A literary explorer’s guide to blogging

In October 2011, I registered the domain name ayearofreadingtheworld.com and started this blog. I didn’t know it then, but the website would change my life.

The original quest to read a book from every country in the world in a year turned out to be mind-blowing in ways I’d never anticipated: it reconfigured my imagination, reading and writing, and brought me into contact with authors, translators and readers around the globe. What’s more, the international following this blog received initiated a stream of thrilling invitations and opportunities that continues to this day.

Highlights from the past eight years include speaking at TED Global and the launch of my career as a published author, now with three books to my name.

With much of the world on lockdown for the foreseeable future as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it strikes me that many people might use the time at home to start a blog. As such, I thought I’d share some tips gleaned from my experience. Feel free to add yours at the end!

  • Choose an obvious name It can be tempting to be funny or clever with website titles. That’s fine if you’re setting up something just for yourself, but if you want to create a site that will appeal to a broad range of people, you need to make sure that no-one feels excluded by in-jokes that don’t translate. A simple, clear name that gives some idea of what your blog’s about is good. It also means that if someone searches for your subject area, your site will have a chance of featuring in the results.
  • Be specific There are hundreds of millions of blogs out there and an awful lot of them are brain dumps. Again, that’s fine if you’re just looking to make a site for your amusement (and of course there are some blogs like this that draw huge numbers of readers), but if you’re keen to develop something with greater reach, this approach will make it harder for your website to find an audience, at least at first. A better strategy is to pick a specific interest, goal, or issue and focus on that. You can always broaden out further down the line.
  • Keep it simple It’s possible to spend hours and a lot of money on designing your blog (and most platforms offer technical guides and support with using their tools – also, often, for a fee). However, my advice would be to avoid unnecessary embellishments – at least until you have more of an idea of whether blogging is going to become a habit. Select a basic template and start drafting your first post. Use (properly credited) pictures to illustrate your posts if you have them, but don’t worry about sticking to text if no obvious illustrations suggest themselves. If you want, you can add more images and upgrade the site once you’ve got a better idea of what works and how people use it.
  • Start small When you launch a blog, it can be tempting to contact everyone you know and tell them to check it out immediately. Indeed, this is what I did when I published my first AYORTW post in October 2011. If you’re not launching a project that needs participation, however, try to resist this urge, at least for a few days. Even if your subject matter and approach is clear in your mind, it’s likely that it will take a little time for the tone and format to settle. Be prepared for a few lonely days when you hardly get any clicks and make getting some good, consistent posts in place your first focus, so that, when the readers do flood in, they’ll have plenty of great content to enjoy.
  • Be boundaried Think carefully about how much of your information you want to give away on your blog. If you’re writing about sensitive or personal subjects, you might want to consider anonymising references to the people in your life or even giving yourself a pseudonym. One of the earliest ever blooks (blogs-turned-into-books), the now-defunct Diary of a London Call Girl, took this approach with great success.
  • Keep it accessible The language of the internet is informal and conversational. If your blog takes off, it will get readers from around the world, many of whom may not speak fluent English. As a result, it’s best to avoid unnecessarily complicated expressions and to explain references that may not be obvious to everyone.
  • Edit obsessively Conversational does not mean sloppy. The best writing often reads simply but communicates complex ideas. It has precision and power. In most cases, this comes from painstaking reworking. I’m a big fan of reading aloud. Once I have a complete draft of a post, I always read the whole thing out. It’s amazing what your ear catches.
  • Credit borrowed content properly Lots of people don’t do it, but I think it’s important to credit any images or other elements you use that are still in copyright and weren’t created by you. (You should also make sure that the picture in question has an appropriate Creative Commons licence, which you can filter for on photo sites such as flickr.com.)
  • Be kind to yourself Even with meticulous editing, reading aloud and double-checking, you are going to make mistakes. In my time, I have published posts about the non-existent countries of Dijibouti and Cormoros. I have misspelled writers’ names and made countless other slips. It feels awful when you realise you’ve messed up like this (and, if you’re unlucky, someone out there will leap on it as an opportunity to give you a good kicking). But try not to worry about it. As my time sub-editing for newspapers and magazines has taught me, not even the best writers are immune to bloopers. And at least with a blog, you have the opportunity to correct your mistakes after you’ve hit ‘Publish’.
  • Have a policy on changing published posts One of the lovely things about blogging is that it is an extremely forgiving medium. If you spot a typo or a missing word once a post goes live, it is easy to fix the mistake. I don’t think there’s any issue with correcting technical slips like this. The journalist in me, however, does have a bit of a problem with changing the argument or factual written content of posts after publication without being clear about what you’ve done. I think we bloggers have a duty to be transparent about what we publish and so, if I have to alter the content of something I’ve written after I have pushed it live, I will add a note explaining what I have changed. An example is the entry I wrote describing how I decided which countries my year of reading the world would involve: midway through 2012, I altered the list to include Palestine, so I changed the post accordingly and added a sentence in bold at the end to explain this.
  • Accept that not everyone will like your stuff I’ve been incredibly lucky that almost every interaction I’ve  had as a result of this project has been positive. All the same, it’s inevitable that when you put yourself out there in the way blogging requires, some people won’t like it. When you get unpleasant feedback, bear in mind that some of it will be valid (and will give you an opportunity to improve what you do). Some of it, however, will say more about the person who wrote the comment than about your blog. It might take a while to work out which category applies, so resist the urge to fire off a barbed response until you’ve had a bit of time to process what you’d like to say. If nothing else, a nasty comment is evidence that what you’ve written has made an impact.
  • Feel free to ignore me It’s your project, after all. The joy of a blog is that it’s your own free space to do with as you wish. Who am I to tell you how to arrange yours?
  • Have fun If this blogging thing takes off, you could be doing it for a long time, so you might as well enjoy it!

I’m trying to take my own advice at the moment because, nearly nine years since I launched this site, I have just started a new blog project. It’s still at a very early stage and I’ve no idea how it will develop, but if you’d like to take a look, I’d be delighted to know what you think.

Book of the month: Fernanda Melchor

Mexican stories have been much in the news in recent weeks. The controversy that blew up around US author Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt brought questions of authenticity and who decides which voices are heard in an industry skewed strongly in favour of white, anglophone authors to the forefront of many booklovers’ minds.

As often happens in such situations, the debate pitted two issues connected with freedom of expression against each other: the right of all communities to be heard and to speak for themselves versus the right of individual artists to allow their imaginations to venture into whatever territory they wish to explore.

This is not an easy conflict to resolve. However, it is problematic to make one title the battleground for such far-reaching concerns. Just as writers rarely, if ever, set out to speak on behalf of their nation, ethnicity or other demographic markers, so single novels are hardly ever designed to carry the weight of such issues. It is unfortunate that the way many big publishers and the mainstream media deal with books (giving a handful of titles 90 per cent of the attention and focus) means that these conversations usually remain reactionary and tied to specific events rather than opening up into more thoughtful, meaningful debates.

One positive thing that did come out of the furore, however, was a series of tweets from translators and other Latin American literature aficionados sharing titles by Mexican writers that deserve more attention. As they pointed out, there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Favourite names in the frame included Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman), The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana) and Brenda Lozano’s Loop (translated by Annie McDermott) – all of which, I heartily second.

For my money, however, there is one recent Mexican book that stands in a class of its own: Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes. Set in motion by the discovery of the body of an ambiguous figure known as ‘The Witch’ in an irrigation canal on the outskirts of the impoverished village of La Matosa, this whirlwind of a novel rampages through an entire community, blowing back curtains, breaking down walls and cracking open skulls to lay bare the secrets within.

Each chapter focuses on the experiences of a different person, plunging into their fears and rifling their memories to reveal the steps that led to the savage killing at the book’s heart. Circling around and around, often rehearsing the same incidents several times in different words, the narrative smashes together intimacy and violence, beauty and filth, creating an accretion of details that coheres into a compelling and disturbing exploration of scapegoating and the legacy of abuse.

The urgency of the subject matter is mirrored stylistically. Each chapter forms a single block of text, often containing sentences that run for a page or more, and, although each one represents a particular characters’ experiences, the narrative perspective swings like a ceiling light in a gale, illuminating now the interior monologue of the character in focus, now the voices of the community, now prejudices internalised below the level of conscious thought. Occasionally, it even casts its glare on the reader, who is at points a bystander, gossip, police officer or other player in the action.

This approach is extremely risky – and in lesser writers’ hands it would be a mess. However, with Melchor and Hughes, the writing pulses with energy. The chaos comes from the sort of virtuosity that arises from painstaking effort; the force and bluster is the result of laser precision.

But the reader is expected to work too. The book is unapologetic in its demands. In addition to assigning the reader roles at various points, it requires intense concentration. The dense weave of the chapters does not support dipping in and out. Distractions must be put aside.

And you can forget about being babied. With song lyrics kept in Spanish and cultural references left largely unexplained, this is not a text that comes meekly to the reader but one that requires its audience to meet it on its own territory, ready or not.

The same goes for the subject matter. This is one of the most explicit books I have read. To me, it never feels gratuitous – indeed, one of its greatest achievements is the way that the events are so richly imagined that Melchor and Hughes manage to take us into extreme mindsets (from murderous frenzies and rank bigotry to fantasies involving bestiality) and show the mechanisms by which love and vulnerability can be sublimated into such things. But there’s no getting away from the fact that, for some readers, this will be too much.

I don’t expect this will do anything to impede Hurricane Season‘s progress to the lasting success it richly deserves, however. It contains that rare energy and vitality that now and then power a story far beyond its beginnings and into the collective imagination. The day I finished reading it, I heard that it had been longlisted for the International Booker Prize. I have a feeling it won’t stop there.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Photo: ‘The Walls Come Tumbling Down’ by Carl Campbell on flickr.com

Book of the month: Zeruya Shalev

January’s featured read came onto my radar by means of following some threads of recommendations from translators on Twitter – a fabulous source of fresh suggestions for those keen to venture further afield in their reading. It had been a while since I’d read a novel originally written in Hebrew and so when Sondra Silverston’s translation of bestselling author Israeli Zeruya Shalev’s Pain came up in conversation, I was quick to check it out.

The premise appealed to me. The orderly existence of middle-aged, married school principal Iris is thrown into disarray when, ten years after she was injured in a bus bomb, she bumps into her childhood sweetheart, who is now a pain specialist at the hospital where she goes for treatment. What follows pits the joys and suffering of the past against the problems of the present, unfolding a compulsive examination of identity, love and the factors that dictate our choices.

Shalev and Silverston’s writing is at its finest when handling subjects with universal, and sometimes even primal, resonance. First love, physical pain and the bickering that attends family life all receive deft treatment. Indeed, the descriptions of Iris’s feelings for her first boyfriend, Eitan, and her nostalgia for the passion they discovered together are so sumptuous and powerful as to assume a timeless, almost mythic quality. It is no surprise to learn that Shalev has a master’s in bible studies, for this novel is studded with heady descriptions of romantic love that would not feel out of place in the Song of Songs.

This is, nevertheless, a novel rooted in a specific location. With the legacy of Iris’s bus-bomb injuries playing a pivotal role in the plot and numerous references to the fear that stalks Israeli mothers of teenage sons who will one day be drafted into a national service that may cost them their lives, the reader is never allowed to forget the pressure that international politics exerts on citizens of Jerusalem. To readers from elsewhere, the universal quality of much of Shalev’s storytelling may make these details all the more striking, coming as they do in the midst of scenes that often feel so recognisable that they might be happening in the neighbouring house.

One of the novel’s most powerful aspects is its exploration of the multi-valency and fallibility of perspective, particularly in relationships that have spanned many years. ‘How mysterious another person’s brain is, even more mysterious than the future,’ reflects the narrative voice early in the book, and in many ways, this is a neat summation of the central theme. Even Iris’s thoughts – to which we often have access – are presented as riddles, swerving abruptly from one course to another, and full of contrariness and inconsistencies of which she is rarely conscious.

The present moment, in Shalev’s hands, is a constantly shifting mirage and the world is a mirror in which we recognise elements that reflect our emotional state. The same street may by turns seem threatening or friendly. A loved one’s foible may be maddening one moment and endearing the next. And these reactions will usually tell us far more about the mental state of the person experiencing them than about the people or places they are observing.

At times, these abrupt reversals can make the reading experience itself challenging. This is particularly true of the second half of the book, in which Iris’s incipient love affair is forced to take a back seat to her quest to rescue her teenage daughter from exploitation. Although this section is compelling in its own right, it fails to match the intensity and urgency of the first half of the book, with the result that the resolution falls a little short of the mark Shalev seems to want to hit. In addition, although much of the writing is beautiful, certain descriptions teeter on the verge of the grotesque or contain a directness that rings oddly in English. There are also a number of instances of characters deferring conversations or making erratic decisions seemingly to serve the plot rather than themselves.

The novel is strong enough to weather these storms, however. At its best, the writing is world class, taking readers into the mind of someone living a very different existence and enabling them to believe her experiences could be theirs.

Pain by Zeruya Shalev, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston (Other Press, 2019)

Picture: ‘Jerusalem’ by ilirjan rrumbullaku on flickr.com

A library visit

Libraries have been going through a tough time in the UK in recent years. In the last decade, more than 700 have closed, with scores of others under threat because of funding cuts. As I write, a high-profile, author-led campaign is under way to fight plans to shut 14 libraries in Hampshire, the county in which Jane Austen was born and lived for most of her life.

Many people have written much more eloquently than I could about why places where people can gather to access books for free are vital. Their role in stretching the human imagination and changing lives is a recurring theme in stories around the planet. From Roald Dahl’s Matilda to Tayeb Salih’s Mustafa Sa’eed, literature abounds with characters shaped by hours spent in public spaces lined with books.

However, this week, I got a powerful, practical reminder of why these places matter when I took up an invitation to speak to Sandgate library book club.

The only library in Kent to be managed by a parish council on behalf of the county council, Sandgate library sits a street away from the English Channel on the UK’s south coast. It is run by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers who make it possible to offer longer opening hours and a regular programme of events.

Chief among the volunteers is retired teacher Liz, who I know from the regular Read and Rhyme sessions my daughter and I have attended. Liz also runs the book club and, when she discovered I was a writer, she very kindly put my novel Beside Myself on the schedule and invited me along some months later to talk to the group.

I arrived a little early to find the members – all women and most retired – engaged in a lively discussion of their latest read, which the librarian had ordered in from libraries across the county to ensure that everyone had a copy.

Each took it in turns to share her assessment, finishing with a mark out of ten that averaged out to around 5. (I resisted the temptation to ask what Beside Myself had scored when it was up for discussion some months before.)

The comments were refreshingly frank. Although the novel under examination was by a celebrated household name, the members – quite rightly – had no compunction in calling out passages that had bored, irritated or baffled them, alongside sharing the aspects they had enjoyed.

After this, it was my turn. Following an introduction from Liz, I launched into an informal talk about my year of reading the world and novel writing, answering questions as they arose. The discussion was warm and friendly. We covered some familiar ground, including several of the topics listed in the FAQs on this site, as well as some more unusual queries to do with the writing process I don’t think I’ve ever been asked how to turn a school essay into a novel before!

The hour was up in no time. Before I knew it, a get-well-soon card for an absent member was circulating for people to sign, and we were shrugging on our coats and saying our goodbyes.

What lasted much longer – and will no doubt outlive the beautiful bunch of flowers the book club gave me as a thank you for my visit was the sense of welcome that surrounded the library. A thriving centre for friendship, shared interests and fun in this little village on the edge of the land. A precious community built around books.

Meeting Siphiwo Mahala

The first full week of the new decade brought a treat for me: a chance to meet Siphiwo Mahala, author of the short-story collection African Delights, which was my South African pick during my 2012 year of reading the world.

Mahala was in London to interview one of a handful of surviving friends and associates of the dissident writer Can Themba, who died in the late 1960s. Having written his doctorate on Themba’s work, Mahala is now preparing a biography of the great man – the first of its kind.

We walked to Waterstones bookshop in Gower Street. On the way, I pointed out the University of London’s Senate House Library, where I did a lot of research for my book Reading the World (called The World Between Two Covers in the US), and Mahala told me about his research into Themba, which had thrown up some fascinating stories about mixed-race relationships that flouted South Africa’s former morality laws.

This put me in mind of Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s brilliant account of growing up with mixed parentage under Apartheid. When I mentioned it, I was thrilled to find that Noah is an old friend of Mahala’s – yet another reminder of the web of connections that books spin between readers and writers around the world.

Over frothy coffee in the bookshop’s café, Mahala filled me in on his writing over the past eight years. He’s been busy. Despite working full-time for the government and completing his doctoral thesis, he has found time to write a play, The House of Truth. Also based on Themba’s life, it was a run-away success when it opened in South Africa in 2016 and is now being developed into a film.

Meanwhile, he has continued to work on short-form fiction. Last year, he published Red Apple Dreams & Other Stories, a collection combining some of his favourite pieces from African Delights with new work. He’d generously brought a copy for me, in which he wrote a beautiful dedication, and he is keen to find a European outlet for his work. Publishers, take note!

However, Mahala’s enthusiasm really caught fire when I asked him for recommendations of other contemporary South African writers whose work I should explore. Seizing my notebook, he quickly filled a page with a list of the following names: Zakes Mda, Masande Ntshanga, Nthikeng Mohlele, Thando Mgqolozana, Cynthia Jele, Angela Makholwa, Zukiswa Wanner, Mohale Mashigo, Niq Mhlongo and Fred Khumalo.

Always intrigued to test bookshops’ international mettle, I proposed that we see if we could find them on the shelves. The results were disappointing, although, to her credit, the bookseller who helped us did suggest a novel by another young South African writer in the absence of any of Mahala’s picks. This was Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa.

The suggestion flummoxed Mahala at first. Although he knew of the author, he had not heard of this book. In the end, however, he solved the mystery – in South Africa, the novel had been published with a much more direct title: Period Pain.

Although none of Mahala’s suggestions were readily available, I did spot a familiar name during our search. Tucked amid the Ms was a copy of my debut novel, Beside Myself. I bought this as a gift for Mahala and we persuaded another member of staff to snap the picture at the start of this post: two authors brought together across thousands of miles, holding each other’s stories.

Book of the month: Bessora / Barroux

And so we come to the last day of 2019 and the final Book of the month of the 2010s, the decade in which reading changed my life.

From the start, this project has been about addressing personal blindspots and exploring what storytelling can do. In that spirit, this last review of the tenties, ventures into new territory for me: the world of graphic novels.

First, a confession: I’m not a very visual person. As a child, comics left me cold. I didn’t much like cartoons. The visions words conjured always seemed much more vivid than illustrations.

Recently, however, I got the chance to interview translator Sarah Ardizzone for the Royal Literary Fund, a wonderful charity of which I’m honoured to be a fellow. I’d been aware of Ardizzone’s work for many years because, among the more than 50 books she has translated, her work includes Faïza Guène’s powerful depiction of a Moroccan teenager’s life in a Parisian high-rise estate, Just Like Tomorrow, which was my French pick during my year of reading the world.

Indeed, as I said to Ardizzone during our discussion, her career has been characterised by translating diverse and non-mainstream voices, often through collaborations with representatives of a range of communities to capture the nuances of particular dialects or argots in French and find equivalencies in English.

Alpha: Abidjan to Gare du Nord is a prime example. The product of a collaboration between award-winning Belgium-born writer Bessora and French illustrator Barroux, the book reflects on the treacherous journeys of many of the undocumented migrants who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean to enter Europe in recent years, condensing extensive research into a single, striking account.

When I spoke to Ardizzone about it, she told me that working on graphic novels like this requires her to translate on another level, allowing the pictures to dictate the palette or moodboard of the words she uses. Following her lead, I am using some of the pictures from the book to direct my review.

The novel follows title character Alpha as he sells his business and sets out to travel to the Gare du Nord in Paris, where he believes he will meet his wife and son. Although the journey only takes a matter of hours by plane, he knows it will be somewhat longer by land and sea. As such, he travels light.

To reflect this, illustrator Barroux, who is known for using strict constraints in his work, opts to present his illustrations as though they are sketches done with felt-tip pens in a cheap exercise book Alpha has taken with him. Mostly black and white, with occasional splashes of colour when he has time for embellishments, they are stark and powerful, with a make-do, hurried air, as though the person drawing them can never be sure when he will next be on the move.

Ardizzone’s translation of Bessora’s words reflects this. The writing is largely functional and direct – in the manner of a journal – with occasional flights of fancy and poetic descriptions.

The depictions of many of Alpha’s fellow travellers are cases in point. There is Antoine from Cameroon, who is so set on making it to Spain to play for F.C. Barcelona that he is already wearing his football boots and gets up before sunrise to jog in the Sahara so as to stay in good physical form.

 

Equally powerful as these small, often funny, human details are the gaps and omissions. Take Abebi, a young woman from Lagos, whose health has been ruined by the physical risks she has been obliged to take to pay for her journey. The spare account of the toiletries she sets out in the corner of her room in one of the camps in an attempt to show potential customers that she is hygienic, coupled beautifully with the image fading into black, is more evocative than pages of detailed description could be.


And then there are the places where language breaks down altogether, as in the case of these pictures capturing Alpha’s terrifying crossing. At these points, with the abandonment of words, Barroux is able to take us into territory to which purely written works can only gesture.

As with all translations, compromises and reimaginings have been necessary to bring Alpha into English, giving this version a distinct character. According to Ardizzone, the most striking difference is the fact that, whereas the text was handwritten in the French original, it is typeset in the English. This change was necessitated by publisher Barrington Stoke’s focus on producing texts for readers with visual challenges and conditions such as dyspraxia. While it means that the English version lacks some of the original’s homespun feel, it does make the graphic novel accessible to more readers.

This can only be a good thing. Powerful, memorable, humane and shocking, this story deserves a large audience. It is the book that Ardizzone says she worked hardest to find a publishing home for in English and I can see why. I read it in one sitting and, generally non-visual though I am, many of its images will stay with me for a long time to come. Heartily recommended.

Alpha: Abidjan to Garde du Nord By Bessora & Barroux, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (The Bucket List, 2016)

Wishing all literary explorers a very happy new year and many wonderful reads in the decade ahead. With thanks for your ongoing curiosity, enthusiasm and support! 

Sourcing translated audiobooks

Last week, Julia left a comment on the List. She is an audiobook listener who is struggling to find recordings of stories from beyond the anglophone mainstream. She wondered if I had any suggestions.

The message got me thinking. I’m a fan of audiobooks. What’s more, having narrated the audio version of The World Between Two Covers myself and published my latest novel as an Audible Exclusive (narrated by the wonderful Adjoa Andoh), I know what great ways they can be of reaching audiences. In some cases, such as Trevor Noah’s brilliant narration of his memoir Born a Crime or the Naxos recording of Ulysses that was my Irish choice during my 2012 Year of Reading the World, audio versions can even bring added layers to a text, allowing listeners to experience accents, rhythms, nuances and occasionally additional material that they wouldn’t get from a printed version.

However, enthusiastic world-reader though I am, my knowledge of the translated audio market is fairly limited. I tend to listen to books when I drive, walk or run – activities that often require me to divert my attention away from the narrative for practical reasons. As such, I favour non-fiction and plot-driven books for listening and tend to tackle more demanding literary works that require unbroken attention with my eyes.

Realising this blindspot – or deaf spot – in my knowledge, I did what this blog has taught me to do when confronted with my own ignorance. I asked fellow readers and booklovers for help.

The recommendations came in thick and fast. I have listed some of the most useful below but I get the feeling this is the tip of the iceberg, so do feel free to share more ideas in the comments.

  • Several people told me about some of their favourite translated titles available through big commercial audio producers such as Audible and Downpour. These included the work of bestselling Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, and Nobel laureates Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk.
  • Others named publishers who offer audioversions of their translated titles, including Orenda Books, which published my most recent Book of the month selection, Bitter Lemon Press and Harper Voyager.
  • For those worried about the impact of audio sales on print book sellers, @Glenwood607 and @getrochelle put me onto the trail of Libro.fm, a fabulous-sounding initiative that allows you to buy audiobooks through your local independent bookshop.
  • Meanwhile, those keen to listen to Chinese literature might want to keep an eye on recently established Silk Gaze Audio. There are only a handful of titles available on the site as yet, but it sounds as though producer Nicola Clayton will be working to bring out more editions in the coming months. Thanks to @TranslatedWorld for tipping me off about this.

I’m sure there are plenty of other great options out there, but I hope the above will give Julia and anyone else who’s interested in listening more widely some places to start.

As for me, I’ve been given plenty of food thought. Hmmn, perhaps some of 2020’s Books of the month should be listens…

Picture: ‘Listen’ by Ky on Flickr.com

Book of the month: Antti Tuomainen

I heard about my latest featured read through book blogger Marina Sofia. If you don’t know her blog, Finding Time to Write, I’d recommend checking it out. Not only does she read extremely widely and rapidly, but she writes exceptionally perceptively about books. Her site is a treasure trove for those keen to find compelling stories, often from beyond the anglophone sphere.

Browsing the blog a few weeks ago, a post mentioning Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen caught my eye. Marina Sofia had particularly enjoyed the crime writer’s recent forays into black comedy, she wrote. Indeed, his ability to uncover the humour in dark situations was something she was keen to emulate in her work.

Intrigued, I checked out Tuomainen’s back catalogue. Several of the titles piqued my interest, but in the end The Man Who Died, translated by David Hackston, snared me with a killer premise: on a visit to his doctor, 37-year-old mushroom entrepreneur Jaakko discovers that not only is he dying but that his death is the result of a long campaign of poisoning that will soon cause his organs to shut down. Determined to find his murderer before he is silenced forever, he embarks on an investigation into everyone and everything he thinks he knows.

Tuomainen writes in the acknowledgements that the novel marked a turning-point in his career when, after five very dark books, he felt the need to lighten the mood and set out to write something that would enable him to ‘laugh a bit’. He certainly didn’t hold back: brimming with bizarre twists and grotesque incidents, the novel is in many ways an unashamed farce. Credibility is quickly left far behind but that hardly matters – we are swept on by a lovely playfulness, almost as if, with each turn of the screw, we can see Tuomainen rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of what comic incident he can cook up next.

The comedy works at the sentence-level too. Sly jabs at pretensions and hypocrisy abound, and there are some deliciously absurd descriptions. We learn, for example, that Jaakko’s wife Taina’s meals ‘aren’t the kind in which a teaspoon of celery purée stares dejectedly across the plate at a solitary sprig of wheatgrass’, while one of the henchman of a business rival appears to have discovered a way to body-build his own head. The narrator also maintains a thrawn detachment from events – a function perhaps of his shock confrontation with his mortality – which enables him to step back and see the silly side even in extreme circumstances.

It’s no surprise to learn that Tuomainen was a copywriter before he turned his hand to fiction. There is a lovely clarity and precision to Hackston’s translation that points to the sort of economy of expression that often comes from being paid by the word. (British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie is the exception that proves the rule here – he cut his teeth coming up with phrases such as ‘naughty but nice’ and Aero’s ‘irresistibubble’ but his novels, while they are many things, certainly cannot be called concise!)

Nevertheless, this is not a perfect book (if such a thing exists). Clear and direct as it often is, the prose sometimes tends towards the bald and obvious. Tuomainen also seems to struggle a little with portraying physical movement – many of the more violent episodes are tricky to follow not simply because of their outlandish nature but because of the awkwardness with which they are described. Some of the justifications, transitions and resolutions are also a little convenient, cursory or abrupt, as though, in his impatience to get to the next reveal or belly laugh, Tuomainen cannot be bothered with boring authorial housework.

But who needs perfection when you can have fun, compulsion and plenty of surprises along the way? If you’re looking for an entertaining read to make the long winter evenings fly by, this is one for you.

The Man Who Died (Mies joka kuoli) by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston (Orenda, 2017)

Picture by Aleksey Gnilenkov on Flickr.com

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)