Book of the month: Fernanda Melchor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Zeruya Shalev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Bessora / Barroux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Antti Tuomainen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture by Aleksey Gnilenkov on Flickr.com

Book of the month: Dina Salústio

Firsts are a recurring theme on this blog. This month’s book of the month is a case in point. Not only is it the first novel by a female author to be published in Cape Verde, but it is also the first full-length work of fiction by a woman from that nation to be translated into English.

Such publishing events can be both positive and problematic. On one hand, it is exciting to think that the voice of someone from a previously ignored group can now be heard in the world’s most published language; on the other hand, the unreasonable pressure of requiring one novel to carry the weight of an entire community can have a warping effect on our reading. If we’re not careful, we can lumber the writer in question with unfair expectations, forgetting that they are just a person who decided to write a story, and that they probably never thought of themselves as speaking for their gender, nation or ethnic group. A single story, as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently argues, never gives a complete picture.

So what to make of this latest first, The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar? How to detach it from the political baggage that comes with the accident of its time and place of publication and translation, and take it on its own terms?

At first glance, the novel seems as though it will be relatively straightforward. The premise, though complicated, contains lots of familiar tropes: a traditional village community (Serrano) under threat of development, a young woman forced to confront a difficult past, family secrets, a curse, the tensions between city and country, modern habits and old customs, now and then.

But when you start to read, it quickly becomes clear that the novel does not conform to many of the conventions of its form – or, at least, the anglophone Western version of it.

For one thing, although many of the elements of the story sound familiar, their handling is not. Realism and myth crash together in a strange and jagged interaction that sees the modern, urban world of microwaves, therapy sessions and business deals grate against ancient rites, hearsay and magic. A death certificate shows that a man has been poisoned by strange thoughts; apparently infertile women go to the city for ‘pharmaceuticals’ that turn out not to be quite what they seem; and the mysterious madwoman of the title makes predictions that play out on city streets, as well as in the rural dreamscape of the village.

This stark juxtaposition is reflected on the linguistic level, with translator Jethro Soutar often reaching for words from diverse registers to capture the story’s massive range. At times you can almost feel the narrative straining with the effort of containing all Salústio wants to say, breaking out into a series of surprising digressions, many of which yield some of the book’s most joyful passages. The small section about the unusual role of cats in Serrano, for example, is as pleasing as it is unexpected, while the various explorations of the role of magic in women’s lives put me in mind of another first book by a woman – Mozambican author Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife, translated into English by David Brookshaw, which I sent to Donald Trump in celebration of World Book Day a few years back.

As with many books that draw on traditions beyond Western literature, the pacing and structure of The Madwoman of Serrano make it a challenging read for those used to the mainstream output of the anglophone publishing industry. Flashbacks nest within flashbacks, repeated memories create an impression of stagnation at points, and, while a number of major events are dealt with in a handful of sentences, it takes central character Filipa several chapters to cook a turkey.

It would require a more knowledgeable reader than me to unpick the threads of all the different influences at work in this book. While the influence of the Western tradition seems evident to me in the shadowy figure of the detective, who appears in the final quarter to tie up many of the loose ends (sometimes rather abruptly), I have no way of knowing what local storytelling techniques may be at work.

As a result, the reading experience felt patchy. At times I seemed to know exactly where I was and what was going on, only for the author to pull the rug out from under my feet with a swerving digression or unexpected turn of events on the following page.  There were numerous episodes that felt rather loosely plotted or underprepared, with catastrophes often arriving out of the blue to scatter characters’ plans.

However, this response may say more about the expectations that my largely Western literary diet has ingrained in me than it does about this book. Steeped in a tradition built on the assumption that human beings have a relatively large degree of control over their safety, health and happiness, I am used to stories that function with a high level of causality, where the course of events can be traced logically, each human action leading to the next. But such neat storytelling may seem naïve, unrealistic or flawed in parts of the world where life is more precarious and where disaster lurks much closer to the surface.

It’s for this reason that it’s important that publishers persist in broadening the kind of text that is available in the world’s most published language and continue to bring out firsts such as this. While The Madwoman of Serrano won’t be an easy or perhaps even a satisfying read for many English speakers, it tugs at the preconceptions we all carry about how books work and what stories do. It may be that this novel has as much to teach us about Western literature and reading habits as it does about writing by women in Cape Verde.

The Madwoman of Serrano (A louca de Serrano) by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar (Dedalus, 2019)

Book of the month: Juan Marsé

I love meeting translators. Having built their careers around enabling people to access the work of other writers – lending readers their eyes, as I describe it in my book Reading the World – they are often very generous, knowledgeable and fascinating.

Nick Caistor is a case in point. With a string of famous works to his name, including novels by Paulo Coehlo, José Saramago and Dominique Sylvain, this three-time Premio-Valle-Inclán-winner and former BBC World Service Latin America editor is a mine of insights and stories. When I met him to record a (yet-to-be-released) podcast for the Royal Literary Fund this month, we had a wonderful discussion about the frustrations and joys of helping literature to travel, topped off by a delicious lunch from a Brazilian stall on the street market near his London flat.

Caistor’s kindness didn’t end there. A few days later, a package dropped onto my doormat: his recent translation of Spanish Cervantes prize-winner Juan Marsé’s Esa puta tan distinguida (or The Snares of Memory, as Caistor has rendered it in English).

The premise is intriguing. In 1980s Barcelona, a writer is hired to create a film script based around the murder of a prostitute in a cinema projection booth more than thirty years before. In his efforts to achieve authenticity, the writer seeks out the convicted murderer, one Fermín Sicart, and, over the course of a series of taped discussions, attempts to get to the bottom of the crime. There is a problem, however. Though Sicart accepts his guilt, he cannot recall why he killed his victim. As the writer tries to grope his way towards an understanding of his subject, he is forced to interrogate his own motives and methods for translating this gruesome episode to the silver screen.

The book is surprisingly funny. Helped along by abrupt shifts in register that reliably undercut the writer’s loftier reflections, a strong current of bathos and formidable housekeeper Felisa, who has no compunction about interrupting the narrator’s work to harangue him about his unhealthy habits, offer her opinions or subject him to another of her ‘riddles’ taken from classic films, the narrative is extremely entertaining.

This is nowhere more true than during the passages in which the writer reflects on the difficulties and compromises of the creative process. For a fellow novelist, the section describing five hours spent crossing out sentences in a handful of barely legible pages is particularly enjoyable (not to say reassuring!). There is also a lot of fun in the passages that skewer the Spanish film industry. Beholden to politics and funding issues, the project lurches from one director and producer to another, morphing dramatically with each shift so that the writer is constantly obliged to reframe his vision in light of considerations that have nothing to do with the quality of the work.

The humour in no way detracts from the rigour and beauty of the prose, however. Indeed, Marsé and Caistor’s descriptions of writing and the mechanisms of self-censorship are among the most memorable I’ve read. In showing how ‘the story came to me from an undeniable personal tragedy, but was also rooted in the fraught memory of the dark days of the dictatorship, the resentment, humiliation, pain and desire for revenge that still persisted in many different guises in the collective subconscious’, the narrative makes the particular universal – one of the hallmarks of great literature.

Rather than getting in the way, the human elements of the story – the writer’s fretting about money, Sicart’s flashes of forgetfulness, and Felisa’s complaints about clearing up cigarette butts – elevate the work. They imbue the novel with life, allowing us to experience the emotional reality of the ideas it explores rather than simply presenting them on the page, while the intrigue of the plot draws us on.

‘Haven’t I told you a thousand times that the black or noir novel as they call it in French is the best way to investigate social conflicts, explore the human condition, to denounce implacably the injustices and corruption of our society?’ remarks an incidental character in a doctor’s waiting room midway through the book. In Marsé’s hands, this is certainly true.

The Snares of Memory (Esa puta tan distinguida) by Juan Marsé, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (MacLehose Press, 2019)

Book of the month: Helga Flatland

This Women in Translation month (#WITMonth), or August as it’s known in some parts of the world, I’ve been rather spoilt for choice. Although the number of female-authored books being translated into English is still low in comparison to those by men, the awareness-raising efforts of recent years have seen a glut of fabulous titles by women made available to anglophone readers.

Those keen for recommendations now have a wonderful resource in the shape of blogger and #WITMonth founder Meytal Radzinski’s freshly compiled list of ‘The 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation.’ Drawn up from nominations from readers around the world, this is an attempt, in Radzinski’s words, ‘to create a new canon of sorts’. I for one shall be mining it for suggestions.

Even without this wonderful list, many of the best titles I have read so far this year have been works in translation by women. Favourites have included Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby, translated from the French by Sam Taylor; Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks; Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff; and Annelies Verbeke’s Thirty Days, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters, which was my June Book of the month.

My selection for this month, however, came onto my radar by way of another blogger, John Fish of The Last Word Book Review. I saw him tweeting about Helga Flatland’s A Modern Family and was inspired to try out this celebrated Norwegian writer’s English-language debut for myself.

The premise is simple enough. Adult siblings Liv, Ellen and Håkon find their lives thrown into confusion when, just shy of their father’s seventieth birthday, their parents break the news that they are planning to divorce. This revelation sparks an intense period of questioning and insecurity, in which the assumptions on which their lives rest are tested and the ties between them stretched out of shape.

Flatland has the gift that I most often covert in the work of other writers: the ability to make everyday events compelling. Whereas my two published novels and the one I am working on now all feature characters pushed to breaking point by extraordinary events – my way of cracking people open to get at the workings within – Flatland finds the drama in the quotidian and makes us see how even something as mundane as clearing the table can be fraught with meaning and tension.

Flatland operates on the level of fine detail. Alive to the minute adjustments that switch the points of conversation and send exchanges careening off along unexpected tracks, she gives us characters who are perpetually frustrated in their attempts to live up to their own and one another’s standards by insecurities and shared history. We feel Liv’s exasperation at her tendency to regress in the face of her mother’s disapproval and cringe at Ellen’s boyfriend Simen’s inability to read the family dynamics so that he keeps chuckling long after a conversation has taken a sombre turn. This precision makes the novel deeply synecdochic, with almost every small exchange and event standing for momentous shifts below the surface.

The drama also lives in the gaps between its personages’ perceptions. With multiple episodes narrated several times from the viewpoint of the three main characters, we see the sometimes funny and sometimes tragic discrepancy that can often exist between people’s readings of the same events.

There are also a few wry interjections from Flatland. Although the comments nominally come from the narrators, there is too much knowingness in the gripes about novels in which characters end up at meaningful locations without being aware how they got there and the tendency to belittle women’s fiction for them not to carry some authorial weight.

This knowingness is occasionally a problem. The articulateness with which Håkon – the least successful of the three narrators – explains his motivations, for example, strains credulity. His insights into his predicaments sometimes feel too precise to be quite real.

Overall, though, this masterful Norwegian writer’s anglophone debut is an utterly compelling and satisfying read. It reminds us how full and rich life is, how the quietest existence can brim with urgency and drama – and how much wonderful writing we English speakers have yet to discover.

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland, translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger (Orenda, 2019)

Book of the month: Ali Zamir

My latest featured read marks another welcome addition to the anglophone literary world: the first commercially available translation of a novel from the Comoro Islands off the coast of Mozambique.

In 2012, when I read my way around the world, there was no longform fiction available to buy in English from this nation of 1 million people and I resorted to reading an unpublished translation of a novel by one of the archipelago’s leading writers. In May this year, that changed with Jacaranda Books’ release of Ali Zamir’s A Girl Called Eel, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.

Narrated breathlessly and chaotically by the title character, the novel looks back on its protagonist’s life just as she is at the point of leaving it. Over the course of its 271 pages, we accompany Eel through the major events that have shaped her, exploring her internal and external worlds until we come to an uneasy understanding of the forces that have simultaneously made and destroyed her.

The book is a canny choice for English translation. As with many of the most memorable works from nations with little work available in the world’s most-published language – Smile as They Bow and Allah is Not Obliged come to mind – it has a strong and irreverent narrative voice. Although Eel may be at death’s door and has suffered some serious ill-treatment, she is not self-pitying or feeble. She thinks nothing of berating her fellow characters and even her reader, and shows little sympathy for what she perceives as weakness: ‘what is it about death that scares you feeble-minded fools so much,’ she exclaims when people in a sinking boat scream with fear.

This contrarian streak means that Eel is unpredictable and consequently fascinating. By turns alarming, shocking and funny, her voice acts like a hand drawing the reader through the novel’s unfamiliar terrain, pacing and mores. Although Western readers may not share some of Eel’s assumptions and may occasionally find it hard to enter into the emotional reality of the situations she describes, we are prepared to accompany her back and forth through the medina of Mutsamudu because she keeps us entertained.

She also delivers some powerful insights along the way. Words, she tells us, ‘are born free as birds, only if you nourish them with sincerity can you make them your own’.

Zamir and Higgins have clearly taken this advice. The text throbs with striking imagery. Take this description of a small craft battling through a sea storm: ‘the boat had to float through those furious waves and surging tides like an insect creeping over a mad woman’s dress as she thrashed and flung herself about’. Here, the crashing together of two distinct areas of experience – the wetness of the sea and the dryness through which insects usually move – creates a wrenching effect that conveys the violence of the scene.

There are occasions where such unusual images tip over into farce. For example, although it captures some of Eel’s disorientation, her description of vomiting on a woman’s back as being like etching her suffering onto a copper plate feels grotesquely ornate.

The challenges don’t end there. The narrative often rambles. This is no doubt deliberate and a reflection of Eel’s confusion as she drifts in and out of consciousness – indeed, she often scolds herself for digressing. Nevertheless, such apparent aimlessness is risky as it can make readers frustrated and inclined to let go of the narrator’s guiding hand. Occasionally, it’s tempting to wonder whether Eel’s self-admonitions aren’t really directed at her author.

There’s also the stylistic quirk of the text being devoid of all punctuation except commas and a final exclamation mark. The novel is Eel’s ‘furtive last sentence’, the jacket copy explains. But it isn’t really: there are lots of separate sentences in the book. It’s just that they are not demarcated as such but spliced together by one comma after another.

None of this takes away from the fact that this is, however, a very welcome addition to the English-speaking world’s bookshelf. Vivid, striking and surprising, this is an impressive work. That it is the first Comoran novel to be commercially published in English almost feels irrelevant. Whatever its provenance, A Girl Called Eel deserves a global audience.

A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir, translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (Jacaranda, 2019)

Book of the month: Duong Thu Huong

It’s always a pleasure to hear from other literary explorers. Reading the world is such an enriching and mind-expanding experience that I’m keen for as many people to do it as possible.

Among the numerous things I enjoy when I learn about other international reading quests is finding out what specific parameters the reader in question has set themself. Although many global book projects look similar at first glance, no two are identical because each becomes a reflection of the concerns and interests of the person at the centre of it. People might choose to categorise books by setting, for instance, or to seek out works in a particular genre or from a set time period.

Sometimes, these parameters illuminate important issues about the way stories circulate. Sophie Baggott’s Reading Women Writers Worldwide is a prime example. Having challenged herself to journey through some 200 books by women by 2020, Sophie has shone a light on the serious imbalance in international publishing, which still sees female-authored works making up only around 30 per cent of the books translated into English each year. (This is a problem that a number of campaigners are working to tackle, perhaps most notably translator Meytal Radzinski, who established Women in Translation Month back in 2014.)

Certain that Sophie must have discovered some gems on her literary travels, I contacted her recently to pick her brains for recommendations. She came back with several suggestions, including La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, and The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane, translated by David Brookshaw, both of which I have already reviewed enthusiastically on this blog.

One title was completely new to me, however: Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. I chased down a copy of the controversial Vietnamese novel – banned in the author’s home country – and was quickly hooked.

The story is told from the perspective of Hang, a young woman who is one of the many Vietnamese ‘exported workers’ sent to the Soviet Union in the seventies and eighties. When her Uncle Chinh summons her to Moscow, she embarks on a train ride that unlocks a wealth of memories, enabling the reader to piece together the mystery around her father’s disappearance and fraught relationship with her mother, and ultimately freeing Hang from the historical guilt that has bound her.

Duong Thu Huong has an exceptional instinct for the way that tension fuels a compelling story. Replete with dramatic encounters, this book is a rare beast: a literary novel with a gripping plot. Although many of the most powerful scenes centre on the main characters – with exchanges between Hang, her Aunt Tam, her mother and her uncle all working to reveal the complex web of emotions that snares them – there are some striking cameo appearances too.

In particular, I found myself itching to know more about the married couple who put Hang’s father up for one night and ‘must have been linked by some crime that kept them there, far from their village. Their shadowy past seemed to be both a bond and a yawning chasm between them, wedding their destinies and sundering their souls.’ By the middle of the next page, however, they had been left behind, never to reappear.

This engrossing storytelling also stems from the author’s sharp grasp of the way multiple, and sometimes conflicting, motivations can lead people to act against their better nature. There are numerous examples in the text but one of the most memorable involves the account of the villagers being goaded to turn against their neighbours following the classification designed to root out wealthy landowners. The rapidity with which people denounce their friends is chilling.

In her foreword, co-translator Nina McPherson warns that the Orwellian quality of the Communist rhetoric spouted by certain characters is deliberately satirical, as if worried that such sections might jar or disconcert readers. However, to my eye, the narrative shifts gears smoothly, moving seamlessly between descriptive passages of sometimes spine-tingling beauty to the harsh registers of many of the exchanges.

Nevertheless, the book is not without its flaws. Although for the most part deftly handled, the complex, flashback-laden structure yields the occasional jolt and sag. The device of harnessing something in the present to evoke a past event is a little overused in the early half of the book, with the result that a few of the transitions feel artificial. In addition, with the exception of intriguing figures such as the sinister married couple mentioned earlier, some of the walk-on characters seem redundant, almost as though they are remnants of threads or scenes cut from earlier drafts.

None of this gets in the way of the novel’s brilliance, however. It is at once engrossing and enlightening, a compelling narrative that leads readers through experiences and settings rarely represented in the English-speaking world. When set alongside the equally heart-wrenching yet deeply masculine The Sorrow of War, which was my choice to represent the country back in 2012, it reveals a strikingly different side to Vietnam.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Dong and Nina McPherson (William Morrow, 1993)

Book of the month: Guzel Yakhina

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A little while ago, I was contacted by Anna, a teacher at Go-English language school in Blagoveshchensk city on the border with China in far east Russia – in fact, she tells me, you can see China just across the Amur river (pictured above in one of the photos she sent me).

Anna and her students had been discussing this project and wanted to know about my Russian choices. I sent back a reply and a question – which book would her students choose for me?

FullSizeRender-28-04-19-08-42-4A few days later, I received a response featuring a number of suggestions from Anna’s students, along with explanations for why they recommended each book. The titles they’d picked included Ukrainian author Anastasia Novykh’s Sensei of Shambala (which Evgeniya says completely changed her outlook on life) and Alexander Pushkin’s The Daughter of the Commandant (which describes the ‘Russian soul in every detail’, according to Alina). In addition, Anna had made her own suggestion: The History of a Town by 19th-century author Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, whom she calls ‘the king of Russian satire’.

In the end, however, it was a recommendation for a contemporary novel that caught my eye: the award-winning Zuleikha by Tartar author Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden. Irina describes it as ‘a deep thought-provoking book which leaves its positive mark on your heart’, and soon after I started it, I knew it would be my next book of the month.

Set during the period of Soviet dekulakization and collectivization introduced when Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s, Zuleikha tells the story of the nation through the life of the title character. After witnessing the murder of her harsh husband by government forces charged with disenfranchising wealthy peasants (kulaks), Zuleikha is exiled along with thousands of others to a remote region of Siberia. There, the handful of them who survive the cruel journey must build a society from scratch, questioning and overturning many of the assumptions on which their former lives rested in the process.

As with many books that span years and capture the maturing and changing of the central characters, the tone of Zuleikha varies. The grim cruelty of the early chapters recalls other contemporary gulag-related fiction, such as Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, but there are moments of bathos too, as well as arresting imagery. After Zuleikha leaves her hometown and embarks on the punishing six-month train ride around rural Russia that will be the death of many of her companions, a softness creeps in as she begins to forge connections with those around her. This in turn shrinks to baldness in the early days at the settlement, where life is reduced to nothing but a series of punishing tasks necessary for survival, before blossoming to readmit wonder and creativity, seen through the eyes of a child and captured in art.

Tonal shifts notwithstanding, the ingenuity required to survive remains a constant theme. Whether we are witnessing Zuleikha creeping about her husband’s home in an effort to avoid her vicious mother-in-law, or seeing the official put in charge of her train risk arrest with each rare flash of humanity he shows his charges, Yakhina leaves us in no doubt of the precariousness of life in this world. The characters’ physical hardships pale in comparison to the mental suffering they endure and the self-deception they are obliged to practice to negotiate a society hostile to free thought.

Indeed, Yakhina’s ability to depict the collapse of the human psyche under extreme pressure is one of her greatest talents. The supreme example of this involves her portrayal of the breakdown of celebrated medical professor Volf Karlovich, who spends many pages believing that he is insulated from the horrors surrounding him by virtue of the fact that he lives inside an egg, until events force him to break out of his imaginary shell and engage with the real world once more. The unfolding of this episode is exquisite and credit must go to both the author and translator Lisa C. Hayden for the work they have done to imbue it with such tenderness and power.

It’s almost inevitable that in such a sweeping book, some parts drag. Indeed, the nature of the story – in which life is stripped back to its essentials and imagined afresh – necessitates a certain amount of simple, technical description. At points, there is a level of detail and lingering on certain incidental bits of information and action that some anglophone readers may find frustrating, given that such passages would usually be paced differently in comparable English-language novels. There is also a fair amount of recapping, some of which feels redundant.

Overall, however, this is a triumph of a book. It is a masterclass in synthesizing historical research with imagination and insight into how people think and feel. As Irina says, it ‘leaves its positive mark on your heart’. Thanks to Anna and the B2 students at Go-English in Blagoveshchensk for bringing it and the other titles above to my attention.

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden (Oneworld, 2019)

Photos courtesy of Anna