Book of the month: Kyung-Sook Shin

My featured read from April sparked an interesting discovery. Shortly after starting it, I found myself brought up short by something on the page: a section of dialogue featuring the response, ‘…’.

I was struck by seeing ‘…’ as it was a formulation I had recently started to experiment with in my own fiction. Making the choice to use it had felt like a bit of a leap. It wasn’t a construction that had been part of the written English I had grown up with and wasn’t something I was conscious of having seen in prose books until relatively recently.

Encountering a conversational ellipsis in a work translated from Korean raised a question for me. Where had it come from? Was it present in the original or had the translator introduced it in lieu of writing: ‘X said nothing’? Did other languages have this formulation before it started to have a presence Anglophone writing?

Intrigued, I turned to Twitter. Responses from translators including Sawad Hussain, Frank Wynne and Lucy North quickly established that ‘…’ features in Japanese, Arabic, French and Spanish. Given the relatively recent emergence of this construction in English, it was beginning to sound as though translators may have been instrumental in introducing it to the world’s most published language – an instance of translation not only conveying meaning but also enlarging modes of expression.

Then, in a delightfully serendipitous turn of events, Anton Hur, the translator of the book I was reading, joined the discussion.

‘I’ve wondered the same thing,’ he wrote. ‘Frank’s answer makes me think it was invented in Europe and came over to Korea through Japan (which readily absorbed European practices) in the Modernist era. Edmund White uses it in THE BEAUTIFUL ROOM IS EMPTY (1988) and he studied Chinese lit.’

When I revealed that the book that had made me ask the question was his translation of Kyung-Sook Shin’s Violets, he responded: ‘AAAAHHHHH thank you for reading! Yes, there is A LOT of implied silence in VIOLETS, and many more “…” in the source than what made it into the translation (I changed it to “Silence” or “She was silent” etc.). Many Kyung-Sook Shin characters express themselves silently. A style!’

It certainly is. Written more than 20 years ago, Violets, as Shin explains in her 2021 afterword to the English translation, is a story that aims to speak for ‘women all around us who exist in silence’. It follows the fortunes of San, a neglected young woman who comes to Seoul and takes a job at a florist’s only for her new life to be derailed by a violent obsession with a man who comes into the shop one day.

Silence is just one of the tools used to express the reticence that underpins and ultimately drives the story. A profound succinctness in the writing works to convey an emotional detachment that reveals the heartbreaking disassociation San has been obliged to go through in order to survive. Without the connective tissue often used to embed a character’s thoughts in third-person narratives, impressions arrive as though they are occurring organically so that it often seems as though the reader is experiencing and thinking in step with San.

Credit must also go to Hur for his deft handling of cultural exposition. Issues such as name order and informal and formal voice can often creak in English language versions. But his presentation of San and her friend Namae’s outsider status in her home village – because they are Sur Namae and Oh San rather than members of the Yi family – is disarmingly unfussy and clear. (Slightly confusingly, Kyung-Sook Shin’s family name is given last in the English edition, although in South Korea she is known as Shin Kyung-Sook.)

What makes this all the more impressive is the depth of the immersion in San’s world Shin and Hur achieve in so few words. It’s no surprise to learn from the afterword that Shin spent six months working on a flower farm while she wrote the novel because there is an almost tangible quality to the depiction of San’s daily life in the florist’s, where small details speak loudly and feelings can swell ‘like a cloud of tadpoles rising up from muddy water’.

The surface tranquility of much of the narrative makes the moments of violence and rupture all the more shocking. It would have been easy to present San purely as a victim, but Shin is careful not to do so: even as she self-sabotages and runs up against systemic misogyny, San fights to act on her own terms, freeing herself from a would-be attacker in one particularly memorable sequence.

What undoes her is not her weakness but the universal inability of human beings to look at lived experiences objectively. Locked in her present, San is unable to appreciate the layeredness Shin reveals in moments and the way actions are rarely a response to the contemporary situation but to events that stretch back through and beyond the limits of an individual’s existence – impulses that have ‘lain in wait for millennia before bursting forth’. The rare moments of self-insight – the realisation that her loneliness has its roots in her rejection by her childhood companion Namae, the understanding that she is misremembering a significant encounter by picturing herself wearing a plum-coloured blouse she doesn’t own – are not enough to stem this tide.

Quiet novels can struggle to be heard in the clamour of today’s literary market. But Violets makes a strong case for the importance of making space for narratives that don’t shriek for attention. Though couched in silence, ellipses and the unsayable, this is a story that builds to a roar.

Violets by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Anton Hur (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2022)

Picture: ‘Seoul | Ichon Hangang Park’ by travel oriented on flickr.com

If you’ve encountered ‘…’ as a complete response in dialogue in languages other than English, please let me know. It’d be great to build up a picture of where it exists!

*Ukraine special* Book of the month: Oleg Sentsov

This month has been an unusual one in my reading life. Shortly after the news of Russian forces invading Ukraine, I took the decision to spend March exploring Ukrainian literature. With the exception of a few non-fiction titles I’m looking at for other writing projects, I devoted my reading time over the following four weeks to books from the nation, drawing my choices from suggestions shared with me on Twitter, posted on other platforms, and published in a rash of recent articles, such as this.

I think it’s the first time I’ve focused on one country for an extended period since I started reading the world. To date, I’ve tended to skip about between nations as my curiosity, research obligations and other people’s recommendations dictate. It was fascinating to dedicate a period of time to a body of writing from a particular region, and see what connections and thoughts this generated.

First, a couple of caveats. It’s important, particularly when talking about literature in translation, not to fall into the visibility trap – the assumption that what is available in English is a representative spread of a community’s stories. The factors that decide which books travel beyond their country of origin’s borders are complicated, various and shifting. Often (as I have discussed previously), the tiny proportion of stories that make it into the world’s most published language from many parts of the world say more about what feels authentic to commissioning editors in London and New York (and what their marketing departments believe people like you and me want to read) than they do about the breadth and character of a particular region’s literature. (Although it is to be hoped that initiatives such as the recent translation drive spearheaded by Tault may do something to change this, at least in Ukraine’s case.)

Broadbrush generalisations, such as the tendency for Ukrainian literature to contain irreverence, humour and the sort of defiant resilience in the face of oppression we have seen reported in many news stories, are easy to make. Indeed, I have encountered numerous examples in recent weeks – from the contrarian heroine of Tanja Maljartschuk’s A Biography of a Chance Miracle, translated by Zenia Tompkins, and the outrageous gangsters who stalk the pages of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories, translated by Boris Dralyuk, to the quixotic plot to force the EU to grant Ukraine membership by smuggling the entire population through a tunnel into Hungary that forms the premise of Andriy Lyubka’s Carbide, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler.

What’s more, it would be tempting to say that works such as Carbide – published with the tagline ‘The much anticipated response to Voltaire’s Candide’ – and Yuri Andrukhovych’s Moscoviad, translated by Vitaly Chernetsky and built around a 24-hour binge in Moscow after the manner of James Joyce’s Ulysses, reveal a streak of audacity in Ukrainian writing. Just as Oksana Zabuzhko deconstructs the novel form and language itself in her groundbreaking Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, translated by Halyna Hryn, so these writers appear unafraid of helping themselves to the world’s classics and turning them to their own ends.

Yet, to make claims like this without knowledge of what hasn’t made it through the translation bottleneck would be foolish. It would be to forget that these themes and characteristics may have been part of what made publishers judge these stories to have international appeal – and that collectively they may present a somewhat distorted picture, one that at least partly reflects anglophone interests and concerns. Reading in English as I do, I could not hope to achieve a balanced, comprehensive survey of Ukrainian literature, even if I devoted a year to the project.

So what was I trying to achieve with this kind of targeted reading? For many of those who have scoured the round-ups of Ukrainian literature shared around the web in recent weeks, a desire to understand the horrors unfolding in the nation will have been a key motivation. This is quite natural and certainly anyone who spends time reading translated literature from Ukraine will be left in no doubt as to the complexity and longevity of the tensions that have fuelled this crisis. Perhaps one of the most nuanced and engrossing depictions can be found in Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, translated by Boris Dralyuk, which comes out in the US this week.

Taking too anthropological or socio-historical an approach to reading makes me uneasy, however. I have never been comfortable with the idea of books speaking for their communities. I don’t think individual stories can be reliable telescopes through which to view life elsewhere. Nor should they be.

So, I decided to return to first principles and remind myself of the ethos that underpinned this project when I launched it ten years ago: curiosity; exploration; accessing voices; seeing what spoke most powerfully to me.

This month, that turned out to be Life Went on Anyway: Stories by Oleg Sentsov, translated by Uilleam Blacker. Put together over email while celebrated film-maker Sentsov was imprisoned in Russia on dubious terrorism charges (he was released as part of a prisoner exchange in 2019), the translation of the collection contains a series of autobiographical pieces centred largely on childhood, plus an opening biography that, according to Blacker, was originally included by mistake.

The simplicity and directness of the writing is disarming. ‘A bit about my personal life: for more than ten years I’ve been living with the same woman. I’m married to her. I have two little kids with her. I love them all,’ runs a section of the erroneously included ‘Autobiography (In Literary Form)’ – in which Sentsov admits that he didn’t take a nine-to-five job on graduating because he’d have murdered his co-workers and that he spent a year ‘ripping people off’ selling herbal products on a market stall.

When he turns this frankness to childhood, the writing soars. The depiction of the bond between a boy and his pet in ‘Dog’, for example, is deeply moving:

‘It was fun to hang out in a gang, but I preferred walking alone in the forest with my dog. They were unforgettable moments. When he searches for you, after you’ve deliberately stayed behind a bit and hidden in the bushes. Searches for you and finds you. And how happy you are when you find each other again after such a brief parting. The dog is happy that he found his master, and the master is happy that he has such a clever dog, and you’re both happy because you love each other and you’re together again.’

This switch into the present tense is a hallmark of the collection. At such moments, it is as though Sentsov turns to the reader to compare notes, saying: ‘you recognise this, don’t you? You’ve been here.’ And even if you haven’t, the power of the writing – the trust and confidence it contains – is strong enough to sweep you into the vision, so that it is as if you too, in your childhood, walked through the woods with your dog.

Humour works to strengthen this connection. This is less the thrawn, irreverent wit we sometimes see celebrated as being distinctively Ukrainian than an affectionate admission of the ludicrousness of human existence, often linked to an awareness of its fragility. In ‘Testament’, for example, the narrator imagines his funeral and the scattering of his ashes in the rain, with a cheeky grandchild peering into the urn to see a clump of Grandpa still hanging on. Similarly, numerous walk-on characters are endowed with quirks that could easily be handled cruelly and yet, through Sentsov’s eyes, seem oddly precious because of their uniqueness and ephemerality. (Witness: Svetka, the talentless would-be singer who sets her sights on stardom decades before the TV screens are thronged with tone-deaf wannabes.)

At root, the writing is driven by a profound empathy that enables Sentsov to inhabit the rounded, conflicted reality of a huge number of the figures who pass through his pages. As he does in ‘Grandma’, he excels at presenting a situation and then taking the reader inside the truth of it, revealing how far from simple even the most bald of statements may turn out to be. In this way, he reveals the workings of some of humanity’s most profound and problematic experiences – from childhood bullying to the development of social conscience, and from the processing of guilt and loss to the passing of time – using his own life and perspective as the lens through which to focus his vision.

For this – to me, at least – is what great stories are. Not explanations. Not studies of human action. Not definitive representations of the experiences of particular groups. But a person saying: here I am in all my silliness, vulnerability, wonder and mystery. And this is how the world looks to me.

Life Went on Anyway: Stories by Oleg Sentsov, translated from the Russian by Uilleam Blacker (Deep Vellum, 2019)

Picture: ‘A Ukrainian flag in the streets of Berlin-Mitte‘ by Felipe Tofani on flickr.com

Book of the month: Jacqueline Harpman

Getting translated into English is a tricky business. An anglophone book deal represents an opportunity for a writer to access a huge international audience because novels that appear in English have a greater chance of securing other language deals. But, with literary translations making up 3 to 5 per cent of publications in much of the English-speaking world, there is a narrow bottleneck to negotiate to achieve this kind of global reach.

For many books, time is of the essence. Editors love novelty and the idea that they are discovering talent before anyone else. As a result, most novels that don’t get picked up for translation in the year following their first publication are unlikely to make it beyond their original language.

Every so often, however – perhaps because of a news event or the efforts of a particularly tenacious champion – an exception breaks through. And sometimes books get several incarnations. Such is the case with Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman’s classic I Who Have Never Known Men, which was published in French in 1995, and first appeared in Ros Schwartz’s translation as The Mistress of Silence in 1997, before being republished under the more direct translation of its title in 2019, seven years after its author’s death.*

I was lucky enough to interview Ros Schwartz for the Royal Literary Fund’s Writers Aloud podcast some months ago. In a metaphor that feels uncannily resonant for the times we are living through, she used the French word ‘passeur’ to explain what translators do. ‘Passeurs were people who helped refugees escape during the war,’ she told me. ‘[A translator is] a passeur, a ferry if you like, between cultures.’

The image of the passeur is also relevant to Harpman’s novel. Narrated by a nameless girl who is one of 39 female prisoners held in a subterranean cage until the day an alarm sounds, leading the guards to flee while the door is open, the novel explores exile and alienation. Left to wander a deserted landscape that they cannot even be sure is Planet Earth, the women piece together the fragments they discover to try to understand what has happened to them and how to survive until the bitter truth finally reveals itself.

The richness and depth with which Harpman inhabits her narrator’s experience is astonishing. Indeed, it is no surprise that she was a psychoanalyst, for she presents the psychological shifts with which the protagonist encounters her predicament incredibly vividly. Those of us who have lived through lockdowns will recognise the truth in the heightened sensitivity you develop and the greater significance small events and objects take on when your world shrinks. Similarly, it is fascinating how thoroughly Harpman brings to life the experience of living without timekeeping devices and the ingenious way the narrator adapts to this.

The novel is also a powerful portrait of how we try to make sense of things – the ways we attempt to read situations we lack the necessary contextual information to understand. As so many of us do when confronted with texts that work differently to the kinds of stories we are used to, the women in the novel draw on their own limited knowledge to plug the gaps in their comprehension of this strange new world.

In the case of the narrator, who has been imprisoned since she was an infant and knows little of adult human civilization, this tendency is particularly clearly demonstrated in the naive fantasies she constructs around the young guard who keeps watch over the cage. Ignorant of the mechanics of sexual relationships, she tells herself stories that blend scraps of information with instinct and guesswork to bring about a mysterious ‘eruption’ in her maturing body. ‘This was extremely difficult because I was simultaneously the inventor of the story, the narrator and the listener awaiting the shock of the unexpected.’

Indeed, exploring the potential and purpose of storytelling forms an increasingly urgent theme. Repeatedly, along with questions about what defines human existence, the novel invites us to consider what a text is and what it does. Towards the end of the book, the narrator, who, we learn, is writing the account we’re reading, reflects on the strange alchemy that happens when someone reads a story: ‘The reader and I thus mingled will constitute something living, that will not be me, because I will be dead, and will not be that person as they were before reading, because my story, added to their mind, will then become part of their thinking.’

Yet, even as she examines storytelling, Harpman resists many of its conventions. There is a playful irreverence at work sometimes in the text: ‘Underneath, there were several items,’ writes the narrator at one point. ‘[…] But I shan’t go into the difficulties I had in identifying and naming all these things because that would be too tedious and I wouldn’t enjoy it.’ The reader’s curiosity is just one factor in the crafting of this story; this text must also serve its author’s pleasure.

At other points, the narrative seems to critique itself: ‘So few things happened during all those years of walking. I found the bus, I lost the road, I arrived here.’ It is almost as though Harpman is taunting the reader with her refusal to bow to plot conventions by withholding the revelations and resolutions the setup seems to demand. Indeed, on the face of it, this is a profoundly bleak and open-ended book.

To read it this way, though, would be to miss the subtleties at work beneath the surface that bring about the very transformation the protagonist claims reading is capable of effecting. For in being worked upon by Harpman and Schwartz’s fine words, we find ourselves changed from passive bystander to active participant. The story we hold in our hands may be a lonely one. But the fact that we are able to read it and enter into its protagonist’s strange experiences conveys a message of profound hope.

I Who have Never Known Men (Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes) by Jacqueline Harpman, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Vintage, 2019)

Picture: ‘Tundra Landscape‘ by Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on flickr.com

*Corrected on 1 March 2022 to include details of the earlier edition.

Book of the month: Shahla Ujayli

Translators have long been my heroes. Almost from the moment I had the eccentric idea to try to read a book from every country in a year back in late 2011, I have found them to be extraordinarily generous, inspiring and wise.

Not only have they helped shaped my understanding of the different ways storytelling works around the globe and revealed many of the blind spots that I continue to challenge myself to overcome in my reading, but they have also repeatedly drawn my attention to writers and trends that I would otherwise have overlooked. Many of the best reads I have featured in this project have come to me by way of a translator’s recommendation.

This is true in the wider book world too. Whether they’re highlighting traditionally overlooked issues, such as the need for more translated titles on children’s bookshelves or the failure to credit translators in reviews and on book covers, translators are often a force for broadening understanding and driving change.

It’s fitting, then, that the final featured title of my first decade of reading the world should be one that a translator fought to bring into the world’s most published language. Sawad Hussain’s ‘Translator’s Note’ at the start of A Bed for the King’s Daughter makes no secret of the struggles she went through to get award-winning Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli’s short story collection an English-language book deal.

In addition to the experimental nature of the writing, one of the major issues Hussain encountered was that the work ‘stepped out of the trope of how Arabic literature is too often digested today’:

‘[The collection] is not an anthropological foray into the heart of Syrian life or history, though it is a “Syrian” short story collection. It is not confined to “women’s issues”, though written by an Arab woman. Rather, the human psyche is explored.

[…]

‘And that is the highest form of literature: not a piece of work that we easily swallow, digest, and after which we rub our bellies gleefully, but rather a body of written work that, rather than giving you the answers, elicits a gut reaction, makes you uncomfortable, puts you on edge and makes you ask (hard) questions. Just as Dena Afrasiabi, the delightful editor of this series, was able to recognize the promise of this collection, I hope that you will also go against the tide, and on a journey of discovery – of the fresh and the possible.’

In short, the writing in this slim volume does not fit into one of the neat marketing categories that publishers often impose on literature from elsewhere, a trend I’ve taken to calling the genrefication of national literatures. In fact, the 22 very short stories in this collection do not conform to many assumptions anglophone readers might have about the short story form itself. I suspect most of the pieces in this volume would not score highly on an English-language creative-writing course.

The maxim ‘show, don’t tell’, for example, has no place in Ujayli’s writing. (Indeed, it has little place in much translated writing because it assumes a shared frame of reference between writer and reader that is unrealistic when it comes to literature from markedly different cultures.) Meanwhile, the author has no hesitation about pulling the rug out from under the reader in the final line, as she does in a number of these pieces, seeming to undermine everything that has gone before. In Ujayli’s world, the experience of waking up to find it has all been a dream seems to be chillingly commonplace.

Instead of the sort of works we might be used to, she presents us with a series of wry, striking shards of writing. Many of them read like parables. Some are more akin to sick jokes. There is the story, for example, of the corrupt police officer who pulls strings to get his brother a gun licence only to be shot by his sibling in the final line. There are the children who Santa fails to visit because of a delay at an Israeli checkpoint.

In such extremely short stories – many of which would fall into the anglophone ‘flash fiction’ category – there is often little room for development or progression. These are largely snapshots rather than short films – a portrait of a dilemma rather than a working through of a problem.

A key to their mechanism seems to glimmer in ‘The Strangest Thing that Happened to Me in 2010’, in which an art-history professor recalls a piece of writing submitted by one of their students in response to the brief: ‘Tell me about Surrealism’. Instead of turning in an essay, the student recounts a bizarre experience. ‘This tale of mine will present surrealism in the way of someone outside the depth of thought, not in the way of someone surrounded by it,’ she writes.

Instinct, mysticism, the crashing together of things that don’t belong – these elements seem threaded throughout this collection. To overthink it, perhaps even to try to explain it, is a mistake. These are works that stand outside the depth of thought, working on the reader as dreams do, defying summation or categorisation.

And like dreams, some will leave us baffled. Some may seem nonsensical or childish. But some will resonate profoundly in a way that cannot quite be captured except in the words as they are presented on the page.

There isn’t much writing like this published in English. Some may say there’s a good reason for that. I say it’s an argument for this book’s existence, and for all the other jagged, unsettling works that don’t fit neatly into bookshop categories. Because, as its translator so eloquently argues, stories like this invite us to journey further, to enlarge our sense of what is possible, to envision other ways of seeing.

A Bed for the King’s Daughter by Shahla Ujayli, translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, 2020)

Book of the month: Anonymous


Does the identity of an author change how we read a book?

In some cultures, this question would make little sense. In many oral storytelling traditions (with examples on this blog including books I read for the Marshall Islands and Niger during my 2012 quest), the notion of authorship, and the distinction between fact and fiction are fairly irrelevant. 

For those of us immersed in the anglophone tradition, however, these issues often matter a great deal. A few years ago, I found myself sitting on a funding committee trying to decide whether to give a grant to a publisher planning to bring out a translation of a collection of stories thought to have been written by an author inside North Korea. For many around the table, the question of whether the manuscript really had been smuggled out of the totalitarian state was the key factor in deciding whether or not to award the money. (The book got the grant in the end and Deborah Smith’s translation of Bandi’s The Accusation came out in 2017, featuring a note from publisher Serpent’s Tail making it clear that it was impossible to be 100 per cent certain of the book’s origins.)

As a writer, I find this focus on author identity troubling. The purist in me would like to believe that a work speaks for itself. In the Bandi discussion, I was firmly on the side of supporting the grant on the basis that the extract I read was well written, thoroughly imagined and fresh, regardless of who wrote it.

Yet I keep encountering questions books that challenge this approach. And when it comes to stories that are supposed to be factual accounts, things get even more complicated.

My latest Book of the month is a case in point. Published in Philip Boehm’s translation in the early 2000s, more than forty years after it first appeared in the US and then in Germany, the anonymously authored A Woman in Berlin throws up so many questions about identity and the relationship between who we are and what we tell.

On the face of it, the book is a diary, recording the experiences of a thirty-something-year-old Berlin woman between 20 April 1945, shortly before the death of Hitler, and 22 June 1945, by which time life under Allied rule had begun to assume some sort of shape. Written with extraordinary frankness, the text documents the horrors that unfolded over those two months, as Russian troops drew closer and captured Berlin, looting and laying waste, and subjecting hundreds of women to repeated assaults and rapes.

The subject matter is as extraordinary as it is harrowing. The early entries crackle with sickening tension as civilians await their fate. Everyday details about the business of surviving in a besieged, war-torn city under a failing regime – fetching water, scavenging for firewood, finding that tokens have been introduced to make people ineligible to board the collapsing tram system – dominate, making the flashes of foreboding all the more shocking by contrast. Along with the narrator, we live through the tedium and terror of those last few days of life as she’s known it.

When the crisis comes, and the Russians arrive and begin to wreck havoc, the writing rises to meet it. By turns arresting in its frankness and powerful in its omissions, it brings home the full force of the horrors it presents. Unflinching accounts of individual attacks exist alongside euphemistic references to bed sheets needing a wash ‘after all those booted guests’. 

A novel might have stopped there, after the first wave of atrocities, and jumped forward to a later stage in the protagonist’s life, attempting to present some sort of resolution or assimilation of these experiences. But, this being a diary, the entries continue, one horror piling upon another as the weeks grind by. And as they do so, they reveal extraordinary things: humour, resilience, the strange camaraderie that collective trauma brings. The women share jokes and commune with one another’s suffering, often without needing to rehearse what they have been through, and we learn with them how shared experience creates an understanding that transcends words.

There are extraordinary reflections on the human condition and the larger significance of these events too. Consider this passage, in which the narrator writes about the struggle to find meaning and a reason to carry on in the face of the loss of almost all she once held dear:

‘I long ago lost my childhood piety, so that God and the Beyond have become mere symbols and abstractions. Should I believe in Progress? Yes, to bigger and better bombs. The happiness of the greater number? Yes, for Petka and his ilk. An idyll in a quiet corner? Sure, for people who comb out the fringes of their rugs. Possessions, contentment? I have to keep from laughing, homeless urban nomad that I am. Love? Lies trampled on the ground. And were it ever to rise again, I would always be anxious I could never find true refuge, would never again dare hope for permanence.

Perhaps art, toiling away in the service of form? Yes, for those who have the calling, but I don’t. I’m just an ordinary labourer, I have to be satisfied with that. All I can do is touch my small circle and be a good friend. What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity, and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.’

The historian Antony Beevor writes in his introduction that the diary’s literary merit has been one of the reasons people have questioned its authenticity, citing the striking images the writer often uses as stumbling blocks that make some readers doubt its provenance. In actual fact, it’s not the images but the perspective that sometimes looms through the writing that is problematic. There is an expansiveness in some of these reflective passages that challenges the notion that they were written day by day in the thick of the events they describe. The level of analysis and self-awareness the writer achieves sits awkwardly with the image of her scribbling frantically in a notebook disguised as an aide-memoire for Russian vocabulary to prevent the conquerors from destroying it.

The afterword from the German editor goes some way to explain this tension: the diary was not published as it was originally written but reworked and edited by its author in the years before its first publication. Many of those more expansive, longer-lensed reflections may well have been developed after the fact. 

Had the author wanted to be involved in the republication of her work, several decades after its initial, patchy reception, it is conceivable that she might have reworked it further into the through-written memoir that seems to hover just below the surface here. Yet, it is understandable that she preferred not to rake over the coals of what must have been a painful publishing experience – although it is a shame she did not live to see the impact her words had on the world when the book was finally rereleased. 

Is the diary genuine? I can’t be sure. But perhaps this is fitting. Maybe a text that goes so much to the heart of identity should not sit snugly in the form assigned to it. Is this what people are? this book asks. Is this is what we turn out to be made of when every last social grace and nicety is stripped away? Maybe no form of storytelling can adequately contain these questions.

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Virago, 2018)

Picture: ‘Imagen tomada durante la ocupación soviética de Berlín’ by Claude753 on Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

Book of the month: Graeme Armstrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong (Picador, 2020)

Book of the month: Alicia Yáñez Cossío

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Patrícia Melo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

The author of my latest book of the month has been on my radar for a number of years. She was the winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and her debut novel, Kintu, has been widely praised. The fact that it has taken me so long to get her is probably due to fact that her novels are often talked about as sagas that deal with national history. Having read such a book as my original choice for Uganda back in 2012, I suppose I felt no hurry to read another novel in a similar vein.

I was wrong. From the moment, I started The First Woman, I was hooked into the coming-of-age story of Kirabo, a girl struggling to find a sense of self in the turbulent years during and following Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Nansubuga Makumbi is an exceptional writer. Drawing on Ganda oral storytelling traditions and myths, her prose shimmers with energy, urgency and fun. There is an extraordinary directness to her descriptions that at times had me gnawing my fists with envy at her talent. From the scornful teenagers whose ‘eyes were slaughter’ and the wealthy student ‘driven everywhere as if he had no legs’ to the neighbour so forbidding that ‘if you saw her coming while you peed by the roadside, you sat down in your pee and smiled’, the characters in this novel leap off the page by virtue of its author’s vibrant writing.

Funny but never caricatured, they reveal multiple sides as the plot plays out. Indeed, one of Nansubuga Makumbi’s many strengths is the way she plays with psychic distance (a concept neatly explained on writer Emma Darwin’s brilliant blog) to reveal the inconsistencies and hypocrisy threaded through human thought.

Culture clashes are a central theme. As Kirabo navigates her way between rural and urban worlds, European and Ganda traditions, and past and present, the narrative sparks off myriad insights. For British readers, the reflections on the ‘disruption of Ganda time’ by colonial rule – which, among many other things, reduced the three-day weekend to two days and imposed the 24-hour clock – may be particularly interesting. Take this description of the protagonist’s efforts to reconcile the two systems:

‘Kirabo had even learnt to balance her mind at that precarious edge where she saw time in its natural, Ugandan mode but articulated it in the upside-down English mode. At first, it had felt schizophrenic as her mind computed ten hours of day but she said four in the afternoon.’

The novel’s discussion of the mechanics and power of storytelling is similarly thought-provoking. Indeed, the book contains some of the most memorable explanations I’ve read of how narratives can be used to acquire wealth and influence, and to subjugate others. ‘Stories are critical,’ as family friend Nsuuta tells Kirabo towards the end of the novel. ‘The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.’

Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the novel’s exploration of feminism, or mwenkanonkano in Kirabo’s mother tongue, Luganda. Although many of the issues and struggles portrayed will be familiar to readers in the global North, Nansubuga Makumbi presents a much more holistic, embodied consideration of women’s attempts to assert themselves than many will be used to. Women’s physicality is frankly discussed and menstruation even has a hand in shaping the plot – an approach that feels quite different to that of the more familiar, often rather dry and cerebral, Anglo-American feminist manifestos. The book also throws up some fascinating thoughts on intersectionality and the ways different kinds of privilege and history divide us.

As with all ambitious stories, the book presents some challenges. Perhaps the biggest for Anglo-American readers will be the cultural differences that may make a few of Kirabo’s decisions hard to understand. Chief among them is the fact that, having never met her mother, she resists the temptation to ask her family about her, preferring instead to try witchcraft and put posters up around her school appealing for information. Nansubuga Makumbi does an excellent job of elucidating the power dynamics of the clan system (using the ingenious ploy of having older members explain many of the intricacies to children), but there are moments where this reticence and respect for elders risks feeling a little too much like a plot device. (Although this may be more of a insight into the limitations of this reader’s imagination than any failing of the novel.)

Good writers offer insights into other places and situations. Great writers offer insights into other minds. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a great writer. I’m just sorry it took me so long to read her.

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld, 2020)

Picture: ‘After the Rainforest, Uganda’ by Rod Waddington on flickr.com

Book of the month: Sonia Nimr

Full disclosure: I had quite a different title lined up as my final book of the month of 2020. I was going to write a glowing response to the startling and compelling It Would Be Night in Caracas by Venezuelan author-journalist Karina Sainz Borgo, brought into English by Elizabeth Bryer. That book, with its chilling depiction of a society in freefall from a country with relatively little literature available in the world’s most published language, would have been an extremely worthy addition to my list.

But with so much darkness and uncertainty threatening so many at the moment, I found my appetite for writing about this disturbing novel waning. Absorbing though it is, I felt I needed something more hopeful to close out the year.

A few days before Christmas, I put a call out on Twitter for uplifting novels in translation. A number of familiar recommendations rolled in – among them the The Elegance of the Hedgehog and The Good Soldier Švejk – along with several newer YA works, which reinforced my sense that the anglophone market tends to favour more lightness in titles aimed at younger readers than it might often accept in translations for adults.

Then I received a tip-off that intrigued me: a link to details of a novel that Marcia Lynx Qualey, the writer, editor and founder of ArabLit, had recently translated. A few messages later and an e-version of Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Palestinian author Sonia Nimr was in my inbox.

Presented as the contents of a manuscript entrusted to a Palestinian academic at a conference, the novel follows the adventures of intrepid bibliophile Qamar. Despite being born a girl hundreds of years ago and orphaned young, this courageous and quick-witted protagonist manages to give free reign to her desire to see the world, spurred on by a book from her parents’ collection. Joining caravans and ships, and sometimes posing as a man and living as a pirate, she travels to destinations including Abyssinia, Andalusia, India and the Yemen, using her skills as a narrator and the herbal medicine she learnt from her mother to get her out of many a tight corner.

Few books beat this one for pure storytelling delight. Packed with fantastical encounters and the uncovering of secrets, this novel is deliciously absorbing. The settings are alluring – ranging from a maharaja’s sumptuous palace to a remote mountain village cut off by flood waters for most of the year – yet presented without the cloying exoticism that often accompanies such depictions in Western literature. Similarly, the balance of the magic and the human is finely struck so that, although the narrative often feels fable-like, we never lose sight of the rounded, multifaceted Qamar at its heart.

Making your protagonist a booklover is a trick employed by novelists the world over – what better way, after all, to invite your reader’s empathy than by providing instant common ground between them and the main character? Here, though, Nimr adds extra layers to the familiar device. With reading proscribed for women and all book purchases having to be approved by the elders in the village where Qamar grows up, her reading is a subversive, daring act. It marks her (and by association, the reader) out as a rebel – one unlikely to accept the limits the world places on her.

The same goes for storytelling: frequently asked to account for herself by those she encounters on her travels, Qamar is in the habit of offering false histories because, as she repeatedly explains, she doesn’t expect those she meets to believe the strange truth. This, coupled with the fact that the book that inspires her wanderlust is also called Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, sets up interesting questions about fact and fiction. Truth, it seems, can operate on multiple levels: like good novels, fabrications can feel real and can answer human needs. Something doesn’t necessarily have to have happened in order to contain emotional veracity.

Perhaps partly because of its positioning as a YA crossover novel, Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands presents an unusually sunny world. Qamar’s universe is much more benign than, say, Sainz Borgo’s Caracas. Although she frequently faces danger, Nimr’s protagonist almost always lands on her feet. She is rarely without a friend or protector, and at most of the points where many writers would be tempted to twist the knife and ramp up the tension, a lucky coincidence or happy twist of fate saves her. It’s testament to the power of the storytelling and the appeal of Qamar that what might feel like missed opportunities in another novel generally feel acceptable here.

It’s also testament to the power of the central story that the lack of a return to the framing narrative at the end doesn’t jar. Had this novel been written and edited in English, it’s likely that a publisher would have insisted on a final section bringing us back to the Palestinian academic to reveal some transformation wrought by the reading of the manuscript. Instead, the academic disappears without comment, having provided a lens through which adult (and possibly male) readers can peruse Qamar’s story without feeling that it isn’t for them.

The anglophone publishing world is full of labels that can often exclude as much as they invite. I’m not sure that YA crossover is helpful here. This is, first and foremost, a great story – one that has the power to draw in readers of any age. It is one of those that reaches across time, space and cultural barriers to take us to the heart of the human experience. By enabling us to escape, it brings us to the source of what we are. Pure magic.

Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Sonia Nimr, translated from the Arabic by Marcia Lynx Qualey (Interlink Books, 2020).

Picture:  al-Idrisi world map in Arabic from ‘Alî ibn Hasan al-Hûfî al-Qâsimî’s 1456 copy, made at Cairo and now preserved at Oxford’s Bodleian Library (Public Domain).