Book of the month: Dina Salústio

Firsts are a recurring theme on this blog. This month’s book of the month is a case in point. Not only is it the first novel by a female author to be published in Cape Verde, but it is also the first full-length work of fiction by a woman from that nation to be translated into English.

Such publishing events can be both positive and problematic. On one hand, it is exciting to think that the voice of someone from a previously ignored group can now be heard in the world’s most published language; on the other hand, the unreasonable pressure of requiring one novel to carry the weight of an entire community can have a warping effect on our reading. If we’re not careful, we can lumber the writer in question with unfair expectations, forgetting that they are just a person who decided to write a story, and that they probably never thought of themselves as speaking for their gender, nation or ethnic group. A single story, as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently argues, never gives a complete picture.

So what to make of this latest first, The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar? How to detach it from the political baggage that comes with the accident of its time and place of publication and translation, and take it on its own terms?

At first glance, the novel seems as though it will be relatively straightforward. The premise, though complicated, contains lots of familiar tropes: a traditional village community (Serrano) under threat of development, a young woman forced to confront a difficult past, family secrets, a curse, the tensions between city and country, modern habits and old customs, now and then.

But when you start to read, it quickly becomes clear that the novel does not conform to many of the conventions of its form – or, at least, the anglophone Western version of it.

For one thing, although many of the elements of the story sound familiar, their handling is not. Realism and myth crash together in a strange and jagged interaction that sees the modern, urban world of microwaves, therapy sessions and business deals grate against ancient rites, hearsay and magic. A death certificate shows that a man has been poisoned by strange thoughts; apparently infertile women go to the city for ‘pharmaceuticals’ that turn out not to be quite what they seem; and the mysterious madwoman of the title makes predictions that play out on city streets, as well as in the rural dreamscape of the village.

This stark juxtaposition is reflected on the linguistic level, with translator Jethro Soutar often reaching for words from diverse registers to capture the story’s massive range. At times you can almost feel the narrative straining with the effort of containing all Salústio wants to say, breaking out into a series of surprising digressions, many of which yield some of the book’s most joyful passages. The small section about the unusual role of cats in Serrano, for example, is as pleasing as it is unexpected, while the various explorations of the role of magic in women’s lives put me in mind of another first book by a woman – Mozambican author Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife, translated into English by David Brookshaw, which I sent to Donald Trump in celebration of World Book Day a few years back.

As with many books that draw on traditions beyond Western literature, the pacing and structure of The Madwoman of Serrano make it a challenging read for those used to the mainstream output of the anglophone publishing industry. Flashbacks nest within flashbacks, repeated memories create an impression of stagnation at points, and, while a number of major events are dealt with in a handful of sentences, it takes central character Filipa several chapters to cook a turkey.

It would require a more knowledgeable reader than me to unpick the threads of all the different influences at work in this book. While the influence of the Western tradition seems evident to me in the shadowy figure of the detective, who appears in the final quarter to tie up many of the loose ends (sometimes rather abruptly), I have no way of knowing what local storytelling techniques may be at work.

As a result, the reading experience felt patchy. At times I seemed to know exactly where I was and what was going on, only for the author to pull the rug out from under my feet with a swerving digression or unexpected turn of events on the following page.  There were numerous episodes that felt rather loosely plotted or underprepared, with catastrophes often arriving out of the blue to scatter characters’ plans.

However, this response may say more about the expectations that my largely Western literary diet has ingrained in me than it does about this book. Steeped in a tradition built on the assumption that human beings have a relatively large degree of control over their safety, health and happiness, I am used to stories that function with a high level of causality, where the course of events can be traced logically, each human action leading to the next. But such neat storytelling may seem naïve, unrealistic or flawed in parts of the world where life is more precarious and where disaster lurks much closer to the surface.

It’s for this reason that it’s important that publishers persist in broadening the kind of text that is available in the world’s most published language and continue to bring out firsts such as this. While The Madwoman of Serrano won’t be an easy or perhaps even a satisfying read for many English speakers, it tugs at the preconceptions we all carry about how books work and what stories do. It may be that this novel has as much to teach us about Western literature and reading habits as it does about writing by women in Cape Verde.

The Madwoman of Serrano (A louca de Serrano) by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar (Dedalus, 2019)

Book of the month: Juan Marsé

I love meeting translators. Having built their careers around enabling people to access the work of other writers – lending readers their eyes, as I describe it in my book Reading the World – they are often very generous, knowledgeable and fascinating.

Nick Caistor is a case in point. With a string of famous works to his name, including novels by Paulo Coehlo, José Saramago and Dominique Sylvain, this three-time Premio-Valle-Inclán-winner and former BBC World Service Latin America editor is a mine of insights and stories. When I met him to record a (yet-to-be-released) podcast for the Royal Literary Fund this month, we had a wonderful discussion about the frustrations and joys of helping literature to travel, topped off by a delicious lunch from a Brazilian stall on the street market near his London flat.

Caistor’s kindness didn’t end there. A few days later, a package dropped onto my doormat: his recent translation of Spanish Cervantes prize-winner Juan Marsé’s Esa puta tan distinguida (or The Snares of Memory, as Caistor has rendered it in English).

The premise is intriguing. In 1980s Barcelona, a writer is hired to create a film script based around the murder of a prostitute in a cinema projection booth more than thirty years before. In his efforts to achieve authenticity, the writer seeks out the convicted murderer, one Fermín Sicart, and, over the course of a series of taped discussions, attempts to get to the bottom of the crime. There is a problem, however. Though Sicart accepts his guilt, he cannot recall why he killed his victim. As the writer tries to grope his way towards an understanding of his subject, he is forced to interrogate his own motives and methods for translating this gruesome episode to the silver screen.

The book is surprisingly funny. Helped along by abrupt shifts in register that reliably undercut the writer’s loftier reflections, a strong current of bathos and formidable housekeeper Felisa, who has no compunction about interrupting the narrator’s work to harangue him about his unhealthy habits, offer her opinions or subject him to another of her ‘riddles’ taken from classic films, the narrative is extremely entertaining.

This is nowhere more true than during the passages in which the writer reflects on the difficulties and compromises of the creative process. For a fellow novelist, the section describing five hours spent crossing out sentences in a handful of barely legible pages is particularly enjoyable (not to say reassuring!). There is also a lot of fun in the passages that skewer the Spanish film industry. Beholden to politics and funding issues, the project lurches from one director and producer to another, morphing dramatically with each shift so that the writer is constantly obliged to reframe his vision in light of considerations that have nothing to do with the quality of the work.

The humour in no way detracts from the rigour and beauty of the prose, however. Indeed, Marsé and Caistor’s descriptions of writing and the mechanisms of self-censorship are among the most memorable I’ve read. In showing how ‘the story came to me from an undeniable personal tragedy, but was also rooted in the fraught memory of the dark days of the dictatorship, the resentment, humiliation, pain and desire for revenge that still persisted in many different guises in the collective subconscious’, the narrative makes the particular universal – one of the hallmarks of great literature.

Rather than getting in the way, the human elements of the story – the writer’s fretting about money, Sicart’s flashes of forgetfulness, and Felisa’s complaints about clearing up cigarette butts – elevate the work. They imbue the novel with life, allowing us to experience the emotional reality of the ideas it explores rather than simply presenting them on the page, while the intrigue of the plot draws us on.

‘Haven’t I told you a thousand times that the black or noir novel as they call it in French is the best way to investigate social conflicts, explore the human condition, to denounce implacably the injustices and corruption of our society?’ remarks an incidental character in a doctor’s waiting room midway through the book. In Marsé’s hands, this is certainly true.

The Snares of Memory (Esa puta tan distinguida) by Juan Marsé, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (MacLehose Press, 2019)

Book of the month: Helga Flatland

This Women in Translation month (#WITMonth), or August as it’s known in some parts of the world, I’ve been rather spoilt for choice. Although the number of female-authored books being translated into English is still low in comparison to those by men, the awareness-raising efforts of recent years have seen a glut of fabulous titles by women made available to anglophone readers.

Those keen for recommendations now have a wonderful resource in the shape of blogger and #WITMonth founder Meytal Radzinski’s freshly compiled list of ‘The 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation.’ Drawn up from nominations from readers around the world, this is an attempt, in Radzinski’s words, ‘to create a new canon of sorts’. I for one shall be mining it for suggestions.

Even without this wonderful list, many of the best titles I have read so far this year have been works in translation by women. Favourites have included Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby, translated from the French by Sam Taylor; Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks; Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff; and Annelies Verbeke’s Thirty Days, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters, which was my June Book of the month.

My selection for this month, however, came onto my radar by way of another blogger, John Fish of The Last Word Book Review. I saw him tweeting about Helga Flatland’s A Modern Family and was inspired to try out this celebrated Norwegian writer’s English-language debut for myself.

The premise is simple enough. Adult siblings Liv, Ellen and Håkon find their lives thrown into confusion when, just shy of their father’s seventieth birthday, their parents break the news that they are planning to divorce. This revelation sparks an intense period of questioning and insecurity, in which the assumptions on which their lives rest are tested and the ties between them stretched out of shape.

Flatland has the gift that I most often covert in the work of other writers: the ability to make everyday events compelling. Whereas my two published novels and the one I am working on now all feature characters pushed to breaking point by extraordinary events – my way of cracking people open to get at the workings within – Flatland finds the drama in the quotidian and makes us see how even something as mundane as clearing the table can be fraught with meaning and tension.

Flatland operates on the level of fine detail. Alive to the minute adjustments that switch the points of conversation and send exchanges careening off along unexpected tracks, she gives us characters who are perpetually frustrated in their attempts to live up to their own and one another’s standards by insecurities and shared history. We feel Liv’s exasperation at her tendency to regress in the face of her mother’s disapproval and cringe at Ellen’s boyfriend Simen’s inability to read the family dynamics so that he keeps chuckling long after a conversation has taken a sombre turn. This precision makes the novel deeply synecdochic, with almost every small exchange and event standing for momentous shifts below the surface.

The drama also lives in the gaps between its personages’ perceptions. With multiple episodes narrated several times from the viewpoint of the three main characters, we see the sometimes funny and sometimes tragic discrepancy that can often exist between people’s readings of the same events.

There are also a few wry interjections from Flatland. Although the comments nominally come from the narrators, there is too much knowingness in the gripes about novels in which characters end up at meaningful locations without being aware how they got there and the tendency to belittle women’s fiction for them not to carry some authorial weight.

This knowingness is occasionally a problem. The articulateness with which Håkon – the least successful of the three narrators – explains his motivations, for example, strains credulity. His insights into his predicaments sometimes feel too precise to be quite real.

Overall, though, this masterful Norwegian writer’s anglophone debut is an utterly compelling and satisfying read. It reminds us how full and rich life is, how the quietest existence can brim with urgency and drama – and how much wonderful writing we English speakers have yet to discover.

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland, translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger (Orenda, 2019)

Book of the month: Ali Zamir

My latest featured read marks another welcome addition to the anglophone literary world: the first commercially available translation of a novel from the Comoro Islands off the coast of Mozambique.

In 2012, when I read my way around the world, there was no longform fiction available to buy in English from this nation of 1 million people and I resorted to reading an unpublished translation of a novel by one of the archipelago’s leading writers. In May this year, that changed with Jacaranda Books’ release of Ali Zamir’s A Girl Called Eel, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.

Narrated breathlessly and chaotically by the title character, the novel looks back on its protagonist’s life just as she is at the point of leaving it. Over the course of its 271 pages, we accompany Eel through the major events that have shaped her, exploring her internal and external worlds until we come to an uneasy understanding of the forces that have simultaneously made and destroyed her.

The book is a canny choice for English translation. As with many of the most memorable works from nations with little work available in the world’s most-published language – Smile as They Bow and Allah is Not Obliged come to mind – it has a strong and irreverent narrative voice. Although Eel may be at death’s door and has suffered some serious ill-treatment, she is not self-pitying or feeble. She thinks nothing of berating her fellow characters and even her reader, and shows little sympathy for what she perceives as weakness: ‘what is it about death that scares you feeble-minded fools so much,’ she exclaims when people in a sinking boat scream with fear.

This contrarian streak means that Eel is unpredictable and consequently fascinating. By turns alarming, shocking and funny, her voice acts like a hand drawing the reader through the novel’s unfamiliar terrain, pacing and mores. Although Western readers may not share some of Eel’s assumptions and may occasionally find it hard to enter into the emotional reality of the situations she describes, we are prepared to accompany her back and forth through the medina of Mutsamudu because she keeps us entertained.

She also delivers some powerful insights along the way. Words, she tells us, ‘are born free as birds, only if you nourish them with sincerity can you make them your own’.

Zamir and Higgins have clearly taken this advice. The text throbs with striking imagery. Take this description of a small craft battling through a sea storm: ‘the boat had to float through those furious waves and surging tides like an insect creeping over a mad woman’s dress as she thrashed and flung herself about’. Here, the crashing together of two distinct areas of experience – the wetness of the sea and the dryness through which insects usually move – creates a wrenching effect that conveys the violence of the scene.

There are occasions where such unusual images tip over into farce. For example, although it captures some of Eel’s disorientation, her description of vomiting on a woman’s back as being like etching her suffering onto a copper plate feels grotesquely ornate.

The challenges don’t end there. The narrative often rambles. This is no doubt deliberate and a reflection of Eel’s confusion as she drifts in and out of consciousness – indeed, she often scolds herself for digressing. Nevertheless, such apparent aimlessness is risky as it can make readers frustrated and inclined to let go of the narrator’s guiding hand. Occasionally, it’s tempting to wonder whether Eel’s self-admonitions aren’t really directed at her author.

There’s also the stylistic quirk of the text being devoid of all punctuation except commas and a final exclamation mark. The novel is Eel’s ‘furtive last sentence’, the jacket copy explains. But it isn’t really: there are lots of separate sentences in the book. It’s just that they are not demarcated as such but spliced together by one comma after another.

None of this takes away from the fact that this is, however, a very welcome addition to the English-speaking world’s bookshelf. Vivid, striking and surprising, this is an impressive work. That it is the first Comoran novel to be commercially published in English almost feels irrelevant. Whatever its provenance, A Girl Called Eel deserves a global audience.

A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir, translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (Jacaranda, 2019)

Book of the month: Annelies Verbeke

One of the joys of this project has been the opportunity it’s given me to interact with authors around the world. From Turkmen author Ak Welsapar, who graciously asked me to write the preface to the latest English-language translation of his work, to Suchen Christine Lim from Singapore, who sent me a copy of her most recent novel only a few months back, I’ve really enjoyed learning about the lives and processes of so many wonderful writers. Given the geographic spread of the people whose work I’ve read for this project, however, it’s unusual that I meet them face to face.

The author of my latest book of the month is a rare exception. Having shared a stage with Annelies Verbeke at Vrije Universiteit’s Abraham Kuyper Lecture in Amsterdam last month (you can see us in the picture above in conversation with moderator Abdelkader Benali), I was delighted to receive a copy of her novel Thirty Days, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters. I dived in and was quickly absorbed in what has turned out to be one of my favourite reads of the year so far.

Taking place in the space of a month, the novel follows the experiences of Alphonse, a musician-turned-decorator who has moved with his girlfriend to the rural district of Belgian Westhoek. Discovering that his work and manner often encourage clients to open up to him, Alphonse is quickly immersed in a web of personal tragedies, comedies and intrigues that spreads out across the pages of the novel, binding together everyone he meets and leaving no-one, but especially the protagonist, unchanged.

This is an immensely stylish book. With a strong instinct for the loose connections and quirks in human interaction, Verbeke presents a large cast of memorable and compelling characters. No matter how slight their involvement in the narrative, each of them feels rounded and finely drawn, and comes to us in the midst of pressing dilemmas. From the furious, butterfly-obsessed translator Alphonse encounters at a retreat building he is contracted to paint to the kebab-shop worker with a penchant for ice sculpture who slices off his finger in the process of preparing a shawarma, they all command attention and convey the impression that what we see of them is the merest tip of a deep iceberg of experience and feeling.

This is particularly true of the protagonist, Alphonse. The manner in which his history is revealed is incredibly skilful and invites readers to interrogate their assumptions. Having spent a long time imagining my way into the mindset of a person with markedly different life experiences and cultural markers to my own for my second novel, Crossing Over – which features an illegal Malawian migrant as one of its main characters – I was awed by Verbeke’s ability to take us into her hero’s universe. What’s more, I was envious of the facility with which she is able to make telling points without ever allowing the issues she explores to hi-jack the narrative and render her characters cardboard cut-outs acting in the service of ideas.

Verbeke’s control of the many elements of the story is hugely impressive. Wide-ranging though the narrative is – touching on the First World War, West African music and agricultural history, among many other things – the novel wears its author’s extensive research lightly. All the facts it features have an impact on the story and the writing hardly ever feels showy.

The result is a profoundly moving, insightful and witty piece of work, a book that has the capacity to make readers laugh and cry. It is, quite simply, fantastic. ‘Without a doubt, Verbeke is the greatest talent of her generation,’ proclaims a quote from the Flemish newspaper De Standaard on the front cover of my copy. I can well believe it.

Thirty Days (Dertig dagen) by Annelies Verbeke, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters (World Editions, 2016)

Picture courtesy of Vrije Universiteit.

Book of the month: Duong Thu Huong

It’s always a pleasure to hear from other literary explorers. Reading the world is such an enriching and mind-expanding experience that I’m keen for as many people to do it as possible.

Among the numerous things I enjoy when I learn about other international reading quests is finding out what specific parameters the reader in question has set themself. Although many global book projects look similar at first glance, no two are identical because each becomes a reflection of the concerns and interests of the person at the centre of it. People might choose to categorise books by setting, for instance, or to seek out works in a particular genre or from a set time period.

Sometimes, these parameters illuminate important issues about the way stories circulate. Sophie Baggott’s Reading Women Writers Worldwide is a prime example. Having challenged herself to journey through some 200 books by women by 2020, Sophie has shone a light on the serious imbalance in international publishing, which still sees female-authored works making up only around 30 per cent of the books translated into English each year. (This is a problem that a number of campaigners are working to tackle, perhaps most notably translator Meytal Radzinski, who established Women in Translation Month back in 2014.)

Certain that Sophie must have discovered some gems on her literary travels, I contacted her recently to pick her brains for recommendations. She came back with several suggestions, including La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, and The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane, translated by David Brookshaw, both of which I have already reviewed enthusiastically on this blog.

One title was completely new to me, however: Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. I chased down a copy of the controversial Vietnamese novel – banned in the author’s home country – and was quickly hooked.

The story is told from the perspective of Hang, a young woman who is one of the many Vietnamese ‘exported workers’ sent to the Soviet Union in the seventies and eighties. When her Uncle Chinh summons her to Moscow, she embarks on a train ride that unlocks a wealth of memories, enabling the reader to piece together the mystery around her father’s disappearance and fraught relationship with her mother, and ultimately freeing Hang from the historical guilt that has bound her.

Duong Thu Huong has an exceptional instinct for the way that tension fuels a compelling story. Replete with dramatic encounters, this book is a rare beast: a literary novel with a gripping plot. Although many of the most powerful scenes centre on the main characters – with exchanges between Hang, her Aunt Tam, her mother and her uncle all working to reveal the complex web of emotions that snares them – there are some striking cameo appearances too.

In particular, I found myself itching to know more about the married couple who put Hang’s father up for one night and ‘must have been linked by some crime that kept them there, far from their village. Their shadowy past seemed to be both a bond and a yawning chasm between them, wedding their destinies and sundering their souls.’ By the middle of the next page, however, they had been left behind, never to reappear.

This engrossing storytelling also stems from the author’s sharp grasp of the way multiple, and sometimes conflicting, motivations can lead people to act against their better nature. There are numerous examples in the text but one of the most memorable involves the account of the villagers being goaded to turn against their neighbours following the classification designed to root out wealthy landowners. The rapidity with which people denounce their friends is chilling.

In her foreword, co-translator Nina McPherson warns that the Orwellian quality of the Communist rhetoric spouted by certain characters is deliberately satirical, as if worried that such sections might jar or disconcert readers. However, to my eye, the narrative shifts gears smoothly, moving seamlessly between descriptive passages of sometimes spine-tingling beauty to the harsh registers of many of the exchanges.

Nevertheless, the book is not without its flaws. Although for the most part deftly handled, the complex, flashback-laden structure yields the occasional jolt and sag. The device of harnessing something in the present to evoke a past event is a little overused in the early half of the book, with the result that a few of the transitions feel artificial. In addition, with the exception of intriguing figures such as the sinister married couple mentioned earlier, some of the walk-on characters seem redundant, almost as though they are remnants of threads or scenes cut from earlier drafts.

None of this gets in the way of the novel’s brilliance, however. It is at once engrossing and enlightening, a compelling narrative that leads readers through experiences and settings rarely represented in the English-speaking world. When set alongside the equally heart-wrenching yet deeply masculine The Sorrow of War, which was my choice to represent the country back in 2012, it reveals a strikingly different side to Vietnam.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Dong and Nina McPherson (William Morrow, 1993)

Literary adventures in Amsterdam

This week saw me heading to Amsterdam. I went there at the invitation of international bestselling Belgian author Annelies Verbeke. She has been the writer in residence, or Vrije Schrijver, at VU University this year and her final duty in the role was to organise and deliver the Abraham Kuyper Lezing, an annual public lecture built around a theme of the curator’s choosing.

This year’s title was De taal van de wereld (The language of the world). As part of this, Verbeke was keen for me to speak about my journey through international literature.

It was a great pleasure to be back in Amsterdam. It’s a city very close to my heart: I went there to decompress after I finished my year of reading the world back in January 2013 and the main character of my first novel Beside Myself spends her happiest time there. I caught myself half-wondering if I might bump into her in Vondelpark.

The visit was also a lovely opportunity to catch up with writer friend Gaston Dorren. Dorren and I have stayed in touch since we shared a stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival back in 2015.

My visit coincided with a special day for him: his latest book, Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, had just come out in his mother tongue, Dutch. When we met for lunch, he had just picked up his copy from his publisher. As you can see, from the photo, however, he was very self-effacing about this achievement.

After a stroll around Amsterdam’s picturesque centre, I met Annelies Verbeke for ginger ale and hot chocolate in a café near to the Zuiderkerk, where the evening event would take place. I was intrigued to hear about her work at VU, which, among other things, has involved gathering volunteer translations of short stories from around the world.

I was also thrilled to discover that Verbeke has been inspired to mount her own international literary quest and has so far read books from 75 countries. We talked enthusiastically about some of the many questions around cultural identity and authenticity that such armchair travels uncover, and I picked her brain for recommendations.

The evening event was an extravaganza. Bringing together performances from intercultural women’s choir Mihira (a group made up of singers from some 20 countries who each contribute music from their cultural tradition to the repertoire), actor Kenneth Herdigein and Friesian poet Tsead Bruinja with talks from Verbeke and several of the university staff, it offered the 200 or so audience members a smorgasbord of cultural delights.

As one of the major themes was the challenge of combatting the spread of English in Dutch culture, I felt rather sheepish when it was my turn to take the stage (my Dutch, I’m afraid, is not equal to delivering a presentation and I was obliged to stick to my mother tongue). Everyone was extremely gracious and welcoming, however, and the staged discussion Verbeke and I had with fellow author and host Abdelkader Benali was fascinating.

Over a drink afterwards, I asked Benali more about his work. Although we English speakers only have access to his first novel, Wedding by the Sea, the Moroccan-Dutch writer is prolific, particularly as a theatre-maker. His explanation of the process he goes through to develop shows and the emotional investment that each of the performances requires was wonderful.

I left the Zuiderkerk impressed once more by the richness that the world’s storytellers have to offer – and how much we English speakers often miss.

Book of the month: Guzel Yakhina

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A little while ago, I was contacted by Anna, a teacher at Go-English language school in Blagoveshchensk city on the border with China in far east Russia – in fact, she tells me, you can see China just across the Amur river (pictured above in one of the photos she sent me).

Anna and her students had been discussing this project and wanted to know about my Russian choices. I sent back a reply and a question – which book would her students choose for me?

FullSizeRender-28-04-19-08-42-4A few days later, I received a response featuring a number of suggestions from Anna’s students, along with explanations for why they recommended each book. The titles they’d picked included Ukrainian author Anastasia Novykh’s Sensei of Shambala (which Evgeniya says completely changed her outlook on life) and Alexander Pushkin’s The Daughter of the Commandant (which describes the ‘Russian soul in every detail’, according to Alina). In addition, Anna had made her own suggestion: The History of a Town by 19th-century author Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, whom she calls ‘the king of Russian satire’.

In the end, however, it was a recommendation for a contemporary novel that caught my eye: the award-winning Zuleikha by Tartar author Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden. Irina describes it as ‘a deep thought-provoking book which leaves its positive mark on your heart’, and soon after I started it, I knew it would be my next book of the month.

Set during the period of Soviet dekulakization and collectivization introduced when Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s, Zuleikha tells the story of the nation through the life of the title character. After witnessing the murder of her harsh husband by government forces charged with disenfranchising wealthy peasants (kulaks), Zuleikha is exiled along with thousands of others to a remote region of Siberia. There, the handful of them who survive the cruel journey must build a society from scratch, questioning and overturning many of the assumptions on which their former lives rested in the process.

As with many books that span years and capture the maturing and changing of the central characters, the tone of Zuleikha varies. The grim cruelty of the early chapters recalls other contemporary gulag-related fiction, such as Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, but there are moments of bathos too, as well as arresting imagery. After Zuleikha leaves her hometown and embarks on the punishing six-month train ride around rural Russia that will be the death of many of her companions, a softness creeps in as she begins to forge connections with those around her. This in turn shrinks to baldness in the early days at the settlement, where life is reduced to nothing but a series of punishing tasks necessary for survival, before blossoming to readmit wonder and creativity, seen through the eyes of a child and captured in art.

Tonal shifts notwithstanding, the ingenuity required to survive remains a constant theme. Whether we are witnessing Zuleikha creeping about her husband’s home in an effort to avoid her vicious mother-in-law, or seeing the official put in charge of her train risk arrest with each rare flash of humanity he shows his charges, Yakhina leaves us in no doubt of the precariousness of life in this world. The characters’ physical hardships pale in comparison to the mental suffering they endure and the self-deception they are obliged to practice to negotiate a society hostile to free thought.

Indeed, Yakhina’s ability to depict the collapse of the human psyche under extreme pressure is one of her greatest talents. The supreme example of this involves her portrayal of the breakdown of celebrated medical professor Volf Karlovich, who spends many pages believing that he is insulated from the horrors surrounding him by virtue of the fact that he lives inside an egg, until events force him to break out of his imaginary shell and engage with the real world once more. The unfolding of this episode is exquisite and credit must go to both the author and translator Lisa C. Hayden for the work they have done to imbue it with such tenderness and power.

It’s almost inevitable that in such a sweeping book, some parts drag. Indeed, the nature of the story – in which life is stripped back to its essentials and imagined afresh – necessitates a certain amount of simple, technical description. At points, there is a level of detail and lingering on certain incidental bits of information and action that some anglophone readers may find frustrating, given that such passages would usually be paced differently in comparable English-language novels. There is also a fair amount of recapping, some of which feels redundant.

Overall, however, this is a triumph of a book. It is a masterclass in synthesizing historical research with imagination and insight into how people think and feel. As Irina says, it ‘leaves its positive mark on your heart’. Thanks to Anna and the B2 students at Go-English in Blagoveshchensk for bringing it and the other titles above to my attention.

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden (Oneworld, 2019)

Photos courtesy of Anna

Book of the month: Geetanjali Shree

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This book was sent to me by Francesca Orsini, professor of Hindi and South Asian Literature at SOAS, University of London. I met her recently to discuss Multilingual Locals & Significant Geographies (Mulosige), a fantastic five-year project she is leading to explore new approaches to world literature, focusing on north India, the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb.

During the course of our discussion, a number of fascinating books came up. A few days later, I was delighted to find several of them dropping onto my doormat. They included Intizar Husain’s short-story collection A Chronicle of  the Peacocks, translated from the Urdu by Alok Bhalla and Vishwamitter Adil; Qurratulain Hyder’s Fireflies in the Mist, transcreated from the Urdu original by the author; and the Bollywood-optioned hit novel The Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan.

One in particular caught my eye, however, and within a few pages, I knew it would be my book of the month.

Geetanjali Shree’s 1993 novel Mai, translated from the Hindi by Nita Kumar and published as Mai: Silently Mother in 2017, is a compelling exploration of gender politics. Set around a house in a north Indian town, where three generations of one family play out and struggle against the social dynamics that have been handed down to them, the book examines the problematic, multifaceted role of motherhood.

At first glance, the structure of the novel is deceptively simple. Narrator Sunaina recalls her upbringing and the longing she and her brother felt to free their mother, Mai, from the traditional patterns that seemed to smother her. Through her eyes, we follow the household across the decades that led Sunaina to maturity and brought about her parents and grandparents’ decline and demise.

At every stage, however, Shree unfolds multiple layers of action, revealing the rough edges where personal inclination grates against conditioning and societal expectations, forcing the characters to make choices that leave them uneasy. Although Sunaina and Subodh dream of freeing their mother from oppression, they persist in projecting their own desires onto her and dictating to her in much the same way as they perceive their father to do; however much they fantasise about escaping the stifling atmosphere of home, they find themselves drawn back repeatedly to its embrace.

A similar technique is at work on the linguistic level. Although never bald, the language that unfolds the story is disarmingly simple and, for that very reason, profound. Translator Nita Kumar, who has added an illuminating afterword, deserves credit for the way she has been able to convey beauty, humour, hypocrisy and contradiction in words that are as precise as they are spare. Sunaina’s description of one of her earliest conscious encounters with her grandfather’s misogyny provides a great example:

‘[Dada] disliked women. He did not want any females to be seen in the front part of the house. I remember there were berry bushes along the gravel path from the gate to the house. We were always picking on those purple, sometimes raw green, seeds. There would be the sound of the gate opening. Without bothering to check who had come, dada would say, “Go inside Sunaina, ask them to send some refreshments.” At that moment I could see the woman in myself.’

In this way, Shree and Kumar convey the doubleness that is at work throughout Mai, complicating and problematising every claim the narrator tries to make.

It is a storytelling that is deeply aware of its own limitations. As Sunaina informs us in the opening chapter, memory is ‘not so much untrue as incomplete’. ‘Mai is somewhere right now, whole, but when we catch her and bind her up in our words, she may be made half’.

Far from undermining the telling, however, this awareness of the ‘trap formed by words’ becomes one of the novel’s greatest strengths. Through its constant process of correction, qualifying and reformulating, the narrative points the way to the profound love and respect that must ultimately arise from an appreciation of the complexity and unknowability of others.

Good writers create urgent dramas that draw readers in. Great writers involve readers in the drama and urgency that underlies everyday experience. That is what Geetanjali Shree and Nita Kumar do with Mai. As Professor Francesca Orsini writes in the quote I discovered from her on the back cover when I finished the novel:

Mai pokes at, loops, circles and curls around characters and memories until they open up and yield new sides and insights and nothing is left the same as it was. Certainly not the reader. A deeply enriching reading experience.’

Mai: Silently Mother by Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Nita Kumar (Niyogi Books, 2017)

I don’t monetise this site or receive any external sponsorship for maintaining it. If you are able to support me buying one of my books, you’ll help me to keep this blog as a free resource for readers everywhere. The audiobook of my next novel, Crossing Over, is available to order now. Thanks.

My next novel: Crossing Over

One of my earliest memories involves an audiobook. I must have been about three or four when, on a trip to my local library, a cassette of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet caught my eye. My mother let me take it out and I remember sitting upstairs playing it over and over on a huge metal tape recorder. I couldn’t understand most of the words but I remember being impressed by their urgency and rhythm: something powerful was being expressed here.

Over the years that followed I listened to many story tapes. Even after my eyes learned to read words faster than the snappiest narrator could deliver them, I would still sometimes drift off to sleep to the strains of an old favourite. At one stage in my teens, I could often be found sitting in my bedroom knitting (I was an extremely cool kid…) while a classic novel played. Passages of Lorna Doone and The Mayor of Casterbridge still ring in my ears from time to time.

In my thirties, I rediscovered the joy of listening to stories and now frequently take audiobooks with me on my runs – recent highlights have included Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner and Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.

So it is with great pleasure that I share the news that my next book, a novel called Crossing Over, will be coming out as an Audible Original title this month. Centred around an encounter between 87-year-old dementia sufferer Edie and Jonah, a traumatised Malawian migrant hiding in her barn, the book explores how, though we may never be able to comprehend other people perfectly, our interactions may lead us to a better understanding of ourselves. Bringing in research into British and Malawian history, and my experience of life on the UK’s south coast, where small boats of migrants have been arriving for several years, it builds on my interest in testing how altered mental states can disrupt storytelling, language and memory.

This is a subject I first ventured into with the help of my bi-polar heroine, Smudge, in my debut novel, Beside Myself. Just like that book, Crossing Over owes a great deal to my year of reading the world and the many extraordinary stories I have since read from beyond my national borders, which have taught me to imagine further and take greater risks in my writing than I would ever have otherwise dared. I hope it’s also a jolly good read.

What’s more, I’m thrilled to have a brilliant narrator reading my words. British actress Adjoa Andoh has brought to life parts in everything from Shakespeare plays to Doctor Who. She’s also a star in the world of audiobooks, with such outstanding novels as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Naomi Alderman’s The Power to her name. I can’t wait to hear what she does with my work.

Crossing Over is available for preorder. If you are able to purchase a copy or tell your friends about it, you’ll make my day.