Book of the month: Leonardo Padura

This book was a recommendation from two visitors to this blog. Suroor said it was ‘about the events leading up to Trotsky’s assasination’ and ‘about “corrupted utopias”: the Soviet Union, Cuba and Spain during the civil war,’ while CarolS told me that her book group had enjoyed Padura’s work, finding him a ‘superb conveyer of atmosphere’.

When I looked up Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs, translated by  Anna Kushner, I found that it had garnered a sheaf of enthusiastic reviews and that the word ‘masterpiece’ had been liberally applied to it. This set alarm bells ringing for me. Could this novel really live up to such hype?

The fruit of many years of research, thinking, discussion and writing, The Man Who Loved Dogs makes no secret of its ambition. Centring around the assassination of  the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940, it sets out to explore how ideologies are built and betrayed, how wars are won and lost, and how history is manipulated to suit the interests of those in power. To do so, it moves between multiple perspectives – weaving together an account of Trotsky’s years in exile, the reflections of late-twentieth century Cuban writer Iván Cárdenas Maturell and the strange story of a frail man he meets walking two Russian wolfhounds on the beach.

The novel is as weighty as its subject matter. At 576 pages, it is on its way to rivalling the classics of Russian literature for girth. The similarities don’t end there: the book’s expansive scope recalls the sweeping arcs of the works of Tolstoy, and like Tolstoy, Leonardo Padura capitalises on the richness that such long-form storytelling affords, taking time to establish motivations, personality shifts and moments of crisis that are all the more devastating for their extended build-up.

The drawn-out description of the radicalisation and indoctrination of Ramón Mercader, for example, and the painstaking delineation of the days leading up to his assassination of Trotsky are exceptionally powerful. The same goes for the detailed depictions of Trotsky’s sufferings and the struggles of many secondary characters, chief among them Mercader’s flinty mother, Caridad, and Maturell’s brother, who pays a heavy price for openly acknowledging his homosexual relationship at a time when this is still illegal in Cuba.

Through these haunting, engrossing episodes, which immerse us in the feelings and thoughts of those living them, we see how ‘the decisions of history can come in through the window of some lives and destroy them from the inside’.

The history in question, however, is somewhat different to that with which many English speakers will probably be familiar. As I discovered repeatedly during my quest to read the world, one of the mind-expanding things about literature from elsewhere is its tendency to portray familiar stories from unfamiliar angles, revealing aspects of well-known events that we may not previously have appreciated.

Here, we see the coming and unfolding of the second world war not from the familiar vantage points of London or Washington, but from the Soviet Union and Spain. The devastating implications of the pact between Stalin and Hitler – which, among other things, led to the suicide of numerous Communists imprisoned under Franco – leap from the page far more vigorously than they do from many anglophone history books.

In addition, Padura lays bare a mindset that many readers in Western capitalist countries may never have penetrated before. Through the discussions between Mercader and his mentor, he reveals what drives those who sacrifice their lives and identities for an idea:

‘I’m just one person , so very small, in the fight for a dream. A person and a name are nothing […] : a man can be relegated, substituted. The individual is not an unrepeatable unit but rather a concept that is added to and makes up a mass that is real. But man as an individual isn’t sacred and, as such, is expendable. […] The dream is what matters, not the man, and even less the name.’

This is a truly fascinating novel. To get through it takes commitment: even speedy readers will have it in their lives for the best part of a week. Yet, when I finished it I found myself wishing it had been longer – I wanted more of the hardships of life in late-twentieth century Cuba, as glimpsed through the eyes of Maturell, and I wished Padura had turned his talents to conjuring the thoughts of Trotsky’s nemesis, Stalin, who is a sinister, shadowy absence at the heart of this excellent book.

The term masterpiece is often used and seldom merited. It is justified in this case.

The Man Who Loved Dogs (El hombre que amaba a los perros) by Leonardo Padura, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013)

Picture: ‘Trotsky’s Gravesite’ by verifex on flickr.com

Book of the month: Prajwal Parajuly

One of the joys of this project has been the number of people who have shared their book recommendations with me. Even now, six years on from my year of reading the world, I usually get several messages a day from readers telling me about literature from different parts of the planet.

I wish I had the time to follow up on them all. But even if I were still reading at my 2012 rate of four books a week, I would not manage to keep pace with the volume of suggestions I get. Still, I’m always delighted when someone posts a good recommendation on the blog: even if I can’t get to it, I hope it might catch the eye of some of the other adventurous readers who pass this way.

From time to time, however, a suggestion stands out. This is particularly common when the messages concern countries with little published literature in English. As I’m always keen to help increase the opportunity for underrepresented voices to be heard, I do my best to pursue these leads.

That’s how I came to read The Gurhka’s Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly. Suyasha from Nepal emailed me with several suggestions of books available in English from her country. Of these, Parajuly’s short-story collection most intrigued me because it promised to contain depictions of a diverse range of characters and experiences.

This proved to be the case. Ranging from the woes of a paanwalla in the north-east Indian hill station of Kalimpong, to the troubles of an ambitious young property owner in Manhattan, the collection, which was written in English, is impressive in its scope. Yet, there are two common threads, neatly encapsulated by the name of the title story: familial ties and cultural heritage.

For Parajuly, the distinction between ethnicity and nationality is a major theme. Several of his characters comment on what it means to be Nepali and how this should dictate life choices such as whether to stay married and the duties owed to relatives. Others, meanwhile, find themselves frustrated by outsiders (usually Westerners) who exist in ‘uninformed bubbles’ and cannot understand that it is possible to be Nepali even if you were born in a different nation. Nepal is not so much a country as a physical inheritance – and perhaps, also, a state of mind.

Alongside these cultural concerns, anxieties about status, class and caste are key sources of momentum that drive the narratives. Delighting in hurling his characters into scenarios that destabilise the social norms they have absorbed, Parajuly reveals the petty hypocrisies that can erode and divert the course of lives. We see a daughter so bent on marrying a fellow Brahmin that she sacrifices her happiness on the altar of tradition in ‘A Father’s Journey’ and a young man driven to cruelty by his fears about how his wealthy cousins will respond to his small home in ‘Missed Blessing’. There is also a beautiful rapprochement in the final piece in the collection, ‘The Immigrants’, in which a relatively wealthy man and a poor village woman are brought together by virtue of both being Nepali outsiders in New York.

Although many of the stories have tragic currents, they also carry a great deal of humour. Parajuly has a keen eye for inconsistencies and foibles, and makes use of these both to endear his characters to us and at times to ridicule them. Mock grief, insecurities about bad teeth and naked greed all parade through his pages. Often the only distinction between likeable and unlikeable characters is whether they acknowledge these imperfections in themselves. There are some wonderful examples of bathos too.

This is not a perfect collection. The stories are a little uneven and occasionally topple into a kind of journalism in the passages where Parajuly deems it necessary to include a great deal of contextual information  Sometimes they feel stagey and a little bald, particularly when characters step forward to deliver fluent speeches about what has led them to a particular point.

Overall, though, this is a rich and intriguing book. For those keen to discover something of the multiple layers of Nepali society, it is a good place to start. And you’ll get some chuckles, surprises and moving moments along the way too. Thanks Suyasha!

The Gurkha’s Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly (riverrun, 2012)

Picture: Kathmandu Nepal by Macro Eye on flickr.com

Book of the month: Basma Abdel Aziz

An editor once told me that she worked on the basis that a reader has to hear about a book five times before he or she will buy it. April’s Book of the month is a neat demonstration of her theory.

In the two years since Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation of Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue came out, the book has flashed repeatedly on my radar. It cropped up in several articles about underrated books by women. Marcia Lynx Qualey, tireless champion of Arabic literature, made much of it on her excellent blog. When it made the shortlist for the inaugural TA First Translation Prize, I finally cracked and bought a copy.

The novel centres around Yehya, a man wounded in a political uprising in an unnamed state. Forced to join the static queue at the Gate – the sinister, faceless institution that has assumed power in the wake of the Disgraceful Events – Yehya, his friend Nagy and lover Amani must pit themselves against the system in order to stand a chance of obtaining the operation that will save his life. As they do so, they encounter a host of other characters, including a school teacher barred from practising for allowing a subversive essay to be read in class and a man petitioning for compensation on behalf of a cousin killed in the service of the state, and witness the slow disintegration of society in the face of an increasingly intransigent regime.

Like its author, who is nicknamed ‘the rebel’ in her home country, the novel is unashamedly political. Its ideas lie close to the surface and, although the state in which it is set is unnamed, readers cannot fail to miss the references to the Arab Spring. Whether she is portraying the way that legislation can become weaponised to weaken and even kill citizens by making it impossible for them to obtain the things necessary for their survival, or showing how seemingly innocuous objects such as mobile phones can be used against their owners, Aziz writes with insight and wry humour. The best passages reveal the human toll that such inhuman policies exact. The following is a good example:

‘Everyone was on equal ground. But they all had the same look about them, the same lethargy. Now they were even all starting to think the same way. […] The queue was like a magnet. It drew people toward it, then held them captive as individuals and in their little groups, and it stripped them of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.’

For obvious reasons, the novel has been compared to works by George Orwell and Franz Kafka and like those books (and the political theatre of Bertolt Brecht), it has a distant, no-man’s-land quality, as though it has tapped into a universal nightmare. Many of the lesser characters remain nameless and are identified only by their clothing or physical characteristics, and the descriptions of the city are mostly stark and spare.

However, a humanity throbs at the heart of Aziz’s writing, indicating a possibility for redemption that other such works sometimes lack. In the face of the cruelty of the state, the friendship between the central characters and the connections between the secondary figures who support and encourage one another to endure the endless waiting persist and even strengthen. Although they may be powerless to ameliorate their material circumstances, individuals in the queue retain control over the expression of their humanity. If not exactly heartening, this observation adds subtlety and depth to the writing. The same is true of the sections that reveal how queue life is liberating in some ways for a number of the characters – particularly the women – because it enables them to break free of social mores and become more assertive.

The book is not always an easy read. Like the queue itself, the plot remains static for long periods before jerking forward suddenly. Occasionally the narrative gets bogged down in logistics and abstractions that are hard to follow – mimicking, perhaps, the legal documents and pronouncements that stymie so many of the characters’ lives. Its abrupt shifts in perspective are sometimes disconcerting and its prose is occasionally simple to the point of being bald.

On the whole, though, the novel is too important for any of this to matter. In capturing a specific moment and using it to express universal truths about freedom and identity, it joins the ranks of great stories that endure across the generations. In twenty years’ time, when the Arab Spring has faded from many memories, readers will still be hearing about this book frequently enough to keep picking it up.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Melville House, 2016)

Picture: ‘Once Bank Misr Reopened in February People Queued For Hours To Collect Their Money’ by Alisdare Hickson on Flickr.com.

Book of the month: Robert Seethaler

Book titles containing the word ‘life’ can often be deceptive. Hanya Yanagihara’s award-winning A Little Life, for example – which you might expect to be rather modest in length – tips the scales at 737 pages.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that bestselling Austrian author Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins, skews the other way. Played out in a mere 161 sides, this slip of a novel weighs little. However, as I discovered a few weeks back, it leaves a lasting impression.

The premise is simple: the narrative presents the life of Andreas Egger, a manual worker living in the Austrian Alps over the course of much of the twentieth century. Told largely chronologically, with occasional flashes forward and backwards to illuminate particular events, it reveals the joys and losses that shape an individual who is, on the surface at least, unremarkable.

In the absence of the grabby hook so often required to sell books to big English-language publishers these days, it falls to Seethaler’s writing (and Collins’s translation) to make the novel stand out. This they do in spades. Although it gets off to an uneven start, seeming to pitch us into the realm of the uncanny with its portrayal of Egger’s weird encounter with his reclusive goatherd neighbour, the narrative quickly assumes a serenity as majestic and awe-inspiring as the mountains among which it is set.

There is a lovely reticence to the work. For the most part, the story is conveyed in plain words with the occasional detail, such as the peening anvil used to dispatch a wounded dog, keeping the story grounded. Against this spare linguistic backdrop, occasional descriptive flourishes peep out like edelweiss blooms: the priest whose cassock flaps ‘around his body like the dishevelled plumage of a jackdaw’; the shell-fire blossoming ‘like blazing flowers over the mountain crests’.

There is also humour. In particular, a wry tone suffuses the portrayal of many of the hardships of Egger’s early life, almost as though it has been filtered through the gossip of relatives and neighbours. Take this description of the death of Egger’s mother: ‘she had led an irresponsible life, for which God had recently punished her with consumption and summoned her to his bosom.’ The distance and lightness at work here give the central character a complexity and dignity where another author might have been tempted to make him simply pitiable.

Seethaler’s confidence in allowing tiny observations to bear the weight of great events, gives the novel its power. There are moments of supreme beauty – Egger’s proposal to his sweetheart Marie is one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever read. Meanwhile the losses that besiege the protagonist are rendered almost unbearable by what is left unsaid, allowing the author to exploit dramatic irony to its fullest as we watch Egger stumble to confront tragedies for which he never quite finds the words.

In many ways, A Whole Life is a marketing department’s nightmare. A man lives and then he dies. On the face of it, there is nothing to set this story apart. But in the hands of a writer like Seethaler, that is precisely what makes it special.

A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins (Picador, 2015)

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 flickr.com

Book of the month: Herman Koch

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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 flickr.com

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 flickr.com

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 flickr.com