another’s common humanity is the key to resolution, she suggests. And the secret to this recognition? Storytelling. ‘When you’re human, you just can’t stop yourself from telling your own story.’

If I had to sum up nearly ten years of international literary exploration and what I’ve learnt from the hundreds of books classified by country on this blog, that would be my conclusion too.

The Restless (Les rétifs) by Gerty Dambury, translated from the French by Judith G. Miller (Feminist Press, 2018)

Picture: Guadeloupe_Février_2018_157 by Michel Marie on flickr.com

Book of the month: Anke Stelling

This month, I faced a difficult decision. There were two titles that I would have loved to feature on this blog.

The first was Argentinian writer Federico Falco’s exquisite short-story collection, A Perfect Cemetery, featuring a wonderful postscript by its translator Jennifer Croft. Quite apart from the stories themselves (mini-novellas, really, given their depth and complexity), this essay ‘On Conversation’ contains some of the most illuminating writing about the translation process that I have read.

‘Translation is an encounter between two human beings that takes place in words that belong to different systems,’ writes Croft. ‘I have intuitively recreated on the page in English what I have seen in the movie versions of these stories in my mind. Falco wrote the screenplay, but I was the director of these sweeping films, just as you have been – as every reader will be. I hear the characters as I must, informed by all the people I have known and loved in all the places I have lived.’

Phew. With writing as powerful as that, authors of fiction had better watch out: there’s a risk that some stories might be overshadowed by the translators’ notes that follow them (although in Falco’s case, the primary text more than holds its own, it has to be said, and is well worth seeking out).

In the end, however, I plumped for reviewing Higher Ground, the first novel by the award-winning German writer Anke Stelling to appear in English, translated by Lucy Jones. The novel follows middle-aged writer Resi as she grapples with the news that she, her artist husband and their four children are soon to be evicted from a Berlin flat controlled by a friend. Struggling to face up to the implications of this bombshell, she sets out to try to write a warts-and-all portrayal of life for her teenage daughter, Bea. In so doing, she reveals cracks stretching back across the decades that threaten to yawn wide enough to engulf the whole family.

Mothers in literature often fall into one of two camps: they are either saints or witches. Stelling neatly sidesteps this. By having Resi narrate in a semi-stream-of-consciousness style, which more than once made me think of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, she is able to portray both the horrors and beauties of the maternal condition. ‘Let me hold you close to my breast. And remember – you have to get away,’ Resi writes to Bea in the opening chapter, and the novel leaves us in no doubt as to the truth of this statement.

This is an extremely funny book. All credit to translator Lucy Jones here, for the humour is largely in the writing, with rhythms, bathos and the subversion of expectations all delivering laughs. Stelling is an expert on the ways human beings deceive themselves and how we often betray these lies unconsciously. Time and again, we witness Resi self-sabotaging and setting herself up to fail even as she pledges to do better – an endearing trait that serves to counteract some of her more obnoxious flights of arrogance.

Nowhere is this dishonesty more evident than when it comes to issues of class and privilege, which form central threads in the narrative. Beholden to her more affluent friends, Resi is forced time and again to confront the limits of fellow feeling where money and life chances are concerned. Cleverly, Stelling resists the temptation purely to punch upwards, choosing instead to reveal hypocrisy and blind spots on both sides. Resi, we learn, might not be so hard pressed if she were able to unbend a little; but then, of course, she would not be Resi.

There is also much joyous material connected to the business of being a writer and the strange, destabilising experience of watching your work go out into the world. Again, Resi’s struggle to comprehend her friends’ indignation at her published criticism of their lifestyle makes a nice foil for the book’s reflections on readers’ often wrongheaded engagement with texts.

‘I am sorry that everything is so disjointed. I’d like to be stricter, have a more straightforward narrative, and be a comfort for all those in need. But I am who I am, and I won’t pretend that I have the same conditions as, say, Martin Amis.[…] That’s why this is exactly the opposite of a well-formed, elegantly written novel,’ laments Resi.

Of course, the lady protests too much. Higher Ground is a deftly structured, ingenious piece of fiction that manages not to advertise its cleverness in the way that some books by writers with more favourable conditions than Resi might now and then have done. What starts as a seemingly random swirl of reflections, circles ever more closely around the same themes, drawing the threads tighter until the web appears.

The result is a hugely entertaining, satisfying and thought-provoking novel. A really wonderful read.

Higher Ground (Schäfchen im Trockenen) by Anke Stelling, translated from the German by Lucy Jones (Scribe, 2021)

Picture: ‘Berlin’ by Patrick Nouhailler on flickr.com

Book of the month: Véronique Tadjo

Some books find you at the right time. My latest featured novel is a good example. Coming into my hands shortly before the year anniversary of the first UK coronavirus lockdown, In the Company of Men by the Côte d’Ivorian poet, novelist and artist Véronique Tadjo, translated by Tadjo with John Cullen, offers a salutary reading experience and sheds fresh light on the pandemic.

First published in French in 2017, the book centres on the Ebola epidemic that swept through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014-16, claiming thousands of lives. Told in multiple voices – from those of medics and aid workers, through victims, to trees in the forest and even the virus itself – it provides a startling, holistic and shaming look at the way human beings use and abuse the natural world, forcing the reader to acknowledge the role of the resultant imbalance in causing sickness.

Novel is really the wrong word for this book: it is an ecosystem of a narrative. Registers vary from the mythic to the mundane. Reportage runs alongside the prophetic pronouncements of the baobab tree, which sits in judgement on the arguments of the virus and the bat, as each puts forward its view on where the blame should lie for the catastrophe the book portrays.

It could feel bitty, but Tadjo’s skill shines through in the way she makes each segment contingent and connected. Just as ‘Humans need to recognize that they’re part of the world, that there’s a close bond between them and all other living creatures, great and small,’ so each account exists in relation to those around it, informed, enriched and sometimes undermined by what follows or goes before.

There are plenty of shocks along the way. From the accounts of the Ebola orphans shunned by their communities to the practical and psychological difficulties of dealing with infectious corpses, not to mention hospital doctors reduced to asking patients to go out and buy their own medical supplies, this book does not pull its punches. The passages concerning the financial roadblocks on vaccine development, when considered against the lightning-fast response to a virus menacing the affluent global north, make for particularly uncomfortable reading.

However, perhaps the greatest jolts come not from what is strange but rather what is familiar in the experiences described. So much of what we have all lived through over the past twelve months is present in this pages – economic upheaval, the lottery of how someone will respond to treatment, conspiracy theories, the concern for children missing out on education. When reading this book, what has felt like a voyage into the unknown for many of us reveals itself to be a path already trodden by millions – a realisation that makes the following appeal by a regional governor particularly chilling:

‘If I, as someone on the ground, were asked to make a comment, I would address the international community. I’d tell them that fear can provoke a strong reaction, which will in turn free up enormous resources and placate public opinion. But the outcome will not necessarily be the best in the long run. […] Are we better prepared if disaster strikes again, or has everything fallen into oblivion already, crowded out by the thick bustle of our days?’

This book will present challenges for readers used to anglophone novels. Tadjo does not give us individual characters to latch onto through the course of the narrative: humanity, rather than a particular person, is the protagonist here. What’s more, she is her use of citations is more expansive than many might be used to. Among other things, this novel contains the longest Bible quote I have yet to encounter in fiction.

Still, the humaneness of this piece of writing wins through. Humankind is presented in all its ugliness, beauty, generosity and vulnerability. In spite of the damage we have done, Tadjo tells us, we are worth saving. ‘The life of humans is a story we haven’t yet finished telling.’ Perhaps, if we follow this novel’s prescriptions, we may yet have some wonderful chapters to enjoy.

In the Company of Men (En compagnie des hommes) by Véronique Tadjo, translated from the French by the author with John Cullen (Other Press/Hope Road Publishing, 2021)