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)

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Book of the month: Shehan Karunatilaka

A few weeks ago, Mohammed left a comment on this site: ‘Ann after these long years did you finish reading all the list?’

He was referring to the lengthy collection of alternative recommendations I received for many countries during and shortly after my 2012 quest to read a book from every country. Although I made one choice for each UN-recognised nation that year, I recorded all the valid suggestions I received on The List so that I – and anyone else who was interested – could refer to them. At the time, I think I did intend to work my way through them all eventually and I have cherry-picked a number of titles in the six years since the end of the original project.

However, I have also found myself tempted away by numerous other intriguing books (many of which have been published since my list was drawn up).

That’s the thing with reading. One book leads to the next. You plunge into a story about a woman’s struggle to relocate to Johannesburg and find that leads you on to an intriguing memoir about growing up under Apartheid. This piques your interest in literature written and spoken in South Africa’s ten other official languages, which in turn leads you to discover a trend for sunshine-noir crime writing. Before you know it, a month has passed and you’re still nowhere near to exhausting the leads that sprouted from that original book.

Small wonder, then, that many of those suggestions I received in 2012 are still waiting their turn.

Sometimes, however, a title on The List gets impatient and seems to reach out from my computer screen to grab me and demand my attention. This happened to me most recently with Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman.

The novel had been a strong contender for my Sri Lankan choice back in 2012. I had heard very good things about it – not least that it had won several awards, including the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Commonwealth Book Prize.

There were two sticking points, however. The novel had been written in English (and after my enlightening exchange with Indian journalist Suneetha Balakrishnan I was making a concerted effort to read more translated books) and it was about cricket, of which, I have to confess, I am not a fan. As a result, I jumped another way, picking Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Metta as my Sri Lankan choice.

That might have been it for Chinaman. But then, earlier this month, I was invited to take part in several events at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Assam. Among the sessions on my schedule was a panel discussion with Shehan Karunatilaka. Clearly, it was time I read his book.

Centred around WG Karunasena, an aging alcoholic journalist trying to track down the elusive Pradeep Mathew – the greatest Sri Lankan spin bowler you’ve never heard of – the novel takes readers into the heart of the nation’s most popular sport. It is, unashamedly, a book about cricket, but, like the best sports writing, it also explores many other things – fanaticism, history, politics, love and hate. What’s more, it makes a bold claim, a ‘Sales Pitch’ appearing in the opening pages:

‘If you’ve never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you.’

Karunatilaka delivers on this promise. He does so by inhabiting his characters’ obsessions – a perspective he says he gained by spending many hours hanging around bars with old, drunk cricket fanatics – so completely that we live and breathe them too. Deftly working in the necessary explanations of cricket’s mechanics alongside numerous quirky facts and pieces of trivia (how test matches came to last five days and the surprising identities of the first teams to play an international game, for example), he opens up a world and invites us in.

The whole thing is achieved with wonderful playfulness. From word-play and witty one-liners through to amusing sleights of hand in the plotting and even jokes at the author’s expense (by the end of the narrative characters have not only criticised the novel as being ‘rubbish’ in places, but also dismissed Karunatilaka’s name as ‘common’), the book sparkles with good humour.

Indeed, it is so enjoyable that it is easy to overlook the virtuosic leaps Karunatilaka makes to propel us between its numerous storylines. It is testament to his ability to draw characters in a line or two that, many times, we find ourselves picking up a thread that was left dangling tens of pages before without hesitation.

Anglophone readers tend to think of humorous books as being towards the lighter end of the spectrum, but Chinaman challenges this assumption. From racism and the violence and injustice that has marked Sri Lanka’s history through to the personal tragedy of being unable to connect with those we love, Karunatilaka presents us with a broad range of human experience and makes us feel its weight.

The result is a reading adventure as gripping and memorable as attending a brilliant test match must be for a cricket fanatic. I marvelled at the technical ingenuity, gasped at the surprises and moments of drama, chuckled at the back and forth between the players and the umpire, and luxuriated in the ability to be taken out of myself by something truly fascinating for a few days. It is a wonderful, joyous book… and a strong argument for digging out a few more of those recommendations from that there list.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka (Jonathan Cape, 2011)

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Book of the month: Rita Indiana

This book came onto my radar by way of a tweet from Gary Michael Perry, acting head of fiction at the famous Foyles bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road. Having found translations from the Dominican Republic to be fairly thin on the ground during my quest, I was delighted to have the chance to sample this Caribbean nation’s Spanish-language literature (back in 2012, I read Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was written in English with elements of Spanglish thrown in).

Roving between an apocalyptic near future, the recent past and distant history, Tentacle, Achy Obejas’s translation of Rita Indiana’s La mucama de Omicunlé, is a bold and startling exploration of many of the big issues facing humanity today, including the role of technology, climate change, religion and colonial legacies. It takes the aftermath of a series of ecological disasters in the 2020s as its starting point and follows the fortunes of maid Acilde and troubled artist Argenis as they travel back and forth between 2037 and 1606, in search of ways to save themselves and head off the catastrophes that precipitate the story’s beginning.

Indiana’s technical ingenuity is this novella’s greatest strength. Rather than simply jumping between narratives in different time periods, she crashes the experiences together, playing out several story lines in one go. The most impressive example is when Argenis, who has been invited to participate in a residency to generate artwork that will hopefully raise funds and awareness to promote oceanic conservation, begins to experience ‘involuntary projections’ in his mind that lead him to function on two planes simultaneously. Indiana manages a rare feat: communicating a coherent experience of confusion, such that readers are able to inhabit Argenis’s bewilderment at being at once in his present and among buccaneers in the distant past without evoking the sort of frustration that would render the story unreadable.

There are also instances of wonderful playfulness. Indiana’s exploration of the possibilities of technology in the near future – where we might, for example, have access to a PriceSpy that will enable us to spot whether someone’s clothes are fake – are joyous, thought-provoking and sometimes alarming. Presenting us with a reality where access to data is as necessary to human survival as food, the author invites us to join her characters in stepping outside the present, so that we can look in and view much of what we take for granted about our contemporary reality with wondering and sometimes wary eyes.

The virtuosity of many of the descriptive passages is striking. The section where one of the characters undergoes an organic sex change as part of the fulfillment of a prophecy stands out for the way Obejas and Indiana find formulations for experiences beyond the reach of common human conception, bringing the seemingly unimaginable into words.

As with most, ambitious works, however, this marvellously inventive novella comes with a few health warnings. It deals with extreme situations and ideas, and its language registers and the events it contains reflect these.

In addition, for all Indiana’s technical ingenuity, Tentacle is not an easy read. Those who venture into it will have to work to keep abreast of its multiple threads, as well as accept that sometimes meaning may drop off a cliff edge, disappearing where we cannot follow. It is perhaps best enjoyed like the ocean that washes through so many of its pages – with a readiness to immerse ourselves, balanced with an awareness of how far we have ventured from the shore.

Tentacle (La mucama de Omicunlé) by Rita Indiana, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories, 2018)

Picture: ‘Bavaro Sunrise, Dominican Republic‘ by Joe deSousa on flickr.com

Book of the month: Yoko Tawada

This last selection of 2018 was made partly in response to a comment on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page. Reacting to my review of Sofi Oksanen’s harrowing novel Purge, Susan wrote: ‘All your book choices have a “ dark” sad quality to them. I even predicted this one! You need to find someone in the whole wide world that writes with some humor or happiness!’

While my voyage through international literature has taken in some sunny vistas, from the irrepressibly curious and joyful memoir An African in Greenland by Togolese explorer Tété-Michel Kpomassie to the hilarious and thought-provoking Lake Como by Serbian author Srđan Valjarević, it’s fair to say that most of my recent picks have tended towards the darker end of the spectrum. As a result, I decided to take up Susan’s challenge and find something funny with which to see the year out.

It wasn’t as easy as you might think. For a start, humorous translations are relatively thin on the ground. This may be something to do with the fact that, genre fiction aside, a large proportion of the texts that make it into English from other languages tend towards the literary end of the spectrum. In the anglophone world, ‘literary’ tends to equate to ‘serious’.

There’s also the issue that jokes can be difficult to carry from one language to another. Sometimes this is down to the fact that a lot of humour is rooted in word play, but it can also be owing to cultural differences that mean that a sequence likely to have one set of people roaring with laughter may leave another group cold.

As a result, the funny literature in translation tends to fall into three categories – the satirical, the surreal and what I’ll call circumstantial or fish-out-of-water stories, in which we watch an unlikely protagonist thrown into a challenging scenario with, hopefully, hilarious results. I’ve tried several books in all three categories in the last few weeks.

In the satire camp, I was intrigued by Vladimir Lorchenkov’s The Good Life Elsewhere, translated by Ross Ufberg, a biting account of increasingly desperate attempts by a group of villagers in one of Europe’s poorest countries to get to Italy and the better life they imagine they’ll lead there. As so little Moldovan literature comes into English, it was great to see another voice from the country represented in the world’s most published language. However, the bleakness of the humour (featuring suicides, people trafficking and all manner of extreme experiences) was such that I wasn’t convinced the book satisfied my brief.

Among my fish-out-of-water reads, I romped through Nichola Smalley’s translation of Emmy Abrahamson’s How to Fall in Love with a Man who Lives in a Bush, a quirky account of a Swedish woman’s love affair with a homeless man in Austria. There were some particularly amusing scenes set in an English-language school, which played deftly on the malapropisms inevitable when learning a new tongue, and I was interested to discover that the novel was inspired by the author’s relationship with her now-husband. Still, enjoyable though it was, the book felt a little too light for my tastes. I wanted something that would make me think as well as smile.

That left the surreal. Here, I gravitated towards Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, attracted partly by the name of celebrated translator Susan Bernofsky, who directs the Literary Translation programme at Columbia University in the States. As she translated the work from Tawada’s German manuscript, I’m counting this as a German read, although a separate, earlier version exists in Japanese.

Concepts don’t come much more unusual than the one behind this book. It consists of three interlinked short stories examining the interaction between captive polar bears and the people who work with them, taking in a sweep of twentieth-century history along the way.

Swooping in and out of the heads of the ursine and human figures in its pages, the narrative delights and surprises. Humour comes from crashing the two worlds together – presenting bears holding down administrative jobs, battling writer’s block and crossing picket lines – and the opportunity this gives Tawada to make our world strange to us. Through the eyes of polar bears, the rituals of organisations such as the Young Pioneers and ideas such as make-up are exposed as arbitrary and potentially foolish.

In addition to raising a smile, this oddness enables the author to explore big questions. By bending language and stepping outside the anthropocentric framework most stories take for granted, she and Bernofsky invite a reconsideration of concepts including nature, nationality, art, politics and rights. The human perspective is revealed to be one of many, reminding us that, as Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has put it, ‘we are living on a tiny island of consciousness within a perhaps limitless ocean of alien mental states’.

Is this the sort of uplifting book Susan had in mind? Perhaps not quite, although it is inspiring in its way. Is it laugh-out-loud funny? No – to be honest, I’m still looking for another one of those. (Please do put any suggestions below.) Is it worth reading? Absolutely.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear (Etüden im Schnee) by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2016)

Wishing everyone a very happy 2019. Thanks so much for your support and interest in my reading adventures. Check back soon for some exciting news!

Book of the month: Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

This week saw a gap filled in on the literary world map. Yesterday, the first ever novel from Mauritania to be translated into English was published by Dedalus, at last making it possible for anglophone readers to access traditionally published storytelling from Africa’s eleventh-largest sovereign state.

The release of Rachael McGill’s translation of Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s Amadou-Kourouma prize-winning The Desert and the Drum makes the West African nation the latest of several countries to have a literary work made available for the first time in the planet’s most published language since my 2012 quest to read the world. Other examples include Turkmenistan and Madagascar.

Watching the first of what I hope will be many such works come to market has been a great joy. My project taught me that storytelling is not only a universal human impulse but a vital tool for building understanding across cultural, geographical, political and religious barriers. When countries do not have a presence on the global bookshelf, we all lose. So, when Jethro Soutar, whose translation of the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be commercially available in English was published last year, got in touch to let me know about The Desert and The Drum, I was of course eager to take a look.

Alternating between past and present, the novel follows Rayhana, a Bedouin girl who has fled her camp, taking with her the ceremonial drum that is her tribe’s most prized possession. As the narrative unfolds, we travel with the fugitive to the author’s home city of Atar, learning what has driven her from her community as we witness her increasingly desperate efforts to recover the only thing that can restore her peace.

The novel was an excellent choice for translation. As a journey narrative, many of the episodes it describes are as unfamiliar and strange to the protagonist as they will probably be to most anglophone readers, making discovery part of the emotional arc of the book.

This means that the rituals and practices described in the text do not have the dutiful, anthropological air that often characterises such passages in translations of literature from less widely known cultures because they play a role in advancing the action. The best example is the extended account of Rayhana’s marriage ceremony, in which the role that the bride is supposed to play – pretending to be indifferent as the groom and his friends try to steal her away – cruelly matches her feelings.

That said, this episode does give rise to what I suspect may be an editorial intervention designed to bridge the gap between western sensibilities and the unsettling nuances of the wedding-night tradition:

‘It was up to the husband to overcome the distance between them, to quell her fears, to oblige the ignorant young girl to receive him. It was a rape of sorts, but it was tradition.’

Unless Beyrouk wrote with an eye to the international market, or unless his urban Mauritanian readership is so utterly divorced from the Bedouin community that their rituals are unknown to them (which I find unlikely having encountered descriptions of similar ceremonies in other West African literature), it seems improbable that this explanation about the ritual being akin to a rape would have featured in the original.* Still, I would be delighted to be corrected – do tell me if you know better!

Such jarring notes are rare. Translator McGill has found a register that is at once simple and precise, conveying images that spark both surprise and recognition. Take the description of Rayhana’s friend regarding her so intently that it seems as if she is trying ‘to mount the horses of [Rayhana’s] words and ride right inside [her]’ or this portrayal of her mother, who ‘had crossed the Sahara of doubt  long ago, never to return’. Such phrases at once root the story in its setting and convey its sense to readers everywhere.

This balancing of the specific and the universal is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Grounded in the traditions that drive it and yet brimming with observations that are true wherever you read them, the novel bears the hallmark of great literature, making one little corner of the world an everywhere in which all manner of people can meet.

The Desert and the Drum is an exciting and compelling addition to the anglophone library. While it is unreasonable to expect one book to bear the weight of representing an entire nation – and while I hope we will one day look back with amazement on the era when there was only one story available in English from many nations – there is no doubt that this is a great ambassador for Mauritanian literature.

Thanks for giving us the chance to read it, Dedalus. Where next?

The Desert and the Drum (Le tambour des larmes) by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk, translated from the French by Rachael McGill (Dedalus, 2018)

* I would also urge Dedalus to rethink its policy on footnotes. Many of them seemed unnecessary and distracting, and the information they contained would have been better cut or placed in the body of the text, even if that meant dispensing with a few of the original terms.

Book of the month: Sofi Oksanen

This book has been on my radar for a long time. I almost wrote that it has been on my TBR mountain since Lola Rogers’s English translation first came out in 2010, but of course that isn’t the case. Back then, when my reading was limited almost exclusively to the products of anglophone writers, this novel would have passed me by.

Still, it was one of the recommendations I got when I asked the world to give me its book suggestions back in 2012. Nearly seven years later, with the help of a nudge from simonlitton on Twitter, I finally got round to Purge by Sofi Oksanen.

The story starts in 1992 when elderly Estonian villager Aliide Truu finds a bedraggled young woman, Zara, in her yard. Against her better judgement, and in spite of her fear that she could be the victim of a trick, she takes the visitor in. The uneasy interaction that follows initiates a slow unfolding of painful personal and national histories, revealing the loyalties and betrayals that link the two characters and making possible a kind of redemption that they might never have been able to achieve individually.

At its best, Oksanen and Rogers’s writing is powerful and spare. Using details adroitly, the narrative sweeps readers back and forth over decades, delivering some profoundly evocative scenes along the way. There are moments of great poignancy, as when we read about Aliide catching sight of the man she falls in love with, in the instant before he sets eyes on her beautiful older sister.

There is also horror. The description of the way trafficked girls passing out of service become canvases for the aspiring tattoo artist who controls them inks itself onto the imagination. Similarly, Oksanen presents the process by which victims internalise abuse and can grow to hate others who have experienced such violations with memorable clarity.

Often the source of the book’s power lies in Oksanen’s awareness of when to stop writing. The most shocking scene in the novel works by galloping the reader towards its terrible conclusion and then stopping just short of the brutal act towards which it has been racing, like a horse refusing a jump, so that the reader is bucked into the hideous conclusion of the scene alone. Reticence also adds a great deal to the account of the following day, when the traumatised women and Aliide’s young niece return home to eat ‘their pancakes with rubber lips, glass eyes shiny and dry, waxed cloth skin dry and smooth’. By refusing to address what has happened directly, Oksanen conveys the ruination of their domestic peace much more effectively than a frank explanation could do.

This approach also works when it comes to the numerous historical events upon which the narrative touches. The Chernobyl disaster is a good example. Although it is  a relatively small component in the overall narrative arc, Oksanen makes it count by seizing on a few arresting details to bring home its monstrous impact:

‘Later Aliide heard the stories of fields covered in dolomite and trains filled with evacuees, children crying, soldiers driving families from their homes, and strange flakes, strangely glittering, that filled their yards, and children trying to catch them as they fell, and little girls wanting to wear them in their hair for decoration, but then the flakes disappeared, and so did the children’s hair.’

The writing is not always this good. There are some questionable adjectives and places where repetitions feel clumsy (impossible for me to know whether this was the case in the original). There are also a few too many similes that don’t work hard enough to earn their place. In addition, Oksanen (and I’m pretty certain this must be down to her unless Rogers did some substantial rewriting when she translated the novel) has a habit of finishing scenes with a single-sentence detail about an insect or bird on the fringes of the action. It can be very effective, but she uses this device a little too often and by the middle of the book it’s rather wearing.

The structural daring of the book also makes for the occasional wobble. Now and then, cutting back and forth across the decades necessitates the inclusion of some expository passages that jar with the narrative’s usual reticence. In particular, the extracts from the notebook of Aliide’s brother-in-law Hans feel bald to the point of functional a lot of the time.

Issues like this are almost inevitable, however, in books of such ambition. They certainly don’t spoil the ride. This novel is as engrossing as it is important, shedding light on a side of history too often neglected in the English-speaking world. Oksanen should be congratulated for the risks she takes – when they pay off, as they do most of the time, she is hard to beat.

Purge (Puh-distus) by Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (Atlantic, 2011)

Picture: ‘Room III Patarei Prison’ by Raimo Papper on flickr.com

Book of the month: Tarjei Vesaas

Another recommendation from blog visitors provided September’s book of the month. Back in 2017, CJ Fearnley left a comment alerting me to Norwegian poet and novelist Tarjei Vesaas’s 1963 classic The Ice Palace and sharing a link to an essay he had written about it. A year later, Ragnhild nudged me about it again in response to my review of the work of another Nynorsk writer, Carl Frode Tiller.

Impressed that two visitors should have been moved to recommend the work of a novelist writing half a century ago in a language form that is the official written system for only around twelve per cent of Norway’s population, I resolved to check out Vesaas’s most famous work.

Charting the effect of a young girl’s disappearance on a rural community, The Ice Palace is, on the surface, a very simple book. It is told largely from the perspective of eleven-year-old Siss, who begins to befriend the oddly self-sufficient Unn after she moves in with her aunt and begins to attend Siss’s school. But when Unn ventures off to visit the palace of the title – a fantastical natural construction that forms around a nearby waterfall each winter – and fails to return, questions about her whereabouts and the conversation she had with Siss the evening before she disappeared start to show up cracks in the smooth surface of village life.

At first, the book’s simplicity can make it seem a little underwhelming. Opening with Siss’s first visit to Unn’s aunt’s house, the novel consists for some pages of little more than awkward conversations and false starts as the two girls struggle to navigate the strange affinity that they feel – so much so that Siss is sometimes ‘forced to talk nonsense in her perplexity’. Although the dynamics are beautifully judged, there is an oddly aimless feel to the narrative, as though the story is drifting along in spite of itself.

However, just as the lake water gathers pace as it is sucked towards the waterfall, so the story gains momentum as the book advances. As soon as Unn wanders off and discovers the dazzling and treacherous ice palace, Vesaas has us firmly in his thrall. The writing here, as the little girl ventures further into the labyrinth and begins to succumb to hypothermia and its attendant hallucinations is extraordinary. Readers will find elements of nightmarish dream sequences, fables and their own fears refracted through the glittering walls – Bluebeard meets Alice in Wonderland amid the weird manoeuvres of the subconscious. Through it all, the terrible allure of self-destruction shimmers, making the impossible contradictions that lie at the heart of human existence plain.

Much like the story, the novel’s language is deceptively simple. Although the writing is often spare, it frequently stretches words in surprising ways in an effort to contain its subject matter. Credit must go here to translator Elizabeth Rokkan for the work she has done to produce a text that is compelling and urgent even as it veers between tenses and perspectives, and sometimes flouts rules for good writing.

Whereas many writers strive to avoid tautology, repetition and double negatives, Vesaas and Rokkan use them as tools, often to communicate characters’ mental tics or patterns of thinking. This sentence from the section where Unn wanders off is a good example:

‘Her words seemed like fences alongside the road to school; it was difficult to climb over them, and they led straight to school.’

Here, the repetition of ‘school’ deftly conveys the way that Unn’s thoughts are dragged back and back to place she is avoiding.

It is a neat, microcosmic example of currents that run throughout the book, drawing all the elements of the opening chapters to tumble and churn in the plunge pool of the trauma at the novel’s heart before passing into the relative tranquility of the river beyond. A masterpiece.

The Ice Palace (Is-slottet) by Tarjei Vesaas, translated from the Nynorsk by Elizabeth Rokkan (Penguin, 2018)

Picture: ‘DSCF5384‘ by subflux on flickr.com

Book of the month: Trifonia Melibea Obono

August is Women in Translation month. This is an excellent initiative started in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinski to highlight the fact that less than a third of the books translated into English each year are written by women. As I realised when I totted up my numbers a couple of years ago, my quest broadly reflected the gender imbalance in publishing in 2012 – only 27 per cent of the books I read that year were by female authors.

As a result, I welcome the continued efforts of bloggers like Radzinski to bring translated work by women to wider audiences and am pleased to see a new reading women writers worldwide project by journalist Sophie Baggott getting off to a flying start. For my own small contribution to the cause, I read only work by women in August.

This year has seen some great additions to the anglophone global bookshelf, including several fascinating reads from underrepresented countries and languages. Examples include Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis, and Celestial Bodies by Omani author Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth.

My pick for this month, however, comes not only from a little represented country, but from a minority perspective in that nation. La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, is not only the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into the world’s most published language, but it is also one of the few LGBTQ African novels to have come onto my radar.

The story follows the coming of age of Okomo, a motherless girl who sets out to try to find her father, and in the process discovers some challenging truths about herself and her traditional Fang culture. As she becomes aware of her desires and of the way that people like her and her Uncle Marcelo – a ‘fan e mina’ or ‘man-woman’ – stand outside society’s norms, the protagonist is pushed towards a deeper understanding of the impulses that drive her and the forces that have shaped the world in which she must find a place.

The novel provides fascinating insights into a way of life that feels far removed from Western urban culture. With its glimpses of Fang traditions – including the belief that women can prove their femininity by handling hot pots without cloths and the expectations surrounding polygamous marriages – it will offer rich material for readers hungry for details of places they might never visit in person. The presentation of the LGBTQ elements of the story is also striking. (‘There isn’t a word for it. It’s like you don’t exist,’ explains Uncle Marcelo to Okomo, although translator Schimel does opt to include the English term ‘lesbian’ later in the book.)*

Yet some of the narrative’s most memorable and often funny moments have a ring of universality to them too. Okomo’s grandfather’s misogynistic ramblings about the suitable behaviour of young girls, for example, and her grandmother’s attempts to manipulate her younger relatives feel instantly recognisable. Okomo also displays a deadpan humour that would be authentic in the mouth of a teenager anywhere.

At times, the book almost feels like a fable or fairy tale. Recalling some of the fantastic elements of By Night the Mountain Burns, as well as the Nigerian classic The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the narrative takes flight when Okomo ventures into the forest, a place where restrictive rules fall away and she is free to be herself. As Abosede George writes in her thoughtful Afterword, this use of the setting confronts common claims that LGBTQ issues are ‘unAfrican’ by rooting these characters and their relationships in the soil.

There is no hiding the fact that this book requires work from anglophone readers. Its perspective and cultural references will inevitably have a distancing effect for many. In addition, the differences in approaches to pacing, repetition and taboos may mean a lot of Western readers find the narrative leaping forward when they expect more build up and circling back when they are impatient to press ahead. Characters may also appear coy and blunt by turns as their mores clash with anglophone norms.

Most of these issues, however, have more to do with many English-language readers’ limitations – reinforced by the prevailing trends in publishing – than with La Bastarda itself. It is a significant book. The more such stories we read, the better we will learn to understand them.

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel (Feminist Press, 2018)

Picture: ‘Bioko_2010_1891‘ by NathanaelStanek on flickr.com

*After I wrote this review, translator Lawrence Schimel explained to me that the Spanish word ‘lesbiana’ is present in two places in the book, hence his inclusion of the English term. There is no word for lesbian in the Fang language. Apparently, the way to approach this was a source of considerable discussion during the editing process.

Book of the month: Esther Gerritsen

Some books stay with you. I wasn’t going to feature another Dutch novel for a while, having written about Herman Koch’s Dear Mr M relatively recently. But then I got sucked into reading Esther Gerritsen’s Craving (translated by Michele Hutchison) after World Editions sent it to me along with a couple of other titles to mark Boekenweek (an annual festival of literature in The Netherlands). Four months later, it’s still on my mind.

In fact, Craving is one of several memorable Dutch novels I’ve read in recent years, among them Sam Garrett’s long-anticipated translation of Gerard Reve’s classic The Evenings and Jaap Robben’s You Have Me to Love, brought into English by David Doherty. Powerful and atmospheric though these books are, however, they didn’t quite get their claws into me in the way that Craving managed to do.

On the face of it, this is a very simple novel. The erratic Coco returns home to live with her terminally ill mother after years of estrangement. Their renewed proximity forces a re-examination of their troubled relationship and something of a rapprochement that sheds fresh light on both their lives.

As with several other contemporary Dutch novels, including Robben’s and Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (translated by David Colmer), Craving focuses on filial relationships. It has the feel of a film shot exclusively in close-up, with small details representing dramatic shifts. This means that although Craving does not share the isolated settings of Robben’s and Bakker’s books, it possesses a similar quiet intensity, which comes from the narrative containing a minimal amount of background noise.

The words work hard here. Credit is due to Michele Hutchison for the way she has managed to present text that is as powerful as it is spare, where almost every phoneme seems to perform multiple functions – conveying the action, revealing specific emotional truths and acting as broader statements about the human experience. Even the comma splices that would usually have pedants bristling seem to work within the context of the narrative voice.

The efficiency of the dialogue is testament to the power of the language. Normally, I get frustrated by reams of unattributed statements and struggle to remember who is saying what without a reminder every three or four lines. In Craving, however, the character of each speaker comes across so clearly that I barely noticed the lack of signposts.

The economy of expression allows for some great comic moments too. Bathos and distraction are favourite devices for Gerritsen, who delights in reminding us how the monumental and banal coexist and colour one another, gilding significant moments with foolishness and elevating mundane happenings to precarious importance.

Through it all, Gerritsen never loses sight of the pattern she is weaving. She threads story deftly through the text, so that the whole picture comes into focus gradually. Instead of the neat reveal common in more commercial books, the central meaning emerges in such a way that it cannot be condensed or explained but can be comprehended only by reading the words set out in precisely the order the author has chosen. No more, no less.

Craving (Dorst) by Esther Gerritsen, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison (World Editions, 2015)