Book of the month: Tiphaine Rivière

In my previous post on book clubs, I mentioned that international literary prizes can often be a good source of reading suggestions. February’s Book of the month is a neat demonstration of that. Indeed, in this case a literary award encouraged me to discover not just an author I’d never read before, but a whole new genre.

Francesca Barrie’s translation of Tiphaine Rivière’s Carnets de thèse (Notes on a Thesis to you and me) is one of six books on the inaugural shortlist of the TA First Translation Prize. Set up and endowed by writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn, the annual award recognises outstanding debut translations published in the UK, with the first winner announced tomorrow (March 1).

The award is unusual in that, unlike most comparable honours, the original author of the book does not receive part of the prize money. Instead, the  credit goes entirely to the person who rewrote their words in English.

The presence of Notes on a Thesis on the shortlist marks the award out in another way too. It is rare to see a graphic novel in contention for a prize like this. Although the art form is taken very seriously in many parts of the globe, books that use pictures to tell stories tend not to get much attention from the English-speaking literary establishment. As a result, they don’t come onto the radars of many anglophone readers.

This was certainly true for me. Being a wordy person with relatively poor visual sense, I’ve never really ventured into the genre. Had it not been for the presence of Notes on a Thesis on the TAFTP shortlist, the work would almost certainly have passed me by.

However, when I looked it up, the premise struck me as irresistible. Told through the eyes of a young woman, Jeanne, who gets accepted to do a PhD in Paris, the book sets out to satirise the university system. Sparked off by a blog Rivière started after three years working on a thesis herself, it is, according to the blurb on the back, ‘a wickedly funny graphic novel about academic life, for anyone who’s ever missed a deadline.’

I snapped up a copy and took it with me to the University of Kent, where, in between seeing students (many of them working on PhDs) in my capacity as a Royal Literary Fund fellow, I quickly fell under the spell of Rivière’s craft.

‘Wickedly funny’ does not begin to cover it. This is a book that will have readers laughing out loud and rushing to share the jokes. The observations are precise and devastating. A range of killer characters comes to life in a handful of sentences – from the secretary with ‘a secret tactic: feigning gross incompetence to wear down her adversaries, until they eventually stop asking her to do anything at all’ to the PhD supervisor who prescribes reading the complete works of Schopenhauer as a way of getting rid of his charge.

One of the great joys of the book is the way Rivière’s illustrations not only portray but also advance the story. Take this series of ID card snapshots revealing the toll Jeanne’s thesis takes on her over the course of four years.

Or this spread capturing the experience of giving a paper and then waiting nervously for questions at the end.

The publisher’s decision to market Notes on a Thesis at the academic community is understandable, but people from all walks of life will find much to recognise and chuckle at here. Whether it’s the excruciating family Christmas where well-meaning relatives unwittingly rip apart your ambitions, or the irrational, middle-of-the-night heart-to-heart with the partner who has been forced to ride the roller-coaster of your dreams with you, the pages brim with telling and hilarious details.

Although books about writing are common, it is unusual to see the business of trying to put pen to paper captured in pictures. Notes on a Thesis is both a joy and a surprise, richly deserving of literary recognition even as it pokes fun at much of the paraphernalia associated with that world.

If this is an example of what graphic novels have to offer, I have got a lot to learn.

Notes on a Thesis (Carnets de thèse) by Tiphaine Rivière, translated from the French by Francesca Barrie (Jonathan Cape, 2016)

Book of the month: Ahmet Altan

Writing is hard. There’s the problem of finding ideas rich enough to spin stories out of, the battle with self-doubt, the struggle to maintain focus, the financial insecurity and the frequent tangle with rejection. For most of us who write in English, however, the challenges largely end there.

The same is not true for writers in many other languages. With the skewed international market favouring anglophone books, making a living is frequently even more difficult for authors in other tongues. In addition, those in regimes hostile to freedom of expression often have to contend with attempts to limit their work and their lives, an experience all too familiar to the author of my latest Book of the month.

I first heard about Turkish writer Ahmet Altan a few weeks ago when I read an article by him in The Author, the UK’s Society of Authors’ members’ magazine. The piece was a striking account of what it is like to write inside a prison cell. The celebrated novelist and former newspaper editor is something of an expert on the topic: he has spent much of the last 18 months in detention for charges including ‘giving subliminal messages in favour of a coup on television’, ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ and ‘attempting to overthrow the government’.

I was gripped by Altan’s writing. Deeply personal and yet so lyrical that it almost tipped over into poetry at times, the article was a defiant assertion of the power of the imagination in the face of tyranny. I lost no time in seeking out one of Altan’s novels to read in English.

Endgame, translated by Alexander Dawe, has been called a Turkish noir novel by several reviewers. The premise makes it clear why: a writer retires to a remote community only to find himself plunged into intrigue when the place reveals itself to be a hotbed of jealousy and murder. Having been turned into a killer himself, he sits alone in the centre of the town, awaiting the dawn and arrival of those who will surely come to seek revenge for what he has done. The novel spans this night, taking us back over the events that have led him to this point.

So far, so dark and thrillerish. Indeed, the early pages contain many passages that could cheerfully sit in any number of mystery novels written around the world. From the suspenseful evocation of the sinister and controlling Mayor Mustafa, to loaded hints about strangers being unwelcome and rumours of shady activity surrounding the ancient church on top of the hill, where treasure is thought to be hidden, the text is rife with mechanisms calculated to keep the pages turning. There are also a number of local details that are as intriguing as they are disturbing – the hitmen who are so nonchalant that they arrive in minibuses, for example.

Yet, as is so often the case when we English speakers try to shoehorn stories from elsewhere into our prefabricated boxes, the fiction label ‘noir’ (reportedly popularized by crime fiction editor Barry Gifford in the 1980s) risks squashing this novel out of shape in prospective readers’ minds. For one thing, the pace is by no means always commensurate with the and-then-and-then-and-then of much genre fiction. The narrative meanders at times, digressing to consider existential questions or stepping back from events to see them with a distance that creates room for fresh insights. Take, for example, the narrator’s response to witnessing a man being shot dead in the local coffee shop:

‘You’re sitting there reading the horse racing pages and some guy comes and blows your brains out.

A brain picturing galloping horses was suddenly splattered over the coffeehouse floor, sending imaginary horses racing through the grass. I could see the jockeys in colourful outfits riding on their backs. All of the hopes and schemes, frustrations and desires, jealousies and passions that had resided within the folds of that brain were then washed away with a bucket of water.

The sum of a man’s memory had been destroyed.’

There is beauty and wistfulness in much of the writing. The opening sequence, for instance, in which the protagonist claims to be able to see the town’s sleeping inhabitants’ dreams escaping out of windows and chimneys to frolic together is touching. The same is true of insights such as: ‘We can’t fit a whole person into one life. This life we live is too small for all desires.’ These are the kind of observations that resonate across cultures and genres, and stay with you long after plot and character detail are gone.

Some aspects of this book will be challenging for those used to mainstream anglophone fiction. The frequent references to God and sin are striking; although the protagonist claims not to be a believer, he frequently rails against the creator, often chiding Him for placing him in a badly plotted novel. In addition, the earthy and occasionally misogynistic presentation of women may be off-putting for some – the narrator has no hesitation in indulging in a little objectification now and again. There’s also the challenge of unfamiliar pacing, which sometimes sees Altan lingering over a scene or idea that an English-language writer might hurry through and visa versa.

Such wrinkles in alignment are almost inevitable, however, when it comes to encountering literature from elsewhere. Indeed they are often part of the joy. And if it’s joy you’re looking for, this book has plenty to offer. Funny, thoughtful, savage and audacious, this is a novel that will enthrall and surprise. Like its author, it cannot be constrained within boundaries set by others. It is entirely itself.

#AhmetAltan #FreeTurkeyMedia Find more information on the campaign to free Ahmet Altan here.

Endgame (Son Oyun) by Ahmet Altan, translated from the Turkish by Alexander Dawe (Canongate, 2015)

Picture: ‘prison‘ by Raffaella on

Book of the month: Herman Koch


A while ago I got an email from a reader. She had enjoyed my novel, Beside Myself, she told me. But she particularly wanted to congratulate me on not having put a writer in it, this authorial habit being one of her pet hates.

Her message got me thinking. Stories featuring storytellers are pretty common. They’re also fairly universal. From Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire to Stephen King’s Misery, and from One Thousand and One Nights to Alice Munro’s ‘Family Furnishings’, the international literary landscape is thronged with imaginary wordsmiths. And, unfortunately for my correspondent, many of us seem to enjoy reading about them.

I suspect this is because where there are writers you usually find readers (or listeners) too. There can be few more satisfying things than recognising something in a book you are reading. Whether it’s an observation about an experience you have gone through or a truism about a particular sort of person or situation you know well, that flash of connection when a writer captures something you have long felt is a joy.

As a result, books that feature readers have a head start because they automatically contain subject matter that has the potential to resonate with every person who picks them up. This is a double-edged sword, however, because the sheer volume of literary works containing readers and writers means that any new contribution has to do something special to stand out.

At first glance, it seems that bestselling Dutch writer Herman Koch’s Dear Mr M, which hinges on the real-life and fictional accounts of the mysterious death of a school teacher several decades previously, may be a competent yet unremarkable addition to the genre. A number of familiar tropes and characters greet us in the opening chapters – the sinister fan with ‘certain plans’ for the object of his attentions, the jaded, ageing, white male author fearful that his greatest work is behind him, the suggestion that certain fictional events may bear more than a passing resemblance to real life.

Yet, as the pages turn, this literary novel in thriller’s clothing opens out like an umbrella, becoming something much more elaborate and impressive than its beginnings promise. Far from reading a neat and compulsive – yet ultimately familiar – account of the working through of a literary obsession, we find ourselves in the grip of a story that questions not only its own framework but the foundations of storymaking itself.

Looking and watching sit at the novel’s heart. Koch turns these themes around to explore their many angles using the ingenious device of having one of the central characters film various key events and then play them back at different points. The result is that we read several scenes from diverse perspectives, discovering how certain details recede or become accentuated depending on who is looking and why.

Although dark in tone, the book is not without playfulness. The jibes at the Amsterdam book-club scene (there is a particularly excellent sequence in a library, where Mr M is invited to do a reading and we are let in on his gripes about everything from the librarian’s haircut to the dog-haired blanket in the car that will drive him home) are as hilarious as they are daring. Similarly, numerous misanthropic observations about many of the lesser characters recall the delicious, if somewhat jaundiced, humour of recently translated Dutch classic The Evenings.

The complexity and sophistication of the narrative’s construction – it switches perspective and timeframes frequently – means that this is a more demanding read than its marketing might imply. Those wishing to be swept along by a comfortable whodunnit should opt for something else. It’s also the kind of book that repays lengthy reading sessions rather than brief dips in and out. There are so many threads that it’s easy to get in a tangle if you don’t keep a firm grip.

But for those with the time and energy, this story will more than reward the effort. Smart, stylish and beautifully controlled, this is one of those rare books that at once offers a great story and moves its genre forward.

Dear Mr M (Geachte heer M.) by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Picador, 2016)

Picture: ‘Diamond 530 NS4‘ by *Physalis on

Book of the month: Naivo

This month’s pick is a special one. About a year ago, I reported that this project had prompted US-based translator Allison M. Charette to travel to Madagascar in search of a book that could become the first complete novel to be translated into and published in English from the island nation. A few weeks ago, I finally got to read it.

Set in the precolonial era when slavery was practised in the nation, Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo (Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa) presents the intertwined stories of Fara and her father’s slave, Tsito. As the changes of the 19th century buffet their homeland, sending waves of white (vazaha) missionaries and industrialists to challenge the ancient hierarchies – and instigating a violent crackdown on Western practices by the reigning monarchs – the pair must navigate the choppy waters of their personal histories. In so doing, they come to see themselves and each other differently, identifying what is valuable in the society that surrounds them and learning what they must reject.

As with novels such as the (as yet unpublished in English) Ualalapi from Mozambique, unfamiliarity is one of the great joys of this text for anglophone readers. From details such as the importance of the correct arrangement of domestic objects so as to please the ancestors and striking expressions – ‘by my father’s incest’, for example – through to rituals including the fampitaha competition, a dance contest in which female competitors must, among other things, perform while being carried on men’s shoulders, the book is a lavish representation of a remote and strange world.

Sometimes this is alarming. The graphic presentations of the brutal tangena ritual, in which those accused of witchcraft are forced to drink poison and only deemed to have proved their innocence if they manage to regurgitate three bits of skin, and the executions of Christians hurled to their deaths from cliff tops, are startling. Similarly, the description of the graveyard where the corpses of those put to death are consumed by wild dogs makes for troubling reading.

Difference is everywhere apparent on the linguistic level too (credit to Allison M. Charette here). Arresting images abound. We learn, for instance, that Fara’s father ‘smells like bulls moving to summer pastures’, while an unreliable narrator’s story changes colour constantly ‘like a chameleon when children hiss at it’. British readers will be particularly enthralled by the passage in which Tsito visits Chatham, Kent and describes the English port town through fresh eyes:

‘We crossed through a small wood and finally reached the top of the hill, crowned by a structure called Fort Pitt. It was one of several fortifications that the English had built around their industrial center. This one had been converted into a hospital, treating mostly construction-related injuries, which seemed like a bad sign to me. Man pays an ever-increasing cost to rise to power, no?’

These sorts of unfamiliar ways of viewing and capturing human experience make the text richly nourishing, particularly for English-language readers who also write. They show us new ways of imagining, recalling Goethe’s claim about the importance of literary cross-cultural exchange for keeping storytelling vibrant: ‘Left to itself, every literature will exhaust its vitality if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one.’

Nevertheless, the unfamiliarity of many aspects of the book also poses challenges for English-language readers. Though parts of it are deeply evocative, surprising approaches to pacing and certain storytelling customs, such as announcing the year in which events take place, make some passages feel oddly distant. At times, the text rushes through the deaths of fairly major characters only to linger for pages at a time on the rhythms of the rural day. These differences in weighting can be distracting, but, for readers able to keep an open mind, they are hugely informative too: they reveal what is important both to Naivo and his original readers. In this way, they are perhaps as illuminating about life in Madagascar as the historical events described.

Readers may also struggle to keep tabs on the vast cast of characters that move through the text. The unfamiliar hierarchies of the Malagasy monarchy compound this, making the machinations of various pretenders to power hard to follow.

However, as with the pacing, this is less a problem inherent in the text than a challenge for Western readers to overcome. It is a function of the fact that, by and large, we anglophone booklovers don’t venture into narratives that diverge very far from the models of storytelling we know.

For those who are able to push through this barrier, the rewards are rich: vivid, thought-provoking narration; rich, mind-furnishing imagery; and an insight into a place and time that has hitherto been absent from the English-language literary landscape. Being a nation’s first text to be translated into the world’s most-published language is a heavy burden for any novel to bear, but Beyond the Rice Fields more than stands up to the challenge. It is proof that the anglophone exploration of Malagasy literature is long overdue.

Beyond the Rice Fields (Au-delà des rizières) by Naivo, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette (Restless Books, 2017)

Book of the month: Liliana Colanzi

With a few notable exceptions, South American countries are generally poorly served when it comes to having their literature translated into the world’s most published language. If you want to venture beyond Colombian, Argentinian or Brazilian literature, you quickly find that quite a few nations only have a handful of their authors’ works available in English.

Bolivia is a case in point. When I cast about for something to read from there in 2012, there seemed to be very little choice. In the end, on the recommendation of the country’s most celebrated contemporary writer, Edmundo Paz Soldán, who graciously responded to my request for thoughts on lesser-known Bolivian writers I might discover, I plumped for the striking and savage short-story collection Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz.

Five years later when a translation of another short-story collection by a female Bolivian writer came onto my radar through #WITMonth, I thought it might make an interesting comparison.

A brief summary of the content of some of the stories in Liliana Colanzi’s Our Dead World, translated by Jessica Sequeira, immediately shows up common ground between the authors. Stories of mental breakdown, maternal cruelty, child death, indigenous slavery and suicide make up the meat of this collection; like Rivero, Colanzi has an eye for the darker side of life.

The similarities don’t end there, for Colanzi’s writing possesses a similar muscularity and violence to Rivero’s. She has no hesitation in plunging us into disturbing scenes – such as the brutal killing of a pig, which opens the story ‘Alfredito’. These she fleshes out in precise and alarming detail, revealing that cruelty lives not in the summary of the things we do but in the moment-by-moment choices to deny, impose, withhold or force.

As with Rivero’s work – and indeed a number of the other Latin American works I’ve read – mental illness and the uncanny loom large. The world is never quite stable or trustworthy. The wave that travels through a university campus, triggering a spate of student suicides, is never explained. Neither are the spooky animals glimpsed by a homesick space traveller on Mars.

What gives Colanzi’s writing its own unique flavour, however, is her love of unusual perspectives. From ‘Family Portrait’, in which the surfacing of longstanding grudges between generations is told largely through the eyes of the photographer’s assistant helping to set up a group photograph, to ‘Story with Bird’, in which the narrator steps back briefly from events to envisage a time when humankind is extinct and other unimaginable beings inhabit the earth, the writer delights in showing us her characters from surprising angles.

The most delicious example is the way she crashes together space time and quotidian human existence at the start of ‘Meteorite’:

‘The meteroid traced the same orbit in the solar system for fifteen million years until the movement of a comet pushed it toward Earth. Even so, it took another twenty thousand more years before it collided with the planet, during which time the world passed through an ice age, mountains shifted and the waves gave land masses a new shape. Innumerable life forms died out forever, while others battled ferociously, adapted and repopulated the Earth. When the object at last entered the atmosphere[…] the igneous ball, a meter and a half in diameter, fell on the outskirts of San Borja. Its spectacular descent from the heavens was witnessed by a couple at home, arguing at five-thirty in the morning.’

Sometimes this playfulness topples into the outright weird. There are digressions and odd turns of events that feel too loosely threaded through the narratives. And, as is almost always the case with collections of this kind, certain of the stories are more successful than others.

On the whole, though, this is an arresting book. Its pieces work together to remind us that, although we are small, short-lived organisms in a vast and ancient universe, we nevertheless have the capacity to do startling things.

Our Dead World (Nuestro mundo muerto) by Liliana Colanzi, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Sequeira (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017)

Picture: ‘Abandoned steam engine in Uyuni train cemetery’ by Jimmy Harris on

Book of the month: Vivek Shanbhag

Since completing my year of reading the world, I’ve been fascinated by literature translated from the 22 languages other than English that have official status in India. One of the most interesting discoveries I made during my project was when an Indian journalist opened my eyes to the work Malayalam writer, MT Vasudevan Nair. So I was delighted to hear about the publication this year of a novel translated into English from the South Indian language of Kannada, which is still barely represented in the anglophone reading world.

Although Ghachar Ghochar is Vivek Shanbhag’s English-language debut, the book is far from being his first work. The celebrated  author from the Indian state of Karnataka has published eight works of fiction and two plays.

His experience and expertise is quickly apparent when you open this novel. Deceptively simple in its premise – the destabilization of dynamics when a business venture dramatically improves a family’s financial circumstances – this slender work relies on deft writing and keen-eyed observation to carry it along. Shanbhag and his translator Srinath Perur – who worked closely together on the English-language version – provide these in abundance.

In a lesser author’s hands this book might easily be a creaky parable about the threats to traditional hierarchies posed by India’s economic boom, or a rambling disquisition on the discontent of the newly comfortable protagonist Vincent. Instead, although the best elements of both these things are woven neatly into the fabric of the story, it is a vivid and moving portrait of humanity in all its contrariness and perversity.

The delight is in the detail. Domestic objects represent and reveal great emotional shifts. For example, in the revelation that Vincent now feels it would be meaningless to buy his mother the sari he dreamed of getting her as a boy when his family lived in a shack on the other side of Bangalore, we see the price of financial gain.

Similarly, profound truths are expressed in handfuls of everyday words: ‘The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness’; ‘the last strands of a relationship can snap from a single glance or a moment of silence’; ‘it is one of the strengths of families to pretend that they desire what is unavoidable’.

It is no surprise to discover that, as Shanbhag reveals in an interview on his English-language publisher’s website, the author is a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory – ‘that most of the story is beneath the surface’. Indeed, he extends this to translation too, regarding the process as the business of ‘taking what is unsaid in a work from one language to another’.

Yet Shanbhag’s writing is warmer than Hemingway’s usually manages to be. There is humour in the occasionally querulous tone of his narrative and evidence of an eye for the ridiculous in the manner in which he sets out his characters’ quirks – the family’s nearly year-long resistance to buying a new pressure cooker on the off-chance that one might be given away at a conference, for example, and the way Vincent’s father, in his original sales job, would spend evenings going over figures ‘again and again until they gave in and agreed’.

The abruptness of the ending will bring some readers up short. Yet, when considered in light of the novel’s title – a nonsense phrase that, among Vincent’s wife’s relatives, signifies things getting tangled up – it makes a kind of sense. The title becomes a prediction – no sooner do we understand its significance than we see it embodied in the story.

Unlike his novel, though, Shanbhag’s English-language career looks far from ending in a knotted mess. Ghachar Ghochar has garnered rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and Shanbhag and Srinath Perur are already preparing another of his books for the anglophone market. About time too.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (Penguin Random House, 2017)

Picture: ‘Busy busy Brigade Road in Bangalore’ by Ryan on

Book of the month: Jana Beňová

August is Women in Translation month. The initiative was started four years ago by translator Meytal Radzinski to challenge the gender imbalance in the anglophone publishing industry. This sees works by women making up only around 30 per cent of books originally written in other languages that make it onto English-language bookshop shelves.

As such, I knew I wanted to review a book by a woman writer this month (although I haven’t gone to the same lengths as last August, when I read 17 translated works by women and featured five on this blog in an effort to start to redress the gender imbalance in my own original project). And as #WITmonth (for the Twitterate among you) is all about championing underrepresented voices, it seemed to make sense to seek out a title from a country that is relatively poorly served for translation overall.

Slovakia is such a nation. Although a relatively wide selection of Czech literature is available in English, there is surprisingly little to sample from the country that made up the other half of Czechoslovakia until its dissolution in 1993. Certainly, back in 2012, I found there were very few titles to choose from (although I did enjoy the novel by Peter Pišťánek that I ended up reading).

So I was intrigued to hear about Seeing People Off, the first English-language translation (done by Janet Livingstone) of the work of European Union Prize for Literature-winner Jana Beňová, whose writing, according to US publisher Two Dollar Radio, bears comparison with the Brazilian great Clarice Lispector. Here, surely, was an exciting title to get my teeth into.

At a mere 126 pages, Seeing People Off might seem to be a sliver of a book. Its contents, however, are far from lightweight. Centred around Elza and her partner Ian, who live in a large apartment block in a district of Bratislava, ‘a place where time plays no role’, the narrative consists of telling fragments of their experiences and of the lives that surround them. We hear snatches of their neighbours’ arguments, as well as lines from the conversations of people at nearby tables in the cafés they frequent. Elements of the main characters’ backstories and those of their friends crop up unannounced, crowbarring themselves into the pages in a way that might at first seem chaotic but quickly creates an arresting whole.

The similarities to Lispector’s work are obvious for, as in The Hour of the Star, the story is told in short bursts, giving the text the appearance of a series of feverish notes on existence. There is the same playful oddness that runs through the Brazilian writer’s work: a river swells its banks and threatens to overwhelm the city; childhood imaginary friends tumble into the narrative and begin to act independently; and Elza, who is writing Seeing People Off and reads out extracts from it to her contemporaries now and then, comments wryly on her reasons for cutting down the space she gives to certain people in the tale and the frustrations of the Slovakian publishing industry.

There are oddball comparisons too. We read, for example, that forlorn figures wandering around a half-closed fun fair remind Elza ‘of England in times when they used children as chimney sweeps’.

Much of this quirkiness is funny, but it can be alarming too. Discussions surrounding a reality TV show set in a concentration camp and cold – almost clinical – accounts of violence and suicide inspire unease as the narrative lurches between what is acceptable and what is not, inviting readers to acknowledge and test this boundary within themselves.

The result is a book that seems to operate partly on the subconscious level, dredging up, inverting and reconfiguring ideas, themes and images. As such, it requires careful reading for, suspended on the finest of threads, the narrative is always only an attention lapse or two away from tumbling into nonsense.

For those who persevere, however, the rewards are great. In a very few words, Beňová tugs at the strings that bind conventional narratives, testing the knots and exposing the weaknesses. In so doing, she reveals that sometimes the point of reading might be to lose the thread.

Seeing People Off  by Jana Beňová, translated from the Slovak by Janet Livingstone (Two Dollars Radio, 2017)

Book of the month: Olga Tokarczuk

As with last month’s pick, July’s Book of the month came by way of a recommendation. I have known Magda Raczyńska, head of literature at the London-based Polish Cultural Institute for five years – ever since we both took an English PEN evening class about translation. Few people know more about what’s coming into English from Poland than Magda, so I always pay attention to her bulletins.

A few months ago, however, her email was particularly enthusiastic. A novel by one of Poland’s most celebrated contemporary authors, Olga Tokarczuk, had been translated into English by Jennifer Croft and was being published as Flights by Fitzcarraldo Editions in May of this year. As is often the case with many of the best books I read, something in the tone of her recommendation told me that this novel was special.

I lost no time ordering a copy. When it arrived, my inkling that this was no ordinary book was reinforced by a single endorsement printed on the back of Fitzcarraldo’s trademark minimalist blue cover: Tokarczuk is ‘a magnificent writer’, according to Belarusian Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich, whose Chernobyl Prayer astonished me last year.

Flights is a challenging book to review. Woven of many threads tracing different kinds of journeys through space and time – stretching back across several centuries and around the globe – this is a novel that defies attempts to summarise it. Instead of the familiar formula of a central character or small group of characters forging their way through the thickets and over the obstacles an author throws in their path to create a single, loosely coherent journey, this is a vast ensemble piece in which voices appear and disappear and new perspectives surface as late as tens of pages from the end.

Rather than characters tying the narrative together, this novel is held together by ideas: reflections on the body, travel, life, death and what it means to move through space. These are expressed through a variety of tropes that crop up repeatedly in the fragmented accounts that, among many other things, portray the story of the Flemish anatomist Philip Verheyen, the journey of Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw and a mother’s abandonment of her chronically ill child to ride the Moscow metro and sleep rough alongside an eccentric homeless woman.

The whole is carried on a current of exquisite writing (credit to Jennifer Croft here), which captures objects and experiences in startlingly fresh ways yet without the showiness that so often attaches itself to works that make heavy use of imagery. Time and again passages such as the description of nightfall on the opening page – ‘Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snail’s eyes; the orchestra of the world has departed, vanishing into the park – had me reaching for my pencil to scrawl an enthusiastic ‘YES’ in the margin. In particular, the extended description of the death of a distinguished lecturer towards the end of the book is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever seen.

Although one of the many voices in the book claims that ‘describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear,’ Tokarczuk challenges this notion on almost every page, bodying forth life in all its vibrancy and strangeness so that we can recognise it anew. She makes us nostalgic for experiences we have never had – childhood holidays in rural Poland, trips to remote islands, conferences in far-flung corners of the globe. Meanwhile, the assuredness of her writing means that the frequent shifts between perspectives and the resumption of some storylines long after their last appearance is rarely a problem.

That said, the narrative will be too diffuse for some readers. Although the majority of the book is taut and compelling, there are odd sections that feel aimless or contain somewhat self-indulgent digressions that an editor might not have let a lesser-known writer keep. I also wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of maps, drawings and other illustrations, most of which are too small to interpret easily (and probably mean that this book is better read in hard copy than on an ereader).

But it almost feels churlish to mention these gripes in the face of such brilliance. The quality of the whole more than makes up for them. In sum, I can only echo the words of a far more discerning reader: Tokarczuk is magnificent.

Flights (Bieguni) by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)

Book of the month: Elena Varvello

Just over three years ago, an Italian novel tempted me out of book-reviewing retirement and formed the subject of the first of my Book of the month posts on this blog. You might have heard of the author – a reclusive chronicler of Naples life who was rising rapidly to fame in the anglophone world when I encountered her work and has since achieved massive international success.

I’m talking, of course, about Elena Ferrante; it was the first in her Neapolitan series, titled My Brilliant Friend in English and translated by Ann Goldstein, that persuaded me to start posting about books again on this blog. I was sent a copy by Daniela Petracco, tireless champion of great literature originating in languages other than English and UK director of Europa Editions. I loved the book and knew I had to tell people about it (I’ve since read The Days of Abandonment and for my money it’s even better than the Neapolitan novels).

So when I received an advance translation of a new Italian novel and, skimming through the publicity material, saw that one of its supporters was Daniela Petracco, I decided I would have to try it. My resolve strengthened when I turned to the Acknowledgements and saw that, far from simply supporting the novel, Petracco was Varvello’s first reader. The chances were that this book would be good.

At first glance, Elena Varvello’s Can You Hear Me? has all the hallmarks of a commercial thriller. The premise is typically high stakes – a young woman’s disappearance in a remote community, a boy’s murder, and a man losing his mind as his son comes of age. Then there’s the opening sentence: ‘In the August of 1978, the summer I met Anna Trabuio, my father took a girl into the woods.’ So far, so nail-biting.

Yet those who venture further into the pages expecting the novel to be nothing more than a page-turner are in for a surprise. For this book offers so much more.

Varvello has published two collections of poetry and it shows. Not only is her writing (translated here by Alex Valente) taut, but it is also exquisitely precise. Rather than scatter-gunning the reader with details, she selects one telling enough to convey an entire character or mood. From the way a person watches their reflection in a mirror, or the briefest of exchanges, the author conjures entire scenes, imbuing her pages by turns with menace, nostalgia and wistfulness.

This talent for concision enables her to convey profound observations without falling into the trap of expressing points too directly or knowingly. Time and again, characters are able to articulate what they are experiencing with stunning clarity, while remaining locked in the fatal subjectivity that is the essence of human experience and – in this and so many other great stories – prevents them from taking the actions that might avert disaster.

Chief among the cast of blinkered individuals is the narrator, Elia’s, father, whose redundancy and subsequent breakdown are the catalysts for much of the action. Menacingly erratic and yet pitiable, he towers from the page.

Varvello’s play with perspective and timeshift adds another layer of fascination. Exploiting many of the possibilities that telling the story through Elia’s eyes at 30 years’ remove presents, she interlaces different threads, employing several voices to blur the lines between memory and fantasy, empathy and repugnance, innocence and guilt.

While keeping the thread of the plot tightly wound and making heavy use of foreshadowing to sustain readers’ interest, she manages not to strike the nakedly manipulative tone that often topples the backdrop in less sophisticated works. Although some will find the sombre foreboding that suffuses the narrative a little monochrome, there is no doubt that the atmosphere is skilfully created. At points the writing is breathtakingly deft.

The result is an engrossing and troubling book that hangs big questions on the taut wire of a gripping plot. Like her namesake Ferrante, Elena Varvello knows how to keep readers hooked. We shall see more of her work.

Can You Hear Me? (La vita felice) by Elena Varvello, translated from the Italian by Alex Valente (Two Roads, 2017)

Book of the month: Dawit Gebremichael Habte

The question of whether a book has to be set in a particular country in order to be ‘from’ that place was a recurrent theme during my year of reading the world. Many people feel that this is an important factor in determining a story’s cultural identity. Indeed, I know of a number of literary quests that make setting the primary consideration when it comes to choosing books from different regions – sometimes preferring stories by non-nationals over texts by people born or living in the nation.

During my project, I took a different view. Although the majority of stories I read in 2012 took place at least partly in the country under whose name they appear on the list, this wasn’t the case with all of them.

There were several reasons for this. Firstly, as British and American wordsmiths write books set all over the world, I didn’t see why I should expect authors from other places to limit their imaginations to the space within the borders of their own nations, or even to the real world at all. What interested me most was voice and perspective, rather than a representation of cultural detail in each place.

However, sometimes there was no option but to choose a story set somewhere other than in the country I was selecting it to represent. This was particularly true in the case of states where freedom of expression is limited and most of those who write have been forced to flee.

Eritrea is a prime example. Although North Korea is frequently described as the home of the world’s most oppressive regime, the north-east African nation often ranks below it for freedom of expression. The iron-fisted government control in this one-party nation, where all media is owned by the state, means that anyone who wishes to express an independent opinion must either suffer or leave.

As a result, when I came to look for a book by an Eritrean writer, I knew it was likely to be by someone no longer living there. This proved to be the case: the novel I chose was by Eritrean-born Sulaiman Addonia, who has spent most of his life outside the nation. It was called The Consequences of Love and was set in Saudi Arabia.

While I’m sure the oppressive atmosphere Addonia conjures around the illicit love affair at the heart of his novel owes something to the fear that his family must have known in their country of origin, the choice meant that the specifics of life inside Eritrea remained a mystery to me. So when I was contacted by a publicist to ask if I would be interested in reading ‘an immigrant’s story from war-torn Eritrea to asylum in the US’, I was intrigued. Within a few weeks, a copy of Gratitude in Low Voices by Dawit Gebremichael Habte had landed on my doormat.

As its title suggests, Habte’s is a success story. Having escaped to Kenya as a teenager in 1989, the young man made his way to the US. There by dint of hard work and extraordinary determination he carved out a life for himself, eventually receiving support from Michael Bloomberg to develop a software and training programme to benefit his compatriots.

Habte’s life has been a mixed one and his book reflects this. Part memoir, part treatise, part self-help volume, with a goodly amount of historical detail, political argument and philosophical musings thrown in, this is an unusual work.

For readers like me, its most interesting sections come in the first half, where Habte writes clearly and warmly about life in his homeland. He shares many insights. We learn, for example, about naming conventions among the Tigrinya-speaking population, for whom surnames don’t exist but who have the tradition of giving each child a new name and then the father’s first name from every known preceding generation, leading to official names that can stretch over numerous lines.

I particularly enjoyed his description of his time reading at the British Council Library in Asmara. Here was another writer inspired by reading stories from elsewhere. Indeed, Habte’s account of the influence of British stories and games on his thinking is a powerful testament to what books can do, as well as an echo of some of the sentiments other African writers raised on European fiction (perhaps most notably Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have expressed:

‘Thanks to the British version of the Monopoly board game and the books of Charles Dickens (Oliver TwistDavid CopperfieldA Christmas Carol…), we made London our virtual vacation home. We basically were strolling through the streets of London without actually setting foot at Heathrow Airport. It is at this point that we started to live locally but think globally.’

Habte’s explanations of the political and historical context of the situation facing Eritrea in the last few decades are clear and damning – if occasionally a little roughly shoehorned into the narrative. Through his eyes, we see how the nation has been failed by the international community, which has repeatedly allowed greed, oil deals and wider political considerations to come before the interests of the people in the region.

Yet the writer is not bitter. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the book is Habte’s unfailingly positive attitude to the challenges he confronts. In the face of huge difficulty, he does not look for help from others but relies on his own ingenuity, meeting prejudice and selfishness with compassion (as he does when he crosses paths with the people smuggler who betrayed him) and humour (fabricating an outlandish account of life back home to scandalise a group of ignorant high-school girls).

At times, the gratitude of the title can become a little wearing. Habte makes no secret of the fact that the book is intended at least partly as a thank you to the many ‘angels without wings’ who helped him on his way. His earnestness is touching, but the repeated, dutiful digressions to give accounts of the lives of people who were kind to him get rather exhausting.

The narrative is patchy too and could have done with tighter editing. And I’m sure I won’t be the only one to find the final third, in which Habte recounts his progression through various US educational institutions, dull in comparison to what goes before (although the accounts of the lengths he went to to fund and sustain his education are often inspiring).

And yet this remains an important book. It is an insight into a nation that is little represented in the minds of many people, as well as a powerful portrayal of the experience of being an immigrant. As such, it provides a sound riposte to anyone who thinks people leave their homelands and everything they know to travel across the globe and start from scratch lightly.

Those looking for masterful writing won’t find it here. But those looking for passion and a fresh perspective undoubtedly will.

Gratitude in Low Voices: A Memoir by Dawit Gebremichael Habte (RosettaBooks, 2017)